Wednesday, March 03, 2010

GOP’s gift to Dems - Max Baucus Jim Bunning turns his back on the jobless

GOP’s gift to Dems - Max Baucus Jim Bunning turns his back on the jobless
Clarence Page
Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune
March 3, 2010,0,6460448,full.column

It was a scene that would have made Hollywood director Frank Capra proud. Republican Sen. Jim Bunning stood up courageously to stop Congress from committing a very popular move: sending unemployment checks to hundreds of thousands of jobless Americans. Democrats could hardly believe their good fortune.

It was one of those congressional moments that tell you everything you need to know about why Washington doesn't seem to work these days: Neither side sounded like they were listening to themselves, let alone to anybody else.

Bunning, a former baseball star from Kentucky, objected to a request from fellow Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, to pass a 30-day extension of jobless benefits and other expired measures included in a $10 billion spending bill.

By blocking the measure, which also would extend health insurance benefits, highway funding and Medicare payments to doctors, Bunning vividly illustrated a point Democrats have been trying to make: That Republicans are "the party of ‘No'" and the real reason for congressional gridlock on other issues like health care.

Bunning, who finally relented Tuesday, said he was fed up with Congress' Wall Street bailouts and other big-spending ways, without finding ways to pay for it. That's a laudable principle. It's just too bad that he decided to take out his anger at Congress by holding up help to jobless Americans.

Although Bunning immediately became a hero to fiscal conservatives and certain mad-as-hell talk-show hosts, when reporters sought reactions from Republican senators, most ran for the tall grass. It's not great politics to hold up aid to jobless workers during an election-year recession.

When Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona tried to offer a silver lining of sorts on the floor of Congress, he sounded a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge decrying the "surplus population" and praising Victorian workhouses.

Unemployment insurance "doesn't create new jobs," he said. "In fact, if anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work."

In fairness, Kyl said he was not calling the laid-off a bunch of slackers. "I'm sure most of them would like work and probably have tried to seek it, but you can't argue that it's a job enhancer. If anything, as I said, it's a disincentive." Same thing for the bill's extension of COBRA health insurance and other benefits, he said.

Kyl's reasoning is sound, I am sure, in the supply-side economists' universe, but his rhetoric showed little connection to the reality inhabited by today's unemployed.

For one thing, whatever you may think of government assistance, unemployment benefits are not a welfare check. Limited to those who have lost their jobs, unemployment payments pay too little to discourage very many of the laid-off or let-go from seeking new work, especially if they're trying to keep a family afloat.

That common-sense observation is supported by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. A February CBO analysis of policy options to increase economic growth and employment concluded that extending unemployment benefits would spur economic activity and employment in a timely way. As CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf reported to Congress, households receiving those benefits "tend to spend the additional benefits quickly."

Although extending pay and health benefits "could dampen people's efforts to look for work," the CBO report said, "that concern is less of a factor when employment opportunities are expected to be limited for some time." With the jobless currently outnumbering available jobs about five-to-one, according to Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who chairs the Finance Committee, those opportunities are likely to be limited for some time to come.

Bottom line: The CBO estimates those policies would raise employment and productivity over the next five years by as much at $1.90 per dollar of cost to the federal budget. As much as Bunning might think of unemployment benefits as a budget-buster, it actually could be a budget enhancer.

No question that it will enhance the household budgets of those who receive the benefits, however modest they may be. Congress talks a lot about subsidizing big businesses to create jobs, even as many of those businesses cut jobs to enhance their profits. Think of unemployment benefits as a way to stimulate the economy by giving the money to consumers first.

Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at


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