Here are four takeaways about the House’s swift action and what lies ahead.
1. Crisis often – but not always – compels Congress to act
Responding quickly to a crisis has a strong electoral logic, as Neil Malhotra explained here at TMC this past week. Instead of preventing problems like the oncoming consequences of global climate change, lawmakers often wait until hit by a crisis – as they did after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 or after the global financial crisis in 2008. Capitalizing on crisis lets legislators claim credit and deflect blame, which helps them in the next election, while raising the political cost for opponents who might seek to block action.
But crisis is not always sufficient. In 2016, Congress took nearly seven months to allocate $1.1 billion to fight the effects of the Zika virus: Republicans delayed acting on President Barack Obama’s request by insisting that the costs be offset by cuts to Obamacare and by adding a rider that blocked Planned Parenthood affiliates in Puerto Rico (Ground Zero in the United States for the virus) from receiving any of the funds in the package. Legislators’ ideological and partisan commitments can encourage them to drag their feet, thwarting or delaying action even in a crisis.
Of course, Zika’s effects were comparatively limited. In contrast, the covid-19 emergency is highly salient, national, exponentially growing – putting lives and the economy at risk. Given volatile stock markets and the limited firepower of the Federal Reserve’s interventions, both parties face increasing pressure to act quickly. No surprise then that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quickly backtracked after announcing that senators would go home as scheduled for a week’s recess without acting on the emergency measure.
2. Democrats set the agenda by moving first and staying united
House and Senate Democratic leaders acted together earlier this week to forge a covid-19 response plan, preempting the Republican White House. By moving first and keeping partisans on the same page, they set the agenda with a list of concrete policy steps to help mitigate the impending emergency. In contrast, House and Senate Republicans were relatively mute, deferring to President Trump and his economic team to float potential options. Even after the president’s speech on Wednesday night, the administration’s policy agenda remained in flux.
Both parties endorsed some form of temporary paid sick leave for workers so that they can afford to stay home to comply with health directives. After that, their priorities diverged. Democrats largely defined the challenge as a health crisis. They pushed for measures to patch holes in the social safety net for those most at risk, and offered more funding for state and local governments and health care workers battling the virus.
Republicans focused more on economic stimulus, with some favoring aid to affected industries like airlines and hotels. By many reports, Trump considers this a potential electoral crisis for him, and he pushed Congress this week to suspend the payroll tax – thinking that will win him votes come November.
But few GOP senators so far have endorsed the president’s proposed tax cuts. That GOP division gave Democrats more leverage over Congress’ response. McConnell acknowledged as much when he gave “ball control” to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to hammer out a deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
To be sure, the final package strongly reflects traditional GOP priorities. Most significantly, the bill provides generous new tax credits to employers to offset the costs of providing mandatory sick leave, in lieu of Democrats’ initial plan to mandate a new federal benefit. As political scientists Matt Grossman and David Hopkins remind us, that’s a common pattern when the parties negotiate the details of major new programs.
3. Closing the doors empowered leaders – and avoided a partisan debacle
Polarized and competitive parties often fight messaging battles, seeking to win the public to their side when facing off over policy. Not so this time. With the support of their parties, Pelosi and Mnuchin personally negotiated the package, limiting the details of their bargaining. As political scientist E. E. Schattschneider termed it decades ago, the parties “narrowed the scope of conflict” – making it more likely they would swiftly make a deal. Putting the deal on the floor immediately – legislating in the dark – also strengthened leaders’ hands before dissenting voices on either side could oppose the concessions embedded in the deal.
Facing last-minute glitches and inconsistent signals from the president, some argue that House Democrats could have just pursued their original, more generous bill that the Republican Senate would simply reject. Pelosi argued that taking the time to secure a bipartisan agreement would demonstrate to the public that the parties could overcome differences to work together in times of crisis. That strategy also curtailed a partisan messaging battle – especially from the president himself – from derailing a deal.
4. The road ahead will be rockier
The legislative challenge ahead – designing a broader stimulus bill to stop or dampen the effects of an economic recession – will be more arduous. Lawmakers have suggested a broad range of policy solutions; neither party’s leaders have coalesced around a plan; and the president will surely continue to champion a payroll tax cut, even though Mnuchin and many Republicans have acknowledged that approach wouldn’t help workers who lose their jobs. Reaching a bigger deal will also take more time, which could allow partisan messaging to infect the process.
The electoral risk will be particularly high for Trump if the public judges his administration’s response inadequate. No party wants to alienate voters in a crisis that threatens communities, businesses and families across the partisan divide – especially with elections on the horizon.