In fairness to the Democrats, their 1,400-page draft had nothing about windmills. But in fairness to Trump, windmills were among the few Democratic priorities that didn’t appear in the “Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act” that the House floated Monday night. The proposal did include extra funding for workers and families, but also for Supplemental Dairy Margin Coverage, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—even though the Kennedy Center is closed—and hundreds of other government programs and services unrelated to the emergency.
Congressional leaders didn’t use the House draft as the basis for the stimulus deal they struck early Wednesday morning, but they did fund quite a few of its provisions—from modest items with little connection to the pandemic, like $12.5 million for the Bureau of Reclamation or $25 million for the Kennedy Center, to $25 billion for ravaged transit agencies. And Congress is expected to pass more stimulus bills in the coming months, so the House proposal still bears a very close look as a preview of how Democrats plan to use their leverage. It also gives Republicans some talking points about the random taxpayer-funded goodies their opponents are pushing during a crisis.
What’s in it? Even though airports are virtually empty, and the Transportation Security Administration has never had less to do, the Democrats proposed $26 million for overtime for TSA employees. They also slipped in $20 million to help the TSA to buy new swabs for detecting explosives, a worthy security measure that lacks any apparent connection to the pandemic, $31 million for “bio-surveillance of wildlife,” and $45 million to help the Agricultural Marketing Service grade commodities like beef, eggs and, well, pork.
Agricultural anything tends to attract bipartisan support, and the final stimulus deal included that entire $45 million request. But suffice to say that if Christmas trees were graded, the House’s draft would be USDA Prime, while the final deal would probably be closer to U.S. Standard. And in an economic crisis, congressional grab bags can be politically toxic.
In 2009, Republicans successfully branded President Obama’s stimulus bill as a dog’s breakfast of traditional big-government spending—including “sod on the Mall,” “smoking cessation,” “herpes prevention” and other line items that didn’t even make it into the final bill. Now some former Obama aides are afraid congressional Democrats might be walking into the same “Porkulus” trap. Obama’s $800 billion Recovery Act helped end the Great Recession, but Republicans hammered away its laundry-list optics so relentlessly that within a year, the percentage of Americans who believed it had created jobs was smaller than the percentage who believed Elvis was alive. Like Winston Churchill’s apocryphal pudding, the Obama stimulus lacked a theme, and Democrats seem to be repeating their public-relations mistakes.
“Have we learned nothing?” asked Jared Bernstein, who worked on the Recovery Act as chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden in the Obama White House.
It’s not just that the House bill veers away from the pandemic or even the economy. The bill simply reads like a typical congressional appropriations bill, with plus-ups like $100 million for NASA construction and environmental compliance and the Legal Services Corporation, as well as $300 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The only real difference is boilerplate language justifying most of the plus-ups “to support activities to prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus,” from the $20 million for the Bureau of Reclamation to the $33 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It’s not all relatively small-ticket items, either; the Postal Service got $25 billion, plus $11 billion worth of debt forgiveness and $15 billion in new borrowing authority, which is real money even by congressional standards. The bill included a major bailout of underfunded multi-employer pension plans that coal miners, Teamsters and other labor groups have been pushing for years, as well as a $10,000-per-borrower reduction in student loan debt.
“Skimming it, I was struck by: ‘What does all this shit have to do with anything?’” another Obama White House veteran said.
Last year, Republicans turned a few off-message lines in a Green New Deal memo written by a staffer to Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez into a mantra that Democrats were determined to ban cows and airline travel. Now some Democrats—including some aides to Biden, who oversaw the Recovery Act for Obama and is now the party’s presumptive presidential nominee—fear that history will repeat itself over the Democratic wish list.
In fact, one message Republicans kept repeating Tuesday was that the Democrats were already trying to use the economic relief bill to pass a backdoor Green New Deal, even though the House draft had almost nothing related to energy or climate change. “This is not about the ridiculous Green New Deal,” Trump tweeted. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered an angry floor speech about “completely non-germane Democratic wish-list items,” in which he only specified two—tax credits for wind and solar energy, which were not even in the Democratic proposal, and emissions restrictions for bailed-out airlines, which were.
“Democrats won’t let us fund hospitals or save small businesses unless they get to dust off the Green New Deal,” McConnell declared.
The 2009 stimulus did include down payments on several of Obama’s long-range policy priorities, including education reform, scientific research, infrastructure, and yes, green energy, which received a whopping $90 billion that helped create booms in wind, solar, electric vehicles and LED lighting.
The current House bill takes a different approach, calling for modest spending increases for a grab bag of federal agencies and services but actually limiting its major investments in longstanding Democratic priorities to issues with some nexus to the current crisis. For example, the Democrats pushed for dramatic spending increases on unemployment insurance, which they got, as well as paid sick leave and family leave to help workers stuck at home during the pandemic and a national vote-by-mail system to make sure the coronavirus doesn’t prevent Americans from casting ballots in November, which they didn’t get.
But other than the money for struggling transit agencies and a $1 billion program to help bailed-out airlines replace high-polluting airplanes with more efficient ones, the House bill mostly ignores the calls from climate hawks for a game-changing down payment on a Green New Deal.
Some Democrats disgusted by the House bill’s cats-and-dogs approach argue that if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was going to push for anything other than containing the virus and helping cash-strapped families, she should have pushed for more transformative spending that would put Americans back to work over the coming year—like a Marshall Plan to rebuild American infrastructure, or a nationwide initiative to install rooftop solar.
“If you’re going to Christmas-tree this up and spend $2 trillion, why not go big?” asked Kenneth Baer, the former communications director for Obama’s budget office.
Everyone in Washington knows that a crisis can be the best way to ram some pet ideas through, and the Senate Republican proposal, weighing in at a mere 247 pages, includes some efforts to use the crisis to push longstanding conservative priorities, like language limiting aid to health providers that accept Medicaid patients, promoting abstinence education and cutting taxes on certain investment income. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been using the crisis to try to tighten border restrictions, restrict asylum claims, cancel union elections and give the Justice Department the power to detain Americans indefinitely without trial during emergencies. And since the final congressional compromise includes some of the esoteric Democratic wish list, Republicans who vote for it will to some extent own it.
But if the Capitol Hill negotiations exposed the GOP as the stingier party when it comes to helping workers and vulnerable families, and the more generous party when it comes to helping bailed-out companies avoid strict conditions, the House bill does reinforce stereotypes as the Democrats as the party of big government, exploiting a pandemic to pour taxpayer dollars into heating assistance for the poor, runaway youth programs, and subsidies for little-used airports serving smaller cities. It wouldn’t be a Democratic economic relief bill without an extra $1 billion for Head Start, even when Head Start programs are shuttered for the pandemic.
In 2009, Republican mockery of random projects financed by the Obama stimulus—“turtle tunnels,” “honeybee insurance” and a drug addiction study that the GOP shorthanded as “cocaine monkeys”—helped persuade the public it had nothing to do with jobs, even though subsequent studies found that it helped save millions of jobs. McConnell is the master of that game, and the Democrats who thought they could win it more than a decade ago remember that they ended up losing the House, the Senate and eventually the White House.
“I don’t want to get into fights over either side’s wish list,” Bernstein says. “I think the politics are prohibitive, and the urgency is getting money out the door.”