07/22/2010 09:54 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's Really at Stake in the Fight to Extend Unemployment Benefits

The economy is on everyone's mind today, and it's no wonder. Unemployment is around 9.5 percent. People who have jobs are afraid to leave them. The housing market is still recovering, and millions of Americans are facing foreclosure despite being employed full time. Everywhere you go, you hear about struggles as much as successes.

Different lawmakers have very different responses to the crisis we're facing - a crisis that has cost us approximately 8 million lost jobs and $17 trillion in lost retirement savings and net worth. The House and Senate are set to vote on an extension of unemployment insurance benefits this week that would last until Nov. 30. This measure would offer continued assistance to about 2.5 million unemployed Americans whose benefits have run out. I intend to vote for it. Republican leaders in both chambers oppose it on the grounds that extending these benefits will unacceptably increase the national budget deficit.

Let's put the GOP's version of fiscal responsibility in context. The House-Senate compromise bill extends federal funding for unemployment benefits for four months. The final cost is expected to be about $34 billion. Compare that to the combined cost of a single month's military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan: $12.2 billion in February, according to Pentagon figures. As I write this, our presence in Iraq has cost us $734.5 billion - the number will be higher by the time you read it. The figure in Afghanistan is $284.6 billion.

Which is the more responsible path? We can tell our unemployed neighbors "Tough luck, you're not trying hard enough," or we can start looking at the real reasons for our budget anxiety. Any member of Congress who claims to be fiscally responsible can't turn that responsibility on and off like a faucet. The costs of our wars - not to mention the unnecessary defense contracts that have no bearing on national security - are a blight on the national ledger. But no supposed deficit hawks have been willing to say as much. Instead, the unemployed just need to tighten their belts, be more responsible and suck it up.

There's another important comparison to that $34 billion figure: the cost of fully extending Bush-era tax cuts, as Republican leaders in the House and Senate have called for. Those cuts were enacted with sunset provisions that will make them expire at the end of this year. Republicans don't want to let that happen, even for the major tax cuts on the top few income brackets. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, extending the cuts would add $2.56 trillion to the deficit by 2020. Even Alan Greenspan, one of the architects of Bush's fiscal policies, now believes they should be ended. As he said in a July 17 interview on Bloomberg TV, Congress "should follow the law and let them lapse. . . . The problem is, unless we start to come to grips with this long-term [budget] outlook, we are going to have major problems."

Again, which is more responsible: spending $34 billion to make sure people have grocery money, gas money and enough to keep a roof over their heads for another few months, or spending $1 trillion on two wars without any exit strategies and $2.5 trillion on tax cuts that were designed to end in the first place? It's no contest. Yet those who want to help the unemployed are tarred as irresponsible, out of touch and not to be trusted with the federal budget.

I often hear from constituents who have done everything we expect of good citizens: worked hard, paid their taxes, tried to save money for retirement. Some are now unemployed. Many others are scrambling to make ends meet by taking second or third jobs. The Department of Labor estimates that as of July 17, approximately 62,500 Arizonans will have lost their unemployment insurance benefits because of Republicans' continued opposition to an extension. The House passed its original version, which included job creation measures, on May 28. It has been filibustered in the Senate ever since. Only by taking out the job creation measures has it gained just enough GOP support to defeat that filibuster.

Those who don't want to extend benefits often paint unemployment insurance recipients as lazy, unmotivated slackers who just need to get off the couch. This may be a comforting illusion if you oppose unemployment assistance for ideological reasons, but it's nowhere near the truth. The reality is much harder to face.

Consider a 58-year-old man who worked continuously for over 40 years. He's now been unemployed for 18 months. His family is trying to live on his wife's salary and his unemployment insurance. They moved into a new house in, say, 2006, when times were different. They did nothing that millions of other people weren't doing at the same time. Now they're struggling to make a monthly payment and meet general living expenses. They have no credit card debt, but are just barely making it. The husband faces losing his benefits and has been having trouble finding work because he can't afford a job retraining program.

This scenario is familiar to Americans all across this country. Right now, there are five unemployed people for every available job nationwide. Far from being lazy, unemployed job seekers are having to hustle like never before just to stay ahead of the next guy in line. What are we going to tell them? We can't afford to lend them a helping hand when the economy crashed due to no fault of theirs?

This isn't to say that the deficit isn't an issue. We're going to have to bring our revenues and our spending in line. But to drop every other consideration because we supposedly can't afford to help our own neighbors is absurd and unfair. This is a defining moment for both parties, and I'd love to hear how my colleagues on the other side of the aisle explain their votes back home.