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House Democrats should play hardball on coronavirus relief

House Democrats should play hardball on coronavirus relief
© Bonnie Cash

Since the House passed the Heroes Act, a $3 trillion stimulus to assist the unemployed, small businesses, and local governments, Americans have been waiting for critically needed financial relief. However, the Senate has produced nothing in response. The reason is that Senate Republicans and President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE do not believe that more funds are needed, and they are waiting until after the election while the nation suffers.

However, the House has one leverage point if its leaders are willing to play hardball. The current fiscal year ends this month, and Congress must pass new spending legislation, or face a government shutdown. But instead of taking this as an opportunity to force Republicans to the bargaining table, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSpending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 MORE has done just the opposite. She has come to terms with the administration to bring forth a continuing resolution that would allow the federal government to spend at the same rate as it did during the present fiscal year until after the election this fall.

There is nothing unusual about continuing resolutions, however, 2020 is anything but a normal year. The coronavirus has caused massive layoffs, shuttered thousands of businesses, and imposed burdens on states when their tax revenues are shrinking with the battered economy. The notion of Congress passing a continuing resolution as usual, with nothing to show to rescue the nation, should be unthinkable, but it is not.

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That outcome is understandable to Senate Republicans and Trump, but it should be abhorrent to the House Democrats. Their willingness to support a clean continuing resolution right now is not an act of responsibility. This can only be viewed as a political calculation that they fear being blamed for a government shutdown that could adversely impact their chances in the election. If that is their thinking, it is wrong for two reasons.

First, their job is to protect those in need and not their election prospects. Millions of Americans are hurting, and more will be without their jobs or services, unless some version of the Heroes Act becomes law. If it means forcing a government shutdown for a few days, to bring Republicans to the bargaining table, the House should allow that to happen because it is the right thing to do under these dire financial circumstances.

Second, Democrats appear to believe that they will be blamed if there is a government shutdown in the absence of a continuing resolution. Do they think that Americans do not know which members of Congress have been refusing to even discuss critically needed financial relief, or as Trump has called for, more tax cuts for the employed, but nothing for those without jobs? Or do they believe that their candidate Joe Biden will not be able to make clear who is responsible for both a government shutdown and why House Democrats are right to insist that providing financial relief should be part of any spending legislation starting next month?

For many years, members of Congress used “must pass” appropriations legislation to fund their projects back home, often with no connection to any federal programs. We in the District of Columbia have been victims of many of these amendments that have set restrictions on spending our tax revenues, such as to fund abortions for those without insurance or allow the District of Columbia to operate a medical marijuana program. But in this instance, nothing could be more germane to federal spending than helping those whose lives have been crushed in this crisis.

Suppose that the situation were reversed in 2024, with President Biden in the White House and Senate Republicans in control. Suppose further that the Senate Republicans desperately wanted tax cuts or relief from some regulation. Is there any doubt that they would do precisely what they did in 2016, when they refused even to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court just because they could?

Before Democrats cave into demands for a clean continuing resolution, they have to ask, “What would Mitch McConnell do?” The only realistic answer is to use their power over the budget to ensure that Americans receive the funds that they deserve now instead of next year.

Alan Morrison teaches constitutional law at George Washington University.