This notion will now play out in the context of another debate: Over whether to include in the next big economic package recurring direct cash payments and automatic extensions of unemployment assistance, both tied to economic conditions.
The case for those provisions is spelled out in a letter that progressive senators sent to Biden, arguing that they should be included in the next big bill, which is in its early stages and is being widely dubbed the “Build Back Better” economic plan.
That second plan is supposed to reflect Biden’s longer term vision, coming after the current economic relief package becomes law. It will also likely have to pass by simple majority via “reconciliation,” since very few if any GOP senators will vote for it.
The idea is gaining some momentum: The letter now has 16 Democratic senators as signatories, according to the office of Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, which is spearheading the effort.
Wyden’s office confirmed to me that the new signatories include Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, which is significant because he’s a member of the Democratic leadership, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who isn’t associated with the party’s liberal wing. The other senators on the letter are mostly from that wing, with exceptions like Michael Bennet of Colorado.
The case for recurring cash payments and automatic extensions of unemployment assistance is both substantive and procedural. On the first, as the letter notes, these two provisions reinforce one another, and together they make an effective form of relief — but the stimulus checks are a one-off, and the extended unemployment assistance will expire in early September.
The passage of the last bill demonstrated that extending unemployment payments is hard: Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) held up the whole package to whittle them down, and not a single Republican voted for them. Democrats have one more shot this year at passing something via reconciliation, which means extending them again after that if necessary will be even harder.
Plus, millions of families in a precarious financial situation would benefit from knowing that assistance will continue if economic conditions remain miserable, rather than having to rely on the Senate to extend it yet again.
Moderate Democrats like Manchin will likely object, claiming that the economy is improving and (as Manchin said about the extension that just passed) that such provisions risk dissuading people from returning to work.
But the whole point of such extensions is to ensure that concrete, lived economic conditions are precisely what dictates whether payments are reinstated. A previous version of this proposal would have extended unemployment assistance if the unemployment rate remained above 5.5 percent; proponents hope for a similar mechanism to trigger recurring stimulus checks.
That theoretically should call the bluff of moderates who say they fear payments won’t be necessary once the economy picks up.
“Triggers ensure benefits reflect the needs on the ground,” Wyden told me in an emailed statement. “If the need is greater, more robust aid would continue. But if the economy improves more quickly than anyone has projected, aid would phase down more quickly.”
Meanwhile, very broad public support for Biden’s handling of the pandemic is demonstrating that these policies are … popular!
“Last week, Democrats proved what it looks like to win big,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Institute, which is advocating for the proposals along with the Economic Security Project.
“Checks are a political winner in addition to keeping millions out of poverty,” Green continued, adding that if more Democrats sign on, it could open more “space for the White House to keep going big with popular recurring checks.”
All this is taking place amid a confluence of factors — widespread public appreciation of the severity of the covid and economic crises, plus a new consensus among economists that deficit spending is less risky than doing too little — that is opening up political possibilities for much more robust government action than in the past.
Notably, these possibilities have grown overwhelmingly obvious — and large majorities are backing the rescue package — even before the checks have arrived. Once that happens, and if the vaccine rollout continues taming the pandemic, reinforcing confidence in government’s handling of the crises, that could clear still more space for continued action.
So maybe the lesson here is that going big works, and that as long as the need is there, Democrats should continue meeting the moment with the ambition it demands.