Issue of the Week: Disease, Economic Opportunity, Hunger, Human rights, Personal Growth

Congress Clears $1.9 Trillion Aid Bill, The New York Times, March 11, 2021


Today, The American Rescue Plan for Covid relief and its economic and social devastation, further revealing and increasing decades of inequality and economic brutality, passed Congress and will be signed by President Biden into law. It may be the beginning of rescuing America from a precipice of threat to democracy and decades of inequality and insecurity.

May be.

A beginning.

But the historic nature of taking a new fork in the road back to the future is unquestionable.

No legislation like this has been passed since the Great Society heyday of the mid-1960’s in LBJ’s expansion of FDR’s New Deal. The ongoing movement during that time for increasing equality and security for all, underpinning the most prosperous and secure society of the great majority of people in history, with the remnants of classism, racism and sexism in striking distance of being overcome.

We’ve covered these issues and what changed and what needs to change, not just back, but forward, multidimensionally, for decades.

A further commentary on the past year and in our ongoing commentary on civilization is coming.

For now, we note that the moment of the end of 2020 and a new meaning and course established in 2021 may be at the pivot. Even after the near miss of democracy’s murder on January 6. Even after the second impeachment trial for the only time in history of the same president, and the only time in history seven members of the party of the impeached president voted to convict (after the first time in history that even one voted to convict in the last impeachment.) Even after the moment virtually all the Republicans in the Senate had had it for five minutes after they and their families were threatened with being killed (and others were killed) and had an impeachment and trial happened in 48 hours a conviction would likely have occurred. Even after the whiplash of return to the cult leader dynamic with cowering politician devotees. Even with a majority of one as a tie-breaker in the Congress for the Democrats. Biden and the Democrats, despite some significant differences, saw the moment, stayed unified and passed the most consequential change in American policy and society for decades.

The Covid relief bill was passed on the eve of the first anniversary of the day the pandemic was officially declared by the World Health Organization, March 11, 2020.

A measure of time and space ago immeasurable.

So we start with the basics today. The two front-page articles that will appear tomorrow March 11 in the New York Times, “Congress Clears $1.9 Trillion Aid Bill, Sending It to Biden” and “With Relief Plan, Biden Takes on a New Role: Crusader for the Poor”, and the bold prediction, “Joe Biden Is a Transformational President”, although well-thought out for some time, by the widely known and respected moderate and opinion writer at the Times, David Brooks.

As Robert Frost read at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961:

“But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”

We’ll be back to all this.

Here’s the historic news of the day:

“Congress Clears $1.9 Trillion Aid Bill, Sending It to Biden”

The sweeping legislation had no support from Republican lawmakers, who called it bloated and unaffordable. It will deliver emergency aid and broader assistance to low- and middle-income Americans.

“This is the most consequential legislation that many of us will ever be a party to,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said after the bill’s passage.
“This is the most consequential legislation that many of us will ever be a party to,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said after the bill’s passage.Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Congress gave final approval on Wednesday to President Biden’s sweeping, nearly $1.9 trillion stimulus package, as Democrats acted over unified Republican opposition to push through an emergency pandemic aid plan that carries out a vast expansion of the country’s social safety net.

By a vote of 220 to 211, the House sent the measure to Mr. Biden for his signature, cementing one of the largest injections of federal aid since the Great Depression. It would provide another round of direct payments for Americans, an extension of federal jobless benefits and billions of dollars to distribute coronavirus vaccines and provide relief for schools, states, tribal governments and small businesses struggling during the pandemic.

“This legislation is about giving the backbone of this nation — the essential workers, the working people who built this country, the people who keep this country going — a fighting chance,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. He said he looked forward to signing what he called a “historic piece of legislation” on Friday at the White House.

The vote capped off a swift push by Mr. Biden and Democrats, newly in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, to address the toll of the coronavirus pandemic and begin putting in place their broader economic agenda. The bill is estimated to slash poverty by a third this year and potentially cut child poverty in half, with expansions of tax credits, food aid and rental and mortgage assistance.

