Congress is at it again, looking to legislate a social program it cannot afford and making business responsible to provide the benefits.

Guaranteed unpaid parental leave is an idea that may have merit and addresses a legitimate public concern. After all, it is hard to argue against parents being able to stay home with a newborn or recently adopted child, or to attend to a seriously ill child, or aged parent.The bad part comes from Congress invading the private sector and dictating to business firms what kind of employee benefits they must provide - without any consideration as to whether the companies can pay for it.

It's not a new issue. Congress is also working on bills that mandate certain kinds of insurance and that require coverage be provided for all part-time employees, and even former employees and their families.

That's usually the way Congress operates: Pass a bill and then wonder later - if ever - how to cope with the cost. In this case, lawmakers simply want to dump the problem into the lap of private business.

Two bills presently before Congress are similar in nature. The Senate version would grant 10 weeks of guaranteed unpaid leave over a two-year period and would be mandatory for any business with 20 or more employees. A bill in the House of Representatives would exempt businesses with less than 50 employees the first two years and then lower that exemption to companies with fewer than 35 employees thereafter.

Unquestionably, Congress has a duty to mandate programs that clearly serve the public good and for which there is no other viable alternative. It also has an obligation to pay for those programs from legitimate revenue sources. Environmental protection, Social Security and even Medicare and Medicaid are examples. Guaranteed parental leave hardly fits into that mold.

Time and negotiations involving traditional labor-management processes have brought Americans the 40-hour work week, sick leave and medical insurance benefits, as well as paid vacation programs. Many employers are now beginning to address the idea of work-place day care services. In all likelihood, time and social demand will resolve the parental leave issue.

In the meantime, Congress could do more for parents and business by turning its attention to solving the federal budget deficit, lowering the foreign trade imbalance and taking positive steps to bolster the economy.