By Shivaji Sengupta
According to a New York Times report, Joe Biden’s 1.9 trillion dollar law, called the American Rescue Act, designed to bring immediate economic relief to the poor the middle class, is being hailed as the most significant boost the country’s general economy since 2009. However, it is already being criticized by Republican politicians, all the way down Trump, as “socialism.”
Is it helping the poor at the time of the pandemic socialism? For many Americans, whenever government attempts to take over leadership by providing benefits to the poor or the lower middle class during an economic or health crisis (2009, 2010, now), it smacks of socialism. Indeed, studies have shown that when the government takes over managing people’s lives (economic, health, education), it has been unwilling to let go and have local administrations be back in charge again.
I had written last year when the Coronavirus broke out; the government does have added responsibility in times of crisis to oversee that resources are being optimally used to benefit the maximum number of people, especially the poor. Donald Trump’s refusal to step in and hold the reins was the wrong thing to do. It is generally believed that his extensive laissez-faire policies severely hurt the American people, both in health, with almost 550,000 dead in thirteen months. The economy is suffering from still over 10 million unemployed. In the same piece, however, I had cautioned that while the government was expected to take more initiative than usual, it also had to let go when the right time arrived.
Neither happened. Trump’s administration continued in its haphazard manner, refusing to mandate minimal public precautions and letting people die; the economy slide – all in the belief that in America, the people – not the government – should decide what is good for them. According to many Americans, to mandate anything is socialism. That is how Trump sold his inaction to Republicans. While the 24 states with Democratic governors took a more aggressive stance in emphasizing masks and closing public places and restaurants, most Republican states flip-flopped.
Meanwhile, the number infected was in the millions, the number of death climbing at plague-rates. In both, we were the highest in the world without having the largest populations. China and India were less. What was needed nationwide was a strong, big Bill from Congress to make it into law.
That is what the 117th Congress and President Biden have done. But no sooner have they done so than Republicans – with their eyes firmly on the mid-term elections of 2022 – began criticizing it, some of it quite nasty and mean. For instance, they refuse to appreciate the dire necessity of Bill’s size, given that so many have been ill, so many have died, so many jobs lost. Instead, they decided to point out the so-called “non-Coronavirus” monies that Congress has allocated to the local governments of states and municipalities.
This is the historical prejudice many Americans, and especially Republicans, have against government bail-out. The same thing happened in 2009 when the banks and the auto industry collapsed, and the economy went into a tail-spin and needed money from the government. But Romney, who lost to Barak Obama in the presidential elections the year before, preferred the auto industry to declare managed bankruptcy rather than continue with government help.
The same syndrome is being played out now. Tell me, how are the local governments to manage financially when millions are ill, have lost jobs, are not paying taxes, and, on top of that, need extended medical help and advice on unemployment benefits? A Republican translation of this is that the Democrats want to pump money into various social services, increasing people’s dependency on government. It’s the wrong translation. Major calamities require significant cash, something which only the central governments can afford. Franklin D. Roosevelt did it in 1936, Barak Obama did it in 2010. Joe Biden has to do it now.
But such actions invariably require political machinations to get them done. Think of it from the perspective of Republican politics. Here we are amid a raging pandemic, a pandemic that their party’s president could have taken decisive actions about, and now the Democrats are doing precisely what needs to be done! The Republicans rode the wrong horse throughout the Coronavirus. A Republican Senate in 2020 refused to consider rescuing the American people because it would cost too much! Their president lost. The two Democratic senatorial candidates in Atlanta supported Biden’s proposed Bill and won, after the general elections! The Democrats have the people’s pulse. The Republicans are stuck in a whirlpool of non-action.
So now they have to revert to power-politics. Having been unable to gain majorities in both chambers of Congress, and with Joe Biden not only winning but gaining in popularity (over 61% of Americans approve of his 1.9 trillion dollars American Rescue Act), Republicans are counting on the elections being a year-and-a-half away, and, by that, time, the Biden honey-moon being over. Furthermore, in recent electoral history, the party that won the White House has lost at least one Congress chamber in the mid-term.
