Time for Progressives to Seize the Means of Production of House Relief Bills

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wears a face covering during news conference at the U.S. Capitol, April 29, 2020 Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Pelosi’s bill proves Democratic leadership won’t do what needs to be done.

There is no upside to moderation in the face of a disaster. Asking for only half as many fire trucks as necessary to rush to the scene of a fire does not make you a wise leader; it makes you someone who let the house burn down. No matter how many times we are forced to learn this the hard way, the lesson has not sunk in for the leaders of the Democratic Party.

The correct way to evaluate this bill is not by gaping at its total price tag, or by admiring its various provisions that make sense, but by looking at the historic scale of the economic crisis we are facing, and asking “What will it take to overcome this?”

Yesterday, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the House Democratic leadership unveiled their proposal for the latest stimulus bill, the patronizingly titled HEROES Act. This is really version 2.0 of the CARES Act, the initial multi-trillion-dollar post-Covid stimulus bill that passed less than two months ago and is already tapped out. One might imagine that Congress would go ahead and appropriate a sufficient amount of spending to cover the gargantuan economic hole that has been caused by the coronavirus shutdowns, but no. They prefer to do this in phases, ensuring that the relief Americans ultimately get will be late, unsteady, and always on the verge of running out before the crisis is over.

On one hand, the HEROES Act proposes to spend $3 trillion. That’s a big number. On the other hand, it’s certainly not a big enough number to counteract Great Depression-level unemployment, millions of bankruptcies, and an economy that experts now tend to agree has been wounded even worse than it was in 2008. The new bill does include things that are essential, like money for state and local governments that are going broke, a rescue of the U.S. Postal Service, more money for unemployment insurance, direct payments to citizens, hazard pay for workers, and funding for testing and tracing of Covid-19 itself. It also includes some things that are not essential, like the SALT tax break that would overwhelmingly benefit wealthy homeowners. Why does the Democratic Party include a tax break for millionaire homeowners in a crisis bill that it wrote itself? Perhaps it just reflects the point of view of Nancy Pelosi, a millionaire homeowner. (She also owns a vineyard.)

More important still are the things that are not in this bill, which can be summed up as the things that progressives wanted the most.” Most notably, Pelosi and company did not include the sort of paycheck guarantee sought by Pramila Jayapal, which would have covered workers’ salaries across the nation for at least three months, keeping them tied to their jobs, rather than having to seek relief through unemployment. This is the approach many other Western nations have taken to this crisis, and it is what we should have done from the beginning. But the Democratic leadership’s bill chose instead to address our jobs crisis through (insufficient) tax credits, and to say Jayapal’s plan might be considered in the future. Since everyone knows that each successive relief bill will inevitably become harder to pass in the face of Republican intransigence, this can be interpreted as a fuck you” to the most rational plan out there.

It is time for progressives in Congress to figure out what their counterparts on the Tea Party right did years ago: The way to exercise power as a minority in your own party is to threaten to blow the whole bill up. Though it can be hard to summon the courage to do this in the face of an urgent crisis, they can take heart in the fact that what they are asking for is simply a government response proportional to the problem at hand. The Great Depression was not staved off by a few targeted tax credits. It took an entirely new era of progressive government programs, big enough to reach everyone. Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, praised Pelosi’s bill as big and bold,” saying Franklin D. Roosevelt would be proud of this bill.” Would he? Franklin D. Roosevelt created Social Security, which is still helping hundreds of millions of people 80 years later. I don’t think he would be scared off by covering people’s paychecks for a few months.

The correct way to evaluate this bill is not by gaping at its total price tag, or by admiring its various provisions that make sense, but by looking at the historic scale of the economic crisis we are facing, and asking What will it take to overcome this?” That is not how the Democratic Party’s leaders govern. They govern by asking, What will it take to overcome this?” and then proposing half of that, to appear reasonable to Republicans, who will then cut that proposal in half again. This style of baby steps politics is only enabled by a progressive wing that allows it to happen. It is also why the Democrats are consistently steamrolled by the Republicans, who are far more ruthless in pursuit of their own ideological goals. If you don’t believe this, just wait a few weeks and marvel as Republicans agree that we have already spent too much money and that perhaps it is time to start talking about entitlement cuts — even as inflation dries up and unemployment grows.

Republicans do not care what the facts on the ground say, because the Republican Party is, in essence, a machine to serve the interests of the rich by any means necessary. It is not an ideological foe that can be reasonably negotiated with. As soon as Pelosi’s bill was announced, Republicans called it dead on arrival.” The Democrats knew this would happen. Their bill is meant to send a message about what needs to be done. Or that is what it should have been. Instead, they have already started negotiating against themselves, before the real negotiations have even begun. This losing dynamic will continue until the progressive faction of the party forces its leaders to be just as ruthless as the Republicans are — not in the interests of donors, but in the interests of the 300 million other Americans. Unfortunately, we are a long, long way from there now. And those 300 million other Americans will continue to suffer in the meantime. 

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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