ANALYSIS — In their news conferences and floor speeches, representatives and senators say they feel a sense of urgency about stemming the spread of the coronavirus, and about helping Americans weather the economic crisis the virus has caused.
On Sept. 17, for example, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats planned to “crush this virus” in order to “open up our economy and our schools.”
Two days before, in laying out his party’s election platform, Pelosi’s fellow Californian, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, pledged to “defeat the coronavirus and keep America healthy.”
And yet, when lawmakers head home for the final sprint to Election Day, it now seems likely they will have done little since March to combat the virus or to help Americans weather the downturn.
The results of CQ Roll Call’s latest Capitol Insiders Survey of congressional staffers reveal one reason that stated urgency hasn’t yielded a breakthrough in negotiations on another round of virus relief. If the aides reflect their bosses, many on Capitol Hill believe Congress has already done an effective job in containing the virus and in rescuing the economy.
The email poll, which 132 staffers filled out between Sept. 14 and Sept. 22, found that a plurality of 44 percent believed Congress has done a somewhat or very effective job combating the virus’ spread. That compares with 38 percent who said its handling has been somewhat or very ineffective, and 18 percent who took no stance.
On Congress’ efforts to help Americans who’ve lost income because of the virus and related lockdowns, half of the respondents rated Congress effective, while 40 percent said it was not, and 10 percent were in the middle.
The respondents were evenly divided between the parties, with 67 identifying as Democrats, 64 as Republicans and one as an independent.
Democrats, who’ve pilloried President Donald Trump’s handling of the virus — House Democratic Conference Chairman Hakeem Jeffries called it an “unmitigated disaster” on Sept. 22 — were more critical of Congress’ management of the disease than Republicans. Forty percent of the Democratic aides rated Congress effective, compared to 46 percent who said it had been ineffective.
On economic relief, though, a plurality of Democrats, 45 percent, said Congress had been effective, compared to 41 percent who felt otherwise, with the remainder undecided.
This is the unspoken secret in the current debate over virus relief. The urgency is not nearly as high, for either party, as it was in March when lawmakers coalesced around more than $2 trillion in aid.
And majorities of respondents on both sides, 78 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats, said they did not expect Congress to pass another relief bill before the election.
That shrinking urgency might seem callous in light of the continuing suffering. It also demonstrates that Congress has moved on to politics with cold-blooded rationality.
The 200,000th American died of COVID-19 this past week, but the death rate — at the moment — is on a downward trajectory and now seems unlikely to reach the 1 million-plus projections some epidemiologists put forth at the pandemic’s outset. The worst, everyone hopes, is past.
More than 25 million Americans continue to collect unemployment, either through regular state programs or via the federal pandemic assistance for self-employed workers. But that number continues to shrink. The unemployment rate has declined from more than 14 percent in April to just over 8 percent now. Concerns that the downturn will yield another Great Depression, or even wreak a cataclysm akin to the financial downturn of 2008, seem less likely.
So the political benefits of stalemate — permitting both sides to make a case to voters, Democrats in favor of vast new government spending to combat the virus and to help Americans out of work pay bills, Republicans on the side of targeted relief and a quicker reopening of the economy — outweigh for lawmakers the risks of the pandemic taking a turn for the worse in the little-more-than-a-month now before Election Day.
Voters blame incumbents during economic downturns. It would stand to reason that they would all the more in a downturn brought on by a deadly disease. But the insiders survey shows both sides are feeling sanguine about their parties’ electoral prospects.
Despite polls showing both Trump and the Senate GOP majority in jeopardy, most Republican aides who filled out the poll said they expected the president to win and the Senate to remain in their party’s control. It was not close, with 69 percent predicting Trump’s reelection, and 88 percent a GOP Senate in 2021. (Notably, only 8 percent thought Republicans would win back the House.)
Meanwhile, most of the Democratic aides, 86 percent, predicted that Joe Biden would beat Trump, while almost every one of them, 97 percent, foresees Democrats retaining the House. A plurality of 48 percent said they’d also win the seats necessary to take over the Senate.
The survey results show that Republicans are more concerned that voters will blame them for the damage wrought by the virus, though the aides seemed hardly panicked. A narrow majority said the voters would either blame neither party, or the Democrats.
Nearly two in three Democratic respondents said the crisis would redound to their party’s benefit, a reflection of their leaders’ efforts to turn the vote on Nov. 3 into a referendum on Trump’s handling of the virus. But despite those efforts, a third of the Democrats said the virus wouldn’t help either party.
The willingness of both parties to reach Election Day emphasizing conflict, rather than celebrating bipartisan success, took root over the summer amid the policing debate. It has now spread to virus relief and, with the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18, to Ginsburg’s replacement on the court.
Ginsburg’s death has turned conflagration into a blazing inferno of charges and countercharges.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell charged Democrats with “political blackmail” for threatening to end the legislative filibuster and add additional justices to the high court if they win control of the government.
Democrats, led by Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, said that the court pick was a matter of life and death for Americans, arguing that a Trump-named replacement for Ginsburg could kill the 2010 health care law, and end same-sex marriage and abortion rights. “The stakes of this vacancy concern no less than the future fundamental rights for the American people,” Schumer said.
It all made the case made by Senate Republican Policy Chairman Roy Blunt, that “there is clearly a deal there to be had” on another round of virus relief, seem like wishful thinking, denial of the obvious or, most likely, just an attempt to convince voters that his party isn’t as responsible as the other for the failure to achieve it. Voters now casting ballots by mail, as well as those who go to the polls in five weeks, will be the final arbiters of that.