In this exclusive interview, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (NY-8) talks to The Brooklyn Reader about his efforts to address unemployment in Central Brooklyn, Republican obstructionism and why the bill to extend unemployment insurance benefits to nearly 3 million Americans died in the House of Representatives on June 1.
Brooklyn Reader: UPI reported on Monday that the bill to extend long-term unemployment insurance benefits has died quietly in the House of Representatives. Is there a plan by the House Democrats to make a statement about this and/or continue to bring public attention to this issue?
Congressman Hakeem Jeffries: “We believe that a majority exists in the House of Representatives to pass an unemployment compensation benefit extension. But the GOP leadership continues to hold the legislation hostage.
“This is not inconsistent with steps that the House majority has taken to obstruct progress for the American people, as they’re also preventing a vote on a minimum wage increase and comprehensive immigration reform.
“House Democrats have put forth a discharge petition that I believe every single Democratic Congress member in the country has signed, which would have forced a vote on the bill sent to us by the Senate. However, in order to get to the 218 number necessary to discharge a bill out of committee and force a vote on the House floor, it would have been necessary for Republican members to sign the petition as well.
“And it is my understanding that not a single Republican in the House joined onto the effort to force the bill out of committee so that unemployed Americans can get the vote they
BR: The chief argument by Republicans for not renewing unemployment insurance was that it was unpaid for and it did not create jobs. Is that true that it would not be paid for, and if not, do the House Democrats have a plan for how it would be financed?
HJ: “The senate bill was bi-partisan and did include a pay-for, in terms of the unemployment compensation. Speaker Boehner has indicated that the pay-for was inadequate and he also indicated that he wanted to see some sort of jobs package.
“The notion that the Speaker of the House is holding up the unemployment compensation legislation based upon his desire to see activity in the area of job creation is phony. It is a false narrative. The President has put forth the American Jobs Act, which would create infrastructure in transportation investment, as well as provide an opportunity for states to hire people in the fields of police protection, via an education.
“But the House has again failed to bring that bill to the floor. The only thing the House majority seems interested in with respect to job creation is the Keystone pipeline. But as the President has indicated, that project is under environmental review and we’re not in a position to move forward until we can be clear that the health and well being of the American people will not be jeopardized.
BR:While unemployment among the general population within Brooklyn is at around 10 percent, it’s at 16 percent for African Americans and still a bit higher for African Americans in your district of Central Brooklyn, at 18.3 percent. Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan has taken up this issue personally by dedicating the front page of his House website with a state-by-state statistic on the number of unemployed and how much money each state has lost as a result of not renewing the bill. Particularly because your district is most devastated by the employment situation, are there any plans to take up the issue personally?
HJ: “There have been several different times I’ve spoken on the House floor to this issue, the minimum wage issues as well as other numerous agenda items that have been obstructed.
“In terms of public policy activity, one of the things that we’ve been working on since the moment I came to office is a Section 3 initiative to try and bring to life the responsibility that NYCHA has under Section 3 of the 1968 HUD Act to provide employment opportunities to public housing residents whenever construction funds are provided by the federal government.”
“It’s been a law that has been on the books for more than 40 years, but often has been either un-enforced or under-enforced. I’ve had conversations as high as with the President of the United State, Mayor de Blasio, with the NYCHA chair, Valerie Jarrett and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan related to bringing Section 3 to life in the way that would benefit public housing residents and residents of the surrounding communities.”
“The reason I will continue to raise it, is because it is a situation where we can actually do something around unemployment in places like Central Brooklyn, South Central Los Angeles, and the South Side of Chicago without Republican action. We just need NYCHA perhaps pushed by HUD to bring it to life.
“There is probably no singular issue that I have consistently spoken on more than this. And I’ll continue to do so. We’ve got to fight the good fight on Republican obstructionism, but at the same time figure out ways we can download the power of the federal government into neighborhoods that are struggling the most, without legislative action. The most promising area is Section 3.”
BR: How optimistic do you feel about the possibility that a bill extending unemployment compensation will be raised again or brought to the House floor again? Or do you feel that it’s dead?
HJ: “I remain optimistic that eventually the obstructionist house majority will be forced to cave as they’ve done in other instances related to the fiscal cliff, sequestration, the government shutdown and the debt ceiling.
“But it will take continued pressure from the President, the Senate House majority, House Democrats and the American people in order to create conditions where they ultimately crack. But I have no doubt that they will crack.”