While Republicans argued the plan, whose final cost was estimated at $1.856 trillion, was bloated and unaffordable, surveys indicate that it has widespread support among Americans, with 70 percent of Americans favoring it in a Pew Research Center poll released this week.

Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats planned an elaborate effort to promote it throughout the country, seeking to highlight an array of measures including tax credits for children and enhanced unemployment aid through Labor Day. The effort will begin on Thursday with a prime-time address by Mr. Biden, and congressional Democrats have already fanned out for scores of events in their states and districts to take credit for the legislation.

The campaign is intended to build support for provisions they hope to make permanent in the years to come, and to punish Republicans politically for failing to support it.

President Biden plans to sign the legislation at the White House on Friday.

President Biden plans to sign the legislation at the White House on Friday.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Final passage came less than two months after Mr. Biden took office and about a year after cities and states began to shutter to stem the spread of the coronavirus, spurring a succession of relief bills that drew bipartisan support and were signed by President Donald J. Trump.

But rather than haggle with Republicans who wanted to scale back the package, Democrats fast-tracked their own measure through the House and Senate without pausing to court Republican support. They stayed remarkably united in doing so, with just one Democrat, Representative Jared Golden of Maine, voting against the final measure.

“This is the most consequential legislation that many of us will ever be a party to,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said at a news conference after the bill’s passage. “On this day, we celebrate because we are honoring a promise made by our president, and we join with him in promising that help is on the way.”

Earlier, she had dismissed the lack of Republican support and said opponents would not hesitate to claim credit for the popular elements of the plan, saying, “It’s typical that they vote no and take the dough.”

As if to make her point, Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, tweeted approvingly just hours after the bill passed about the $28.6 billion included for “targeted relief” for restaurants. His post did not mention that he had voted no.

“I’m not going to vote for $1.9 trillion just because it has a couple of good provisions,” he later told reporters.

The nearly party-line vote reflected a gamble for both Democrats and Republicans, rooted in the lessons of 2009 when Congress raced to address the Great Recession in the opening months of the Obama administration. Back then, Democrats toiled to win at least some Republican backing for what was at the time the largest stimulus initiative to be considered by Congress, whittling down the package in the process.

Economists widely agree that the $787 billion stimulus law that resulted, which attracted scant Republican support anyway, was too small to address the crisis, and Democrats lost the House in the following midterm elections.

This time, Republicans were gambling that voters would become disillusioned with the scope and price of the plan, as well as the partisan process that yielded it, and punish Democrats accordingly.

“This isn’t a rescue bill. It isn’t a relief bill,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader. “It’s a laundry list of left-wing priorities that predate the pandemic and do not meet the needs of American families.”

They were also pointing to an increase in the deficit — which the Treasury Department reported on Wednesday had soared by 68 percent to $1 trillion in just the past five months — arguing that the package would add to an already crushing debt burden.

Top Republicans also sought preemptively to deny Democrats credit for any economic improvement that might follow the measure’s enactment.

“The American people are going to see an American comeback this year,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, “but it won’t be because of this liberal bill.”

Members of the Arizona National Guard helping out at a food bank in Phoenix this month. The legislation will send another round of $1,400 direct payments to many Americans.
Members of the Arizona National Guard helping out at a food bank in Phoenix this month. The legislation will send another round of $1,400 direct payments to many Americans.Credit…Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

Republicans have struggled to coalesce around a specific critique of the plan, beyond condemning it as ultraprogressive, a charge that Democrats were happy to accept. Several provisions were previously included in packages Republicans supported when Mr. Trump was in office, making it difficult for them to make a case against most of its components.

The large cost of the legislation, the second-largest pandemic aid bill after the $2.2 trillion stimulus law enacted just under a year ago, was possible only because Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, albeit slim ones. With a 10-vote margin of control in the House and a 50-to-50 Senate where Vice President Kamala Harris can break ties, Democrats had just enough votes to push through a plan more than triple the size of the most generous Republican proposal.

