Can anything be done to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe over the next three months? That is the pressing question hanging over the nation’s political class. The Trump administration gave its answer long ago when it abdicated responsibility for managing the crisis. It is one reason the president lost re-election.
The right answer is yes. As Anthony Fauci and many public health leaders have repeatedly said, much more can and should be done to limit the human harm that will come from an unchecked fall-winter wave of SARS-CoV-2 infections. Further, taking these steps now will allow the economy to fully recover more quickly. What has been missing is willing political leadership.
Enter Mitch McConnell. The Senate majority leader emerged from the election even more powerful than he was over the past four years, which was plenty powerful. He is now critical to getting the nation on a better course in managing the pandemic. McConnell is already the most important officeholding Republican in Washington because President Trump, post-election, is uninterested in governing. The Senate GOP leader has the power to deliver the next round of long-awaited COVID-19 response funding, or he can kill it. Following the latter course would be tragic because of the needless harm to both human health and the national economy it would cause.
There is reason to think McConnell will support a reasonable legislative compromise if the opportunity presents itself. He announced again this week that he is open to passing a “narrowly targeted” relief bill during the lame-duck session of Congress, including new funds for schools, small business support, and aid for health-care providers. That’s a start, but it is insufficient. The next bill needs to be organized around a strong, final push to get the country through this difficult (and hopefully last) phase of the pandemic while effective vaccines are deployed. Doing that will mean approving several important provisions:
- Adoption of a Coordinated National Re-Opening Plan. Fauci is right, and the Trump administration is wrong, about the need for a coordinated national strategy. The administration has hidden behind a false understanding of federalism to avoid enforcing a coherent plan for re-opening the economy. Allowing every state to follow its own course is foolhardy when a virus can move so easily from one jurisdiction to another. To get the virus under better control, all states need to follow the same sensible national standards on when it is safe to allow certain activities to occur. Federal funds should be conditioned on state compliance.
- Vaccine Procurement and Deployment Funds. The states will be crucial to coordinated deployment of effective vaccines, and governors from both parties are pleading with national leaders to provide them with funding to avoid mishaps and delays that will only prolong the crisis. Inoculating the entire country in a matter of months is an immense undertaking. A $5 billion investment is a small price to pay to ensure it goes as smoothly as circumstances allow.
- A National Testing Plan. Ten months into the pandemic the United States still does not have a coherent and coordinated plan for finding infections quickly so that transmission rates will fall. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been pushing for substantial funding for a robust national testing plan, which the Trump administration inexcusably opposed. McConnell should relent and agree to what is in the House bill.
- Support for High-Risk Enterprises. Certain business activities are high-risk in this pandemic and need to be curtailed during spikes in confirmed cases. Most especially, as infections soar, the country should be halting all indoor dining and socializing in restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, and placing strict capacity limits on indoor gyms. It is not the fault of the owners of these businesses, or their workers, that their normal operations conflict with rational public health precautions. These and other similar businesses closed because of COVID-19—such as movie theaters—should be given the resources they need to stay afloat and to meet their payroll until this phase of the pandemic has passed.
- Aid to State and Local Governments. Democrats in Congress want substantial support for state and local governments that have been hit hard by the pandemic. Republicans are skeptical of the need and do not want to bail out states they see as mismanaged. These are differences that should be amenable to compromise. Absent more federal support, states will implement budget cuts that will slow the recovery. McConnell need not agree to everything Pelosi is seeking, but he should take a couple of steps in her direction.
A major obstacle to reaching a compromise is the overall price tag. House Democrats want a $2.2 trillion bill. McConnell supports something closer to $0.5 trillion. That’s a big difference. The election undercut Pelosi on this question, and strengthened McConnell. In October, Democrats were tempted to think they did not need to budge because they believed they could get a better bill in the new year, when the larger congressional majorities they anticipated winning were in place and when Joe Biden was in the White House. That calculus is no longer valid. Speaker Pelosi should agree to a $1.0 to $1.5 trillion relief bill now because there is little chance that her $2.2 trillion bill will ever get enacted.
Senator McConnell is worried that passing such an expensive bill will divide his caucus. Several Republican senators will oppose any legislation costing more than $0.5 trillion. McConnell also might be worried that enactment of another bill might harm the electoral prospects of the two GOP senators from Georgia facing run-offs on January 5.
Under normal circumstances, those might be legitimate reasons to slow-walk a bill. Not now. The United States is the midst of its worst crisis in many decades. This is not the time to handicap whether a bill will or will not affect the Georgia races. A bipartisan deal is certain to lose votes on both sides. That is what happens with compromise bills. The Georgia senators would be free to vote no if they thought doing so would help them politically.
That should not affect McConnell, however. It is clear enough what the country needs at this historic moment. With power comes responsibility. It is up to McConnell to do what he surely knows is required.