As the nation braces for the effects of the Wuhan coronavirus, congressional Democrats and left-leaning groups have seized on the moment of crisis to push for the enactment of longstanding policy goals.
Legislation introduced by House and Senate Democrats has snuck in universal, employer-funded sick leave alongside temporary emergency measures, potentially shuttering employers and serving as a poison pill to slow congressional negotiations. Democratic electoral groups, meanwhile, have already included the coronavirus in their attack-ad messaging, while left-leaning policy organizations have called for substantial reductions in incarceration and enforcement, in alignment with their preexisting policy goals.
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Such efforts to push through longstanding legislative priorities recall the attitude of former Obama White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel during the Great Recession, who is remembered for his now-infamous exhortation that "you never let a serious crisis go to waste."
House Democrats on Wednesday released their proposal for a comprehensive fiscal response to the impending pandemic. Much of the bill pertains to emergency-related funding, including an additional $500 million for SNAP and guaranteed sick leave for individuals quarantined with the disease.
But the bill's sick-leave section creates new obligations for employers to allow employees to accrue sick leave regardless of whether or not there is a national crisis, and which will persist after the pandemic is over. In effect, the bill would impose a paid-leave mandate on employers nationwide, independent of current emergency conditions—a longstanding legislative priority of Democrats, which Republicans have consistently opposed for fear of costs.
Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) scored approving headlines for attempting and failing to pass a proposal for employer-funded sick leave through the Senate health committee. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) blocked her efforts, saying that while universal sick leave would be "a good idea," the federal government should pay the costs, not small employers already facing an impending recession.
Although Murray and cosponsor Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.) framed their bill as an emergency measure in response to the Wuhan coronavirus, the pair were, in fact, reintroducing a bill they have pushed before. As Samuel Hammond, director of poverty and welfare policy for the libertarian Niskanen Center, noted, "DeLauro and Murray have introduced versions of this bill in the past and will no doubt do so again in the future. For better or worse, Republicans are simply not about to pass a new and permanent paid leave mandate, but they may be open to something more temporary."
DeLauro and Murray's original bill, the Healthy Families Act, would cost employers roughly $1.5 billion a year, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office of a version of the bill released in the 2007-2008 Congress. The DeLauro-Murray bill would impose these requirements on businesses with 15 or more employees, many of which are likely to face substantial financial strain in the coming months.
While congressional Democrats have focused on implementing universal sick leave, other liberal groups have used the crisis as a pretext for pushing other priorities. Multiple criminal justice reform organizations have called for the mass release of jail detainees and a major reduction in arrests. The Center for American Progress, one of the nation's leading liberal think tanks, called for a moratorium on immigration enforcement at or near testing sites and hospitals, citing no evidence that federal immigration officials were prioritizing such enforcement efforts during the current crisis.
Democratic spending groups have also moved to leverage the coronavirus to their electoral advantage. One major dark money group, Protect Our Care, has launched an ad attacking incumbent Republican senator Steve Daines's (Mont.) opposition to Obamacare. Senate Majority PAC, which pushes for the election of Democrats to the Senate, has also launched an ad hitting Republican and Michigan Senate contender John James for his record on health care.
The use of a crisis to further a preexisting agenda is hardly unprecedented. The idea that crises are opportunities for political change is perhaps best captured by Emanuel, who as the newly appointed chief of staff, told a Wall Street Journal panel that "you never let a serious crisis go to waste," adding that such events are "an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before."
Emanuel's comments presaged the Obama administration's all-of-government response to the crisis, which proponents cheered for keeping the recession from growing worse. Critics, however, perceived the bailout of major banks and the effective nationalization of the U.S. automotive industry as a dangerous expansion of federal power, one which helped prompt the rise of the libertarian Tea Party movement.
The "never let a crisis go to waste" mentality has also informed the far-left's response to global warming. Proposals for a Green New Deal floated by, among others, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) would have little effect on global warming (thanks in part to the United States' shrinking share of global emissions) but would implement a slew of socialist policy goals, including a Universal Basic Income and jobs guarantee.