Fewer than 30 days after masked Russian troops rolled their way into the Ukraine under false pretenses, the U.S. Congress moved with lightning quickness to pass a $1 billion aid package for the troubled Eastern European country. Members on both sides of the partisan aisle, while a little shaky on the details, agree that it won’t be the last of the money. Hoping to save geopolitical face in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s masterful jump shot over international law, the U.S. is promising a fresh wave of economic and military support to tip regional scales back its way.
Back home and more than three full months later, more than 2.2 million Americans are barely getting by after most of their extended unemployment benefits were abruptly cut over the Christmas break. In fact, Congress and the president skipped town for restful, holiday vacations soon after. Hopes of a post-New Year’s Day resolution were dashed by stalls and foot-dragging in the Senate, which is finally taking a vote this week. But, a nastier, unsympathetic House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is signaling that he’s not interested in bringing it to the floor for a vote. The $9.6 billion needed to restart the program, including retroactive benefits for those who’ve lost out, is simply too much of a burden on the federal deficit and state unemployment insurance agencies.
“We have always said that we’re willing to look at extending emergency unemployment benefits again, if Democrats can come up with a plan that is fiscally responsible, and gets to the root of the problem by helping to create more private-sector jobs,” complained Boehner earlier on this month. “Frankly, a better use of the Senate’s time would be taking up and passing the dozens of House-passed jobs bills still awaiting action.”
Translated: It’s not passing anytime soon, which not only means steady increases in the number of Americans without benefits but also governing malfeasance shaking the very foundation of unemployment insurance as we know it.
The bolt of legislative energy needed to keep a distant nation of 50 million (Ukraine) from defaulting on its debt was there. But ask lawmakers to apply a similar sense of urgency to the plight of 50 million Americans living below the poverty line and you get assorted reasons not to. It’s not only 2.2 million jobless Americans—that’s just the tip of a growing poverty infection eating away at the nation’s social fabric. Complimenting an insanity of detachment is the steady musical of racial dog whistles in which the destitute are either wholly blamed for their circumstances or the uninsured are viewed as “illiterate” and “less sophisticated.”
A larger point here is how little of a priority the poor and jobless are to Congress. The American people were not clamoring about the steps of Capitol Hill begging legislators for a Ukrainian aid package. Only 27 percent, according to a YouGov poll (pdf), supported economic aid to Ukraine. Yet, even a Fox News poll showed that 69 percent of Amerians support the notion of unemployment insurance for at least one year. Another YouGov poll showed 62 percent supporting renewal of jobless benefits (although the fact that anywhere from 30 percent to 40 percent don’t seem to care is worrisome).
But, ultimately, it’s about who holds enough influence and clout in Washington to determine which way the policy wind blows. Jobless Americans seeking an end to legislative impasse just don’t have the $1 million to drop on Capitol Hill lobbyists—like the Ukrainians did just last year as partisan conflict in Kiev bubbled. Less than 1 percent of the 12,000 or more groups peddling interests in Washington actually lobby for the poor. And when it comes to the bottom 98 percent, they barely made enough political contributions to match the wealthiest campaign donor throughout the entire election cycle. As political scientist Larry Bartels puts it in his recent book Unequal Democracy, “[the poor have] no discernible impact on the behavior of their elected representatives.”
And it doesn’t help that lazy, one-track-minded news producers obsessed with events 5,000 miles away only give—at best—footnote coverage to the ongoing crisis of jobless Americans right in their own back yard. After Ukraine, it’s been the Malaysian Airlines mystery chewing up more time in the network and cable ratings war, with news about the fight over unemployment insurance perhaps a mention in the screen ticker.
Sure, these are important geopolitical happenings, which deserve our attention. But elected officials are making a risky gamble with social instability and havoc when they decide to tune out their struggling constituents.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.