The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s up to McConnell to save a pandemic aid bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Capitol Hill on Friday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Capitol Hill on Friday. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
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THE RESURGENCE of the coronavirus, with all the death, suffering and stress on the hospital system it entails, threatens to swamp whatever public health benefits were achieved by the comprehensive shutdown of the U.S. economy in April and May. Compounding the situation is a looming reversal of the significant economic gains the country has achieved since midsummer. Signs that the comeback is faltering include, most recently, Thursday’s Labor Department report that 853,000 people filed for new unemployment benefits, up 137,000 from the week before. And even though Congress has the power to bolster the economy — and prevent pointless hardship — Republicans and Democrats remain deadlocked on the new package all of them claim to want.

This has to end. It wouldn’t be a congressional legislative session if there weren’t plenty of unreasonable demands and partisan advantage-seeking on both sides, but at the moment the least justifiable sticking point is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) insistence on protecting businesses and universities from covid-19-related tort lawsuits. We say this from a position of openness toward his idea on the merits. As we have previously noted, it is far from inherently unreasonable to shield hard-pressed business from lawsuits that try to make them liable to workers or customers for harm done by a virus whose connection to any particular company policy or action would be hard to prove. But the urgency of such protection is rapidly diminishing in the light of new developments — first, the deteriorating economy, and second, evidence that existing legal obstacles have so far reined in plaintiffs’ lawyers. Legal database Lex Machina reports 234 virus-related tort cases filed against companies as of Nov. 30.

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Also relevant: Vaccines are becoming available, meaning that the country may be looking at an end to uncontrolled spread by late 2021. Certainly, liability protection should not be put on a par with a far more direct form of help to the economy — federal aid to state and local governments. Yet Mr. McConnell did just that when, faced with the inability of a bipartisan Senate group to compromise on liability protection, he offered to pass a bill without it, if Democrats would agree to take out state and local aid, too.

There is, perhaps, still time for senators to reach the optimal outcome, a compromise on liability that fits into a bipartisan bill alongside robust state and local aid. The overriding imperative, however, is: Something is far better than nothing. Among economists, both Republican-leaning and Democratic, who have considered the essential ingredients of a new aid package, few if any put liability protection at the top of the list; almost all, however, do include state and local aid, beefed-up unemployment benefits, health-care funding and nutrition assistance. Congress must legislate accordingly. If it does not, Mr. McConnell will deserve a heavy share of the responsibility.

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