Placing opportunism above the public good

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For strongman Viktor Orban, who already had done much to dismantle democracy in Hungary, the coronavirus was the perfect excuse to seize the power to rule by decree. In Hong Kong, authorities found the COVID-19 lockdown the ideal occasion to round up dissidents — same in Algeria — without fear of mass demonstrations or a general strike. The Saudi regime has escaped widespread condemnation over the death in custody of Abdullah al-Hamid, that country’s Nelson Mandela for his work uniting secular with religious, and Sunni with Shiite, to pursue democracy and human rights.

We should all hope that this kind of opportunism in the midst of crisis is confined to authoritarian regimes overseas. Alas it is not.

We are seeing a growing contrast between political leaders who are putting aside their long-term agendas to pursue the public good now and those looking for ways to exploit mass terror and misery for quick political gain. 

Democrats and workers’ advocates long have criticized the inadequacies of the unemployment compensation system, which typically assists only about 30 percent of unemployed workers. Even at the height of the Great Recession, six in ten unemployed workers received no assistance. These advocates long have pushed for structural changes, such as covering gig economy workers and those only able to find part-time work. They have noted that this crisis has powerfully demonstrated those inadequacies of the system. Yet rather than seize the moment for sweeping change, Democrats have only sought to improve unemployment benefits for the duration of this crisis.

Similarly, although some progressives would like to liberalize existing anti-poverty programs or move to a universal basic income, the legislation they have moved for additional aid to struggling people have been strictly time-limited. Time-limited stimulus payments and food assistance increases in the Great Recession all ended on-time or early.

By contrast, we all saw the shameful saga of Wisconsin Republicans blocking any delay or mail voting for the state’s election — and closing dozens of polling places in heavily Democratic Milwaukee — in the hopes of locking in a conservative majority on that state’s Supreme Court. Their actions are already having tragic consequences.

We see the same sort of opportunism on the national level. Republicans have long and persistently criticized public employee unions and insisted that public employees’ pension funds are too generous. These complaints have little merit: below-market salaries with more generous pensions has long been a mutually advantageous deal. This encourages skilled people to devote their careers to public service, reducing the turnover that could invite patronage hiring. One might think Republicans would have plenty of time to make their case after the crisis passes.

Instead, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says he wants to drive state governments with high pension costs into bankruptcy. Bankruptcy proceedings may well be unconstitutional. In any event, bankruptcy is very different for governments than for private businesses because they lack stockholders to dispossess; instead, the primary effect is to void the government’s long-term contracts:  contracts with unions and with pensioners. After a lifetime of making less serving the public than they could have in the private sector on the promise of a secure retirement, public pensioners face having that promised security yanked away with Sen. McConnell’s blessing. This idea has been around in GOP circles since at least 2011, and since 2011 both Democratic and Republican governors have predicted that enacting legislation allowing state bankruptcies would raise interest rates, compounding state and local governments’ fiscal crises.

Lockdowns have cratered state revenues from sales and income taxes. Current estimates suggest states will lose more than $650 billion in revenues this year and next — at the very time when they are having to provide extensive new services because of the crisis. Yet Sen. McConnell and the Trump administration have adamantly opposed providing any new fiscal relief to state and local governments. And now the administration has barred state and local governments from spending the $150 billion that Congress already legislated for fiscal relief to make up for plunging revenues. The Treasury Department suggests, without any authority in the law, that this money be handed over to businesses — while teachers and fire-fighters are laid off for lack of revenues. The administration also reportedly hopes that state fiscal crises will force them to “re-open” sooner than public health guidance suggests.

Equally opportunistic, President Trump has exploited the crisis to implement his longstanding anti-immigrant agenda. His executive order selectively banning immigration claims to be about protecting American jobs, yet it exempts categories of immigrants who come here specifically to work. Perhaps not coincidentally, immigrants arriving on those work visas are an important source of low-wage labor for his and other businesses. Because of the various exceptions it makes, his executive order would have very little effect on immigration from Canada, western Europe, or Australia and New Zealand — but it will be devastating for those already here hoping to re-unify with family members from Asia, eastern Europe, and Africa. This executive order mirrors legislation he has proposed unsuccessfully to Congress.  Although it purports to be temporary, we should be skeptical: his restrictions on entry by citizens of predominately Muslim countries — which he also presented as a short-term measure — remains in effect.

With countless immigrants putting their lives in danger to provide health care and food to the rest of us, and when the State Department is begging health care professionals to come here to cope with the pandemic, this would have been a good time to pause anti-immigrant rhetoric. But apparently the appeal of changing the subject from the continued unavailability of tests, masks, and gowns proved too great.

Whatever our views on particular issues, we must firmly reject efforts to exploit this crisis for narrow advantage. At a time when we all need to pull together, we cannot tolerate anyone trying to pull us apart.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DavidASuper1 

Tags Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 Donald Trump Great Recession Mitch McConnell Opportunism state bankruptcy state pensions Trump immigration policies Unemployment Unemployment benefits Union busting

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