In the months leading up to the election, U.S. lawmakers failed to agree on a new coronavirus relief plan. Now, with a lame-duck Congress and President Donald Trump moving reluctantly toward the exit, the temptation will be to do nothing until President-elect Joe Biden is in office and the new legislature is installed.
That’s too long to wait. Several provisions of the earlier CARES Act are set to end just as coronavirus cases are surging. Over the next nine weeks, the recovery’s momentum is likely to fade as economic restrictions — even if not as not as severe as those of the spring — are tightened again. Without a new and substantial round of fiscal support, jobs will be lost, households of limited means will again be hit hard, and state and city budgets will come under even greater strain. A new fiscal plan is urgently needed.
Granted, even as COVID-19 cases rise, there’s been some good economic news. Over the past several months, output and employment have recovered more rapidly than many had feared — thanks, in part, to the scope and scale of those earlier fiscal supports. Recent news on vaccines is especially encouraging, suggesting that a path to beating the disease will indeed be found. But the prospect of an effective vaccine or vaccines being gradually deployed over the course of 2021 doesn’t address the immediate economic risk. The economy can sustain a lot of lasting damage between now and the inauguration — damage that could be much reduced by a new round of federal help.
Before talks broke down, the two sides weren’t that far apart. Serious negotiations should pick up where they left off, with the understanding that both sides will budge. A measure costing between, say, $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion would fall short of what many Democrats regard as necessary and exceed what many Republicans think is prudent — but both sides ought to see that it would be better than waiting and, in the meantime, doing nothing.
The shape of such a deal isn’t hard to make out. Renewed unemployment assistance of an additional $400 a week (up to a cap on income) would disappoint Democrats holding out for another round of $600 supplements. Yet the households running out of savings would doubtless prefer $400 now rather than the vague possibility of more, depending on what happens, sometime next year. More help for financially stressed states and cities is the concession Democrats could ask in exchange, and that Republicans ought to accept. Again, this might fall short of what states and cities will eventually need. Again, right now, something is better than nothing.
Last week, views on each side appeared to be hardening against this kind of deal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi affirmed that Democrats are holding out — “even more so,” she said — for a package of at least $2 trillion. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans wanted a $500 billion plan — much less than the Trump administration had been willing to support before talks stopped. This reluctance to settle for less than a win on all points is a disappointing response to an election that denied both sides outright victory.
With the economic recovery in danger of slowing and a difficult few months ahead, it’s safe to say that paralysis in Washington isn’t what voters want. Perhaps Biden, even before taking office, can start as he means to continue and prevail on both sides to act in the nation’s interest.