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We have now officially arrived at phase 3.5 of Washington’s effort to combat the coronavirus crisis—and by almost any sane standard, it is a disappointment. The Senate passed a new, $484 billion “interim” relief bill on Tuesday night, which will provide more money for struggling small businesses and hospitals while setting aside funding for a national testing effort—all good things. But the bill fails to address other immediate and crucial problems, such as collapsing state budgets that are threatening to further cripple the economy, as well as some more distant but key issues, like ensuring people can actually vote in November.
Whose fault is that? As usual, some are already blaming the Democrats for giving in too easily. When the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program, the government’s main rescue vehicle for small and midsize businesses hurt by the pandemic, ran out of money last week, it seemed to give Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi a moment of leverage. Just about everybody agreed the program needed more money fast, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to quickly top it off with an additional $250 billion. But Democrats refused, demanding cash for other priorities as well. Many hoped they would force the administration to finally bail out our ailing Postal Service, which President Donald Trump has reportedly refused to help. Others wanted it to expand voting by mail in this year’s elections, while Democratic leaders themselves sought to include more funding for state and local governments, which have seen their tax collections go up in smoke.
They didn’t get any of those things, leaving some commentators aghast.
What did Democrats get? Congress is going to stick a $310 billion IV infusion into the Paycheck Protection Program while pumping much-needed money into an even more woefully underfunded disaster loan program that’s equally important, if not more so, for many small businesses struggling to survive. It’s setting aside $75 billion to help hospitals and $25 billion for a national effort to ramp up coronavirus testing (contra Grunwald’s tweet above, the bill does include contact tracing).
These are all important steps. What’s frustrating about this deal is that it seemingly consists of things any rational person should want—even a Republican. Everyone knew small businesses needed more aid. We need hospitals to keep functioning while they’re dealing with the surge of COVID patients and can’t do the sort of normal surgeries that pay their bills. A dramatic increase in coronavirus testing is a must before we can reopen the economy, and a big federal push is probably necessary to get it done.
Even things that got left out of the bill seem like they would be obviously beneficial to a sitting president. State and municipal governments are already staring down massive budget cuts that could help turn the immediate crisis we’re now facing into a lingering depression, the same way state and local austerity weighed the U.S. down after the financial crash of 2008. One would think Trump would want to avoid that sort of scenario as he heads toward the November election.
The problem is that the administration did not necessarily want these things. Nor did many of the Republicans in Congress, which was seeking to pass this bill by unanimous consent. Money for states? According to the New York Times, the GOP decided it was a “red line” because they didn’t want to “effectively subsidize bad fiscal decisions that occurred before the pandemic.” Hospitals? Republicans said there wasn’t a need yet because the last round of funding hadn’t run out yet. (Apparently we still haven’t learned that it’s good to sometimes deal with obvious problems on the horizon.) Testing? This is a president who on Monday told reporters, “Not everybody believes we should do so much testing,” and that Democrats are demanding more because they “want to be able to criticize” his administration’s response. During negotiations over the bill, the Wall Street Journal reports that the White House “wanted states to take the lead on testing, arguing that local governments are better judges of what steps are necessary to respond to the pandemic.” What it sounds like is that Trump resisted the idea of a national effort because he would have to accept responsibility for it, rather than blame governors if something went wrong, which is his current M.O.1
Even the small business funding that Republicans originally proposed was wildly insufficient. They sought too little money for the Paycheck Protection Program. They wanted nothing at all for disaster lending, even though by last week that program only had enough money to fund $7.3 billion of the more than $380 billion of loans that businesses had applied for. Democrats had to push for basic fixes there as well.
I suppose it is theoretically possible that Republicans are playing a four-dimensional game of chess. Maybe they are proposing completely insufficient bills to deal with our current crisis so that Democrats will waste their energy fighting for basic steps everybody can actually agree on rather than more ambitious liberal priorities.
But the more obvious explanation is that national Republicans mean what they say and simply oppose many of the things that seem obviously necessary to fight this virus and prevent a depression, and that our president is a nihilist mostly interested in deflecting political blame while he tries to prematurely open the economy. (McConnell, for his part, is already making noises about the deficit again.) And so Democrats have been forced to bargain for the bare bones of a pandemic response. Pelosi and Schumer could have walked away from the table and prayed that led to a better deal with the guy who wanted the churches packed by Easter. But in the meantime, the country would continue to barrel toward disaster. We only have one responsible political party in the United States. And deals like this are the disappointing, maddening results.
1 The bill, for what it’s worth, splits the difference; some of the federal funding will be given out to states on a formula basis, and some of it will be used by Washington.