Congress Is at a Loss

As the crisis worsens, the ideas for what to do next are either nothing or the wrong thing.

In the Oval Office, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and President Donald Trump listen.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and President Donald Trump listen in the Oval Office on Friday. Pool/Getty Images

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The Department of Labor announced Thursday that 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment last week. That doubles the previous week’s record of 3.3 million, which itself roughly quadrupled what had been the previous record, set in 1982. The country lost 8.7 million jobs on net during the Great Recession, which until very recently was the worst economic event to happen in most Americans’ lifetimes. The country is far from over the hump in terms of the health crisis—that’s right, there is still the pandemic disease trying to kill everyone—and until it is, it won’t be over the hump economically. This is a world-historical catastrophic event. As of this writing early Thursday afternoon, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 191 points, or 0.9 percent, on the day.

A briefly productive Congress, meanwhile, having passed three pieces of legislation to address the crisis, is on hiatus until April 20. It left town before the economic collapse had even fully unfolded, and nothing it passed before dispersing comes close to addressing the scale of the disaster. And now, right when Congress needs to consider unprecedented action, it’s backsliding into a more familiar gridlock formation: Republicans don’t want to do anything, while Democrats want to do … they want to do what, now?

The Republican position, as outlined by both the party’s congressional leaders and its rank and file, is to ensure that the $2 trillion CARES Act—signed into law when only 3.3 million of the 9.9 million unemployment claims had been announced—is properly stood up and implemented, and then to see where additional congressional action is needed.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who used the opportunity of the House’s absence in the previous weeks to structure the CARES Act to his liking, has called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to “stand down,” calling it “premature” to consider another round of legislation. Speaking to items that Pelosi and the Trump administration have suggested, like infrastructure packages, McConnell said, “We do have to be mindful of how to pay for” them.

The CARES Act did, after all, successfully deliver Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the Federal Reserve a multitrillion-dollar money cannon to prop up shareholders, so it makes sense that a figure like Mitch McConnell would view further action as frivolous and requiring pay-fors. Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, meanwhile, has cautioned against allowing Pelosi “to advance her partisan, parochial, liberal wish list,” a list that Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy described as “spending porn.”

Republicans do recognize that some additional allocation of resources will be necessary eventually. Specifically, the $350 billion program to help small businesses stay above water is not going to be nearly enough—assuming it can begin operating and delivering the money to whom it’s intended in the first place, which is not a safe assumption.

The $150 billion that Senate Democrats negotiated last week for state and local governments is also not going to get the job done. It’s a down payment, as Pelosi said in her remote press conference Thursday. But arriving at a final allocation could prove difficult, as Republicans will see fit to allocate red-state governments enough to replenish red-state governments, and blue-state governments enough to make them atrophy into red-state governments.

With Republicans rediscovering their hostility to spending, what other things besides money are House Democrats hoping to include in that next, “Phase Four” legislation that they hope to pass upon returning to Washington?

One of the items Pelosi has mentioned is a rollback of the cap that Republicans placed on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction in their 2017 tax bill. “We could reverse that for 2018 and 2019 so that people could refile their taxes” and receive more money, Pelosi said in an interview with the New York Times this week. “They’d have more disposable income, which is the lifeblood of our economy, a consumer economy that we are.” Such a change would redound overwhelmingly to the benefit of upper-middle-class and wealthy taxpayers.

And then there’s the infrastructure component. Seizing on President Donald Trump’s (ephemeral, committed, who’s to say?) openness to a large infrastructure package, Pelosi floated a previously tabled Democratic package that would amount to $760 billion over five years and include funding for community health centers, clean water upgrades, roads and bridges, rail and public transit, and broadband.

The problem with the first idea, on SALT, is that it’s a joke, albeit a joke to which many Democratic voters in California and the tristate area are committed. And a large infrastructure plan isn’t a bad idea. It’s a great idea! But, as my colleague Jordan Weissmann wrote, is it a great idea for right now?

Both of these ideas are presented within the frame of “stimulus”—getting money into the hands of consumers to jump-start the economy. We idiots in the media are partly to blame, during negotiations over the CARES Act, for using “stimulus” as shorthand for the government stepping into a careening economy. But we’re not even at the “stimulus” part of the problem yet. There is no “economy” to jump-start. We’re still squarely in the “relief” portion of the crisis and will be for the foreseeable future, and even the good parts of the CARES Act are inadequate.

With that in mind, the Republicans who insist on a wait-and-see approach to the crisis, and the Democrats who are talking about stimulus proposals for reviving the economy while there’s no economy, should both guide their thinking about what to do immediately by, say, talking to one or two normal people a day. The immediate concerns they will hear are some combination of:

1. I have no money and the economy is shut down. What am I supposed to do?

2. Do I have to pay my rent/mortgage today and for as long as the crisis lasts?

3. If I don’t have to pay rent/mortgage today and for as long as the crisis lasts, will I still have to pay the full balance of missed payments eventually?

4. Since I can’t afford to pay the full balance of missed payments eventually, what am I supposed to do?

5. What am I going to do when the health crisis is over but my employer/industry/sector of the economy no longer exists?

6. Do you have a straightforward answer on the rent/mortgage question yet, or are you really just saying, “We’ll figure it out later”?

7. Am I expected to cover medical bills I accrued during this crisis, and if so, why?

8. Why?

To name a few.

Perhaps for some of these questions, there are programs for people to use—either long-standing ones or ones just being set up—that they don’t know about, or answers that they don’t know about. In that case the government has an extraordinary duty to make sure that they’re properly funded to cover all claimants and to market them beyond “refresh the Department of Labor website for the latest administrative guidance.”

And if there’s not an answer, get one.