March 23, 2020
Hoo, boy, it’s been quite a Monday.
Members of the Senate continued to argue over the almost $2 trillion dollar coronavirus relief and stimulus package, with tempers running so high that the senators-- who were actually debating a piece of legislation, which hasn’t happened in a while-- yelled at each other. There are two visions at stake in the struggle. The Senate Republicans, who wrote their bill without input from the Democrats, are focusing on bailing out the corporations whose collapse in this crisis will crater the economy. The Democrats want to focus on the ordinary people hit with unemployment and illness, arguing that by providing funds for workers, as well as supporting hospitals and health care workers, the government will save lives as well as the economy.
A big sticking point is a $500 billion provision that would permit Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to dole out loans to corporations with very little oversight. The companies that took such loans would remain secret for six months after they tapped into the money. Republicans argue that this secrecy would keep the stock of such companies from dropping as people realized their financial straits. Democrats are leery of such secrecy—what would stop Mnuchin from handing out government largesse to Trump’s key supporters… or even to the president himself, whose hotels have been hard-hit by the pandemic? (Trump refused on Sunday to promise he would not take any federal aid.) “The American people don’t want another corporate bailout,” Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown said. “They don’t want a bailout for Wall Street. They don’t want a bailout for the airlines. They want money. If we’re going to do a relief package, the money needs to go in the pockets of workers.”
When asked about the provision allowing the Treasury to dole out this money without oversight, Trump said: “Look, I’ll be the oversight. I’ll be the oversight.”
The fight over this bill says a lot about the country’s changing politics. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has become accustomed to getting his way, and the fact that all but one Democrat (the exception was Alabama Senator Doug Jones) voted against the bill in a procedural vote (they were not actually voting on the bill itself), suggested that the Democrats were not going to cave to him. McConnell has taken to the media to charge Democrats with playing politics, but this admonition is rich, coming from McConnell. So, too, was his claim that the Democrats’ refusal to approve a bill they were excluded from writing was “the most outrageous behavior I’ve seen.”
Trump was nowhere to be seen in this struggle. Normally, presidents work to get their party’s legislation passed, making phone calls, talking to congress members. Trump has never done much of this, but now seems to have abandoned it altogether, focusing instead on his press briefings. For him, these seem to be replacing his rallies, and media outlets are grappling with how both to cover them and to prevent the dissemination of dangerous information as Trump overrides medical advisors to share his own gut sense of the crisis.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the House of Representatives have written their own massive stimulus bill. Covering more than 1400 pages, its summary reads like a campaign document, laying out Democratic priorities in contrast to those enumerated in the Senate coronavirus bill. It directs more than $2.5 trillion to health care, individuals, small businesses, unemployment compensation, food security, state and local governments, schools, and mail-in voting in the 2020 election.
Congress is eager to move things along as coronavirus infections have spread into their own ranks. Yesterday, we learned that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) tested positive for coronavirus, but did not self-isolate while waiting for the test results. He met with colleagues, ate in the Senate lunchroom, exercised in the Senate gym, and worked on the Senate floor, thus exposing his colleagues to the virus. Many of the senators are older, and they or their family members fall into the most vulnerable categories for complications of Covid-19. They are angry enough at Paul’s irresponsibility—he’s a doctor, after all—that he felt obliged to explain that if he had actually followed the testing rules, he would not have been tested and would still be walking around among them. This is little comfort as the disease moves closer to them and those they know: Senator Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) law professor husband is in a Virginia hospital with coronavirus-related pneumonia. At least 31 members of Congress were self-isolating or sick before Paul’s diagnosis; his news added both of Utah’s Senators-- Mitt Romney and Mike Lee—to those self-isolating.
The stock market dropped again today. The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished the day 583 points down, about 3%. The Federal Reserve tried to shore it up again by announcing it would buy a wide range of investments to inject more cash into the economy, but investors are crossing their fingers that Congress will pass a massive relief bill.
The U.S. now has more than 42,600 cases of coronavirus and at least 540 people have died. But while senior health officials insist we must continue to self-isolate to slow the pandemic here, Trump appears to be prioritizing the falling stock market (and perhaps his own shuttered hotels, including his prized Mar-a-Lago). Sunday night, he tweeted: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” and then said today he might override the advice of the health professionals to end the lockdowns after just fifteen days and try to get the economy moving again. “Our country wasn’t built to be shut down,” he said today. “At some point, we’re going to be opening up our country. It’s going to be pretty soon.”
This idea is getting traction among Trump supporters. This evening, Larry Kudlow, Trump’s Director of the National Economic Council, was on the Fox News Channel saying “The president is right. The cure can’t be worse than the disease. And we’re going to have to make some difficult tradeoffs.” Just what those tradeoffs might be became clear when the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick told FNC personality Tucker Carlson Monday night that he thought there were “lots of grandparents” who would be “willing to take a chance on [their] survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren.” He went on: “I want to live smart and see through this, but I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed. And that’s what I see.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and a voice of calm reason in this crisis, is not on board with Trump’s increasing flirtation with the idea that the country can abandon its isolation policies after fifteen days. Fauci was not at today’s press briefing, and while Trump brushed off his absence, there were signs today that he might be on his way out of his prominent role in combatting the coronavirus. Fauci has advised every president since Ronald Reagan and brings much credibility to Trump’s team, but he has corrected the president repeatedly in public, and his insistence that the coronavirus is more dangerous than Trump says is increasingly unwelcome.
In all my reading today, one thing jumped out. In an interview, Dr. Fauci pointed out that every president he has served, starting in 1984 with Ronald Reagan, has had to deal with epidemic disease: Zika, AIDS, SARS, Ebola, H1N1, MERS. Some have handled their crises better than others, but after Reagan botched the AIDS crisis, they have always prioritized public health so effectively that most of us have had the luxury of forgetting that we live under these grave threats.
Trump’s hotels on lockdown: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/before-trump-called-for-reevaluating-lockdowns-they-shuttered-six-of-his-top-earning-clubs-and-resorts/2020/03/23/88780374-6d38-11ea-aa80-c2470c6b2034_story.html
Trump and federal aid for his hotels: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/opinion/coronavirus-bailout-mcconnell-congress.html