It’s fascinating to watch Democrats in Washington talking themselves in real time into what seems like a serious error.
The argument they are working themselves into accepting is straightforward: The big pandemic-relief bill the president has outlined is urgently needed, Republicans have no interest in seriously working on it so that negotiating with them is just a waste of time, and therefore Democrats should quickly push it through the reconciliation process since it allows them to adopt it all on a partisan basis.
There is reason to think that every part of that argument is mistaken.
There are certainly some urgent policy priorities in the proposal, like renewing expanded unemployment benefits so they don’t all disappear next month and providing some more assistance to states and localities and to the vaccine-distribution effort. But the bill as a whole is not actually that urgently needed. If there were not a new president in office, it’s not likely we would be looking at another relief bill at this point beyond an extension of expiring benefits. The last bill is barely a month old. It was negotiated and developed entirely after the election, and so with the Biden team’s involvement, became law on December 27, and much of the money it appropriated has not even been spent yet.
Some of the spending priorities in the Democrats’ proposal make sense, but they will be of no less use if enacted in a couple of weeks. Others, like a large increase in the federal minimum wage, are just longstanding progressive ambitions — and that particular measure would in any case presumably take effect gradually over years, so that great urgency can’t really be part of the case for it.
Republicans, meanwhile, do seem to be interested in bargaining over pandemic relief and pursuing it together. A group of ten Republican senators, with Mitch McConnell’s blessing, put out a counter-proposal aimed to launch such negotiations. It included all of the direct pandemic-response provisions in the Democrats’ proposal and more modest forms of some of the economic-assistance provisions — like smaller and more targeted checks to individuals and an extension rather than an increase of the emergency unemployment benefits. It did not include an increase in the minimum wage or a large new package of funding for state and local governments.
That Republican proposal, which was the subject of a meeting between those senators and the president at the beginning of the week, could surely serve as the foundation for a quick process of negotiation that would arrive at a bipartisan bill. Such a bill isn’t hard to imagine, since Congress has enacted five of them over the past twelve months.
The decision to push a relief bill through reconciliation, moreover, is not without serious costs and risks. You can usually only advance two reconciliation measures per year, and the Democrats have plenty of other policy priorities to try and advance before the next congressional elections. Using reconciliation for what could fairly easily have been a bipartisan bill is a peculiar choice.
At the same time, it’s far from clear that the most partisan elements of this bill — those least likely to survive negotiation — could actually be enacted through reconciliation. The Democrats say they are confident that a minimum wage hike would qualify, for instance, but the Senate parliamentarian may well balk at that, and Democrats would need to expand the boundaries of the Byrd rule to do it. It isn’t obvious that they have the votes to do that. In fact, it isn’t actually clear that they have 50 votes in the Senate to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour anyway.
So what’s going on here? One explanation could be that key Democrats think the relief bill will be very popular, and they want sole credit for it and to be able to blame Republicans for trying to resist it. New majorities often make this kind of mistake. Democrats thought the Affordable Care Act would pay huge political dividends in 2009–10, and Republicans thought the same of their tax-reform bill in 2017. But the public was not all that invested in either one, and greater efforts toward bipartisanship would have been more useful for both new majorities.
Another related explanation is that the Democrats believe they actually are applying the lessons of 2009–10. They could hardly be more clear in saying so, in fact. Press stories in the last few days are full of this sort of thing:
“It’s about Covid, but it’s also the broader economy, where there’s an asymmetrical risk of doing too little,” one Biden adviser said. “That’s what Biden and Democrats learned in 2009 and they’re not going to do it again.”
“Democrats learned their lesson in 2009 and 2010 about waiting too long or going too small,” a senior adviser said. “The president’s focus is about helping those who are hurting.”
But they take the key lesson of the 2009–10 experience to be that there’s no point trying to work with Republicans, so that rather than waste time trying they might as well just fast forward to a party-line bill.
A lot of Democrats in Washington have genuinely persuaded themselves that the Obama administration and congressional Democrats made extensive, good-faith efforts to bring Republicans into their legislative process back then. Republicans who were in or around the policy process then genuinely remember it very differently. They may be wrong, of course, or may have misread the Democrats’ intentions at the time. And don’t get me wrong: Republicans were not eager to cooperate with the Obama administration either. But clearly this circumstance is altogether different: The policy arena in question has been the scene of more bipartisanship in the past twelve months than any we have seen in two decades. And maybe even more important, the Democrats had 60 Senate votes in 2009 and have only 50 today. The House is also much more narrowly divided.
So the Democrats have much less of a shot at getting a partisan bill enacted, and much less to gain if they did. The advantages of bipartisanship in this case, on the other hand, would be much greater. The coming months are likely to be very frustrating — even if the pandemic-response and vaccine efforts are ultimately going to be judged successes, which I believe both will be. Sharing the response, and giving Republicans some buy-in and fewer excuses to complain, would serve Democrats well. It would also be awfully good for our political culture and the sort of turning down of the temperature that President Biden has said he wants. And proving their willingness to bargain in an area where a deal could be both achievable and reasonable would give Democrats a much stronger case to make when they try party-line bills on more controversial issues later.
The tenor of comments from the White House suggest that at least some senior Democrats, perhaps including the president, can see these points. One Republican senator who attended Monday’s White House meeting reported that Biden seemed much more open to negotiating than his staff did. And administration statements in the wake of the meeting suggested the same. White House comments on the record are all about how the Republicans should agree to support state and local governments while comments off the record are about how there’s no point trying to work with Republicans and it’s time to move on.
Maybe the Democrats will just get it all together. It’s entirely possible. But for now it sure looks like their strategy has a momentum of its own, unconnected to a compelling policy or political logic, and that it has them spending energy and capital in ways that ignore their weak hold on Congress and will only divide their party, unify Republicans against them, look like bumbling to the public, and achieve relatively little.