With all the hullabaloo about the Supreme Court vacancy, the election and President Trump’s contracting Covid-19, the national media has largely overlooked a pressing matter before Congress that needs immediate attention.
Whether the coronavirus epidemic surges or wanes, its ongoing economic and social effects are unquestionable. The U.S. bought precious time with earlier actions by Congress, the president and the Federal Reserve to provide considerable stimulus for our economy.
In the first half of this year, those emergency spending measures — over $3 trillion in all — basically replaced most of the nation’s economic output lost to the epidemic. But even as Covid-19 continues to ravage the economy, negotiations in Congress to provide more economic aid to families and businesses are stalled.
Some observers fear that this political impasse could continue beyond next month’s election, possibly even until a new Congress takes office in January. Economists of nearly all political stripes — who rarely see eye to eye on anything — generally agree that the deadlock threatens the nation’s fragile economic recovery.
Millions of Americans who were able to make rent payments and buy essentials like food and medicine with the extra money Washington sent through state unemployment systems are especially vulnerable. They’ve seen their supplemental federal benefit drop from $600 per week to $300, and even that funding has ended.
With this stream of money dried up, more people will be unable to pay rent, buy enough food, or afford their families’ medical bills. Many will have to resort to welfare programs, food stamps and Medicaid. In a vicious circle, they’ll become dependent on other federal and state programs to make ends meet without the help they received under the emergency federal stimulus program.
Likewise, many hundreds of thousands of small businesses that have been hanging on for dear life now face the distinct possibility of closing for good. With their demise would go millions of decent jobs held primarily by hardworking middle-class people who live just a paycheck or two away from financial disaster.
The Payroll Protection Program, passed as part of the earlier compromise between Congress and the administration, gave these businesses a lifeline. Now they’ll drown with the dead weight of an economy still in severe distress. And more workers who were kept on payrolls under the PPP will sink into unemployment.
Unfortunately, political leaders in Washington have resorted to the usual foot-stomping and name-calling rather than action on this critical issue. First, the Democratic leadership in the House passed a massive $3.4 trillion bill that some Republicans likened to a Christmas wish list, loaded up with expensive presents for the Democrats’ special-interest friends. Then Republicans in the Senate dithered while they negotiated with themselves over the size of another federal stimulus bill, or whether to pass one at all.
This impasse should have been broken weeks ago. The Senate finally did pass a $500 billion emergency bill that would have pumped a considerable amount of money into the economy. When a bipartisan group of House members took the politically risky step of breaking with their leaders to urge passage of the compromise bill, they were beaten back by the leadership.
Instead, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made the magnanimous (to her) offer of a $2.2 trillion bill. In response, the Trump administration has signaled support for a $1.5 trillion bill, which meets Pelosi’s proposal more than halfway. Clearly, there’s room to reach an agreement.
Since Congress is thankfully still a bicameral body, with a Senate and not just a House, the deadlock can be broken by serious good-faith negotiations. Trump has said he’ll sign whatever compromise legislation Congress sends to him.
And compromise is the key word here. If Congressional leaders have calculated that they can gain more short-term political advantage by fighting rather than settling this dispute, they will have committed gross misfeasance.
There was a time not too long ago when $500 billion proposed by the Senate would have been considered huge, and when $3 trillion proposed by the House would have been considered fiscally reckless. But these aren’t ordinary times. The nation is at war with an invisible enemy. There is a number, between restraint and excess, that must be found. If it isn’t, and soon, the number that should be cut is the number of years members of Congress can serve. Maybe it’s time to pass term limits.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.