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Lame Ducks

Our leaders need to pass a COVID relief package—now. Or be judged by history.
November 19, 2020
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James Capretta’s understated but powerful piece in today’s Bulwark should occasion outrage, reflection, and action.

It’s clear, as Capretta argues, that congressional legislation is needed to mitigate “a humanitarian catastrophe” over the next three months from the terrible third wave of the pandemic. On the desirability of such legislation economists and public policy experts left and right, Republicans and Democrats, Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, agree.

It’s clear there’s a compromise to be had between legislation passed by the Democratic House and legislation supported by Republicans in the Senate. There’s no great conceptual disagreement about what ought to be done, and Capretta lays out the contours of such a package. The disagreement is merely over how large the package of economic support for workers and businesses, of money for testing and health care providers, and of aid for states and localities is to be.

Such disagreements are solvable. They’re solvable by compromise. And it’s clear what the size of a compromise package would look like. Somewhere between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion would allow most of what should be done to be done, at least for now. It would be a middle ground between the two houses of Congress and the two parties. It would get enough support from each party to achieve veto-proof majorities—and there’s no obvious reason why President Trump wouldn’t sign such legislation.

Indeed, Donald Trump can’t really be blamed for this particular failure of our political system. He’s not the problem. What is? Gridlock. Short-term politics. Leaders scared of their base, leaders intimidated by some of their followers, leaders who have paid little price so far for failing to lead.

Okay, it was hard to lead during an election season.

But now we’re in a lame duck session.

You know what’s good about a lame duck session? You can cut a deal now and do what’s right, and begin the next session with, so to speak, a clean slate. That’s why NAFTA passed in the 1994 lame duck. It’s why George W. Bush went ahead with the auto bailout during the Obama transition in 2008. It’s why Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed in the lame duck session in 2010. It’s why a tax compromise passed in the lame duck in 2012.

None of these—with the possible exception of the auto bailout—was as much of an emergency as a pandemic relief package is now. These pieces of legislation were able to pass precisely because they were done in a lame-duck session.

(It’s not good, by the by, that our parties only seem able to compromise effectively during lame duck periods. But that’s a discussion for another occasion.)

So here’s the situation: Our leaders seem to be unwilling or incapable of producing a necessary and critical piece of legislation during this lame duck session. If this is the case, they don’t deserve to be leaders. And if our two parties can’t produce such legislation, then they don’t deserve to be our two parties. They need to be reformed. Or we need to be serious about challenging their dominance of the political system.

And if the political system as a whole is so broken in the face of a national crisis, then we need to act with urgency on fundamental systemic reforms.

But for now, Leader McConnell and Speaker Pelosi: Do the right thing. Pass a compromise pandemic relief package. In this lame duck session. Or be judged harshly but correctly, by your contemporaries and by history, as lame ducks.

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.