Selective unemployment benefits expiring for millions

When the clock struck midnight last night, unemployment benefits for upwards of nine million Americans turned into a pumpkin. This was one aspect of the COVID relief bill that didn’t draw as much attention initially while it was being hammered out in the Senate. Before getting to the details, I wanted to point out some curious stylistic choices made by the editors at the Associated Press when covering this story. Articles from the AP tend to fall into two general categories. Some of them are in the form of the early news wire services, pretty much sticking to dates, times, names and generic descriptions of events. These days, however, other pieces take on a definite dramatic flair with editorial coloring. That’s the case with this article under the byline of Alexandra Olson and Jill Covin.

The title sets the tone. “Unemployment benefits expire for millions as Trump rages.” Rather than simply talking about the number of people impacted, they splash around some extra ink, describing them as “struggling to make ends meet.” When they mention the President’s demand to cut the pork out of the relief bill, “pork” is put in scare quotes, as if that bill wasn’t stuffed to the gills with unrelated wish-list spending items. More examples abound. But here are the basics in any event.

Unemployment benefits for millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet lapsed overnight as President Donald Trump refused to signed an end-of-year COVID relief and spending bill that had been considered a done deal before his sudden objections.

The fate of the bipartisan package remained in limbo Sunday as Trump continued to demand larger COVID relief checks and complained about “pork” spending. Without the widespread funding provided by the massive measure, a government shutdown would occur when money runs out at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

“It’s a chess game and we are pawns,” said Lanetris Haines, a self-employed single mother of three in South Bend, Indiana, who stood to lose her $129 weekly jobless benefit unless Trump signed the package into law or succeeded in his improbable quest for changes.

We should first make note of the fact that not everyone’s unemployment benefits ran out last night. Most unemployment programs are run and funded by the individual states, though they have been sweetened with some extra federal money this year. But thanks to the original relief bill, millions of people who wouldn’t normally qualify for unemployment benefits were added to the rolls with a federal program. They generally fall into the category of freelancers, gig workers, and independent contractors who typically wouldn’t be eligible for those benefits. With the expiration of the original program, those payments will stop.

The total number of people who fall into that category isn’t known precisely. The AP asked a few different labor experts and got figures that ranged from 9.1 million to more than 14 million. This is because the eligibility requirements differ from state to state.

In reality, barring some major snafu, this aspect of the relief plan is probably not going to turn out to be a big deal. The clock is ticking in terms of the fate of the relief bill and the fact that this is all happening so close to the end of the current congress complicates matters, but not terminally. Trump has ten days (not including Sundays) to either sign or veto the bill. If he vetos it, there are moe than enough votes in both chambers to override it during special sessions planned for this week. But if he does nothing and the clock runs out on or after January 3rd, the bill is basically dead. That’s the date the Constitution sets for the current congress to be dismissed and the next one to be seated.

Even if that happens, however, the makeup of the two chambers hasn’t changed all that much unless the Democrats flip both Senate seats in Georgia on the 5th. And in that horrible event, the Senate would only be even more likely to pass such a measure. At that point, the new congress could introduce the same bill they already passed, send it to Trump’s desk and put it into law twelve days later at the most. And the benefits under discussion here would be retroactive. So yes, there would likely be roughly three weeks where these programs were inactive, but after that things would kick back into gear. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s also not armageddon.

Personally, while the relief package absolutely wound up turning into a massive pork festival, I’m pretty sure that starting over from scratch would take months and the damage would probably outweigh the value of pushing for a cleaner bill. Seeing these swamp dwellers spending unimaginably large amounts of money is, sadly, the norm rather than the exception at this point. I don’t see a practical way to stop it so it would probably behoove the President to just sign the damn thing and at least take credit for aiding the unemployed in a prompt fashion. No, I’m not happy about saying that, but we’re approaching territory covered by the First Rule of Holes at this point. The White House should probably stop digging.