Walk through the Capitol South Metro station and you’ll pass SoftBank ads that festoon the walls — but you won’t see a campaign for the 3 million people hoping Congress will pass an unemployment insurance extension.
Business groups and most big-money lobbies that typically place such advertising to influence the people working in the Capitol either oppose extending jobless benefits, or they won’t take a position.
That leaves the unemployment extension lobbying mostly to people who are out of work themselves, along with an unusual collection of Washington allies: unions, religious organizations, anti-poverty and mental health groups.
“The sad fact is the unemployed aren’t seen,” said Bill Samuel, director of government affairs for the AFL-CIO. “You’re asking people who have been unemployed for months to attend press conferences and rallies, but they have other priorities now. They’re trying to survive.”
In the first quarter of this year, a scant 101 groups and companies listed “unemployment” as a lobbying issue, according to disclosures filed with Congress. That’s out of some 15,000 reports covering from January through March, as the debate raged in Congress and just before legislation cleared one chamber. Some of those groups lobbied against an extension. (It’s impossible to discern how much money either side spent, as the reports do not break down spending by issue area.)
The Senate passed a bipartisan extension agreement in early April, but House Republicans refuse to call the measure to the floor. And it seems legislative gridlock is defeating the UI-extension side.
Senators, such as Dean Heller, the Nevada Republican who supports an extension despite GOP opposition, has heard very little from the business world. But it’s his own constituents who swayed him.
“Senator Heller has heard from many, many Nevadans facing dire situations over the past several months which have kept him pushing to get an unemployment extension passed,” said his spokeswoman Chandler Smith.
Samuel said rallies and pressure from activists and union organizers helped convinced Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Mark S. Kirk of Illinois to support the effort, but their cause has gained no steam in the House of Representatives.
“It’s been much more difficult since it passed the Senate,” Samuel observed. “We thought it would make it easier. Once it had bipartisan support that it would sort of break the logjam in the House, but there’s some real ideological resistance at the leadership level.”
House Republicans feel little pressure to change their minds. Conservative interest groups, such as Heritage Action for America, as well as business organizations such as the National Federation of Independent Business oppose an extension of the benefits, even as some economists and lawmakers argue it would help fuel the lagging economy.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has not lobbied over the UI benefits and did not take a position either way, said its spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes, even though the group did report it as an issue on its sweeping quarter lobbying reports.
Business and conservative groups find themselves at odds often of late, tugging Speaker John A. Boehner in dueling directions — but not on this issue.
Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler said his group’s message, which resonates with Republicans, is that UI benefits “trap” out-of-work people into long-term unemployment.
“People really accelerate their job search when these benefits start to expire,” he said.
Holler also observed that the political climate has shifted. It’s now acceptable for politicians to oppose the benefits on policy grounds without facing a constituent backlash, he said, calling it, “a pretty incredible feat that they haven’t been reauthorized.”
But advocates for unemployed people say the research is clear: Even after their benefits expired, about 75 percent of people still had not found a job.
Mitchell Hirsch, an advocate for unemployed workers at The National Employment Law Project, said people out of work would much rather have jobs than the federal benefits.
“People who say that unemployment benefits are a disincentive to taking jobs clearly have never been out of work themselves,” said Hirsch. “The crisis of long-term unemployment is still very much with us and because of the obstruction by Speaker Boehner of an unemployment insurance extension, right now there is no safety net.”
House Democrats along with unions, The National Employment Law Project and other groups, such as the Coalition on Human Needs, The National Women’s Law Center and The Center for Effective Government, started “Witness Wednesdays” on Capitol Hill this week, where advocates will read brief stories from unemployed Americans. “It’s a way to keep these stories alive,” Hirsch said.
The American Psychological Association hosted an event Monday in the Rayburn House Office Building to put the spotlight on unemployed folks and the psychological impact of long-term unemployment on individuals, children, families and communities.
“Unemployment is associated with psychological problems like depression and anxiety and can also contribute to reduced life expectancy,” said Norman Anderson, CEO of the psychological association, in a letter to Congress this year urging an extension of the benefits. Anderson noted the stress of unemployment is not limited to the person without a job. Without the “basic safety net” of emergency unemployment benefits, he said, “the negative effects of unemployment on families are likely to be exacerbated, especially for children.”
Kate Ackley is a staff writer at CQ Roll Call who keeps tabs on the influence industry.