Biden and the Democrats are, of course, aware. Their vacation across the country to reinforce the benefits of the 1.9 trillion dollars law, with Biden himself, and Kamala Harris, pitching for it – not to mention Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer – is geared to keep voters aware that the ARA (American Rescue Act) is not only going to give the poor and the middle class immediate financial relief, but also pull fifty percent of America’s children out of poverty. Significantly, according to a report from The Washington Post, more white poor will benefit from this Bill than Blacks and Hispanics.
But Joe Biden should be careful, should not try to do too much too soon. America needs his next Bill on infrastructure as its roads and bridges badly need attention, as does broadband availability throughout the country, especially in inner cities and for the rural poor. Efforts are underway to get Republican support for it. However, as in the case of ARA, there is already talk of bypassing the 60% requirement to pass the law and going for a simple majority through a rule called “reconciliation.” This rule allows a law to be passed by a simple majority because of critical budgetary implications. In my opinion, to hold two trump cards over the Republicans, one involving the vice president’s casting a vote, and the other, reconciliation, is poor politics on the Democrats. Since the Republicans are well aware of either, there is no need to rub it in.
Closely tied to the 60% majority is the filibuster. The term means piracy in the dictionary, and the metaphor in Senate terms, implies senators taking the pirate’s role to delay or scuttle the passing of a law. As Gail Collins somewhat humorously explains, “The rule now is that [a senator] can register an objection, begin a theoretical filibuster and then wander off to have lunch or visit with constituents. Everything stays shut down until he/she benevolently agrees to withdraw [the ” fili”] and go back to real work.”
Filibuster requires 60% of the votes for the Senate to begin debate on a particular Bill. Without debate a law cannot be passed.
Faced with a razor-thin majority, the Democrats are nervous about failing to achieve their ambitious plans regarding Coronavirous, the infrastructure and immigration. They want to end filibuster, and pass laws with a “casting-vote” majority. Ironically, it was the Democrats under Speaker Harry Reid that brought back filibuster. Now they want to get rid of it. In this I would heed Mitch McConnel’s warning: beware a future Congress with Republican majority. Moreover, there are enough protocols now in the Senate to delay debates, not just filibuster. Republicans will use them.
Democrats should remember that the Republicans also want to be seen in a good light by the electorate. If the former can get the latter in a bipartisan effort to pass an important law, the Republicans will actively consider it. The Senate could tear a page from the Harry Reid-Mitch McConnel agreement (bitter enemies as they were!) whereby the Republicans as the minority party would not use filibusters as much provided they were allowed to amend the Democratic sponsored Bills. Where the majorities are as thin as they are ( actually only through a casting vote by the VP in the Senate), the filibuster ensuring 60% agreement on which Bills to debate about makes sense, given the Constitution’s checks and balance principle. Democrats should not get rid of it outright.
I said “outright” because of President Biden’s supports keeping the filibuster, but implementing it in its original format. To filibuster, a senator had to continue to be on his feet and speak for hours, holding off debate. The moment he or she stopped, the debate could begin. There are cases in which senators went on speaking for ten, twelve, or even sixteen hours, as Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut did in 2016! That format was amended by the requirement of 60 votes to begin debate after a senator started a “theoretical” filibuster, without having to speak. Biden is suggesting bringing back the “speaking-filibuster,” instead of the “voting” one. It is a smart political move by which the Democrats can eat the cake and have it too! Of course, they are counting on early exhaustion on the part of the Republicans.
All in all, it has been an important start by the president and his Democrat led Congress. The 1.9 trillion dollars have been released to the public. With well over a 100 million doses of vaccines available, COVID is coming slowly under control. The infrastructure Bill is underway. Gun control Bills await the Senate. They have made a solid beginning. They should be very cautious with immigration.
But, then, that is a whole new discussion.
By Shivaji Sengupta