The lead-up to the most recent coronavirus relief package didn’t include committee hearings, time for extensive reviews by lawmakers, or lengthy floor debates. A handful of top House and Senate leaders patched together the $2 trillion measure behind the scenes and presented it to their rank-and-file as a done deal.
With most members still out of town, leaders are planning for another lightning round Thursday to approve hundreds of billions more with little debate.
The push to quickly address the economic and health effects of the virus is accelerating the consolidation of power on Capitol Hill, experts say. While this top-down approach may be a more efficient and speedy way to address a crisis, it’s also a trend that’s led to waning committee oversight, a rising debt and has often left lawmakers scrambling to figure out what items are tucked into these massive measures.
“What you’ve seen is just a more spectacular manifestation of what has been a long-term trend,” said Ross Baker, political science professor at Rutgers University. “There’s been a general movement away from stand-alone bills and to omnibus packages.”
Baker said it hasn’t gone unnoticed that leaders also get to insert their projects and provisions into the massive bills.
“There’s banquets in the leadership offices and for the members it’s basically bag lunches,” Baker said.
Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution, said the power firmly concentrated with the leadership won’t change anytime soon, especially when the country is facing a crisis.
“If there’s any difference here, it’s the enormity of the pressure to act quickly and the sheer historic size of the cost of the bill that was put together so quickly,” Binder said. “Leaders are successful in these episodes because the costs of messing up are just too high.”
This week, the White House and Republicans hope to approve $250 billion more in assistance for small businesses as soon as Thursday. Along with that, Democratic leaders are demanding another $250 billion for hospitals and state and local governments, plus a bump in food assistance.
Future mega-aid bills could include provisions they have struggled to advance as stand-alone measures, including funding for infrastructure projects and union pension relief.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell(R-Ky.) shrugged off questions about how the most recent virus relief effort (Public Law 116-136) was developed behind closed doors under his close supervision, telling reporters it was “a classic way” to enact legislation. “This is about as flawless as it could be,” the leader said after the Senate unanimously passed it in a late-night session.
McConnell conferred informally with Senate Republicans about the development of the bill, but it never moved in committee or had a real chance of being amended on the floor.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who led the House to quickly clear the measure, is now working behind the scenes with her chairmen to have another $1 trillion package with more direct aid to taxpayers, unemployment insurance benefits, and support for states and local governments ready for a vote soon.
“It is my hope that we will craft this legislation and bring it to the floor later this month,” Pelosi recently told Democrats. She called the funding provided so far as only a “down payment.”
Concentration of Power
Pelosi is likely to follow the same model as she did for the last bill, particularly with the House not planning to return any earlier than April 20 and lawmakers unable to travel freely from their home states. The speaker said she’s conferring constantly with her chairmen on items to include in the next package, but safety concerns and the need for expediency make it unlikely any markups will occur, said Tom Spulak, a partner at King and Spalding’s public policy shop.
“If you’re a committee chairman you don’t want a markup, you want to send the bill to members, have a phone call, poll them, send it to Rules,” said Spulak, who was the Rules Committee’s staff director and House general counsel when Democrats previously controlled the chamber. “Rules has made hundreds of bills in order that hadn’t been reported from committee.”
Spulak said the process and the concentration of power in the leaders’ offices is a continuation of what’s already been going on for years, starting under former Speakers Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Spulak said more recent dustups over raising the budget caps and extending the federal debt limit gave leaders much more say over spending and all the policy items attached to massive year-end packages.
Lawmakers, particularly members of conservative House Freedom Caucus, have in the past protested leaders dropping massive bills on the floor with little input. But last month, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) was the lone voice objecting to having the the House pass the virus recovery package by unanimous consent, which forced Pelosi to call a majority of members back to Washington. The chamber cleared the measure with a quorum of members. The expedited process prompted Massie to slam Congress as a “dysfunctional enterprise.”
“Power has been consolidated at the top with the most incompetent and power hungry,” Massie tweeted. “It’s incumbent upon other members and the leadership to describe and defend the lack of any legislative process or accountability during this crisis,” he said in a statement.
The fiscally conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition has long raised concerns about the budgetary impact of such enormous packages. But now even that group’s leaders are supporting the virus relief measures while asking for more aid for their states.
“You have to be concerned about deficits, but you need to invest in fighting the challenge ahead of us,” said Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition who just saw Disneyland shut down in his district. “This is ugly stuff.”
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the massive spending approved in three fast-moving virus vehicles is “fairly staggering.” He warned the bill for those and the next packages will come due soon.
The federal deficit already was set to hit the $1 trillion level because of spending increases and the impact of the 2017 tax overhaul, Ellis said. “I’d say $3 trillion will be on the low end” after passage of the stimulus.
Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, also raised concerns about the nation’s debt levels.
“We could see debt to GDP at 100 percent by the time we get out of this in the next couple of years,” Akabas said.
Binder said lawmakers may not be thinking that far out.
“If there’s a price to pay, it’s not by this Congress. It’s a future Congress that has to deal with the level of debt and the loss of GDP,” she said.