A fix too quick


CONGRESSIONAL Democrats are suddenly seized with the idea that unemployment benefits are inadequate, and must be improved by Friday. The House is developing a more honest fix than the Senate.

Bills to authorize up to 20 additional weeks of benefits are moving quickly in both houses because (1) members want to go on vacation at the end of the week, and (2) the Democratic leadership wants to show concern for victims of the recession. The problem is how to pay. Under last year's budget agreement, new spending must be offset by new revenues or by cuts in other programs -- except for emergencies, [in which case] no offset is required. But it's not cricket to use emergency funding as a trick to skirt the pay-as-you-go agreement. The deficit is large enough.

The Senate's bill chooses the emergency route. Arguing that President Bush has declared three foreign emergencies this year -- for Operation Desert Storm, for Kurdish refugees, and for flood victims in Bangladesh -- the Democrats say it's time he rTC acknowledged an emergency at home. But the administration says the recession doesn't qualify.

A more forthright approach is offered by Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and Thomas Downey of New York. Their bill invites Bush to declare an emergency, but if he won't it lays out a valid alternative: Increase the taxes employers pay into the unemployment insurance fund. The insurance system needs more than either bill proposes. It is a smaller safety net than it used to be for several reasons, including stiffer standards adopted to avoid raising the tax. Also, the 1986 tax reforms made jobless benefits fully taxable as income, but made no provision for higher benefits. Alas, the time for fundamental improvements is when the economy is in good shape -- and Congress isn't interested.


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