Of all the issues confronting President Obama, the Congress and the American People in 2014, rebuilding our economy continues to be our number one priority. Despite recent economic progress, far too many Americans remain out of work.
Of all the requests that I receive, foremost among them is this. “Mr. Cummings, I need to feed my family. Can you help me find a job?”
In the Congress, our top New Year’s Resolution should be to work together more effectively to give my job-hunting constituents - and the American people as a whole - the response that they deserve to this heart-felt plea.
Fortunately, the nation’s economy is continuing its steady - if painfully slow - recovery from the Bush-era recession. In our home State of Maryland, U.S. Department of Labor estimates indicate that we gained 8,900 jobs in November; and this expansion in job growth improved our local unemployment rate from 6.7 to 6.4 percent.
However, I must acknowledge that the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives did little to encourage more expansive job growth in 2013. In fact, if anything, recent congressional policy has been a drag on our economy.
The “sequester’ budget cuts were especially painful for Maryland, where we have a significant number of federal employees and government contractors. Then, this economic injury was further aggravated by the Republicans’ 16-day government shutdown, a self-imposed disaster that cost the national economy $24 billion.
Fortunately, the O’Malley-Brown Administration and our General Assembly responded effectively to mitigate the injury to our most vulnerable neighbors. Maryland allocated $100 million to protect essential programs like Head Start, senior citizen services, job training and substance abuse treatment.
These Maryland leaders deserve our commendation. Now, the Congress must step up to the plate and do what is required to transform our slow economic growth into a real take-off.
In December, the Congress took what I hope will be the first step toward fulfilling that congressional responsibility. We reached a bipartisan compromise on the federal budget that will prevent another government shutdown for nearly two more years and ease the harshest effects of automatic budget cuts known as the sequester.
It is important to consider how this essential compromise was achieved. It involved some significant and, I believe, unnecessary pain for many as well as some relief to the country as a whole.
Republicans went into these talks insisting on cuts to initiatives upon which millions of American families and seniors depend. We Democrats prevailed, however, and the bipartisan agreement did not cut Medicare, Social Security or Medicaid benefits by even one cent.
Republicans insisted on continuing all of the job-killing sequester budget cuts that have been harming our economic recovery. Once again, however, Democratic persistence resulted in an agreement that replaces almost two-thirds of the sequester’s damaging cuts to critical domestic priorities like education, medical research and law enforcement next year.
Republicans, once again, wanted to balance the budget on the backs of civil servants. However, the final compromise scaled back the proposed GOP cuts to federal employees’ compensation and exempted current federal employees from those reductions.
That is some of the good news.
However, although we Democrats fought to extend federal unemployment insurance (thereby preventing an immediate cutoff of compensation on Dec. 28 for 1.3 million Americans, including more than 20,000 veterans, and the parents of as many as 2 million children), the Republicans would not agree.
Although the December, 2013, compromise was essential to continued growth in our economy, addressing the needs of America’s unemployed workers should be our first priority when the Congress returns to Washington in 2014.
Unemployment insurance provides a lifeline to Americans who have worked hard, played by the rules and lost their jobs through no fault of their own. It allows these neighbors to feed their families and put a roof over their heads as they try to get back on their feet with a new job.
Here are the key facts the Congress must address as we take action on unemployment insurance in 2014.
First, congressional action is a moral imperative.
Even with over three years of private-sector job growth, our economy still has 1.3 million fewer jobs now when compared with the beginning of the “great recession.” Unless the Congress takes prompt action, nearly 5 million Americans will lose their unemployment insurance in 2014 as their state benefits run out.
Second, and equally important, preserving and extending this essential safety net is critical to growing our economy.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has found that unemployment benefits are one of the most effective fiscal policies to increase economic growth and employment.
According to Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, every $1 spent on unemployment insurance grows the economy by $1.52. In sharp contrast, however, any continued failure to extend these essential benefits could cost the economy 310,000 jobs.
The challenge to the Congress is clear. We must abandon policies that are slowing our economic recovery and put our nation back to work.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.