Read: Reopening the economy is pointless when cities are under siege
Indeed, the bill is far from perfect, and almost certainly inadequate for the scale of the problem. “It is a very good start,” Heidi Shierholz, a former Obama Labor Department economist who is now director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, told me. “I think because of the way it's designed, we're likely going to need more.”
Although the unemployment-insurance benefits are helpful, the $150 billion in aid to states appears insufficient. The direct payments to families are essential, but will not sustain them for as long as social distancing is expected to last. The $350 billion meant to prop up small businesses is crucial, but the Trump administration has already said it will ignore oversight mechanisms designed to prevent corrupt use of the more than $500 billion given to the Treasury Department to disburse as it sees fit. Workers relying on the gig economy, such as ride-share drivers, will get less money to tide them over while the economy is at a halt than those who lost full-time jobs. And the lack of triggers for additional spending, should the coronavirus shutdown continue for longer than anticipated, promises another political fight over recovery measures down the road.
“You could have written this bill so that the checks go out again in three months if this problem is still going. Unemployment insurance continues for four months. But you could imagine them saying, ’Okay, if unemployment is about 6 percent, or if the CDC thinks we're still in an outbreak, we could automatically renew it,’" Mike Konczal, director of progressive thought at the Roosevelt Institute, told me. “The fact that, in three months, we're gonna have to do this again—we might even have to do it again in a month, with less political leverage, with a volatile executive branch, with Mitch McConnell, who has his own intense sense of political objectives and interest—is really worrisome.”
McConnell, who had demanded to know “how we’re going to pay for” the $831 billion American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, enthusiastically supported the $2 trillion CARES Act. Graham, who had complained that $800 billion was far too much spending in 2009, said last month’s bill would “help save the country.” Grassley bragged about having “beefed up” funding for small businesses and unemployment insurance. Alexander declared, “We are here not as Democrats and Republicans, but we are here to work together to do whatever we can to address COVID-19.” The soaring spirit of civic responsibility that was altogether absent during the Great Recession suddenly reasserted itself, even as the overriding concern about excess government spending disappeared.
The distinction between 2009 and 2020 cannot be explained by the fact that this economic slowdown was a necessary part of combatting the coronavirus. Although those affected today are hurting through no fault of their own, the same was true of millions of Americans in the Great Recession. For that matter, most Republicans—including McConnell, Graham, Grassley, and Alexander—had voted for the 2008 bank bailout prior to voting against the stimulus. In other words, they voted to help those most responsible for the Great Recession, then voted to stiff those Americans whose lives and livelihoods had been destroyed by the bankers’ greed and regulators’ ineptitude, and who would suffer through a sluggish recovery as a result.