Great America

The Congressional Debacle Passing as ‘Relief’

How the coronavirus rescue package went from actually OK to absolutely horrible inside of a week.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday morning is scheduled to vote on the $2.2 trillion bill that represents, to date, Congress’s largest effort to remedy the devastating economic impacts of the coronavirus epidemic. The bill is expected to pass.

The story of how we ended up with the current $2 trillion package reflects not only the public health crisis we are living through but also, more broadly, the sickness afflicting our legislative politics, the latent corporatism and power-seeking in both major political parties, and the inability of Congress to focus in a crisis.

The country is currently facing something unprecedented, to say the least: a crashing economy and massive unemployment due to actions taken by the government in a public health crisis to slow the spread of disease.

Even advocates of limited government would say this is the appropriate moment for the government to act, to step in with temporary and targeted assistance to help the country comply with measures taken to prevent the types of mass infection currently crippling countries like Italy and Spain.

This shouldn’t be hard. And, initially, it looked as though Congress was actually going to have a nimble and effective response. The early versions of the relief package negotiated in the Senate contained direct relief to families, a temporary expansion of unemployment insurance for those who’ve lost their jobs to the coronavirus response, and loan packages for small businesses that need a boost to make payroll and pay rent.

But in a town filled to the brim with lobbyists and politicians determined to use human suffering as a means to further their own political agendas, it didn’t take long for the whole thing to unravel.

Sunday

Late last week, as millions of Americans struggled to pay rent and governors begged for needed medical supplies, the lobbyists crawling over Capitol Hill like ants began to take their pound of flesh. Boeing, the company whose planes keep crashing, wanted a $60 billion bailout. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos wanted $5 billion to keep their commercial space company open. The hotel industry wanted $150 billion. Restaurants wanted $145 billion. Manufacturers? $1.4 trillion. Even the beer industry came calling with a $5 billion request. Not to miss out, the candy industry put in their note for $500 million. 

The Senate eventually bestowed favor on the airline industry with close to $60 billion in grants, loans, and loan guarantees. Boeing, with its army of lobbyists, got its own $17 billion carveout. A $500 billion pot of money was written into the bill to be dispersed to other industries at the discretion of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. 

By mid-afternoon on Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) abruptly ended negotiations with the Senate, declaring she would be writing her own coronavirus relief package. Senate Democrats, in apparent deference to the House Speaker, filibustered a vote on the Senate’s package later that day.

In New York and California, meanwhile, the National Guard units were deployed to build emergency quarantine centers. The FDA put out a letter to health care providers addressing the shortage of ventilators.  

Monday

On Monday, it became obvious what Senate Democrats were waiting for. Pelosi unveiled a 1,400-page bill that purported to be about the working families impacted by coronavirus, but was really an abject play for power. The families and businesses suffering in the public health crisis were actually just a convenient excuse to pass every single progressive wishlist item from the last decade.

Key provisions in the bill required states to implement same-day voter registration and mandated early voting across the country—two policies that encourage voter fraud. 

The chronically mismanaged U.S. Postal Service was given a multi-billion dollar bailout. The airline industry was required to offset their carbon emissions and post public breakdowns of their greenhouse gas emissions. Corporations were required to devote a portion of their budgets to diversity and inclusion offices and initiatives, and report on the racial and gender make up of their boards. The entire federal workforce was given collective bargaining rights and mandated payment for union activities. The list goes on.

Human suffering, for many Democrats, is apparently less of a problem than it is an opportunity to force woke diversity initiatives and the Green New Deal down the throats of Americans who can’t make rent.

Hours after the bill was released, Senate Democrats again filibustered the Senate’s bill with its direct relief provisions. 

That same day, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) became the first senator to test positive for the virus. A mobile testing site in Chicago closed due to a lack of testing supplies. Army field hospitals prepared for setup in New York and Seattle. Oregon, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania issued stay-at-home orders. Unemployment numbers continued to climb.

Tuesday

Whether it was because of the Pelosi bill or in spite of it, the legislative dam in the Senate was breaking by Tuesday. A bill that was supposed to prioritize the relief of American families and small businesses had already gotten weighed down with corporate largesse—and the pile-on was just beginning. 

Senate appropriators, who had already funded their pet projects for the year, would not volunteer to miss another opportunity. The Kennedy Center received $25 million. The National Endowment for the Arts got $75 million. So did the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds PBS and NPR. A new minority business development agency was created. The House was given an extra $25 million for “salaries and expenses” (which they claim is not a raise, but for telework assistance and food service contracts).  

By Tuesday, huge swaths of the American workforce were kept from their jobs. Layoffs were beginning across the country as businesses scrambled to keep from going under. Speaker Pelosi, meanwhile, seemed not to notice. In an interview, she said, “if we’re giving billions of dollars to the airlines . . . we could at least have a shared value about what happens to the environment.” 

At any point, Republicans in the Senate could have separated out the small business and direct family relief portions of the bill and approved them, while negotiating the corporate relief separately. They did not.

Wednesday

By Wednesday, draft after draft of the Senate’s bill was making its way into public view—but not via Senate staff. Staffers were left to beg their favorite lobbyist for a copy, as the Senate’s leadership refused to share initial drafts with individual members before the special interests had given their sign off.

In 24 hours, no fewer than 10 drafts of the Senate’s legislation were floated, one after another, with provisions tweaked for industry, or different government offices added or removed. In a later draft, a provision for private-sector unionizing appeared: if a business takes a coronavirus stabilization loan, they must “remain neutral in any union organizing effort for the term of the loan.” The Post Office suddenly got a $10 billion loan.

In the flurry, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) stumbled across what they thought was an error: the expanded unemployment assistance was actually paying people 100 percent of their wages, plus $600 more. This would incentivize layoffs, they argued, when the whole point of the bill was to keep people employed. 

The group assumed it had been a drafting error, a simple oversight made in haste. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took to the Senate floor to reassure them. No, it had been intentional, he said. There was nothing to fix.

A Sasse amendment to modify the provision to simply pay people 100 percent of their lost wages—instead of 100 percent plus a bonus—was defeated in a 48-48 tie.

Twenty minutes before the Senate’s vote, close to 11 p.m., the final 880 pages of text were released. The bill passed 96-0 without anyone, aside from the few leadership staff who wrote it, reading the final bill in its entirety. 

Thursday 

By Thursday, cases of coronavirus in the United States crested over 80,000, the most in the world (assuming, of course, that China is telling the truth about its cases, which is unlikely). Coronavirus patients in New York City were stressing hospitals’ intensive care units, requiring patients critically ill with other ailments to be sent elsewhere. The full-to-capacity morgue at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens is using a refrigerated truck to hold some of the dead. Some 3.3 million Americans had filed for unemployment over the past week, the highest number in history

The House of Representatives officially received the Senate’s legislation at 11:02 a.m. By 11:03 a.m., they had adjourned for the day. 

Friday

As of Thursday evening, the House planned to take up the Senate’s bill on Friday at 9 a.m. EDT. Though she hasn’t even passed the current bill, which has been delayed for days, Pelosi is already talking about the next relief package she wants to pass: permanent expansions of the food stamp program, more OSHA regulations. 

And who knows what else. As presidential candidate Joe Biden said this week, the Green New Deal can be “in the next round.”

This crisis has and continues to test all of us. And it has tested Congress. But instead of acting nimbly in the face of a crisis that has forced so many Americans into dire circumstances in response to a public health crisis not of their own making, they were met with legislators more interested in woke politics, corporate deference, ensuring government sinecures, and politicians intent on using human suffering to further consolidate their own power.