The Bailout

Democrats decided to play ball to get what they wanted on policy...

Democrats have tried to advance their policy priorities through negotiations instead of walking away from the table, even though they know Trump's political fortunes depend on economic relief.

They certainly helped get the money flowing: The bill went from draft to law in a week, and Trump signed it Friday. But did Democrats achieve their goals by playing ball?

A review of the CARES Act suggests Democrats did manage to influence its direction, shifting some of its aid to individuals towards lower-income families, while imposing some conditions on its aid to businesses changes that Trump is already taking credit for. They also successfully inserted some oversight provisions that Trump has already vowed to ignore.

The Senate passed the CARES Act by a 96-0 margin late Wednesday, and the Democratic-controlled House followed suit in an overwhelming voice vote Friday. It was a far cry from the partisan obstruction of 2009, when only three Republicans helped Obama pass his stimulus bill in his first month in office and one of them, the late Senator Arlen Specter, faced such an intense backlash from his own party that he decided to become a Democrat. This time, the Democratic opposition helped craft the response to the emergency even though it gave Trump a bipartisan victory and the president still refused to invite any Democrats to his bill-signing ceremony.

The 880-page legislation does include plenty of random spending items proposed by House Democrats, like $25 million for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and $45 million for the Agricultural Marketing Service. A few of those line items represent big-ticket investments in Democratic priorities, like $25 billion for transit agencies ravaged by the pandemic and $10 billion for the financially troubled Post Office.

The Democrats generally wanted more than Republicans wanted for health and families, and they generally got their way, while the two parties generally agreed on a $366 billion small business bailout that includes strong protections for workers. It's the big-business bailout where Democrats mostly caved and that's the piece of the legislation that raises the most questions, because it's dramatically different from any bailout the U.S. has ever done before.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer laid down an early marker that they wouldn't support a bill without "a Marshall Plan to rebuild our health care infrastructure on a continental scale and ensure the resources are there to test and treat everyone who needs it." There is about $180 billion in health-related spending in the CARES Act, including $100 billion to help overstretched hospitals, which was more than twice as much as Republicans proposed.

But other than a $1 billion provision that could be used on diagnostic tests if President Trump invokes the Defense Production Act to manufacture them, it doesn't appear to do much to accelerate the kind of all-out COVID-19 testing and follow-up that helped South Korea control the virus. America is still lagging on testing, and this bill won't fix that.

Former Maryland health commissioner Joshua Sharfstein says helping hospitals handle the coming surge of coronavirus victims will be necessary but not sufficient to fight the pandemic. "This is a public health crisis as well as a medical crisis," says Sharfstein, who also served as deputy director of Obama's FDA and is now a dean for public health at Johns Hopkins. "We need to stand up a massive public health response if we're going to get this under control."

Pelosi and Schumer have been boasting about their victories for health spending in the CARES Act - and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has crowed about them, too - but the bill will not ensure tests for anyone who needs them or launch a systemic approach to prevent the virus from spreading. Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts wrote a Medium essay Thursday calling on Congress to pass additional legislation that would dramatically increase America's diagnostic testing capacity, but now the Senate has recessed until April 20. The only way for Washington to address this problem before then would be for Trump to address it himself - and he claims Americans can already get tested whenever they want.



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