Washington Post: Here’s a proposal that could lead Congress out of its impasse on pandemic relief

September 16, 2020
In The News

AS OF TUESDAY morning, this was the status of efforts to move a much-needed new round of pandemic-related economic support through Congress: The House had passed a $3.4 trillion bill in May, which was quickly dismissed by Republicans as far too expensive. Talks between the White House and Democratic congressional leaders on a compromise fell apart before lawmakers took an August recess. Upon the Senate’s return in early September, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) staged a vote on a $650 billion bill (of which $300 billion represented new funds and the rest repurposing of previously approved funds), which failed to reach the 60-vote threshold because Democrats, correctly, rejected it as too small.

These events may signify a total impasse, impossible to resolve before the Nov. 3 election — if then. Or they may represent the inevitable political point-scoring each party, and its various factions, had to go through before striking a deal that is in both sides’ interest, as well as the country’s.

The second, more hopeful interpretation suddenly looks more plausible after Tuesday. In part, this is because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said that lawmakers “have to stay here until we have a bill,” despite a legislative calendar that calls for a month-long recess beginning Oct. 2. That’s a clear sign that she’s willing to bargain. And the Problem Solvers Caucus, a 50-person group of moderate House members, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, has released the outline of a compromise that could give majorities in the House and Senate at least some of what they say they want.

Previous discussions foundered over partisan disagreements on the total dollar amount of spending. The Problem Solvers package skirts that issue by including a mechanism that would permit its $1.5 trillion price tag either to grow by $400 billion or shrink by $200 billion, depending on how quickly public health and economic indicators improve by early 2021. As for the actual content of the bill, it would provide significant money for all the economy’s most pressing needs: $290 billion in small-business aid; $316 billion worth of direct payments to households; $100 billion for health care and covid-19 testing; and $120 billion for 13 weeks of supplemental unemployment benefits, at a flat $450 per week through December, with a later transition to supplements calibrated to individual earnings. There would be $500 billion in aid for state and local governments, to meet documented new needs caused by the economic shock, but not to bail out pension systems. States would also get $400 million to help them hold fair elections safely.

Economic conditions have improved significantly since the pandemic response forced a near-shutdown six months ago — indeed, more significantly than many expected. Yet the gains are precarious, with many families in hard-hit industries such as travel and food service facing long-term unemployment, eviction and food insecurity. Improvements to date are due largely to the strong bipartisan response Congress and the Trump administration mounted at the pandemic’s outset; further improvements depend on their ability to do something similar now. The Problem Solvers proposal could show the way.