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 in fact 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.