When the House passes the Senate version of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden and House Democrats will register their first big legislative victory of the 117th Congress. No less a curmudgeon than Bernie Sanders has acclaimed the bill as “the most significant piece of legislation to benefit working families in the modern history” of the United States. The fact that the reconciliation bill comes from the Budget Committee he chairs probably has something to do with his hyperbole.
Other are less effusive. “When people find out what’s in this bill,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) said over the weekend, “they’re going to lose a lot of any enthusiasm they may have for it right now because this was not really about coronavirus in terms of the spending.” Instead, he insisted, the bill, which enjoys the support of 7 out of 10 Americans, is “a liberal wish list of liberal spending just basically filled with pork.”
Wow! That’s a lot of “liberal’ and “liberal spending” and “pork” in one sentence; solid framing, Sen. Barrasso. But not all the liberals are buying it. “This trend is outrageous,” fumed Rep. Bonnie Coleman (D-NJ) on Twitter. “What are we doing here? I’m frankly disgusted with some of my colleagues and question whether I can support this bill.” Lefty progressive allies like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (DMN) registered their dismay as well, especially with the exclusion of the $15 minimum wage that had been in the House version.
Let’s clear up the drama first. Coleman, Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and others on the left will naturally support the bill. What they “are doing here,” to answer Coleman’s question, is passing the best bill that can get through the House and Senate. That’s the nature of the legislative process. If the critics have any magic up their sleeves about how to grind out a few more votes to include the minimum wage or reverse other changes made in the Senate, now would be an excellent time to let us in on the strategy. Otherwise, please stop trash talking an important Democratic victory that contains not only massive relief for business, schools, state and local government and the unemployed, but also makes the biggest investment in reducing child poverty in decades.
Besides, there will be enough trash talk from the Republicans, not a single one of whom voted for the legislation. Even after the minimum wage was excluded, the unemployment benefits pared back, the relief checks more targeted. Don’t they have any closed schools or shuttered small businesses in their districts? No unemployed constituents or poor children? No one needing a vaccination?
What they do have is a memory. They remember how some of them grudgingly supported the TARP legislation negotiated by the Bush administration and Democratic congressional leaders to keep the economy from plunging into the yawning abyss opened up by the marriage of Bush’s under-regulation and unconscionable Wall Street greed. (Bailing out hedge fund managers had merit because, in true Republican form, some of the benefit trickled down to the rest of the economy.) And they mostly supported the Bush stimulus in January, 2008 when the economy first started lurching towards recession.
When the next round of stimulus was needed a year later, under the new Obama administration, the Republicans decided to take a powder; no House Republicans voted for the bill (even though a third of it was tax cuts) and just three supported it in the Senate (after adding billions of dollars in spending they favored – and then calling for other parts of the bill to be reduced). Republicans decided to let the recovery price tag be the sole responsibility of the Democrats and bet that if the economy remained weak, they wouldn’t be blamed when election time rolled around for having opposed the bill.
And they were right! The bill was too small (shaved down to satisfy the moderates), the tax cuts too tiny and the impact too deferred to generate voter support. Instead, Republicans chastened Democrats for rolling up deficits (having themselves created a tsunami of red ink during the Bush years) and the Tea Party took it from there, ousting Democrats from the House majority and effectively curtailing the Obama legislative agenda.
The Republicans are playing the same game now: vote no, complain about deficits (after having run them up again under Trump) and hope voters overlook their unwillingness to support recovery legislation.
Will it work? Yeah, it might, especially if the recovery and covid mitigation don’t proceed as quickly as hoped. And the House and Senate margins are a lot closer now than they were in 2010; if the Republican arguments gain traction, winning the majority will be a lot easier this time around.
Making sure those GOP arguments are countered is now a crucial step for Biden and his allies. They cannot repeat the Obama administration’s lamentable messaging of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. No aggressive or effective promotion of the law occurred. The administration refused advice to send relief checks (or even notices) to impacted families, instead choosing to deduct less in taxes from paychecks. Not surprisingly, over 80 percent of Americans didn’t even know they had gotten a tax cut!
Joe Biden was in charge of the ARRA messaging effort as vice president, and he seems to have learned the lesson that passing a bill is only the first step. Promising not to repeat the stealth selling job on ARRA, Biden has pledged a full-throated effort to market the new covid relief law, “showing the American people that their government can work for them.”
Let’s hope he and Democrats get it right this time. The Republicans will be working full time to convince voters it is all a huge waste of money and that they were right to oppose it. Every one of them.