Opinion

Democrats are getting Chuck Grassleyed

Have they learned nothing from the past 12 years?

The country is in dire straits, with the pandemic continuing to rage and the economy stalling out — so you'll never guess what moderate Senate Democrats are doing. That's right: dithering. They are proposing to help Senate Republicans cut away at President Biden's pandemic relief package in return for bipartisan support that will not materialize.

What Democrats are falling for is exactly the same routine that Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) pulled during the negotiation of ObamaCare a decade ago, when he dragged out negotiations for months and demanded many compromises to make the bill worse, only to vote against it in the end. Trying to appease the right is bad policy and worse politics. The cult of bipartisanship will destroy Biden's presidency if it can't be overcome.

Let me first address the substance of their worries. A bipartisan group of 16 senators, eight Republicans and eight Democrats, pressed Biden adviser Brian Deese on a video call to slice down the size of the pandemic rescue package. They fretted that $1,400 checks aren't means-tested enough (somehow they never mention that they're already heavily means-tested), and worried that states and schools might be getting too much money. How "did the administration come up with $1.9 trillion dollars required?" wondered Susan Collins (R-Maine). Angus King (I-Maine.) echoed the complaint: "Part of what we’re asking for is more data — where did you get the number?" He went on to fret about the deficit: "Every dollar that we’re talking about here is being borrowed from our grandchildren. We have a responsibility to be stewards."

On the merits, this is profoundly idiotic. There isn't some overall estimate of why the package needs to be this size because it's just something Biden's team slapped together to deal with the immediate emergency. Every item in the package is vitally needed. More importantly, the negative consequences of going too small here are much, much larger than going too big. In the immediate future, what, are we to worry that Americans will be vaccinated too quickly? And once the pandemic has passed, the last 12 years of economic history have taught us that undershooting is by far the bigger risk.

This lesson is thanks to the disastrous negotiations around the Recovery Act in early 2009, when the economy was collapsing thanks to the financial crisis, and Democrats made exactly this mistake in exactly the same way. At the time Obama's economic adviser Christy Romer estimated the economy would need perhaps $1.8 trillion to recover, only for Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel to argue that number must be cut down based on nothing but their gut-check guesses about what could be got through Congress. Then when they presented the bill, moderate senators naturally lopped off yet more tens of billions so they could prove their "moderate" bona fides.

The stimulus package was probably less than half as big as the hole it was supposed to fill, and therefore the ensuing recovery was pitiful. Ten percent unemployment was a major reason why Democrats got wiped out in the 2010 midterms, and the resulting economic damage was still unrepaired as of 2019, when the U.S. was well over $3 trillion below the previous trend in output. King is wrong in his description of where dollars come from, and he is also wrong about what will most help future generations — which is keeping the economy and the nation healthy instead of neurotically fretting about the largely-meaningless Debt Number.

If we were to actually behave like how cautious, sensible moderates present themselves, we would be more concerned about this package being too small than being too big. Indeed, one credible estimate puts the size of what will be needed as $3-4.5 trillion.

The politics of this discussion are, if anything, even more stupid. There are maybe one or two Senate Republicans who are not going into this with abject bad faith — that is, holding out a fake promise of bipartisan compromise to get Democrats to whittle down their proposals with the intention of voting against them anyway, no matter what. The worse the bill, the less Democrats will be able to take credit for helping the American people. The more Republicans jam up the Senate calendar and delay things, the less Democrats will be able to get done (for instance, on D.C. statehood or a new Voting Rights Act), and the closer the midterms election will be. The Republican senators who aren't just lying now will probably get bullied into voting against it by right-wing media and Mitch McConnell.

This was exactly what happened to ObamaCare in 2009. Then-Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mt.) set up a bipartisan group of senators to iron out the program's details, which allowed Grassley and others endless opportunity to drag out the process for months and months. Whatever his intentions at the start, Grassley came under immense pressure from conservative media and McConnell, and ended up denouncing the bill's nonexistent "death panels" and voting against it. It only got through thanks to several party-line votes.

What's more, the average Republican senator is much more conservative and far crazier than he or she was in 2009. And even if moderate Republicans defy that trend, there aren't enough of them in the group itself to break a Senate filibuster — which would require 10 votes, not eight. Basically, any effort to get Republican votes to help Democrats govern is 100 percent foredoomed. All this means that to pass anything at all, Democrats will have to either break the filibuster, or put Biden's plan through using reconciliation (a complicated and time-consuming procedure that allows certain kinds of bills to be passed with a simple majority).

Moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin, Angus King, and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) can pick one of these options, or they can waste a lot of time accomplishing nothing but harming their own party and helping Republicans win control of Congress in two years. It's up to them.

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