12/15/2011 12:01 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2011

Unemployment Benefits: Democratic Governors Call On Congress To Keep Benefits

WASHINGTON -- A coalition of Democratic governors called on lawmakers in a Thursday letter to reauthorize long-term unemployment benefits, a move that's been tangled up in a debate now threatening to shut down the government at the end of the week.

"Now is not the time to turn our backs on hard-working Americans," the governors wrote. "Individuals who are laid off through no fault of their own rely on these funds to support their families."

Republicans want to slash federal benefits by more than half, with some members arguing that the extended compensation in place since 2008 discourages the jobless from seeking out new work. Congressional Democrats have countered with a report, released Thursday, that finds workers who are eligible for benefits search for work more vigorously than workers who are not eligible.

"[S]ince Congress enacted federal unemployment benefits, time spent looking for a job has tripled among the long-term unemployed who are out of work as a result of job loss," the report says (PDF).

Citing data from the Labor Department's American Time Use Survey, Democrats on the Joint Economic Committee estimate that from 2008 to 2010, the amount of time long-term jobless eligible for benefits spend looking for work increased 203 percent compared with previous years. For workers who are likely ineligible for benefits because their unemployment was not caused by job loss, the amount of time spent search for work increased 120 percent.

If members of Congress can't cut a deal on extended jobless benefits, as many as 1.8 million long-term jobless will prematurely lose their benefits in January, according to worker advocacy group the National Employment Law project. Currently, 3.5 million unemployed are receiving federal unemployment compensation, which goes to workers who use up 26 weeks of state benefits.

Federal lawmakers routinely give the unemployed extra weeks of compensations during recessions. The federal programs have a negligible impact on state expenditures, but a big impact on state economies. In their letter, Democratic governors noted that Congress usually keeps the money flowing until the unemployment rate is well on its way down. "Congress has never failed to act on extending federal unemployment insurance benefits when the unemployment rate has exceeded 7.2 percent, and we must not fail our citizens now," the governors wrote.