July 23,2020

Wyden Statement on Senate Floor on the Urgency to Extend Pandemic Unemployment Benefits

As Delivered

Mr. President, I’m going to get into the substance of my colleague’s argument in a moment, but I just want to be clear to all the people in America. The 30 million plus who are having problems making rent, having problems buying groceries, who in just two days, two days, come Saturday, are going to be in a position where, based on what they tell me, they’re telling their kids, “hey you probably have to eat a little bit less” because the unemployment is ending. And the fact is the other body passed a bill so that folks would be able to make rent and buy groceries. On this side of the aisle, the Democratic Leader and I introduced legislation to tie the benefits to economic conditions on the ground. One of the reasons we did is colleagues on the other side said benefits ought to taper off if unemployment goes down. That’s what our bill does.


But here’s the message that I think folks who are walking on an economic tightrope this weekend need to hear. On this side of the aisle, we’ve been ready to go for weeks, essentially months, to have bipartisan negotiations to work this issue out.


As of this afternoon, with benefits expiring in two days, the other side of the aisle has no piece of legislation on offer. Let me repeat that. No piece of legislation on offer.


On their side of the aisle, they write lots of bills to help multinational corporations. Lots of bills to help the powerful and the special interests. But as of this afternoon, there’s not a bill to help those folks who this weekend are going to be saying, we’re not going to be able to make rent in a few days. We’re not going to be able to feed our families. Not going to be able to pay for the car insurance. People aren’t spending this money on luxuries. They’re spending it on essentials. To a great extent they’ve kept the economy afloat for the last few months.  


Mr. President, the other point I want to make is that this did not have to happen. Not only do we have legislation ready to discuss with our colleagues that incorporates some of their ideas, we have been reaching out again and again.


And yet Mitch McConnell, who took all of July off, when he could have been getting this piece of legislation together, a big two weeks, and he could have been getting the legislation together, basically, actively, didn’t happen by osmosis, actively gave short shrift to the needs of the unemployed. And made no effort, none whatsoever, even though we reached out continually to Republicans saying that this weekend, and the pain that working families have this weekend, didn’t have to happen, and we wanted to do everything we could to prevent it.


For purposes of this discussion, I want to make sure people understand what this discussion really means to working families in this country. I was out at home with the food banks and the like, lines for blocks. People who had never needed to go to a pantry or a food program were waiting in line because they had been hit by this economic wrecking ball. There are people who are worried about losing their homes, losing their cars, being unable to fill their prescriptions.  


And as I mentioned, think about what it means, when you have to tell your kid they ought to eat less, because they don’t know whether they’ll have enough cash to stock the pantry next month. And as I said, Republicans’ response to this over the last few days, last few weeks–I  went to school on a basketball scholarship. And I remember when you could basically play stall ball and go into four corners offense, basically run down the clock. And then at the end, as my distinguished colleague from Wyoming tried to do, well it’s the fault of the poor people, it’s the fault of those poor people. And I’m going to touch on what this really is all about.   


Now, when we began the negotiations, I was the point person for the Democrats. In the Finance room, I offered basic wage replacement as our position for dealing with this issue. Secretary of Labor, Scalia, said “Can’t be done. The states can’t administer it. Western civilization is pretty much gonna end if we try to do this.” And then he folded his arms and for days basically refused to negotiate about alternatives. So understand that we started with the approach of basic wage replacement. States are stuck with old technology, I didn’t disagree with that. We gave $1 billion to the states to help them update technology too. But I said, we’re not going to tell those workers to pound sand. So I basically said we’re going to average the benefit, $600. Some people are going to get a bit more than they would, some people are going to get a bit less. But families are going to have a chance based on what the state employment offices told us to actually get benefits. Now I know it hasn’t worked out too well in Florida, the president of the Senate, and I’m sure he’ll want to talk about this in the debate. But at least millions of people in this country got a chance to pay rent, buy groceries, pay medicine. Because we said we’re going to take a sum of money that states told us, for the most part, they could actually administer.        


Now, the Finance Committee held a hearing on unemployment insurance earlier this summer. And I particularly wanted to know how we might look at administering these benefits in the future because I knew that we would all want to hear if there had been reforms and what the case might be for changes.


During that hearing, just a few weeks ago, the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, the experts on this issue, on how the benefits have to be administered, said, their words, that any reduction or change in benefits will absolutely lead to a lapse in benefits. Now you would think colleagues on the other side would say, “My goodness, we don’t want that to happen.”


The state workforce agencies said that there would be a lapse in benefits no matter what you cut the amount. $100, whatever the amount was, there would be a lapse in benefits. The gap in benefits could last a week or two—potentially up to a month.


Well I’ve been pointing out to senators, you can’t eat retroactively.


And yet everything I’ve heard about what colleagues want to do now, and remember they don’t have a bill, they do not have a bill. They are taking the weekend off. We’ve got a bill on this side. Democratic leader, myself, supported by our caucus. They don’t have a bill to do anything for those people who are going to be hurting this weekend.


