Unemployment Benefits Extension Explained By OpenCongress Users


The House today is set to vote on an extension of unemployment benefits. The comment threads on bills related to the issue have long been a valuable resource for people seeking information on unemployment benefits. For example, with huge interest in the House health care reform bill, the legislation generated 1,500 comments. By comparison, the page for H.R. 3548 has more than 2,500 comments. Its predecessor, H.R. 6867, had more than 57,000 comments. The community that has built up around these bills is a “community” in the truest sense of the word: the people know one another, there’s some infighting (and trolling), but generally individuals can find a sympathetic crowd who are knowledgeable about the issue and willing to help.

In the spirit of that community, I thought I would use comments from the H.R. 3548 thread as the core of this blog post. In particular, I’ll single out nancym, who has done a remarkable job of tracking the legislation, contacting lawmakers and committees, and keeping her fellow users informed.

To begin, nancym writes that the legislation is being considered under “suspension of the rules,” which she describes:

What’s important is that all those bills on the list that are brought to the floor are brought up together under “suspension,” the key part of that definition being “to dispose of non- controversial measures expeditiously.” I.e., All these other relatively unimportant bills that the Speaker considers are simply a matter of paperwork and little discussion because most will agree to pass them are brought up in clusters to save time for more important bills.

HR 3548 is squeezed into this batch under suspension because it is the fastest way to get this bill out of the House, AND it would seem that the Speaker’s estimation is that the bill would face little opposition in the House. Furthermore, according to suspension rules, the time for argument is limited, as well is the opportunity for amendments. So this cannot be dragged on for days of debate.

Also the amendments rule indicates that the only way an amendment would be made to this bill that would include more states is if the person bringing the bill to the floor to propose suspension of the rules (“the manager”–not sure if this would be McDermott or some head of committee or someone else) proposes the amendment, OR if the committee has already built an amendment into the version coming out of committee.

We know that the bill is likely to easily pass the House, but just what does it do? The short of it: provides an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits for workers who have been out of a job for extended periods of time, and whose benefits about to expire. But which workers will qualify? Nancym to the rescue, this time with a comment on the legislation itself:

This refers to the [Insured Unemployment Rate] written into the original [Emergency Unemployment Compensation] bill. So any state over 8.5% [Total Unemployment Rate] OR any state over 6% IUR would qualify for an extra 13 weeks. That is why press reports and Rep. McDermott’s own press release list Pennsylvania as included in the list of states this will help immediately.

So, states with very high rates of unemployment will benefit from this bill. She narrows the scope even further:

What they MEANT to say is that 300,000 people will run out of benefits by the end of September. All those people AND anyone exhausting benefits, either now, earlier, or anytime later until the provisions of the bill expire will receive 13 extra weeks if their state qualifies in an extended benefit period.

This bill is basically an extension of Emergency Unemployment Compensation provided in the stimulus bill adopted at the beginning of the year. According to nancym, this extension also pays for itself:

The actual bill is a bit open-ended; I don’t see a cutoff date, though that may be indicated in the original bill for which this is essentially an amendment. The cutoff mentioned in the bill is just that we each get only one shot at the 13 weeks (in this bill at least).

The bill gives that to anyone in a state that gets into that EB period, even though the funds are EUC. But of much interest to legislators is the fact that the bill pays for itself with an ongoing tax on employers that’s existed for 30 years but was about to expire. So the bill is “deficit-neutral.”

Thanks to nancym, we now know the following:

  1. The legislation will provide extended unemployment benefits in 26 states (those with TUR of 8.5% or greater, and Pennsylvania, with an IUR greater than 6%.
  2. Individuals who have exhausted their unemployment benefits will be eligible for an additional 13 weeks of benefits.
  3. The House will quickly approve the bill today.

She also writes that the next step (after the Senate approves H.R. 3548) for those out of working and requiring an extension would be H.R. 3404, which would extend many of the benefits through 2010:

Right now they are trying to plug a small hole in a giant dyke that might be about to burst. Hopefully they will change this bill by the time it gets to final passage. But even if it doesn’t change, there is pending legislation in HR 3404 and in the Senate that will be needed to extend these entire programs into 2010, for which they need more time to debate because of the billions needed to pass them.

It’s being put through via an emergency process to cover the projected 1.5 million who will be exhausting benefits in the states that have the most dismal rates. I agree it’s not fair at all, and hopefully they will change it. But if they had added more, it can trigger concerns about more spending which could hold up the legislation.

Some states will actually qualify later this year or early January if things keep getting worse, so even though these states are not included now, they are eventually covered by this law if the rate goes to 8.5 (or 6 insured rate).

Now, a lot of this information is available elsewhere on the Internet, but I can’t help but think that nancym and the other incredible users like her are using OpenCongress to spread the word about these types of bills for a reason. We strive to bring all of this information into one place, and give people the tools to organize around an issue and engage with their elected representatives easily. It seems to be working in this particular situation.

If you’re interested in participating in OpenCongress, please sign up or shoot me an e-mail: avelino@opencongress.org.

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