House Democrats’ new $3-trillion proposal to address the economic and public health fallout from the coronavirus pandemic pushed several progressive proposals to the sidelines once again.
The HEROES Act, unveiled Tuesday, is the biggest coronavirus emergency relief bill yet. It proposes extending unemployment insurance through 2021, giving a second round of $1,200 direct payments, bolstering the fund for small business loans and providing aid to state and local governments. It includes funding for vote-by-mail, and food assistance, would give an extra $13 per hour in hazard pay for essential workers, and beef up health and safety standards for health care professionals — one of the nurses’ union biggest priorities. The measure also reflects progressive’s demands for utility payment assistance, and it would prohibit water, energy, telephone and internet shut-offs, expand family and medical leave, and fund child care assistance.
In short, it proposes a litany of Democratic goals.
But on a number of key issues, progressive lawmakers and activists saw their ideas ignored — snubs they said were particularly notable in a bill designed to represent an idealistic opening bid in talks with the Republicans who control the Senate. The legislation is expected to pass the House on a party-line vote, not serve as some sort of compromise.
“Good side is long, but for a Dem messaging bill, why is there a bad side?” tweeted the policy director for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
The House is the sole bastion of Democratic power in Washington and had limited leverage in the crafting two of previous massive relief bills in March and April, since most of the details were hashed out by Republican Senate leaders with the Trump administration.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) promised this time it would be different, because the House would move first and force the Senate to respond to its priorities.
In critical ways though, the bill still appears to temper its goals with an eye toward what Republicans ― or even corporate actors ― might find acceptable. The final bill, if the Senate even chooses to act on one, will be significantly more conservative than what the left already regards as Tuesday’s imperfect product.
“An opening bid should be as strong as possible,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, which is urging Democrats to withhold support for the bill without major changes to it. “This is a message bill and it’s a too-weak message bill somehow.”
The co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) sent a letter to Pelosi on Tuesday requesting that a vote on the bill be delayed until next week so lawmakers have “more time to determine what is in and what is not in this legislation.” Progressive leaders are also whipping members of their diverse caucus, which has nearly 100 members, to tell House leadership they are undecided on supporting the bill.
Segal, who previously served as a member of the progressive caucus in the Rhode Island state House, encouraged rank-and-file CPC members to heed their leaders’ call to stand their ground on the bill until more demands are met. “Now is a great moment to show they are not going to get played,” he said.
Jayapal reportedly had a tense exchange with Pelosi in advance of the bill’s unveiling, questioning why Democratic leaders refused to include payroll protection in its final text — a proposal to have the federal government cover 100% of workers’ salaries up to $100,000 to keep them on company’s payroll and out of unemployment.
Pelosi told the Progressive Caucus chairwoman she would only consider the proposal when Jayapal had actual text ready for the proposal (her office has only released a white paper on it). But members of Democratic leadership had already backed the Employee Retention Tax Credit, a more moderate and less expensive proposal implemented under the last emergency bill, the CARES Act.
A House aide pointed to a backlog at the Legislative Counsel’s office, the federal lawyers who work with lawmakers to write bill text. The office prioritizes its work based on seniority, heeding foremost to leadership’s preference.
“If Democratic leadership wanted to do something about it, they could have,” one House Democratic aide said.
By their nature, omnibus bills like this one cram an array of policies into a single piece of legislation that will inevitably be loved by some and hated by others. Some provisions in the HEROES Act — like hazard pay, though voluntary, for essential workers and stronger federal health and safety standards — are favored by progressives and moderates alike.
Sean McElwee, a co-founder of the think tank Data for Progress, said he is especially excited about the $1 trillion in funding that the bill lays out for state and local governments. He noted that none of the more ambitious progressive priorities, like Medicare for All and free public college, are possible if state and local governments are forced to dramatically scale back their spending.
He was also pleased with the inclusion of undocumented immigrants in the proposal for a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks. (Data for Progress encouraged lawmakers to do so in a recent memo.)
But slipped into the bill are also provisions that the most liberal members are arguing are not in line with Democrats’ priorities.
Included in the act is a provision to roll back a state and local tax deduction cap, giving a tax break to mostly wealthy individuals. The bill also would clear the way for trade associations that lobby the federal government on behalf of multiple corporations to get access to small business loans even if their member companies are already eligible for bailout money. And it would enable debt collectors that provide some relief to borrowers to get access to emergency Federal Reserve loans.
There is nothing standing in the way of an increasingly radical concentration of corporate power over our economy and our democracy.
