BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | DEC 8, 2020
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act became law at the end of President Donald Trump’s signing pens on March 27, 2020. It was the centerpiece of four bills aimed at relief from the virus.
Since then, we’ve been pounded by one crisis and one catastrophe after another: floods, fires, hurricanes, recession, and deadly riots. Compounding it all is a lethal virus that we couldn’t even name, let alone tame. It continues to rampage through big cities, small towns, and farms. It has killed 280,000 people from 15 million cases, with more dying every minute. That foreboding statistic doesn’t count those who have taken their own lives or succumbed to maladies associated with the pandemic.
The medical community, several government agencies, charitable organizations, and those incredible American volunteers who always show up in times of crisis have all mobilized to fight the virus. The outpouring has been life-saving and heartwarming.
The United States Congress mobilized, too. Some of the $2.2 trillion in CARES Act relief and hundreds of billions contained in other bills eventually made its way through the pipelines to individuals, businesses, states and localities, churches, and charitable organizations, but the journey was long and the obstructions numerous. We may never know the degree of mismanagement of those funds or how much never reached the intended beneficiaries. Billions of dollars will revert back to the Treasury because it went unspent. Fingers are being pointed in everyone’s direction. Yet the benefits were palpable and the beneficiaries thankful for them. It was a good start.
Now it’s December and only now is there optimism that Congress will do more, nine months late and a trillion dollars short.
The past nine months have been devoid of good public policy but not the b-grade political theater and partisan maneuvering that would have made Machiavelli jealous. It’s been a shameless struggle for political credit and partisan advantage. President Trump’s incessant bragging, hyperbole, and clumsy attempts to minimize the danger of the virus detracted from the good that was being done by his own administration and made progress more difficult.
The House Speaker seemed willing to put off relief long enough to prevent President Trump from getting credit. She hemmed and hawed, went high and then low, and promoted bloated and irresponsible legislation purposely designed to go nowhere.
Then, just weeks after it became apparent that Joseph Biden would be confirmed as President-Elect by the Electoral College the clouds parted, the angels sang, and the sun shone brightly across the land.
The Speaker and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York produced a mysterious secret relief plan, the contents of which are still unknown. And within days of that she and Senator Schumer spoke kindly of a new bipartisan coalition relief proposal they both had recently and roundly rejected. Senator McConnell performed the same about-face.
Some on the Hill whose judgment I respect believe Mr. Biden was behind the revival. Speaker Pelosi seemed to admit as much. The difference is “we have a new president,” she said.
I suspect that is the case. The incoming President and his new economic advisers may have recognized the futility of further delaying economic and compassionate relief until March or April of 2021. He gave the bipartisan plan a full-throated endorsement. The need, he declared, is now.
He was right. The landscape is already a path of destruction that would make Attila the Hun proud.
Medical first responders are just worn out physically and emotionally. There aren’t enough hospital beds so states and localities are again constructing make-shift treatment centers. Supplies and equipment are dwindling down.
“…nearly nine months have passed since the pandemic began, at least 280,000 Americans have died, funding for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has run dry and up to 12 million people could lose jobless benefits by year’s end, portending a miserable Christmas season unless Congress once again acts,” wrote Senators Mark Warner and Susan Collins in a recent op-ed column.
Those 12 million Americans may lose their jobs, half of them permanently in part because 100,000 small businesses have gone dark, permanently. According to PEW Research, 46 percent of lower-income adults are having trouble paying bills; a quarter of middle-income adults are, too. A quarter of adults say they or someone in their household has lost a job because of the virus. Black and Latino workers are the hardest hit.
Students are back home trying to climb a professional ladder with no rungs, facing large debts from schooling they aren’t getting.
Renters are facing eviction and homeowners are facing foreclosures. Protections from eviction expire at the end of the year. According to the Washington Post, “Nearly 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January, Moody’s Analytics warns. Last month, 9 million renters said they were behind on rent according to a Census Bureau survey.” The heaviest burdens are hitting families with children, blacks, and Hispanics, according to the bureau.
