Setting the Record Straight on Unemployment Benefits

THERE seems to be no limit to the Bush administration's ability to find clever tactics to avoid confronting the problems of jobless Americans. Initially, they attempted to deny the fact that the economy was in recession and people were losing their jobs. When an indisputable increase in the jobless rate made this untenable, the Bush administration's economic gurus claimed that the recession would be short and shallow. Now that the unemployment rate has climbed to its highest level since 1984, administrat ion officials have claimed that the Democrats are to blame for the problems of the unemployed.

This blatant revisionism won't work, however. The fact is that unemployment, perhaps more than any other issue, revealed the bankruptcy of the Bush domestic agenda. Because of the president's unwillingness to recognize the problem, extending emergency unemployment benefits was delayed, and it has taken several years to move the debate over permanent reform of unemployment insurance to the top of the policy agenda.

Since it was created in 1935, the unemployment-insurance system provided an important safety net for Americans who were temporarily out of work. But in the 1980s, this safety net was shredded by the Reagan-Bush budget-cutters. The extended benefits for ex-military personnel were reduced, eligibility for benefits was restricted, and trust-fund reserves were depleted. The result, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, was that the unemployment-insurance system entered the prese nt economic downturn in worse shape than at any time since the end of World War II.

In an effort to help ease the suffering of jobless Americans, I introduced legislation in early 1991 to strengthen the unemployment-insurance system. The Bush administration immediately opposed the bill and maintained that current programs were adequate for this "mild recession."

As more and more jobless Americans exhausted their unemployment benefits, the Democrats in Congress passed an emergency extension providing additional weeks of benefits. But President Bush continued to embrace the economics of wishful thinking. He cynically signed the bill to show his "concern for the jobless," but refused to implement it. When Congress sent him a second bill to extend benefits, Mr. Bush dropped any pretense of concern and vetoed it. Finally, after a tidal wave of public outcry and negat ive press, the administration agreed to a long-delayed compromise.

The current emergency extended-benefits program will expire in July, and last month's 7.5 percent unemployment rate demonstrates that recovery is not just around the corner for jobless Americans. We need to continue extended unemployment benefits until the economy improves. More important, this recession has demonstrated that we also need to make some permanent changes in the unemployment-insurance system. Congress has passed emergency extensions on three separate occasions because the regular extended-b enefits program does not work.

On April 1, I introduced legislation to accomplish both of these goals. My proposal would extend the temporary extended-benefits program until the end of the year and fix the permanent extended-benefits program. It will also make it easier for individuals to qualify for unemployment benefits and makes the Federal Unemployment Tax more progressive. This legislation would be paid for by extending an existing limit on personal exemptions from taxable income for high-income taxpayers and by ending a corporat e tax deduction on executive salaries above $1 million.

The Bush administration said immediately that it opposed any permanent changes in the unemployment-insurance system. While indicating support for extending emergency benefits, the administration also opposed my pay-as-you-go funding mechanism but offered no specifics on how they would pay for this extension. Testifying before my subcommittee, Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin referred only to unnamed "budget offsets."

Although the House of Representatives approved my legislation and the Senate has acted on similar legislation, veto threats continue to emanate out of the White House. Bush maintains that he is committed to helping the unemployed. Yet at every critical juncture in the unemployment saga, he has failed to demonstrate leadership. Only reluctantly and after months of delay did the president finally join with Democrats in responding to the suffering of jobless Americans. While Congress has acted, the Bush adm inistration still offers no serious proposal of its own.

If Mr. Bush is committed to helping jobless Americans, he should sign the unemployment legislation Congress will send him. That's one way the Bush administration can make history, rather than simply rewrite it.

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