The political battles that will determine whether U.S. democracy succeeds or fails

Bob Sheak, March 12, 2021

There are great challenges facing the United States. One of them involves the increasingly seemingly irreconcilable conflict between the two major political parties over what kind of country we should have. The Democratic Party favors a majority-based democracy as foundational. The Republican Party wants a limited electorate based largely on the mostly white, culturally-conservative, pro-Trump constituencies.  

The Republicans

The Republican Party supports a right-wing, reactionary agenda of tax cuts, wholesale deregulation, corporate welfare, privatization of public functions, unabated support for fossil fuels and a disregard for the climate crisis, inadequate support in the effort to control and offer relief from the Covid-19 pandemic, efforts to limit government insurance and public assistance programs, makiing the Supreme Court and federal judiciary even more right-wing bastions of reaction than they have been. Furthermore, Republicans want an immigration policy that separates children from families and, in effect, denies or interminably delays even valid asylum claims, along with little concern with gun regulation, prison reform, or police accountability. And it’s worse. Whatever else happens, the Republican Party will continue to be Trump’s party, based on his massive unquestioning, right-wing populous base, including the support of violent fringe groups, and energized by the “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, combined with various cultural and racial issues. As it stands now, the national Republican Party is a minority party, unable to win the majority of votes cast for presidential candidates, that relies on voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the unique, antiquated, and anti-democratic Electoral College to win presidential elections.

The Democrats

The Democratic Party supports an agenda that is center/left and the opposite of what Republicans want. The want progressive taxes, reasonable regulation, corporate accountability (including for CEOs and other executives). They have policies directed at climate change. They want to phase out coal and better regulate fracking, with the goal of phasing out oil and gas in twenty or thirty years. They support programs to put solar panels on government buildings and facilities and support plans of some auto maker to build electric cars. They want to strengthen government insurance and public assistance programs, nominate moderate and liberal justices to the courts. They wrestle with what to do about immigration, but are open to more efficacious and humane border policies than what Trump demanded. They favor some reform of guns, prisons, and police. They rely on experienced people to staff positions in the executive branch and communicate with the public on a timely basis. They listen to the scientists on the Covid-19 pandemic and are far better than the Trump administration in encouraging a growing supply of vaccines, in increasing the number of locations where people can be vaccinated, and in coordinating these efforts with state and local governments, while also continuing to inform the public about the safety of the vaccines and the need to continue wearing masks and doing other relevant hygienic tasks.   

The battle

Democrats now hold slim advantages in the House and Senate and have Joe Biden in the White House. They will only retain these advantages if they can overcome Republican obstruction, lies, voter suppression, racist and nativist fearmongering, and enact at least parts of their agenda. In this post, I focus on three current issues to exemplify what Republicans are attempting to do to subvert democracy and obstruct key Democratic initiatives: (1) voter suppression, (2) opposition to the Democrats’ initiative to expand the electorate, and (3) the unified Republican opposition (ultimately failed) in the Congress to Biden’s American Rescue Act. The question on the third point is whether the Democrats’ success in passing the legislation will be a precedent for more progressive legislation or a stand-alone victory.

With all this, Democrats only have a chance of maintaining control of the US House and US Senate in the 2022 midterm elections if they can continue to make progress against the Covid-19 pandemic, continue to find ways to advance their agenda through executive orders or through legislation that addresses the economic problems faced by a majority of Americans, and are able to mobilize voters in 202 as they did in 2020.  

Issue #1 – Republicans favor limitations on democracy

Michael Wines identifies what Republican legislators are doing to suppress the vote and alter election rules across the country (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/27/us/republican-voter-suppression.html). He writes: “Led by loyalists who embrace former President Donald J. Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen election, Republicans in state legislatures nationwide are mounting extraordinary efforts to change the rules of voting and representation — and enhance their own political clout.” They include “a slew of bills raising new barriers to casting votes, particularly the mail ballots that Democrats flocked to in the 2020 election.” Wines refers to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal-leaning law and justice institute at New York University, which has identified 253 bills in 43 states that seek to tighten voting rules.

But there is more, “including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules for the benefit of Republicans; clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives; and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections, which were crucial to the smooth November vote.” In addition, “there are already signs of an aggressive drive to further gerrymander political districts, particularly in states under complete Republican control.” For example, the “national Republican Party joined the movement this past week by setting up a Committee on Election Integrity to scrutinize state election laws, echoing similar moves by Republicans in a number of state legislatures.” The voter suppression initiatives focus on congressional districts and states where there have been large pro-Democratic turnouts, especially those areas where there are concentrations of African-Americans. On this point, Wines writes: “The issues are particularly stark because fresh restrictions would disproportionately hit minorities just as the nation is belatedly reckoning with a racist past, said Lauren Groh-Wargo, the chief executive of the voting advocacy group Fair Fight Action.”

