Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats pulled off a neat little trick yesterday. The two-month extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance really only allows for one month of negotiation in the conference committee, since Congress stands in recess until the end of January. But there’s no reason that the conference committee cannot begin its work beforehand. So Pelosi stood in Washington yesterday, with House Democratic conferees, and demanded to know why Republicans wouldn’t come back to Washington to finish the deal. Here’s an excerpt from Pelosi’s opening statement:
We have important work to do with our conference on cutting payroll taxes to the middle class, with extending unemployment benefits for those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and for ensuring that our seniors can see the doctor of their choice under Medicare.
Our conferees are here and present and ready to work. Our Ranking Member of the Ways and Means Committee, Mr. Levin, Xavier Becerra, Congressman Chris Van Hollen, Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz and Henry Waxman of California, they are here, ready to work. We wish the conference would get to work and not take us to a point of brinksmanship, pushing it to the last minute again, narrowing the choices, adding to the uncertainty for the American people. We have important work to do to do just that, extend those benefits and that tax cut, because they create jobs. They inject demand into the economy, create jobs.
That is what the American people need and want. They want jobs. They want us to work together. They want to know why we are not on the job now when they are so in need of jobs.
This is pure and simple grandstanding, but in a good way. Indeed, a rushed conference committee – and it’s not about the conferees so much as it is about John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and their staffs engaging in talks – will yield either a bad result and no result at all. The economy is getting decent growth under current fiscal policy; you would expect that growth to be stunted if measures like the payroll tax cut and extended unemployment benefits expired in February.
The conferees took some questions, most of which they punted on. Chris Van Hollen said that “we should look at” the millionaire’s surtax as a pay-for in the conference committee, pretty much a non-answer. Sandy Levin was asked if House Democrats should “come off the 99 weeks” of unemployment benefits given the improvements in the job picture; he didn’t answer the question, and he certainly didn’t respond that, in the bill extending unemployment by two months, the look-back was not changed, so the Extended Benefits program providing an extra 20 weeks will pretty much run out in every state where it was administered, meaning that 99 weeks doesn’t functionally exist anymore. We’re basically topping out at 79 weeks now unless that look-back gets changed.
Levin also called for an open conference committee, which is how you know that the conference committee will have nothing to do with any actual negotiating.
I suppose this was a good media play. Republicans demanded the conference committee, spend a week holding out for one at the end of last year, and now haven’t started the discussions in it. But the substantive work will really happen among the leadership.