The debate that has raged in Washington for weeks about extending the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance is often portrayed in terms of decimal points, macroeconomic theory and the latest frustrating chapter in the ongoing saga of congressional gridlock.
But what the debate is really about is people like Paul Lokey.
I met Paul in Phoenix last week at an event spotlighting this issue. For 36 years, he went to work every day at IBM as an applications development programmer and project manager in global services. Instead of a gold watch for his decades of service, Paul got a pink slip. He was laid off and his job was shipped overseas.
For a year, Paul networked, sent out resumes and filled out applications. He spent all day—every day—looking for work, competing against computer whiz kids half his age. Eventually, he took a job driving a dump truck. Then, he took a job at Wal-Mart.
Finally, Paul got connected with a workforce development program funded by the Department of Labor. He got critical .NET Windows and web development certifications that he needed to compete. He found a job last year doing web development; it paid significantly less than his IBM position, but he was back on his feet and working in his field again.
But earlier this year, his new company went under. Today, Paul is unemployed again. He pays his bills with his 401K savings. He lives hand to mouth off his modest unemployment insurance check.
Paul is a proud man. He is middle aged and middle class, and he’s good at what he does. He has just fallen on hard times, like other Americans still struggling to get by as our economy recovers.
When Paul is working, he cannot afford an extra $1,000 payroll tax bill. When he’s not, his unemployment benefits—and rapidly evaporating retirement savings—are all he has to support himself.
We are at a pivotal moment for the American worker and the American economy. Unless House Republicans drop their opposition to a bipartisan compromise on extending the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance, America will usher in 2012 by raising taxes on 160 million workers and cutting a lifeline to 2.5 million Americans like Paul.
President Obama has fought hard for months to persuade Congress that raising taxes on the middle class and turning our backs on the unemployed would be bad from a policy perspective and worse from a moral one. When the going gets tough in America, we don’t slam the door in our neighbor’s face.
On Saturday, after much passionate debate, 89 Senators—including more than three fourths of Senate Republicans—voted to do the right thing and extend these two programs. House Speaker John Boehner called the Senate vote a “victory.” But unfortunately, a handful of members in his party are blocking the common-sense Senate legislation.
It breaks my heart. I want them to meet Paul Lokey. I want them to realize that unemployment insurance claimants are not freeloaders. They are hardworking people who are simply having a rough go of it.
I’m a former member of the House of Representatives. I know politics is a contact sport. But I wish my ex-colleagues on the other side of the aisle would take a holiday from the partisan point-scoring.
I wish they would honor their own principles and vote against a tax increase on the middle class.
I wish they would celebrate the season knowing that they had averted heartache for millions of people who are counting on them.