The next coronavirus relief bill must be Trump-proofed
The economy and a fair November election are riding on Democrats playing hardball
The tattered American government is beginning to consider more coronavirus relief. It is clear the initial rescue was insufficient — as my colleague Jeff Spross writes, the loan/grant program for small businesses has been a logistical disaster, many states are struggling to make their swamped unemployment insurance systems work, and the Trump administration is doing everything it can to remove any meaningful oversight and accountability from the situation. Meanwhile, unemployment continues to soar.
Democrats have already passed up one big opportunity to get either adequate benefits or political protections for the November election. If they don't use their leverage now to attach some meaningful conditions to the next package, there's a good chance they won't get anything at all.
To begin with, Democrats must understand what kind of president they are dealing with. In the last package, they expended a lot of negotiating leverage getting an inspector general to provide token oversight over the corporate bailout monies. Not only is this a paltry mechanism for accountability (the inspector general for the 2008 bailout couldn't stop a lot of horrendous abuses in that program), President Trump promptly removed him anyway, along with two other inspectors general who had annoyed him by pointing out his horrible failures.
Trump is utterly corrupt and will accept no limits on his power if he can possibly help it. With support from Senate Republicans, he cannot be removed from office. Therefore, if they want to actually oversee the bailout, House Democrats are going to have to do it themselves, either through hearings or an oversight panel they control directly. This will almost certainly require House Democrats to set up some kind of remote system so members of Congress can vote and conduct hearings without needing to gather in person, which they thus far refuse to do.
Second, the original rescue package needs to be beefed up. As noted above, the small business loan/grant program needs both more money and administrative help. The program is being run through private banks, who are plainly overwhelmed by the number of applicants, and are none too excited about administering the program in the first place. Senate Democrats have encouragingly blocked one Republican effort to minimally boost the funding, demanding the amount be doubled. But they should also consider setting up some central online portal where any business from across the country could apply, allowing banks to pool their procedural resources so money can get out the door faster.
The boost to unemployment insurance in the previous bill was a good idea, but many states are struggling to implement it — like Florida, whose system was deliberately designed to give out as few benefits as possible. Again Congress might consider a universal unemployment portal that would hook into the state systems, or just centralizing the entire unemployment insurance program entirely.
Finally, while the Federal Reserve has stepped in to provide loans to states and city governments, Congress should also give them grants, and do the same for public transit agencies, which are seeing collapsing ridership revenue.
But most importantly, Democrats should demand money and requirements for universal vote-by-mail in November. It is quite likely the coronavirus pandemic will not be solved completely by then — or we could be hit by a second wave of infection, as happened during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Unless mail-in ballots are available for everyone, many Americans will be forced to risk death if they want to vote. That's why Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) suggested such a system in mid-March.
Republicans are already licking their chops at the prospect of delivering Trump a second term by cheating. As was the case in Wisconsin earlier this week, an in-person election conducted during a pandemic is straightforwardly illegitimate — no different in principle from directly forbidding great swathes of the electorate from voting. But Republicans are calculating that low turnout (especially in cities where infection risk would be greater) generally means a more conservative electorate, and Trump in his typically brazen fashion is arguing that only senior citizens should be allowed to vote by mail. Accusing mail-in votes of being "RIPE for FRAUD" is transparent projection — as David J. Roth writes, the things Trump "heatedly accuses his enemies of doing are always things that he has done himself, is currently doing, or obviously aspires to do in the future."
Now, American election systems are administered by individual states, and it is legally questionable whether states could be forced to implement vote-by-mail. But at the very least they could get money contingent on setting up such a system, allowing citizens and state Democratic legislators to pressure Republican-led governments to conduct a legitimate election.
It will take time to set up vote-by-mail systems, especially in recalcitrant GOP-run states. Democrats are not going to get many more chances to make sure the 2020 presidential election is fair. If they continue with their usual timidity, it may not happen at all.
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