On the Senate floor, July 14, 2010, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin spoke about an article he read this week in the Washington Post which contained a quote by Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute:

Workers are less likely to look for work, or accept less-than-ideal jobs, as long as they are protected from the full consequences of being unemployed.


Senator Harkin's response was stunning - a 30-minute moment now archived in the Congressional Records. I hope it carries far and wide.


First, from The Iowa Independent:

The nonpartisan Iowa Fiscal Partnership estimated last month that 44,000 Iowans saw an immediate reduction in benefits starting at the end of May, when Congress allowed unemployment benefits to expire over the course of the month. About 1,500 to 2,000 Iowans began losing all benefits each week.


Extending Unemployment Benefits

Below is a video and transcript of Sen. Harkin's speech.

There are many other progressive senators whose intelligence and integrity I admire and respect, but to me, Sen. Harkin towers - with two others - for his  passionate honesty, power and eloquence. The others are Sheldon Whitehouse and Bernie Sanders.

My personal comments are sparse; Harkin says it all. However, I've bolded some parts which are especially strikng. The transcript is edited for length but a full copy is linked below, and the videos are even better.

From the Senate Floor:  July 14, 2010

Excerpt from Speech:


Entire Speech:



I want to thank my friend and our majority leader here, our whip, senator Durbin, for really laying out in very stark, honest and open terms what we're facing in this country today. And I wish to pick up on that and to carry it a little bit further in talking about the number of people who are unemployed and what's happening to people across America today who can't find work. And yet the Congress sits here immobilized, unable to pass an extension of unemployment insurance benefits. It's really unconscionable what's happening to so many people in America through no fault of their own ...

I wonder how many government classes are being taught in high school today, even in college, that the majority does not govern in the United States Senate. I wonder how many understand that in our democratic form of government, 41 senators decide what we vote on; 41 senators decide what legislation comes before this body. I mean, you can go back to the framers of our constitution and read all that they wrote in our "Federalist Papers," what Madison said and others. They all warned against the tyranny of the minority. And that's why they set up a system of majority rule ...

Go to other countries where we're trying to get them to establish democratic forms of government and tell them it's okay to have a minority decide what you vote on. They've got to scratch their heads and say, "What are you talking about? We need a majority rule." Yet here in our own country, a minority rules in the United States Senate. I know a lot of polls show that people are angry and they're mad at Congress. I can understand that. If I had been out of work for 99 weeks and I had a family to feed and house payments to make and all of a sudden my insurance, my unemployment benefits ended. I would be pretty mad at Congress too. And I think what the Republicans are counting on is that this fall they'll be so mad that they'll vote against whoever is running Congress, and that's obviously the Democrats ... And yet it's the Republicans - a Minority - that's keeping us from voting on extending unemployment insurance benefits. Well, I don't care what my friends on the other side of the aisle think. The American people will learn, they'll know. People are not stupid. The voters of this country are pretty smart. Oh, you might fool them for a little bit. As Abraham Lincoln said, you can fool them for a little bit but not all the time. And pretty soon they're going to catch on ...

Mr. President, a prominent group of business economists recently released its economic outlook, assuring us that America’s economy is "on track" toward recovery. Most economists give a large share of credit to the Recovery Act. In February of 2009, when we passed the Recovery Act, the economy was shrinking at a 6 percent annual rate, and many feared we were on the cusp of a new depression. We have prevented that catastrophe ...

They say officially there are about 5 to 6 unemployed workers for every job opening. Actually, it's closer to eight job seekers for every opening. Now, I was reading an article in "the Post" yesterday. Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato institute, a libertarian think-tank, said, "Workers are less likely to look for work or accept less than ideal jobs as long as they are protected from the full consequences of being unemployed."

Boy, that almost takes your breath away, Mr. President, that we have people like this in high places that are trying to set economic policy. "As long as they are protected from the full consequences of being unemployed." What does he mean? They've got to starve? They've got to go out on the street corner here with hat in hand and give up their homes, put their furniture out on the street, send their kids to the orphanage? Is that what Mr. Tanner says? Maybe starving? What's he talking about, the full consequences when there are eight people looking for every job?

You wonder where people like this come from, where did they go to school, did they ever go to school, what did they ever learn in their lifetimes? Are they just so uncaring about their fellow human beings that they just say, let it happen, whatever happens, and the government can't do anything to help? Well, we had that attitude prior to the 1930's but I thought we'd turned the corner. I thought we recognized that government could be an instrument to make sure that people's lives are not miserable. That they didn't have to suffer the full consequences of being unemployed, without being thrown out on the street or starving or putting their kids in orphanages because they couldn't take care of them any longer. I thought we turned the corner on that. But obviously there are some who would like to turn the clock back ...

These are hardworking people who are trying their best, and never imagined that they would be in need of federal assistance. They have paid into the unemployment system – many for decades – and they should be able to count on it when times are tough. This is a matter of fundamental fairness and human decency, and using the power of the government to make sure that people don't.

What did Mr. Tanner say? - "Suffer the full consequences of being unemployed" - whatever that may mean. And yet in the face of these families and this crisis, the extension of unemployment insurance benefits is stalled - I would say cruelly obstructed here in the United States Senate. We've tried to pass it time and time again in extension. Every time it is blocked by our Republican colleagues on the other side of the aisle ...

We keep hearing this and I have heard it from the other side of the aisle. I’ve heard from Sarah Palin and others, that people are lazy – that they just rely on those benefits instead of looking for work. Even the distinguished minority whip, Senator Kyl put it recently: "Continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work." ... There are eight people looking for every job. How low do you have to drive people down?

