It’s not often one can say this: Congress is doing a pretty good job.
In a little more than three months since the coronavirus began infecting Americans in large numbers, the legislature has passed some $3.6 trillion in relief measures. It has dedicated billions to vaccine research, loaned $530 billion to keep businesses afloat, enacted significant tax breaks, expanded paid sick leave, boosted unemployment benefits and authorized stimulus checks for 159 million Americans. Last month, in an act of unusual equanimity, the Senate unanimously passed a bill to fix flaws in its small-business lending program.
All this is striking by Congress’ own recent standards. After the financial crisis, lawmakers prevaricated and bickered endlessly before passing an inadequate relief package, then scaled back the stimulus even as unemployment remained at staggering levels. The result was a sharper recession, slower recovery and weaker economy than necessary.
This time looks different. Last month’s surprisingly positive jobs report — which showed the number of unemployed declined by 2.5 million in May, compared to an expected increase of 7.5 million — offered a tentative affirmation of Congress’ efforts. Although the good news partly reflected a number of states reopening, and partly the extraordinary efforts of the Federal Reserve, it also suggested lawmakers were doing their part by ensuring many businesses kept workers on their payrolls even as local economies were shuttered.
None of this is to argue for complacency. The U.S. still is undergoing an economic calamity: At 11.1%, the unemployment rate remains historically high, while the Congressional Budget Office expects the coronavirus to knock about $8 trillion off of real output over the next decade. That makes additional stimulus — and on a large scale — essential. As debate continues on the next relief package, Congress should have two urgent priorities.
One is to extend expanded jobless benefits past their current expiration date of July 31. With 21 million people still out of work, and demand steeply depressed, this would be both humane and economically sensible. Down the road, as the economy improves, gradually reducing the benefit to encourage recipients to get back to work would surely make sense. But for the moment, the important thing is to get cash into people’s pockets.
Second, Congress needs to correct its biggest misstep of the pandemic. As the May employment data showed, in the absence of adequate federal support, state and local government workers continue to lose jobs on a huge scale, with some 1.5 million laid off in the past two months alone. States are facing a $765 billion shortfall over the next three years. Added financial assistance from Washington would help avoid a collapse in public services while quickening the recovery for the country as a whole.
That said, credit where it’s due. Amid a total lack of executive leadership, the 116th Congress is doing its job for the American people. There are even signs of bipartisan productivity on police reform, public-lands preservation and more. At an otherwise bleak moment, that’s something worth recognizing.
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