Republicans move forward in their quest to drug test unemployed people

It’s another instance of the GOP using the Congressional Review Act to enact policy changes.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) with other House Republicans. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) with other House Republicans. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

House Republicans are making progress in their quest to allow states to drug test people who are unemployed.

This week, they passed a resolution that undoes a rule from the Department of Labor under President Obama’s tenure that kept any drug testing for unemployment benefits very narrow. The House resolution passed with nearly all Republicans voting in favor, plus the support of four Democrats.

The rule is related to a fight over drug testing unemployed people that cropped up during the recent recession. Since the 1960s, federal law has banned states from using drug tests to screen unemployment insurance applicants. But Republicans wanted to change that and allow states to require all applicants be screened for drug use.

As part of a compromise Democrats struck with Republicans in 2012 to increase unemployment benefits and funding for other programs, they acquiesced on a provision in a bill that would allow states to drug test applicants who either lost their jobs due to drug use or were applying for jobs in industries where drug tests are already commonly used. But crafting the final rule and how it would work in practice was left up to the Department of Labor.

When the Department of Labor released its rule last year, Republicans argued that it was so narrow, states wouldn’t actually be allowed to implement drug tests for anyone.

Because the rule was released in August, Republicans now have the power to undo it using the Congressional Review Act. That’s just what they did in the House this week: They approved a resolution authored by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) that voids it. If the Senate votes to do the same, which only requires a simple majority, Congress can then write its own rule or have the Labor Department do it, either of which will likely give states wide authority to drug-test people who are unemployed.

After the vote, Brady said in a statement, “This legislation places a check on blatant executive overreach that all but prohibits states from implementing important reform to help qualified unemployed workers in their quest to find a new job.”

In a hearing earlier this week on the measure, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) argued that allowing states to drug test applicants “benefits the unemployed by helping to assure future employers that unemployment claimants reentering the workforce are truly able and available for work.”

But if prior experience is any guide, this will not be the case.

While states don’t have the authority to drug test most government programs, they can implement testing for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash assistance. So far, 12 states have implemented drug tests for welfare applicants. And among those who have had testing programs up and running for the past two years, the results show very few positive test results. Some states, like Arizona and Michigan, uncovered no drug users at all.

Yet these states have collectively spent nearly $2 million to administer the tests. And while some proponents say that the drug testing will help addicts get help and become better prepared for the workforce, most states haven’t expanded or spent more money on drug treatment programs, which often have long waiting lists.