The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A stingy new GOP plan for unemployment benefits reflects Trump’s twisted vision

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

When Republicans broke with President Trump on mask-wearing, it was treated as a major story. Much hullabaloo ensued when Sen. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) tweeted out a picture of her father wearing a mask, and when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared: “Put on a mask — it’s not complicated.”

In so doing, Republicans appeared to be rejecting Trump’s ongoing depiction of the coronavirus crisis as something that has largely been put behind us.

But in another, equally fundamental sense, Republicans really aren’t breaking with Trump’s reading of the coronavirus crisis at all. And the consequences could be truly dire.

Senate Republicans are set to roll out their plan for the next economic rescue package. The Post team reports:

Senate Republicans will propose cutting weekly emergency unemployment benefits from $600 to $200 until states can bring a more complicated program online, according to two people familiar with the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity about details that had not yet been released.
The proposal will come as part of a broader $1 trillion relief bill aimed at stemming the economic fallout caused by the novel coronavirus. Republicans plan to release the legislation later on Monday and start negotiations with Democrats. The $600 weekly jobless benefit expires in a few days, and House Democrats have proposed extending it until January because the unemployment rate remains very high.
Senate Republicans want to reduce the $600 payment to $200 until states can implement a new approach that would pay the unemployed 70 percent of the income they collected before they lost their jobs.

It’s unclear whether states can ramp up such an approach quickly, and Democrats will flatly reject this approach. But for now, the key point is that Republicans want to keep the payments low for a reason:

White House officials, Republican lawmakers and some business executives have complained that the $600 weekly payment has created a situation where some Americans are paid more to stay home than to return to their jobs.

Or, as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin put it: “It just wouldn’t be fair to use taxpayer dollars to pay more people to sit home than they would working and get a job.”

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This has been widely and rightly lambasted. After all, there are 15 million fewer jobs in the economy than before the pandemic, and the unemployment rate is over 11 percent.

Given this, it seems uncommonly cruel and misguided to slash supplemental benefits on the theory that Americans will happily pocket a payoff to sit at home on their couches.

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But this GOP stance is also notable because it basically ratifies Trump’s reading of the coronavirus crisis in another important way.

The problem isn’t just that Republicans are aiming to slash supplemental benefits to remove the supposed incentive to refrain from returning to jobs, when there are 15 million fewer of them in the economy.

To be sure, that’s bad: As Martin Longman points out, this is a standard manifestation of GOP ideology, but at a particularly grotesque moment. Indeed, as John Stoehr notes, amid the crisis, people are acutely aware of individual economic precarity, the contributions of essential workers and our dependence on one another, so it will appear particularly reprehensible and out of touch with the moment.

But there’s another layer to this as well. It’s that Republicans are operating from the assumption that people will want to resume economic activity at the level needed to vault us back to normalcy whether or not the coronavirus has been tamed. That’s Trump’s stated assumption. And it’s wrong.

As you may recall, the allegedly “good” June jobs figures, the ones that showed us “only” 15 million jobs down, reflected an increase that seems to have happened when states reopened. The coronavirus surged again, prompting many states to reverse reopenings. Various economic data then suggested there has been considerable backsliding, raising fears of a brutal autumn to come.

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And since then, of course, the coronavirus has only raged further out of control, making it more likely that people will be reluctant to both return to work and to resume normal consumptive activity. Which in turn will make a brutal autumn more likely as well.

“As long as the pandemic is not under control, it is unsafe to go back to work, but it is also unsafe to go out shopping in face-to-face encounters,” Chad Stone, the chief economist at the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told me.

“Right now, policymakers should be making sure people have the resources to keep a roof over their head and food on the table while they get the virus under control, so it is safe to resume normal economic activity,” Stone said. He added that many experts “understand that it is the virus that is driving the economy.”

This is the key principle that Republicans don’t want to accept. Because Trump refuses to accept it. Trump wants to create the impression that the only thing preventing us from roaring back to greatness is a failure of will — if he can persuade enough people that they can resume activity without needing to fear getting sick or dying, perhaps he can conjure the illusion of a return to normalcy in time for his reelection.

But they aren’t going to do it.

No matter how vociferously Republicans advocate for mask-wearing, they’re still not willing to accept that fundamental truth about this whole crisis. Because Trump’s reelection depends on people not accepting it. And this could lead to a great deal of misery that doesn’t have to happen.

Watch Opinions videos:

Virginia's moratorium on evictions during the pandemic expired on June 23, rattling renters who lost their jobs because of the crisis. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Reuters/The Washington Post)

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The Post’s View: Trump has a new tone on the pandemic. But not a new strategy.

Helaine Olen: Small-business owners are realizing they are the victims of another Trump con

Letters to the Editor: GOP stinginess on unemployment benefits hurts the economy