David Dayen writes regular reports on the politics of the pandemic for The American Prospect.
I read this interview between Ezra Klein and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal, and I have to say I’m tiring of what amounts to a bunch of excuses for how progressives have been functionally locked out of policymaking during this crisis. Jayapal sniffs that “it’s a lot easier to be on the outside and to be pure and never having to make compromises,” and says that there aren’t enough progressives willing to use their power to stop legislation outright. She essentially says that, as long as there’s a bone in there, members can be easily picked off.
But the problem isn’t about compromise, it’s about invisibility. Nancy Pelosi has run the House of Representatives by fiat for close to two months, and there hasn’t been a single word of protest as she locks every other member of the Democratic caucus out of policymaking and hands them take-it-or-leave-it legislation to rubber stamp. If Jayapal has ever objected to that you sure wouldn’t know.
As Ezra points out, instead of organizing around one thing, progressives supply 100-item wish lists that everyone knows won’t be fulfilled. This has two consequences: the wish lists show progressives are not completely serious about governing, and the leadership can always pick like 2 of the 100 out of the list and give members something to justify voting for a bad bill.
Meanwhile, Pelosi has been talking about what she’ll add to the next bill, and it’s relatively unconstrained by wish lists. One of the elements is changing the eligibility standards for PPP small business loans to include 501(c)(4) and (c)(6) nonprofit organizations. You might know (c)(6) organizations by another name: lobbyists. Unbelievably, K Street has asked for a bailout and is on the road to getting it. I mean lobbyists are good at lobbying, I guess.
As far as I can tell, lobbyists have not stopped lobbying amid the crisis. There’s been a “frenzy” of lobbying around Mitch McConnell’s desire for a corporate liability shield from coronavirus-related lawsuits, for example. Why do high-powered lobby shops need a free $10 million per firm, exactly? Also, PPP will be out of money by the time any bill passes. Does tweaking eligibility signal giving more to this program, in part to just shovel money at lobbying firms?
Meanwhile, Jayapal’s bill to guarantee payroll support from the government for the duration of the crisis was “very worthy of consideration,” said Pelosi. That’s code for “nice work but it’s not getting in the bill.”
The House Democratic slogan is “for the people.” And that’s selectively true. Pelosi listens to some people, powerful people. And she pays lip service to others. She does this because she knows she can get away with it. There’s been essentially no dissent from those on the losing end of that equation. The House still doesn’t even have remote voting in place, and caucuses are doing Zoom calls rather than official hearings. Hundreds of members of Congress representing hundreds of millions of people have been disenfranchised. If there’s state and local government aid in a future bill (if it ever happens), progressives are going to shrug and support something with a lobbyist bailout in it. You can see it now.
If you funnel all lawmaking through one person, you’re going to get things laundered through a certain perspective that has a likelihood of occasionally being myopic. The K Street bailout is the dumbest political maneuver you could possibly make right now. Businesses already have access to insanely generous support at the federal level; the Federal Reserve has propped up their equity and credit markets. Who do you think pays lobbyists? The PPP is an underweighted program that isn’t going to save most small businesses, it’s not even designed to do that. All you’re doing by adding lobbyists to it is stoking public anger. And the anger is well-placed; lobbyists really don’t deserve free money right now.
But when there’s no pressure whatsoever on the one-woman Congress, you stumble into mistakes like this. Surely progressive lawmakers don’t like being alienated from their professional duties in this fashion. Maybe they should say something.
To facilitate sleeping at night, I try really hard to avoid the unavoidable reality that Jared Kushner, someone with about as much policy talent as the agave plant in my front yard, is managing huge sections of the government. But the description of Kushner’s operation to secure medical equipment reflects the farce that our policymaking apparatus has been turned into, a combination of kleptocracy and total ignorance that is hard to even really analyze outside of saying “this is bad.”
But I will highlight the provenance of many of the people working on the Kushner project: his buddies in the private equity industry. Was the whole idea to, I don’t know, knuckle under suppliers and take out management fees and rip off hospitals and states? Then why would PE guys be involved? They “were expected to apply their deal-making experience to quickly weed out good leads from the mountain of bad ones,” according to administration officials. That’s not what PE, especially the inexperienced PE volunteers assigned to this project, do. There are no distressed assets among medical suppliers in high demand. There’s nobody to screw over when the goal is to get masks and gowns quickly to doctors and nurses. And PE paper-pushers probably don’t understand the particular challenges of this task, namely supply chain management.
This Pro Publica story about one fly-by-night contractors private jet trip to find N95 masks is typical of the dysfunction involved here. And here’s a supply company set up by Republican operatives that’s now under criminal investigation. And here are more allegations that the administration prioritized friends of Kushner for contracts. This entire thing was an enormous grift at the expense of national preparedness.