“I want everybody to think back to Nov. 4 — the day after the election — when we didn’t get the result we wanted in the House, we didn’t get the result we wanted in the Senate,” said Representative John Yarmuth, the Kentucky Democrat who leads the Budget Committee, at a celebratory news conference on Tuesday. “We weren’t sure whether we would have the presidency. And here just a few months later, we’re about to pass one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in modern history.”

Mr. Biden had initially talked of bipartisanship, inviting a contingent of moderate Republican senators to the White House to discuss a potential deal. But they were seeking to slash the size of the rescue plan considerably, and the White House concluded that there was not a deal to be had that would meet the need.

Instead of scaling back the package in an effort to win them over and muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, Democrats turned to a budget process known as reconciliation, which requires only a majority to pass major fiscal measures.

The bill includes $14 billion for the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.
The bill includes $14 billion for the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

The measure will provide $350 billion for state, local and tribal governments; $10 billion for critical state infrastructure projects; $14 billion for the distribution of vaccines; and $130 billion to primary and secondary schools. The bill also includes $30 billion for transit agencies; $45 billion in rental, utility and mortgage assistance; and billions more for small businesses and live performance venues.

It provides another round of direct payments to American taxpayers, sending checks of up to $1,400 to individuals making up to $80,000, single parents earning $120,000 or less and couples with household incomes of no more than $160,000.

Federal unemployment payments of $300 per week will be extended through Sept. 6, and up to $10,200 of jobless aid from last year will be tax-free for households with incomes below $150,000. The bill also increases child tax credits, providing $300 per child age 5 and younger and $250 per child ages 6 to 17.

The practical and political realities that shaped the measure, including the strict rules of reconciliation and Democrats’ razor-thin majorities, produced a narrower bill than Mr. Biden had initially proposed and some temporary provisions that his party will have to fight to preserve.

One is the expansion of the child tax credit. Families will lose it in a year unless Congress agrees to extend it or make it permanent, but Democrats have said they believe Republicans will be unwilling to take away the benefit and plunge millions of children into poverty.

The legislation also contains a substantial, though temporary, expansion of health care subsidies that could slash monthly insurance payments for those purchasing coverage under the Affordable Care Act. And for six months, from April 1 until Sept. 30, the measure will fully cover so-called COBRA health insurance costs for people who have lost a job or had their hours cut and buy coverage from their former employer.

Democrats were also forced to remove an increase in the federal minimum wage, which ran afoul of the budget rules, frustrating progressives. Democrats could not hold their own members together in the Senate to try to revive the measure, which would have raised the wage to $15 by 2025.

In negotiations with conservative-leaning members in their ranks, Democrats also trimmed eligibility for the direct payments and curtailed jobless payments. Still, progressive lawmakers rallied around the final package, even as they vowed to keep fighting to enact more ambitious measures.

“I proudly supported the American Rescue Plan on the floor of the House of Representatives today, and our work is unfinished,” Representative Ayanna S. Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “We must keep fighting for policies that meet the scale and scope of this crisis and set us on a pathway to a just and equitable long-term recovery.”

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.

. . .

“With Relief Plan, Biden Takes on a New Role: Crusader for the Poor”

Michael D. Shear, Carl Hulse and

President Biden’s new role as a crusader for Americans in poverty is an evolution for a politician who has focused on the working class and his Senate work on the judiciary and foreign relations.

President Biden at a round-table discussion on the American Rescue Plan this month. The House passed the measure on Wednesday and cleared it for his signature.
President Biden at a round-table discussion on the American Rescue Plan this month. The House passed the measure on Wednesday and cleared it for his signature.Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Days before his inauguration, President-elect Biden was eying a $1.3 trillion rescue plan aimed squarely at the middle class he has always championed, but pared down to attract some Republican support.