Republicans justify the anti-democratic efforts by claiming they will stop voter fraud, though “multiple studies have shown barely exists.” Wines gives examples of what voter suppression looks like in some states. “Georgia Republicans would sharply limit early voting on Sundays, when many Black voters follow church services with ‘souls to the polls’ bus rides to cast ballots. On Friday [Feb. 26], a State Senate committee approved bills to end no-excuse absentee voting and automatic voter registration at motor vehicle offices.” Furthermore, “Republicans in Georgia, which Mr. Biden won by roughly 12,000 votes, lined up this week behind a State Senate bill that would require vote-by-mail applications to be made under oath, with some requiring an additional ID and a witness signature.”

Chris Walker also writes on voter suppression in Georgia (https://truthout.org/articles/georgia-bill-would-criminalize-giving-water-to-voters-waiting-in-long-lines). The Georgia General Assembly passed Bill 531 on Monday, March 1, that “would add a voter ID requirement for absentee ballots, limit the number and locations of early voting drop-off boxes, and reduce early voting days during the weekends prior to an election — including allowing just one Sunday to vote early.” The bill additionally includes an outlandish provision to charge individuals with misdemeanor crime if they had out food or drinks to voters standing in line on election days. Also, “A separate set of measures are also being considered in that legislative chamber, which would limit which voters could apply for absentee ballots, disallowing the state’s “no-excuse” practice of granting any voter who requests a ballot to get one.”

The report from the Brennan Center for Justice, alluded to previously, provides a detailed “roundup” of both restrictive and expansive state voting legislation (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-round-up-february-2021). The evidence comes from election bills brought forth in 2021 legislative sessions in all but three states.

On the Republican side, amid “a rash of baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities…legislators have introduced well over four times the number of bills to restrict voting access as compared to roughly this time last year. Thirty-three states have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 165 restrictive bills this year (as compared to 35 such bills in fifteen states on February 3, 2020).” The bills “primarily seek to: (1) limit mail voting access; (2) impose stricter voter ID requirements; (3) slash voter registration opportunities; and (4) enable more aggressive voter roll purges. These bills are an unmistakable response to the unfounded and dangerous lies about fraud that followed the 2020 election.” For example, there are fourteen bills in nine states… would make the “excuse” requirement more stringent for absentee voting or eliminate “no excuse” mail voting. A Missouri bill, for example, would eliminate Covid-19 concerns as an excuse… while four different proposals in Pennsylvania seek to eliminate no-excuse mail voting, a policy just adopted with bipartisan support in 2019. Lawmakers in Arizona, Georgia, North Dakota, and Oklahoma also seek to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting.” 

Democrats are active on the electoral front as well. Democratic “lawmakers are seizing on an energized electorate and persistent interest in democracy reform (which is likewise reflected in Congress). To date, thirty-seven states have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 541 bills to expand voting access (dwarfing the 188 expansive bills that were filed in twenty-nine states as of February 3, 2020). Notably 125 such bills were introduced in New York and New Jersey.” According to the Center, “[t]hese bills focus primarily on: (1) mail voting; (2) early voting; (3) voter registration; and (4) voting rights restoration.”

The outcome of these initiatives will have a significant effect on the 2022 and 2024 elections. If the Republican succeed in further limiting access to the ballot in swing states like Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and if Democrats fail to get out the vote in the large numbers they did in 2020, then democracy in the US will be further diminished and authoritarian government based on minority-rule will be reinforced. Certainly, Trump and his authoritarian proclivities continue to have a dominating influence in the Republican Party at all levels.  

Signs of Republican authoritarianism – ideological radicalism

Professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identify the signs of the rise of authoritarian behavior (How Democracies Die). First, “there is a rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game.” For example, authoritarians want to restrict basic civil or political rights (e.g., voter suppression). Second, authoritarians deny the legitimacy of their political opponents, as when they describe them as an “existential threat, either to national security or to the prevailing way of life,” “describe their partisan rivals as criminals.” Trump’s continuously bellowed “big lie” that the election was stolen and the support for this allegation by much of the Republican Party and Republican base. Third, authoritarians tolerate or encourage violence. They have “ties to armed gangs, paramilitary forces, militias….” Trump and many Republican legislators want to blame the January 6 attempted insurrection on leftist influences and dismiss the actual right-wing mob. Indeed, they encouraged “mob attacks on opponents.” There is little doubt that Trump incited and enflamed those who invaded the Capitol building. The refuse to unambiguously condemn violence and punish it. Fourth, authoritarians “curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media.” For example, they support laws restricting protests and Trump has expressed his hatred toward the mainstream media as “fake news” and worse.

