Millions of jobless, struggling Americans have been waiting most of the year for Congress to pass a coronavirus emergency relief package. When lawmakers finally passed a bill that would, among other things, provide $600 one-time direct payments to qualifying Americans, Donald Trump declined to sign it, citing the “ridiculously low” amount of the direct payment. He was right; it is low, and if Trump were some other president, we might conclude that this move came from a place of caring about Americans. We’ve already learned, however, that “caring about Americans” is one of the last items on the minds of Trump and many GOP lawmakers.
For nearly nine months, Congress has been unable to agree on a second coronavirus relief bill to follow the March 2020 CARES Act, as Americans have slipped further into financial distress resulting from fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier, Democrats proposed a bill that included a $2000 one-time payment to qualifying Americans— the same amount Trump specified when he refused to sign the current bill. Republicans, however, some afraid that Americans would squander their stimulus checks, others citing “the deficit,” and others fearful that helping jobless Americans equals socialism, voted against the Democrats’ bill.
Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) called the proposal for more funds part of the Democrats’ “socialist agenda” to universal basic income.
“Now, we know that what the Democrats are trying to do with this is to put us on a pathway to a guaranteed minimum income, which is one of their socialist agenda items,” she said.
Republicans like Texas Representative Kevin Brady think Americans will spend their stimulus money “inappropriately.” Brady speculated that the money would go toward paying off credit-card debt and “new purchases online at Walmart, Best Buy, or Amazon,” and argued that the money should instead go toward helping small and midsized businesses.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded to Brady, tweeting, “’I don’t support $2k survival checks because it might help people get out of debt that our gov’t inaction helped put or keep them in in the first place.’ – GOP Congressman.”
Just days before Christmas, when the House and Senate agreed on the compromise bill that included a one-time payment of $600, Trump tweeted his criticism of it, leaving lawmakers uncertain as to whether he would sign it, veto it, or simply let time run out on it. “$2000 + $2000 plus other family members. Not $600. Remember, it was China’s fault!”
Trump criticized his own party, namely Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, for having proposed the $600 amount, on which all parties were led to believe Trump would sign off. Trump did end up signing the bill, without changes, on December 27, but by not signing the bill by Christmas, he allowed millions of Americans’ jobless benefits to lapse.
On December 28, the House passed a standalone bill to increase the one-time direct payments to Americans from $600 to $2000. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has rejected it.
“The Senate is not going to be bullied into rushing out more borrowed money into the hands of Democrats’ rich friends who don’t need the help,” said McConnell, whose net worth is estimated at $22.5 million.
McConnell has maneuvered to package the $2000 payment proposal in a bill that includes two other items Trump has called for: the establishment of a commission to study voter fraud; and the repeal of Section 230, which provides liability protections for technology companies and other firms.
Republicans who had previously opposed the $2000 direct payment are in a bind. On the one hand, they fear being out of alignment now with the president by voting against it. What’s more, how would it look to their constituents if they voted against it? On the other hand, they sure don’t want their constituents to get their hands on $2,000.
Not to worry. McConnell is an old hand at tactical gambiteering. He’s pushing Americans deeper into financial desperation by holding up the bill, but that’s not what matters to McConnell.
Knowing that most Democrats are likely to vote against a package that includes a repeal of Section 230 and a provision for a voter fraud commission, McConnell has set up the perfect scenario for Republicans. If the the bill doesn’t pass, or if the clock runs out on the proposed bill, GOP lawmakers would still be able to say that they supported the $2000 amount. They would also be able to point fingers at the Democrats for voting against relief for Americans.
Chuck Schumer said out loud what Trump and McConnell already knew— that the additions to the bill would doom its passage. “Any move like this by Sen. McConnell would be a blatant attempt to deprive Americans of a $2,000 survival check.”
Meanwhile, many private citizens are not sleeping at night, worried about how they’re going to make ends meet for another month, week, day. Nearly 12 million American renters will owe an average of $5850 in back rent and utilities by January. Millions of Americans are thousands of dollars behind in monthly expenses as a result of losing their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. Still, GOP lawmakers think a one-time payment of $600, let alone $2000, is too much for them.
“It’s much better for Congress to err on the side of helping too much than too little,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “There’s nothing scarier than losing your home, especially in January with a pandemic out of control. That would be overwhelming.”
One thing is clear, though: Republicans have shown that they are willing to go to great lengths creating hoops to jump through, and cracks to fall through, in order to avoid helping “too much.”
On the other hand, the GOP isn’t worried at all about enriching themselves, or giving tax breaks to large corporations. And when it comes to seizing the opportunity to look like they care about their constituents without actually having to care, that’s a sweet spot.
Here, it should be noted that, according to OpenSecrets Center for Responsive Politics, most members of the current Congress are millionaires, with a median net worth of $1,008,767.
What will happen when millions of people are evicted in the coming months? What will happen to their children? How will people eat? This is not the concern of the GOP lawmakers. Their concern is that Americans won’t appropriately use the crumbs they’re thrown, and they’re willing to let the country go down in flames in order to throw as few crumbs as possible.