Congress, by narrowly agreeing to a new economic stimulus package last week, finally showed they could actually, occasionally, work together to get things done. Both sides showed some flexibility, with Republicans giving up on their idea of a broad-based liability shield and Democrats abandoning their quest for a massive infusion of cash to state and local governments.

For both parties, it wasn’t much of a give, as they’ll probably be able to get some version of what they want in the next round of stimulus. Even though Joe Biden won’t want to shield as many businesses from lawsuits as the Republican Party did, he may be willing to consider some sort of limitations along those lines, especially if Republicans retain control of the Senate. Democrats know, meanwhile, that he’ll be pushing for assistance for state and local governments the very minute he takes office, so some version of what they were looking for will likely be passed eventually.

As is often the case in negotiations like these, it’s not a surprise that neither party got everything they wanted, nor is it a bad thing. While local governments could certainly use financial assistance, and businesses could some extra legal protections, neither of them should get a free pass or a golden parachute. It’s also both unsurprising and positive that the Paycheck Protection Program, meant to help small businesses, got more funding and some tightened eligibility requirements: While the program was popular and largely successful, fixes needed to be made.

The real surprise of this stimulus package was that negotiators on Capitol Hill almost completely neglected direct financial aid to struggling individuals, in the form of another round of stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits. Along with the PPP, these were the most popular benefits from the CARES Act, and yet both were reduced. The stimulus checks going to most Americans will be $600 this time, rather than $1,200, and the enhanced unemployment benefits will be $300 a week rather than $600. If it hadn’t been for a bizarre joint effort by conservative Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and liberal independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, there might not have been another round of stimulus checks at all. While President Trump should have made it clear that he wanted larger direct payments much sooner, he’s not entirely wrong on that point: They’re by far one of the most popular components.

It would have been one thing if conservatives on Capitol Hill opposed direct payments over concern for the national debt, but that clearly wasn’t the case. Unfortunately, there aren’t many fiscal hawks left in Washington these days, and the few that do still roam the halls never see their numbers swell in times of crisis. Instead, both parties tend to debate over how to spend money that they don’t even have, rather than whether it should be spent at all.

So, if the money was going to be spent in the first place, it’s best to send it directly back to the people as much as possible, rather than filter it through multiple layers of government or line the pockets of major contributors. That’s especially true because the United States’ direct economic assistance program is shockingly paltry compared to other developed countries around the world. The United Kingdom, for example, covers 80 percent of the salaries of furloughed workers, working out to more than $3,000 a month for Britons who can’t work because of COVID-19 but have been kept on by their employers – far more generous than both the stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment.

It may be that, in order to get a bill passed through Congress, there has to be a certain amount of both targeted relief and unnecessary, wasteful spending. That’s almost inevitable any time Washington does anything, let alone passes massive economic stimulus bills in the middle of an extraordinary crisis. Still, not only were Hawley and Sanders right to insist on more stimulus checks, but the checks probably should have been larger and scheduled on a more regular basis, like unemployment benefits (which also could have been more extensive).

Now, staunch fiscal conservatives are right that we’ve been spending way too much money and that needs to be reined in, but that argument isn’t going to carry the day in Washington right now. Rather than fighting any and all additional spending, we need to make sure that the money goes where it’s needed the most – and that means that as much of it as possible should go directly to the people, rather than to donors and special interests.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: jimfossel

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