A Well-Intentioned Failure: How House Democrats Are Hurting Americans By Refusing To Play Hardball With Senate Republicans

Imagine an alternate universe where the COVID-19 pandemic is occurring under a President Hillary Clinton. President Clinton, eager to prevent the resulting economic collapse from spiraling into a second Great Depression, asks the Republican-led Congress to approve a $2 trillion emergency spending package. Can there be any doubt that Senate Republicans would insist on extracting a heavy ransom in return for their cooperation?

We know from experience that Mitch McConnell would undoubtedly seek to exploit his good fortune of finding a Democratic President faced with economic catastrophe in an election year. The Republican Senate would pass a spending package filled with partisan policy riders that would gut environmental regulations, eliminate consumer protections, drastically restrict legal immigration, and codify voter suppression policies like mandatory voter ID. Then, Republicans would sit back and force the Democratic President to swallow those poison pills, or dare her to veto the bill and condemn the country to economic ruin on her watch.

Such tactics are, of course, morally repugnant. But they are also politically effective. Republicans used them to great effect when President Obama was in office, from insisting on austerity provisions to constrain economic growth following the Great Recession, to actively working to destabilize health care markets established by the Affordable Care Act. Yet now that the tables are turned, House Democrats have been remarkably inept at seizing the opportunity to secure their own policy priorities — despite those policies having overwhelming public support.

Imagine if, as the stock market cratered and panic gripped the White House in March of 2020, House Democrats had quickly passed their own CARES Act. Besides targeting government spending toward saving American jobs and protecting American workers far more effectively than the legislation drafted by Senate Republicans, the House could have included several Democratic priorities that are both exceedingly popular and intricately related to the COVID crisis. For example, a Democratic CARES Act could have extended all immigration visas and DREAMER protections for one year, in light of processing backlogs caused by COVID. It could have reversed the Trump Administration’s new public charge rule, because making people afraid to seek medical care during a pandemic based on what it might mean for their immigration status is a clear threat to public health. And it could have expanded early and absentee voting (and provided the funding to implement that expansion), because no American should have to choose between exercising their right to vote and protecting their right to live.

House Democrats also could have refused to finance the law entirely on the backs of future generations by including revenue provisions, such as repealing the 2018 Republican tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and reallocating unspent funds that the President has repurposed for building his border wall. They also could also have restored the individual mandate to the Affordable Care Act — a provision that would have come with the added benefit of mooting the Supreme Court case that currently threatens the entire law.

Instead, the House inexplicably sat on the sidelines while Mitch McConnell drafted a partisan bill without any input from Democrats. Once that bill was released, House Democrats finally put forward their own proposal, but without any intention of actually passing it. Rather than labeling the Senate bill the “GOP tax scam 2.0” and passing their own bill on their way out of town — leaving the Republican Senate and White House to decide whether to save the economy, or explain to the country why tax cuts for the rich and voter suppression was more important to them — House Democrats negotiated minor improvements to McConnell’s bill and then dutifully passed it.

The result was a bill that provided modest benefits to American workers most in need, with none of the items mentioned above, weak oversight provisions that have been easily and predictably circumvented, and a disproportionate amount of benefits accruing to the wealthiest Americans. Senate Republicans even included a $170 billion tax break for wealthy real-estate investors, while Democrats settled for a paltry $400 million in state election funds — only a tenth of the $4 billion required. Meanwhile, the Affordable Care Act remains at risk, DREAMERS remain in jeopardy, elections remain unsafe, and the deficit continues to explode.

The follow-up stimulus bill was more of the same, with House Democrats negotiating small “concessions” for working Americans such as increased funding for hospitals and expanded COVID testing that shouldn’t have been seen as “concessions” in the first place — and that Republicans subsequently (and again predictably) sought to claim credit for. Once again, House Democrats squandered their leverage and failed to push through any of their policy priorities or adequate help for vulnerable Americans.

House Democrats have one more chance to win meaningful victories for American workers and families but, based on their failure to do so even when their leverage was at its apex, it seems more likely that they will squander this chance as well. The House passed their latest recovery bill, the HEROES Act, more than two months ago, and since then the Republican Senate has simply ignored it. The Senate is expected to finally unveil their own COVID “stimulus” bill this week, once again drafted by Senate Republicans behind closed doors. And, like the Senate CARES Act, this bill will almost certainly be heavily tilted in favor of big business, and against working Americans, meaningful oversight, and safe elections. Indeed, the only thing known for sure about the Senate’s bill is that McConnell has declared blanket immunity for businesses against COVID-related lawsuits to be a “red line.”

For once, House Democrats should call Senate Republicans’ bluff. The House should draw its own red lines when it comes to protecting laid off workers from poverty and eviction, small businesses from bankruptcy, and employees from unsafe working conditions. They should also draw a red line on meaningful, enforceable oversight that ensures big corporations and wealthy individuals are not gaming the system to obtain taxpayer money they do not need — including by requiring that all oversight mechanisms are fully in place before any funds are distributed. Finally, Democrats should push to include popular provisions that Republicans have repeatedly blocked, such as automatic voter registration, universal absentee ballot access, and mandatory campaign reporting of attempted election interference by foreign entities.

If Senate Republicans choose to block any relief for American workers without extracting a ransom for their wealthy donors and big-business allies while preventing common-sense efforts to expand safe voting access, so be it. Many Americans will undoubtedly suffer in the short term as a result, but in the long run Americans will suffer far less after voters have their say about Republican hostage taking this November.

But by continuing to negotiate increasingly large corporate bailouts in return for breadcrumbs, House Democrats will only keep hurting the everyday Americans they claim to be fighting for.

Political strategist, sound policy enthusiast, and indelible believer that the latter requires the former. Guided by faith, facts, and the art of the possible.

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