Like wedding guests unexpectedly screaming “I object!“ during the nuptials, a group of Republicans on Wednesday afternoon threatened to bog down passage of the Senate’s $2 trillion economic aid package, which not long before seemed to be on its way to quick bipartisan approval, over what they describe as a “life-threatening drafting error” in the bill.
To be clear, the issue this group is talking about is not a drafting error. It’s a design feature of the bill. They’re just unhappy with it. As I reported yesterday, the aid package expands unemployment insurance by offering workers a flat, additional weekly payment of $600 on top of whatever benefits they’d typically be eligible for, for four months. As a result, some former workers would stand to make more on unemployment than if they kept their jobs. At a press conference this afternoon, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina, Rick Scott of Florida, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska said they were worried this would encourage some Americans to leave their jobs, including in industries that are essential during the crisis. As Sasse put it:
We don’t want to do anything that would accelerate shortages in critical supply chain and workforce pathways inside some of the critical industries in America. And by critical industries in America, I mean health aides. And I mean grocers, and people operating the takeout and deli, and people doing local food delivery, and garbagemen. Lots of the important industries in America have median wages that are lower than what would happen under the unemployment benefits portion of this bill. And so we don’t want to accelerate the severing of that employee-employer relationship.
It’s tempting to make fun of this foursome for worrying that grocery store clerks are going to get too much money from the government. In the end, I don’t think we should be overly concerned about incentivizing service workers to stay home during a plague that’s literally leading states and cities to ban people from going to work. But, to be honest, their qualms aren’t entirely insane. Usually, Americans can’t collect unemployment if they walk out on their jobs. But the coronavirus bill—or at least a draft version that a Hill aide told me was current as of 10:50 a.m. on Wednesday—makes an individual who has to “quit his or her job as a direct result of COVID-19” eligible. “Direct result” isn’t super well defined in that section (and I’m not sure how it’d be policed), so you can definitely imagine a scenario where some important workers decide to go on unemployment insurance rather than keep working for a business that can’t afford to give them a raise at the moment.
Also, Graham’s proposal for changing the bill is actually pretty reasonable in the abstract. Instead of a four-month program that pays some workers more than their full wages, he wants a permanent program that just pays those 100 percent of their salary during pandemics. Here he was during the press conference:
We need to create a sustainable system. This pandemic is coming back in the fall. We need to create pandemic systems on unemployment that are sustainable. So, if you believe that, why not fix it now? Why not say, in perpetuity, dealing with pandemics today and tomorrow, you can get up to your salary but no more? Because this won’t end in four months.
If I were a Democrat in Congress, I would be kind of tempted to accept that deal. After all, Graham’s right: This won’t be over in four months! It’d be nice to give workers some assurance they’ll be taken care of depending on how badly this thing lingers.
Unfortunately, Graham’s fix might not be feasible because of the ancient IT systems that states use to administer their unemployment benefits, which might make it impossible to actually calculate the correct payments for workers under his proposal. That’s according to University of Massachusetts Amherst economist Arindrajit Dube, who has been talking to Capitol Hill staffers on this topic. According to him, the flat $600 payment was partially a workaround of those technical issues.
The four senators have said they will oppose fast-tracking the aid bill if the not-a-drafting-error isn’t fixed, which would slow but not stop its eventual passage. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders says if they try to muck with the unemployment benefits, he’ll go after the corporate bailout section of the bill.
Solid last-minute drama, Congress!
Update, March 25, 9:40 p.m.:
Well, it looks like that all came to nothing. As The Hill reports:
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) have agreed to drop procedural objections and let the bill move on a fast track in exchange for a vote on an amendment to the package to cap beefed-up unemployment benefits at 100 percent of workers’ salaries.
Their amendment will need 60 votes to pass, and it’s expected to fail, setting the stage for final passage of the mammoth coronavirus stimulus package later Wednesday evening.
It appears this sucker will pass pretty much as is.