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Commentary: The U.S. lifeboat is leaking

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opinion Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

SAN DIEGO -- Senate Republicans are once again going to extreme measures to force a national conversation about fiscal discipline. In a dramatic turnaround from the years where they were in the majority, when they gave a green light to tax cuts and war spending with no idea of how to pay for either, they argue that Congress ought to cover for any approved spending rather than simply increasing the deficit. Even the hypocritical can have a point, and, in this case, the Republicans have a good one.

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At issue: a $10 billion emergency extension of unemployment insurance benefits.

In late winter, Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky blocked an earlier extension of unemployment benefits, giving in only when it became clear he had little support from his GOP colleagues. Then Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma did the same, insisting that government must find the money to pay for the extension or not approve it at all. Lawmakers went on their spring recess, leaving the matter unresolved.

The Senate is scheduled to take up the issue again.

Liberal commentators instinctively frame the story as being about those cold and heartless Republicans denying the jobless a helping hand. Bunning and Coburn think the story should instead be about how congressional Democrats have made a farce of the "pay-go" law they passed a few months ago by refusing to follow it.

There's a third option, however. The discussion we should be having now has less to do with partisan finger-pointing and more with the very nature of unemployment benefits and whether they're helpful or harmful.

Some questions to consider:

- How long is too long? Because of these kinds of emergency extensions, in nearly half of the states the jobless can collect unemployment checks for 79 weeks. The proposed extension would lengthen this time span up to 99 weeks. That's almost two years of individuals collecting money for not working. Should there even be a limit?

- Does giving someone something for nothing over a sustained period of time do more harm than good? If you're collecting unemployment benefits for almost two years, there is less incentive to find another job -- until the benefits run out. And this means we have to be careful of introducing into the equation anything that might stifle one's drive.

- Rather than being distracted by the haggling over an extension, shouldn't we be pressuring Congress to come up with real proposals to stimulate job growth? Congress won't act until it feels the heat from unemployed constituents, who won't complain as long as checks show up in the mailbox.

- Are those who are chronically out of work hurting their own marketability by refusing to move, or obtain new training, or go back to school? Human resource managers say that even in a down economy, there are plenty of people applying for jobs for which they're unqualified. I'm not surprised.

- And, do many Americans have it exactly upside down when they bash conservatives and conclude that holding up unemployment benefits is heartless? Maybe the most compassionate solution would be to reverse the current incentives and get more people back into the work force as quickly as possible .

Unemployment insurance started out as a good idea, and it still is. But other things have changed. The program is no longer what it was originally intended to be -- a lifeboat between jobs. It has become something to which the jobless feel entitled, for as long as they can draw out the entitlement. The rest of us can either go along with that -- or say: "Enough!"

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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