But after that hearing, you would have thought people, Republican senators on the other side, would say, you know we’ve got to figure out what to do.  We’ve got to make sure that people aren’t going to fall through the cracks through no fault of their own. Remember, so many of them are at home because of government policies, quarantine. And of course, the pattern is particularly ominous now because folks who were furloughed at the beginning, then got brought back, and now with the spike, they are getting laid off again.


But there you have it, the Association of State Workforce Agencies says that any change could lead to a lapse in benefits.


And I guess my colleagues on the other side walked out of there and said “no big deal,” it’s just a few weeks.


Well tell that to the people who aren’t going to have enough money to pay rent and buy groceries next week. Tell that to their face, rather than just leave town and say we’ll talk about that another time. We’ll see about two, three, four weeks, and what people are going to have to do without this lifeline. I believe it’s going to be a disaster.


The lapse that is being forced on this country right now is because Senate Republicans would not step up, at any kind of step along the way—after the hearing, during the July break. They did not step up. 


The lapse will lead to evictions. It’s going to lead to hunger. It’ll lead to desperation for millions of people. And the only way to avoid it is by acting now – by passing the American Workforce Rescue Act that Senator Schumer and I introduced.


We just tried to pass it. If our bill had passed, the people who are going to be hurting this weekend, who aren’t going to be able to make rent, who aren’t going to be able to buy groceries would have some sense of security. They would be able to go to bed tonight, knowing our bill passed, to work with the other body to get this resolved and get it resolved quickly.


Now those people know one thing, and that is they better plan for yet more uncertainty and more pain, as my colleagues on the other side of the aisle say maybe it’ll get worked out in a few weeks. Even though what they are talking about working out, and remember, there is no bill, we’ve never seen a piece of paper, but they’re talking about cutting the lifeline over 50%. That’s their proposal, cutting it over 50%.


Now, at a minimum, at a minimum, I believe that what the Republicans are now looking at is some kind of approach that after Secretary Scalia has told the Senate that the states can’t do full wage replacement for individual workers, that they’re not capable of doing it, the technology is too old, it can’t get the math, it can’t get individually tailored benefits out in a timely way. Apparently my colleagues are using that model for their so-called idea that they want to talk about. Now Ive already mentioned the fact that they believe the argument for this is that it could be done in a few weeks. People are going to be hurting for those few weeks, no one has an answer for that.


But everyone should understand I was the one to first offer full wage replacement, and it was Secretary Scalia who said that it couldn’t be administered, and has never changed his mind on that point.


So my view is that proposals that add a whole lot of complexity to the unemployment system are proposals designed to fail. So at a minimum, this delay in the Senate is going to cause a lapse in benefits. On top of that it’s been reported that Republicans could attempt to cut the benefit by well over 50%, and I just ask, how can anybody look at the state of the country, and how powerful people and special interests are doing so well, and then decide to cut the economic lifeline for working families by well over 50%?


When the country is in the middle of a pandemic.


When there are 60,000 or 70,000 new COVID cases identified every day–and climbing.


When there are 800 ... 900 ... 1,000 COVID deaths every day–and climbing.


When the number of new unemployment claims–which before this year had never crossed 700,000–has been 1.3 million or higher for 18 straight weeks.


And in fact, the number of new claims went up this week for the first time since April – a sign that the recovery is going in reverse.


And as I mentioned, what I’m hearing about at home, is businesses that reopened in May and June are shutting down and laying off their workers for a second time.


A third of Americans couldn’t make their last rent payment.


Parents who’ve lost their jobs are wondering how they are going to feed their children.


And I just say to my colleagues who may be following this, this is an unthinkable level of suffering and uncertainty to inflict on 30 million Americans.


And it’s not just about those who’ve already lost work. It’s also about the millions of others who are worried that their pink slip might come in August or September or October. They need support, too.


And in fact, the papers are full of stories of small businesses closing permanently.


And I expect that all those people who are worried that they haven't been laid off yet, but a pink slip may be coming their way in August, September, October are going to have a word or two for their senators. They have plenty of time to write bills for multinational corporations, but can’t find the time to stand up for unemployed folks who are hurting.


Before I wrap up this afternoon, I want to touch on this argument that Republicans are flogging away on, that unemployment benefits are way too generous. And somehow they’re convinced that it makes sense to insult the American worker, and say that all these workers are sitting around lazily at home instead of going back to work. That argument does not pass the smell test, and I’m going to be very specific about why that argument from my friend from Wyoming is way off base.   


First of all, the same Republicans who celebrated the May and June job reports are now talking about how lazy workers are by refusing to go back to their jobs. You simply cannot have it both ways.


Second, not one of my Republican colleagues has brought forward real evidence to suggest workers across the country are turning down work. It’s all just anecdotes that don’t hold water.


According to one recent analysis, more than two-thirds of workers rehired in June went back to jobs that paid less than supercharged unemployment benefits.


Third, it’s an insult to America’s workers to say they’d rather sit at home than to earn their pay at work.


