Jamil Smith: Republican Pandemic Aid Plan Is a Trick - Rolling Stone
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The Republican Pandemic Aid Plan Is a Trick

It’s one the party has tried to pull several times before. Except now, a pandemic is killing nearly 100,000 Americans per month

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaking after meeting President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaking after meeting President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, in Washington.

Evan Vucci/AP Images

Saturday will mark one year since we’ve been seeing Americans die from Covid-19, and in January of this year alone, the disease killed 96,377 people in this country — more than two-and-one-half times the number of lives it claimed just two months prior.

The escalation in fatalities is apparently a cue to Republicans to go on the cheap. Ten of their Senators, in defiance of the other 40 to at least perform an interest in governance, met with President Biden and Vice President Harris Monday to discuss their counteroffer Covid-19 aid package. Their $600 billion proposal is less than a third of the size of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which includes $1,400 relief checks to individuals with annual incomes of no more than $75,000 and families who made $150,000.

Republicans would slice the Biden benefits dramatically, giving out only $1,000 checks to those who made $50,000 and $100,000, respectively. (And like the Biden plan, these checks currently base their outputs upon 2019 incomes, before a single person had died of Covid-19 in the United States. If the bill negotiation goes beyond 2020 filing dates, perhaps that may change.)

Frankly, I’d argue that even the president is setting the bar too low, but at least the White House has recognized that “as leading economists have said, the danger now is not in doing too much: it is in doing too little.” To his credit, the president thus far isn’t budging, and Democrats appear ready to try to pass his plan through the budget process known as reconciliation, which would mean they could do so without any Republican votes in the Senate.

Biden has talked up bipartisanship, but his vice presidency gives him reason to be wary. The Affordable Care Act and the economic stimulus following the 2008 economic crisis would have been much stronger and more effective had Republicans not gummed up the works in the name of “bipartisanship.” When a party doesn’t actually care about governance and only cares about winning, the American people get policy that doesn’t serve them as well as it could and Democrats still get labeled “socialists.” Nothing changes. What the Republicans are doing again doesn’t so much amount to proposing legislation as it does to threatening sabotage. Rather than just perpetrating this charade during a historic economic crisis, this time they’re doing it while a deadly pandemic is killing nearly 100,000 Americans per month.

Rob Portman, the retiring Republican senator from my native Ohio and one of the 10 proponents of the counterproposal, is acting out this script in interviews with the press, arguing that “if you can’t find bipartisan compromise on Covid-19, I don’t know where you can find it.” That should be true. But bipartisanship isn’t taking Biden’s plan and turning it into a Republican plan. And that’s what they have done.

Biden’s plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, as well as the $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, are missing in the Republican proposal. They offer zero rental or foreclosure assistance at a time when millions face evictions at the end of March, despite a Biden executive order extending eviction protections. From the president’s plan, the GOP plan also cuts $20 billion for veterans’ health, $20 billion for indigenous tribes. About the only thing I can halfway see an argument for is removing the $10 billion for cyber defense programs, but even that may be important as online falsification of vaccine records becomes a potential problem.

They’re putting forth a cheaper plan, according to Portman, because they want to focus on those Americans who are actually having it rough during the global pandemic. They’re the last people to whom we should listen. A party that enabled Trump as he wrecked a steadily growing economy — putting those Americans in the most jeopardy in further peril — isn’t fit to tell who does and doesn’t need help. But they’re trying, anyway.

“If you look at the administration’s plan, you could have a family with three kids making almost $300,000 a year getting a check,” Portman said, which is false. “And many of these people have had no impact from Covid[-19]. In fact, some are doing quite well. Others are struggling. Let’s focus on those who are struggling.”

Portman has one point: there are those who have done extremely well during the pandemic. While there are 10 million fewer jobs in this country, the richest Americans have cleaned up. The wealth gap has exploded since this coronavirus arrived, almost as if the virus — and the president who mismanaged the response to it — invited pirates to raid a broken country of its spoils while the getting was good.

The Republicans putting forth this plan have been part of this problem. Those who were in the Senate in 2017 signed onto former president Donald Trump’s exceedingly irresponsible and unnecessary tax cuts for the wealthy, and none of them have done anything since to stop their deleterious effects. Trump’s tax law metastasized the national debt that you now hear Republicans suddenly caring about again. ProPublica reported last month, the week before Biden’s inauguration, that it rose nearly $7.8 trillion during Trump’s sole term in the White House. It was the third-largest rise under any administration in the nation’s history, outside of Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush, presidents who either had to pay for a Civil War or launched two military conflicts of their own.

The longest American economic expansion on record, post-Bush, came to a halt when Covid-19 began its spread. However, the financial burden of the pandemic — much like the medical one — fell heaviest on black, indigenous, and Latinx households. They were most likely to become unemployed, and to use up whatever savings they had. And even those underserved Americans who kept their jobs had it worse than the super-rich, who are overwhelmingly white, since wealth — the difference between household assets and debt — has long been taxed at much lower rates (if at all) than employment income. For all of the conservative cursing of the so-called safety nets the government provides, they never seem to attack this one. The exacerbation and growth of the racial wealth gap during the pandemic was terrible, but the fact that it existed when a crisis like this coronavirus hit was the real problem. After all, deadly viruses know precisely where to strike.

To that point: even now that there is a vaccine, still the system allows for those with systemic advantages to leap ahead in line. Literally. Vaccination appointments that are left up for grabs — and per the New York Times, whiter, wealthier people with greater knowledge and access to information about the distribution are seizing them. Data across several major cities and states indicate that vast racial disparities in its rollout programs. Immunization of black Americans in particular — who disproportionately, are among those hit hardest by this pandemic — isn’t happening at rates commensurate with the percentage of their population. Yes, skepticism of vaccines exists, but without significant and immediate systemic corrections, it is impossible to celebrate any milestones for vaccinations without recognizing the inherent inequality that lies beneath.

At its heart, that is the problem with the counterproposal to the Biden plan. It steals away the fire trucks, then tosses a bottle of water at the blaze. It is a con game, one on par with Biden’s predecessor, that serves to perpetuate a system that has produced the worst racial and economic gaps since the late 1960s. Trump was willing to let a lot of Americans die and go broke to return this country to those halcyon days for whiteness, and don’t for a second think that these more polite Republicans won’t do the very same thing.

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