Issue #2 – Can Democrats overcome Republican opposition and the filibuster to expand voter rights and access

Ari Berman reports that House Democrats introduced legislation in late February designated as HR 1, For the People Act, which is described as the most significant democracy reform bill since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (https://wwwmotherjones.com/politics/2021/03/the-house-is-poised-to-pass-a-major-voting-rights-bill-and-create-helluva-battle-in-the-senate). “The bill,” Berman writes, “would go a long way toward thwarting the new GOP voter-suppression efforts by enacting a wide range of pro-voter measures for federal elections,” including “nationwide automatic and Election Day registration; two weeks of early voting in every state; the expansion of mail-in voting; the restoration of voting rights to people convicted of a felony who have served their time; restrictions on discriminatory voter-ID laws and voter purges; and the creation of independent redistricting commissions for House districts to prevent extreme gerrymandering. The bill also cracks down on dark money by implementing public financing for congressional campaigns, and it establishes new ethics rules for federal officeholders.”

He reminds readers: “Nearly identical legislation passed the House in March 2019, but it was blocked in the Senate by then–Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who called it a ‘power grab’ for Democrats.” This year the legislation “has become an increasingly urgent priority for Democrats… following Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, the insurrection at the Capitol, and the wave of GOP-backed proposals to restrict voting rights in key states, such as Georgia.” He points to examples of what the GOP wants to do, namely, “roll back mail-in voting, restrict ballot drop boxes, limit early voting, and repeal automatic voter registration.”

House Democrats were able to pass the “For the People Act” elections bill, on March 3, 2021 by a vote of 220 to 210, with no Republican votes. In its final form, the bill’s voting provisions “would,” Mike DeBonis reports, “guarantee no-excuse mail voting and at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections; require states to use their existing government records to automatically register citizens to vote; restore voting rights to felons who have completed their prison sentences; and mandate the use of paper ballots” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/house-elections-voting-pelosi).

DeBonis continues: “Other provisions would create new disclosure requirements for ‘dark money’ donations to political groups; require states to appoint independent commissions to draw congressional districts; and create new federal standards for election equipment vendors.” And the bill would also “require tech platforms to disclose political advertising information; establish a code of ethics for Supreme Court justices for the first time; restructure the Federal Election Commission to an odd number of members to break partisan deadlocks; and require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.”

Obstruction in the Senate

Now the bill goes to the Senate, where every Democrat has signaled support for the bill. According to DeBonis, “Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said this week that she expects to usher companion legislation through the Senate Rules Committee later this spring and ultimately to bring it to the floor. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said, ‘If you’re ranking the most important legislation of the year, that is way up there.’ However, unless Democrats find a way around the filibuster, the Senate rules allow “a 41-vote minority to block most legislation from coming to a final vote.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made clear that Republicans are totally opposed to the bill.

Therefore, the bill will only pass in the Senate if all Democrats are willing to abandon the 60-vote filibuster rule. Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) have said they will not entertain any changes, though they may relent to internal pressure from other Democratic Senators and finally go along with a filibuster-avoidance effort.

As it stands now, “Klobuchar plans to hold hearings on S 1, the Senate version of the voting rights bill, in the Rules Committee this month [March] and then advance the bill to the Senate floor, setting up a potential showdown over the filibuster.” In this likely eventuality, Democrats have options for circumventing a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Here’s what Berman writes on this point. “They could end the filibuster outright with a simple majority vote (with Vice President Kamal Harris casting a tie-breaking vote), or they could abolish the filibuster only for election-related bills that are critical for democracy, an idea floated by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) They could also force Republicans to speak continuously on the Senate floor to sustain a filibuster—as was done in the old days—which would make it tougher for Republicans to wield the filibuster. Another option: lower the threshold for passing filibustered bills from 60 votes to 55 votes.” Easier said than done.

Getting around the filibuster

The filibuster is based on the Senate’s cloture rule, “which” Molly E. Reynolds writes, “requires 60 members to end debate on most topics and move to a vote” (https://brookings.edu/policy2020/votervitals/what-is-the-senate-filibuster-and-what-would-it-take-to-eliminate-it). The Senate is evenly divided, with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Given that Republicans are unified in their opposition to virtually any bill put forward by Democrats, this means that it is impossible for Democratically-supported legislation to pass in the Senate as long as this rule stands.

