On Friday, President Trump signed into law a fourth emergency package to respond to the coronavirus pandemic’s health and economic crises. All four deals passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, but that cooperation is beginning to fray. Although many believe more relief is needed, lawmakers are already sparring over priorities and costs — as competing party priorities and internal disagreements emerge.
In this case, the $484 billion measure replenishes a fund to help small businesses stay afloat, supports hospitals treating coronavirus patients and ramps up funding for testing to detect the virus. Across the four packages, Congress has committed about $3 trillion for emergency aid.
Here are four takeaways from Congress’s latest effort last week.
1. Parties go to battle, even in a crisis
A crisis can motivate congressional parties to cooperate, lest the public blame one of the parties for a stalemate. As enactment of four coronavirus packages attests, when the costs of inaction are salient and increasing — millions filing for unemployment benefits, tens of thousands dying — Congress can move swiftly.
But that doesn’t mean partisans lay down their swords. This deal took shape only after Senate Democrats blocked Republicans from adopting a measure that would only replenish funds for small-business loans. Senate Republicans then promptly derailed Democrats’ preferred bill, which added funding for hospitals and state and local governments on top of Small Business Administration funds to help cover company payrolls. But Republicans did not pin blame on the Democrats, even after the SBA committed all of its money. Instead, Democrats negotiated with the administration to combine the Democrats’ funding priorities with additional SBA funding in a final deal.
2. Centralized bargaining, on steroids
In recent years, party leaders have tended to dominate negotiations on big-ticket items, often with the support of rank-and-file lawmakers who believe leaders will secure deals they can endorse and sell to their constituents. Although congressional committee chairs do occasionally still orchestrate negotiations on major measures, party leaders far more often call the shots. Negotiations on this fourth emergency package centralized power even more tightly in leaders’ hands. Legislating during a crisis — when the public expects Congress to act fast — increases most lawmakers’ willingness to allow party leaders to bargain on their behalf.
The unique health risks of the coronavirus, which has isolated most lawmakers in their districts, further concentrates leaders’ power. The speaker called members back to Washington only after the parties had inked a deal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) probably expected that the House would vote to authorize “proxy voting” to allow absent members to record their votes. She called lawmakers back to vote after Republicans objected, derailing that plan.
Across the Capitol, just a few senators showed up for the Senate’s pro forma session. Senators passed the bill on a voice vote by unanimous consent, meaning that a single senator could have blocked passage, if he or she were present on the floor to object. But no senator wanted to bear the blame for blocking emergency relief, although a pair of Republicans showed up to criticize the process. As Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said on the chamber floor, “This crisis is too big to leave up to a small handful of people.” The prospect that a single senator could derail a voice vote on a future package might help explain Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s vow to ice future aid bills until senators come back to Washington.
3. Policy outcomes matter in a crisis
Political scientist David Mayhew once observed that voters reward lawmakers for the positions they take, rather than for the policies that result. In most cases, blame or credit for those outcomes does not stick to individual lawmakers — mostly because a single lawmaker’s vote rarely determines the result. That means it is in lawmakers’ electoral DNA to take popular positions and worry less about what might result in months or even years.
But in this pandemic, the news media reports daily about how well Congress’s policy solutions are working. Nurses wearing trash bags for protection, large companies such as Shake Shack securing forgivable loans intended for small businesses, universities with large endowments such as Harvard and Princeton receiving federal aid: Reports such as these catch the public’s and lawmakers’ attention. It is no surprise then that party leaders rushed to replenish the fund for genuinely small businesses, pushed the Treasury Department to tighten program guidelines and added more money for hospitals. Such course corrections aim to produce better policies, of course, but also to avoid embarrassing headlines.
4. Pandemic politics could turn even more partisan
But a battle between the parties is already forming over the next emergency deal.
Will rising costs of government relief and stimulus overwhelm the federal government’s debt capacity? Republicans are starting to show signs of bailout fatigue. But Democrats dismiss Republicans’ newfound debt wariness, arguing that the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts added nearly $2 trillion to the federal deficit, mainly to benefit the affluent.
Who deserves additional relief? Democrats want more aid for individuals and hospitals. And Pelosi has drawn a line in the sand: The next bill must also include aid for state and local governments, which are in trouble as tax revenue falls while pandemic costs rise and as the collapsing stock market rocks public pension funds. But Republicans don’t agree, even among themselves, about whether to aid state and local governments: Although some support doing so, others agree with McConnell, who calls such aid “Blue State Bailouts.”
Meanwhile, the virus is now emerging in rural Republican hot spots, and more pain and layoffs are in the immediate forecast. As a result, Congress will continue to face public pressure to act. But lawmakers will probably need to come back to Washington to consider another measure, and no one knows yet when that can safely happen. What’s more, the closer we get to the presidential election, the less accommodating lawmakers will be of their partisan rivals’ priorities.
Congress may yet fall back into its more familiar pattern of inaction.