Picking Around the Edges of the Covid Bill

All the attention right now is on some relatively minor adjustments leveraged by a few moderate Democrats. The changes are actually pretty insignificant.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) is, as I have written many times since Democrats took back the Senate by the narrowest of margins, the second most powerful man in America right now. Progressives are furious with him for demanding some trims in the massive $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan working its way to Pres. Joe Biden’s desk, probably early next week. My own Congressman, Mark Pocan, even called efforts to appease Manchin “silly and stupid.”

Well, they’re also necessary. The alternative to dealing with Manchin is not that progressives get everything they want; it’s that they get nothing at all.

And let’s just step back for a moment and look at things in the cold light of reason.

Sen. Joe Manchin picked the wrong fights on the Covid bill.

Manchin, the most conservative Democratic member of Congress, has voted for almost $2 trillion in federal Covid relief spending on top of $4 trillion that Congress has already approved in the last year. He voted for extending a federal add on to state unemployment insurance of $300 a week until September. He voted for $350 billion in aid to states and local governments. He voted for a lot of stuff in that bill that had little or nothing to do with Covid.

New York Times economics correspondent Steve Rattner has written that he believes the current package is bigger than it needs to be and may well fuel inflation later in the year. Last year, Americans saved $1.6 trillion more than what would have been normal. That’s a lot of pent up buying power. Add to that the most recent unexpectedly happy jobs report, and Rattner’s argument gains even more credibility.

But $1.9 trillion became the Holy Grail for progressives. A rational discussion about how much was really needed, and how much was too much, was off the table, In order to show that you cared about Americans you needed to support $1.9 trillion. To say that you were for a penny less meant that you wanted to see your grandmother die on the street. Along with her cute little dog.

Having said that, I’m not so sure Manchin picked the right fights. Rather than going for a reduction in — the still very generous — unemployment supplement and the — still poorly targeted — individual stimulus checks, he would have been better off going after the unnecessarily large payments to states.

Rattner reports that Moody’s Analytics estimates that the real need for states is a fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars in the bill. In fact, most states are running surpluses. California’s revenues are up 10% and Wisconsin is projecting a large surplus over the next couple of years. So, why are they getting a pile of federal money, exactly?

Still, I’m not sure Republicans are reading the public mood very well. They’re playing this like it’s 2009, when they refused to deal with Barack Obama and never let up on their attacks on his stimulus plan as being a huge government overreach and adding too much to the deficit. (Republicans worry only about deficits run up by Democrats.)

But this plan is overwhelmingly popular and Biden has a 70% approval rating on his handling of the pandemic — even 44% of Republicans like what he’s doing. So, instead of replaying 2010 when they picked up 63 House seats, Republicans are risking a rerun of 1934, when FDR’s response to the Great Depression was rewarded with modest Democratic gains in Congress.

So, is the $1.9 trillion plan good public policy? Much of it is, but you can make a strong case that it’s too much overall, contains a lot of things that aren’t necessary, and does pose a genuine risk of overheating the economy.

But is it good politics? I’d say that unless the Democrats blow it by failing to keep selling it after it passes (a real possibility) it could wind up helping them in the mid-terms.

In the end, what Joe Manchin did won’t have any impact on either policy or politics. Honestly, strictly from the perspective of good public policy, I wish he had pushed for deeper cuts in different places.

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