Now Pass a Jobless Benefits Bill

October 31, 1991

With 3 million Americans simultaneously out of work and out of unemployment benefits, it's about time the White House and the Congress stopped dithering and politicking on an issue that vitally affects people -- real people.

What the nation needs is a compromise that would extend benefits. Not only would it relieve a lot of human misery but it would give the economy a shot in the arm when it needs it, and quick.

Right now, the Democratic majority in Congress favors a $5.3 billion measure that would extend benefits up to 13 weeks, retroactive for those rendered jobless since last March. It would be paid for primarily by raising the wage base on which employers pay unemployment insurance from $7,000 to $7,700, by extending the current 0.2 percent surcharge on this tax and by denying income tax refunds to persons who owe money to the federal government. Republicans favor a $3 billion plan that would extend benefits for 10 weeks, retroactive to August. They would finance it by auctioning off FCC frequencies and by denying income tax refunds as in the Democratic proposal.

As the week began, House Democrats were set to push through their third unemployment compensation bill of the current recession and President Bush was set to veto it. But then the White House blinked, just as it blinked a week ago when Mr. Bush was hit by charges that he was indifferent to the concerns of women and blacks.

On the unemployment compensation matter, the president was on sounder ground, refusing to accept Democratic packages that either busted the budget or raised the cost of labor.

But Mr. Bush had a problem. Democrats were also accusing him of indifference to jobless workers as the economy faltered. So the word went out Monday that Republicans were ready to deal. And the Democratic leadership decided it was politically risky to refuse a compromise.

Given this situation, let us offer the outlines of a package that might be acceptable to both sides: Agree on a $4 billion price tag. Extend benefits 11 or 12 weeks, rather than 10 or 13. Forget the increase in the taxable wage base as a non-starter. Extend the current 0.2 percent surcharge on the unemployment tax until 1994, and use the proceeds to offset any drawdowns from the $8 billion jobless benefits trust fund that might be required right now. Pick a retroactivity date sometime between March and August that will hold the cost of the measure below the bust-the-budget level.

This way, politicians on both sides can save face and give their special spin to the compromise, as was the case with civil rights. And in this way, normally working citizens who have been victimized by the recession will get a little respite. This is "must" legislation, and it should be enacted soon.

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