Biden’s support for House HEROES Act isn’t a ‘unity’ position

On Monday, Joe Biden expressed support for further stimulus legislation, calling specifically for the enactment of legislation “like the HEROES Act,” which the House passed in May and subsequently went nowhere in the Republican-led Senate: 

President-elect Joe Biden on Monday urged Congress to pass a coronavirus relief package, touting legislation House Democrats passed earlier this year that is opposed by Republicans.

“Right now, Congress should come together and pass a COVID relief package like the HEROES Act that the House passed six months ago,” Biden said during remarks in Wilmington, Del. 

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the HEROES Act would cost $3.4 trillion, making it the most expensive bill ever passed in Congress. The bill was approved on a mostly partisan basis — with 207 of 221 Democrats voting for it and 184 of 185 Republicans voting against it. Five of the Democrats voting “no” subsequently lost their seats on election day (and four others won by less than four percentage points), while the lone Republican voting for the bill, Rep. Peter King of New York, is retiring. That shows what little bipartisanship there was about the legislation mostly involved Republicans joining a handful of generally moderate Democrats in opposing it.   

Now six months later, the HEROES Act seems increasingly out of step with the economic progress most states have made since May. When the bill passed on May 15, the US unemployment rate had just spiked to a post-depression record 14.7 percent in April. But now the national unemployment rate has fallen rapidly to less than half that level, reaching 6.9 percent in October — well below recent expert forecasts for unemployment at the end of 2021. In September already a quarter of states were below the “high unemployment” threshold of 6 percent. The number of states below that threshold could grow significantly when we learn the state unemployment rates for October on Friday.

That economic progress is one of the reasons the HEROES Act continues to be rejected by the Republican-led Senate in favor of more targeted relief:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer have pushed for their comprehensive package, citing the resurgence of Covid-19 cases as one factor [demanding] a bigger response. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pointed to bigger-than-expected declines in the unemployment rate and to the development of vaccines in arguing for a targeted bill.

Recent progress also means specific HEROES Act policies — like reviving $600-per-week unemployment bonuses through March 2021 or stretching unemployment benefits to nearly 14 months through June 2021 — would apply in a growing number of states with low unemployment. It’s hard to see why unemployment benefits should once again exceed most workers’ wages in states like Vermont (4.2 percent in September), South Dakota (4.1 percent), and Nebraska (3.5 percent), or the likely growing number of other low-unemployment states over time. 

House Democrats crafted a “slimmed downOctober version of the HEROES Act, which includes the policies described above and also makes clear the revived $600 bonuses would be payable retroactive to early September, when federal $300-per-week bonuses expired. That means if the HEROES Act were enacted in early December, many unemployment recipients would collect lump-sum bonuses totaling up to $8,000 per recipient, on top of regular weekly unemployment benefits. If instead the legislation became one of the first measures a President Biden signed into law, one-time payments would grow to as much as $12,000 per recipient.  

Maybe Vice President Biden’s support for the HEROES Act shows post-election solidarity with the liberal wing of his party. Maybe it reflects the time-honored DC negotiating tactic of setting an unrealistically high bar, knowing you will have to bargain that back in the end. Or maybe it supports an unstated effort to kick coronavirus relief into next year when Democrats may think “they can make a better deal,” perhaps as part of an even larger stimulus package. But no matter what, it sure doesn’t sound like the sort of bipartisan “unity” Biden suggested the country needed more of after election day.

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