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Congress' job: Extend benefits for unemployed

Jan 10, 2014 - The Los Angeles Times

Congress is finally grappling with an issue it should have dealt with before members rushed out on Christmas vacation: extending unemployment benefits.

There is bipartisan support for renewing the federal benefits that expired last month, cutting off aid to 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans. Yet some lawmakers' comments suggest that they're not really serious even now about getting the money flowing again.

At times of high joblessness, the federal unemployment insurance program provides up to 47 extra weeks of assistance to laid-off workers who have run through their state benefits while trying in vain to land a job.

Some critics say the benefits prolong unemployment by discouraging idled workers from taking whatever job happens to be available or making it more expensive for employers to hire them. But there are far fewer job openings than there are applicants, and the extended benefits enable job-seekers to keep looking rather than just dropping out of the workforce.

That's what happened last year in North Carolina -- the size of the workforce fell significantly after state lawmakers capped aid at 19 weeks and blocked the federal extension.

Supporters of the extended benefits want Washington to fund them with borrowed dollars, arguing that the extra spending by laid-off workers would stimulate the economy. Republicans have made it clear, however, that they won't vote for extending the benefits if it requires Washington to go deeper into debt. So lawmakers in both parties should be searching for an acceptable way to cover the cost, which is about $6 billion for the next three months.

"Acceptable" does not describe the provocative proposal by the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, who sought to tie the extended benefits to a one-year delay in the requirement to buy health insurance. In addition to being a cynical political gesture and a nonstarter for Democrats, suspending the individual mandate wouldn't pay for extending unemployment benefits. Instead, it would increase the federal deficit by temporarily eliminating the tax penalties on Americans who don't obtain coverage.

More serious suggestions have come from Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who proposed to offset the cost of extending the benefits by barring immigrants working in the country illegally from claiming a refundable credit for dependent children.

But that is hardly the only approach to covering the cost of the benefits, and it would behoove Senate Democrats to come up with a few of their own. Despite the steady increase in private-sector jobs and the gradual improvement in the unemployment rate, far too many Americans continue to reach the end of their state benefits without finding work. As expensive as the extended benefits may be, it would only cost the economy more if those workers gave up trying to put their skills and training to use.

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