In a private conversation, Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who is now the majority leader, echoed others in the party and urged Mr. Biden to think bigger. True, the coronavirus pandemic had disrupted the lives of those in the middle, but it had also plunged millions of people into poverty. With Democrats in control, the new president should push for something closer to $2 trillion, Mr. Schumer told Mr. Biden.

On Friday, “Scranton Joe” Biden, whose five-decade political identity has been largely shaped by his appeal to union workers and blue-collar tradesmen like those from his Pennsylvania hometown, will sign into law a $1.9 trillion spending plan that includes the biggest antipoverty effort in a generation.

The new role as a crusader for the poor represents an evolution for Mr. Biden, who spent much of his 36 years in Congress concentrating on foreign policy, judicial fights, gun control and criminal justice issues by virtue of his committee chairmanships in the Senate. For the most part, he ceded domestic economic policy to others.

But aides say he has embraced his new role. Mr. Biden has done so in part by following progressives in his party to the left and accepting the encouragement of his inner circle to use Democratic power to make sweeping rather than incremental change. He has also been moved by the inequities in pain and suffering that the pandemic has inflicted on the poorest Americans, aides say.

“We all grow,” said Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, whose endorsement in the primaries was crucial to Mr. Biden winning the presidency. “During the campaign, he recognized what was happening in this country, this pandemic. It is not like anything we have had in 100 years. If you are going to address Covid-19’s impact, you have to address the economic disparities that exist in this country.”

A vast share of the money approved by Congress will benefit the lowest-income Americans, including tax credits and direct checks, of which nearly half will be delivered to people who are unemployed, below the poverty line or barely making enough to feed and shelter their families. Billions of dollars will be used to extend benefits for the unemployed. Child tax credits will largely benefit the poorest Americans.

“Millions of people out of work through no fault of their own,” the president said moments after the relief act passed the Senate over the weekend. “I want to emphasize that: through no fault of their own. Food bank lines stretching for miles. Did any of you ever think you’d see that in America, in cities all across this country?”

Mr. Biden touring a food bank in Houston last month. “Food bank lines stretching for miles,” he said after the relief act passed the Senate over the weekend. “Did any of you ever think you’d see that in America, in cities all across this country?”

Mr. Biden touring a food bank in Houston last month. “Food bank lines stretching for miles,” he said after the relief act passed the Senate over the weekend. “Did any of you ever think you’d see that in America, in cities all across this country?”Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The president’s closest advisers insist that the far-reaching antipoverty effort — a core tenet of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party — is less of an ideological shift from Mr. Biden’s middle-class roots than it is a response to the moment he finds himself in: presiding over a historic health crisis that has vastly increased the number of poor Americans.

They are quick to note that the president’s American Rescue Plan also directs enormous sums of money to middle-income people who have jobs but are struggling. Working families making up to $150,000 will receive direct payments, help for child care and expanded child tax credits that will bolster their annual incomes during the pandemic.

Mr. Biden is planning a public relations blitz across the country during the next several weeks to promote the benefits of the relief package and his role in pushing it through Congress. His campaign will begin on Thursday with a prime-time address from the Oval Office for the first anniversary of the Covid restrictions imposed by President Donald J. Trump.

After that, aides say Mr. Biden will travel to communities that benefit from the provisions of the new law, in part to build the case for making some of the temporary measures a permanent part of the social safety net.

Congressional Democrats are also determined to make sure the public understands what is in the new bill. In a letter sent on Tuesday to his colleagues, Mr. Schumer said that “we cannot be shy in telling the American people how this historic legislation directly helps them.”

Among the lessons Democrats say they have learned from the political backlash in 2010 to their handling of the economic crisis in 2009 is that they were not aggressive enough in selling the benefits of their stimulus package to voters a decade ago. It is not a mistake they intend to make again.

Even as Mr. Biden’s stimulus victory lap will be embraced by the left, he remains in the cautious middle so far on foreign policy, easing off on punishing the crown prince of Saudi Arabia for ordering the killing of a Washington Post journalist and imposing only modest sanctions on Russia for the poisoning and jailing of Aleksei A. Navalny, the opposition leader there.

