- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Democrats managed to make everyone unhappy with the expanded unemployment assistance they offered in President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

House Democrats cut off the unemployment a month earlier than Mr. Biden wanted in their draft proposal, prompting Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden to call for a fight.

“I am going to fight like hell to get six [months],” the Oregon Democrat said.

Mr. Biden called for the $400-per-week boost in unemployment to last through September. The benefits in the House Democrats’ plan run through late August.

Mr. Wyden, who also wants the extra benefit increased to $600 per week, said the top priority is to get a package done by early March — before the current $300-per-week federal boost to state unemployment benefits in a December package is due to expire.

Republicans, though, point to studies showing at least half of workers would earn more money on unemployment than working under Mr. Biden’s plan.

“How will ‘stay jobless’ incentives get our local economies moving? And why should anyone get paid more by taxpayers to stay home than get back to work?” said Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee.

Ways and Means is overseeing the biggest chunk of Mr. Biden’s package, roughly $900 billion in relief spending, including the expanded unemployment proposal.

Democrats on the panel rejected Republican-proposed amendments to replace part of the funds with “return to work” bonuses and otherwise make it less lucrative to stay home.

A study this week from the American Action Forum, a center-right think tank, found that roughly half of U.S. workers would earn more money cashing Mr. Biden’s unemployment checks than they would by going to work.

“When you have workers who are asking to not come back because their families are better off on unemployment, that’s when you have a serious problem that could ultimately harm small businesses,” Isabel Soto, the group’s director of labor market policy and author of the report, said in an interview. “And then in the bigger picture, delay recovery and return to work.”

The House plan to extend the benefits through late August, instead of September, could be an effort to hold down the package’s overall price tag amid GOP concerns that the massive spending isn’t targeted at the neediest.

The expanded unemployment benefits in Mr. Biden’s package would cost an estimated $300 billion, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, making it one of the more expensive provisions.

In the $2.2 trillion rescue package Congress passed last March, lawmakers included a $600-per-week unemployment boost that expired in July.

Rep. Kevin Hern, Oklahoma Republican, said that when he was a child, his stepfather’s decision to stay home rather than look for work provided him an early example of what Americans should not be doing.

“We must connect workers with reopening jobs — not pay them to stay out of the workforce,” he said. “Our economy will recover as quickly, or as slowly, as we can get Americans back to work.”

On Wednesday, Sen. Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, asked Neera Tanden, Mr. Biden’s pick to lead the White House budget office, if the juiced unemployment benefits would discourage people from looking for a job.

Ms. Tanden didn’t answer directly. She argued that people who might be discouraged from seeking work are more concerned about risking their personal safety amid the public health crisis.

“We should really look at why people may not be working, and it may be because of concerns about safety during a global pandemic,” she said.

Advocates for the enhanced benefits say it’s not the end of the world if people without jobs get a little extra cash.

“It boosts the whole economy, from helping reduce poverty to making sure there’s money for grocery stores, rent and all the rest,” Mr. Wyden said. “Nobody on [unemployment] is using that money to buy imported goods from Europe. They’re spending it local.”

Chad Stone, chief economist at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, called the August cut-off date “very problematic.”

“Unemployment, particularly among workers of color and workers without college degrees, will likely remain elevated in the fall,” he wrote this week.

Mr. Stone also pointed out that Congress is typically not in session in August, making it more difficult for lawmakers to pass a quick extension if necessary.

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