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Congress fiddles while the economy burns down

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., walks

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., walks to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington April 9, 2020. Congress has not passed Phase 4 of its coronavirus relief bill yet, even as the economy continues to suffer. Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky

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Congress, to its credit and to President Donald Trump's as well, rushed through three increasingly large coronavirus rescue bills, with the third signed into law on March 27. It was an impressive show of emergency action in the face of sincere differences on policy and complicating partisan incentives.

Now ... where's the next bill? Where's the urgency? Congress began serious work on the "Phase 3" bill, which became a $2.2 trillion law, immediately after agreeing on the Phase 2 bill. But with the economy in full retreat — see the terrible new retail sales and factory output numbers, along with the millions of newly unemployed — no one is acting as if there's a need for speed. Phase 4 needs to be big, fast and simple, but three weeks after Phase 3 was done, it's not happening.

Democrats, at least, are talking about something of the needed scale. Or, I should say, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a few Senate Democrats are moving toward it, since the members of the House (and the Senate) are still scattered in their districts instead of in Washington where they belong during an emergency. Pelosi is talking about a package of similar size to Phase 3, perhaps in two pieces, and Senate Democrats have a plan to add funding to ramp up testing.

Pelosi continues to do an excellent job of keeping her caucus on the same page, and to their credit Democrats seem eager to try to save the economy even if that helps Trump in November. But there's still no bill, and as things drag on Democrats may be tempted to add their policy wish list to needed pandemic relief and economic stimulus.

The Republican majority started April by explicitly taking a wait-and-see approach, even though it was obvious as soon as Phase 3 passed that it was only a down payment on what would be needed. Then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell switched to playing partisan games. He put just one element of the next bill, new funding for small-business loans, on the Senate floor so he could get Democrats to object to it. (1) That's fine if you want to give up on the economy, and care more about concocting an issue that lets you try to blame the out party for hard times. It's not how the majority party acts if it wants the bill.

Perhaps the bigger problem is that McConnell continues to defer to the White House to negotiate on behalf of Republicans, and the White House doesn't know what it's doing. Going big appeals to Trump; that is good, given the size of the problem. But while he has mentioned the need to renew small-business loan funding, he hasn't been pushing hard for that, and he's hardly mentioned any of the other critical needs, even as he falsely disparages the safety of absentee voting.

Trump still wants a big infrastructure package, which will be great after the current lockdown phase ends but is premature for now. At any rate, wanting a big bill isn't the same as actually putting together a real plan, which Trump and his administration haven't managed to do on any issue in the last three years.

What the president really seems interested in, however, judging from his public comments, is making membership fees for his private clubs and meals for his restaurants tax deductible. To be fair, he's asking to restore tax deductions for food and entertainment for everyone, not just at his personal properties. But it's difficult to see how it has any relevance to the current situation even if it was a good policy overall. Which it probably isn't.

Trump should be desperate for a big, fast and simple bill. Now's a good time to march down to the empty Capitol and demand that Congress return and pass Phase 4 by the end of the week. But he seems far more interested in reading off names of corporate CEOs and whining about how the pandemic is everyone else's fault than in actually doing his job. And without presidential leadership, Congress isn't feeling pressure to act quickly either.

(1) Democrats were bound to object since they want a large package including further direct cash payments, aid for state and local governments, and a program to make sure that the November elections can take place safely and securely, and so even though they support the small-business loan program they fear that Republicans would just pass that and ignore everything else. Democrats may also want to secure other, unrelated, policy goals, but so far their big asks have all been things that relate directly to the pandemic.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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