The Democrats’ Eviction Moratorium Failure Is Unforgivable

Despite a monthlong national countdown to its expiration, the White House and Congress failed to even try to extend the eviction moratorium until the last minute. Their excuses and finger-pointing won't save them at the ballot box.

President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, delivers remarks during a joint session of Congress on April 28, 2021. (Adam Schultz / White House)

Bashing Congress isn’t exactly an original thing to do. For decades, the House and Senate together have been the public’s perennial go-to punching bag, blamed, fairly and not, for everything wrong in the country’s political system. Yet sometimes the body does something so breathtakingly disgraceful that it deserves all the scorn inevitably coming to it.

I’m talking about the eviction moratorium, which, after the Supreme Court threatened to block any further extensions of it at the end of June, finally expired on Saturday, putting millions at risk of being thrown out of their homes. The numbers are staggering: estimates of how many renters could end up on the street range from 4.2 million and more than 6 million, to as many as 11 million adults and 15 million people in total when the whole household is counted.

This is not only a human disaster, but a public health one. This great mass of people are in danger of losing not only shelter but also their ability to socially distance, just as the much faster spreading Delta variant of COVID-19 fills hospitals with record numbers of coronavirus patients and sends the hospitalization of children ticking up, also in record numbers in some parts of the country. By one analysis, 4.7 million people who face eviction live in counties where Delta is surging.

To be fair, this is an across-the-board failure by the federal government. Even though the Biden administration has known the country was heading off this cliff since the Supreme Court decision, it waited until three days before Congress was set to go on a seven-week recess to ask it to try to extend the moratorium by passing a law. This is obviously absurd, given the cumbersome reality of passing any legislation, and particularly given the realities of the famously dysfunctional US Congress. Two House Democrats involved in efforts to extend the moratorium told the Washington Post they had held off on pursuing such a bill because they were waiting for guidance for the White House, suggesting Joe Biden’s foot-dragging was especially fatal.

But this excuse shouldn’t really let them off the hook. Congress is a coequal branch of the federal government and doesn’t have to wait for the White House. You only have to look at the way the president and Congress are pushing what are, to some extent, rival infrastructure bills at the same time, with members of Congress threatening to torpedo the White House’s proposal if they don’t get their way. There is no rule that says Congress has to simply twiddle its thumbs in the face of an enormous crisis if the president is too distracted deal with it.

House majority leader Nancy Pelosi’s public statements have been particularly galling. After a failed unanimous consent vote on Friday to extend the moratorium — which under congressional rules can be defeated by the objection of a single member; a Republican duly obliged — Pelosi issued a litany of lame excuses. “Really, we only learned of this yesterday,” Pelosi said about an issue about which the national press has spent the last month practically carrying on a running countdown. She patted herself on the back for her “relentless campaign” to extend the moratorium (can something be called “relentless” if you relent as soon as you’re due to go on holiday?) and blamed Republicans for blocking it “in an act of pure cruelty.”

In reality, as NBC reported shortly after the measure failed, it wasn’t Republicans, a minority in the Democrat-controlled chamber, who defeated the measure, but unnamed right-wing Democrats captured by the real estate industry — right-wing Democrats that, under Pelosi, the party has made a habit of recruiting every time there’s a wave election on the horizon. According to NBC and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), the only reason House Democrats embarked on a voice vote for unanimous consent, thereby letting Republicans derail the measure with minimal effort, is because Pelosi “didn’t want to expose some of her caucus members to the wrath of the base” and put their votes against an eviction moratorium on the record.

So now we’re in the absurd situation where Pelosi and the rest of the House leadership have kicked the can back to the White House, calling on Biden to unilaterally extend the moratorium in spite of the Supreme Court’s threat — which the president won’t do, reportedly for fear of a court decision that might weaken the president’s emergency powers more broadly. The White House has been reduced to impotently calling on states to more quickly give out emergency rental assistance — though only 7 percent of that which was already appropriated has actually been used — and begging landlords to seek it out before they evict.

This is Democratic leadership in an era of unprecedented crises: a group of millionaires with total control of government, playing hot potato with whose responsibility it is to lead, all before taking a luxurious seven-week paid vacation. These are the adults in the room about whom the public is told over and over again that, yes, they may be corrupt and vastly more conservative than their own voters, but the trade-off is they’re the competent, experienced veterans who can Get Things Done.

Beyond the human catastrophe, the party could scarcely be doing more to ensure its own defeat. If they keep doing nothing, the takeaway for many people will be simple: when Donald Trump was in power, they were kept off the street; when the Democrats were, they were thrown on to it. Obama’s apathy in the face of the foreclosure crisis, which saw 9.3 million families lose their homes, is now understood as a key factor in Trump’s 2016 win on the back of roaring public resentment. With Biden characteristically bowing to right-wing opinion and meekly letting GOP governors illegally end his own policy of extended unemployment insurance, this coming eviction crisis could well be the same.

From this, to his terrible bipartisan infrastructure deal, to his refusal to shore up voting rights or deal with America’s ongoing health care woes, the Biden administration and the Democrats attached to it are failing. For them, it means on to a cushy lobbying or corporate job once the inevitable wave of defeat ends their careers. But it’s actual working people who will suffer the real consequences.