Congress Punts, POTUS Plays and We Pay

Blog Post
Thursday, August 13, 2020

Avid readers of The Lookout will notice that my missive today is unlike any of my previous entries. If you are accustomed to the colorful charts and technical policy analyses that usually accompany my posts, my sincerest apologies. Those features will return, but today’s post is from the heart.

Prior to rejoining The Concord Coalition in March, I spent 16 years working in the halls of Congress. Most of that time was very rewarding and I was honored to have a front row seat as I watched members of the House and Senate come together in times of crisis to solve seemingly intractable problems. 

Occasionally, however, there were times when I needed to step away from tools of my trade – my computer, my spreadsheets, the pages of bill text, and my white board – and put pen to paper in a silent scream against the selfish and injudicious actions of the two chambers. I never shared my thoughts, but the exercise itself was cathartic. Targets of my ire included the sudden and scandal-induced death of bipartisan Social Security reform in 1998, the abuse of reconciliation and egregious budget gimmicks that gave rise to the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and the grossly irresponsible budget-busting tax reform bill of 2017.  

Today, I take pen to paper again – this time with the audacity to share my thoughts.

Last week I fully anticipated that I would be spending my waking hours prior to publication of this newsletter buried in legislative text, frantically distilling the latest coronavirus relief package from Congress for our readers. Instead, I find myself staring at an empty desk while federal officials jet home for their sacrosanct August recess. Why? Because despite over 160,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, a record-setting decline in economic activity, over 31 million people collecting some form of unemployment, and millions of children unable to return to school, lawmakers refused to compromise. 

Unconscionable.

To date, Congress and the president have cooperated to enact four pandemic relief bills and provide $2.4 trillion for families, workers, business owners, health care institutions, and governments affected by the pandemic. Despite the alarming impact of these measures on projected budget deficits and debt, The Concord Coalition has been supportive due to one simple fact: our economy – and, by consequence, the federal budget – will never recover if Americans don’t feel safe.

When the bulk of the federal aid – the $1.7 trillion CARES Act – was signed into law on March 27, the daily number of new coronavirus cases was approximately 19,000 and the daily increase in the number of deaths was 400. Six months later, those numbers are now practically three times larger. But unlike late spring, the rebate checks have been spent, the supplemental pandemic unemployment benefit has expired, the application date for the Paycheck Protection Program has passed, and practically all of the money in the Coronavirus Relief Fund for state and local governments has been distributed. The disease is more prevalent than ever, but now Americans have fewer resources to combat the economic fallout or to fight the disease itself. 

Each side has expressed support for another pandemic relief bill and each side has tendered their initial offer. The House-passed HEROES Act would spend another $3.4 trillion whereas the Senate Republican package of proposals would spend closer to $1.2 trillion. Clearly there is plenty of playing field in between to reach agreement.

On what planet is an acceptable outcome ZERO? 

Recent analysis conducted by economist and former Treasury official Ernie Tedeschi revealed that if the weekly pandemic unemployment benefits in the CARES Act are allowed to expire, U.S. gross domestic product would be 2 percent smaller by the end of 2020 and there would be 1.7 million fewer jobs nationwide.  According to economist Joseph Vavra of the University of Chicago in The New York Times, if those supplemental benefits disappear, “there’s a good chance that what is now an unemployment problem becomes a foreclosure crisis and an eviction crisis.” If members of Congress were smart, they’d choose bailing out the unemployed now versus bailing out the banks later.

To add insult, on August 8, President Trump announced with great flourish a series of toothless executive memoranda from the ballroom of his eponymous Bedminster golf club - actions that will have virtually no effect except to make any further negotiations more difficult: A payroll tax proposal that neither side in Congress supports, a pseudo-unemployment insurance scheme virtually no state can navigate nor afford, an eviction “moratorium” that isn’t, and student loan action that could have been, and should have been, more robust.  

At some point in our political history “compromise” became a dirty word. Somewhere it became acceptable in an election year for Congress to punt the people’s work until the November results were known. In today’s environment, however, where twin crises are leaving a trail of death and destruction, it is imperative that lawmakers rise above the low expectations they champion, return to Washington, and do the work they were elected to do.

Americans deserve no less.