Here's an idea for congressional Democrats, who are trying so hard to be heard--but so unsuccessfully--by a country fixated on Clay Aiken-or-Ruben Studdard. It's a TV show called American Idle. Every week, unemployed people are invited to display their talents, and sing a little too, while Democratic candidates for president tell us what they'd do to get these folks a job again.
Oh, and American Idle is interactive. When the show ends, viewers are invited to call in with their own stories about the lousy economy and why George W. must go (the best ones get you on the show the following week). Callers also get to rate the candidates and, naturally, the last-place finisher is voted off the program.
Anything to focus public attention on the travesty now taking place in Washington: Congress, under Republican control, is moving swiftly to enact another enormous tax cut weighted heavily in favor of the rich, but it refuses, so far, to consider extended unemployment compensation benefits for folks who lost their jobs months ago and can't find new ones.
U.S. Reps. David Price and Brad Miller, our Triangle congresspersons, went to the Raleigh Employment Security office Monday to make the case that extending unemployment benefits is, first of all, fair; and second, that it's a lot more likely to stimulate the economy than the pet Bush-Republican scheme, which is to stop taxing stock dividends. Why? Because an unemployment check gets spent right away. Dividends, taxed or not, are usually paid to people who can afford to save them.
Basic unemployment is a state program that lasts up to 26 weeks, depending on how long you worked, with a maximum payment in North Carolina of $408 a week. When the economy's bad, Congress ordinarily adds weeks, recognizing that people who've lost jobs will need added time to find new ones.
For reasons best known to themselves, however, Republican leaders dragged their feet last winter before approving an extra 13 weeks (Democrats wanted 26), letting thousands of jobless people who'd exhausted their state benefits drop from the rolls one week after Christmas. The predictable outcry, orchestrated by the Democrats, forced the GOP to relent in January.
That was then, however, and this is summertime, it's after a war that got great TV ratings, and as Miller snipes, "the Republicans say tax cuts for the rich are the solution to everything from urban sprawl to tooth decay." He and Price were here to tell us that, absent Outcry: The Sequel, the Republicans will stick to their guns this time: No more extended benefits after May 31, the expiration date on the January legislation.
"I think this is an outrage," says Price.
It is. In two years, North Carolina has lost 128,000 jobs. Last month, 140,338 North Carolinians who used to work were collecting jobless benefits--remember, this isn't welfare, you don't collect unemployment compensation unless you were working. Some 34,400 of them will lose benefits on May 31 and another 26,800 will lose them over the following three months unless the January legislation is renewed, Price and Miller say.
Nonetheless, the Republicans have the media's full attention with their argument that tax-free dividends will produce a "wealth effect" by goosing the stock market. The wealthy will proceed to trickle down their investment capital on the rest of us, creating jobs--eventually.
Beatrice Wheless needs a job now, though. A smart, 45-year-old with one daughter, she was doing well until January, when the construction engineering firm she worked for lost a big client. "I have a lot of skills, and I'm willing to learn new ones ... so I thought it would be extremely easy" to find another job, Wheless says. "But it hasn't worked out that way." She's knocked on many doors, sent many resumes, reluctantly gave up her health insurance to save money and is now "deciding which bills to pay" while she scrambles to find anything before the 26-week curtain drops on her benefits.
"I was hoping to make a step forward, but at this point I'm willing to take any kind of administrative or office position," she says. "I'm also hoping Congress will, ah, take another look."
The lesson of Clay: As much as the Democrats are right about unemployment compensation, they're off-key when it comes to the larger subject, which is the future health of the American economy.
President W. at least seems to be making an argument about long-term growth. Asked what the Democrats have in mind to create jobs, our two congresspersons touted federal aid to the deficit-ridden states.
Wrong answer. Nobody cares about the states, and in the time it takes for Miller to describe those critical community college programs that will train the work force of tomorrow, voters who lost interest in the war after a week have all switched the channel to W. in his jumpsuit--or to American Idol, where Clay is sure to beat Ruben, by the way.
The reason: Ruben, though good, is the same every week. But Clay! He's a work in progress, the hope of the future, red leather and all! So what if some of it's lame, you can't help but root for him.
What are the Democrats giving us to root for?
To make Bob Geary your American Idol, write to