I’ve never been a fan of the joke about what “the writers” are serving up in this season of the Trump years. It’s just too cloying for me. But last night was definitely a very special Christmas episode, with a plot twist.
The story so far: Congress, after nine months of dithering, passed a COVID relief bill, attached to a year-end omnibus that funds the government until next September. As practically the only thing Congress has passed all year (seriously, it was bill #29 that has made it through both houses of Congress), lawmakers attached all sorts of other legislation, noncontroversial and otherwise, making it a 5,593-page “what I did in the legislature this year” package. We know this story: it’s good relief, a lifeline for struggling people, but not enough to bridge to a time when mass immunization lifts the crisis and returns the country to normalcy.
Into all this walks Donald Trump, who’d been… well, focused on other things, like overturning the election. Trump dropped a four-minute video last night which combined McCain-style whining about porkbarrel spending, a stroke of populism, and classic vindictiveness.
Trump started by decrying “wasteful” spending in the relief bill, tallying up a bunch of funny-sounding programs (amberjack fish, haha! Asian carp! Poultry production technology!). I believe all these programs are in the omnibus section of the bill, not the COVID relief section. First, it’s a stupid gimmick to define programs in a couple words that are actually pretty vital. (Poultry production technology would add efficiencies and perhaps save lives in the production process, to use one example. Here’s an entire conference about it.) Second, the spending, while not wasteful, also doesn’t add up to much. The fourteen programs explicitly identified total $3.849 billion, in a bill of $2.2 trillion (between the $1.3 trillion discretionary spending and the $892 billion in COVID relief.
Trump went on to say that the $600 direct payments in the bill were “ridiculously low,” and that he wanted $2,000, gesturing toward cutting the “wasteful” spending and using the proceeds. Trump didn’t quite say he would veto the whole package, just that he would “ask Congress to amend” it.
For the record, it would cost about $380 billion to increase the value of the payments by $1,400, and Trump identified $3.8 billion. I did the math, his calculations would add $13.91 to everyone’s check. But the numbers sound big in nominal terms, so he gets away with relying on the innumeracy of the public. But who cares about the cost when people are suffering? We have skyrocketing poverty and falling personal income. Checks for $2,000 are obviously better than $600.
Aides intimated that Trump was just venting, but he spoke a Bulworth-style truth: the checks are ridiculously low. My thinking has shifted on this. A flotilla of economists and wonks took to Twitter yesterday to explain that actually, there’s a lot more than just $600 for people in this bill, and that’s only one-fifth of the total spending. That’s all correct; if you’ve been on unemployment for the duration of the pandemic, between the CARES Act and this bill you’re getting something close to $30,000 from the government. (Less taxes, of course, including the tax on your time.)
But that universe of people, while in need, is about 2-3 percent of the total workforce. By contrast something like 80 percent of the public, everyone making $100,000 or less, is getting the check. From a messaging standpoint of “what’s in it for me,” that’s just going to take precedence. Moreover, you can see the two payments, from CARES and this bill, as a leveler of decades of soaring inequality, and really the least you can do for a population that has had the rules of capitalism rigged against them. Even if they weren’t means tested, giving everyone thousands of dollars means more to those at the lower end.
The politics, then, argue for higher payments. It was Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans who kept them artificially low. Now here comes Trump asking for them to be nearly tripled. It’s amazing that he waited until after losing the election to flash the old-time populism and wedge both parties, but here we are. And then came the moment where Mitch McConnell’s head blew up like in Scanners.
Democrats Practicing Politics in the Wild!
As soon as Trump posted that video, I suggested that the House pass a one-page bill, increasing the checks from $600 to $2,000. Much to my delight in seeing that political instincts in the Democratic Party aren’t totally dead, about 10 minutes later, Nancy Pelosi suggested the same thing, saying she would offer unanimous consent to amend the bill. Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) even wrote the amendment. (I gave it a name: the $2,000 Does Offer Long-Lasting Available Relief or $2,000 DOLLAR, Act.) Eventually, Chuck Schumer got on board as well. Joe Biden hasn’t said anything, but he was on the record for seeking more money when he became president. So the Democratic leadership beat him to it, and called Trump’s bluff.
Now, a word on “unanimous consent”: it would be better to just pass a bill in the House, and demand its takeup in the Senate. Unanimous consent needs to be, well, unanimous; one Republican House member can derail it. If you move a bill, every House Republican has to go on the record of whether they stand with Trump for spending $380 billion in a direct transfer to low- and middle-income people. Every one of those that doesn’t gets a campaign ad in 2022 about how “you needed that extra money, and Congressman X voted to not give it to you.” So yes, #ForceTheVote.
This puts McConnell in a terrible spot. There’s an election in Georgia in two weeks that will determine his Senate majority. The only reason McConnell passed this bill is to save Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue’s careers and preserve his control of the Senate. He put an artificial $900 billion cap on it, which Donald Trump and Democrats now are united in regarding as puny. If McConnell resists the change, he’s all alone in denying money to the American people. These checks poll extremely well, and both Democrats in Georgia are already running on the $2,000 level. If McConnell resists, losing the Senate is a much likelier scenario. If he doesn’t, people get $2,000.
There are so many amazing subplots here. Trump can’t stand McConnell for abandoning his overthrow-the-election gambit, so he sticks in the final knife. The threat, by the way, is real: there are only 10 days left in this Congress, and Trump doesn’t have the bill yet (which is being “enrolled,” essentially double-checked for errors). He could “pocket veto” the bill and just not sign it, and in 10 days the clock would run out, and there would be no bill for anyone. The new Congress would have to start all over.
This would be a disastrous scenario—unemployment programs would expire, the eviction moratorium would lift, and more. Already this snafu is delaying the flow of relief. And the only man holding it up is Mitch McConnell. This upends the entire shift of the multi-racial working class away from the Democratic Party, and re-focuses the spotlight brightly on McConnell. Trump handed the Democrats a total gift here, and if they play it right, the payoff for people—literally—will be incredible.
Days Without a Bailout Oversight Chair
Today I Learned
- Good Dean Baker piece on maxing out on vaccines. (CEPR)
- Biden shouldn’t be thinking about using the Defense Production Act to make more vaccines, he should read some Dean Baker and do it. (CNBC)
- There does appear to be a deal for Pfizer to supply more doses. (New York Times)
- If the wealthy want to jump the line for a vaccine, make them pay through the nose for it, and use that money for more vaccines. (Stat News)
- It’s just very likely that more infectious strain of COVID is already in the U.S., and we wouldn’t know if it was anyway because we don’t test for it. (New Republic)
- And still the U.S. isn’t testing everyone on incoming flights from the UK. (CNBC)
- The U.S. death rate compares decently to death rates in Europe. The virus is what it is. (Mother Jones)
- The college basketball player who collapsed on the court has myocarditis, the disease sports medicine experts thought correlates with COVID. (Gator Sports)
- As the pandemic triggers loneliness, it’s the deadliest year for drug use in U.S. history. (New York Magazine)