Mr. Biden’s former Senate colleagues also acknowledge that historically he was never a driver of liberal economic policy.

Once a 29-year-old Senate candidate who pushed for civil rights and opposed the Vietnam War, Mr. Biden later drifted toward the middle, adapting to the political moment in 1996 by backing a bipartisan welfare overhaul supported by President Bill Clinton but opposed by many liberals who saw it as punitive and politically driven. Mr. Biden is now embracing a sweeping expansion of the welfare state with a price tag that is just under half of what the entire federal government spent in 2019.

“He has gotten in front of it and put his stamp on it,” said Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff.

Frequently Asked Questions About the New Stimulus Package

The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.

Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader and a longtime colleague of Mr. Biden’s, acknowledged that the president — who was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1987 to 1995 and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2001 to 2003 — was not a leader in those years on economic policy. But he said it was natural that Mr. Biden would aggressively tackle it now, given conditions in the country.

“Times have changed,” Mr. Daschle said, noting that “economic and racial disparities have become more acute, more understood and more important in recent years.” He pointed to the new $3,000 child tax credit, a temporary benefit included in the package, and compared its transformational potential to the Medicare program enacted under President Lyndon B. Johnson should it become permanent.

“If or when it does,” Mr. Daschle said, “Joe Biden will be seen as the L.B.J. for low-income families in dramatically improving their economic circumstances.”

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, at a news conference last week. “We cannot be shy in telling the American people how this historic legislation directly helps them,” he wrote in a letter sent on Tuesday to colleagues.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, at a news conference last week. “We cannot be shy in telling the American people how this historic legislation directly helps them,” he wrote in a letter sent on Tuesday to colleagues.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Biden spoke about “rebuilding the backbone of the nation,” a phrase that sometimes appeared to include a promise to provide significant help for people at the bottom of the economic ladder.

“Ending poverty won’t be just an aspiration, but a way to build a new economy,” he said in 2019, as he campaigned for the Democratic nomination. Once in the Oval Office, Mr. Biden hung a picture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and invoked the Depression-era president in his private conversations with lawmakers.

The plight of the middle class has long animated Mr. Biden. He lamented their fortunes when he ran for president in 1988, during the Reagan era, and was often a lonely voice for the same constituency while serving as vice president, when he was President Barack Obama’s de facto liaison to organized labor.

To that end, Mr. Biden has also emphasized the parts of the relief package dedicated to making life easier for the working- and middle-class voters he has always courted.

“For a typical middle-class family of four — husband and wife working, making $100,000 a year total with two kids — will get $5,600, and it’ll be on the way soon,” Mr. Biden told reporters on Saturday.

But for now, his path forward is clear. Even though Mr. Biden listened politely last month when a group of Senate Republicans visited the Oval Office and pitched him on a smaller compromise deal on the relief package, he held fast to the ambitious proposal put forth by congressional Democrats. In his first major act as president, Mr. Biden leveraged the pandemic to fulfill some of the left’s longstanding goals.

Representative Pete Aguilar of California, a member of the Democratic leadership, announced at a news conference on Tuesday that the relief law “represents the boldest action taken on behalf of the American people since the Great Depression.” And Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the fourth-ranking House Democrat, praised the president.

“Joe Biden has been clear that we have to go big at a moment like this,” he said.

. . . 

Opinion Columnist, The New York Times, March 11, 2021

We’re seeing a policy realignment without a partisan realignment.

Credit…Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post, via Getty Images

This has been one of the most quietly consequential weeks in recent American politics.

The Covid-19 relief law that was just enacted is one of the most important pieces of legislation of our lifetimes. As Eric Levitz writes in New York magazine, the poorest fifth of households will see their income rise by 20 percent; a family of four with one working and one unemployed parent will receive $12,460 in benefits. Child poverty will be cut in half.

