Moneybox

Congress Should Extend Unemployment Benefits for an Extra Three Weeks While Republicans Get Their Act Together

Mark Meadows speaks with Steve Mnuchin at the White House in D.C. on May 8.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. The fate of the country rests in these men’s hands. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

It seems increasingly unlikely that Congress will be able to pass another coronavirus relief bill before crucial federal unemployment benefits expire for millions of Americans in the coming days. For that we can thank the Republican Party’s gross ineptitude: GOP leaders spent months pointlessly dithering, refusing to negotiate a deal, instead waiting until the last minute out of a misplaced hope that the economy would bounce back strongly enough on its own that there’d be no need for another major bill. Now, with the pandemic still raging across the South and West and time running out on aid for the jobless, Republicans are discovering they aren’t even close to internal agreement about what should be in the next package they bring to the Democrats, as the Washington Post details at length.

During a visit to Capitol Hill, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told members that the goal was to pass something before unemployment benefits officially expire on July 31 because “there’s a lot of people who are still out of work.” (Too true!) When asked by reporters if that was realistic, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell laughed and answered: “No.”

This is all an embarrassing reminder of the current GOP’s typical inability to govern and habit of trying and failing to do its homework the night before it’s due. (Personally, I’m getting flashbacks to the serial failed attempts to repeal Obamacare in 2017.) But thankfully, there is a very obvious and simple way to deal with this situation: Congress should just extend the $600-per-week unemployment benefits that are now in place for an additional two or three weeks. That way, the GOP can have some time to get its act together and hash out a deal with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, and families won’t have to worry about staying solvent.

This isn’t the only way Congress could make sure people get unemployment benefits to cover the next few weeks. Lawmakers could also agree to backdate whatever benefits are included in the next bill so that they cover any gaps. But that approach could require Americans to wait a long while for their money, since it will take states at least a couple of weeks from whenever Trump signs a bill to reprogram the ancient computer systems that administer their unemployment insurance programs and send out the new dollar amounts. In the meantime, families will need to figure out how to pay their rent and their bills. And nobody should have to worry about putting food on the table because Sens. Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz are having a tiff about the appropriate size of government during a pandemic. (Which is a thing that’s apparently happening right now.)

It would be much better to just keep things simple. Republicans should admit they’ve messed up, swallow some pride, and agree to a temporary unemployment insurance extension while they spend the next few weeks haggling. If they can’t manage basic competence, at least they could show some basic decency.

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