Key Democrat accuses Labor head of ‘misleading’ testimony on jobless benefits

Greg Nash

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, accused Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia on Tuesday of giving misleading testimony on key questions pertaining to unemployment benefits.

“I think that’s just misleading the committee, misleading the public and on a key kind of question, which is what to do going forward,” Wyden said at the end of a three-hour Finance Committee hearing looking at how the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic affected workers.

At the heart of the matter was the question of extending the $600 in additional weekly unemployment insurance benefits, a provision of March’s CARES Act that’s set to expire at the end of July.

Republicans argue that the extra cash, which in many cases makes the total benefit higher than working wages, disincentivizes people from returning to work.

Wyden contended that the only reason Democrats had pushed for a flat $600 increase was because states, which administer unemployment benefits, would have to take months to upgrade their systems in order to simply provide workers their full level of wages.

“Do states have the capacity now to implement 100 percent wage replacement on an individual basis?” Wyden asked Scalia at the hearing.

“I think, actually, the states have made some progress and are in a different place than they were before,” Scalia responded, though he avoided flatly confirming that states were ready.

At the end of the hearing, Wyden took the unusual step of asking for more time to accuse Scalia of providing misleading answers, saying that in a recent private meeting, Scalia had told him the opposite.

“I’m open to a variety of approaches, but it doesn’t help when we have misleading comments,” he said.

Scalia, who sparred with several Democrats during the course of the hearing, said that he simply had new information.

“I actually have learned more since you and I spoke, and I confess as I sit here now I am more optimistic about the capabilities that states may have based on the conversations that we continue to have,” he said.

Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said that the original $600 benefit had been important for keeping the economy afloat, but that economic circumstances had changed since March as the country had begun to open up.

The question of how to approach unemployment benefits is one of the central issues in negotiating a new COVID-19 relief bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the bill would not be taken up until after July 4th, which had been the expected target for passing it.

An unexpectedly good jobs report last week boosted the GOP argument that more time was needed to evaluate the level of economic need, though Democrats have been quick to point out that the economy remains in the deepest recession and worst unemployment situation since the Great Depression.

Tensions in the hearing Tuesday centered on other issues, too. Wyden also accused Scalia of providing misleading information in regards to putting out detailed standards outlining when unemployed people can turn down work based on health and safety concerns.

Scalia repeatedly said the issue was up to individual states, but Wyden countered that that was not the case for expanded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, another CARES Act program that allowed the self-employed, freelancers and gig economy workers to receive unemployment benefits.

During the hearing, other Democrats expressed dissatisfaction with Scalia’s testimony.

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) accused the secretary of seeking to promote President Trump for reelection instead of providing answers.

“We’ve heard the Trump commercial over and over again,” Brown said after Scalia went out of his way to praise Trump’s handling of the economy.

Brown has asked whether eliminating the additional benefit would disproportionately affect black and brown workers, who have significantly higher unemployment rates than white workers.

Scalia responded that African Americans had the lowest unemployment rate in history before the pandemic, echoing a frequent White House talking point.

“That was a simple yes or no and I got a commercial for the president’s reelection,” Brown said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) accused Scalia of filibustering, giving long-winded answers to run out the 5-minute limit each senator was given for question and answer.

“I’m starting to think you’re having fun filibustering us. It’s become a little bit of a sport for you to filibuster us and kind of yuk it up. I don’t think that’s fair to us,” he said.

Tags CARES Act Chuck Grassley Donald Trump Eugene Scalia Mitch McConnell Ron Wyden Sheldon Whitehouse Sherrod Brown Unemployment benefits

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