The law stretches far beyond Covid-19 relief. There’s a billion for national service programs. Black farmers will receive over $4 billion in what looks like a step toward reparations. There’s a huge expansion of health insurance subsidies. Many of these changes, like the child tax credit, may well become permanent.

As Michael Hendrix of the Manhattan Institute notes, America spent $4.8 trillion in today’s dollars fighting World War II. Over the past year, America has spent over $5.5 trillion fighting the pandemic.

In a polarized era, the legislation is widely popular. Three-quarters of Americans support the law, including 60 percent of Republicans, according to a Morning Consult survey. The Republican members of Congress voted against it, but the G.O.P. shows no interest in turning this into a great partisan battle. As I began to write this on Thursday morning, the Fox News home page had only two stories on the Covid relief bill and dozens on things like the royal family and cancel culture.

Somehow low-key Joe Biden gets yawns when he promotes progressive policies that would generate howls if promoted by a President Sanders or a President Warren.

This moment is like 1981, the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, except in reverse. It’s not just that government is heading in a new direction, it’s that the whole paradigm of the role of government in American life is shifting. Biden is not causing these tectonic plates to shift, but he is riding them.

Reaganism was the right response to the stagflation of the 1970s, but Bidenism is a sensible response to a very different set of economic problems. Let one set of statistics stand in for hundreds: According to a team of researchers led by Raj Chetty, in 1970, 90 percent of 30-year-olds were making more than their parents had at that age. By 2010, only 50 percent were.

There was a premise through American history that if you worked hard you would earn economic security. That’s not as true for millennials and Gen-Z, or many other people across America.

These realities have created a different emotional climate that the pandemic has magnified — a climate of insecurity and precarity. These realities have also produced an intellectual revolution.

It was assumed, even only a decade ago, that the Fed could not just print money with abandon. It was assumed that the government could not rack up huge debt without spurring inflation and crippling debt payment costs. Both of these concerns have been thrown out the window by large numbers of thinkers. We’ve seen years of high debt and loose monetary policy, but inflation has not come.

So the restraints have been cast aside. We are now experiencing monetary and fiscal policies that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. This is like the moment when the G.O.P. abandoned fiscal conservatism for the go-go excitement of supply-side economics — which eventually devolved into mindless tax cuts for the rich.

The role of government is being redefined. There is now an assumption that government should step in to reduce economic insecurity and inequality. Even Republicans like Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney, for example, are cooking up a plan to actively boost wages for American workers.

This is not socialism. This is not the federal government taking control of the commanding heights of the economy. This is not a bunch of programs to restrain corporate power. Americans’ trust in government is still low. This is the Transfer State: government redistributing massive amounts of money by cutting checks to people, and having faith that they spend it in the right ways.

Both parties are adjusting to the new paradigm. With the wind at their backs, Democrats are concluding that Biden’s decision to eschew bipartisanship to pass a relief package is better than Barack Obama’s attempts to attract it. I don’t know if the filibuster will go away, but it certainly looks like it will be watered down.

Poor economic conditions pushed the G.O.P. away from Milton Friedman libertarianism and toward Donald Trump populism. Republicans have learned that in this new era it’s foolish to fight Democrats on redistribution policy, but they can win elections by fighting culture wars. As Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute observes, we may see a policy realignment without a partisan realignment because Republicans have found so many cultural ways to attract votes.

I’m worried about a world in which we spend borrowed money with abandon. The skeptical headline on the final preretirement column of the great Washington Post economics columnist Steven Pearlstein resonated with me: “In Democrats’ progressive paradise, borrowing is free, spending pays for itself and interest rates never rise.”

But income inequality, widespread child poverty and economic precarity are the problems of our time. It’s worth taking a risk to tackle all this. At first Biden seemed like the third chapter of the Clinton/Obama center-left era. But this is something new.

David Brooks has been a columnist with The Times since 2003. He is the author of “The Road to Character” and, most recently, “The Second Mountain.”