The Poorly Attended Hearing on One of the Economy's Toughest Problems

National Journal

It stands to reason that lawmakers who often decry the high jobless rate would want to be seen publicly trying to tackle the problem, right? Well, apparently not.

When a hearing to explore how to get the long-term unemployed back to work kicked off on Wednesday morning, only one lawmaker was in attendance. That was Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who was holding the hearing in her role as the vice chair of the Joint Economic Committee. The Joint Economic Commitee is one of a handful of committees whose members come from both parties and both houses of Congress. Klobuchar was eventually joined by three colleagues (in order of their appearance): Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, Maryland Rep. John Delaney and Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings. All four are Democrats.

Lawmaker schedules are often packed with votes, hearings, meetings, press conferences, the works. By 10:30 a.m., when the long-term unemployment hearing began, more than 25 hearings had already kicked off in the House and Senate. But elected officials also often try to show up at important hearings, even if only for a few minutes, for no other reason than to be seen. For a group that often bickers over how to solve the nation’s biggest economic problems, Wednesday’s hearing represented a perfect chance to do just that: be seen discussing how to tackle the intractable problem of long-term unemployment.

The long-term unemployed have it incredibly rough: their ranks have swelled in recent years, accounting for a larger share of the unemployed; the problem is compounded by eroding skills; and the psychological effects of unemployment can take a toll on them and their families. In a 2010 Pew survey, close to half of the people out of work six or months said being unemployed for so long had strained family relations, and more than 40 percent said they’d lost contact with close friends. Just being unemployed for a long period makes individuals less employable. It’s what Kevin Hassett, a former economic advisor to Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, called a “national emergency” at Wednesday’s hearing.

The purpose of the meeting was to explore bipartisan solutions to tackling the problem, including: equipping the unemployed with new skills; encouraging the private sector to hire more of the long-term unemployed by providing incentives, such as tax breaks or subsidies; improving the economy; and improving education. It's a daunting task, experts say, but not an impossible one. 

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