A number of influential Senate Democrats want to take some of the uncertainty out of the country’s COVID recovery by setting key programs to continue sending families money as long as the economy stays weak. On Tuesday morning, the group sent a letter to President Joe Biden encouraging him to include recurring cash payments and automatic unemployment insurance extensions, both tied to the state of the economy, as part of his next major recovery proposal, which the White House and Congress will likely turn their attention to once they wrap up the $1.9 trillion relief bill now in the works.
“This crisis is far from over, and families deserve certainty that they can put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads,” the letter states. “Families should not be at the mercy of constantly-shifting legislative timelines and ad hoc solutions.” The missive was signed by Sens. Ron Wyden, Bernie Sanders, and Sherrod Brown, who chair the Senate’s important banking, finance, and budget committees, along with several of their colleagues in the chamber.
While the U.S. economic response to COVID has been large by global standards, it has also often been haphazard, in large part because lawmakers have had to negotiate new, last-minute relief bills every time important programs for the unemployed and small businesses were set to lapse. Last summer, key jobless benefits expired while Democrats and Republicans found themselves locked in a showdown about issues such as whether to provide aid to state and local governments, leaving families to guess whether the government would ever deliver them more economic aid.
Throughout the crisis, a number of Democrats have suggested it would be more reasonable to just set certain programs on so-called automatic triggers, so that they’d continue delivering support as needed. Wyden released a bill with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that would have tied unemployment benefits to the jobless rate, and followed up with another in December. Likewise, the party’s progressive wing has long called for regular rounds of checks for households. But there has been some question about whether those ideas would still command support after Democrats took control of the Senate, giving them the ability to craft new relief bills as they went along, without partisan Sturm und Drang or the inherent uncertainty of having an erratic and distractible reality TV host in the White House. The new letter shows that interest in the idea of setting recovery programs on automatic is still very alive.
It also raises the question of whether Democrats might be willing to consider using automatic triggers as a permanent recession-fighting tool, or at least a semipermanent one. This is an idea that caught fire in certain wonky D.C. circles thanks to a book called Recession Ready, which argued that the U.S. could avoid repeating the mistakes that prolonged our recovery from the 2008 financial crisis by setting things like aid to states, cash payments to families, and unemployment extensions on autopilot, so that they’d kick in when the jobless rate rose. (One of the book’s editors, Heather Boushey, now serves on Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers.) Before the coronavirus crisis hit, both Wyden and Colorado’s Michael Bennet, who also backed Thursday’s letter, were working on legislation that would have linked unemployment benefits to the state of the economy. But it’s unclear how many of the letter’s backers are interested in putting automatic triggers in place long-term. A Democratic aide told me the letter was written to accommodate senators who think “triggers should be permanent policy and those who believe these programs’ triggers should be temporary but long-lasting for the duration of recovery from this crisis.” As another aide noted to me, it may be difficult to put triggers in place permanently using the budget reconciliation process, which Democrats are relying on to pass legislation without a filibuster, because of how their impact on the deficit would be scored.
Still, the fact that Democratic leaders have stuck with this idea is encouraging. As I wrote at length in July, putting basic recession-fighting tools on autopilot so that we can count on them to kick in when disaster strikes is far more sensible than relying on whoever happens to be in Congress to reinvent the wheel by negotiating a new deal each time the country needs a fiscal response. But it’s also, frankly, a slightly boring idea that would take a lot of foresight to actually accomplish. Thankfully, it appears that at least some Democrats are starting to look ahead.