coronavirus stimulus

The GOP’s Big Lie About Why COVID Relief Talks Failed

Help wanted. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Congress just allowed America’s unemployed to suffer a $2,400 reduction in their monthly incomes. Now, nearly 30 million jobless people are struggling to keep their families fed and housed amid the worst pandemic since 1917 and worst job market since the Great Depression.

Both parties in Washington agree that these Americans deserve some federal help. And they agree that small businesses, low-income households, and public schools merit aid as well. But Democrats favor higher levels of assistance than Republicans do. And on various other issues, Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi remain at cross-purposes. Thus, negotiations over another round of COVID-19 relief have broken down, and President Trump is attempting to restore 50 percent of those lapsed federal unemployed benefits by raiding FEMA’s emergency funding, a maneuver that is both legally dubious and logistically nightmarish.

This state of affairs will lead many to declare a pox on both houses. Mainstream journalists are predisposed to cast partisan rancor as the enemy of the common good: By ascribing the plight of the unemployed to the ideological intransigence of both parties, nonpartisan reporters can establish their bona fides as disinterested watchdogs for the median American. And in the present context, the case for tut-tutting both sides isn’t hard to make. Republicans waited until benefits were about to expire to prepare a bill. And Democrats had the opportunity to move status quo policy in their desired direction, while aiding millions of vulnerable Americans. Yet Pelosi & Co. refused to do so, in a bid to secure more of their own program by driving a hard bargain.

Or, in Mitch McConnell’s phrasing:

Alas, the “both sides” narrative is fundamentally misleading. Democrats did not hold relief hostage to “non-COVID-related” ideological priorities — only the Republican Party did.

This may seem like an inherently subjective claim; who’s to say what demands are or are not ideological, or what the precise definition of “COVID-related” is? But the central point of disagreement in the coronavirus relief talks, according to multiple reports, was fiscal aid for states and cities. And there is no honest way of construing the Democratic position on that issue as hyperpartisan, ideologically extreme, or unrelated to the COVID-19 crisis.

The pandemic has gutted the budgets of states across the country. No municipality — red or blue — has designed its fiscal affairs to withstand a simultaneous public-health crisis and economic lockdown. Unlike the federal government, states and cities cannot print U.S. dollars or borrow money at near-zero interest rates. Many are constitutionally required to balance their budgets. When a pandemic decimates their sales and income tax revenues — while dramatically increasing their Medicaid and health-care outlays — states have little choice but to lay off public-sector workers, cut social services, and/or raise taxes. All of those measures would deepen the current recession. There is no economic theory to support a recession-fighting strategy that combines massive stimulus at the federal level and simultaneous austerity at every lower level of government. If one believes that governments can mitigate recessions by filling in shortfalls in private incomes and consumer demand — a premise that the GOP’s own relief proposals tacitly endorse — then forcing state governments to reduce employment and spending is economically indefensible.

Thus, there is no coherent theoretical argument behind the GOP’s opposition to fiscal aid for states. And, by all appearances, the Republican leadership believes that they have no honest rationale of any kind for their position. If they did, Mitch McConnell presumably wouldn’t feel compelled to defend his party’s stance with bald-faced lies, as he did when saying from the Senate floor this week, “Republicans wanted to send cash now for schools, testing and unemployment benefits, and argue over state bailouts later. Democrats said nobody gets a penny unless Texas and Florida bail out New Jersey.”

Here, McConnell echoed Donald Trump’s claim that aid to states is a partisan issue, since only mismanaged, Democrat-run states are suffering from fiscal shortfalls. It is true that some blue states faced exceptional budgetary pressures pre-pandemic, as the result of underfunded pension obligations, among other things. But every state in the country has taken fiscal a hit from the pandemic — not least, Florida and Texas. The Sunshine and Lone Star states have both suffered major COVID outbreaks and revenue shortfalls as the pandemic battered the former’s tourism industry and the latter’s oil-centric economy. Florida’s budget is in such rough shape that Republican governor Ron DeSantis has likened his proposed budget cuts to the infamous “red wedding” scene from Game of Thrones.

The Democratic position is that the federal government should spare Floridians that carnage by filling in the estimated $1 trillion budget gap that states and cities will collectively face as a result of COVID-19. The Republican position is that Uncle Sam should provide states with $0 in unconditional fiscal aid (though, in negotiations, they offered $150 billion as a concession). If Nancy Pelosi’s position is an ultrapartisan, far-left ransom demand, why would McConnell feel it necessary to grossly mischaracterize that position, by pretending that red states don’t need fiscal relief, or that Democrats had literally proposed transferring funds from the governments of Florida and Texas to New Jersey?

In truth, by opposing aid to states, it is the Republican leadership that has put a non-COVID-related ideological priority above securing a bipartisan relief deal. There are no Democratic interest groups or congressional representatives who share the GOP’s opposition to state aid. There are, however, multiple Republican senators, governors, and interest groups who share the Democrats’ support for major relief. Back in May, when the COVID crisis looked less severe than it ultimately became, Republican senators from the deep-red states of Louisiana and Mississippi called for $500 billion in “in emergency funding to every state, county and community in the country.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, is lobbying on behalf of massive aid to states. Nearly 100 CEOs signed a letter to Congress arguing for $1 trillion in such aid. The Wall Street consulting firm Moody Analytics has argued that “every state needs additional federal aid,” and that the “economic impacts” of states “not receiving it quickly, are exceedingly high.”

The GOP’s opposition to significant fiscal aid is not rooted in any consensus among center-right economists or the (so-called) business community. Rather, it is ostensibly a function of the conservative movement’s long-standing aspiration to downsize state government. Which is to say: Republicans are holding relief hostage to an unpopular, non-COVID-related ideological goal.

Democrats could have paid the GOP’s ransom. They could have secured a modicum of relief for the unemployed this week, if they’d been willing to bracket the debate over aid to states. But Pelosi & Co. believe that this will be the last major relief bill before November’s election. Which means that if Democrats save aid to states for tomorrow — and help Republicans pass their desired relief measures today — there will be no aid to states this year. If Democrats accept that as the price of bipartisanship, they will not only condemn America to a needlessly severe recession, but also undermine the integrity of November’s election. As the Associated Press reports:

The coronavirus outbreak has triggered unprecedented disruptions for election officials across the U.S. They are dealing with staffing shortages and budget constraints while also trying to figure out how to process a flood of absentee ballot requests, as more and more states have moved to mail-in balloting as a safer way to vote.

… In its first round of virus relief in March, Congress sent $400 million to state election offices to help cover unexpected costs related to the pandemic. But that is far short of the $2 billion the Brennan Center for Justice has said is needed.

“Congress’s failure to reach a coronavirus deal is imperiling November’s elections,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the center’s democracy program. “Without an infusion of federal funds, election officials simply won’t be able to prepare adequately for the election, and we will see massive meltdowns across the country.”

In sum: Republicans refused to meet Democrats halfway on a policy proposal that is (1) necessary for averting a steeper recession and safeguarding U.S. democracy, and (2) supported by GOP senators from America’s reddest states, GOP governors all around the country, and the Chamber of Commerce. And the Republican Senate Majority Leader cannot defend his party’s position without telling demonstrable lies.

In this context, assigning equal blame to both parties for Congress’s failure to pass a new COVID relief bill does not make one a neutral journalist, but rather an objective ally of an ideological movement that wishes to deceive the public about a policy stance that it does not wish to candidly defend.

The GOP’s Big Lie About Why COVID Relief Talks Failed