USA Today Opinion: Relief deal reached after Americans were left feeling abandoned
Now that Congress has finally reached a deal on COVID-19 relief, it would be nice to say the system worked. But it didn’t, unless you think it’s worth celebrating months of fruitless negotiations while disease-afflicted Americans suffered unnecessarily.
The compromise is a $900 billion package that will keep some businesses and families afloat through this dark winter. Better late than never, we suppose. It’s hard to feel good, however, about yet another massive pile of pages thrust before lawmakers desperate to leave town.
The pressure was intense as deadlines bore down: Christmas on Friday, enhanced unemployment benefits running out Saturday and an eviction moratorium ending New Year’s Eve. Lawmakers also had to get the deal done in time to add it to the must-pass $1.4 trillion bill to fund the government through September.
Political scientists would call this set of circumstances — multiple hard deadlines and unthinkable consequences on politics and real life in the event of failure — highly conducive to productive negotiations. We’d call it corrosive brinkmanship that left Americans feeling abandoned in a time of rising hunger, lost homes, lost jobs and lost loved ones. COVID-19 has now claimed nearly 319,000 lives in the United States, and vaccine rollouts notwithstanding, it will claim tens, if not hundreds, of thousands more before the pandemic is under control.
Deals often come down to math. The Democratic-controlled House passed a $3 trillion package in May, then came down to $2.2 trillion. The Republican Senate considered a $1 trillion version. So what happened? In a word, politics.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was negotiating with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin but, in October, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly warned President Donald Trump not to cut a deal with her. Republicans worried it would divide them, and McConnell said it could disrupt plans to rush Judge Amy Coney Barrett onto the Supreme Court.
Pelosi, meanwhile, insisted she was genuinely interested in a deal rather than denying Trump a victory that might boost the economy and help him win reelection. Why would she be talking to Mnuchin if she didn’t want a deal? she asked.
Whatever motivations anyone did or didn’t have, Barrett is on the court, and the election was Nov. 3. There should have been no obstacles to a quick agreement to assuage the anxieties of millions of Americans. But it took more than six weeks for negotiators to arrive at the same place they could have gotten to in the summer: McConnell dropped his demand for liability protection for businesses in COVID-19 lawsuits in exchange for Democrats dropping state and local aid from the talks.
Then Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., threw in a new wrench by trying to limit steps the Federal Reserve could take to help the economy in an emergency — as if this was a major concern of people lined up at food banks or staring at eviction notices.
The overdue relief measure will deliver money for vaccine distribution and health care workers, loans for small business and $600 stimulus checks for qualifying individuals. Longer, larger unemployment benefits will continue. As a bonus, it will help solve the problem of surprise medical bills from out-of-network providers. But a close reading of the fine print in the weeks and months to come will undoubtedly reveal less savory provisions as well.
In normal times, we’d be worried about borrowing an additional $900 billion and adding it to the national debt. These are not normal times. This is the biggest public health disaster in more than a century. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed painful inequities in medical care, opportunity and economic security, and gaping holes in the safety net for families and children.
The lesson from this long struggle isn’t that the federal government should be more stingy in a crisis. The lesson is that the government has a crucial role in helping families and businesses survive until the coronavirus is defeated.