The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A liberal congresswoman and a conservative senator want the federal government to pay workers’ salaries

Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), seen Dec. 12 on Capitol Hill. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

A leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus is calling for the federal government to cover workers’ salaries to ensure they remain on employers’ payrolls during the coronavirus pandemic. A conservative Republican senator has urged the same.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) independently offered this idea, which, in a different time, some could label socialist for its dependence on the federal government.

The details of the proposals — which Jayapal introduced in legislation Friday and Hawley recommended in a Washington Post op-ed Thursday — differ, but the general concept is the same.

President Trump and Republicans have spent the past year accusing Democrats of being socialists and warning that their policies would turn the United States into Venezuela. Yet in the face of an enormous crisis that has crushed world economies, they have backed spending trillions of taxpayer dollars in relief efforts, sending $1,200 checks to Americans and promising health-care coverage for uninsured Americans who contract the disease.

Hawley, a freshman senator, served as attorney general of Missouri, where he joined the lawsuit to strike down the Affordable Care Act.

But with the world upended, so, too, are the political paradigms. There’s consensus among Democrats and Republicans that the government has to spend big quickly to stave off total economic collapse.

Jayapal’s plan is significantly more generous, using federal dollars to cover 100 percent of workers’ salaries up to $100,000 and their benefits, such as health care. Hawley would have the Treasury Department foot 80 percent of the salary, with a cap of the median income wage. Hawley’s proposal does not specify how that would be calculated, but data suggests that the cap could be somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000.

Some members of the progressive caucus, such as Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), said they were encouraged reading Hawley’s op-ed endorsing an idea already underway in more progressive countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Britain.

“I am happy to work with him on such a proposal on a bipartisan basis, similar to those which Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau in Canada and Prime Minister [Boris] Johnson in Britain have implemented with promising initial results,” Khanna said.

In his op-ed, Hawley wrote that embracing these kinds of bold ideas will come with a tremendous price tag, but he argued that it’s “better that money be spent on saving jobs now and getting Americans ready to work than on bailouts and mass unemployment claims for months and months to come.”

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The global coronavirus pandemic has forced workers to stay home and businesses to shutter, resulting in mass layoffs across the country. The unemployment rate has surged to 13 percent, the highest since the Great Depression, and some 17 million Americans have applied for unemployment insurance.

The $2 trillion relief package passed by Congress last month expands that assistance to cover, in many cases, 100 percent of a person’s lost wages.

“If we’re going to pay people to be unemployed, why not pay them to be employed and just stay on in the workforce?” said Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a progressive caucus member.

He also commended Hawley for embracing it.

“When you’re in the thick of a crisis, all of the traditional ideological constraints fall away. People are willing to think anew,” Raskin said. “I don’t know Senator Hawley. I’m impressed that he arrived at this idea.”

Jayapal agreed. There are elements of her bill that in normal circumstances she would not support, such as allowing all businesses to benefit, including larger corporations that progressives typically rail against.

“This isn’t about ideology anymore. The reality of the crisis allows people to put some of those things aside,” she said. “Some of those red lines aren’t there — they aren’t for us.”

She argues that “mass layoffs” are a policy choice that lawmakers can avoid. She countered Trump’s contention that once the public health crisis is over, the economy will come roaring back. It will take businesses that have downsized months to ramp back up, she predicted.

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There is also a public health benefit of leaving workers on their employers’ payrolls while the crisis continues. Otherwise, people might feel pressured to find a job and begin working again sooner than it is safe to do so.

Jayapal said she spoke to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who told her that he was interested in her proposal. She is arranging a call with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to discuss it, and her staff has reached out to Hawley’s office to see whether there is a chance for collaboration.

She has buy-in from businesses, labor groups and economists, she said. She even pitched it to former Federal Reserve chair Janet L. Yellen, who responded positively, Jayapal said.

“We need a solution that fits the scale of the problem,” she said. “We are going to have to invest if we want to prevent devastation. The devastation is going to be even greater if we don’t do this.”

Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

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