Whatever his intentions, Donald Trump is right to call the coronavirus relief bill a “disgrace.”
In a video released by Trump on social media on Tuesday, peppered with his usual dose of China-bashing, the president berated Congress for finding “plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists, and special interests while sending the bare minimum to the American people. I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000.”
Trump, who has been almost entirely absent throughout the stimulus negotiations and was talked out of making a public call for bigger cash payments by his own aides, has threatened to veto the bill unless it includes one-off stimulus checks worth $2,000. Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez quickly responded with screenshots of an amendment they were ready to introduce to do just that. A few tone-deaf criticisms notwithstanding (like the one from Amy Klobuchar accusing Trump’s proposal as an “attack on every American”), the Democratic leadership lined up quickly behind the $2,000 demand.
Undoubtedly, this is a smart political move for Trump. His saving grace during the narrower than expected presidential election was his perceived handling of the economy. Exit polls showed that voters who identified the economy as their top concern voted for Trump by high margins. Getting his name on the $1,200 direct payment checks in April, and insisting that he wanted to get life back to normal by reopening state economies, allowed Trump to feign more interest in providing relief than the Democrats. This was particularly true after congressional Democrats’ game of chicken during stimulus negotiations this fall resulted in turning down the White House’s $1.8 trillion dollar package and ended in no deal at all.
More importantly than Trump’s political machinations, $2,000 checks to every US resident, along with an extension of unemployment programs, are an absolute and immediate necessity. More than eight million people have been thrown into poverty since May, and if unemployment programs expire this coming weekend, researchers at Columbia University estimate that another five million will be pushed into poverty nearly overnight.
Of course, a onetime payment of $2,000 will provide only modest relief. The average rent for one month for a two-bedroom apartment in the United States is $1,909. The pandemic knocked the feet out from under the economy ten months ago, and has so far resulted in a single $1,200 check in April. A $600 check for the next ten months would amount to $1.97 per day.
Trump didn’t get the figure of $2,000 from nowhere. Since the start of the pandemic, monthly direct payments worth that amount have been a core demand of democratic-socialist politicians.
In mid-March, with the virus reaching all fifty states and taking a hundred lives, Senator Bernie Sanders had called for $2,000 worth of monthly cash payments to every US household, alongside measures like a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs. While then rival Joe Biden spent the rest of that month (and, for that matter, entire election season) largely avoiding mentioning his website’s noncommittal references to vague amounts of cash payments, the measure significantly upped the ante from the few similar ideas floating around at the time.
The idea had been built off of a bill introduced days earlier by Representative Ro Khanna, then a cochair for Sanders’s still-going campaign, and former Democratic candidate Tim Ryan, which promised Americans payments of between $1,000 and $6,000 in the form of a means-tested tax credit. They had been the first in Congress to propose some sort of direct cash infusion to deal with the pandemic. A day before Sanders’s call, Sen. Mitt Romney had proposed a one-off $1,000 payment for every adult, while the same day as Sanders, a group of senators, including Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, and Michael Bennet, called for an initial payment of $2,000 for every American, taping off over the following quarters, and totaling $4,500.
The $2,000 figure would make its way into several progressive proposals in the months to come. The following day, Maxine Waters, a founding member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), put forward her own legislative package with a $2,000 payment per adult at its core. In April, two sets of lawmakers — Khanna and Ryan on one side and socialist Rep. Rashida Tlaib and CPC cochair Pramila Jayapal on the other — introduced dueling relief bills centered around $2,000 cash payments, with the latter calling for $1,000 monthly checks for a year after the crisis was over.
A month later, Sanders teamed up with then senator Kamala Harris and Senator Ed Markey to introduce another bill calling for retroactive $2,000 monthly payments for every US resident making less than $120,000. All three would continue to push for the idea in the coming months, with Markey and Sanders doing so as late as November.
For much of the year, though, the issue of cash payments was largely dormant. Despite speculation that Harris’s presence on the ticket would prod Biden into adopting the $2,000 a month proposal, the Democratic candidate never embraced the idea, and Harris fell into loyal silence on the issue. In a twist, it would be Trump, not Biden, who would spend the election campaign paying lip service to the idea, at one point suggesting he would divert hundreds of billions of dollars of unused pandemic relief money toward a second round of stimulus checks, a measure he, characteristically, didn’t actually follow through on.
All of this has led to the situation that’s unfolded over the past month. Biden, now president-elect, both privately and publicly pushed Democrats to accept a vastly shrunken stimulus deal with Republicans with no cash payments at all. The New York Times credited him with giving Democratic negotiators “confidence to pull back on their demands.”
It was, instead, progressive and left-wing congresspeople who put the measure back on the table, with a group of progressive House Democrats — including Tlaib, Jayapal, and Khanna — urging congressional leaders to put onetime $2,000 stimulus checks into the bill, and in the Senate, Sanders teaming up with Senator Josh Hawley to threaten to derail the bill unless cash payments were put in, succeeding in getting $600 worth of onetime stimulus checks inserted into the legislation.
Today, House Republicans have predictably rejected the Democrats’ proposal for a $2,000 direct payment amendment by unanimous consent. It may still be voted on come Monday. Meanwhile, unemployment benefits will expire this weekend, so the stakes are high.
Yet Trump’s belated intervention has ironically given the longtime progressive demand new momentum, even as it has been vastly weakened from Sanders’s initial March proposal. And it has dominated the political news, with headlines even from liberal outlets tending to misleadingly frame the proposal as Trump’s idea, with Trump depicted as taking on the Republican establishment. As Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, complained, “I don’t know if we recover from this. We will have a hell of a time getting this out of people’s head.”
The good news for the Left is that the bipartisan acceptance of direct cash payments among both the political elite and ordinary voters reflects the growing purchase left-wing ideas have in the political sphere and public imagination. The bad news is that parts of the populist right are still quicker and cannier to co-opt some progressive policy than the liberal establishment is, particularly the incoming president, who’s made it a point to repeatedly rule out expansive executive action demanded by the Left, most recently ruling out forgiving up to $50,000 in student debt for borrowers.
Even now, as Biden is publicly committing to a third round of stimulus checks in the wake of this incident, he has declined to make a public opening bid, saying the exact size of the payments is “a negotiating issue.” Harris, meanwhile, criticized Trump for “holding up” the relief bill with his demand for bigger payments, even as both progressive and conservative Democrats have swung their support behind the idea.
But regardless of how the story unfolds or is retold, how it’s fixed in the popular imagination, and who gets the credit, it’s important to continue to push for more ambitious cash infusions in the coming months. The well-being of tens of millions depends on it.