On the whole, the bill resembles outlines that Senate Republicans first produced, improved by measures upon which Democrats insisted. There will be $350 billion in loans to help small businesses stay alive and meet payroll. There is a supplement to unemployment insurance and direct cash assistance to households, focused on the middle class on down. And, crucially, there will be roughly $425 billion to backstop a major new Federal Reserve lender-of-last-resort function. The treasury secretary will retain authority to direct some tens of billions of dollars to especially distressed sectors such as the airlines and hotels, but under greatly increased oversight, as well as with reasonable limits to stock buybacks and executive compensation, also at the behest of Democrats.
Obviously, there were some brutal partisan politics along the way, including memorably ugly scenes on the floor of the Senate. These moments were reminders of how terribly partisan and divided the country still is even amid crisis. What strikes us as most significant, however, is the bipartisan consensus that finally did emerge, which proved that both Republicans and Democrats are still capable, when it really counts, of obeying the maxim attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Equally obviously, committing vast public resources after hasty backroom negotiations rather than hearings and “regular order” is hardly optimal. These are not normal times, however; on balance, any member of Congress of either party who might try to derail this urgent legislation will, in our view, tempt a harsh historical judgment.
Undoubtedly the bill is not ideal, and likely even less perfect, in its details, than we can yet know. Yet what is at stake is not — repeat, not — a bailout or a subsidy or even a stimulus. It is economic life support, an attempt to sustain consumers and producers, from the most modest household to the biggest business, through unprecedented global stress for which they are all basically blameless. There is, to be sure, extra responsibility on large corporations for whom the bill is providing a kind of nationalized catastrophic business insurance. They should respond by augmenting those voluntary measures to help employees and the public that many companies have already taken. If shut-down car factories can be retooled to make ventilators, they must be; if, say, cargo holds of idled passenger airliners are needed to ship vital supplies, use them. Against all the odds and many expectations, Congress may be doing its job. All the more reason for other institutions, public and private, to keep on doing theirs.