The Senate Coronavirus Bill Is Not Going to Be Enough

Low-angle shot of the Capitol Dome with pink flowers in the foreground.
The U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
Alex Edelman/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Senate negotiators announced that they had reached a deal on a $2 trillion stimulus package in an effort to bolster the economy that has been devastated by measures meant to attempt to contain the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Our new “big government” consensus, though, is as shortsighted as it is striking.

Writers and politicians across the spectrum have begun to call for government at all levels to take a major, if not massive, role in combating the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing global recession. All of this is necessary.

Yet big government can’t just mean sending money, the tactic the current stimulus measure is centered upon. The government we forge for this crisis has to have some permanence, has to provide jobs and not just income, and has to have a human face. The increasingly popular plans for universal basic income support—whether temporary or permanent—amount to an income stimulus, not necessarily a jobs stimulus. If everybody saves their $2,000 check and/or spends it on services provided by slender, capital-intensive corporations like Amazon, then employment will not rebound and economic inequality is likely to get worse, not better. Even former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt’s laudable call for investment in our health care system largely consists of Congress writing checks without directly creating new jobs. And the current stimulus plan embeds the dangerous policy assumption that once the worst of the coronavirus is over, all American jobs will come back just like they did before the crisis.

An expansion of America’s public service at all levels of government must be central to any counter-epidemic and counter-recession plan. It would provide more durable support for the American economy than a near-term stimulus, and it would also reduce economic inequality while diminishing the scope and effects of corporate lobbying. Let’s consider the following short-term and long-term solutions.

In the near term, Congress could authorize critical federal agencies to hire essential workers, not just for the next few weeks but for the coming year or more of transition, and could designate block grants to state governments so that they and local governments can do the same. The following public sector jobs will be critical:

• Public health workers (nurses, technicians, physicians, social work and mental health workers). All of these positions will suffer from short supply and exhaustion in the coming weeks and months. Federal and state governments are in the best position to create a surge education, training, and hiring plan.

• Workers to manufacture and distribute medical supplies. Congress should authorize national and state governments to hire workers to create both temporary and permanent hospital infrastructure.

• Analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, and other federal agencies. If tech and financial firms are laying off their workers, these federal agencies should begin hiring them. From disease modeling to website development to fielding calls, federal and state needs will be great in the months ahead if we are to effectively combat the pandemic.

• Unemployment and job training offices. The crush of unemployment lays bare not just the miserly character of our safety net but its organizational weakness as well. State governments are being crippled by the onslaught of unemployment applications, and longer-run job training programs will depend heavily upon state and local programs.

In the short run, the kinds of jobs required for expanding government capacity will be limited because of social distancing requirements. Of course, the need for training opens up the possibility of further job creation, whether by the hiring agencies themselves, by state and local schools and technical centers, or by universities that have repurposed some of their functions.

When the first wave of the pandemic subsides and we begin rebuilding our economy, Americans need to think about how to adapt to the later waves, the next epidemic, and a new economic reality. Government jobs in the following areas will be essential.

• Medical supply stockpiling. Sadly, our country does not have enough ventilators for the coming crush of COVID-19-related hospitalizations. That cannot be an excuse for failing to invest for the next wave of this virus, and for the next virus epidemic when it comes. Since any ventilator stockpile would need to be maintained, depreciation monitored, and machines transported around the country, a public program would employ manufacturers, mechanics, programmers, and truckers. There is no reason government itself cannot provide many of these jobs directly.

• Local and state public health agencies, including laboratories and mental health. Sadly, as professors Amy Kapczynski and Gregg Gonsalves have documented, our public health capacity has withered in recent decades. Federal and state investments in public health workers, including social workers and mental health professionals, can begin filling that gap.

• Transport infrastructure. For years there has been a call for a major new infrastructure project, yet nothing substantial has come out of Washington in over a decade. A plan for identifying bridges, ports, and roads in need of reconstruction would employ manual laborers, engineers, transport workers, and surveyors. State transportation agencies could hire for these purposes, as could the Department of Transportation.

• Alternative energy infrastructure development. Call it a Green New Deal if you want to. But planning and rollout for a more expansive grid of electric cars, solar panels, and wind farms necessitates hiring workers.

• Congressional committees and offices. No, I’m not kidding. A bipartisan group of scholars and observers has noted that the capacity of our Article 1 branch of government has withered. This would be an excellent time to invest in that capacity, especially in nonpartisan offices like the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office.* While we’re at it, bring back the Office of Technology Assessment. And these jobs need not all or mostly be in Washington. We could expand employment in congressional districts and states.

If the economic and health reasons for stimulus through public sector hiring are not enough, consider two other benefits of government hiring. First, an infrastructure plan that relies entirely or largely on contractors will likely exacerbate the social and economic inequality that has torn our country apart. Government jobs provide solid benefits and limit top-level executive pay. Second, the onslaught of lobbying currently witnessed on Capitol Hill is happening precisely because the government is handing out checks. Direct federal employment would be subject to far less lobbying, as the corporate payoffs are not nearly as high.

A nation that launched the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the agricultural extension service, and the Tennessee Valley Authority has the precedent to confront a new crisis with true public sector capacity. All that’s currently missing is the imagination and the backbone.

Correction, March 25, 2020: This piece originally misidentified the Government Accountability Office as the General Accounting Office.