Politics & Society
The 535 | October 2020
Quarterly Newsletter on the U.S. Congress
With the unemployment rate hovering around 8 percent, Americans are bracing for a winter filled with economic and election uncertainty. While September and the beginning of October promised to be action-filled, few could anticipate the deluge of news that unfolded in mere weeks.
By October, the United States surpassed 200,000 deaths from COVID-19. Some jurisdictions, such as Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, D.C., have maintained relatively strict measures that encourage working from home, limit restaurant capacity, and urge stringent precautions, such as mandatory face masks in public. However, other states have taken the opposite approach and have eased restrictions amid increasing infection rates. In September, Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis removed all pandemic-related restrictions, despite the fact that Florida alone has had over 700,000 cases and 14,000 deaths. As winter arrives and life moves indoors, it remains to be seen how small businesses throughout the country—shops, restaurants, theaters, and service providers—will survive. Heading into fall, an estimated 163,735 small businesses had closed, nearly 60 percent of them permanently.
In March, Congress 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. Heading into October, however, bipartisan consensus on a bailout seems all but impossible. In May, House Democrats passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act, which failed to receive a vote in the Senate. Democrats scaled back their plans for the bailout and on October 1 passed a $2.2 trillion bailout, dubbed the HEROES Act 2.0. The “skinny” bill would provide a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks to qualifying individuals, as well as extend $600 weekly unemployment benefits. Republicans demonstrated willingness to negotiate by increasing their $1 trillion proposal to $1.5 trillion. However, Trump announced on October 6 that he was halting any further stimulus negotiations until after the election, sending the markets spiraling.
The Supreme Court
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on September 18, 2020, igniting a battle for the judicial future of the country. A moderate for most of her career, Justice Ginsburg slowly joined the progressive wing of the court as it grew more conservative over time. She was a strong advocate of women’s rights and voting rights, earning her popular acclaim as “Notorious RBG,” a play on rapper Notorious B.I.G. When asked which cases she believed were most harmful to the U.S., Justice Ginsburg named Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act, Rucho v. Common Cause, which held the federal government cannot intervene to prevent partisan gerrymandering, and Citizens United v. FEC, which ushered in a massive liberation of campaign finance regulation that allows corporations to spend freely and secretly to influence elections.
To fill the vacancy, President Trump has selected Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Judge Barrett is a neoconservative, who would solidify the Court’s 6-3 conservative lead over liberals. At 48-years-old, Judge Barrett could influence the next half-century of American jurisprudence. The heart of the SCOTUS debate centers around Roe v. Wade, a landmark 1973 ruling that codified women’s rights to abortion. Today, 77 percent of Americans favor keeping abortion legal, and pro-choice advocates fear that Judge Barrett’s confirmation would give unequal power to a staunch religious minority. Judge Barrett would also likely overturn the Affordable Care Act, essentially undoing legislative progress toward better health care for Americans. Republicans feel pressure to confirm Judge Barrett ahead of the election, assuming that the Supreme Court will play a role in determining election results. Both parties anticipate a lively exchange between Judge Barrett and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, who sits on the committee overseeing the proceedings.
The White House
On October 1, President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump tested positive for COVID-19, following close interactions with Hope Hicks, a White House staffer with whom they had recently traveled. President Trump was flown by helicopter to Walter Reed Hospital, where he was under close medical supervision. While hospitalized, calls mounted to invoke the 25th Amendment, which allows for the transfer of power when the president is incapacitated. President Trump has since returned to the White House.
On September 27 in a massive bombshell, the New York Times reported that President Trump paid zero federal income taxes in ten of the last fifteen years and that he paid a mere $750 in 2016 and 2017. Pundits were quick to note that Trump has paid less in taxes than nurses, teachers, firefighters, and the average middle class American. In defense, Trump called the report “fake news,” and Republicans quickly mobilized to investigate how such sensitive Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data was leaked to journalists.
With a month until the election, President Trump has focused on his accomplishments, among which he counts tough stances on immigration, trade, and China, as well as a historic Republican stacking of the courts. In the first presidential debate, he told former Vice President Joe Biden, “I’ve done more in 47 months than you did in 47 years.” International news had a field day with the debate, calling it the “worst presidential debate in history.”
As if the U.S. government were not in enough disarray, lack of funding threatened to shut the government down once again. However, Republicans and Democrats, led by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, were able to agree on a $1.4 trillion funding measure on September 30, to avert a government shutdown. President Trump ultimately signed the deal, although he did so slightly past the midnight deadline, leading to brief lapses in funding. The current funds will keep the government up-and-running until December 11.
The FiveThirtyEight average of presidential general election polls shows Biden with a national lead of over seven points. At the start of the general election, Texas and Florida were both regarded as likely red states. However, in Texas, which has 38 Electoral College votes, Trump is currently ahead by only two points, while Biden leads slightly in Florida, a state with 29 Electoral College votes. Anticipating record numbers of absentee and mail-in ballots, both parties have cautioned against expecting a final result on November 3rd, expecting final election results at least several weeks following the election. President Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose and has suggested he will challenge any adverse results.
There are several close Senate races around the country, with states like Colorado and Arizona leaning Democrat and South Carolina (Senator Lindsey Graham’s home state) leaning Republican. There are also several tossups—races that are too close to call. At the beginning of October, the three closest Senate races are Iowa, Maine, and Montana. In Iowa, an agricultural epicenter of the U.S., the race pits Republican incumbent Joni Ernst against Democrat Theresa Greenfield. Iowa voters are regarded as having strong “family values,” making the right to abortion a tricky topic. Both candidates have played down Trump’s nomination of Judge Barrett to the Supreme Court, fearing voter backlash. In Montana, Democratic governor and one-time presidential hopeful Steve Bullock is gaining ground against incumbent Senator Steve Daines in the traditionally red state. Governor Bullock’s success is cause for concern among Republicans: the last time a Democratic presidential nominee won a majority of the popular vote in the state was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
The most closely watched Senate race in the country is a bid for reelection by Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), whom the New York Times recently described as “one of the last surviving moderate Republicans.” Senator Collins’ challenger is Sara Gideon, a rising national star in the Democratic Party, who currently serves as Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. By Republicans and Democrats alike, Senator Collins is regarded as untrustworthy and perpetually undecided on key issues like the Mueller investigation, women’s rights, and Supreme Court nominees. For example, Senator Collins vowed to protect women’s right to health care under Roe v. Wade, but nevertheless voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who is likely join a majority opinion overturning the landmark case.
Other interesting states to watch for close Senate races are Georgia, Kansas, North Carolina, and Texas, which have traditionally been solidly red. In each of those states, Democrats have mounted challenges that put the races within or near the margin of error. For example, in Kansas, a state that has elected firebrands like Kris Kobach, Republican-turned-Democrat Barbara Bollier is within two points of her Republican opponent. Overall, Democrats are currently slightly favored to win the Senate.
For Democrats to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, it is estimated that they need to win the popular vote by 3 percent. In recent weeks, Speaker Pelosi has doubled down on calls for Democrats to increase efforts in House races around the country. Regardless of who wins the presidency, it is likely that tensions among Democrats will continue to increase. Progressive Democrats, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, view House Speaker Pelosi’s approach as antiquated and too moderate.
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.