March 27, 2020

Today the House of Representatives passed the Senate’s massive coronavirus relief and stimulus bill, the CARES Act. This $2.2 trillion bill is an attempt to address the massive economic dislocation caused by the pandemic now convulsing America. Lots of people have written to me to ask about all the “pork” that Democrats demanded in this bill and how they were playing with Americans’ lives for their own interests. This, once again, is Republican messaging, not reality.

Remember, this is the third of three relief bills. The first two originated in the House of Representatives, and there was remarkably little complaint about them. The first, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020 (H.R. 6074) provided $8.3 billion to provide money for medical supplies, treatments for Covid-19, and vaccines. It was written as a bipartisan bill, it received bipartisan support, and it was signed into law.

The second, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201), provided basic support for ordinary Americans in this crisis, providing for coronavirus testing, paid leave under certain circumstances, and food security and unemployment benefits. This bill, too, was bipartisan, passing the House by a vote of 363 to 40, with 140 Republicans and 223 Democrats voting in favor of it.

And now we have the third major piece of legislation designed to combat the medical and economic crisis created by the novel coronavirus. The Coronavirus Aid, Recover, and Economic Security Act (CARES) (H.R. 748), passed by a voice vote on Friday, and the president signed it Friday night. The writing and passage of this bill is a little complicated, so bear with me if you want to understand the accusations that Democrats were manipulating it, and ignore this if you’re not interested.

While this bill has a House of Representatives number (that’s what the H.R. means), the bill actually originated in the Senate and went on to replace a “shell bill” in the House (this is complicated, but since all bills appropriating funds must originate in the House, the House had to agree to an original bill that then got replaced by the Senate bill). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans wrote their own relief bill without input from Democrats, arguing that such a process would be faster than a bipartisan committee. When the bill emerged, it was unacceptable to Democrats, who worried it handed too much to corporations and not enough to ordinary Americans hurt by the economic downturn in the wake of the coronavirus.

Discussions hit a stalemate over a number of things, but primarily over the provision for a $500 billion fund to be used by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to shore up businesses (whose applications to that fund would be secret for six months) with little oversight. This was a nonstarter for Democrats, who pointed out the money could be funneled to Trump’s financial supporters, or even to Trump himself (it did not help that the president refused to pledge that he would not accept bailout money).

As the Senate debates were hitting a wall, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) introduced a Democratic proposal from the House. This 1400-page bill was explicitly not a bipartisan bill, and was pretty clearly intended to outline a Democratic vision for the country against that of McConnell’s Senate Republicans. This is what pundits on the right are citing as evidence the Democrats were making extreme demands for passage of the larger coronavirus bill (for example, it provided that internet companies could not cut off service for those who could not pay during the coronavirus, a provision that got twisted in right-wing emails to a demand for “free internet”), but there was no actual attempt to pass this bill. Instead, the Senate negotiators began to talk in earnest, and the Democrats got their primary concern taken care of in the Senate bill: it would have oversight of the $500 billion fund for businesses. An independent inspector general and an oversight board would oversee the dispersal of funds.

They also got a number of other items in the bill, making it look in many ways like a normal appropriations bill, with both parties getting appropriations for things they prioritize. There was no “Green New Deal” in the bill, and no “windmills,” as Trump charged. There was money for the Transportation Security Administration to test for explosives, for the Agriculture Department to grade beef and pork, for NASA construction, for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and for the National Endowment for the Arts, all entities the Democrats think have been starved in the recent past. The idea that this was some sort of Democratic coup is belied by the fact that this was a bill written without Democratic input in the first place. It is also belied by the fact the bill passed the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 96-0.

Then it went to the House. Since the House had disbanded on March 14 to protect its members from the novel coronavirus, it was expected that the bill would pass by voice vote in the House, meaning that it would have unanimous consent and the members would not have to come back for a roll call vote. But a single representative could block that, and one did, Thomas Massie (R-KY), who demanded that his colleagues return to Washington, D.C. to vote. He could be voted down by a quorum, and was, as members of the House returned to vote against him, and hoo, boy, were they angry that he had demanded a grandstanding vote that would threaten their health. House members came back into the chamber to make a quorum, standing apart from each other, and attacked Massie for the arrogance that made them take airplanes and meet in close quarters against medical advice. Still, it was former Secretary of State John Kerry who had the last word. He tweeted: “Congressman Massie has tested positive for being an asshole. He must be quarantined to prevent the spread of his massive stupidity.”

The House then passed the bill and sent it on to the president who signed it.

But.

When Trump signed it, he included a “signing statement.” These used to be quite innocuous statements in which a president would thank the people involved in writing the bill, or talk about how important a bill was. President George W. Bush began to use these statements to challenge the content of a bill without being forced to veto the entire thing, saying, for example, that he would not honor certain portions of it. And that’s what happened tonight. Trump issued a signing statement saying he would ignore the law’s provisions for an independent inspector general overseeing the disbursal of funds for corporate bailouts. His argument is that such a provision intrudes on the rights of the executive to block information from Congress. If this holds, it would erase the Democrats’ key victory in the negotiations over the bill.

Trump’s attempt to reject congressional oversight is “not a surprise to anyone,” Pelosi said tonight, and a Democratic aide said they had anticipated such a move and so had put multiple layers of oversight in the bill. But Trump said that federal agencies must be allowed to act without consulting Congress and that he would not treat “spending decisions as dependent on prior consultation with or the approval of” Congress.

It is not the House Democrats, but rather the president, who is playing politics with this massive relief bill that was so painstakingly negotiated. He remains eager to gather power into his own hands.

In other news, tonight Trump told reporters he would not talk to the Democratic governors he thought were insufficiently grateful for his help fighting the coronavirus. “All I want them to do—very simple: I want them to be appreciative.”

And today America’s coronavirus numbers leaped again. We now have more than 100,000 infections, and a death toll of more than 1,500. Officials in more than 200 cities say their cities are short of masks, ventilators, and personal protective equipment. After his efforts to negotiate with industry to produce needed supplies fell apart, today Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to force General Motors to produce badly needed ventilators. None of this was enough to steady the skittish stock market. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 925 points today for a drop of 4.1%.

Notes:

https://www.pillsburylaw.com/en/news-and-insights/hr-6201-families-first-coronavirus-response-act.html

https://thehill.com/homenews/house/489852-house-passes-2-trillion-coronavirus-relief-bill-with-trump-to-sign-quickly

https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/27/politics/coronavirus-stimulus-house-vote/index.html

Votes: https://projects.propublica.org/represent/votes/116/house/2/102

Three bills: https://www.countable.us/articles/43144-s-status-phase-3-coronavirus-relief-bill

Pork: https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/03/25/coronavirus-economy-stimulus-house-democrats-148512

Appreciative: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/03/27/trump-suggests-personal-grievances-factor-into-his-coronavirus-decisions/

Signing statement: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/03/27/coronavirus-trump-objects-oversight-provisions-stimulus-law/2931740001/

coronavirus: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/world/coronavirus-live-news-updates.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/world/coronavirus-live-news-updates.html#link-4f4406cb

GM: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/world/coronavirus-live-news-updates.html#link-4f4406cb

Stock market: https://www.cnn.com/business/live-news/stock-market-news-today-032720/index.html