Politics & Society
The 535 | August 2020
Quarterly Newsletter on the U.S. Congress
In what has been one of the tensest periods in modern history for the American public and lawmakers alike, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed stark political divisions among the country’s two main parties. Congress and the Trump Administration were able to agree on the initial bailout package, the CARES Act, which passed in March. Now, with autumn quickly approaching and as Congress adjourns, the American people are facing many unknowns.
The peak of infection for the country thus far occurred on July 17, when nearly 76,000 new infections were counted. To-date, there have been over 5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, as the death toll exceeds 200,000. Of those deaths, nearly half have occurred in nursing homes. Amid debates about whether or not school should be held in-person in the fall, nearly 100,000 children have tested positive for the virus. The US is still facing acute shortages of test kits and other necessities, including personal protective equipment (PPE). Lacking strong federal intervention, the virus shows no signs of abating by the end of the year. The current estimated death toll is 300,000 before 2021.
In March, both chambers passed the CARES Act with bipartisan support. The bailout package, which cost $2.2 trillion, demonstrated that swift, bipartisan action is not impossible in Washington. However, with no indication that the virus will subside soon in the U.S., lawmakers are increasingly divided on how to proceed.
In May, the Democrat-led House passed the Heroes Act, a $3 trillion bailout that would provide Americans with weekly payments of $600, protect gig workers, and establish a moratorium on evictions, among other measures. In a major difference from the Republican proposal, $1 trillion of the Democrats’ bailout would provide funding for state governments, which are experiencing sharp cuts to tax revenue amid shuttered economies. In May, a group of progressive Democrats, including Vice Presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and former presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), introduced a bill that would provide monthly payments of $2,000 to Americans making $120,000 or less.
The Republican proposal is significantly smaller and comes with a price tag of $1 trillion, less than half the initial bailout cost. The Republican HEALS Act proposes weekly payments of $200 and does not provide funding for state governments. Where the Democrats’ proposal would provide bailout money to most workers through January 2021, the weekly payments under the HEALS Act would expire at the end of September. The Republican proposal also does not deal with evictions or other housing issues, potentially fueling a significant uptick in homelessness. However, Congress has now adjourned until September 8 without passing another bailout package.
While there are countless policy tools the administration could invoke to alleviate COVID-related suffering, the administration has opted to continue its hands-off approach. However, Trump did don a mask in public for the first time in July, which some pundits viewed as a positive sign that the administration was beginning to take the pandemic more seriously. Ensuing policy decisions have indicated that has not materialized.
As Congress adjourned for August recess without passing a relief bill, the president rushed to sign three memoranda and an executive order to assuage fears about government inaction as Trump barrels into the heat of his reelection campaign. The president’s executive order reinstates weekly payments at a reduced amount of $400. However, a condition of these payments is that states themselves have to chip in 25 percent of funds. Regardless, the executive order is likely to face a barrage of constitutional challenges since Congress has sole authority over federal spending. Other elements to the president’s plan include deferring student loan interest payments until 2021 and a temporary payroll tax deferral. The president’s plan is ambiguous on housing policy and does not offer concrete protection from evictions.
Unsurprisingly, state responses to the pandemic have varied widely. The region with the lowest ongoing infection rates is New England, which implemented strict measures at the outset of the pandemic. States throughout the South continue to suffer the consequences of lax government intervention and have had to reverse the reopening of various parts of their economies. As it currently stands, California, Florida, and Texas are the states with the highest number of confirmed cases, although New York has counted the most deaths, exceeding 32,000.
Persistent lack of leadership at the executive level has intensified pressure on state governments and hospitals, already under tremendous operational and logistical strain. In states with hybrid or part-time legislators—for example, states whose legislative bodies convene only during the spring—legislators are having to work overtime to clean up the previous legislative session that was delayed by COVID and also to deal with the COVID crisis itself. In Georgia, one of the states most adversely affected by the virus, the annual salary for a legislator there is just over $17,000/year. In other words, local officials, many of whom work multiple jobs, are having to bear the brunt of continued inaction in Washington.
The American people have been grappling with the effects of the disorganized pandemic response. Small business owners, including theaters and live music venues, are at risk of permanent closures since larger corporations will be the only ones with the cash to acquire property and re-employ workers. (For more perspective on this, listen to Senator Klobuchar on National Public Radio.) Other American past times are being canceled, including college football. However, the annual Sturgis Motorcycle rally in South Dakota in August welcomed an estimated 250,000 visitors. No masks were required.
Perhaps the largest looming issue for American families relates to remote learning. The decision to hold in-person classes is determined at the county level, meaning each state can have wildly varying policies. In Montgomery County, Maryland, schools will not convene in-person until February 2021. Meanwhile in Georgia, a high school recently reopened but then had to shut back down after it was discovered that over 200 people had tested positive. To add insult to injury, a student who took the below picture of her high school was temporarily suspended for violating school policy. She was quickly released following national outcry defending her First Amendment freedom of speech rights.
As the pandemic barrels onward, so, too, does election season. Former Vice President Joe Biden recently announced Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his running mate. Senator Harris got her start as a progressive prosecutor from California, prior to being elected as the state’s Attorney General. She was catapulted to national fame during the 2008 financial crisis, during which she successfully stymied attempts at widespread foreclosures in California and successfully received money back from banks. She has been progressive on policies such as health care for all, climate change, and women’s rights. On foreign policy, she supports re-entering the Iran agreement and is a staunch opponent of the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
While the Trump campaign has been outraising Democrat opponents most of the year, the fundraising gap has since closed, putting both parties on equal financial footing. However, Trump has recently undertaken a series of unilateral decisions to tamper with free elections. In July, he floated the idea of delaying the elections, an idea even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) could not support. The administration has since embarked on plans to degrade the United States Postal Service (USPS), which has been preparing to process historic levels of mail-in ballots due to the pandemic, by holding up funding.
Voting groups—partisan and non-partisan alike—have vowed to protect election integrity and have lobbied for the inclusion of elections funds in forthcoming bailout packages, although Republicans are unlikely to support additional elections funding. Overall, Biden leads Trump in national polling and is ahead of the incumbent president in states that were tossups during the 2016 Clinton-Trump election. The key component, which remains unknown, is whether or not young people—Millennials and Gen Z, which now comprise the largest voting bloc in the US—will turn out to vote.
Americans are heading into fall with many unknowns. Will the pandemic subside? Who will win the election? Will election results be contested? Many of those answers depend directly on what Congress is able—and willing—to accomplish in the next two months.
The 535 is a publication of the Bertelsmann Foundation from our offices in Washington, DC. It connects the European Parliament and German Bundestag to U.S. Congressional policy and politics and contributes to a common transatlantic political culture. The 535 is a quarterly publication that highlights issues, legislation, and policymakers relevant to transatlantic legislative cycles.