Congress almost rises to the occasion. Almost.
This week, Congress reminded us yet again that it will act to do the right thing — after all other options have first been tried. After a partisan food fight erupted over the weekend over the third and by far largest phase of economic relief in the coronavirus outbreak, the Senate and White House finally reached a bipartisan agreement on the components of the bill early Wednesday morning. "Help is on the way," declared Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell pledged to clear the decks later in the day to speed the assistance to American businesses and workers.
Or at least Congress has almost acted to do the right thing. Despite Schumer's media appearances later in the morning claiming credit for Democrats for the improvements in the CARES Act bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially declined to endorse the deal. As the House adjourned for the day, Pelosi issued a statement that House Democrats would only commit to a "review" of the agreement and its legislative text. Pelosi noted that the agreement represented a move "a great deal closer to America's workers," but she declined to commit to putting the agreement to a vote in the House — which could delay a final passage for a considerable time, if not put the agreement in jeopardy of collapse.
That kind of last-moment intervention likely won't last, however, for those very reasons. The political pressure to act and act fast has become enormous, and with an election now just a few months away, Pelosi can't afford to put House Democrats in the crosshairs of very angry voters who may lose jobs by the millions in short order. One key part of the package negotiated by Schumer is what he called a "Marshall plan for hospitals," which will drop $100 billion in resources for health-care centers. Many of those who need the money most are in the urban and first-ring suburbs where House Democrats' political strength lies.
It might take a few days under any circumstances for the House to act anyway. Pelosi has recessed it for the past week, and members are understandably reluctant to travel back to Washington, D.C., during the crisis. Pelosi had planned to use unanimous consent to pass a deal and bypass the need for a roll-call vote, which according to the rules requires a quorum of representatives to be present in the chamber. That relies on those members who are present to forego any objections, and already one congressman has pledged to object. Independent Justin Amash of Michigan tweeted shortly after the agreement was declared, "This bipartisan deal is a raw deal for the people." Amash wanted a bill without "corporate welfare," one that directed all aid in the form of direct payments to workers rather than any support for employers, which he argued Congress could address later.
On top of that, the Senate likely won't be around for any more votes after today. They had stuck around in Washington in order to negotiate this deal on behalf of the recessed House, but several senators have either tested positive for COVID-19 or have self-quarantined after contact with others who have. Many of the rest are elderly and fall into the disease's high-risk categories, and the government's own guidelines would have them avoid gatherings of 10 or more people. CNN's Manu Raju reports that the Senate plans to adjourn until April 20, if possible. That leaves very little margin of error for getting relief passed, unless Congress changes the rules to allow for remote voting in both chambers.
In this situation, the parameters of this massive relief package matters less than Congress' credibility in dealing with a crisis. Thus far, the response has been far from confidence building, especially with an electorate whose faith in institutions had fallen sharply over the previous few years. Voters expect Congress to act in a crisis, not get stalled by partisan bickering and then literal absence. A failure to act here could have enormous political as well as economic consequences and call the whole idea of a co-equal legislature into question.
Does this bill merit that kind of quick action? Stimulus and bailouts set dangerous precedents for more normal economic downturns, especially from the conservative and libertarian free-market perspective. However, this isn't a normal economic downturn; this is a crash caused by necessary interventions by government in a pandemic. The precedent here is more akin to the so-called Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you bought it. Government has caused the damage, and government has to step in to mitigate it.
The final bill appears to be reasonably targeted to those purposes, although absent all of the legislative language, it's tough to be certain that will be the case. Pelosi's proposal included a laundry list of sops to special interests, including imposing requirements on aid to airlines contingent on greenhouse-gas emission limits, union organizing rules, and more. Thus far little of that has emerged from the new bill, but Democrats did succeed in focusing the effort more on immediate relief, while Republicans provided support for employers to keep payrolls as intact as possible.
For instance, Democrats won the argument on the stimulus payments and the means-testing on lower-income recipients. The GOP had structured its proposal more as a tax credit, but the final product will put more cash in the hands of those likeliest to spend it quickly and boost the economy. Republicans won on the issue of low- or no-cost loans to small and mid-sized businesses, and also on payroll-linked tax credits to larger corporations to incentivize businesses to retain their employees. A compromise on extended unemployment benefits will produce more stability as the labor force absorbs some body blows and will keep workers from falling off the grid, as they did in the last economic shock in 2008.
Thus far the broad strokes look fairly focused and calibrated reasonably well on the immediate problems, but this is such an unprecedented situation that certainty is simply not possible. At this point, the nation needs to take action to prevent panic and despair from turning a short-term problem into a long-term disaster. A functional Congress and White House can fine tune the approach as it goes, adding to what works and shifting resources away from what does not.
In order for that to succeed, Congress has to become functional again and re-instill confidence in its ability to deal with crises. This agreement may not be perfect, and it may not even be great, but inaction and gridlock would be far worse than whatever problems this agreement might cause down the road. Voters are watching intently to see whether they can trust our public institutions at all, and the consequences of their failure at this junction might be far worse than the virus or the economic damage it does.
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