The stalemate over extending unemployment benefits could be solved with a single sentence

As CNN reported over the weekend, this is the last week for the enhanced federal unemployment benefits approved during the first round of pandemic relief. Demonstrating yet again that there’s nothing the swamp critters in Washington, DC can’t politicize, the debate over renewing these benefits has broken down into what’s looking like a partisan stalemate. The Democrats in the House have passed a $3 trillion relief bill that would renew the enhanced benefits in full. The Senate GOP is close to approving a far more modest $1 trillion dollar package that probably won’t extend the benefits. (By the way, when did a trillion dollars become “modest?” Asking for a friend.) Either way, the finger-pointing has already begun.

The end is near for the $600 federal lifeline for millions of unemployed Americans — even though the economy is still far from recovered from the coronavirus pandemic and new layoffs are being announced regularly.

The coronavirus relief program technically doesn’t expire until July 31, but this coming week will be the last for which benefits are paid — because payments are only provided for weeks ending on either Saturday or Sunday.

Jobless Americans will still get state unemployment benefits, but the sunset of the Congress’ $600 enhancement — part of the $2 trillion economic aid package passed in March — will leave more than 25 million people thousands of dollars poorer each month. And it will expose more of the real pain of mass unemployment, just as many states are reimposing shutdowns.

As usual, Democrats are already coming out and accusing their Republican colleagues of hanging workers out to dry while taking care of their fat-cat friends in big business… whatever that means. The GOP counters by saying that the $600 per week enhancement provides a disincentive to return to work. But no matter which side of the debate you find yourself on, the politics of this situation seem fairly obvious and it doesn’t bode well for the GOP’s side of things.

While it would be nice to get the Democrats to acknowledge it, the point being made by Cocaine Mitch and company is obviously correct. By CNN’s own estimate, the enhanced unemployment benefits add up to more than what two-thirds of newly unemployed workers made on the job. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to realize that a certain percentage of people will choose to remain on unemployment rather than returning to work for less money.

But cutting off the enhanced benefits entirely only works to the Democrats’ advantage on a number of fronts. If tens of millions of people suddenly go from bringing in roughly $1,000 per week to $400, their spending power (and ability to keep up with their bills) is going to crater. The economy will take an even larger hit and public sentiment will turn further against whoever is perceived to be turning the screws on the unemployed. Additionally, if the economy tanks even further and the hoped-for recovery is in doubt, that only helps Joe Biden’s chances in November.

No, those aren’t the noblest reasons to enact such an expensive policy, but that’s the political reality we’re dealing with. And as far as the cost goes, I’m never a fan of setting yet another couple of trillion dollars on fire, but it’s not as if the GOP was doing a damn thing to control spending even before the pandemic blew into town. (Insert my regular reminder that we don’t have a viable political party in this country that gives one flying fig about the debt and the deficit. Whichever party is out of power likes to complain about it, but they’re all hypocrites.)

So if we can swallow the bitter spending pill, there’s still an easy solution on the table. The Senate GOP can renew the unemployment benefits as part of their next relief bill, but include the phrase “up to a maximum of 85% of the employee’s previous wages.” If you don’t like 85% you can substitute 80 or 90. Take your pick. That keeps all of the people who are unemployed through no fault of their own in a position where they’re still not going to be in terrible shape, but it removes the disincentive to return to work. It also lowers the total cost a bit for whatever that’s worth these days.

At that point, the GOP can dare the Democrats to shoot the bill down over such a thin alteration to the benefits for completely justifiable reasons. And if Nancy Pelosi and her crew are dumb enough to pick up that gauntlet, McConnell just flips the script and blames the Democrats for everyone not getting their enhanced unemployment benefits. This really doesn’t have to be all that hard, and the Republicans need to be a bit practical here.

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