What the GOP should put in the new coronavirus relief bill

Trump and the Republicans in Congress have nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing the right thing here

The Capitol building.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Here is a question that should be rhetorical but isn't: Does President Trump actually want to win in November? Do Republicans in Congress want to see him re-elected? If the answer is no, especially in the first case, I should not be writing this column.

Let's pretend the answer is, in fact, yes. Guess what? There is a reasonably straightforward way of making this more likely. Just buy it.

I am not talking about sending Rudy back to Ukraine with a suitcase, which, as far as I know, does not permit American citizens to enter its borders at present. Instead I mean that the congressional GOP should pass an actually ambitious coronavirus relief bill and that the president should sign it into law. If Democrats won't play along, Trump should just do it by executive order and wait for the courts to say that he can't allocate federal resources to addressing what could be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

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What would such a package contain? A better question is what should it not contain. The most obvious answer is a reduction of the current extra unemployment benefits, which are bringing struggling Americans an additional $600 a week. This is an absolute no-brainer. Unemployment is still in the double digit range. Companies outside the debt collection industry are not going on hiring sprees. This is why reducing the benefit to $200 a week or even $400 a month makes no sense.

Another thing the American people do not need is a payroll tax reduction, at least not unless an explicit provision is made for covering the shortfall in Social Security and Medicare funding. Even then it is difficult to see why this would be anything but a pointless carve-out for businesses. It would make zero difference in the lives of the most vulnerable Americans.

Instead Trump should do something he has talked about on and off for years: Announce a public works program. Start wages at $25 an hour, plus whatever health-care plan the jobbernowls in Congress get. Pay people to build roads, bridges, dams, airports, and train stations; to install updated 'rona-proof HVAC systems; to put statues of General Sherman and Louis Armstrong in every park in the country. Use your imagination.

He should also give people more money. That's right. Time for Trump Bucks 2: Red, White, and Blonde. Make it the same amount as last time, without the absurd $40,000 cutoff currently being floated in Republican congressional circles, and make it easier for people to get it. Give people who don't have direct deposit set up with Uncle Sam debit cards at the Post Office or whatever. Let them spend it on bills, vacation, firearms, NFL tickets, whatever.

Both of these things are at least within the realm of the plausible. If I were more optimistic about human nature, I would also suggest a debt jubilee. Like many middle-class American households, we put nearly every penny of our stimulus check into paying down debt. This did absolutely nothing to help the economy, but it might have increased the totalitarian surveillance rating private companies are allowed to assign us by a point or two.

The GOP has nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing the right thing here. Trump of all people should understand this. Here is a man who has spent his entire life playing with funny money, offering absurd amounts to builders, contractors, engineers, architects, almost none of it coming from his own pocket, nearly all of it accruing to his benefit. Could it be that he is afraid of "the power of the purse" because he doesn't like the image of himself carrying one? Call it "the most amazing wallet ability" or something. It's there waiting for you, Mr. President. Use it.

What is the actual most likely outcome here, though? My guess is that at some point before August 1, when the current provision is set to expire, our two parties will reach some kind of short-term deal that extends the $600 per week benefit for another month or two. (Democrats will secretly applaud that it does not run through Election Day.) This is what always happens with Congress, after all. Our elected officials wait until we are about five inches from total catastrophe and then pass another continuing resolution rather than accept that their stated legislative priorities are mostly nonsensical. Meanwhile the actual crises in American life recede further into the legislative horizon regardless of how painfully obvious their solutions are.

It's a wonder we vote for any of them.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.