Why We Don’t Have COVID Relief

The Senate has adjourned for their pre-election break following marathon sessions to confirm a new Supreme Court justice. This makes it highly unlikely that we’ll see more stimulus checks before Election Day.

But for once the blame doesn’t actually belong to the Senate, despite how bad this looks. They don’t have anything to vote on.

Oh, it’s true that the House has sent over not one but two different stimulus and relief packages, each for multiple trillions of dollars. Each of them is designed to give about ten percent of the overall package direct to citizens. And each is designed to be politically impossible for a Republican facing re-election to accept — because of the other ninety percent of the money.

They were deliberately designed as political land mines, a way to leverage the growing desperate need of Americans against their immediate political future. It’s extortion plain and simple, with the present failure to act a carefully calculated outcome actively preferred by Speaker Pelosi and the DNC spin team.

But, while entirely true, that’s only part of the story.

The Senate return package offered in July was trimmed down to a bare minimum: reduced individual stimulus checks, reduced unemployment bonuses, sharply limited assistance to state and local governments, and so on. Rather than the massive price tag of the Democratic plans, nearly a third of the money would go directly to citizens. It too contained similar poison pills to the House plan; that’s a fairly standard negotiating tactic, and not unreasonable as a response.

The Democratic House leadership opposed it because it didn’t do enough, but it should be acknowledged that, with the unpalatable riders stripped out, it would have been far better than the nothing we’ve had instead. Sure, it wouldn’t have bailed out Wall Street, but in the present age of booming markets, does Wall Street truly need a bailout?

(Well, yes, but that’s for later. Expect another article. -Ed.)

And so we can place the blame for the failure of the interim bill squarely on the shoulders of the House Democrats, who would rather starve the people than lose an election. Fair enough, right?

No, not right; not fair enough. Turns out, there’s still more.

Because Senate leadership, recognizing the primary obstacle to the DNC’s acceptance was in who gets the credit during an election year, stepped back from negotiations and instead deferred to the Administration. Which, it turns out, is almost exactly as unreasonable as the DNC when it comes to getting re-elected versus helping the people.

Here’s an example: One of the poison pills insisted on by Democrats is a massive contact tracing program for COVID-19. There are serious privacy implications, and conservative voters either hate it or, worse, view it as part of a great conspiracy. Right or wrong (or paranoid), those people are Trump’s base, so the Administration can’t very well agree to the program. And yet, Secretary Mnuchin announced ten days ago that they were ready to come to terms on it — and was stopped by his boss.

To be fair, it’s morally objectionable to fund horrifically expensive legislation that would be so abhorrent to a third of the population. Not that I’m suggesting the Trump Administration is acting out of non-venal motives, but still — it’s worthy of mention. Voter outrage would be quite justified; even if their objections and fears are completely irrational, they remain valid, and at least in theory the voters are in charge of government.

Bear in mind: this is just one of several examples. The Administration has tacked on anti-immigration riders and stricter border controls, under the not-completely-unjust contention that there’s no sense fighting the virus domestically if we’re just going to let it come back in from overseas afterward.

But again: It’s not about whether it’s right, or effective, or even if it directly applies to COVID relief. If anything, it’s about the morality of forcing expensive legislation on the third of the country that violently opposes it. After all, if mandatory contact tracing is wrong because it’s unpopular, so is sealing the borders. Either the voters have rights or they don’t.

Because, in the end, it’s not actually about saving lives with a contact tracing program. Certainly, it would have been a very fine thing back in February, but right now we’re looking at nearly a hundred thousand new cases per day and we run afoul of the Law of Large Numbers in complex systems. All contact tracing will tell us at this point is that we’re all likely to be in danger of having caught COVID all the time, and we already know that. Besides: The chance of even a crash program being up and running before we have a vaccine is remote.

Oh, sure, it might come in handy; it might actually save a life or two amid all the panic it’ll create. There are those who would argue that you can’t put a price on a human life, and that spending half a trillion dollars is worth it. And they’re right, of course — but if this were about saving lives, surely adding $35,000 for a year’s insulin for the poor, which could save ten lives, would be well worth it too. You could provide free insulin for every American that needs it for about $4 billion, which would all but vanish in a $2.2 trillion package, and that would save thousands of lives, and improve the quality of tens of thousands more — many of whom will otherwise die when they contract COVID due to the weakened immune response of a person with untreated diabetes.

No, this isn’t about saving lives. It’s about appearing to do something, because everyone expects the government to do something. Even when they can’t; even when the proper action to take is the hardest: no action at all.

Right now, the proper action is to pass an aid package. The people are divided about whether to encourage businesses to be open and if mask wearing should be universally mandatory, but an overwhelming majority agree that at least some form of stimulus package should be our top priority right now.

Fortunately, the wait is almost over. We’re almost to the election, after which there should be no political obstacle to approving a stimulus package. There’s some discussion as to whether it will be possible to do so in a lame duck session of Congress, but without elections to worry about, what further reason would there be to delay?

Well. Aside from avoiding the appearance of starving Americans to get votes, that is. But we all know better, so that’s no problem either.

The Bottom Line: In case you missed it during the rant, there’s plenty of blame to go around on this one. Congressional Democrats, the Administration, and to a far lesser extent the Republican Senate. Not to worry, though; you can blame McConnell for an awful lot of other things.


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– Justice Hugo Black, U. S. Supreme Court

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