WASHINGTON / CATHERINE COLLINS : Congress May Finally Restructure the Unemployment Insurance Setup

CATHERINE COLLINS is a Washington writer

After years of talking about it, Congress may soon roll up its sleeves and work to reform the unemployment insurance system, which currently ministers to less than half the country's unemployed.

The Senate Labor Committee and the Senate-House Joint Economic Committee have held hearings. And after holding his own series of hearings, Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.), acting chairman of the subcommittee on human resources, will be first off the block when he introduces a reform bill Monday.

"Now that most economists recognize that the economy is in recession, our attention has been turned to unemployment insurance as our first line of defense," Downey said. "What we find, however, is a system in need of repair. Only about two out of five unemployed workers receive unemployment benefits."

The 55-year-old unemployment insurance system is a cooperative state-federal program, designed as a safety net for those who lose their jobs. As of last month, 7.7 million Americans were unemployed, but only 3.2 million were receiving benefits.

Initially, unemployment insurance is available for 26 weeks. In economic downturns that first period can be extended. But, according to Downey, only three states have activated their extended benefits programs. Changes made to the formula during the Reagan Administration, to determine when extended benefits become available, have made it far less common and generous in recent years.

"Even during good times, 60% of those who run out of benefits are still unemployed 10 weeks after their benefits run out," Downey said.

Downey's bill seeks to change the formula to allow the extended benefit program to begin earlier and to make it retroactive to those who have exhausted their benefits since Jan. 1 of this year. The bill also emphasizes a need for job search assistance and helps states with the financial burdens of administering their programs.

Traditionally, proposals to reform the unemployment insurance system have been opposed by business and supported by labor. Congress has lined up in its support or opposition more or less along party lines. However, as more and more congressmen from both parties watch their state unemployment insurance systems strain to meet demand, the proposal may earn more bipartisan sympathy.

Panetta Is Pushing Alternative Energy Bill

In the wake of the Mideast war, a California congressman has joined the ranks of those proposing legislation to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

"The President and the country asked half a million American men and women potentially to make the supreme sacrifice in this war," said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley). "The President must be willing to ask all Americans to make a small sacrifice when it comes to energy conservation requirements at home."

Panetta's National Energy Strategy Policy (HR 560) bill is more far-reaching, and more controversial, than the President's energy strategy. Among other things, the bill would:

* Increase corporate average fuel economy 20% by 1996 and 40% by 2001.

* Create a standby gasoline conservation tax to be put in place when oil prices decline.

* Establish a floor price of $16 per barrel for domestic oil to encourage energy conservation and assure domestic producers that future price declines will not wipe out their investments.

A recent Alliance to Save Energy Poll indicates that 75% of Americans recognize that efficiency and renewable energy sources are "the keys to unlocking a secure energy future for this country."

Another Auto Safety Hearing Scheduled

Like motherhood and apple pie, it would seem that auto safety is something everyone can believe in. Not so. Yet another auto safety hearing will be held Thursday by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

After listening to Department of Transportation and industry experts, the committee is expected to propose new safety legislation--once again, said a staffer.

"The Senate routinely passes auto safety legislation, but it doesn't pass in the House because (Rep. John) Dingell never takes it up in his committee," a Senate staffer said. "But hope springs eternal."

Dingell, a long-time Democratic congressman from Michigan, home of auto's Big Three, is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which would have to approve such legislation.

Among the issues expected to be discussed are minivan safety, additional protection for side-impact crashes, head injury protection and pedestrian injury protection. The Senate Commerce Committee wants to survey the latest technology to see what safety measures auto makers realistically can be required to provide.

Bill Aims to Help U.S. in Computer Race

It looks like a good year for science and technology. The President's 1992 budget shows that the Administration believes that research and development hold the key to the future--in terms of national and economic security.

So the timing for the High-Performance Computing Act (HR 656), introduced by Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), the new chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, couldn't be better. As the country faces increasing competition overseas in high-performance computing, the timing couldn't be more crucial.

"Our economic competitors in Europe and Japan are well aware of the significance of high-performance computing and are seriously challenging U.S. leadership in this field," Brown said.

"Unless decisive steps are taken to insure our continued leadership, America may once again be left in the dust in a technology field which we largely pioneered and which is important to our economic future."

High-performance computers are the big guns, capable of taking billions of scraps of information and processing them almost immediately. They are important because information is power and the ability to retrieve information quickly is the key to that power. Brown's bill would coordinate, expand and lay a national infrastructure for the field of high-performance computing.

The bill would establish a National Research and Education Network to link government laboratories, universities and research centers across the country, creating what Brown calls an "information superhighway."

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