THE HOUSE has passed a close cousin of legislation that the Senate wisely killed, providing special unemployment benefits to workers displaced by the pending amendments to the Clean Air Act. The administration has rightly threatened a veto if the benefits survive in conference.

The way to help the unemployed is not according to the cause of their unemployment. While the benefits under this legislation would be limited, the principle they represent is not. Jobs are created and destroyed in the economy all the time. The federal government is complicit in much of this activity. It is not just budget cuts and regulations that have employment effects, but all kinds of federal policies.

If the government provides a cushion against some of these, what is the basis for not providing a cushion against all? Why stop with clean air or with environmental regulation? What about the victims, if that is the word, of the defense budget cuts now likely to be made, or cuts in Medicare or the tax reform Congress passed four years ago? What is the rationale for helping workers who are hurt but not investors, the suppliers of the labor but not suppliers of capital?

The right thing to do for the involuntarily unemployed is not to Balkanize assistance but to improve the general, underlying system of unemployment compensation. That mainly countercyclical system is now weak. Fewer than a third of the unemployed are covered, as threadbare a figure as the program has ever recorded. But the safety net should be consistent, not a patchwork. Nor should it be a system of federal liability, in which worthy federal action in the environmental or some other sphere would be subject to the payment of benefits.

Conservatives like the latter notion. They would, in this case, shrink the government by expanding its budget. They reason that if regulatory costs had to be paid through the budget, there would be fewer regulations, which is to say that Congress often shifts to regulations costs that it is unwilling to finance through taxes. But that's not a rationale for special unemployment benefits for those who lose their jobs to cleaner air. If the unemployment compensation system doesn't do enough for them, it doesn't do enough for the rest of the unemployed, either. That's the problem Congress -- and the administration -- should define and solve.