Democrats have been negotiating against themselves since Joe Biden took office. That’s partially out of a seeming reticence to get things done, but it’s also because they’re literally negotiating with moderates in their own party—specifically West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema (collectively known as Sinemanchin). Both have expressed distaste at the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15 as well as holding true to Democrats’ initial promise of $2,000 COVID-19 relief checks.
It’s led to some ugly fighting and the hasty realization that even with majorities in both houses, Democrats might not actually get much done. But after Dems used that majority to pass Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill last night, a relatively moderate compromise was struck on unemployment insurance.
Furthermore, $10,200 of unemployment benefits will be tax free under this agreement.
— Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) March 5, 2021
On its face, cutting payments by $100 per week isn’t a great look. But the added tax provision could make a big difference to workers, especially those who will need the unemployment benefits long term. Being stuck with an unexpected tax bill after months of government assistance isn’t ideal for the person receiving it or the politician(s) who saddled them with it. And the extension through September ultimately means more money in workers’ pockets over time.
Still, the question begs: Why couldn’t they have done both? Why can’t we demand more?
It’s a given that not every single legislative battle will be won. Any person who’s worked in or around politics will quickly tell you that compromise is the name of the game—you sacrifice certain things you want in order to get other things you want. It’s a simple enough concept, but it always ends up looking murkier in real-time.
It’s not exactly clear why Dems felt the need to slash payments other than as a sop to make the bill more palatable to Republicans and Sinemanchin. Increasing unemployment benefits is only something that’s unpopular to lawmakers, though—it’s almost definitely better politically to pay people more, give them larger stimulus checks, and increase the minimum wage. If Democrats can’t whip their own moderate senators to vote for something that would surely be overly popular as is, what’s the point of holding a majority?
The quick response: If Republicans were in charge, nothing would get done.
It’s true that in almost every case something is indeed better than nothing. But framing our politics from the idea that what we’re getting is “better than nothing” is fundamentally negative. It implies that we’re lucky to get any kind of help at all during a moment of abject economic crisis and suffering. The most important thing right now is providing as much material relief as possible to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Democrats have pulled most of those possibilities off the table themselves.
Asking for more is simple enough, but the solutions to get there, just like the process itself, are murkier. One of the obvious ones is to apply pressure by withholding votes—a principled approach that’s easy to use against those employing it. If certain Dems withhold their votes on COVID relief force a $15 minimum wage into the bill, they can be painted as opposing a bill that would provide more relief to Americans than they’ve received in a year. That funnels back into the broken negative framing of legislative possibilities. But since it would take precious time and effort to explain why the standoff is happening—a time that can be used harshly against those withholding votes—it’s a fruitful political attack.
The “easy” solution would be to win a greater majority in the Senate, so relying on moderate votes isn’t necessary. That’s not a simple task, but it would be made a whole lot more simple if Democrats provided Americans with the relief they so desperately need right now, not some compromised, watered-down version of what was promised.
Imagine for a moment a world in which Democratic majorities passed a $15 minimum wage, $400 unemployment benefits (with the same tax advantages), and managed to push out $2,000 relief checks instantly to every American. Aside from, y’know, actually helping people, the political capital they’d gain would easily carry them through the 2022 midterms and possibly beyond.
Passing monstrous legislation is a complicated game. Still, all the pieces are there. The only thing standing in the way of Democrats having their cake and eating it too is—Democrats. That statement might not be as straightforward as it seems, but Democrats have the power—both figurative and literal—to change that.