There was a fateful moment in December 2010, a few weeks after the Democratic supermajority in Congress suffered a historic defeat in the midterms, when a reporter asked then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid if he was concerned about reaching the debt limit under divided government.
“Let the Republicans have some buy-in on the debt,” Reid said. “They’re going to have a majority in the House. I don’t think it should be when we have a heavily Democratic Senate, heavily Democratic House and a Democratic president.”
Subsequent events would suggest something startling: That the press corps at the time had a clearer understanding of Republican extremism than the Democratic leadership in Congress did. What we realized, but what would take Democrats by surprise, is that Republicans would happily hold the country and the global economy hostage by refusing to allow the U.S. government to issue more debt until Democrats agreed to enact the GOP agenda. With a greater depth of understanding, Democrats could have avoided or delayed a confrontation over the debt limit, and spared themselves the ensuing crisis, which nearly cost President Obama re-election.
We are approaching an analogous moment ahead of the 2020 election—one that will determine what kind of governing environment Joe Biden will inherit should he win the presidency—but it remains unclear whether Democrats in Congress see what’s fairly obvious to students of Republican politics.
For weeks now Senate Republicans have sat on a multitrillion dollar House bill—the HEROES Act—which would extend needed relief to workers and employers, including state and local governments. Now, as the United States coronavirus calamity deteriorates, Republicans say all that money isn’t necessary, and a mere $1 trillion will suffice.
There’s nothing mere about a trillion dollar piece of legislation in normal times. That’s more than Congress allocated for the entire Recovery Act in 2009, and this would come on top of trillions the government has already spent to help Americans weather the pandemic. But it’s also not nearly enough, and Republicans, whose fantasy plans for a swift return to normal lay in ruins, understand that as well as anyone. What they understand additionally is that as long as Donald Trump is president, they can spend trillion upon trillion in increments until the crisis is behind them—and as long as they don’t allocate those trillions in a single bill, they might retain the power to turn off the spigot as soon as Trump loses.
That’s why Democrats should say no to any further coronavirus legislation that doesn’t provide as much running room to whoever’s president in January as it will provide to Trump in the immediate term. America’s coronavirus response shouldn’t be a work in progress that the government abandons the minute the president is no longer a Republican. It should be a comprehensive plan of action that spans administrations in the event that voters elect new leadership in the middle of the crisis.
This was the reason Democrats overwhelmingly supported the idea of tying the next coronavirus response bill to economic conditions—so that relief would continue to flow, no matter who occupies the White House, until the end of the crisis—and were crestfallen when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi omitted so-called “automatic stabilizers” from the HEROES Act. This is a potentially existential matter for the country and the party alike, because if Biden wins the presidency without a Senate majority, Republicans will have the power to ruin his administration, and they will use it. Even if Democrats unify the political branches next year, Republicans will filibuster recovery efforts, and Democrats may not have the will to respond by abolishing the filibuster itself.
Senate Democrats thus seem to recognize that placing economic recovery funds on autopilot is as urgent a necessity as the one the party missed when it shrugged off the looming debt-limit crisis a decade ago. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has sponsored legislation by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) that would “tie the extension of enhanced UI benefits to economic data—not politics.”
But that doesn’t mean Democrats are prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to block Republicans’ risible “stimulus, but only for Trump” plan.
Their proposed trillion dollar cap is an admission that they aren’t confident about their election prospects and they don’t want to accidentally leave Biden any berth to govern. Their big idea is that Congress should pass just as much stimulus in the coming weeks as they think would help Trump get re-elected, and no more thereafter if Trump loses anyhow. Democrats don’t need to play along with this, and they don’t have to. If Republicans would abandon the country for months and face voters amid a depression rather than leave Biden a salvageable country, then they should do that. Otherwise, they should agree to a plan that’s reciprocal between the parties—one that would also help Trump this fall!—and take the economic sabotage of either this president or the next one off the table.
Correction: This article originally referred to the HEROES Act as the HOPE Act.