Democrats 2, Republicans 1

I was in a long line, one not moving with any semblance of efficiency, at the car-rental office near the airport in St. Louis.

Attendants worked methodically and a few customer stations were unmanned.

Two young fellows ahead of me were accompanied by their sons. I sensed by their appearance and confirmed by their conversation that they would attend a Cardinals' baseball game that evening, if they ever got their car.

One of the dads was irritated about the wait and outspoken. He declared that the delay was the fault of the Obama administration and Congress for extending unemployment benefits to the point that people would rather stay at home and collect them than come back to a job.

I kept quiet. I didn't want to take a man down with his boy standing right there.

But there are a couple of points, of course.

One is that, if the car-rental agency was offering to bring back laid-off personnel, and if those laid-off employees were choosing not to return because they'd rather do nothing for a portion of what they would make if working, then the agencies could always hire anew.

That shouldn't be a great challenge considering that, according to the latest reports, there are five people seeking work for every job available.

The second point is that I have been standing in long and under-served lines in car-rental agencies for parts of five decades now, including boom times. It's the nature of the industry. Customers tend to arrive in clumps as airplanes unload and shuttles make their pickups.

We should dismiss out of hand the more zany conservative Republicans -- Sharron Angle in Nevada and U.S. Sen. John Kyl of Arizona, most prominently -- who contend that extending federal unemployment benefits in times of high unemployment encourages people not to look for work.

That might be relevant if there were five jobs for every one person seeking work. But it's the reverse. Ending unemployment compensation benefits would stir more than an intensified search for work. It would stir desperation and madness.

The solution to unemployment is job opportunity, not a frantic game of survival.

Less-absurd Republicans opposed the latest extension of federal unemployment benefits on more solid ground. That was the argument that the deficit is out of control and the new expenditure needed to be "paid for," meaning offset.

The credibility and fairness of that contention broke down on the GOP's advocacy of taking the money from last year's stimulus package.

For one thing, unemployment benefits are for compensation, not stimulation. Those are entirely different concepts. Compensation sustains an unemployed person; stimulus, ideally, creates him a job.

For another, Republicans clearly were less interested in extending benefits than in scoring a rhetorical point by invoking the stimulus as something so failed it ought to be revised or undone.

But the Republicans weren't wrong about everything. The stimulus aside, the deficit is now to a point that our policymakers need to find a way, amid their Keynesian spending to fuel the economy, to find commensurate spending cuts.

It was House Democrats, actually, who extolled for years their pay-go rule by which any new expenditure had to be offset by a spending reduction or revenue increase. In fact, President Obama lauded the reinstatement of the practice in his first State of the Union address.

Emergency conditions were excepted. And we've certainly had emergency conditions lately. But now the deficit and debt are nigh unto emergencies, too.

That is to say I score two points for Democrats -- that unemployment benefit extensions are vital and that the money shouldn't be taken from the stimulus. And I score one for Republicans -- that it's time new spending gets paid for somewhere and somehow.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@