Last week, Senate Republicans finally unveiled their blueprint for the next coronavirus relief package: the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act. Since any legislation will ultimately need the votes of Democrats, the bill is unlikely to pass in its current form. But it’s still worth examining as a formal statement of Republicans’ policy priorities. In short, the bill is a monstrosity: it would intensify austerity, cost millions of jobs, deepen poverty, exacerbate the eviction crisis, and fuel the spread of the virus itself. The result would be nothing short of mass immiseration. And they’re barely trying to hide it.
The HEALS Act is the Senate Republican response to House Democrats’ coronavirus relief package, the HEROES Act, which top GOP lawmakers derided as “the legislative equivalent of stand-up comedy.” Given the enormity of the crisis, HEROES is a reasonable set of measures. It calls for a new round of stimulus checks, mortgage relief and rental assistance, deferrals on student loans, hazard pay for essential workers, a moratorium on debt collections, and an extension of the expanded $600 a week emergency unemployment benefit for another six months.
If anything, the Democratic House bill doesn’t go far enough to protect people from the personal economic consequences of the shutdown — which, as the rise in daily death tolls after a wave of reopenings indicates, remains necessary from a public health perspective. But Senate Republicans see it differently, calling HEROES “partisan,” “unaffordable,” and “unrealistic.” In response, they have proposed a bill so tightfisted and callous it would make Ebenezer Scrooge blush.
HEALS sends another $1,200 stimulus check to every citizen, but fulfills little else stipulated in HEROES. Notably, it proposes that the federal government cut the $600 a week expanded unemployment benefit down to $200 a week. Senate Republicans’ rationale for such a dramatic cut to expanded unemployment benefits is that since they’ve been implemented, some workers have been making more money than they did before they lost their jobs. According to Mitch McConnell, the benefits are so cushy that their continuation will discourage people from seeking employment, which will in turn “slow down reopening.”
There are many things wrong with this framing. First, it is true that the benefits are more than some people were previously making. This is good: not only have the benefits stopped millions of people from tumbling into poverty due to sudden loss of income, but they have also lifted many out of poverty, temporarily correcting for widespread poverty wages among American workers. By their expiration at the end of July, some 30 million Americans were collecting expanded federal unemployment benefits. Because the Senate has unconscionably dragged its feet on the new relief package, and due to technical obstacles in state unemployment agencies, new payments of any size will take some time to appear in people’s bank accounts. The interruption and likely reduction of payments will undoubtedly cause poverty to rise again, alongside secondary consequences like evictions.
Second, throughout much of the economy, keeping as many establishments closed as possible is a positive thing. COVID-19 continues to kill over a thousand Americans a day, and the coast is by no means clear to reopen nonessential workplaces, businesses, and institutions. We should not be encouraging people to go back to work at all unless their work is necessary for the basic functioning of society during the crisis. Instead we should be helping people stay home and stay safe without facing dire financial consequences. The Right’s insistence on rushing to reopen as fast as possible will be remembered as an unforgivable act of negligence.
Third, the catastrophic disruption caused by the pandemic is going to leave deep scars in our economy. Job losses of historic magnitude will spell higher unemployment for a while yet. A lack of desire to work is not a significant drag on the economic recovery; on the contrary, many in the months and years to come will be looking for jobs that simply don’t exist. Cutting them off financially won’t reanimate the economy — it will only broaden and deepen distress and desperation. Meanwhile, the hit to consumer demand will further damage the economy.
The surest way to get us out of the incredible economic mess we’re in would undoubtedly involve massively increased federal social spending in the image of the New Deal. But Senate Republicans are taking the exact opposite approach, lecturing the starving on the virtues of belt-tightening while catering a feast for the capitalist class.
For example, HEALS contains no federal aid for state and local governments, which are now hemorrhaging tax revenues. The result will inevitably be cuts. When that happens, not only will services disappear but so will public-sector jobs, placing financial strain on both service providers and recipients. Since that means more people with less money in their pockets to keep businesses afloat, economic consequences for the private sector will soon follow. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 5.3 million people could lose their jobs in the public- and private-sectors combined due to a lack of federal funding for state and local governments.
Not content with that baseline level of cruelty, HEALS sweetens the deal for the rich: While it slashes unemployment benefits and does nothing to protect people who can’t pay rent from eviction, it does neglect to impose guidelines for safe economic reopening and it grants legal immunity to corporations who fail to take protective COVID-19 measures on behalf of their workers. It also contains provisions that would pave the way for cuts to Medicaid and Social Security, programs that economic elites view with suspicion even though they are necessary to the survival of hundreds of millions of Americans.
The HEALS Act fails to protect the majority of Americans from the public health effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic effects of the related shutdown, while also smuggling in cherry-on-top giveaways to the rich. It is a monument to the shamelessness and sadism of the modern Republican Party, which, in turn, has for decades been enabled and emboldened by the neoliberal and conflict-averse Democratic Party.
Ultimately the Senate will find some middle ground between HEROES and HEALS. But the mere fact that Senate Republicans felt at liberty to insult the American working class by proposing to leave it to its own devices during a crisis of mammoth proportions should encourage us to stop and ask how it all got this bad.