The Sorry Story of Congress’ Latest “Stimulus” Bill

As Yogi Berra’s infamous saying goes, it’s déjà vu all over again—and not in a good way.

I refer not just to the rapid economic slowdown, panicky markets, and multiple Federal Reserve bailouts related to the coronavirus epidemic, all of which echo the financial crisis of 2008. I speak also of Nancy Pelosi’s infamous comments a decade ago this month about Obamacare:

The House of Representatives—both Democrats and most (all but 40) Republicans—went along with legislation that not only wasn’t paid for, and didn’t contain any long-term reforms to programs desperately in need of them. They passed a bill whose cost still remains unknown (the Congressional Budget Office has yet to issue a cost estimate), which none of them had time to read—and might not even accomplish its supposed objectives.

Word emerged over the weekend that flaws in the bill require at least one, and possibly more than one, correction. The Wall Street Journal reported the House will attempt to pass “a technical fix on Monday.” But even as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who negotiated the package with Pelosi despite being “relatively green” on such matters, tried to minimize the objections, others weighed in more strongly.

The Capitol Hill publication Roll Call said the bill may need a “do-over” regarding its paid family leave provisions. The National Federation of Independent Business weighed in with objections after the bill’s passage in the House, saying that small firms wouldn’t receive the tax credits quickly enough, and could face cash-flow problems as a result.

A congressional source confirmed to me that concerns about the family leave provisions could prompt a rewrite that’s more than technical in nature. These developments should surprise no one acquainted with prior slapdash attempts to legislate on the fly, but they should force Congress to slow down such a ridiculous process.

TARP and Obamacare

This past weekend, House leaders released the final version of their “stimulus” legislation at 11:45 p.m. Friday night. The House’s vote on the bill ended at 12:51 a.m. Saturday—just more than an hour later. Members of Congress had a whopping 66 minutes to review the 110-page bill before voting on it. Even the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus in the House, barely had time to issue a 10-page summary of the bill before the vote gaveled to a close.

That the legislation needs a technical fix (and possibly more than one) merely continues Congress’ practice of passing complicated legislation members do not understand. For instance, in March 2009 Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) had to accept responsibility for inserting a provision into the “stimulus” at the behest of Obama administration officials that allowed AIG officials to collect more than $1 billion in bonuses, despite the firm requiring a massive bailout from the federal government via the Troubled Assets Relief Program. The entire controversy demonstrated that no one, not even the lawmakers who drafted the “stimulus” and TARP bills, fully understood the bills or their effects.

Consider too this description of the infamous Obamacare bill:

The Affordable Care Act contains more than a few examples of inartful drafting. (To cite just one, the Act creates three separate Section 1563s.) Several features of the Act’s passage contributed to that unfortunate reality. Congress wrote key parts of the Act behind closed doors, rather than through ‘the traditional legislative process.’…. As a result, the Act does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation.

That description comes from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’s 2015 ruling in King v. Burwell, a case about whether individuals purchasing coverage from the federal exchange qualified for subsidies. Roberts’s ruling called the language a drafting error, and permitted individuals in all states to receive the subsidies. But if an innocent drafting error, the mistake had potentially far-reaching implications, which few if any members of Congress realized when they voted for the bill—without reading it, of course.

Rushing for the Exits

To call the nascent controversy surrounding the “stimulus” legislation a fiasco would put it mildly. Worse yet, much of the controversy seems unnecessary and entirely self-inflicted.

Congress had absolutely no reason to pass the bill just before 1 a.m. on Saturday. Financial markets had closed for the weekend, and the Senate had adjourned until Monday afternoon. Voting early Saturday morning, as opposed to later in the day on Saturday, or even on Sunday, didn’t accelerate passage of the bill one bit. However, it did allow members of Congress to leave Washington more quickly.

In other words, the leaders of both parties—who agreed to the rushed process leading up to the vote—made getting members out of town a bigger priority than giving members the time to do their due diligence as lawmakers. It’s an understandable instinct, given the serious consequences of the coronavirus on all Americans, particularly the older profile of many legislators. But it’s also an abdication of Pelosi’s own claim last week that “we’re the captains of this ship.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.