By Robert Raben
The headlines around the stimulus package point to its size — more in 10 days than a normal year of federal appropriation. That’s certainly news.
But what’s more likely lasting is the reminder of what those of us who do public policy for a living know; that when the ground shifts, anything is possible, good and bad. The three rapid-fire stimuli bills (click to see our summary of them) have upended long-held conventions about the role of government and what is or is not politically possible.
The Senate acted 96-0. So much for rank partisanship.
Paid leave, which could never before get through the Senate, is now a part of federal law after 27 years of trying.
And the National Rifle Association is cutting salaries and contemplating layoffs. Schadenfreude.
Suddenly, as is often the case in times of crisis, everything is on the table.
The package that was just approved and transmitted to the White House is a remarkable amalgam of bipartisanship, or if not that, partisanship working in tandem. Whatever the therapeutic diagnosis, the outcome is remarkable for those of us who fight for public policy.
Gig workers now have benefits, assistance for the unemployed magnified in ways thought impossible, child care for healthcare workers, and the eligibility of community organizations doing life-saving work during this pandemic to receive critical support. Over the course of this crisis, paid leave evolved from a liberal chimera into an inevitable and necessary safety net with enormous public health implications. We also showed an ability to apply lessons learned from previous economic crises, in the form of stricter conditions and oversight of taxpayer-funded rescues to businesses.
There are as many flaws as there are forward gains. In addition to infrastructure needs and strengthening the safety net for first responders, implementing what just passed will reveal a need for technical as well as more substantive fixes. As members head home, negotiations are well underway for a fourth package. Constituent and stakeholder input over the next several days will be critical, as priorities compete.
But the overarching lesson for us is that anything is possible in politics and policy. Things go from never to now — think gay marriage. But that works in the other direction too; the border is sealed, and the Labor Department has just suspended affirmative action for three months.
We are grateful to congressional leaders and their staff for clinching a deal that appeared fatally elusive just 48 hours ago. But we are also thinking of those communities on the frontlines left out of this deal: those without social security numbers, recent graduates burdened by student debt, and domestic workers. Owners of state-legal cannabis small businesses were also excluded, despite employing 250,000 workers across the country.
We’re heartened that some of our clients’ longstanding priorities were addressed in the final bill. Compassion & Choices, the nation’s oldest and largest organization advocating for improved care and options at the end of life, fought for and applauded the expansion of telehealth and access to hospice to protect the elderly and terminally ill. So too are we encouraged by the removal of restrictions in the final legislative package that would have denied small business assistance to community-based groups providing health care and direct services to underserved communities across the country.
Our staff has advocated tirelessly for clients over the past few weeks, applying experience gained through prior federal crises. From the 2001 recession to the 2008 financial crisis and the equitable distribution of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, to the response to 2017 disasters in Puerto Rico, Florida, and other states, we know the levers to pull and we know what government can do to help lift us out of the tumult.
As we move to enact this gargantuan legislative package, the emphasis will (rightly) turn to states and cities. We’re proud to represent the African American Mayors Association as they seek the support that local governments need to effectively serve their communities during this pandemic.
No single piece of legislation, however massive, is going to end this crisis. Additional measures will be needed to address the equitable inclusion of all families and workers, Internet access, infrastructure, energy, and many other critical issues.
We will press on. It will take more to turn this crisis around. It will take all of us.