According to Reynolds, “Senators have…options when they seek to vote on a measure or motion. Most often, the majority leader (or another senator) seeks ‘unanimous consent,’ asking if any of the 100 senators objects to ending debate and moving to a vote. If no objection is heard, the Senate proceeds to a vote. If the majority leader can’t secure the consent of all 100 senators, the leader (or another senator) typically files a cloture motion, which then requires 60 votes to adopt. If fewer than 60 senators—a supermajority of the chamber—support cloture, that’s when we often say that a measure has been filibustered.” But there is a high hurdle when it comes to changing the rule, officially “Senate Rule 22.” Reynolds points out that “[e]nding debate on a resolution to change the Senate’s standing rules requires the support of two-thirds of the members present and voting. Absent a large, bipartisan Senate majority that favors curtailing the right to debate, a formal change in Rule 22 is extremely unlikely.”

Another option is to create a new Senate precedent, “colloquially known as the “nuclear option” and more formally as ‘reform by ruling’—can, in certain circumstances, be employed with support from only a simple majority ofsenators.” Such a precedent can be created, Reynolds explains, “by a senator raising a point of order, or claiming that a Senate rule is being violated. If the presiding officer (typically a member of the Senate) agrees, and has the support of a majority, which would mean that all fifty Senate Democrats plus the vice-president Kamala Harris agree, the ruling would establish a new precedent. This, in theory, would be the most direct way of avoiding a filibuster. The problem is that there are some Democrats who oppose this option and thus, for the time being, eliminate this option.

There are other options that include “ways to modify the filibuster without eliminating it entirely.” Reynolds refers to this option as a “mini-nuke” that bans filibusters on particular motions but otherwise leaves the 60-vote rule intact.” She gives this example: “a Senate majority could prevent senators from filibustering the motion used to call up a bill to start (known as the motion to proceed). This would preserve senators’ rights to obstruct the bill or amendment at hand, but would eliminate the supermajority hurdle for starting debate on a legislative measure.” The problem with this procedure is that the ultimate vote requires a supermajority and such a vote is virtually impossible in the current Senate.

Budget reconciliation

However, she points out, there is another way via “the so-called Byrd Rule, a feature of the budget reconciliation process.” Louis Jacobson provides some background: “The budget reconciliation process was written into the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 as a tool for lawmakers, but wasn’t used until 1980. Since then, it’s been used to produce a law 25 times, all but four of which were eventually signed by the president” (https://www.politifact.com/article/2021/02/08/what-you-need-to-know-about-budget-reconciliation-pro). He adds: “In the big picture, the idea of budget reconciliation is to use a two-step process for federal budgeting. The first step is to pass a blueprint that gives an outline of budgetary goals. The second step is passage of a bill to ‘reconcile’ those broad revenue-and-outlay goals into detailed implementing legislation.” The purpose: “to enhance Congress’s ability to bring existing spending, revenue, and debt limit laws into compliance with current fiscal priorities and goals established in the annual budget resolution.”

Richard Kogan gives some further details on when budget reconciliation has been employed (https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/introduction-to-budget-reconciliation).

He writes:

”Policymakers have enacted 21 budget reconciliation bills since 1980, the first year they employed the process; Congress approved four other measures but the President vetoed them.[1] Policymakers used reconciliation to enact major spending cuts during President Reagan’s first year in office, several deficit-reduction packages during the 1980s and 1990s, welfare reform in 1996, and the large Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. More recently, reconciliation was used in 2010 to amend the Affordable Care Act and modify the federal student loan program,[2] and in 2017 to enact large tax cuts. Republican majorities also twice attempted to use the reconciliation process to repeal key elements of the Affordable Care Act; President Obama vetoed the first attempt, in 2016, and the second attempt, in 2017, failed to pass in the Senate.”

Budget reconciliation has limits. Kogan writes: “The Congressional Budget Act permits using reconciliation for legislation that changes spending, revenues, and the federal debt limit. On the spending side, reconciliation can be used to address ‘mandatory’ or entitlement spending — that is, programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, federal civilian and military retirement, SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), and farm programs — but not Social Security. Mandatory spending is determined by rules set in ongoing authorizing laws, so changing spending usually requires amending those laws.” It “has not been used to enact or rescind ‘discretionary’ spending, which is spending controlled through the annual appropriations process. There’s nothing in the Budget Act or other rules that prohibits providing new funding, or rescinding existing funding, for discretionary programs through reconciliation. But the various restrictions on reconciliation probably make the process impractical as a means of enacting annual appropriations.”

