What's really 'immoral' in government policy
"It is immoral."
That was the judgment of Rep. Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican and committee chairman, on the House floor last week. But the subject of his sermon wasn't the Assad regime in Syria or human trafficking. What Sessions found immoral was the repugnant notion that the government would help Americans who lost their jobs and are looking for work.
Sessions was preaching in response to Democrats' pleas that the Republican majority hold a vote on restoring unemployment-insurance benefits to the 1.7 million who have lost them since the benefits expired six weeks ago and the 70,000 or so who are losing them each week. Sessions, on the floor to usher through the House "sportsmen's heritage and recreational enhancement" legislation, explained why he wouldn't bring up jobless benefits: "I believe it is immoral for this country to have as a policy extending long-term unemployment to people rather than us working on creation of jobs."
In fact, the economy has added about 8.5 million private-sector jobs in the past 47 months, and overall unemployment, at 6.6 percent in January, would be substantially lower if Sessions and his colleagues hadn't been so successful in their "work" of cutting government spending when the recovery was fragile.
One result of the Great Recession, though, has been historically high long-term unemployment — 3.6 million people out of work 27 weeks or more, according to Friday's Labor Department report. This is falling — by 1.1 million over the past year — but those still searching, from all parts of the country and all walks of life, need help.
Republican opponents of the benefits extension said they would consider it if it were "paid for" by saving money elsewhere. So Senate Democrats drafted a three-month extension that was paid for using an accounting method Republicans have supported in the past. Republicans responded with another filibuster — and on Thursday they again succeeded in blocking an extension of benefits.
Those opposing unemployment insurance were conspicuously absent during the debate. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., was brave enough to issue a statement: "We can get Americans back to work and our economy booming again, but this is not achieved by Washington turning a temporary federal benefit into another welfare program."
That echoes the Sessions complaint that extending benefits is "immoral." And, as is often the case, these complaints in turn echo Rush Limbaugh. After President Obama on Jan. 31 signed a memorandum directing the federal government not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed, the radio host responded: "So he says, 'I'm directing every federal agency to make sure we are evaluating candidates on the level, without regard to their employment history.' What if they're fired because they're drunk? What if they're fired because they were having affairs with the boss's secretary? Doesn't matter. Can't look at that."
Of course, the memorandum says no such thing. Limbaugh and his congressional apostles are justifying indifference to the unemployed much the way one denies a panhandler under the rationale that he would only use the money to buy more booze. But these are not panhandlers; these are, by definition, people who had been working and are trying to work again.
The Sessions/Inhofe/Limbaugh definition of morality is based in the ideal world of universal productivity they'd like to see, but it offers little help for human misery in the real world. This morality can be seen, too, in the attempt, led by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and embraced by many conservative lawmakers, to repeal the "risk corridors" that protect health insurers from unanticipated losses under Obamacare. That would likely bring down the entire health care law, as its foes desire. But a collapse would also cause 30 million or 40 million additional people suddenly to lose their health insurance, with no obvious solution or easy way back to the old system. "It would precipitate a crisis," says Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
This morality is also at work in the decisions by 25 states under Republican control to reject the expansion of Medicaid offered under Obamacare. The states generally object because they are philosophically opposed to entitlement programs. But a new study from researchers at Harvard Medical School and City University of New York calculates that between 7,115 and 17,104 more people will die annually than would have if their states accepted the Medicaid expansion. The researchers, who favor a single-payer health system, examined demographic data and past insurance expansions.
Conservatives dispute the study's findings, and I hope the critics are right. Allowing people to die to advance your political philosophy isn't just bad policy. It's immoral.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Milbank.