Polar Vortex Underscores Frozen Congressional Activity (January 23, 2014)

Deep Freeze Washington

Oh the weather outside is frightful this winter, and this year there are very few places to hide. Last weekend as I boarded a flight to Nashville, visions of 50-degree temperatures danced in my head. The normal January range in the Music City is between 28 and 47 degrees, infinitely more tolerable than the climate in my hometown of Chicago. Alas, I deplaned in a disappointingly similar environment, where the thermometer struggled to reach the freezing point. Mother Nature is bitter and unforgiving all over.

Maybe she’s taking her cues from the inert members of Congress, who at the close of 2013 dared to make us consider the possibility of action. Briefly scared straight by the public backlash over the fall’s disastrous and ill-reasoned government shutdown, intransigent Republicans in the Senate (and to a lesser degree, the House) suddenly seemed in the mood to get things done. This led to the production of a bipartisan budget agreement, followed by feckless House Speaker John Boehner’s better-late-than never repudiation of right wing groups such as the Heritage Foundation, which have egregiously encouraged GOP games of chicken over the last six years. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid finally found the political courage to change the broken chamber’s filibuster rules so that an enormous backlog of Executive Branch appointments could begin to be cleared. It was a heady time when actual work once again seemed possible.

But the spirit of compromise didn’t last. Early into the New Year, thousands of long-term job seekers were cut off from sorely needed unemployment insurance benefits. No sooner did the holiday bills and winter’s cruelty roll in than the Republican Party doubled down on the suffering of the jobless. Despite the fact that respondents to a Fox News poll (!!!!) overwhelmingly favor the extension of benefits, to the tune of 69 percent, Congressional Republicans have continued to ignore the will of the people. Washington Post writer Aaron Blake rather charitably reports that “Congress is deadlocked over whether and how to continue funding unemployment insurance beyond that 26-week period.”

I would offer that there’s no deadlock about it. Democrats maintain some human empathy for the Great Recession-ravaged unemployed while Republican Party standard bearers like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul leverage pretzel logic to avoid helping that wretched 47 percent of “takers.” Paul famously said, “the longer you have it [unemployment insurance], that it provides some disincentive to work, and that there are many studies that indicate this.”

I am betting that these “many studies” were conducted by conservative research groups. As someone who has been on the layoff dole more than once in the course of a relatively short career, I can safely say that six months of roughly 30 percent the usual take home pay did not result in leisurely champagne and caviar consumption.

Only the party that brought us two budget and deficit busting wars, tax cuts and an unpaid for Medicare prescription drug benefit under the Bush II regime could have the absolute, unmitigated gall to demand fiscal responsibility when it comes to helping suffering workers. And naturally, the GOP has brushed aside numerous credible reports that extending the benefits actually creates jobs and saves the government money in the long run.

But let me not consume the entire column railing against Republican opposition to helping once hardworking Americans survive. As the great Gail Collins of The New York Times wrote today on her end of “The Conversation” with David Brooks: “to be honest, if the president told a reporter that he had great confidence this would be the year we’d see immigration reform, better gun control, tax reform and a hike in the minimum wage, I’d probably be less excited than worried about his mental health.”

Anyone who believed that late fall’s sudden flurry of activity would extend past the New Year, or counted upon the Republican obsession with opposition to die along with the party’s shutdown approval rating, is discovering that the polar vortex is both metaphorically and literally in charge.

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