There's a lot to like but also a lot to dislike about the recent responses of the various players at the Federal level to the spreading outbreak of novel coronavirus in the United States. On the one hand, there is the possibility of bipartisanship in Congress as it works on a fiscal stimulus package designed to mitigate the economic damage of the rolling shutdown of businesses across the country. Some of the proposed measures are quite bold. Moreover, workers and their families are a major focus of the package. Although there are much-needed measures to help businesses and critical industries, there is a focus on mitigating the loss of the jobs and income of everyday Americans that was not a part of the early response to the 2008-9 Great Financial Crisis. This apparent concern for the well-being of workers will be more heartwarming if it turns out that their significant economic role as consumers (70% of GDP) is not the only reason for helping them.
First, the good news: the economic-relief bill currently being worked out among Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives and Trump Administration officials might include both direct Federal payments to workers and expanded unemployment insurance benefits. Moreover, Democrats are pushing for Federal investment in expanding the capacity of and remedying the medical supply shortages at hospitals in the United States. As I noted yesterday, these measures could be the beginning of an expanded role for government in supporting the well-being of Americans and improving their quality of life.
However, there is clear evidence that political opportunism and financial self-dealing has been going on in Washington. An example of the former: the Justice Department quietly requested from Congress the ability to ask judges to jail anyone indefinitely during a declared emergency. This proposed power grab, which would erode constitutional civil liberties while giving unprecedented authority to the Justice Department, generated an immediate and aggressive bipartisan pushback on Capitol Hill. In terms of the latter, several GOP Senators have been accused of dumping their investments in response to classified briefings on the novel coronavirus before the outbreak hit the United States. Despite this private panic, they maintained their support for President Trump's denial that Covid-19 is a clear and present danger. Besides being morally and ethically repugnant, this behavior also runs afoul of a 2012 Federal law that prohibits legislators from trading on insider information gained while carrying out their official duties. There have been calls for resignations that have been answered with denials and excuses.
As of now, there is no deal on this bill between Democrats and Republicans in the majority-GOP Senate. As a result, the Democrat-controlled House is writing its own emergency stimulus measure.