Finally kicking the notion of a so-called "grand bargain" into the dustbin where it belongs, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., have agreed to a small deal that would relieve some of the budget cuts scheduled for the next two years by increasing fees for airline passengers and making changes to federal employee benefits. Assuming that the deal passes Congress, which is by no means certain, it will remove the specter of another government shutdown for the time being.
But what the deal doesn't do is provide any solution for the country's most severe economic problem: lack of jobs. And what it really doesn't do is help the country's long-term unemployed – those workers who have been looking for a job for six months or more, and who currently make up more than one-third of the unemployed population, according to the latest data from the Labor Department.
In fact, the agreement goes out of its way to do nothing for the long-term unemployed, as it doesn't include an extension of federal unemployment benefits. Come the end of the year, then, millions of workers will see their benefits evaporate, whether they've found a job or not.
Normally, the 26 or so weeks of unemployment benefits provided by most states is more than enough to see people through a spell of joblessness, but right now the average duration of unemployment is more than 37 weeks. Given this reality, Congress has authorized extra weeks of federal benefits; the total number of weeks varies by state, with those hardest hit by the recession receiving the most assistance. If Congress doesn't act, those federal benefits will vanish, leaving workers to rely on their state programs alone.
To get a broader sense for how bad the labor market is right now, consider this: there are currently 2.9 job seekers for every available opening, which, the Economic Policy Institute's Heidi Shierholz notes, "is equal to the worst month of the early 2000s downturn." Unemployment insurance provides a vital safety net to these workers who, through no fault of their own, can't find a job.
Conservatives contend that extended benefits are actually keeping the unemployment rate up, as people would rather take the (incredibly meager) payout than find work. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for instance, said on Sunday: "I do support unemployment benefits for the 26 weeks that they're paid for. If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers." Never mind that research from the San Francisco Federal Reserve has shown "extended unemployment insurance benefits have not been important factors in the increase in the duration of unemployment or in the elevated unemployment rate" in recent years. The economy has just been terrible, so people have been out of work for longer.
This isn't a problem facing only the U.S. The International Labor Organization noted today that in Spain, the U.K., Bulgaria and elsewhere, "long-term unemployment has increased by 40 per cent or more in comparison to 2008." But the U.S. Congress has gone out of its way to do nothing for these people (who are also facing extreme discrimination from employers, who don't want to hire a worker who has been jobless for so long).
Now any hope for a benefits extension, according to members of Congress, lies with the White House and Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, and there's no talk at all of crafting some sort of program to actually help the long-term unemployed transition back into a job. Instead, there's just a budget deal that is receiving accolades for the mere fact that it exists. And that's not good enough.