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Congress’s Bipartisanship Fetish Is Killing the Covid Relief Effort

A theater of compromise on Capitol Hill is sabotaging the hopes of saving ordinary Americans from the pandemic’s economic ravages.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

The recent good news on the coronavirus front—the vaccines are on their way—hasn’t negated the bad. Deaths and hospitalizations are on the rise, and the economic situation remains extraordinarily dire. We learned in last week’s job report that unemployment only dipped slightly last month as job growth slowed and hundreds of thousands of Americans gave up looking for work. Millions more, including over 20 percent of families with children, are behind on their rent. And researchers at Columbia University recently estimated that there will be five to 12 million more Americans in poverty in January than there were at the beginning of this year.

But not to worry: Bipartisan accord has arrived to save the day once again. In classic fashion, a Gang of Roughly Half a Dozen, led by Joe Manchin, has put together a grand compromise on the next coronavirus relief package. And we can thank the ever-moderate and reasonable Mitt Romney for some of the basic contours of the deal. “He insisted that Republicans could go no higher than roughly $900 billion in new spending—a number that Ms. Collins floated as a possible compromise figure—and that liability protections for employers would have to be included in some form,” The New York Times reported last week. “The proposal was made final Monday night over a pizza dinner hosted by Mr. Romney in an oversize hearing room. It would provide $300 a week in additional benefits to the unemployed for 18 weeks, after a $600-per-week unemployment benefit lapsed in July.”

The soon-to-be-finalized $908 billion package also includes more funds for the Paycheck Protection Program and $160 billion for state and local governments. It’s also expected to include a new, to-be-drafted eviction freeze. As The New York Times’ editorial board wrote in a ringing endorsement on Monday, this is all “better than nothing.” But how much better could ‘better’ have been? For starters, the deal doesn’t yet include stimulus checks that could buoy the finances of all Americans, unemployed or not, and help prod the economy along. Last week, Manchin suggested to the Associated Press that reviving them might be up to Joe Biden and the new Congress who “can put together a different proposal that takes us further down the road for more recovery” come January.

Republicans are on the cusp of winning their battle to grant companies legal immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits. The deal is set to grant firms temporary indemnification; it’s entirely possible that Mitch McConnell ultimately prevails in his push for a fuller liability shield. The right’s case for this has been that companies will otherwise be buried in an oncoming avalanche of suits from employees.

Those expectations have been overblown. “The COVID-19 complaint tracker from law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth shows that, out of 6,500 pieces of COVID-related litigation, only a couple hundred cases involve wrongful death or conditions of employment (like lack of PPE or exposure to COVID-19 at work),” The American Prospect’s David Dayen wrote Monday. “More to the point, there’s no sign of a wave of cases to come, because they would be extremely hard to pursue and prove, especially if you have one or two exposed individuals against a big corporation with a legal department.” In short, it’s already unlikely that many companies will face real challenges in court for forcing employees to work in unsafe conditions. Unsatisfied, Republicans have successfully brought negotiations on the Hill toward a grand compromise that eliminates even the vestigial possibility that a meaningful number of workers might find recourse in the legal system.

It’s worth noting how much worse this package is than the last major bipartisan proposals overall. In September, the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus put together an agreement that included another round of stimulus checks targeted to low-income Americans; a boost to unemployment benefits potentially more generous than the one in the new compromise; and $500 billion in funding for state and local governments, compared to the $160 billion now on the table. In October, the White House came to Democrats with a potential deal that would have been worth $1.8 trillion, ⁠including another round of stimulus checks for all Americans, with an additional $500 boost to child payments; $400 a week in added unemployment benefits, compared to the $300 in the newest deal; and $300 billion for state and local governments. Both deals, unfortunately, accommodated Republican demands on liability waivers and included other provisions that fell short of Democratic expectations. But both were also obviously better than the deal we have now. Both were rejected by Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leadership.

In fairness, it’s unlikely either package would have passed the Senate—McConnell declared the latter dead on arrival—but it’s interesting to consider how the past three or so months and the election might have played out if Pelosi and Democratic leaders had chosen to back one of them while upbraiding Senate Republicans for blocking it. Instead, they spent the fall raising a flurry of fairly small-ball objections to the offers on hand, presumably to deny the White House credit for devising a real proposal and to avoid granting Trump a talking point in the final stage of the campaign.

Asked Friday about her willingness to embrace the new deal given her hostility to the prior larger ones, Pelosi seemed to argue that Biden’s victory had reduced the pressure on Congress to spend heavily right away on relief. “This has simplicity,” she said. “It’s what we’ve had in our bills. It’s for a shorter period of time, but that’s OK now, because we have a new presidenta president who recognizes that we need to depend on science to stop the virus, a president who understands that America’s working families need to have money in their pockets in a way that takes them into the future, without any of the contraptions of any of the other bills that the administration was associating itself with before.” But we also have a diminished Democratic majority in the House and, unless Democrats prevail in Georgia’s two runoffs, a Senate controlled by Republicans eager for a speedy return to austerity politics the moment Biden is sworn in—poor conditions for passing a large supplement to the legislation at hand.

Those who see the previous proposals as missed political opportunities that might have helped Democrats take the Senate are, of course, operating on a different plane from Pelosi and leadership; the inclination, always, is to lean toward the strategies requiring the least effort and creative energy. Forcing McConnell to say no was too difficult to be bothered with; instead, they said no themselves. The Problem Solvers, by contrast, made the most of the situation to their own ends: By presenting a proposal they probably knew was unlikely to pass the Senate, and which they perhaps suspected Pelosi would reject, they reinforced the impression among donors and constituents voting in November that they’re Congress’s lone adults, people who would get things done in Washington if it were less divided. Never mind that the value of the moderates’ political brand depends entirely on division and gridlock persisting—what would it really mean to be a Problem Solver in a Congress where problems were routinely solved?

This is our politics: Intransigence and comity alike are performances staged atop the skewed political structures that actually shape substantive outcomes. Whatever else was said, whatever other statements were issued, whatever other fake proposals were released and backed or not backed, Republicans were always going to direct this process—because they control the Senate and the White House, yes—but more fundamentally because Congress has been built in a way that empowers conservatives. This is the central fact of American politics and it has already crippled a presidency that has yet to begin. And we have every reason to expect the next four years will closely resemble the last few monthsposturing, negotiation, pseudo-negotiation, and a country slowly sinking into quicksand.