Democracy & Government

Unsanitized: The Dealmakers Don’t Want to Make a Deal

Unsanitized: The Dealmakers Don’t Want to Make a Deal

First Response

Maybe it was the holiday spirit. Maybe that’s what has sucked me back into the COVID relief vortex. I certainly want to believe that Congress can put a deal together to help desperate constituents in the middle of a pandemic. I want to believe that Mitch McConnell won’t let partisan politics and the desire to damage an incoming Democratic president take precedence over the lives of millions of people. Maybe the Georgia runoffs were going so badly that he saw his control of the Senate tied to a relief package. Maybe his Grinch heart grew three sizes that day. It would be nice to think so.

Not as such.

The conclusion of yesterday’s events only has me more convinced that McConnell is on the same path he’s been on since March. After corporate America got a rescue commitment, there was nothing else McConnell really wanted on COVID relief. He’s mildly interested in giving corporations legal immunity, if only to set up for a kind of total immunity down the road. But destroying the Biden presidency is what really gets him up in the morning.

Here’s the story so far: there were no talks on COVID relief until a bipartisan, bicameral group put together a $908 billion deal. (They now call themselves the 908 Group.) The deal includes, per a just-released summary: $160 billion for state and local governments, a $300/week enhancement to unemployment insurance and extension of two expiring unemployment programs affecting 12 million people, $300 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program for small business, and a grab back of significant funding for minority communities, transit, schools, hospitals, vaccine distribution, testing and tracing, rental assistance, food stamps, agriculture, USPS, child care, broadband, and addiction services.

The last bit was an undefined compromise on a corporate liability shield for COVID-related lawsuits. This of course was the only thing that McConnell cared about. So after Democrats endorsed the 908 Group as a starting point for negotiations, McConnell barged in and demanded his language on liability protection, which is expansive, written by the Chamber of Commerce, and clearly designed as a template for getting corporate legal immunity more generally. Though a couple Senate Democrats started to waver, in general the party (notably the House) held out, creating an impasse. “Bipartisan does not mean Democrats must agree to whatever the Republican Leader wants,” Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor yesterday.

Then yesterday, McConnell decided to try to solve it by taking the two most contentious proposals—liability protection and the state and local government funding—off the table. The state and local aid in the 908 plan isn’t nearly enough at $160 billion, and without that, you’re talking about the total destruction of public employee jobs and services, from teachers and firefighters and police (there goes Mitch McConnell defunding the police again) to playgrounds and parks and buses and subways. Los Angeles is already cutting hundreds of city jobs and it’s just the beginning. No state and local aid would mean a lead weight on any recovery, with austerity offsetting any economic boost.

This may have been pitched as McConnell “pulling back” on his liability demand, but he knew what he was doing. No state and local aid is a red line, and the liability piece is a poison pill. He was trying to crash the talks.

Then another country is heard from; the White House (remember them?). After bipartisan pressure, the Trump administration offered their own $916 billion plan, which added in $600 one-time stimulus checks. But to compensate for that, it nixed the $300/week unemployment boost. This is a terrible trade; the unemployed need the relief the most, and the weekly benefit is far more than the single $600 check. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer immediately called this unacceptable, though McConnell and Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy immediately endorsed it. (The McConnell liability shield and the inadequate state and local aid are both in the White House proposal.)

I hope you can figure out what’s going on here. The Republicans are running out the clock. They have offered up increasingly untenable proposals in a bid to pin the responsibility for no deal on the Democrats. They are disinterested in actually getting to yes and helping people. It conflicts with their overriding desire to make life miserable for the incoming administration.

Back in March—I can’t believe it was that long ago—I assumed that there would only be one chance for COVID relief in this Congress, and so the negotiators had better make that one count. I thought that once corporate America was set right (and with the vaccine on the way and light at the end of the tunnel for pulling out of this crisis, they’re set right), leverage would be lost. I thought that inequality would skyrocket and the relief for ordinary people struggling in the crisis would run out. I thought the lack of state and local aid to cover revenue shortfalls would prove a fatal mistake.

Absolutely all of that has come to pass. It was a tragedy of shortsighted policymaking that’s going to cause a lot of pain, even if we manage to get some eventual half-measure. Governance has failed often in this era; add this to the list.

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David Dayen

David Dayen is the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. Follow him on Twitter: @ddayen.