The Senate Democrats avoided the threat of a filibuster and, despite unified Republican opposition, passed “The American Rescue Plan,” President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. It will go back to the House, where Democrats have a majority and where legislation will pass with a simple majority vote. So, in spite of unified Republican opposition in both the House and the Senate, one of President Biden’s top priorities is about to become law. There are, though, limits on the number of times budget reconciliation can be employed during a fiscal cycle.

There is, however, another wrinkle in the reconciliation process. Louis Jacobson points out that “[o]n the floor, any senator can raise a ‘point of order’ against a provision in the reconciliation bill.” Then: “Once an objection is raised,” Jacobson points out, “the nonpartisan Senate parliamentarian decides whether the provision is OK to stay in the bill. The presiding senator is obligated to follow that ruling.” That is, unless 60 Senators vote to override such a decision. As I will discuss later, the parliamentarian ruled that one part of the American Rescue Plan was inappropriate, that is, to increase in the minimum wage to $15, because, the parliamentarian surmised, the provision had no budgetary implications. So, in the absence of enough votes to override the decision the provision was dropped.

Biden’s “initial step”

Eugene Daniels reports that, while calling for progress on voting rights legislation, “President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Sunday [March 7] to promote additional access to voting. It came symbolically on the 56th anniversary of the march for voting rights in Selma, Ala., known as ‘Bloody Sunday’”(https://www.politico.com/news/2021/03/07/biden-voting-access-474041).

The order was described as an “initial step” to protect voting rights — one that uses ‘the authority the president has to leverage federal resources to help people register to vote and provide information,’ according to an administration official.” According to Daniels, “Federal agencies will be directed to notify states about the ways in which they can help with voter registration, in addition to being tasked with improving voting access to military voters and people with disabilities. Biden also directed the federal government to update and modernize Vote.gov, the website it operates to provide the public with voting-related information.”

It remains to be seen whether Biden’s executive order is an “initial step” or a last step in protecting and opening up access to voting. The prospects for the legislation avoiding a filibuster and being passed with a simple majority in the Senate appear to be low. At the same time, Congressional Democrats were just able to pass a Covid-19 relief act, the American Rescue Act, on the basis of reconciliation, circumventing a Republican filibuster and passing the legislation with a simple majority, 50 to 49 (one Republican was absent).

Issue #3: Democrats’ American Rescue Plan, a precedent for future legislation or not

The context

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, provides some background information on the bill, as follows (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Rescue_Plan_Act_f_2021).  

“The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 is a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package proposed by President Joe Biden to speed up the United States’ recovery from the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing recession. His plan is for Congress to pass it as one of his first bills into law through the 117th Congress.[1] First proposed on January 14, 2021, the package builds upon many of the measures in the CARES Act from March and in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 from December.[2][3]

“Beginning on February 2, 2021, Democrats in the United States Senate started to open debates on a budget resolution that would allow them to pass the stimulus package without support from Republicans through the process of reconciliation….

“On February 8, 2021, the Financial Services and Education and Labor committees released a draft of $1.9 trillion stimulus legislation. A portion of the relief package was approved by the House Ways and Means on February 11, setting it up for a vote in the House. The legislation was also approved by the Transportation and InfrastructureSmall Business, and House Veterans Affairs committees. On February 22, the House Budget Committee voted 19–16 to advance the bill to the House for a floor vote.[4] The bill passed the House by a vote of 219–212 on February 27. All but two Democrats voted for the bill and all Republicans voted against the bill.[5] A modified version passed the Senate on March 6 by a vote of 50–49.[6]

On March 10, the House reconsidered the bill, as modified by the Senate, and voted 220 to 211 to pass the final version of the bill. Again, no Republicans voted for the bill (https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/03/10/what-is-in-the-stimulus).

The Democratic view

Democrats in the Congress argue that the legislation addresses economic problems facing millions of people that have arisen or been exacerbated by the year-long pandemic. Wikipedia provides a summary of some of the beneficial impacts (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Rescue_Plan_of_2021).

