As Washington races to avert a coronavirus-driven economic depression, congressional Democrats are treating the crisis as an opportunity to make long-standing policy goals a reality.
But with the party's presumptive presidential nominee out of view—former vice president Joe Biden's campaign has moved online while he continues to dodge the Sunday show circuit—Democrats are struggling to unite behind a list of clear demands. Instead, what has emerged is more typical of a party out of power: a cacophony of voices arguing for a flurry of long-favored policy proposals.
Recent Stories in Policy
The result was that on Sunday evening, Democratic lawmakers at the last minute blocked the Senate's proposed stimulus bill, arguing it went too easy on businesses set to receive government bailouts. The move sent market futures plunging.
The fiasco showcased an increasingly rudderless Democratic Party resorting to the kind of obstructionism typical of a party out of power. Following House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn's (D., S.C.) admonition that "this is a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision," members have called for pay equity mandates, a $15 minimum wage, and even the minting of a $1 trillion coin.
Those demands led Democrats to thwart Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R., Ky.) bill, but in turn, put them in the unenviable position of being blamed for forestalling aid to an economy desperately in need of support.
Many of the proposals Democrats are pushing are unrelated to the crisis. The bill now floated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), for example, conditions bailouts on expanded corporate diversity and cuts in airline emissions, and even mandates a reduction in student loan debt. In earlier coronavirus-related negotiations, Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.) pushed as an emergency measure the same paid family leave bill they have been introducing since 2004.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), who as late as Sunday evening was praising Republicans for their "bipartisan agreements," said he ultimately opposed the legislation because it provided "huge bailouts without protections for people and workers." But since the vote, a senior Republican aide told reporters that Democrats have pushed for major changes that go beyond those Schumer called for, including "unprecedented collective bargaining powers for unions," "increased fuel emissions standards for airlines," and an "expansion of wind and solar credits."
McConnell has blamed Schumer's about-face on Pelosi, who returned to Washington as negotiations for Congress's "phase three" stimulus were coming to a close. Pelosi has since begun circulating her own alternative legislation, a copy of which was obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
The bill, which runs to 1,119 pages, would impose numerous restrictions on businesses receiving bailouts from Washington, including some—like requirements to publicly report wage gap data or corporate board diversity—clearly unrelated to the current crisis. It would also mandate early voting and vote-by-mail regimes nationwide, a longstanding Democratic goal that could boost turnout at the expense of voter information.
Pelosi's stimulus plan will likely face opposition not only from Republicans, but also from progressive Democrats, who are frequently critical of the speaker for what they characterize as an overzealousness for compromise.
Many of the party's most prominent progressives have pushed to impose stringent requirements on any business that receives government aid during the crisis. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), for example, made headlines as discussion of the Senate's bill was still in its early stages by insisting that bailed-out companies must implement a $15 minimum wage, permanently forgo share buybacks, and receive shareholder and board approval for any political spending.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.), a freshman member of the so-called Squad, has proposed a cash payment to all Americans funded by the Treasury Department minting two $1 trillion coins—a longstanding Democratic proposal to circumvent the debt ceiling.
The man best positioned to unify the party is Biden, its presumptive leader. Times of crisis are often when politicians make their reputations, and decisiveness from Biden may tip voters toward him in his competition against President Donald Trump.
The former vice president, however, has responded to the coronavirus by withdrawing from the public eye, shifting his presidential campaign online and promising "shadow" coronavirus briefings. The disease's constraints on public appearances, combined with Biden's infamous unwillingness to face the media, have radically limited his ability to seize public attention and guide his party's message. It also remains unclear how much, if at all, he is guiding Schumer and Pelosi's decision-making on Capitol Hill.
Lacking a decisive leader, the Democrats have instead defaulted to the now-standard obstructionism of a party in the minority. It is adhering to the norms that, Brookings Institution scholar Steven S. Smith wrote, Senate majorities have come to expect of Senate minorities: Buoyed by tight procedural constraints, "the minority is quick to obstruct and the majority is quick to restrict." That dynamic made Republicans the Party of "No" under President Barack Obama. Now, even amid a global catastrophe, Democrats are taking their turn.