Others have already pointed out some of the worst aspects of the bill. Pelosi would forgive all outstanding debts for the chronically mismanaged U.S. Postal Service. She would also expand collective bargaining rights for union-represented employees and increase fuel emission standards for vehicles. Those might be worthy ideas, but they only serve as political hurdles to clearing the stimulus package.
Another provision would force Republicans to accede to longtime Democratic priorities on voting procedures. The so-called ACCESS Act, Division L of Pelosi’s bill, requires states to have excuse-free early mail-in voting and same-day election registration. It also permits ballot harvesting, a procedure whereby third parties can collect absentee ballots for the voters and deliver them to the election authority. This procedure was involved in a notorious voter-fraud case in North Carolina recently whereby a vendor to Republican campaigns persuaded voters to give them unmarked ballots which they then marked for the Republican candidate. Extending this provision nationwide is an obvious nonstarter, and yet it still appears in her bill. This is not a way to inspire bipartisan trust at a time when the nation sorely needs it.
Other priorities puzzle me. For example, an additional $20 billion is earmarked to reimburse the Postal Service for lost revenue. $600 million is reserved for new grants by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities — money which can be used by recipients for general operating revenue. $300 million is set aside for new grants to public television and radio stations. Should contractors and employees of these entities be preferred above contractors and employees of private businesses?
The bill also prioritizes aid to foreign development banks. About $11 billion is set aside to recapitalize or purchase additional shares in the International Development Association, the African Development Bank and Fund and the North American Development Bank. Again maybe worthy goals, but are they really a response to the U.S. coronavirus epidemic?
Then we get into some big-ticket items that reveal strong Democratic priorities. $100 billion is reserved for grants and funding to public or nonprofit health-care entities, as well as Medicaid or Medicare enrolled suppliers, that can be used to reimburse for lost revenue. More than $1 billion is reserved to bail out Amtrak. $30 billion is reserved for state and local education expenditures, and any grants given to states comes with a proviso that the state spend at least as much on K-12 and higher education as it spent on average over the three prior fiscal years. One can easily imagine how any one of these provisions would lead to serious negotiations with Senate Republicans. Include all of them, and surely others I haven’t yet identified, and you have a recipe for prolonged negotiations.
Then there are the non-monetary provisions. Pages 162 and 163 of the Democrats’ bill amend the United States’ trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. Are these substantive changes or merely technical ones? Better question: Why include them in this bill at all? Pages 232 and 233 require the labor secretary to promulgate new nationwide standards on employers to prevent occupational exposure to pathogens. This can be a huge cost burden on employers depending on who occupies that position. Is it necessary right now? Finally, Pages 258 and 259 temporarily repeal the work requirements for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients, a goal long sought by the Democratic left. If the goal is to avoid sanctioning welfare recipients during the crisis, a better approach would be to waive sanctions in regions with high unemployment rather than simply repealing the requirements altogether, even on a temporary basis.
This doesn’t mean that the bill doesn’t have worthwhile ideas or that the Senate Republican bill is perfect. Democrats are probably right to insist that any grants to large companies be subject to oversight or conditions set by Congress, to ensure that funds are used by those in need to help those in need. Increasing the amount of unemployment compensation available to employees is also a good idea. But none of that detracts from the fact that Democrats are using the crisis for messaging among the left.
The country needs unity right now. Both sides need to give and withhold the temptation to use the crisis to leverage other objectives. The November election will determine how far the country wants to go down one of those competing paths. Let’s use this time to deal with the emergency, and defer the partisan battle for later.