The HEROES act passed by House Democrats did not include a formula that would keep expanded unemployment insurance benefits in place until the economy has recovered. The always thoughtful Ezra Klein is very critical of this omission. His argument can be boiled down to two points:
- If Biden wins the presidency, Republicans will predictably try to destroy Biden politically by refusing to extend economic supports needed to protect families and promote an economic recovery. Automatic stabilizers are critical to protect a possible Biden presidency from Republican sabotage.
- Republicans need an economic stimulus package in the run up to the November elections more than Democrats do. This gives Democrats the bargaining power they need to force Republicans to accept automatic stabilizers.
According to Klein, moderate and progressive Democrats all support automatic stabilizers, and the idea polls well, but House leadership backed off when the CBO said the stabilizers for unemployment would cost $1 to 2 trillion dollars. At the same time, Pelosi emphasized that the money would be spent if needed, so there is no actual savings from refusing to include automatic stabilizers, it’s political posturing all the way down.
I agree with Klein on point 1 above. Automatic stabilizers are critical to protect a Biden presidency from Republican sabotage. (It would be foolish to count on winning a working majority in the Senate and repealing the filibuster.)
I am less sure that Klein’s analysis of bargaining power (point 2 above) is correct, although I am sympathetic to his position.
Suppose that July rolls around and states are laying off workers and expanded unemployment benefits are about to expire. The Republicans can agree to aid state and local governments and to extend UI benefits for a few months. Democrats can reject this and hold out for automatic stabilizers. Republicans will paint them as obstructionist. It is not entirely clear who wins this public relations war, and with the election approaching the Democrats may not be willing to gamble if Biden appears to be leading.
Even more important, failure to agree to a package will lead to immense suffering as UI benefits expire. Faced with this human catastrophe, Democrats may not be willing to play hardball with Republicans. It’s like a real mother and an imposter mother bargaining over a baby: if the no agreement point is cutting the baby in half, and the real mother is unwilling to do this, the imposter mother gets the baby.
Should the Democrats be willing to play hardball against the Republicans? Should they be willing to inflict tremendous economic damage on innocent people to protect a Biden presidency? I understand why the Democrats are reluctant to do this. It is tempting to think that Democrats should respond to Republican hostage taking and hardball politics in kind, but the short-run humanitarian costs are very real, ratcheting up the level of inter-party conflict is bad for our democracy, and there is a legitimate question about whether the Democrats should wait and hope that the political environment shifts in a way that moderates the Republican party (e.g., perhaps demographic replacement will force Republican elites to change tactics). On the other hand, perhaps the Republican party is so authoritarian that hardball is inevitable and necessary, despite the short-run suffering it will cause and the potential damage to our democracy from further escalating partisan conflict.
Finally, it is not clear from Klein’s article exactly how the bargaining inside the Democratic party went down. It is possible that members from swing districts opposed automatic stabilizers for narrow careerist reasons, even if the inclusion of automatic stabilizers would have had only a small effect on their re-election prospects. In this case, the real problem here is not the democrats as a group, but the careerism of a small group coupled with the weakness of parties in the American political system (that is, the inability of parties to discipline wayward members).