“The bill’s economic-relief provisions are overwhelmingly geared toward low-income and middle-class Americans, who will benefit from (among other provisions) the direct payments, the bill’s expansion of low-income tax credits, child-care subsidies, expanded health-insurance access, extension of expanded unemployment benefits, food stamps, and rental assistance programs.[86] The bill contains little direct aid to high income-earners, who largely retained their jobs during the COVID-19 economic shock and bolstered their savings.[86] Biden’s administration crafted the plan in part because economic aid to lower-income and middle-income Americans (who are more likely to immediately spent funds on bills, groceries, and housing costs to avoid eviction or foreclosure) is more likely to stimulate the U.S. economy than aid to higher-earners (who are more likely to save the money).[86] The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that the stimulus bill’s direct payments, child tax credit expansion, and earned income tax credit expansion would boost the income of poor one-fifth of Americans by nearly $3,590.[87] The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill’s increase in health insurance subsidies would lead to 1.3 million previously uninsured Americans gaining health insurance coverage.[88]

“An analysis by Columbia University‘s Center on Poverty and Social Policy estimated that the original stimulus proposal would reduce overall U.S. poverty by a third, reduce child poverty by 57.8% and reduce the adult poverty rate by more than 25%. However these estimates relied in part upon a minimum wage increase that was not included in the final bill, meaning effects on poverty may be notably different then anticipated in that study. [86][89] [90]

“The Tax Policy Center wrote that, for households making under $25,000, the bill would cut their taxes by an average of $2,800, which would boost their after-tax income by 20%. Additionally, low-income households with children would see an average tax cut of about $7,700, and this would boost their after-tax income by 35%. Middle-income households will also see an average tax cut of about $3,350, and this would increase their after-tax income by 5.5%. Overall, about 70% of the bill’s tax benefits will go to households making under $91,000.[91]

Sharon Zhang cites a new report by the D.C.-based think tank Urban Institute, which “finds that the $1.9 trillion stimulus will reduce the projected poverty rate for 2021 from 13.7 to 8.7 percent overall” (https://truthout.org/articles/zero-republicans-vote-for-stimulus-projected-to-raise-16-million-out-of-poverty). She also points out: “It will also shrink the racial poverty gap by reducing poverty among Black and Latinx people by 42 and 39 percent, respectively, the report says.” She additionally refers to provisions of the legislation that will have a big impact on lower-income people, especially “the additional unemployment checks, the extension of food stamp benefits, the $1,400 relief checks and the new expanded version of the child tax credit in the bill.” And there are provisions that expand the child tax credit that will reduce the poverty rate for children by more than half in 2021. The new child tax credit “expands upon the existing child tax credit by offering parents up to $3,600 per child over the next year in the form of monthly payments.” A Columbia University analysis “found that the bill will cut child poverty by half.”

Polls indicate that Biden’s American Rescue Plan is very popular and enjoys “overwhelming bipartisan support among the public.” Zhang refers to a CNN poll released on March 10 that finds 61 percent of Americans support the bill overall.” There is also public support for specific provision the legislation. “The poll also finds that 85 percent of those polled support the bill’s provisions to expand tax credits, including 95 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans — a far cry from the 0 percent buy-in from congressional Republicans. Moreover and “a 55 percent majority [expressed] support for the $15 minimum wage proposal that didn’t make it into the final bill.

Though the bill doesn’t include the vaunted progressive goal of raising the minimum wage, the American Rescue Plan does include provisions that have earned progressive praise.

Finally, Zhang reports that progressives joined other Democrats to support the American Rescue Plan. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) says it is “the most comprehensive pro-worker piece of legislation in the modern history of our country,” and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington), “the head of the Progressive Caucus [called it] “a truly progressive and bold package that delivers on its promise to put money directly in people’s pockets.”

An overview of the provisions of the legislation

Rachel Siegel provides a detailed breakdown of the final version of the American Rescue Plan (https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/03/10/what-is-in-the-stimulus).

Major buckets

Unemployment benefits:

The package extends the existing $300 weekly unemployment benefit through Sept. 6, as well as provides a tax break on $10,000 in unemployment benefits.

Earlier proposals would have increased the weekly benefit from $300 to $400 per week. But that amount was lowered to $300 after a lengthy standoff in the Senate.

The $900 billion stimulus package passed in December provided the unemployed an extra $300 per week in benefits. That program expires in mid-March.

Stimulus checks:

The bill would send $1,400 stimulus checks on top of the $600 payments issued through the stimulus bill passed in December. Roughly $400 billion of the package would go toward another round of checks.

Biden agreed to narrow eligibility for a new round of $1,400 payments to appease more moderate Democrats. Under the new structure, the checks would phase out faster for those at higher income levels compared with the formula in Biden’s initial proposal and the House bill.

Individuals earning $75,000 per year and couples earning $150,000 would still receive the full $1,400-per-person benefit. However, the benefit would disappear for individuals earning more than $80,000 annually and couples earning more than $160,000.

