Americans are facing the most urgent economic crisis since the Great Depression. Small businesses are shutting down by the thousands, unemployment has rocketed into double digits and the virus causing this mayhem is far from contained.
With people frustrated and fearful, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is focused on making sure businesses are legally protected from workers who get sick. Last week, he dismissed a Democratic effort to help struggling Americans by saying: “This is not a time for aspirational legislation.”
Respectfully, Sen. McConnell, that’s a load of rat poop. Now, at this unprecedented moment in our nation’s history, is exactly the time for aspirational legislation. It is time for something big, something that will protect human beings—you remember them, don’t you? —and give Americans the reassurance they need to ride out this crisis without having to choose between losing their homes or contracting a vicious and highly contagious disease.
McConnell’s dismissive statement was in response to a massive, $3 trillion coronavirus rescue bill House Democrats released last Tuesday. Admittedly, the 1,800-page bill, in true Democratic form, tries to do too much. It ranges from the aforementioned protecting human beings (very important) to funding the Postal Service (also very important, but maybe a separate issue) to requiring airplane passenger to wear masks (important, but perhaps something airlines should handle).
The bill would provide $500 billion for state governments and $350 billion for local governments whose budgets have been decimated by coronavirus spending. Essential workers would benefit from a fund that provides hazard pay. The bill calls for a second round of stimulus payments to Americans, up to $6,000 for a household.
It allots $3 billion to increase mental health support, something Americans desperately need, and something Republicans should support since they’ve rightly expressed concern that the coronavirus shutdown is leading to increased drug use and suicide.
Other parts of the bill increase nutrition assistance benefits, provide billions in housing assistance, create $10 billion in additional grants for small businesses and extend the $600-per-week coronavirus unemployment insurance through the end of the year.
There’s also more money for coronavirus testing and contact tracing, which are essential to finding safe ways to reopen the economy.
These are massive proposals aimed at addressing a massive problem. It’s one thing for conservatives to argue the scope of these plans, but it’s another entirely to dismiss them as “aspirational” poppycock.
Things are bad, and they’re going to get worse. Last Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said: “Among people who were working in February, almost 40 percent of those in households making less than $40,000 a year had lost a job in March.” More than 20 million Americans lost their jobs in April. Unemployment is pushing 15 percent. Even in states foolishly opening their economies, coronavirus cases be damned, residents aren’t coming out in large numbers.
Restaurants won’t magically recover when they can seat, at most, half the number of customers they did before. Stores won’t be crowded. Commuters aren’t returning en masse.
It’s fiction to think otherwise.
And that means Americans need help from—if you’re a conservative I’m going to have to ask you to sit down—their government. They need a response that matches the enormity of the crisis.
In announcing the new bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “We must think big for the people now, because if we don’t it will cost more in lives and livelihood later. Not acting is the most expensive course.”
I can already hear the howls of Pelosi haters and furrowed-brow deficit hawks. You know, the ones who weren’t howling much when Republicans, while not facing a pandemic or any sort of crisis, gleefully passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut in 2017 that largely benefited the rich, did little to goose the economy and ballooned the deficit.
Granted, it’s not an apples to apples comparison, but it opens the nasal passageways to a hypocrisy that stinks like rotten oranges.
For the time being, and for an undetermined number of months to come, until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine or at least a reliable treatment that dramatically reduces the death rate, forget everything you understood about how America’s economy functions. It will not return to normal anytime soon, and anyone telling you otherwise is either ignoring or not fully grasping the situation.
Americans need help. They will continue to need help. And that help can’t come in dribs and drabs.
This moment calls for a big, bold response. House Democrats have presented something undoubtedly too big and too bold for Republicans to stomach. That’s OK. That’s where debate and—dare I say it? —compromise needs to happen.
But to flippantly mock such a response as “aspirational” while working to shield companies from litigation? That’s snotty and small. It puts the suffering of humans below the suffering of corporations that line the pockets of politicians.
Americans need their government to work for them right now, more than they have since the Great Depression. Americans need legislation that gives them hope, and protection. They need people to think big.
It’s going to cost a lot on the front end. But without it, the costs will be incalculable, the suffering immense, and the responsibility a crushing weight on the shoulders of those who stubbornly stuck to thinking small.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.