By: Former Congressman Ronnie Shows (D-MS), a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition when he served in Congress.
Anyone following me on the Huffington Post knows that finding ways to reduce the national deficit is one of my recurring themes. Like many current and former Blue Dogs, I believe that if we don't get our national debt under control there will be disastrous consequences. But rumblings on Capitol Hill from Republicans (and even a few Democrats) about not extending federal unemployment benefits is bad politics because it will anger many Americans and have little impact on reducing our debt.
While there are undoubtedly some bad apples taking advantage of their unemployment benefits, most unemployed people are productive and valuable members of our society who are down on their luck. These folks have worked hard, paid their taxes and now need their government to help them through a rough patch.
Unemployment benefits also help those beyond the people who are receiving them. Unemployment checks are used to pay bills and buy necessities like food and clothes. The ripple effect of millions of Americans not being able to pay bills or spend money in their communities is enormous and would have negative impacts on all Americans, whether they have jobs or not.
One very distressing aspect of the debate over extending unemployment benefits is that many conservative members of Congress are using their reluctance to support the extension as an example of their willingness to get tough on runaway spending. In other words, they are trying to send a political message by being stingy. I have some bad news for Republicans: This line of thinking is bad politics because many Americans have hard-working family members or close friends who have lost their jobs during this recession through no fault of their own and rely on unemployment benefits to make ends meet. People will not appreciate out-of-touch Congressmen looking to score political points by jeopardizing the well-being of their friends and family.
The fact is, reducing our national debt is not going to be as easy as curtailing some benefits here and there. Unemployment benefits are only a drop in the bucket. To have real impact on the deficit, the government is going to have to find ways to cut spending dramatically while developing policies to help the private sector grow. This means that both parties will have to take hard votes and make difficult decisions about cutting programs...everything must be on the table.
Lastly, the conservative assertion that keeping people on unemployment benefits for too long gives them incentive to not go back to work might have some merit during an economic boom, but not during a recession. Americans are prideful people and do not want handouts. They would much rather earn the money that puts the food on their tables and clothes their families. But today, many good folks have no choice but to take the government's assistance, because there are too few job opportunities. Unemployment benefits should be about helping people get back on their feet, not about scoring political points.