For example, that means singles making between $80,000 and $100,000 and couples earning between $160,000 and $200,000 would be newly excluded from seeing any benefit under the revised structure.

Child tax credit:

Under the legislation, most Americans would receive $3,000 a year for each child ages 6 to 17, and $3,600 for each child under age 6.

The provision in the bill would last one year and be sent via direct deposit on a “periodic” basis. It is a major expansion of the existing child tax credit, which provides $2,000 a year for children from birth through age 16.

The moreregular payments are intended to help offset costs families face day-to-day, instead of sending families one annual payment.

Aid to state and local governments:

The package designates $350 billion for states, cities, tribal governments and U.S. territories.

Local government funding emerged as one of the top flashpoints in stimulus negotiations. Moderate Senate Democrats have pushed to redirect some of those funds to invest in infrastructure and to expand the broadband network. Others on the left have grown concerned that some states would use federal aid to cut local taxes instead of spending money on covid relief.

Facing deep budget shortfalls, state and local governments have shed 1.3 million jobs since the pandemic began last year — a loss of more than 1 in 20 government jobs, according to a Washington Post analysis of government data. While tax revenue grew in some states last year, the majority — at least 26 states — were hit with declines.

Pandemic response

Tens of billions of dollars will fund coronavirus testing and contact tracing; increasing the size of the public health workforce and funding vaccine distribution and supply chains.

This week, Biden said there will be enough coronavirus vaccine doses for “every adult in America” by the end of May — a two-month acceleration of his previous projection of July.

Housing assistance

The bill sets aside more than $20 billion in emergency rental assistance and other relief for the homeless.

Another $10 billion goes to mortgage and homeownership assistance.

School support

The bill sets aside almost $130 billion to help K-12 schools reopen. That money would go to improving ventilation systems, reducing class sizes, buying personal protective equipment and implementing social distancing.

Colleges and other higher-education institutions would receive almost $40 billion. That money could help support financial aid grants to prevent hunger, homelessness or other challenges for students during the pandemic.

Additional funds would go to child care providers through the Child Care and Development Block Grant program. The bill also sets aside $1 billion for the Head Start program, which provides early-childhood education, health and nutrition services to low-income children and families.

New provisions

The bill provides $510 million for the FEMA Emergency Food and Shelter Program. That money would support homeless services providers for overnight shelter, meals, one month’s rent and mortgage assistance and one month’s utility payments.

It expands the Employee Retention Tax Credit for start-up companies and other businesses hit by the pandemic

The bill also increases the value of the federal COBRA health insurance program from 85 percent to 100 percent

The bill adds a $10 billion infrastructure program to help local governments continue crucial capital projects.

The bill makes all coronavirus-related student loan relief tax-free.

The bill increases the total amount of Amtrak relief funding by $200 million.

For education funding, the bill sets aside $1.25 billion for summer enrichment; $1.25 billion for after-school programs and $3 billion for education technology

The Senate bill also adds $8.5 billion in funds for the Provider Relief Program to assist rural health care providers.

Not in the bill

Minimum wage:

An amendment offered by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to increase the minimum wage to $15 did not win over enough Democratic support.

In a statement Friday, Sanders said: “If any Senator believes this is the last time they will cast a vote on whether or not to give a raise to 32 million Americans, they are sorely mistaken. We’re going to keep bringing it up, and we’re going to get it done because it is what the American people demand and need.”

Last month, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the minimum wage hike was not permissible within the rules of budget reconciliation, the procedure Democrats are using to pass the relief bill with a simple majority instead of the 60 votes normally required. The House bill included the minimum raise increase from $7.25 to $15.

Republican objection: a bloated, wasteful bill

Republicans in the U.S. Congress argued that the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan will increase the government’s deficit and put a tax burden on future generations. They argue it is unnecessary because the pandemic is well controlled, will generate inflation and cause hardship as prices for goods and services go up, especially for those in lower-income groups. It is inspired, they also argue, by anti-American progressive/socialist beliefs that will lead to more centralized government and will negatively affect the private sector’s willingness to invest. Though there are more Republican concerns, they fundamentally maintain that much less than $1.9 trillion is needed. For example, on February 1, ten GOP Senators met with Biden to promote a much less expensive counterproposal, according to a report from The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/02/01/us/biden-administration).

