‘Glaring Failure’: Washington’s Dysfunction Hits a New Low

A giant fiscal jolt for the U.S. economy finally won approval in Washington Monday, but the half-year of political dysfunction that preceded the deal showcased a near-breakdown in American politics that President-elect Joe Biden will now be challenged to address.

In a year marked by President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial and the government’s inability to suppress the deadly pandemic, the bitter Republican-Democratic fight over another Covid-19 relief package served as the final 2020 example of national interest being held hostage to political maneuvering.

After six months of fruitless, on-again, off-again negotiations, lawmakers were forced into action this month. With Covid-19 the number-one cause of death for Americans in recent weeks and the job market’s recovery coming to a halt, the consequences of inaction became too great for either side to head home for the holidays without a deal.

‘Glaring Failure’: Washington’s Dysfunction Hits a New Low

Congressional leaders were able to agree on a plan only at the 11th hour, after a frantic weekend of deal-making and staring down the end of the legislative term, even though it has been clear since at least September that the winter would bring more economic pain.

The $900 billion in relief is second only to the record $1.8 trillion rescue package enacted with bipartisan support in March, when the U.S. economy and financial system was facing a potential collapse thanks to lockdowns. Stocks climbed to record highs this month as a deal finally came into sight.

Key Items Monday’s Legislation
  • $1.4 trillion in government funding through September 2021
  • More than $160 billion for direct stimulus payments
  • $284 billion for Paycheck Protection Program, helping small businesses
  • More than $160 billion in tax measures, including expanded and extended breaks
  • $82 billion for schools and universities
  • $69 billion for vaccine development, testing and community health
  • $25 billion in rental assistance
  • Aid for areas including transport, agriculture, food and agriculture, childcare and performance venues

It took overcoming a computer glitch to finally circulate some 5,593 pages of legislative text on Monday. The mammoth package wrapped the pandemic aid bill together with an omnibus $1.4 trillion measure to fund the federal government through the fiscal year, along with a welter of tax breaks and unrelated policy measures.

Lawmakers got the text just hours before they voted.

Governing Challenge

“Who in their right mind thinks that this is a responsible way of governing?” Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida said.

The moment shows Congress and the White House fumbling with their most basic responsibility with daily deaths of Americans from Covid-19 sometimes passing 3,000 and tens of millions caught in in a calamitous financial slide.

For Biden, the task will be not only to take up the fight against the pandemic and economic rout, but more broadly to restore trust in government and re-establish a sense of normalcy in Washington. He reiterated Tuesday his plan to ask Congress for further aid next year, saying, “Our darkest days in the battle against Covid are ahead of us.”

Before he takes office on Jan. 20, there is still more drama to come.

More Drama

Trump and many of his Republican allies haven’t accepted his defeat in the presidential election seven weeks ago. At least two GOP House members say they will challenge the electoral vote count when Congress meets Jan. 6 to validate the result. While that attempt is destined to fail, it will stoke the divisions that will make legislating all the more difficult next year.

The day before that, control of the Senate will be decided by runoffs for Georgia’s two seats following a campaign in which the two Republican incumbents have tied their fates to Trump. Whatever the outcome, the victorious party will have only a very narrow advantage.

Meanwhile, core elements of the U.S. government appear under attack. Russian hacks were revealed last week that penetrated computer systems across federal agencies, including one overseeing U.S. nuclear weapons.

Historian Robert Dallek sees political dysfunction unparalleled in the U.S. since the early years of the Great Depression under President Herbert Hoover.

“It’s a glaring failure of leadership,” said Dallek, a biographer of presidents including Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

While the stock market has been buoyed by Federal Reserve monetary easing, many Americans are in a financial freefall, especially those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Some 7.8 million Americans have fallen into poverty since June as benefits from the last Covid-19 relief package lapsed, according to an analysis of Census data by economists at the University of Chicago and University of Notre Dame. That is nearly double the largest annual increase in poverty since the 1960s, they reported.

‘Glaring Failure’: Washington’s Dysfunction Hits a New Low

Applications for unemployment benefits unexpectedly surged to a three-month high last week, the U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday, suggesting the job market is worsening amid the surge in Covid-19 cases.

Already-beleaguered restaurants, bars, retailers and other small businesses are closing as more customers stay away to avoid infection and authorities impose new limits. Many Americans have been out of work for months, straining their finances and their ties to the job market. In November, almost 10 million fewer Americans had jobs than in February.

‘Glaring Failure’: Washington’s Dysfunction Hits a New Low

Americans’ respect for Congress -- rarely ever high -- has been been in the dumps for a decade amid partisan strife. Though job approval for the legislature climbed to 31% in May following passage of the $1.8 trillion March pandemic-relief package, it slid to 23% by November, according to Gallup.

Work on the new relief package was hampered by the stridency of the election campaign, fraught relations among congressional leaders and the absence of the president from negotiations -- particularly in the critical final weeks. Trump hasn’t even spoken with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in more than a year.

“With effective presidential leadership, he would get the Congress to move forward,” Dallek said. “The fact that he is going to leave in another month doesn’t suspend his leadership.”

Former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, whose 34 years in Congress spanned economic crises, an impeachment trial and the Sept. 11 attacks, said Trump’s absence “has not been helpful,” though he allowed the president “may be doing the best thing by being quiet.”

The polarized political environment also has undermined relations among congressional leaders, Lott said.

“It helped that I had a leader like Tom Daschle on the other side, where he and I talked and tried to be helpful to each other,” Lott said. “I don’t think that kind of relationship exists any more, House or Senate.”

‘Pause Button’

After the Senate passed the initial Cares Act with a stunning 96-0 vote and then topped up funding for the small business Paycheck Protection Program, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell put the brakes on new relief, saying he wanted to hit the “pause button” to see if the economy would recover.

While the Democratic-controlled House passed a $3 trillion follow-up package in May, McConnell stood pat. After a summer spike in the virus, he proposed a smaller, $1 trillion relief deal and tied support to a Covid-19 liability shield for businesses.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Pelosi held multiple sessions of talks before the November election, but the two never reached a deal. Trump was largely absent from the negotiations other than occasional tweets. He and his aides seemed often to be sending conflicting signals, sometimes seeking a larger stimulus and sometimes signaling concern about budget discipline. At one point, the president pulled his negotiators from talks altogether.

Republican senators such as Scott of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky -- all potential 2024 presidential candidates -- started talking up concerns about adding to budget deficits and warning vociferously against aid to Democratic-run state and local governments.

Talks Restart

Under the pressure of a deteriorating recovery, McConnell and Democratic leaders recently began working toward a compromise. The GOP leader dropped his insistence that any plan include liability relief but demanded it exclude direct help for state and local governments, a Democratic priority.

He privately told Republican senators to back an emerging deal because the endangered Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler -- up for re-election in the Georgia runoff -- were getting pummeled by the failure to pass more relief.

The final stretch of horse-trading the weekend before Christmas required multiple short-term stopgap bills simply to keep the government open.

As for the over 5,000 pages of text, there’s no word on how many members were able to plow through it all before the votes.

“No one will have the time to read and vet this monstrosity,” Republican Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona said in a tweet.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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