$600 Is Not Enough, And It Won’t Get Easier

Dems refused to seize a rare opportunity to outmaneuver McConnell - now the final COVID relief bill skimps on benefits, provides tax breaks to the rich, and notches a big win for austerity extremism.

Congressional leaders announced an agreement on a new $900 billion stimulus bill that will deliver a boost in unemployment benefits and provide $600 checks to some families. Democratic leaders are depicting this as a big win and are promising that these kinds of emergency spending bills will become “much easier” in a new Congress under Joe Biden. Both of those arguments are ridiculous.

Here’s the truth: Democrats had a rare opportunity to win on a wildly popular proposal for much bigger survival checks, but they chose to lose. Here’s some more truth: one-time means-tested checks of $600 is not a big victory, and not even the bare minimum that should be considered acceptable during an economic meltdown that has been punctuated by mass starvation and intensifying poverty.

Though the legislative language of the final package has not yet been released, it appears the meager checks come in a bill that will give new tax benefits to corporate executives to write off their meals and provide other tax breaks to businesses that used the Paycheck Protection Program — which will be a windfall for the wealthy. Will the bill change the law to similarly exempt emergency unemployment benefits from tax levies? We don’t yet know, but there’s no indication it will.

According to a bill summary circulating on Capitol Hill, the legislation provides a mere $286 billion for the survival checks and unemployment benefits, and an additional $51 billion for food aid and rental assistance. That’s not nothing, but it’s obviously inadequate. For comparison, only three years ago, Republicans passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut that enriched the wealthiest one percent of households.  

Much of the blame for this debacle certainly goes to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, who seems absolutely determined to starve the country. But much of it also goes to Democratic leaders who had one of the easiest political opportunities to forge a bipartisan coalition or a much bigger lifeline to Americans — and then decided to squander it. 

Let’s remember: Back in March, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton proposed giving low- and middle-income Americans between $1,000 and $4,000 of aid per month. More recently, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley joined with Sen. Bernie Sanders to push for $1,200 checks. 

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump reportedly told allies he wanted at least $1,200 and up to $2,000 — and he made a general demand for more money public in a Fox News interview last week. 

“Right now, I want to see checks – for more money than they're talking about – going to people," he said. "I'm pushing it very hard, and to be honest with you, if the Democrats really wanted to do the deal, they'd do the deal."

He tweeted on Sunday that Congress should give people “more money in direct payments.”

You can try to argue that the words of a handful of maverick Republicans and Trump cannot be fully trusted — maybe that’s true, but it’s moot. The point here is that there was a huge opportunity for Democrats to triangulate a group of Republican senators and a Republican president against McConnell — and Democrats refused to do it. 

Instead, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer followed Sen. Joe Manchin, Mark Warner and other Democratic corporatists into budget negotiations that kept producing smaller and smaller stimulus proposals, and now they are trying to portray a meager $600 one-time payment as some sort of enormous victory. 

“Democrats should not take a victory lap on this bill,” tweeted Adam Jentleson, who was an adviser to former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “It provides less than a third of the aid economists say is necessary and McConnell is getting all the credit — after blocking aid for months. Instead we should explain why this bill is inadequate and how Dems will deliver more.”

A summary from Democrats about the relief package says that party lawmakers secured $25 billion as they "fought to establish the first-ever emergency federal rental assistance program to be distributed by state and local governments. These funds will be targeted to families impacted by COVID that are struggling to make the rent and may have past due rent compounding on itself. These families will be able to utilize this assistance for past due rent, future rent payments, as well as to pay utility and energy bills and prevent shutoffs."

Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, told the Washington Post earlier this month that there will be as much as $70 billion in unpaid rental and utility debt by January.

Pelosi insisted at a press conference on Sunday that when it comes to future spending bills, “We’re going to have a much easier time than we've had with the Republican Senate and a Republican President.”

But if Democrats don’t win the Georgia Senate races and gain control of the upper chamber, that assertion makes no sense. 

Democrats had a Republican president and at least some Republican lawmakers on record supporting bigger stimulus checks. That dynamic offers the best chance to actually pass something big — but it is likely to instantly change once Biden is sworn in. 

Indeed, history tells us that once Democrats are in the White House, Republicans will suddenly pretend they are deficit hawks in order to try to block their opponents from spending money on basic necessities and then blame them for economic pain and suffering. That means it will almost certainly become far harder to pass emergency relief bills through Congress when Republicans have an even bigger incentive to try to starve the country for their own political gain. 

Democrats are trying to put their best spin on the legislation, insisting that halting Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s sinister attempt to shut down still-underutilized Federal Reserve programs is an enormous win. The legislative language hasn’t yet been released and Toomey is actually claiming victory on that, so it’s not even yet clear it is a win. But even if the provisions were taken out, that’s not much to brag about. 

Yeah, sure, it’s probably better that those programs survived, so that there’s still a chance for them to be reformed to actually help human beings and not just enrich BlackRock and other Wall Street firms. But it’s not clear those programs are going to actually deliver on their original promise to help people -- and the fact that Democrats mustered far more enthusiasm to protect these programs than they did to provide $1,200 checks to starving people says everything about who party leaders think they actually work for. 

Taken together, when you account for the comparatively small-but-good things in this bill, on net it is not a victory for ordinary people — it is a victory for an austerity ideology that somehow still reigns supreme in Washington, even among Democratic leaders, and even amid an economic emergency. 

If this ideology is not confronted and defeated soon, there will be even more financial pain and suffering — and no amount of Biden platitudes appealing to the soul of the nation will stop the political and economic nightmare that will follow.

Photo Credit: Zach Gibson / Getty


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