Beyer, Kilmer Bill Offers Peace of Mind to Jobless Americans

July 27, 2020 by Dan McCue
The U.S. Capitol as seen from the Washington Mall, June 10, 2020. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – Americans left jobless due to the COVID-19 pandemic could soon gain greater economic peace of mind thanks to a bill introduced Monday by Reps. Don Beyer, D-Va., and Derek Kilmer, D-Wash.

The Worker Relief and Security Act ties expanded unemployment benefits to the current public health emergency and the prevailing economic conditions, instead of allowing them to lapse after a fixed period of time.

The bill, which builds on a framework developed by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., would use automatic triggers to ensure that assistance continues to flow to workers for the duration of the pandemic and resulting economic difficulties.

Its filing comes as many unemployed Americans wait anxiously for Senate Republicans to unveil their proposed coronavirus relief package or otherwise step in to deal with the unemployment insurance piece alone.

The $600 weekly jobless benefits built into the original CARES Act relief package officially expire July 31, but due to the way states process unemployment payments, the cutoff was effectively Saturday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to release the $1 trillion GOP proposal Monday afternoon. It’s a long-awaited Republican counter-offer to Pelosi’s $3 trillion effort passed in May.

With critical deadlines looming, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday implored Republicans and the White House to quickly hammer out the next coronavirus relief package and prevent unemployment assistance and an eviction moratorium from expiring for millions of Americans.

“Time is running out,” Pelosi said, adding “If Republicans care about working families, this won’t take long.

In the meantime, there’s the Beyer/Kilmer bill, which very well could wind up being rolled into the final relief package.

“Back in May we unveiled a framework for legislation with Sens. Jack Reed and Michael Bennet, that would tie enhanced unemployment benefits to the actual economic conditions and the public health emergency,” Beyer said during a briefing with reporters Monday morning.

“Today, we’re putting out actual legislative text and presenting it as a legislative idea at a deadly serious moment for the 30 million-plus unemployed workers in this country,” Beyer said.

The Virginia Democrat said the specifics in the bill grew out of conversations and hearings of the Joint Economic Committee, one of four standing joint committees of the U.S. Congress.

Among those who offered their advice and insights were former Federal Reserve Chairs Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke, and economists Gene Sperling, Jack Lew, Heather Boushey, Jason Furman and Claudia Sahm.

“We were calling them, two or three per week, and the [automatic triggers] were something that came up in virtually every conversation,” Beyer said.

But the representative also expressed dismay that the situation has gotten so critical.

“We’ve seen Congress take the resolution of serious problems very close to the cliff — and sometimes over, with things like sequestration and the government shutdown and the like,” he said, “And now we’re in the worst economic crisis this country has seen since the Great Depression … and it could not be clearer in this moment that Congress is making it worse.

“The House passed a new economic relief package two-and-half months ago, and the Senate Republicans just tuned out,” Beyer said.

“It seems like they either didn’t realize or realized too late that there would be a lapse in unemployment or rent protections,” he said. “We reached that cliff, basically, two days ago, where state and local governments needed to know the status of the economic stimulus before cutting August checks.

“It’s just really awful to see how the economic recovery has been jeopardized by that, and to see so much anguish inflicted on Americans because of partisan politics or just plain ignorance and stupidity,” Beyer added.

Rep. Kilmer was equally pointed in remarks he offered during the briefing, telling reporters “the size of this problem consistently outstrips the federal response.”

“The coronavirus is having a staggering impact on our communities and yet the federal government is struggling to keep up with the needs of these communities,” he said. “Instead, the administration and some of our colleagues across the aisle and in the upper chamber have said for months now that we should wait and see how the assistance Congress has already enacted is working.

“A doctor doesn’t stop treatment because it appears to be working,” said Kilmer, who is chairman of the New Democrat Coalition. “They know it’s the medicine that’s keeping the issue at bay.

“Treating the health and financial stability of the American people and our economy as a bargaining chip is reckless political brinkmanship,” he said. “How many more cliffs will we face? How many more times will we allow American families and the economy to teeter on the brink of uncertainty?

“Imagine if the little Dutch Boy decided to take his finger out of the dam to confirm that it would collapse — the entire town would have been destroyed as a result,” Kilmer said.

The Beyer/Kilmer legislation specifies that for the duration of extreme social distancing, based on the president’s emergency declaration issued in March or a governor’s declaration, workers will face no limits on the benefits they can currently receive under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and benefits will continue for the duration of an economic crisis.

A worker who exhausts their traditional unemployment compensation benefits (funded by the state) will be able to receive additional unemployment benefits fully financed by the federal government without limit until 26 weeks after the end of extreme social distancing.

A worker receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits for those who do not qualify for traditional UI will also not face limits on the number of weeks they can draw benefits until 26 weeks after the end of the Public Health Emergency.

Workers receiving the extra $600 in weekly benefits will continue to receive it until 30 days after the end of the president’s emergency declaration, after which it will begin to phase down over 13 weeks.

Workers in states with extraordinary unemployment or elevated levels of unemployment would be eligible for additional benefits on top of regular benefits based on the three-month average of the state’s unemployment rate.

The bill would also fix the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program to ensure workers who fall between the cracks of the traditional unemployment assistance do not fall between the cracks of the program meant to support them.

Kilmer told reporters at the briefing that he’s hopeful the automatic trigger idea will receive widespread support in the House and Senate.

“It seems like it’s garnering a tremendous amount of support,” he said. “I think people, without regard to ideology, are beginning to appreciate this is a way we can create certainty in what otherwise is a really uncertain time.”

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