Sarah Miller, American Economic Liberties Project
The bill also didn’t include a moratorium on corporate mergers during the pandemic, which antitrust experts predict is likely to let giant corporations and private equity funds further consolidate corporate power as the economic slowdown puts strain on smaller companies. The absence of anti-merger language was enough to convince the anti-monopoly group, the American Economic Liberties Project, to call for members of Congress to vote it down.
“There is nothing standing in the way of an increasingly radical concentration of corporate power over our economy and our democracy,” said Sarah Miller, the American Economic Liberties Project’s executive director.
What’s more, the bill garnered criticism from progressive figures for how it addresses health care.
It includes a list of health care provisions, including expanding how much the federal government chips in on Medicaid payments, a special enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act and making free treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. But House Democrats’ big idea to cover millions of Americans with health insurance is to subsidize at 100% COBRA, the federal program that allows recently unemployed people to continue their employer-sponsored health insurance plans at personal cost. That would mean individuals wouldn’t pay premiums for the plans previously covered by their employers, and it would serve as a welcomed stop-gap measure while people remain out of work.
But progressives pointed out that subsidizing COBRA is an expensive way to expand health care coverage that serves to benefit private insurance companies and health care providers more than individuals. It would direct federal funds toward private insurance companies that pay higher rates than public programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
“This new guidance puts profits over people,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tweeted about the proposal when it was first floated in April. “Frontline workers deserve better than this.”
Some activists have also worried that subsidizing COBRA and expanding Medicaid assistance for states would still leave many people without adequate coverage during the pandemic. They hoped that Democratic leadership would at least supplement it with measures to expand Medicaid and Medicare.
Jayapal had sponsored two bills to expand Medicare. Her more progressive legislation would empower Medicare to cover Americans’ out-of-pocket medical costs for the duration of the pandemic. She introduced a more moderate bill with Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) to allow Americans who have filed for unemployment benefits since the onset of the pandemic to be temporarily eligible for Medicare. The HEROES Act contained neither plan
Under the legislation, “a person could still go bankrupt from medical bills if they have COVID,” said a progressive strategist backing Medicare expansion, who requested anonymity for professional reasons.
Shortly after the bill’s text became public, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a progressive member of the freshman quartet known as “the Squad,” labeled it a “massive giveaway to for-profit insurance companies.”
“We need to expand Medicare to everyone who lost a job now,” Omar, who is also in the CPC’s leadership ranks, wrote on Twitter.
Unemployment rates jumped to 14.7% this month, the worst they’ve been since the Great Depression. The Department of Labor reported that 20.5 million people have lost their jobs; a loss of benefits makes them eligible for the Affordable Care Act and COBRA, or in some cases Medicaid. But even for those with insurance, reports have surfaced of massive hospital bills for coronavirus treatment.
Little political consensus has emerged around addressing the cost of health care during the pandemic beyond making testing for coronavirus free. The Trump administration decided against reopening enrollment for the ACA. And while President Donald Trump pledged to cover coronavirus treatment costs for uninsured Americans with a fund for hospitals, the administration hasn’t set up a system to do so. Republicans in Congress have made it clear they see no urgency in addressing the matter.
But progressives’ disappointment with the House bill is about more than just short-term policy concerns.
Negotiations showed how little power the left is capable of wielding in Congress. Unlike the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, which functioned as a bloc to exercise leverage over Republican leaders, the large and ideologically broad progressive caucus has rarely been able to move cohesively enough to play hardball with Democratic leadership. Notably, Jayapal and Pocan were the only names on the letter to Pelosi and some CPC mmbers learned of it through the press.
Meanwhile, the activist left hasn’t been able to unite outside groups. As Jayapal and Pocan tried to muster leverage to influence the bill on Tuesday, a coalition of progressive groups that included MoveOn, the Center for Popular Democracy Action and Indivisible issued a statement heralding its release.
“Speaker Pelosi and House Democrats have proposed legislation that is responsive to the needs of the people, regardless of immigration status,” they said.
This disjointedness on the left became apparent weeks ago when Ocasio-Cortez unexpectedly announced she planned to vote against an interim stimulus package on a press conference call intended to show progressive unity behind a core set of relief priorities. Her position angered some of her colleagues who believed she had put them in an awkward position, according to several people familiar with the matter. In the end, she was the only Democrat to vote “no” on the bill.
“As of right now, there are lots of people doing good work to build progressive power in Congress, but there is no center of gravity for all the efforts,” said Max Berger, a former adviser to the presidential bid by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) who tried to orchestrate a coordinated progressive response behind the scenes. “That’s a big need.”