Well, I think those who say that people are just lazy are just out of touch with reality. Let's look at the facts. Unemployment insurance benefits vary from state to state. Right now it's about $300 a week average nationwide. $300 a week. So for a family of four - get this - you get unemployment benefits, if you're lucky enough to still be on them, you're getting $300 a week average and that's about $15,000 a year. You keep your family going on $15,600 a year. Huh, a family of four? Poverty line is $22,000. So I suppose, according to my friend from Arizona Senator Kyl, if you're getting $15,600 a year, that's a disincentive for you to try to find a job that pays more than $22,000 a year ...

Another argument I hear from our Republican colleagues is that extending the benefits will add to the deficit. Their argument is that we should cut off some of the most desperate people in our economy, take away their last meager lifeline because we're concerned about the deficit. Yet those very same senators are demanding that we extend hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans in our society. My friend, the Senator from Vermont, Senator Sanders, was here yesterday morning, and gave a great speech on what's happening in our society in terms of the few controlling more and more and the rest getting less and less. As he pointed out, the top 1% of the richest people in America controls 90% of the wealth. The rest can get all the rest ...

Extending these tax breaks for the wealthiest in our society also adds to the deficit. But I guess in their way of thinking that's all right. And again, when we talk about extending these tax breaks, my friends on the Republican side, they don't say we have to find an offset for it. They say, no, add that to the deficit, we don't have to pay for that. But if we want to extend unemployment benefits, we have to somehow pay for that. Again, I am sorry that I am lost in the logic of that ...

But let me speak a little bit about deficits because they are something that we do have to pay attention to and we're going to have to fix for the long term. We are in a fiscal mess but it was not so long ago then-Vice President Dick Cheney dismissed the need for fiscal responsibility. When they were cutting tax breaks for the wealthy, spending more and more, here's what he said: "Deficits don't matter." Vice President Dick Cheney said deficits don't matter. And again, under his administration with President Bush, they didn't matter. And I don't remember any significant Republican dissent from Mr. Cheney's view during that period of time that deficits don't matter because they were off going after weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that misplaced war has cost us pretty close to a trillion dollars, not counting untold lives lost, people injured for life. And the tax breaks for the wealthy spiraled us again into a deficit. But Mr. Cheney said deficits don't matter.

Well, I tend to disagree with Mr. Cheney. Deficits do matter. They mattered because when Mr. Clinton was president, we got out of the deficit hole. Well, they said deficits don't matter when Republicans were in control. Now they say deficits do matter. They blame the federal government's fiscal mess on President Obama and actions taken by this Congress. Well, that takes a wholesale rewriting and an airbrushing of recent history.

As we all know, it was the administrations of President Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush in the 1980's that launched America into a new era of large budget deficits. President Clinton then spent the following eight years cleaning up the fiscal mess that he inherited. In 1993, President Clinton, along with the Democratic Congress passed a painful but a courageous deficit-reduction plan without one single republican "Yes" vote in the Senate. That plan not only produced record budget surpluses, it expanded our economy. People were employed. It put us on a path by the year 2000 to completely eliminate the debt within a decade. We could have wiped out the national debt.

And I remember that debate. I was here - 1993. I remember Senator Graham from Texas getting up, wailing about how this plan was going to destroy America; it was going to plunge us into fiscal crisis. It was going to create unemployment; it was going to create a disaster. Well, we passed it without one Republican vote. And look what happened, the economy grew, unemployment went down, we paid down the national debt, we left in 2000 with a huge budget surplus.

And yet in 1994, the year after we passed that without one single Republican vote, Republicans were all over country taking the democrats to task for raising taxes. And you know what happened in 1994? Democrats lost the senate and lost the house and Republicans took over. But we were able to keep that program intact. They couldn't repeal it. And we kept it intact during the 1990's, resulting in a good, strong economy, more employment, and putting us on a path to pay off the national debt. And then 2001, George Bush comes to office. Republicans gain control and again into deficits once more in our country. Huge deficits ...

So I can say that we Democrats are proud of our record of fiscal responsibility, but forgive us for asking why is it that again and again and again we Democrats are cast in the role of the shovel brigade in the circus, cleaning up after the elephants? And then people get mad because we have got to clean up the mess. Well, I’m tired of being the shovel brigade after those elephants ...

For every dollar that we extend of Bush tax cuts, we only get back 49 cents. Compare that to unemployment benefits. Yet, the Republicans want us to do this: spend every dollar that we have on extending the Bush tax cuts for which we'll get back about 49 cents. They don't want to do unemployment benefits that for every dollar we spend, we get back $1.63 in economic activity ...

David Walker is the former controller of the currency under the Bush administration. Now he's president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, an organization that has single-mindedly focused on cutting long-term deficits. Last week he testified before the bipartisan deficit reduction panel. He said that it is "a myth that we cannot address our current economic crisis and our long-term fiscal crisis at the same time." Yet, that's that we're hearing from Republicans. We can't do both; we have to focus on the deficit and don't worry about the crisis we have right now.

Again, for the sake of all the families who have written in to my office, for all those families that are at the end of their line, I urge my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to stop this cruel obstructionism and do the right thing right now for people who desperately need our help ...

So, Mr. President, it is my intention, as often as I can to get to the floor, to continue to speak about the desperate need of these families. We can't just continue to ignore it. And to those who think that they can gain politically at the polls in November by having people suffer more, by having them more desperate and more destitute, I say that is an aberration, a total abdication of our responsibility as officeholders, as people who are sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. It is unworthy of a great country for its elected leaders to somehow think they can gain politically by making people more desperate than they are today ... Mr. President, I again urge the minority to let the bill come up for a vote so that we can vote it through, and it should be done this week.


Full Transcript


They are frozen in the ice of their own indifference. -- Rep. John Larson (D-CT)

Originally posted to * on Thu Jul 15, 2010 at 06:47 AM PDT.

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