Despite the United States tallying more than a million new cases of COVID-19 last week alone, congressional leaders appear in no rush to approve a new package of financial relief for businesses and families hammered by the coronavirus. This just isn’t acceptable, not with America headed toward what infectious disease specialist Michael Osterholm calls a period of “Covid hell.”
With new early data suggesting vaccine candidates from Pfizer and Moderna are more than 90 percent effective in combating the virus, America and the world can mercifully start to see light at the end of the tunnel. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Monday, “we could effectively end this pandemic in 2021.”
But it will be months before widespread vaccinations are available. Meantime, millions of families are watching their bills mount, their savings dwindle and some of the remaining safety-net programs approach their expiration dates. To cite just one measure of the stress, the number of people out of work for more than six months (the standard threshold for long-term unemployment) rose 1.2 million in October, to 3.6 million.
Starting last spring and summer, the CARES ACT provided one-time stimulus checks, enhanced weekly unemployment benefits, and payroll-sustaining aid to businesses that kept millions of Americans afloat. As those payments began phasing out, Congress extended some benefits. But they too are scheduled to expire, mostly next month. These include the federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program and a partial federal moratorium on evicting tenants who fall behind in their rent.
The National Employment Law Project notes, “large numbers of jobless workers are seeing their unemployment payments come to an end,” and “if Congress fails to act, millions more will suffer a total loss of income as their benefits expire at the end of the year.”
If ever there was a time for Congress and the White House to act, it’s now. Failure to do so, as Axios puts it, would amount to “one of the biggest failures of the current administration and Congress.”
In our divided government — with a Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-run House — there’s only one way it can happen: with at least some degree of bipartisan cooperation.
Lately, of course, such bipartisan accords have been depressingly rare. But they remain possible, even in the wake of a deeply divisive presidential election. One group in particular has been working across party lines for months to break the incessant logjams: the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus.
The caucus — 25 House Democrats and 25 Republicans — released its own “March to Common Ground” framework for new COVID-19 relief deal in September. It gave renewed momentum to dormant negotiations. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, then negotiating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said the White House proposals were “very similar to the bipartisan proposal that the Problem Solvers have worked on.”
Those talks ultimately collapsed, however. Then the fiercely contested Nov. 3 election (and its aftermath) intervened, freezing all progress. But other forces march on, oblivious to political quarrels: the pandemic’s relentless spread, and the nation’s worsening financial outlook.
A political impasse over renewed financial relief is neither inevitable nor acceptable. A solution is already at hand: some variation of the Problem Solvers’ proposal, which strikes a plausible middle ground between the Democratic-controlled House’s big-spending HEROES Act and the “skinny bill” that Senate Republicans pushed during the summer.
Before the election you could understand — if not endorse — why congressional leaders on both sides were refusing to agree on a deal. Perhaps they thought they could expand or retake majorities in the House and Senate and put themselves in a stronger negotiating position.
But now the legislative math that argues for a bipartisan deal is even clearer. House Democrats will have a smaller majority. The Senate will be even more closely divided, with ultimate party control resting on the two Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia. In other words, Congress will either deliver a bipartisan COVID-19 relief deal promptly or there will be no deal at all.
The Washington Post reported on Nov. 14 that Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had held no post-election talks on a new rescue package. What are they waiting for? The victims of endless — and often mindless — partisan warring are the millions of Americans struggling to keep their homes, apartments, cars, health and dignity as a cruel virus expands.
The need is now and the remedy is at hand: Work across party lines to enact some version of the Problem Solvers’ financial relief plan. Help Americans survive this storm until a coronavirus vaccine and a recovering economy can deliver us back to normalcy.
Liz Morrison is co-executive director of No Labels, a group that seeks to move Washington beyond partisan gridlock and toward solutions to challenges faced by the country.
This article first appeared in The Hill