Last week, House Democrats attempted to call President Donald Trump’s bluff and increase the COVID relief bill’s survival checks to $2,000. House Republicans blocked the initial maneuver, and may today prevent the legislation from passing. If it does pass, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could kill the bill.
The spectacle of Congress continuing to stall $2,000 survival checks during an economic emergency spotlights Donald Trump’s erratic behavior, Democrats’ persistent austerity ideology, and the dysfunctionality of a government waiting until the last minute to hammer out 5,000-page emergency legislation in a matter of hours.
Most important, the antics of House Republicans and McConnell illustrate how — despite all of America’s paens to democracy — lawmakers ostensibly elected to represent us will routinely stomp on their own constituents.
Of course, constituents are barely part of the media narrative anymore. Indeed, if you read national news, you will almost never see a mention of whom exactly these Republicans are supposed to be representing.
For example, you will not see any mention of the fact that, according to research from AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer, the majority of lawmakers in the House Republican Conference come from districts in the bottom two income quintiles — meaning their constituents would particularly benefit from the $2,000 checks.
Similarly, you will see McConnell depicted only as an all-powerful Republican leader — an omniscient specter haunting the halls of power, effectively disassociated from time, place, and constituency. In this mythology, he is a phantom menace who controls everything but somehow represents nobody. You will not see much mention of the fact that McConnell actually does represent a real, live place — one that illustrates how this standoff is fundamentally a crisis of democratic accountability.
Kentucky’s Senator May Deny Emergency Aid
McConnell’s role in this debacle cannot be overstated: Had he already signed onto the plan to increase the direct payments in the COVID deal, it would probably be a done deal — but so far he has been reticent, as millions of Americans are struggling to survive.
Among those millions struggling to survive are hundreds of thousands of people in McConnell’s own state of Kentucky — which is one of the poorest in the country. As such, it would particularly benefit from the $2,000 survival checks.
As McConnell plays coy in Washington, his state is becoming a Dickensian nightmare. More than 700,000 Kentuckians live below the federal poverty line.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, things have become downright dystopian: Louisville’s ABC affiliate recently reported that “an estimated 42 percent of Kentucky children (live) in renter households (that) were behind on rent and/or did not get enough to eat, and 20 percent of adults with children in the household reported the children weren’t eating enough because they couldn’t afford enough food.”
According to census data, roughly 13 percent of adults in Kentucky are now suffering from food scarcity, meaning they either sometimes or often do not have enough food to eat. That number has increased nearly 40 percent since the start of the pandemic.
The median household income in Kentucky is about $52,000, and roughly two thirds of all Kentucky households make less than $75,000 a year. That means the current proposal to boost $600 checks to $2,000 for families making $75,000 or less would provide additional emergency aid to most people in the Republican Senate leader’s own state.
In light of these figures, you would think a lawmaker from a destitute state would be the single biggest champion of such an initiative.
Instead, McConnell may end up following House Republicans and use his power to block the checks. In that event, we would be watching Kentucky’s U.S. senator directly denying aid to most people in his own disproportionately poor state during an economic emergency and a deadly pandemic. This wouldn’t be a case of McConnell ignoring or punishing specific constituencies who didn’t vote for him — exit polls show he won reelection with a majority of voters making $50,000 or less.
And let’s remember: McConnell’s reluctance to quickly enact $2,000 survival checks is not the first time we’ve seen him pit himself against his own state during the pandemic — he has also led the fight to block direct aid to states, even though Kentucky faces one of the most acute budget and pension crises in the country.
A Feature, Not A Bug
Taken together, this entire situation confirms a trio of recent studies underscoring that we live in a bizarro version of democracy in which representatives are routinely using their public offices to ignore constituents’ wishes — and at times to directly harm the people who elect them.
This dynamic is a feature, not a bug. The founders created institutions like the Senate and lifetime Supreme Court appointments to try to insulate policymaking from the rabble and to protect what Alexander Hamilton called the “permanent will” of the elite. They allowed for a lame-duck period in which a president gets to govern without any accountability at all. And such institutional limits on American democracy have been compounded by gerrymandered congressional districts and a campaign finance system that effectively insulates incumbents from any public accountability.
Those limits on democracy were supposed to encourage meritorious policy, but in this budget standoff, we see the opposite: Republicans have been able to behave so recklessly precisely because these limits on democracy mean they don’t have to care about their own constituents.
McConnell was just reelected to a Senate job where he won’t face voters for another six years, when the pain and suffering he inflicted will be a distant memory. House Republicans are safe in gerrymandered districts, many of which will likely remain that way because Democrats failed to win state legislatures ahead of redistricting. And Trump is a lame duck, who isn’t angling for reelection.
In each situation, the power players involved know they are safely insulated from democratic accountability, allowing them to care only about a donor class that is far more interested in $200 billion worth of tax cuts for the wealthy than in $2,000 checks for starving people.
To know that a lack of democratic accountability is at the heart of this manufactured crisis, just compare Trump’s posture before the election.
Facing the potential wrath of voters back then, Trump was pushing a $1.8 trillion rescue package — not because he was a more moral person a few months ago, but because he was trying to win reelection and thus trying to depict himself as responsive to the public will. Once the election was over, he didn’t have to care anymore — he could use his lame duck moment to stage a childish conniption fit that did real damage to real human beings.
The same dynamic is also at play with McConnell. Arguably the only reason he even allowed a meager $900 billion stimulus bill with $600 survival checks to pass through the upper chamber was because he was worried about democratic consequences — more specifically, he was worried that blocking a bill would result in Georgians voting out their GOP senators, which would toss McConnell out of his job running the Senate.
He can now play games with the $2,000 check initiative knowing he won’t be voted out of a job by Kentuckians — but if he does capitulate, it will only be because he fears losing the two Georgia runoff elections.
In other words, it will only be because he fears some modicum of democratic accountability.
A Cautionary Tale About Democratic Accountability
Moving forward, there is a larger lesson here.
In elite circles, there is this idea that America’s problems are a product of politicians being too beholden to their constituents’ whims, which supposedly creates gridlock as elected officials aim to placate their parties’ voters. This mythology — which is a modern-day version of the founders’ fear of too much democracy — has been weaponized to promote ideas like super committees, presidential commissions, fast track authorities, and strict budget rules, all designed to insulate decision-making from public pressure.
The idea is that government officials will only be able to make tough, painful decisions necessary for meritorious policy if they are further protected from public accountability and consequences.
But this latest grotesquerie of House Republicans and McConnell threatening to deny $2,000 checks to their own constituents disproves the entire theory. It shows that a lack of democratic accountability is the problem.