The Republican Party does not engineer policies to match the social crises of the day, so much as it engineers social crises to match the policy demands (and self-affirming delusions) of its stakeholders.
In the world where GOP lawmakers, donors, and activists live, the United States suffers from a never-ending capital shortage that requires evermore lower tax rates for the wealthy; mass, voluntary unemployment that demands ever steeper cuts to social spending; and an epidemic of violent crime that can only be cured with mass deportation and official sanctioning of police brutality.
In 2017, America’s investors were cash rich, while its corporations were historically profitable. Nevertheless, Republicans made addressing a nonexistent crisis of corporate profitability one of its top legislative priorities upon taking power. There is no evidence that providing poor people access to basic medical care discourages them from seeking employment. To the contrary, state-level expansions of Medicaid have been associated with increases in the labor-force participation of low-income residents. All that appending work requirements to Medicaid seems to accomplish is to lower enrollment in the program by creating more bureaucratic hoops for the working poor to jump through. Nevertheless, the Trump administration has made promoting such work requirements one of its top health-care policy goals (right after slashing funding for the program outright). Undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a much lower rate than native born Americans. Nevertheless, the administration has established an entire office devoted to monitoring “immigrant crime.”
In good times, the GOP’s commitment to addressing the policy challenges it would like to believe that America faces — rather than those that we actually face — works fairly well for its elected officials and their core constituents. For the first three years of Donald Trump’s presidency, favorable economic conditions delivered steady improvements in the median American’s material well-being, even as the federal government devoted its limited resources to kleptocratic schemes and phantom threats.
But the good times are now over. As coronavirus proliferates across the U.S., and the global economy races toward recession, Republicans are faced with a crisis that flatters none of their party’s prejudices. When a pandemic shutters entire industries, the fact that ordinary workers are not the sole (or even primary) authors of their own economic fates becomes too conspicuous to hide. When the inability of any one American to afford to stay home from work or see a doctor imperils everyone in their vicinity, our collective interest in basic social rights gets harder to obscure. And when a single Chinese billionaire is better equipped to provide Americans with coronavirus tests than their own government bureaucracies, it becomes harder to argue that “dismantling the administrative state” and restoring American greatness are compatible objectives.
But Republicans aren’t done tilting at windmills just yet; apparently, the imaginary scourge of welfare-induced indolence does not end when a pandemic begins. As the Los Angeles Times reports:
Despite mounting pleas from California and other states, the Trump administration isn’t allowing states to use Medicaid more freely to respond to the coronavirus crisis by expanding medical services … That’s making it harder for states to quickly sign up poor patients for coverage so they can get necessary testing or treatment if they are exposed to coronavirus.
And it threatens to slow efforts by states to bring on new medical providers, set up emergency clinics or begin quarantining and caring for homeless Americans at high risk from the virus.
The paper goes on to note that the rationale behind the administration’s position is quite likely ideological: Seema Verma, head of the government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has long promoted efforts to reduce Medicaid enrollment in conservative states through, among other means, the implementation of work requirements.
Meanwhile, on the eve of an apparent recession, the administration is moving forward with new eligibility requirements for food stamps, which will result in roughly 700,000 Americans losing access to federal nutritional assistance this year.
It is possible that pending House legislation, endorsed by both Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, will force the administration to honor a truce in its war on social provision. But Mitch McConnell derided the initial draft of that bill as an “ideological wishlist” full of controversial, partisan proposals. The Senate majority leader therefore allowed his colleagues to depart for a long weekend on Thursday, instead of keeping them in session so as to pass an economic relief package as soon as possible.
That McConnell would display a depraved indifference to the well-being of vulnerable Americans in the midst of a historic crisis is unsurprising. But the fact that he would feel little urgency about reassuring financial markets or countering an economic downturn when a Republican is in the White House is a bit unexpected. Given the GOP’s self-serving hypocrisy on the permissibility of deficits or state subsidies to favored industries, one might have guessed that the party would prioritize Donald Trump’s political interest in not presiding over mass economic hardship in an election year over its ideological allergy to social insurance. But one would (apparently) have guessed wrong. According to reports, a major stumbling block in House negotiations has been Republican fears that temporary relief measures — such as paid leave for workers sickened by the COVID-19 virus — will prove a slippery slope to more permanent expansions in social provision. Late Friday afternoon, House Republicans came out in opposition to Pelosi and Mnuchin’s compromise.
In other words, it is possible that congressional Republicans are less cynical — and more delusional — than they appear. And a belated, lackluster pandemic-relief effort may be one side effect of the party’s ideological pathologies.
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