If we can’t get a COVID-19 relief package through Congress in the next week or two, we’re sunk. It means we have a legislative branch so ideologically divided it can’t address even our most glaring problems. It means we have representatives so lacking in the willingness and ability to compromise that minimally competent government will be impossible, even under a President Joe Biden.
The problems a basic relief measure would address couldn’t be more obvious. Under current law, up to 12 million Americans could lose their jobless benefits by year’s end — a wretched Christmastime for millions of families, which could spawn a wave of depression, morbidity, family breakdown and suicide.
Millions of people could be evicted from their homes. Thousands more businesses may close during the long winter months before a vaccine is widely available. These are not failing, unproductive businesses. These are good, strong businesses that would have provided jobs and opportunity for millions of Americans for decades if they hadn’t been hit by the pandemic.
Wendy Edelberg of the Hamilton Project calculates that if nothing passes, the U.S. economy will be $1 trillion smaller in 2021 and $500 billion smaller in 2022.
The means to prevent this suffering are also glaringly obvious. We did it less than a year ago with the coronavirus relief bill. All we have to do is pass a version of what we did before. How hard can this possibly be?
The $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill was one of the most successful pieces of legislation of modern times. Because of the lockdowns, U.S. economic output contracted by a horrific 9% in the second quarter of 2020, compared with the first quarter. But because of the coronavirus relief bill, disposable household incomes increased by 10%. The personal savings rate increased by 34% in April.
I don’t love big government, but government is supposed to step up in a crisis, and with the coronavirus relief bill, it did.
Since summer, as the economy has deteriorated, Congress has been gridlocked on how to pass a supplemental relief package. At times Nancy Pelosi has been rigidly uncompromising, as if not wanting to hand Donald Trump a victory. But the core problem is that Republicans have applied a dogmatically ideological approach to a situation in which it is not germane and is in fact ruthlessly destructive.
Some Republicans act as if this is a normal recession and the legislation in front of them is a conventional Keynesian stimulus bill. But this is not a normal recession. It’s a natural disaster. The proposals on offer are not conventional stimulus. They are measures to defend our national economic infrastructure from that disaster over the next five brutal months.
I agree with Janet Yellen, Biden’s choice for Treasury secretary, who said, “The U.S. debt path is completely unsustainable under current tax and spending plans.” But that concern is for another day. Right now, we need to protect the workers and businesses that generate wealth in this society.
Either we roar out of this pandemic with the economic might and surging wages we enjoyed in 2019, or we endure another decade of grinding stagnation, more populist anger, more people losing faith in America. Microscopic interest rates make this additional debt a relatively easy lift for us.
The 2020 election results have powerfully strengthened moderates. After months of gridlock, the moderates took charge this week, crafting a bipartisan $908 billion relief compromise. Led by Sens. Susan Collins, Joe Manchin, Mitt Romney and Mark Warner and endorsed by a bipartisan group of House members from the Problem Solvers Caucus, it is big enough to make a real difference and includes two thorny issues: aid to the states and liability protection, which should, on the merits, be in the law.
This is how democracy is supposed to work! Partisans stake out positions, and then dealmakers reach a compromise. This is a glimpse of the sort of normal-functioning democratic process that has been largely missing since Newt Gingrich walked onstage lo these many decades ago.
To their great credit, Pelosi and Chuck Schumer embraced the bipartisan framework. Mitch McConnell went on the Senate floor Thursday, pretended to soften, ignored the compromise and did not move an inch.
McConnell may think the Democrats will eventually come to him because something is better than nothing. But his proposal cannot pass. Democrats in the House will not accept a complete capitulation to McConnell on every front.
For the first time in a long time we have a core group of moderates, progressives and conservatives willing to practice politics — willing to work with the other party toward a reasonable solution.
Talks between the moderates and McConnell continue. But if McConnell won’t do a deal now, in the midst of a clear crisis and under a Republican president, there certainly won’t be one with more controversial issues under a Democratic president in 2021. If we don’t see a COVID-19 relief measure pass in the next week or two, then our democracy is existentially broken.
If that happens, McConnell should spend Christmas with people thrown out of work and witness the suffering he has caused.
David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.