When the floodgates opened: The politics of COVID-19 relief | Fletcher McClellan

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 26: Sen. Angus King (I-ME) speaks with reporters following the weekly policy luncheons at the U.S. Capitol June 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. Lawmakers are reacting to President Trump's immigration policy. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Not content to “let a serious crisis go to waste,” just about everybody in Washington, D.C. last month pitched their pet ideas to a Congress and administration willing to spend more than $2 trillion to relieve individuals and groups affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

Liberals sought to plug holes in the social safety net. They pointed out the absence of paid leave, unequal access to health care, and paltry levels of unemployment compensation.

Conservatives asserted that recovery from the shutdown of the economy will require cutting taxes, deregulating businesses, and retaliating against Chinese misconduct.

Lobbyists pleaded for bailouts of the airlines, cruise lines, the hospitality sector, and even the hog industry, giving new meaning to the phrase “feeding at the public trough.”

Change advocates saw new life for proposals such as telehealth services, cancellation of student debt, and ending cash bail for all but those accused of serious offenses.

Who were the winners? Who lost?

How do some ideas get winnowed into legislation and how do other ideas get winnowed out?

Decades ago, the University of Michigan political scientist John Kingdon argued that policy change results from a convergence of three streams of activity.

First, it takes a crisis or a recognizable trend for politicians to become aware of problems that need governmental action.

Sudden crises appear periodically, e.g. 9/11 or the collapse of the financial industry in 2007-08. The opioid epidemic slowly grew, until economists detected a pattern of “deaths of despair.”

Not since the Great Depression has there been an economic emergency of the magnitude we are experiencing, triggered by a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Second, an array of policy alternatives materializes, waiting for a problem to latch onto. The Club for Growth can be counted on to suggest tax cuts whenever disputes arise. To its advocates, Medicare-for-All is the remedy for all that afflicts us.

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To be viable, a policy proposal should be a plausible solution with political support. Furthermore, there better be a good answer to the question, “How much does it cost?”

In this extraordinary moment, any idea is a good idea and money is no object.

It helps if a problem or solution has a champion, in or out of government, or what political scientists call policy entrepreneurs.

The late U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., promoted campaign finance regulation. Kim Kardashian has turned her talent for publicity toward criminal justice reform. Greta Thunberg, a 17-year-old, is the world’s leading environmental activist.

Stepping up to meet the coronavirus threat, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health is literally risking his life speaking truth to power. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s factual and heartfelt briefings on the status of the pandemic in New York are must-see TV.

The stories of everyday heroes, some of them tragic, underscore the need for collective action.

Third, political conditions must open up for ideas to move through the governmental process. Windows of opportunity appear when discernible public moods for more or less government, often signaled by elections, crystallize.

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We are witnessing the biggest window for government action since the Great Recession, in which Democrats enacted the $830 billion Obama stimulus bill, Dodd-Frank financial regulation, and the Affordable Care Act.

Instead of unified party government, however, a divided Congress and a Republican president with uncertain prospects for re-election collaborated on three relief laws within a month, culminating with the $2.2 trillion CARES Act.

The shape of the legislative package reflected compromises among party leaders with competing policy goals.

Holding both the Senate and the White House, the Republicans were determined to make relief funding substantial but temporary.

Led by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the Democrats wanted to establish new social programs or permanently expand existing ones.

The closest Democrats got to achieving their objectives was a loophole-ridden enlargement of paid leave, a process begun last December when federal workers received the benefit.

The Democratic wish list for a fourth COVID-19 bill includes Green New Deal and broadband access projects. Their bid for promoting national vote-by-mail is adamantly opposed by Republicans.

Both sides seized on cash payments to individuals and families, an idea identified with presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

Republicans prioritized $500 billion of big business bailouts, which Democrats accepted only with accountability safeguards advocated by, among others, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

The legislative process also demonstrated the power of lobbies to capitalize when the floodgates opened.

Banks won regulatory relief. Beleaguered Boeing received a large subsidy. Distilleries are exempted from paying excise taxes on alcohol used for hand sanitizer. Farmers will get $23 billion from a fund distributed by the Secretary of Agriculture with almost total discretion.

Even in an unprecedented crisis with millions of lives at stake, special interests never lose.

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.