Late last night, Congress passed a $908 billion COVID relief bill that will extend unemployment benefits through the early spring, provide support for small businesses, schools, health care, nutrition, rental assistance, childcare, broadband, and the Postal Service, as well as funding to help distribute vaccines.
This legislation also includes, importantly, a $600 direct payment for every working class American earning less than $75,000 a year or $150,000 for a couple — plus $600 for each child. Let me be clear: this provision was not in the bill just two weeks ago. And, given the enormous economic desperation that so many working families are now experiencing, it is nowhere near enough as to what is needed. But, given the strong opposition of the Republican leadership in Congress and a number of Democrats, it’s no stretch to say that it would not have happened at all without our efforts, the hard work of progressive members in the U.S. House and grassroots progressives throughout the country. Republican Senator Josh Hawley also played an important role.
But let me state the obvious. The total funding in this bill was not even close to good enough, and my fear is that by reaching this agreement we are setting a bad precedent and setting the stage for a return to austerity politics now that Joe Biden is set to take office.
Remember, way back in May, the House passed a $3.4 trillion HEROES Act, which was a very serious effort to address the enormous health and economic crises facing our country. Two months later, the House passed another version of that bill for $2.2 trillion.
That same month, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed a $1.1 trillion piece of legislation that included a $1,200 direct payment for every working class American.
Months later, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, negotiating on behalf of President Donald Trump, proposed a COVID relief plan with Speaker Pelosi for $1.8 trillion that also included a $1,200 direct payment.
And yet, after months of bi-partisan negotiations by the so-called Gang of 8, we ended up with a bill of just $908 billion that includes $560 billion in unused money from the previously passed CARES Act — a worse deal than was previously proposed by Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.
So we went from $3.4 trillion, to $2.2 trillion, to $1.8 trillion from Trump and $1.1 trillion from Mitch McConnell to just $348 billion in new money — roughly 10 percent of what Democrats thought was originally needed and half of what Trump and McConnell offered in direct payments.
This is not good negotiating. This is a collapse. [my emphasis] It is also no coincidence that as it became clear Joe Biden would become the next president of the United States, we started to hear a lot of talk from my Senate colleagues in the Republican Party about their old friend the deficit.
We couldn’t afford $1,200 for every working class American and $500 for their children because of the deficit.
We couldn’t afford to support state and local governments struggling during the middle of this health and economic crisis because of the deficit.
We couldn’t afford more meaningful and robust unemployment benefits for those who lost their jobs during the middle of this pandemic because of the deficit.
Yet, this is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that they passed a $1.9 trillion tax bill benefiting some of the richest people and largest corporations in this country.
This is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that they, just last week, pushed through the largest defense spending bill in the history of this country, a total of $740 billion. This is more money than the next 10 nations combined spend in their defense budgets.
This is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that they spent trillions of dollars on war over the past two decades.
This is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that it gives hundreds of billions of dollars in giveaways to oil, gas and coal companies that exacerbate the climate crisis.
This is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that it provides huge amounts of corporate welfare to companies like Walmart that pay their workers starvation wages and provide them meager benefits that must be supplemented by taxpayer-supported programs.
And during any of these debates, do you recall any of my Republican colleagues asking how these proposals were going to be paid for? I don’t. So forgive me for thinking their sudden display of concern for the deficit seems a bit insincere. More to the point: it’s total hypocrisy!
And our concern at this moment is that no matter what happens in Georgia next month, and which party controls the Senate, we cannot allow this type of inadequate negotiation again on major legislation. Yes. The deficit is important, but it is not the most important thing. At this unprecedented moment in American history, with a growing gap between the very rich and everyone else, and when many millions of Americans are suffering, Democrats in Congress must stand up for the working families of our country. No more caving in.
Today, half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck, one out of four workers are either unemployed or making less than $20,000 a year, more than 90 million Americans are uninsured or under-insured, tens of millions of people face eviction, and hunger in America is exploding. Tragically, there is more economic desperation in our country today than at any point since the Great Depression.
We have a responsibility to the struggling families of our country.
And let’s be honest: if we allow Republicans to set the parameters of the debate going forward, like they did in this current COVID relief bill, the next two to four years are going to be a disaster.
Want to expand health care? Where’s the money going to come from?
Want to rebuild our infrastructure? Where’s the money going to come from?
Want a Green New Deal, or even support for Joe Biden’s more modest climate proposal? Where’s the money going to come from?
So the fundamental political question of our time is: are we going to allow Mitch McConnell, the Republican Party and corporate America to return us to austerity politics, or are we going to build a dynamic economy that works for everyone?
My fear is that this COVID relief bill sets a very dangerous precedent for when Joe Biden takes office next month. And we cannot allow that to happen.
Going forward, Democrats must have an aggressive agenda that speaks to the needs of the working class in this country, income and wealth inequality, health care, climate change, education, racial justice, immigration reform and so many other vitally important issues. And in that struggle, we all have a role to play. So please, make your voice heard in the weeks and months ahead. Call your members of Congress, post your thoughts on social media, encourage progressives in your community to run for office, and volunteer and contribute to those who will fight for a government that will work for all of us, and not just the 1 percent and wealthy campaign contributors in this country.
This blog originally appeared at Working Life on December 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years.