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the leader of the Republican group, proposed a $618 billion plan “which would include many of the same elements as Mr. Biden’s plan, with $160 billion for vaccine distribution and development, coronavirus testing and the production of personal protective equipment; $20 billion to help schools reopen; more relief for small businesses; and additional aid to individuals.” However, “it differs in ways large and small, omitting a federal minimum wage increase or direct aid to states and cities,” and “would slash the direct payments to Americans, providing $1,000 instead of $1,400 and limiting them to the lowest income earners, excluding individuals who earned more than $50,000. It would also pare back federal jobless aid, which is set to lapse in March, setting weekly payments at $300 through June instead of $400 through September.” As we now know, Biden did not agree to any of this.

When all is said and done, Republicans contend that Biden plan is simply too large. Jon Greenberg refers Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who contends that there was a trillion dollars in unspent money from previous Covid-19 relief bills that was available for additional relief and that $1.9 trillion was not justified. Jon Greenberg fact-checks this claim for Politifact (https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2021/feb/23/steve-scalise/has-1-trillion-covid-19-relief-gone-unspent). Scalise relies on the COVID Money Tracker, as his source. This is a “project of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a group focused on reducing federal deficits. The tracker’s latest number shows that out of $4.1 trillion approved by Congress, about $3 trillion has been committed or disbursed.” However, Scalise disregards important aspects of the analysis. Greenberg writes that “in a Jan. 27 blog post, the budget group warned that figuring out how much money remains is complicated. It’s not, they wrote, as though the money is ‘sitting in budget accounts waiting to be allocated.’ Rather, “Much of it is already allocated or scheduled to be spent, and a small portion will never be spent.”

Greenberg cites a point made by Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Washington research group Brookings. She says that when federal program dollars go unspent, the programs may need to be redesigned. She adds that a given program may have been originally designed to make it too hard for the money to get to the people and businesses that needed help.”

Katie Lobosco adds some information on the issue of the alleged $1.0 trillion dollars that is said by Republicans to be available for new spending.  (https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/09/politics/congress-covid-relief-money-spent/index.html).

She points out that there is about $500 billion left from the stimulus packages from last March and April and writes: “About 80% of the money from these prior bills has been disbursed.” Continuing: “About half of what’s left is related to ongoing Medicaid spending and some long-term small business loans, known as Economic Injury Disaster Loans. The Medicaid matching payments to states will continue as long as there is a public health emergency. The disaster loans remain available to small businesses. Though they carry low interest, they weren’t as popular as the Paycheck Protection Program loans, which are forgiven if used on qualifying expenses.” There are also school funds to that have not yet been dispersed but are for assisting schools to reopen safely and to avoid layoffs. Biden and the Democrats want to spend an additional $130 billion on the schools while Republican Senators are proposing $20 billion.

In addition, “[r]oughly half of the unspent money comes from the package approved by Congressin late December, when lawmakers passed a $915 billion relief bill that provided $600 stimulus payments, extended unemployment benefits, reopened the small business loan program and various other spending.” Some of this money was not intended to be spent all at once. She refers to “estimates that another $120 billion will be spent on boosted federal unemployment and food stamps before the end of the year. The unemployment benefits are set to expire in March and a 15% increase to SNAP benefits that will continue for six months.” And”: “More than $200 billion remains for the Paycheck Protection Program, which recently reopened to small businesses for a second round of loans and is available through March. The money is going out quickly. More than 891,000 loan applications totaling $72 billion were approved by the Small Business Administration in the first few weeks.” While the vast majority of the $166 billion allocated for the direct $600 per person payments have been delivered by the Internal Revenue Service, there’s still “about $35 billion remaining, which could likely be claimed when eligible people who didn’t receive their money file their 2020 tax returns.

Concluding thoughts

The passage of the American Rescue Plan is perhaps the most comprehensive relief legislation in U.S. history – and in response to the unprecedented health and economic crises. The full economic effects of the legislation will not be ascertained for some time. However, there is much evidence to document that there are real unmet needs that the legislation addresses. It is a policy accomplishment that may well boost the political chances of Democrats in the 2022 elections. Democrats may also by then be able to take credit for ending the pandemic. However, the road to electoral success is filled with obstacles. There are two that have been discussed in this post. Unless the Democrats in the Senate find ways to overcome expected Republican filibusters, Democrats may not have other legislative victories, although they will go on trying. In the meantime, Republicans across the country are instituting measures to suppress the Democratic vote and to alter election rules in ways that enhance Republican success at the polls at the expense of Democrats. The outcome of the political battles is likely to determine whether democracy in the U.S. is strengthened or seriously diminished and whether a majority of Americans will come to have a viable way of life and opportunities or not.    

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