Slightly more than a week ago, the Senate fell one vote short of overcoming a Republican filibuster to pass a three-month extension of assistance for the long-term unemployed.
The New York Times reported:
Republicans and Democrats, many from the nation's most economically depressed states, had been trying to reach a solution that would allow people who have exhausted their unemployment insurance to continue receiving benefits as long as the government offset the $6 billion cost.
Ultimately, how to pay for the program proved too big a hurdle for senators to overcome.
The question of helping the long-term unemployed is sure to return. And with it, the question will return of how to pay for it.
Many Democrats have objected to the idea that extending unemployment assistance should be paid for with cuts elsewhere. But as a practical matter, Senate Democrats already have conceded this point, and there is no realistic prospect that they will un-concede it; even if they did try to un-concede it, under current arrangements, a bill to extend unemployment assistance needs five Republican senators then has to get through the Republican House. So in the future that we can see, any realistic prospect for extending unemployment assistance, or even getting doing so on the table of serious discussion, will require having an offset.
As good fortune would have it, right now there just happens to be $6 billion of free money lying on the table, about to be wasted, waiting to be used as an offset for some good purpose.
It's in the war budget, otherwise known as "Overseas and Contingency Operations," or OCO. There is currently $5.7 billion in OCO that doesn't belong there by any reasonable account and is about to be wasted on Pentagon contractor pork that the Pentagon doesn't need, if it is not redirected to some useful purpose.
As the American Society of Military Comptrollers noted January 17, 2014:
The [FY2014 Omnibus Appropriations] bill provides $85.2 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), $5.7 billion higher than the [president's] request. Most of this change comes from the $8.5 billion transferred from the base [Pentagon] budget offset by a $3 billion cut to the request for the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund.
Translation: Congress put $8.5 billion in the war budget that the president didn't ask for. The reason that Congress did this was to spare Pentagon contractor pork from $8.5 billion of cuts by transferring $8.5 billion from the base Pentagon budget to the war budget.
Thus, by Washington's own account, the war budget can be cut by $6 billion (indeed, it could be cut by $8.5 billion) without touching the Afghanistan war, because there's (at least) $6 billion in the war budget that has nothing to do with the Afghanistan war.
Now, of course, cutting actual spending on the Afghanistan war would be a great idea. Every month that we keep an extra 12,000 troops in Afghanistan, we flush another billion dollars down the toilet. One of the great crimes of Washington today is that people who want us to believe that they are very seriously concerned about the national debt refuse to discuss the money that we are flushing down the toilet every month in Afghanistan. Pulling 12,000 troops out of Afghanistan for six months would pay for the extension of unemployment assistance.
However, if we want to cut the war budget, we have to start somewhere. And a great place to start cutting the war budget is by cutting the money in the war budget that was put there for Pentagon contractor pork that has nothing to do with the war in the first place.
Of course, we could ask Congress to cut the war budget simply by reversing its decision to gratuitously add $5.7 billion to the war budget that the president didn't even ask for. But that demand has little juice because it has no specific constituency, only the broad public interest. The only practical path to getting that $5.7 billion out of the war budget is to redirect that money to some useful purpose that the multitude can taste. Why not redirect it to extending assistance to the long-term unemployed?
Reporting on the Senate's failure to extend unemployment assistance, The Times noted:
[Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] said Democrats would keep pushing to extend the benefits, which expired at the end of last year, cutting off more than 1.3 million Americans. That number has since grown to more than 1.7 million.
So, there are 1.7 million Americans who would benefit directly and immediately from redirecting $5.7 billion of Pentagon contractor pork from the war budget to unemployment assistance. What if 1.7 million Americans and their families - and their friends and neighbors - told Congress: "Restore assistance to the long-term unemployed, and take the money from the Pentagon contractor pork in the war budget"? Let's send that idea up the flagpole, and see who salutes.