The concerted Republican effort to fritter away both policy and principle in these pandemic times continued apace this week—indeed, it leapt forward. Who needs Nancy Pelosi demanding more spending, more unemployment benefits and more union payoffs when Steven Mnuchin and Mitch McConnell will do it for her?
Five months after the coronavirus’s arrival, Washington has settled into a predictable loop. Speaker Pelosi’s House unveils sweeping virus legislation with vast dollar figures and progressive policy demands. Republicans argue among themselves. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin crashes in to “negotiate” the GOP back to their own 5-yard line. Senate Majority Leader McConnell reminds his caucus it is an election year and provides Mrs. Pelosi her touchdown. America goes another trillion dollars, or two, into debt.
The only difference this week was the speed with which the drive unfolded. By May, Congress had authorized some $3 trillion in virus relief, and Mr. McConnell had mercifully called a “pause.” Yet Mrs. Pelosi responded with another $3 trillion package, and Mr. Mnuchin last week sucker punched GOP senators by signaling White House openness to provisions they had already foresworn. The Senate GOP spending brigade seized on the bill as a chance to throw more cash in an election year. The party’s opening bid is $1 trillion, and that’s before Mr. Mnuchin and Mrs. Pelosi get to truly huddling.
Some spending might be justified in aid of economic growth. But as the White House and appropriators now view this as a vote-buying exercise, the proposals focus on handouts and income transfers that would, if anything, prolong closures. That includes renewal of the federal “enhanced” employment insurance that is paying Americans more to stay at home than go to work. The GOP says it will reduce the amount from the current $600 a week, but any federal bonus (atop regular state unemployment benefits) makes it harder for businesses to rehire.
Republicans intend to spend more than $70 billion on K-12 schools, including ones that refuse to reopen to educate children. One slim silver lining in the virus mess has been the spotlight it has put on the nation’s failing schools, and the importance of choice, charters, vouchers and private and home education. Yet here is the GOP Senate—in its infinite brilliance—sending billions to teachers unions that oppose all this, and that will divert these funds to elect Democrats.
Republicans are looking at $20 billion in direct payments to farmers and another $15 billion for child care. They gave up on a payroll tax cut, and started coalescing around another round of nonstimulus checks to select households. They are bragging that their bill doesn’t include more money to states (a key Pelosi demand) even as they brag about the restrictions they will put on such money when Mr. Mnuchin gives it to Mrs. Pelosi anyway.
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But what about the $25 billion more the Senate would give to testing, or the $26 billion for vaccine research and distribution? Surely we need that, right? Previous legislation allocated $25 billion for testing. Some $13 billion hasn’t been used. A full $10 billion was set aside for states, localities and tribes; they’ve so far spent less than $100 million. Much of the new money for vaccines would go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, still sitting on $5 billion of virus cash. And the administration already has funding for Operation Warp Speed, which covers the cost of vaccine distribution.
The mystery is who in the White House keeps deputizing Mr. Mnuchin as lead congressional envoy, given Mrs. Pelosi’s flawless record at schooling him in the art of the deal. The Treasury secretary remains relentlessly focused on what House Democrats want, rather than on what the economy or the Trump White House needs. His malleability eggs on the big spenders. His fickleness has additionally discouraged the Senate GOP from drawing lines in this debate, for fear of being undercut by Mr. Mnuchin—and inevitably Donald Trump. What’s the point of warning Mrs. Pelosi that it will never renew enhanced unemployment benefits when Mr. Mnuchin has already invited her to begin the bidding?
Republicans overall fear political fallout if they don’t act, but they put themselves in this situation. They might have spent the past two months talking about the money that has already been allocated, the huge sums that still sit in reserve, and the need to correct the mistakes of prior, hasty bills. But that would require familiarizing themselves with figures, then delivering a consistent message. Which is apparently asking a great deal.
So the default is to proceed on the precarious notion that the way to hold the White House and Senate this fall is to join Democrats in a spendathon. In fact, conservative voters are increasingly unhappy about the lasting damage Washington’s aid bills are doing to both the balance sheet and the underpinnings of the private economy. Republicans more than anything need a fired-up base this fall. Another $2 trillion blowout—one that will do little to help the economy—is hardly the way to move them to the ballot box.
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