WASHINGTON -- A campaign finance system that encourages both parties to recruit wealthy candidates who can fund their own races has led to a Congress that no longer accurately represents the American people, a Democratic congresswoman said after Thursday's House vote to cut off long-term unemployment insurance benefits. Such a vote could never take place if members understood what it means to struggle to find work, she said.
"Increasingly, both sides, Republicans and Democrats, are spending much more of their time recruiting people who are just wealthy. And then, when you think of the kinds of decisions that we have to make -- decisions about unemployment, about food stamps, about, you know, basic human needs, about jobs -- it raises a question of whether it's a representative body," said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.).
Nearly half of all members of the House and Senate are millionaires, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics released Wednesday. What the House needs, said Edwards, is more people who understand what it means to struggle. "We need people like that serving," she said. "We want to draw from our best and our brightest and from the diversity of the country. And I think, increasingly, this system that we have in place is making that much more difficult. And I don't think that's healthy for the country."
Edwards understands the value of unemployment insurance in a way many of her colleagues do not. The Maryland Democrat is vocal about the fact that she herself received benefits after losing a job in the early 1990s.
"I've stood in an unemployment line," Edwards said in a floor speech on Thursday, just before House Republicans defeated a bill that would have prevented two million people from losing their benefits during the holidays. "I wasn't lazy, I wasn't not looking for a job, but I needed unemployment benefits. I've stood in a food pantry, and it's humiliating, the entire experience."
Congress has given the unemployed up to 73 weeks of benefits to combat the worst recession since the Great Depression. But even though the unemployment rate hovers near 10 percent, Congress is on the verge of taking the benefits away -- something it has never done before in such dire economic times.
"Not when we've had high unemployment," Edwards told HuffPost in an interview in her office after the speech.
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Lawmakers have routinely given the unemployed extra weeks of benefits in every recession going back to the 1950s, and the benefits have never been dropped with an unemployment rate above 7.2 percent. Extra weeks of unemployment benefits have never been as controversial as they are today. Many lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have said the benefits discourage people from looking for work.
"We've always just done it. It's never been partisan. We've done it under Republican presidents, Democratic presidents, Republican Congress, Democratic Congress. And the timing just couldn't be worse -- couldn't be worse. And so we all get to go home, we have our paychecks, we buy our turkeys. It's shameful," Edwards said.
The bill defeated Thursday would have pushed back the eligibility deadline for extended unemployment insurance until Feb. 28. Currently, that deadline is Nov. 30. Without a reauthorization, 800,000 people receiving federally-funded Extended Benefits will be dropped within a week of the cutoff. Another 1.2 million people will find themselves ineligible for the next "tier" of Emergency Unemployment Compensation by the end of the year.
Edwards has introduced an amendment to the Constitution that would allow Congress to regulate campaign spending. She wrote it the night that she read the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, she said.
Even if the House had approved the three-month bill, the Senate remains the real obstacle, and leadership has given few clues about its plans to help the long-term unemployed. It's possible Democrats will cut a deal and attach a reauthorization of the benefits to a reauthorization of the expiring Bush tax cuts for the rich.
Either way, no deal was sorted out before Congress went home for its Thanksgiving break. Congress will have one day when it reconvenes on the 29th to reauthorize the benefits before they lapse. State workforce agencies, which have been through this routine three times in the past year, are warning claimants that their benefits will be ending soon, and the message is already hitting for many unemployed. (Claimants were repaid after the previous lapses once lawmakers got around to it.)
"And so the idea that we are going to allow Americans," Edwards said to her colleagues, "hardworking American families who have earned their benefits, to go home at Thanksgiving and not know whether they're going to put a turkey on the table to feed their families, we should be ashamed if we allow that to happen."