So as Congress members prepare to finally get some kind of relief to Americans, businesses and health-care workers, did they abdicate their responsibility in waiting this long?
It’s a fair question to ask, say congressional analysts who have been closely following these negotiations. “I think it was a failure of leadership all the way around … a pox on both parties and the White House,” said William Hoagland, a former Senate GOP aide now with the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The most basic job of Congress is to take care of its constituents. Normally that varies from district to district, lawmaker to lawmaker. But this pandemic blanketed America, presenting a truly unique national challenge — and an opportunity to come together.
By summer, when Congress’s renegotiations fell through on more coronavirus relief spending, the coronavirus was no longer just a blue state problem. It had spread to red states that reopened too quickly. By fall, it was spiking in more rural states that had previously avoided the worst of it. By winter, it was sickening and killing people everywhere.
And yet Congress remained stuck: Democrats wanted to spend at least $3 trillion to help. House Democrats passed such a coronavirus relief bill in May, and they insisted on that number (or later, $2 trillion) or nothing at all.
But Republicans weren’t interested in spending nearly that much. They had quickly approved trillions of dollars when the pandemic first hit. This was getting expensive, and they had an election coming up during which their base voters might be upset about record-level debt in the Trump era.
Also, some hoped that the economy would improve alongside the stock market and that states could keep the pandemic in check. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) offered $500 billion bills in relief. A sizable chunk of Senate Republicans just didn’t see the need for government to spend any money. President Trump wanted to deny that the virus was a problem at all.
For months, Congress couldn’t shake this standoff, said Sarah Binder, a governance expert with the Brookings Institution. “We have divided party control, which means that it raises the importance of having buy-in from both political parties,” she said. “They have to agree on what exactly the problem is.”
If House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was hoping McConnell would fold during this time, he never did.
Then the November election froze everything. Pelosi seemed to calculate that Republicans would take the blame for not giving Americans more relief, Binder said.
(In a way, you could argue they did; Trump lost the presidency. But numerous Republican congressional lawmakers did just fine. Republicans even picked up seats in the House.)
Congress has had major standoffs before. In 1995, the government shut down over the holidays, a scenario this Congress will probably avoid. But Hoagland, who worked on Capitol Hill around that time, said at least leaders were speaking to each other. Trump and Pelosi haven’t spoken in more than over a year, a standoff Hoagland called “just unbelievable.”
“That’s the difference I see from past fights,” he said. “At least both sides talked and recognized they had to work things out.”
Now that the election is over and Trump is on his way out, with a president-elect (Joe Biden) who takes the virus seriously on his way in, both sides seem much more willing to compromise. (McConnell has also felt pressure to do something to help two Republican senators in election runoffs in Georgia, according to reporting.)
The coronavirus relief bill that Congress may pass in the coming days has much less than Democrats want and much more than Republicans said they’d spend. Hoagland thinks it’s almost certain there will be more help once Biden takes office.
It’s easier in hindsight to look back at the summer and fall and determine that, yes, more government help could have prevented so much hurt, said Binder. That’s not the way Republicans saw it at the time, and that’s for partisans to judge, not us. (Another partisan debate: Should Pelosi have been more willing sooner to come down in price? As soon as she and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said they’d be willing to accept less than a trillion in help, things moved quickly.)
The fact that both sides are willing to pass something now suggests that they both made mistakes in calculations in the summer when negotiations froze.
But one thing is undeniable, Binder said: “The laissez-faire lack of federal response to the virus, that seems an abdication of responsibility for sure. ”