House ponders just when to wind down unemployment benefits

The House has extended unemployment insurance approximately three times this year, but discussions have begun on how to wind down the benefit.

“There is a sense that the economy is recovering and this is not a new entitlement,” Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) told The Hill, adding, “We need to get down to the business of hearing some congressional deliberations in terms of winding down the long-term extensions of unemployment.”

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The House on Friday passed a jobs bill that extends unemployment insurance through November, which adds approximately $40 billion to the deficit. Pomeroy said the measure’s cost created more anxiety for members when compared to April, which was the last time Congress extended the benefit.

“Support for this extension of unemployment compensation relief had a different level of support this time,” he said. “There was a lot more discussion.”

The Senate still has to approve the extension. It is expected to do after the Memorial Day recess. Still, Democrats in that chamber are troubled by the continuation of relief and wonder how many more extensions they can afford given the historically high deficit.

“I think it's time we figure out how we wind down unemployment in the future so people begin to have some kind of notice,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said this week.

“This is something that is very hard to sustain with the finances the way they are,” she said.

However, any hesitance from Congress to expand the benefit beyond its current November cut-off will likely provoke members from districts with high unemployment – especially if the economy doesn’t continue to improve.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) on Friday urged lawmakers to speak with unemployed workers before winding down benefits.

“Maybe they don’t know any unemployed people,” he said. “They ought to talk to unemployed people and they would discover how a difficult time people are having.”

Miller also argued that employment benefits help stimulate the economy.

“Liberal and conservative economists tell you that unemployment compensation is the most direct money to main street because people are so desperate on unemployment that they have to spend the money, whether it’s for groceries, utility bills, what have you,” he said.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on family issues, will hold a July hearing on long-term unemployment. One question the panel is expected to tackle is if Congress should start winding down unemployment insurance.

“I'm going to pose the problem to a number of people on the issue of what do we do now?” McDermott said, adding that he opposes the idea of cutting off assistance.

“That doesn't sound very American to me,” he said, adding, “By the end of July we’re going to have about 2 million people who have exhausted their benefits [if the extension isn’t enacted]. That’s 2 million people who thought they were in the middle class, and suddenly they have to go down to the welfare office.”

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