Bah, humbug

December 10, 2003

IN A MOMENT only an unrepentant Ebenezer Scrooge could fully appreciate, Congress got out of Washington yesterday without leaving behind so much as a lump of coal for the unemployed.

Thanks to Republican inaction this year, there will soon be no more extensions of the 13-week federal unemployment benefit for those who exhaust the customary 26 weeks of state benefits. That federal program kicked in during March of last year when the unemployment rate was 5.7 percent. It ends while unemployment is 5.9 percent.

That's unprecedented. The point of the federal benefit is to help job-seekers when the market is bleak. While the economic outlook has improved, the job situation is only modestly better than earlier this year (when Congress twice extended the benefit) and actually worse than in 2002. Plus, $20 billion is sitting in the unemployment compensation fund. That's more than enough to pay the $900 million per month cost of an extension. It's also money that can't be used for any other purpose.

Perhaps Republicans were too busy with other matters, such as trying to stuff their $820 billion turkey of an omnibus spending bill with pork. The House found time to approve $2 million for Florida's The First Tee program, an effort to encourage young golfers, but not a bent farthing for the unemployed.

As many as 90,000 people will start losing unemployment benefits each week after the Dec. 27 cutoff. In Maryland, that means about 21,000 people will be left in the cold over the next six months.

Maybe the Republicans just want to pretend that unemployment has gone away as they head into an election year.

Imagine the frustration for someone like Glenn Gross of Bennett, Colo. He's 47 years old and lost his job as an information technology consultant in July. He hasn't exactly been living comfortably off the dole. He's exhausted his life savings. He's sent hundreds of rM-isumM-is across the country and taken courses in new software to improve his employment opportunities. But in the third week of January, he'll lose his $395 per week state benefit. And then he expects to lose his home.

"People equate this to welfare, and that's real aggravating," says Mr. Gross. "I've been working since before I was 16, and this is only the second time I've been laid off. I just need a little time."

No doubt relatively few of the long-term unemployed vote Republican. And maybe Republicans in Congress think they're doing employers a favor - all that excess money in the trust fund might pay for a future cut in payroll taxes (albeit a tiny one, since the federal unemployment tax amounts to $56 a head annually). This is the second time Congress has packed its bags before Christmas and let unemployment benefits expire. Last January, it reversed course and renewed the program retroactively. One can only hope that the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future get busy between now and Jan. 20 when Congress is scheduled to reconvene. Who knows? Like Scrooge, maybe even Tom DeLay can have a heart.

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