Democrats set the bar high for COVID-19 relief law’s success

Enactment brings with it potential rewards — and risks too

President Joe Biden signs the COVID-19 relief bill into law Thursday. Unlike his Democratic counterparts in the House and Senate, Biden has tried to dampen expectations about the law’s outcomes. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden signs the COVID-19 relief bill into law Thursday. Unlike his Democratic counterparts in the House and Senate, Biden has tried to dampen expectations about the law’s outcomes. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via Getty Images)
Posted March 15, 2021 at 7:00am

ANALYSIS — The first anniversary of the day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11 was, by any objective standard, a depressing milestone in the United States. But on Capitol Hill, Democrats were jubilant because they believe the $1.9 trillion virus relief law they passed this month will end the pandemic and revive the economy.

Still, enactment of the law brings with it potential risks and rewards for the party that now controls Washington. If the virus recedes quickly while the economy booms, Democrats expect it will pave the way for further legislative successes and the voters’ approbation in November 2022. But they are setting the bar high.

No one set it higher than Hakeem Jeffries, who on March 9, a day before the House passed the relief bill and sent it to President Joe Biden for his signature, declared victory over the virus and the economic damage wrought by it.

“We promised to put vaccination shots in arms for every single American. Mission accomplished,” the Democratic caucus chair from virus-ravaged Brooklyn said. “We promised to put money in the pockets of everyday Americans who’ve been struggling through the economic trauma of the pandemic. Mission accomplished. We promised to make sure that children can go back to school safely. Mission accomplished. We promised to send people back to work by helping to revive and supercharge the economy. Mission accomplished. We promised to help small businesses. Mission accomplished.”

Jeffries meant that the virus relief law would ensure those outcomes. The law may help achieve them, but enactment of a law isn’t enough. Implementation must follow.

Many of the missions Jeffries declared accomplished are not, in fact, accomplished. Only 10 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Millions of Americans are reluctant to take the shot, and there is no vaccine to give to another 65 million under the age of 16.

Millions of those children are also not yet back in school at all, while millions more are attending part time. It’s not certain yet that all children will be able to attend school five days a week when the new school year begins in late summer. 

Meanwhile, the number of Americans with jobs is still 10 million fewer than it was before the virus lockdowns began a year ago.

Congressional Democrats’ confidence — Jeffries was not alone in upselling the law’s virtues — opened up a rhetorical disconnect with the more restrained Biden, who proposed the generous aid and will now have to distribute it. He’ll have to ensure that it’s well spent, and he’ll be held accountable for its success or failure.

The words “mission accomplished” have a fraught history in American politics since President George W. Bush stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, beneath a banner proclaiming as much about the war in Iraq. That triumphant moment gave way to the four bloodiest years of the U.S. occupation, as an Iraqi insurgency took up arms against the occupiers.

Every Republican voted against Biden’s relief law. Much of the money, they say, will help poorly managed states run by Democrats at the expense of well-run Republican ones, and is expanding a welfare state, via its generous increase in the child tax credit, in defiance of previous lessons learned about government aid untethered to work requirements.

And they are arguing that the country was heading for an economic boom without more government stimulus. “Democrats inherited a turning tide,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “The vaccine and economic trends were in place before this bill was ever voted on, before this president was sworn in.”

Add $1.9 trillion to the mix and the economy could overheat, resulting in inflation, warned Florida's Rick Scott, the chair of the Senate GOP campaign arm.

Republicans have also stressed government’s inefficiency as a distributor of aid, citing data collated by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget that a quarter of the $4 trillion in relief money appropriated last year, or $1 trillion, remains unspent.

The GOP has aimed much of its fire at school systems that have not reopened, despite the $68 billion Congress appropriated last year to help K-12 schools manage the crisis, and has put pressure on congressional Democrats by proposing that relief money for schools be tied to reopening. The new law provides $123 billion more.

And Democrats have now laid out plenty of markers that Republicans can hold them to. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer on March 10 said that the law would cut child poverty in half. In the debate leading up to the House vote, Rep. Salud Carbajal of Santa Barbara, Calif., said it would restore full employment in a year. Rep. Brian Higgins of Buffalo, N.Y., said it would boost economic growth by 6 percent, a rate, he acknowledged, “not seen in many, many decades.”

The government should have no trouble implementing some aspects of the law. Having already distributed two previous rounds of relief checks, the IRS is expected to have this next batch of $1,400 ones out the door in a matter of days. But other parts will be harder. 

Advocates for renters say little of the $25 billion in funding from December’s $900 billion relief law has yet reached those in need. Meanwhile, Biden’s effort to direct more funding to very small businesses and sole proprietors through the Paycheck Protection Program has run into a bureaucratic slowdown at the Small Business Administration and some of the banks that distribute the program’s low-interest, forgivable loans have declined to do so.

States have struggled throughout to update their unemployment systems to distribute the enhanced amounts directed by last year’s relief laws and extended in this month’s. They’ve had to combat fraud in distributing benefits to newly eligible gig workers and self-employed people.

Unlike his Democratic counterparts in the House and Senate, Biden has tried to dampen expectations. He has walked back a campaign pledge to reopen schools in his first 100 days, scaling that goal back to getting most schools to reopen for students at least one day a week. 

After criticism, he increased a target he had set to vaccinate 100 million Americans in that same time frame, since it would have only meant maintaining the pace of vaccination when he took office. Biden boosted the goal to 150 million, which looks modest with more than 2 million vaccinations now taking place daily, less than two months into his presidency.

His agencies have also urged Americans to proceed cautiously with their return to normalcy, with National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci predicting that masking may not end until 2022, while new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises vaccinated people to continue to avoid crowds. 

In a White House speech Thursday, Biden warned of the limits of government action, saying that it alone won’t end the pandemic. He said it may be safe for small groups to gather to celebrate the Fourth of July, even after every adult should have had the opportunity to receive a vaccine.

“To get there we can’t let our guard down,” he said. “This fight is far from over.”