CBS Sunday Morning reported: “In Hampton, VA, Margaret Eaddy posted a video online when garbage bags and boxes with most of her worldly possessions were about to join her and her husband, John on the street.” John’s hours driving a truck have been cut back. When CBS correspondent Ted Koppel spoke to them, they were living in their car. Many people don’t have enough food on the table. They waited in line in parking lots for a free Thanksgiving Dinner. Mental stress is pervasive.
What would it be like three months from now? I suspect Mr. Biden didn’t want to find out. I suspect he and a good many other public servants in Congress, the agencies, and the states no longer care who gets the credit and who doesn’t. As Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri put it: “I think in terms of the total number $900 billion in December will be much more valuable than twice that $2 or 3 trillion in March or April. If we don’t get this done in December, I’d be surprised if we get anything done before March.” It is also interesting to note that Democratic Senator Dick Durban of Illinois, a member of Senator Schumer’s leadership team, spoke positively about the bipartisan coalition’s plan well before Senator Schumer or Speaker Pelosi relented.
The rebirth of some semblance of civic imperative and adult common sense is a welcome relief.
There are some tough issues to iron out beginning with the total amount of relief needed given the prospects for vaccinations by the Spring and Summer and the means to offset as much as possible. Other sticking points involve aid to the states favored by many Democrats and opposed by many Republicans and liability protections against lawsuits that businesses and individuals might face favored by many Republicans and opposed by many Democrats.
Other major provisions in one or more of the proposals that may spark some disagreement include tax credits for eating out, critical aid to schools engaged in remote learning, funding for distribution of vaccines, aid to small business, protections against eviction and foreclosure, medical supplies, extended unemployment compensation (disagreement is over the amount of the benefit), family leave, stimulus checks to individual Americans, and bailouts for essential industries such as transportation.
But those issues are resolvable—some could be revisited next year—and they do not present an impenetrable barrier to getting something passed and signed by President Trump before Christmas.
The American people, especially those on the medical front lines, those who have toiled in jobs that may never come back, the sick and elderly, and those facing homelessness deserve better. It’s been said before, but many Americans are just sick and tired of being sick and tired, waiting for the callous political shenanigans to end.
Some people expect the government to shoulder all of the responsibility. Others have lower expectations of what the government can do, should do, and should not do. But there is not much division on the severity of the crisis. PEW found recently, according to the Washington Times that 84 percent of US adults say the pandemic is a “major threat” to the US economy. There is no disagreement on the tragic loss of life.
What also doesn’t seem to be in dispute is that regardless of your philosophy of government or your expectations of government in times of crisis, our government has pretty much failed.
Congress can’t even do nothing right. The 116th Congress, limping to its end in a month didn’t pass a budget in either of its two years of existence. It also didn’t pass the individual appropriation bills in those two years, so on December 11th, government funding will run out, once again. The best Congress can do is pass another temporary funding bill to keep the government open for another week so members can decide what to do—another continuing resolution, a big ‘omnibus’ appropriation or smaller ‘minibuses’, or let the government shutdown, again.
Great choices. This is not new to anyone. It is a broken record.
The Legislative Branch of Government, the first branch is the temple of representative democracy in our Republic, and the one institution to which the citizenry can go for redress of grievances and the protection of their rights. The institution is dilapidated. It makes you wonder if there is reason for hope that more in public service will ever see the merit of bipartisan consensus and civil discourse, two essentials of functional governance. Reaching that end will be impossible unless citizens and public servants alike submit to some attitude adjustment and quit being so damn angry, argumentative, and arrogant in their/our ignorance.
‘Tis the season of hope. ‘Tis the season of goodwill, gentility, and generosity. ‘Tis the season of reconciliation. It is a good time for reflection and change. If you can’t get there, at least fake it until our crises have passed.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.