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If you’re looking for a new barometer of congressional dysfunction, look no further than the fact that The World’s Foremost Legislative Institution has failed to protect even its own members and their staffs from the pandemic. It’s not just that many offices, not just Louie Gohmert’s, are apparently run like chicken-processing plants. It’s also that Congress reportedly “ran out of money dedicated to cleaning the sprawling complex” over a month ago, and the money to start keeping the place COVID-19-level-sanitary again is tied up in the wrangling over the next relief package.
And it’s that package, or the lack thereof, that really deserves our attention. Because the Senate left town on Thursday without passing a damn thing, including any kind of extension on the enhanced unemployment benefits that have probably prevented the current economic cataclysm from becoming a full-on meltdown. The boosted $600-a-week pumped money into the economy through consumer spending, even as people lost their jobs and their wages. But while unemployment claims are once again rising in earnest, Congress will allow it to expire.
Or, more specifically, the Republican-led Senate has allowed it after botching the rollout of its half-baked relief bill earlier in the week—a measure that would have offered just an extra $200 per week to people who are already living on the edge. (The Republican caucus could not even agree on it. Forget getting it through the Senate as a whole.) The Democratic House passed an extension of the $600-a-week back in May, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to take it up for a variety of reasons.
These range from an insistence that any bill include legal immunity for employers whose workers get sick when they’re brought back to work—a true statement of values that would introduce repugnant moral hazard, and which even the White House abandoned this week—to the notion that people will not go back to work if unemployment benefits are too generous. On that last point, it’s telling how few of those concerned are interested in raising the minimum wage to something people can live on. It’s also, like the renewed Republican concern-trolling about The National Debt, not the most pressing issue right now. And by the way, how many hours a week are members of Congress working to earn their $174,000 a year?
Millions of people have a rent bill coming down the pike that they cannot pay, just as eviction moratoriums are expiring across the country. Millions are already choosing between groceries and electricity and keeping a roof over their heads. There seems to be a baseline inability among members of Congress to truly grasp how desperate this situation may become. The people tearing their hair out about a socialist revolution are hopelessly blind to their role in creating the conditions for one. You think Joe Biden is a Trojan Horse for socialism? Just wait until you throw people on the street during a pandemic. It’s not just moral barbarism, it’s incredibly dumb if you’re interested in maintaining the current order of things for a little longer.
Speaking of Biden, Republicans are at the very least setting themselves up to be routed in the coming election. Folks do not need to know that House Democrats have passed a bill and Senate Republicans have not. If any gravitational forces remain in American politics, voters will punish the party whose figurehead occupies the White House, which the Trump folks well know. His chief of staff, Mark Meadows, emerged on Friday to desperately suggest that they’d been open to an emergency extension of the benefits and it’s Democrats who’ve obstructed progress. (Again, the House passed a bill in May. The Senate and the White House simply did not engage with it for months.) It’s amazing they’ve allowed it to get this far before they broke with McConnell and went along with anything that would keep the money in people’s pockets, even temporarily. Like Congress, the president’s team can’t even keep their eyes on the ball long enough to look out for themselves.
The more perplexing factor here is Republicans in Congress. One possible explanation is that these folks have disregarded the Notorious B.I.G.’s Fourth Commandment, gorging themselves on Fox News until they lost the plot completely. Another theory making the rounds is that many in the party have essentially accepted that they will get spanked in November, and they’re preparing the ground for the same kind of obstruction campaign with which they greeted the Obama presidency. That may be why you’re hearing about The National Debt again, and why they may just allow the economic situation to deteriorate further. They could give Biden the worst lot possible and then try to block any attempt to remedy the situation.
But the dynamics may well be different this time, and not just because the material effects on people’s lives may be even worse than the Great Recession that Barack Obama had to grapple with—and who made many missteps, moral and strategic, in the process. That same Obama threw down the gauntlet Thursday at John Lewis’s funeral, declaring that the filibuster should be destroyed if that’s what it takes to pass the laws to make this nation whole.
What Republicans likely have not accounted for is the prospect of a Democratic Party that no longer cowers in fear of the ghost of Ronald Reagan, and that reclaims its role as an unapologetic defender of the state’s role in shaping the economy. The conservative movement’s perception of reality has grown increasingly deranged even since the days they perceived Obama as some radical leftist, rather than a Clinton-style centrist seeking—in his case, naively—bipartisan compromise. They may well pine for 2009 in the end. Or maybe the whole country really has become unmoored. We’ll soon find out.
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