House Dems: What the COVID crisis relief really needs is a blank check ... for Trump?

Can Congress come to an agreement to send more funds to the Paycheck Protection Program? The all-but-grant program shoves cash at business owners who keep their employees on the payroll during the shutdown, but the cash will run out by next week. Congress won’t return until May 4th at the earliest, which means Republicans and Democrats have to use the “unanimous consent” dodge that failed when the CARES Act first passed.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has taken charge of negotiations with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and they’re expected to reach an agreement sooon, The Hill reports. That, however, will not likely solve the problem:

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) are expected to reach a deal this week on an interim coronavirus relief bill that would provide money to businesses, hospitals and state governments. …

Mnuchin, speaking at the White House on Monday, said legislation should focus on small-business programs and that other issues such as funding for state governments and hospitals should be dealt with separately — though he also expressed a willingness to work with Congress on getting money to various needs.

“This was a bipartisan program,” Mnuchin noted at a White House briefing. “We should top up that program now. I know the Democrats want to talk about more money for hospitals and states. Right now we’re just sending the money out to the hospitals and states. They haven’t come close to using that money.”

GOP aides, however, think a deal is likely.

The last time Congress tried this, they had to all fly back to Washington to get it done. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-PA) refused to hold an objection, which then required a quorum and a vote. Remarkably, neither chamber took steps to revamp the rules for remote voting at that time, despite it being abundantly clear that further ongoing work during this massive national crisis would be necessary. Instead, the only votes that will apparently count belong to the four members in leadership in both chambers rather than the 531 other elected officials in Congress.

House Democrats did have one suggestion to get around that. They want to add “automatic stabilizers” to the next bill that simply authorizes new spending based on whatever metrics they establish, without Congress having to vote at all. Most Americans have another term for “automatic stabilizers,” however:

For nearly a month, the New Democrat Coalition has called for automatic stabilizers — a mechanism for keeping government assistance flowing by tying relief programs to economic or timing triggers — to be added to coronavirus relief legislation.

“As appropriate, build automatic stabilizers into direct assistance programs to provide certainty and trigger additional assistance and stimulus without the need for additional congressional action if economic conditions continue or worsen,” the coalition wrote March 19 in a list of principles and priorities for responding to the economic challenges associated with the pandemic.

Rep. Derek Kilmer of Washington, chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, will soon release legislation proposing an automatic stabilizer for the popular Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans to small businesses that will be fully forgiven if the companies keep a majority of their employees on the payroll. PPP is expected to run out of money by the end of the week and negotiations over a bill to add funds are at a standstill.

The more common term for “automatic stabilizers” is blank checks. This is nothing less than a cover for Congress’ abdication of duty in a national emergency. House Democrats want to eat their recess cake and have it too. They want to simply authorize the executive branch to spend without specific appropriations, effectively turning the whole federal budget into statutory spending — entitlement programs, essentially. That way they never have to take another tough vote, or any vote, for that matter. They could stay on recess indefinitely, taking shots from the cheap seats.

Ironically, the recipient of the blank check would be the man Democrats love to hate as a supposed tyrant — Donald Trump. (Not that he’s not sounding a little autocratic on his own these days.) It would be Trump’s administration that would pull the money on its own after meeting the “stabilizer” metrics, i.e., having spent all the money Congress appropriated for a task. While Nancy Pelosi blathers on about select oversight committees, House Democrats would have surrendered their most basic constitutional power to Trump — the power of the purse. What could go wrong?

For Trump, plenty, actually. All it would do is allow his fiercest critics to take shots from the sidelines without ever getting their hands dirty themselves. They can live in hypotheticals while Trump has to work in realities. It lets Congress utterly off the hook for crisis management and lays it entirely on the White House.

This is an absurd solution to a non-problem. Congress isn’t an option in constitutional governance — it’s essential. If members don’t want to do their jobs, then let them resign. As I’ve written repeatedly, we’re asking lots and lots of people to take risks in performing essential tasks: doctors and nurses, first responders, but also transit workers, grocery store clerks, pharmacists, and truckers among them. If they can take a risk to keep America going, then our elected officials had damn well better do their jobs too.

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