If any one of my Republican colleagues were to go out and meet the Oregonians I’ve spoken with who’ve been furloughed or laid off during this pandemic, they’d hear from people who desperately want to get back to their jobs when it’s safe. People who believe in the dignity of work. People who want to provide for their families. And it is an insult to call them lazy.


And Mr. President, I just want to kind of inject a note of reality in this because my Republican colleagues have been so fixated on this argument. I’ve talked to a lot of unemployed workers, and I’ve said, you know back east, Senate Republicans say all unemployed folks are lazy, and they don’t want to work, and all the rest. And so many of the unemployed look at me incredulous, and they say, “Ron, how in the world have they come up with that completely wrong idea?”


And they say “If I’m given a choice between unemployment or the chance to have a job in the private economy, where I have a future, where I can build upward economic mobility,” they usually say, “Ron, tell those Republicans in Washington, D.C., it’s a no brainer, it’s a no brainer. Of course I’m going to take the job that gives me an opportunity for a future, the chance to work in the private sector, and climb the ladder of economic mobility. I’m going to take that every time, rather than unemployment that certainly has been uncertain.”


So that’s my response to the off-base kinds of arguments presented by Senator Barasso. So if Republicans want to go home this weekend and insult the work ethic of millions of Americans who believe in the dignity of work that’s their constitutional right.      


The country obviously is nowhere near the end of this crisis. Businesses are going to keep closing down – some temporarily, others permanently. We’re looking at the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression.


And the benefits that we put together initially—the  supercharged unemployment benefits—and I’m especially proud, Mr. President, that we said that the law, which really hadn’t been updated since the 1930s, that we would modernize the law and allow gig workers, and the self-employed, and independent contractors and part-timers to be brought into the system.


Those supercharged benefits that we negotiated in the Finance Committee room, which, by the way, were signed off on by Secretary Mnuchin. This was not done in the dead of night with only one side going along with the effort. These were negotiated with Secretary Mnuchin, who actually endorsed it in a press conference.


These supercharged unemployment benefits have been the one thing that has kept millions of families, millions of families, from being in the position where they couldn't feed their families, couldn't make rent, and literally facing the kind of despair, the kind of fear that has made the number of requests for mental health services go through the stratosphere. Because people are so worried, and the question of their economic future is just one reason. 


Supercharged unemployment benefits have helped keep the economy afloat, have helped prevent a true economic meltdown. And even with this lifeline, people are still barely hanging on. They’re falling behind on bills.


I mentioned the threat of hunger. My seat mate here just talked about how important it is to act on housing assistance.


It would be an historic failure, morally and economically, to slash this lifeline that is so important to getting workers through this pandemic.


The Democratic Leader, Senator Schumer and I, listened carefully to all sides. We thought about the need, given the fact that there are predictions of high unemployment for some time to come. We said let’s come up with a dependable safety net that provides some measure of predictability with respect to how the government is going to approach these issues in the future.


My colleagues have said they want a system that has the benefits taper off as unemployment goes down. What the Democratic Leader and I have proposed does exactly that. But when unemployment—there was a story yesterday—I believe in the Washington Post, I think they were talking about unemployment being 15%. When unemployment reaches those kind of levels, and we saw that story, people waiting and waiting for hours. And in fact, Mr. President, I dont have the exact percentage. I think I’d ask for unanimous consent to place that story about the unemployment calamity in Oklahoma into the record.


So I close by saying that I came to the floor, some time ago, to ask unanimous consent to make sure that this weekend, when millions of people are hurting. Remember, the suffering starts in two days. It starts on Saturday. Two days. In Florida. In Oregon. In Wyoming. All over the country. And Mitch McConnell, his response was: Let’s take a break. We can take off. He didn't seem to see those  hurting people in Kentucky. Maybe they’ll have something to say to him this weekend. But I’ll tell you. I think it’s a big mistake for Senate Republicans to have frittered away, weeks on end, when we could have had a dialogue, when we could have talked about ideas. The president of the Senate has talked to me since he’s been here, a number of times, about health care.


So I enjoy talking to my colleagues and working on ideas to try to find a way to address concerns and solve problems. There wasn't one single effort—not one—to pick up on any of the ideas that I’ve been discussing here. In fact, I tried to reach out to colleagues on the other side, and I’ve heard you say, I’ve heard you say repeatedly, that benefits should taper down as the unemployment rate goes down. Well that’s the heart of our bill on this side. So, the hurt and pain that working families are going to face this Saturday and Sunday, two days from now, did not have to happen. It didn’t have to happen. Our side has a bill to work on. The other side I gather has some ideas. We have not seen a single piece of paper. But I know that all those people who are hurting can't eat retroactively. They can’t eat all the Rpeublican theories about delay and haggling. I believe these working families deserve a whole lot better. They deserve predictability and certainty that when they are hurting through no fault of their own their government isn't going to turn its back on them, and say, we don't care if your kids can't eat or you don't have a roof over your head.  Our country has always been better than that