Christmas Comes to Congress

Ideas and Issues

December 22, 2020

Pearl River     Ahhh…it’s the end of the year when sugarplums are dancing in dreams of Congressional representatives in both houses and on all sides of the aisle. It may have taken seven months for a skinny stimulus bill to pass and extending funding for the government just must be a last-minute deal. In each case, part of the rationale for these eleventh-hour deals is supposedly ideological. In the pre-Trump era, the Republicans could pretend it was about being fiscally conservative. Really, it’s all about grafting in whatever might fit under the Congressional Christmas tree that suits this one or that one, the army of lobbyists who need to divide themselves between winners and losers, and sometimes, miraculously, even the public, but more often donors and Wall Street.

The topline on the skinny stimulus bill was an extension of unemployment benefits, an expansion of emergency food stamp provisions, and a gift to many Americans of up to $600 in cash money. Better late than never. Nearby, there’s a huge pile for small businesses and a bigger pile for airlines and transportation.

It turns out, not surprisingly, there are some surprises. Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, long a voice decrying surprise medical bills, saw his going away present included, and, frankly, that’s good news for all of us, since it forces hospitals and insurance companies to get their act together and be on one page when they send the bill rather than jacking up patients just out of their care. Someone needs to find out what kind of lobbying clout the on-the-ground ambulance services mustered in order to escape the noose here. The whole bill was held up at the last minute partially because some Senators wanted to prevent the Federal Reserve from standing up in the recession in the way that they proved able to do in 2020.         The compromise turned out to be that they couldn’t duplicate the identical program, but would have to put some bows on the pig to make it look different, even if it squeaked the same.

Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker, famously said to former Freedom Caucus backbencher Mark Meadows, now White House chief of staff, “you’ve never made a deal” when the negotiations stalled over the summer, and in the end he and the White House were pretty checked out, as Pelosi and McConnell and their folks put together the grab bag. Pelosi knows her game. Once you include the end of the year spending bill, there are expansions of Pell student loans for ex-cons, forgiveness of $1 billion in debt that HBCU schools were carrying, some new environmental protections around lead in water and HFCs out of air conditioners along with more money for alternative energy. Women and Latinos will finally get museums over their contributions, blocked earlier by Utah’s Senator Lee. Gifts that keep on giving.

Surely, we don’t know what other alligators though might be still hidden in the swamp. One poked its head up the other day in order to give Wall Streeters and big business folks a 100% tax deduction on the three-martini lunches again. They claimed it had to do with helping restaurants, but like so many of these things that used to be called earmarks, mainly it was about helping themselves.