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Congressional Democrats are governing from the minority

“They don’t want the federal government to work and we do”: the Democrats’ stimulus dilemma.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wears a cloth mask to cover her mouth and nose to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus during her weekly news conference at the US Capitol on April 30.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Are Democrats getting rolled on coronavirus stimulus?

The most recent bill — stimulus 3.5, I guess we’re calling it — “falls short even as an interim measure,” wrote the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Republicans blocked aid to revenue-starved states and cities. They blocked a proposed increase to food stamps. Liberals were aghast to see the $25 billion in money for coronavirus testing — which came with a requirement for a national testing strategy — described as a win for Democrats because the Trump administration wanted to leave the disaster to the states.

“There is an enormous amount of bluffing going on among Republicans, who need stimulus measures just as much as Democrats,” writes my colleague Dave Roberts. “Sooner or later, if Democrats don’t want to get steamrolled, played, and blamed for the next six months, they are going to have to call some of those bluffs.”

Behind this is an unusual bargaining dynamic: Democrats are acting as the governing party even though they’re in the minority. They’re fighting for the baseline policies that any normal administration, Republican or Democrat, would be begging for right now.

“From the very beginning, this administration made the decision that there was no legitimate role for the federal government to play in responding to this crisis,” says Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). “It wasn’t an accident they didn’t request any money in the early days. They really believed, as they believe today, that this is a problem states and local governments should confront.”

This is an inversion of the traditional relationship between the White House and the opposition party. Typically, in a crisis, the administration would be pushing to do more, do it faster, and the minority party would be deciding whether to block those efforts or attach their own ideological priorities onto them. That’s because the administration knows it will be blamed for failure. But the Trump administration has refused responsibility for this crisis, and it has repeatedly wanted both less funding and less authority than congressional Democrats want to give it.

“It’s the executive branch who normally takes control in a situation like this, and they haven’t,” says Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). “As a result, Democrats have stepped into the breach to minimize suffering. There are a lot of keyboard pundits who view this as a forfeiture of leverage, and I understand what they’re saying. But we have to be very clear: They’re talking about using suffering as leverage. That is what the Republicans do, not what we do.”

The result is that instead of acting like a minority party, Democrats are using much of their leverage to force Republicans to act like a majority party. Democrats are fighting for the policies that, if they work, Republicans will later take credit for. The testing program is a good example. Democrats forced the Trump administration to accept responsibility for a national testing strategy over the White House’s objections. But if the money and the strategy work, it’ll be Trump who runs on that success in November.

Does being “responsible” mean giving up leverage?

“We’re in a world where we control only a third of government,” says Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA). “We’re negotiating with Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. The response is bolder than 2008. The irony is, a Republican Congress would never have given this to Obama in an election year. They didn’t give it to him in his first year of the presidency. We have been far more responsible about how we’re operating.”

He’s right, and that’s exactly what’s frustrating some liberals. Democrats tried to be responsible for the eight years of the Obama presidency, all while they watched McConnell and the Republicans light their priorities on fire and threaten to crash the economy. If there was any comfort in being the minority party during a national crisis, it’s that at least Democrats would be freed to negotiate with the reckless aggression Republicans displayed for the entirety of the Obama era.

President Barack Obama didn’t get nearly this much stimulus out of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

But that’s not how it has played out. Democrats, now as then, are desperately negotiating for more stimulus to preserve essential economic functions, and Republicans are dismissing the aid as “blue state bailouts” and warning that deficits are too high. Democrats, now as then, are pushing for more economic support, while Republicans are calling for less. But because a Republican holds the White House and the GOP will reap the economic whirlwind in November, Senate Republicans have, in general, accepted the Democratic push for more economic support.

As a result, Democrats are achieving policies that would be impressive if they were in the majority. In a matter of weeks, they’ve passed more economic support than across the entirety of the Great Recession. The $600 weekly increase to unemployment benefits — the product of fast, smart negotiating by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) — means many are seeing their incomes rise even though their jobs are lost, a recessionary generosity that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. It speaks volumes that the debate is over whether the policy is too generous.

Which isn’t to say the support passed so far is sufficient: It isn’t, which is why another bill is being planned, of which I’ll say more in a minute. But there’s no doubt that this is the fastest, largest legislative response to an economic crisis on record. And Democrats have largely prioritized getting the rescue packages passed over including some of their longer-term goals, a decision that has frustrated many liberal activists.

In my conversations with congressional Democrats, they bristled at the idea that they should take the zero-sum approach to policymaking that they perceive Republicans as having taken when Obama was president.

“There is enormous suffering, and if we do not respond with the boldness and the scale that this crisis demands, then that suffering will continue,” says Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA). “I think it’s important for us to not allow ourselves to be pulled into a place where we don’t define the agenda, given that we are in the position of really defining where the solution is going to land.”

For Democrats, an ideological asymmetry has become a strategic asymmetry. Democrats want to convince the country of the government’s worth. Republicans want to convince the country of the government’s worthlessness. If Washington collapses into dysfunction and paralysis now, when the country needs it most, congressional liberals don’t see that as helping their long-term effort to rebuild trust in public institutions.

“It’s like the old saying that Republicans believe the government is incompetent and then get elected and prove it,” says Schatz. “They don’t want the federal government to work and we do. That’s what’s going on here, and I don’t have a quick, facile solution to it. If we engage in a zero-sum game, we’ll just accelerate the death spiral that is Grover Norquist and Mitch McConnell and the Koch brothers’ dream.”

Sometimes, playing hardball is the responsible thing to do

Politically, what Democrats are doing is working, and what Republicans are doing isn’t. While Trump hasn’t seen his poll numbers fall during the crisis, he hasn’t seen anything like the bump that other world leaders and US governors are experiencing. And congressional Democrats are seeing a polling boost, too.

There are more economic support bills to come, though, and as the crisis wears on, Democrats are going to come under more pressure to play hardball. One obvious place is on automatic triggers — legislative provisions that ensure economic support will continue so long as unemployment remains high. No congressional Democrat I spoke to thinks there’s a chance in hell Republicans will keep voting for economic support if a Democrat wins in November. Building in automatic triggers now would be good policy and good politics. And if Democrats don’t use Republican cooperation to build in those triggers now, they’re almost guaranteeing terrible economic pain if they happen to win later.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal talks with reporters on March 3, 2020.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Similarly, there’s much that the stimulus packages have left undone. Health care is a particularly glaring example. Jayapal and 30 other House Democrats are proposing a plan to open Medicare to the unemployed and to expand Medicaid to 300 percent of the poverty line for the duration of the crisis. That’s both good policy and, in terms of Democrats’ longer-term goal of expanding Medicare coverage to more Americans, good politics.

Democrats are right to think that they bear the weight of responsibility in this crisis. But you can worry so much about appearing responsible that you become irresponsible — and not being willing to force a fight over state and local aid, health care expansions, and automatic triggers tips into irresponsibility.

“I don’t think we’ve been rolled,” says Jayapal. “But I think that the whole set of circumstances has been challenging. And we have not responded yet at the scale of the crisis that we face.”

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