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The Media’s Both-Sides Brigade Is Wrong About a Covid-19 Stimulus Deal

Saving unemployment benefits isn’t worth it if we have to sell out frontline workers.

Mitch McConnell talks to reporters following the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Perfect may be the enemy of good, but Mitch McConnell is the enemy of both.

One of the more irritating manifestations of both-sidesism in the political press in recent days has been the vilification of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for refusing to accept the compromises that the Trump administration has, thus far, been willing to offer on a second Covid stimulus bill.

Let’s review the story so far. In May, the House passed the Heroes Act, which would add $3 trillion to the $2.2 trillion in Covid stimulus that Congress passed, and that the president signed off on, back in March. In July, the Trump administration and Senate Republicans belatedly put in a counter-offer, a proposed bill that would add only $1 trillion in additional stimulus.

The House subsequently passed a revised Heroes Act that would add $2.2 trillion in stimulus dollars, or $800,000 less than its previous bill. The Trump administration then signaled it would be willing to go as high as $1.8 trillion; that is, raise its bid by the same amount that the House had lowered its bid. Pelosi, at this point, said no.

That was not good enough for CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who scolded Pelosi on Tuesday for not being willing to meet Republicans in the middle. “Even members of your own caucus, Madame Speaker, want to accept this deal,” Blitzer said. Pelosi replied that she was trying to keep state and local workers from losing their jobs. Blitzer, unimpressed, pointed out that Trump had just tweeted that he’d be willing to spend even more. (His twitter account bellowed, “STIMULUS! Go big or go home!!!”) “Don’t let the perfect, as we say here in Washington, be the enemy of the good,” Blitzer lectured.

Pelosi’s supposed intransigence was also too much for Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria, who wrote that Pelosi was being “defensive and combative” with Blitzer and that nothing she said “added up to a coherent position in a time of national emergency.”

“I cannot help but wonder,” Zakaria concluded, “whether the relative normalcy of life for elites has prevented us from understanding the true severity of the problem.”

Oh, please. What Blitzer and Zakaria didn’t take into account, presumably because they found the details too tedious to dive into, was that this dispute wasn’t just about some total on a bottom line. It was also about how that total—including the $600 that Pelosi was seeking to restore as a weekly add-on to unemployment benefits, and which the administration was reportedly not yet willing to spend—was allocated. But let’s set that fairly obvious point aside, because resolving these disputes is the easy part.

The really thorny aspect of the continuing negotiations between Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has nothing to do with federal spending at all. Rather, it’s the non-monetary price that the Trump administration is demanding to secure aid for unemployed people and for state workers who risk losing their jobs because state governments are broke. That price is the indemnification of employers from lawsuits brought by workers who contract Covid-19 on the job. This is asking altogether too much.

You probably heard last summer that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell inserted into the Senate’s $1 trillion stimulus bill a measure that gave businesses five years’ worth of protection from Covid-related lawsuits provided that they made reasonable efforts to protect workers. That liability shield has been included in every Republican proposal for a follow-up coronavirus stimulus, including a supposedly “targeted” bill that Democrats filibustered in September. If you look at the text, you’ll see it’s the very first matter addressed in the bill. This isn’t just a stray item on the Republicans’ wish list. It’s the GOP’s top priority. And according to an October 15 letter Pelosi sent House colleagues, the Trump administration remains unwilling to remove this “poison pill.”

You’ve seen Trump publicly insist that he wants to “go big” on Covid spending, but you’ve never seen him say that he’s willing to give up the liability shield. That’s because he isn’t. And even if at some point Trump swallows hard and surrenders on liability, he’ll have a very hard time persuading McConnell to go along. The Senate majority leader has lately signaled that his interest in what Trump does or doesn’t want is diminishing rapidly as Election Day approaches.

Pelosi has assiduously been removing as many points of disagreement as possible in the course of her negotiations with Mnuchin, leaving the biggest obstacles for last. The Trump administration’s and McConnell’s insistence that employers be protected from Covid lawsuits is the biggest stumbling block of all, and unless the Republicans drop it there won’t likely be—and shouldn’t be—a deal.

The awfulness of the liability shield is difficult to overstate. As I’ve noted previously, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that theoretically protects workers’ health and safety on the job, has done just about everything in its power to avoid punishing businesses that failed to protect workers from Covid-19. In those few instances where OSHA has leveled fines, the amounts have been laughably scant.

David Michaels, who administered OSHA under President Barack Obama, noted this week in a Century Foundation report co-authored with physician Gregory R. Wagner that OSHA recently levied a $15,615 fine against the JBS beef factory in Greely, Colorado, where 290 workers were infected with Covid-19 and six died. Fifteen grand was not even enough, Michaels and Wagner observed, to cover the cost of the funeral for Saul Sanchez, one of the six who perished. Sanchez worked at the JBS plant for more than 30 years.

That sums up the state of play for ordinary working Americans before McConnell extends this liability shield and screws them further.

Almost unbelievably, the new indemnity provision would weaken OSHA’s already underwhelming Covid response—and in legislative language that would persist after the Trump administration was no longer running the agency. McConnell’s liability provisions “are so unwieldly,” a Democratic House aide told me, “that OSHA would never be able to enforce anything, even the stuff that it’s enforcing now.” The liability waiver would apply also to state worker health and safety agencies that have hitherto shown more gumption in policing business violations than their federal counterpart during the pandemic.

In their impatience for Pelosi to cut a deal and be done with it, Blitzer and Zakaria and the rest of the ill-informed “perfect is the enemy of the good” caucus are asking her to sell out workers who risk their lives every day of this health crisis to do their jobs. That price is too high. If, as is expected, Democrats regain the White House and the Senate, they can protect unemployed workers without throwing frontline workers to the wolves. And if holding out for an indemnity-free stimulus happens to make it that much harder for Republicans to keep the Senate, I see little cause to complain.