This is a story about a repugnant bit of conservative ideology that just reared its head and fortunately didn’t carry the day. But it’s also a story about battles over the past and the future, how we understood the last recession and how we’ll come to understand this one.
And it offers a preview of the justification Republicans will use down the line not just to claw back the help Americans are being offered but also to impose austerity policies that will significantly increase the suffering Americans are forced to endure.
The economic rescue package the Senate passed Wednesday included provisions extending unemployment benefits for four months, allowing the self-employed and gig workers to get it, and adding $600 per week to the benefits people would already be eligible for (also for four months).
But before it passed, some GOP senators rebelled at the thought that anyone might get more from UI than they did from their former jobs. Sens. Ben Sasse, Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott and Rick Scott (who left his job as chief executive of a health care company with a $300 million golden parachute after the company committed extensive Medicare fraud on his watch) introduced an amendment to scale back the benefit.
They decried the incentives it would create for people to just up and quit so they could sit back and take in those sweet government bennies. ( You can’t get UI if you quit your job; it’s only available to those who lose their jobs involuntarily.) Graham even had the gall to claim that nurses might leave the workforce if we offered them too much in benefits.
Nurses. You know, the ones who right now are risking their lives to treat coronavirus patients, and are in some cases forced to wear trash bags because their hospitals have run out of protective gear. Those are the lazy bums Graham is concerned about indulging.
We should acknowledge that in ordinary circumstances, you wouldn’t want unemployment benefits to replace more than 100 percent of earnings, because that would indeed create an incentive for people not to find another job as long as they received the benefits.
But these are obviously not ordinary circumstances. In most cases, it’s impossible for people to find another job. And these expanded benefits are available for only four months.
So why would every Republican except two (and one Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia) vote for this amendment?
It’s obviously an expression of deep ideological conviction. For most conservatives, the world is divided into virtuous “makers” and contemptible “takers,” and you can tell who’s who by how much money they have. We may have to grudgingly dole out a few safety-net benefits, but they should be as miserly as possible and delivered with a healthy serving of shame and humiliation — things such as drug testing and onerous bureaucratic requirements help — just so the recipients understand how worthless they are.
As former House speaker Paul Ryan famously said, "We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”
Ryan was not referring to airline CEOs or shareholders in large Wall Street banks, who will all benefit handsomely from the rescue package.
The Sasse amendment may have failed, but it’s a preview of what’s to come. In the coming months, we will probably have to return with more stimulus, depending on how the recession evolves. If there has been even the beginning of a recovery, Republicans will argue that we’ve already been too generous, and any further support will only discourage layabouts from giving a hearty tug on their bootstraps.
Republicans will also argue that the recovery would have been much faster and stronger had we not offered so much to the remaining millions of unemployed. The only cure, they will say, is austerity: Cut back not just on unemployment benefits but also on food stamps, on Medicaid and on anything else that might help struggling people survive. A corporate tax cut wouldn’t hurt, either.
We saw this in the 2008 recession, when even as the economy was crashing Republicans began arguing that the crisis was caused not by Wall Street recklessness but by Democratic policies intended to alleviate the brutal consequences of redlining.
While Republicans won’t be able to say that this recession started for any reason other than the nationwide shutdown of the economy in response to the coronavirus, they’ll still blame it on Democrats and the poor. It would have been brief and almost painless, they’ll say, if we had just bailed out corporations, given people a bit of temporary help and then stood back while the economy roared back to life. Instead, Democrats forced us to indulge the shiftless and the feckless, holding back the recovery.
Should Joe Biden become president, this will become one more Republican argument (along with the deficit, for which they will rediscover their hatred) for imposing austerity policies. It’s a playbook they ran successfully against President Barack Obama, lengthening the recovery from the Great Recession.
Even at this moment of crisis, they can’t help themselves. But they’re just getting started.