The House’s voice vote passing the Senate’s version of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill puts the final nail in the coffin of House Democrats’ deeply misguided effort to pass their own version of the bill, an effort that delayed the badly needed relief package by days. Taking a cue from Majority Whip James Clyburn’s argument that “This is a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision,” the 1,119-page House bill was larded with progressive policy priorities on topics with little or no connection to the pandemic: carbon emissions, corporate board diversity, federally imposed rules for early voting and voter registration, collective bargaining, a minimum wage hike, a Postal Service bailout, student loan forgiveness, permanent changes to Medicaid and Obamacare, minority-owned credit unions, funding for the arts, and many, many more.
Anyone who has followed Washington politics for any period of time knows that the habit of sticking unrelated goodies into big, must-pass bills is both longstanding and bipartisan. Every bill of this nature, especially one so massive and sprawling, will have a little gift here for some policy agenda, a payoff there for a favored constituency, and a giveaway, or several, for important donors. But what was striking here was the sheer piggishness of the grab. The House Democrats’ bill read less like an appropriation than like an entire presidential campaign platform, wedged into a bill that was supposed to pass a Senate and White House controlled by the opposite party. The point of cramming favors into a bill like this is to ensure passage of the favor, not sink the bill. And sink it did, like the soldiers of Hernán Cortés who drowned fleeing Tenochtitlan because they had loaded their armor with gold looted from its treasury.
The tone-deafness of Clyburn and Nancy Pelosi, who have typically been savvier operators than this in the past, raises real questions about the judgment of the geriatric leadership of the Democratic caucus, and whether they are truly in charge anymore or getting pushed around internally by their party’s ideological extremists. Nobody in their right mind could have expected even the most supine Senate Republicans to take this bill lying down. And there was virtually no serious effort to actually defend the inclusion of all this extraneous material in the bill. At best, Pelosi may have judged that President Trump was desperate enough for any bill to demand a quick compromise if the delay spooked the markets further, but a bluff needs to be credible to work, and this wasn’t. At worst, Pelosi held up the final result just to make a symbolic showing to the very wing of her party that just got trounced in the presidential primary. Either way, a bad look all around for the Speaker and her majority.