None of this might come to pass, of course. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might work out a middle-of-the-road stimulus measure, helping to speed the recovery. Democrats might take both of the Georgia seats in the January runoff, thus clinching control of the Senate. Biden—a congressional veteran who is legitimately liked on both sides of the aisle and has a history of bipartisan dealmaking—might break the logjam. The economy might recover faster than expected without additional support from Washington, as businesses adjust and reopen.
But the 2020 electoral outcome—Democratic White House, Republican Senate—was the worst one in terms of getting anything done in the Capitol, and is thus a pending disaster for the country’s sick, unemployed, and poor. A Trump win likely would have eased the passage of a small but important stimulus. A Biden blowout would have allowed Democrats to pass something huge. Instead, Washington has that old 2011 feeling again.
A decade ago, the world learned what a Democratic White House and a Congress under partial Republican control could do together: nothing, or very close to it. At the time, the economy was slouching out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. The $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in the early days of the Obama administration, had shored up state and local finances, expanded unemployment insurance, and aided failing businesses. But it was too small by roughly half, economists estimate. With Republicans in control of the House as of 2010 and with a filibustering minority in the Senate until they won it outright in 2014, they crushed every attempt to rectify the problem.
No American Jobs Act. No cloture on even noncontroversial bills. The point was to damage the Democrats’ electoral chances, more than anything else. And the tactic worked, arguably. But it also slowed the recovery down. The United States took 10 long years to return the unemployment rate back to its prerecession low.
Similar dynamics are now at play: The economy needs more. Roughly 10 million fewer Americans are working now than were in February, wages are down sharply, and more than 1 million people are losing their jobs each month, even as the unemployment rate drops. The large, successful stimulus programs created by Congress in the spring are ending, and the cash Uncle Sam distributed is drying up. The slowing recovery might slow further, and households might become far more strained—even as the pandemic reaches deadly new heights.
Yet the real state of the economy does not seem to matter much to partisans on the Hill. On Friday, McConnell described the October jobs report—a very good one, but not one that signals an economy even close to healed—as a “stunning indication of a dramatic comeback” and justification for a smaller stimulus.