Lawmakers in DC continue to be locked in a complex fight over the terms of a proposed $2 trillion stimulus bill to help Americans deal with the economic and health impacts of coronavirus.
Yesterday I asked Seattle's Congresswoman, Pramila Jayapal, to explain what's going on, whether we should really be calling this a "bailout" package, what kind of measures she'll refuse to vote for, and how long people of this city should be willing to wait for a stimulus bill that's in line with local values. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Eli Sanders: Can you explain what's going on with the coronavirus stimulus fight right now? Where are we at this point, and where do you think we need to go from here?
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal: This is the third stimulus package. We've passed two already, the first one directed at primarily getting money to local and state public health departments, the CDC, things like that. The second one was really dedicated to broader assistance directly to people, but slightly less money. And then this one is now the next tranche of really broad assistance.
We are trying to make sure that it's worker-centered and that it reaches the most vulnerable.
Trying to make sure that this is assistance that continues not just for a month, but potentially for several months as this goes on. Trying to walk that line of using every system that is in place to expand and get assistance directly to workers across this country.
I think Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has felt pretty left out of the first two packages, so they decided that they were going to introduce this third package in the Senate first. House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi has been at the table for those conversations. And there are many areas of agreement, but there are also areas of disagreement.
Those areas of disagreement primarily have centered around the fact that half a trillion dollars for corporations was basically going to be put in a slush fund for Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to singularly manage on his own, with no restrictions. And then there was the announcement that Trump said he would not rule out taking money for the Trump Organization.
No-strings-attached money for corporations—that was something that was absolutely was not going to happen.
The other question was, "What does the rest of the assistance look like?" In the early Senate proposal, the cash payments to Americans were structured in such a way that, if you had less money you actually got less money in stimulus, which makes no sense whatsoever.
That negotiation is continuing. But Pelosi has now said that the House will introduce our own bill so that we can put forward, in very clear terms, what our priorities are as Democrats. So that bill was just released, but it is still very much in flux. It is still being shaped.
But it includes a lot of pieces that we in the Progressive Caucus have been pushing for.
ES: I want to hear about those priorities, but first: What do you think about the Senate Democrats' decision to repeatedly block McConnell's bill from being considered?
CPJ: Well, they have to. This is about taxpayer dollars and it's about worker fairness.
This is not a typical situation where Republicans can just jam down our throats anything that they want.
They really do need Democratic votes, and we can't have a repeat of the 2008 bailout. We have to make sure that whatever we're spending comes with very strict conditions, and also that the money is directed at the people who really need it.
It's really responsible behavior from Democrats to say, "No, we are not going to allow taxpayer dollars to be used in this way."
ES: Turning back to the House bill: What are you pushing to have included, and what are you happy to see in the Pelosi bill already?
CPJ: The Congressional Progressive Caucus has released a list of 12 priorities, and many of those priorities are now in the House bill.
They center on paid leave, small businesses, education, debt forgiveness and relief, rural and low-income broadband, and cash assistance.
There are really strong corporate checks and enforcement mechanisms for any of the grants to industry. So this is the airline industry, for example...
ES: The so-called bailouts.
CPJ: I'm trying not to call them bailouts. I'm calling them worker-centered industry assistance. That's the way I would like to categorize it.
Because what we're trying to do is make sure that the money goes to workers. So the provisions in the House bill say that these grants would be for payroll and benefits, to keep the workers on payroll. Because here's the thing: we can expand unemployment insurance, and we should, but in an ideal world we would keep everyone on the payroll as long as possible.
So when it comes to the restrictions on the worker-centered industry assistance, the House bill prohibits stock buybacks; it prohibits payments to shareholders or bondholders, including stock dividends; it says that you can't have the CEO compensation exceed 50 times the median of all employee wages.
And that's not just during the bailout—or whatever we're calling this package—it's also during the 10-year period following enactment.
And then there are some good immigration pieces in the House bill. For example, it limits the administration's ability to transfer any of the money from the bill to bad immigration initiatives, as the president has done before.
So there are many good things in this House proposal, but we're still, honestly, going through it.
ES: And what happens next? Will the House bill end up mattering at all? Or if the Senate Democrats reach a deal with McConnell and the White House, is it the Senate bill that moves forward?
CPJ: There are a couple of possibilities.
One is that we vote on a House bill and then it goes to some sort of a conference with a Senate bill that passes.
My guess is that whatever we pass in the House and Senate, the goal is to make them as similar as possible, if not the same bill. Because we don't want to waste a lot of time, necessarily, going to conference between the House and the Senate.
But we needed to have some leverage with a good Democratic House bill that says, "This is exactly what we would do," so that there is a contrast with what the Republicans are saying.
At the end of the day, though, if I had to guess, I think we will be voting on a bill that is extremely similar to what the Senate passes—or the Senate will take up the House bill, so that there's no conferencing.
ES: And what are your red lines, personally? What would cause you to vote against a Senate bill that came over to the House?
CPJ: Something that continued to have a corporate slush fund with no conditions on it would be very, very hard. But, you know, I try not to give red lines because it is hard to know what is in the final bill and it is just very difficult to say where you would vote.
So what we're trying to do is push for the things we want and make sure those things are being lifted up in both the House and the Senate.
ES: A lot of people here in Washington state are just trying to keep up with what's happening with coronavirus locally, never mind what's happening in DC. So what would you say that people here should make of all the Republican cries to hurry up already with this coronavirus stimulus package? To what degree should people let a sense of urgency be the enemy of an evolving bill?
CPJ: That's always a hard question. But I do think that it's the tension between delivering urgent assistance and not allowing a situation where we come out of this recovery and we actually make things worse for working people across the country.
And that's what happened in 2008. And I do think we're learning the lessons from that.
So, should this go on for a couple of weeks? No, it shouldn't.
But I do think that what people across the country want us to do is make sure that we walk that line well, and that we don't allow taxpayer money to be wasted on corporate giveaways.
So I would just say to people that nobody understands the urgency better than those of us who are hearing from our constituents—the heartbreaking stories of businesses laying off 100 people when they only have 125, our favorite newspapers laying off people, people not being able to pay rent or utility bills, folks who are worried they're going to be homeless in a week.
And so we are very acutely aware of that, and we are aware of the responsibility we have, in the crush of this urgency, to not allow for a set of conditions that will worsen inequality once this is over.