June 23, 2010

Whitehouse Urges Senate to Extend Unemployment Benefits

Senator Shares Rhode Island Stories in Floor Speech

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse yesterday joined several Democratic colleagues on the Senate floor to call for an extension of Unemployment Insurance for the millions of Americans still struggling to find work. The Senator shared stories he has heard from Rhode Islanders who lost their jobs during the recession and have yet to recover, and called on Republicans to stop blocking the extension of this important benefit.

“We have 71,000 people unemployed in my little State of Rhode Island. Those people need to get unemployment insurance while the economy recovers,” Whitehouse said. “To take away the bread and butter, to take basic sustenance off the table is, frankly, unfair.”

A full transcript of Whitehouse’s speech, as delivered, is below.

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Mr. President, I am delighted to be here with Senator Stabenow. I know from the experience of Rhode Island how difficult things are in Michigan. I have seen over and over the passion and energy with which she comes to the floor to argue on behalf of the people of Michigan. I join her this evening on behalf of the people of Rhode Island.

The unemployment insurance obstruction we are getting is simply cruel under the circumstances in Rhode Island. I know my friends on the Republican side like to argue that if we cut off people’s unemployment insurance, that will motivate them to get back out there in the workforce where they should be, as if they were just idling around, as if they were not out looking for work.

In Rhode Island, we are at 12.3 percent unemployment. We have been the third or fourth highest unemployment State in the country for months and months now. This is not some sudden glitch in the accounting. This is a persistent economic nightmare in Rhode Island. We have been 15 straight months–more than a year–with double-digit unemployment. If we go back to 8 percent unemployment, we go back 22 months, nearly 2 years. This is a persistent problem. The notion that we will cut off somebody’s unemployment insurance and have them go out and find a job is plain nuts in a State such as Rhode Island or a State such as Michigan, because the job just isn’t there to be found.

As Senator Stabenow said about Michigan, her folks are hard workers. Rhode Islanders are hard workers. We have a tradition of working hard in a whole variety of industries. There aren’t a lot of people lying around enjoying the luxury of unemployment insurance payments. They want to be out getting work. Unemployment insurance payments let them search for work and feed their family, pay the rent, put gas in the car, buy shoes for the kids, put food on the table, all in the meantime. Our colleagues want to take that away.

Let’s scroll back for a minute to why we are here in the first place. We are here in the first place because the people who were supposed to be regulating Wall Street were asleep at the switch. The people who were supposed to be regulating Wall Street were asleep at the switch because they were told to be asleep at the switch. It is the Republican theory of governance that regulation should have a light hand and that corporations know better and should really run the show. So the folks who were supposed to be regulating Wall Street were the captives of the big Wall Street financiers. They took all the breaks off. They let them run with crazy leverage ratios, new instruments such as derivatives and collateralized debt obligations, and they went right to sleep, the way they were supposed to. The result was a catastrophic Wall Street meltdown that could have been prevented if there had been a different theory of governance and not the theory of governance that we let the corporations run the show and that is the best thing for Americans.

But that is what happened. They let the corporations run the show. That theory of governance prevailed. There was a massive meltdown. That massive meltdown sent a tsunami of misery across this country into places miles from Wall Street, completely different from Wall Street, including States such as Rhode Island and Michigan. We have 71,000 people unemployed in my little State of Rhode Island. Those people need to get unemployment insurance while the economy recovers. We are not a 4-percent unemployment State or a 6-percent unemployment State. We are not even an 8-percent unemployment State. We are over 12 percent unemployment. There is not a job for these people. To take away the bread and butter, to take basic sustenance off the table is, frankly, unfair. We have even tried to get an extra 25 bucks added to the benefit. Republicans have objected to that.

Mr. President, 25 bucks does not seem like much, and indeed it is not much, but if you are just getting by with unemployment insurance because your State has been in recession for so long, as ours has, that extra 25 bucks is a meal the family does not have to skip; that is a trip to the doctor they do not have to duck because they cannot afford the copay; it is an important little thing; and it is just symbolic of the attitude on the other side of the aisle that: Sorry, not interested. Tough bounce. We don’t care.

We were on the floor earlier talking about how when it is a $9 billion family and there is no estate tax on that because of the way the Republicans have driven this and $4 billion in revenue is lost to the government as a result of this colossal estate being exempted from the estate tax, that is OK. But when it is 25 bucks for a working family to buy a pair of shoes for their daughter, no, that is too much. Now we have to get serious about the recession. Now we have to get serious about the debt. But when it is a $9 billion family with a huge estate, no, different rules apply when it is very rich people.

Well, I am here for people like Dan of East Greenwich. He worked in sales. He has been unemployed since April 2009. His wife is disabled. He is out looking for work, but the jobs are not there, and he has not been able to find one. If he loses his unemployment insurance, Dan has let us know he will be evicted from their apartment. He and his disabled wife will be evicted from their apartment. That should not be happening. That is just bluntly wrong.

Bill of North Kingstown contacted me. He is 57 years old. He has been unemployed since January of 2009. He used to work in engineering. He has now been faced twice with eviction when the unemployment insurance has lapsed, and he is looking at eviction again. It is staring him in the face if we do not act. He has received only $200 over the last 3-week period as his benefits have expired, and he has lost his COBRA benefits, but he needs medication. So he is stuck because we have not acted.

Nancy, from Portsmouth, is 59 years old. She has been unemployed for 21 months. She has a bachelor’s degree. She has a whole variety of industry certifications. She has a background in sales and marketing. She is a talented woman who has worked all her life. Until she got swamped by the tsunami of misery that originated on Wall Street and has washed through all of our States, she was fine. But now, after 15 years of working in insurance, she cannot find a job, and she will soon lose her unemployment insurance benefits as the Republicans continue to block the extension.

So I would urge them to reconsider. I understand the point about the debt and the deficit and the spending. But, to me, that does not have an enormous amount of credibility because when President Clinton left office, he left an annual surplus and he left a budget trajectory that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said was going to have us be a debt-free nation by 2008, I believe it was–a debt-free nation.

On the day George Bush was sworn into office, we were on a trajectory to be a debt-free nation during his term. There was even discussion in economic texts about whether that was really a good idea. He solved that; at the end of his term, we were $9 trillion in debt. We were not debt free. He were $9 trillion in debt, and we had this economic meltdown that required government intervention to protect people, and that made it even bigger. But we would have none of this if it had not been for the Republican debt orgy they went through – fair-weather debt, I would add, an orgy of fair-weather debt – and then a huge hole because of their theory of governance and their theory of economics that has had to be filled in because of that tsunami of misery. That is why we are here. So it is a little late in the game and a little disingenuous to hear lectures from that side of the aisle about economic sobriety after that wild spending through those Bush years and the cleanup we have had to do since then. And these guys who are out of work and who need the help – folks such as Ron, Bill, Dan, and Nancy – should not be paying the price. We should take care of the people who are out of work through no fault of their own.

I thank Senator Stabenow.

I yield the floor.

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