As Donald Trump continues to slide in the polls, losing support among seniors and in battleground states, Senate Republicans remain opposed to even a relatively narrow $1.8 trillion stimulus deal the White House wants. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be bringing an even smaller $500 billion stimulus bill to the Senate floor, where it will almost certainly fail. With so many Republican senators in tight races, one would imagine a stimulus deal would be in their favor. Their intransigence on a deal makes them look resigned not just to a Trump loss, but to a blue wave where Democrats retake the Senate. And while they remain divided over their support for a short-term stimulus, both the White House and Senate Republicans are using the levers available to them to blunt any economic recovery during a Joe Biden administration.
The White House is only interested in measures that would impact the election, and nothing after it. This is evidenced by the expiration dates on two key administrative actions: the suspension on federal student loan payments and the evictions moratorium both end on December 31, 2020. This means many people will be ringing in 2021 with an eviction, garnishment of their wages to pay a defaulted student loan, or by re-starting student loan payments in the middle of the pandemic. If Biden wins in November, Trump will have set up a fraught three-week gap before the new administration can act again to stop evictions and student loan payments.
If Trump or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos don’t act to extend the student loan suspension into January 2021 or later, low-income borrowers in default are at risk of having their tax refunds seized in 2021. That’s because many low-income borrowers file their taxes in late January in order to obtain needed funds. The end to the federal student loan suspension will also mean the student debt collection machine will get turned back on January 1, 2021. Those in default on their student loans will once again face having their wages garnished or their Social Security or earned income tax credit benefits seized. Those who graduate in the fall will also have a particularly hard time, as they will enter repayment in the worst job market since 2008. While a Biden administration would likely act to re-suspend student loan payments, the Trump administration is sabotaging the possibility for continuity and creating the potential for real chaos and turmoil by ending the suspension three weeks before Inauguration Day.
The federal evictions moratorium is also set to expire on New Year’s Eve 2020. In addition to teeing up a flood of evictions in 2021, should Biden win, the Trump administration is actually already working to undercut its own 2020 actions. The Trump administration just issued new guidance on its eviction moratorium that allows for eviction proceedings to begin, even though the eviction itself cannot be executed until January. Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, noted that this helps landlords who may want to start eviction proceedings in October, because it allows them to pressure or intimidate renters into leaving sooner. She points out that many renters fear eviction proceedings or “can’t participate in court proceedings due to accessibility issues,” and that this new guidance will create “new opportunities for landlord intimidation.” The Trump administration appears uninterested in helping renters in the new year, but is also actively sabotaging even the protections they created.
Senate Republicans are going even further than the Trump administration when it comes to setting up traps to imperil the economy should Biden win. Prior to Trump’s latest lobbying spree for another stimulus, McConnell had been long telegraphing his opposition to another economic relief bill. This is in spite of dire economic warnings. Census Survey data from the end of August showed that in nine states, more than 12 percent of adults reported they either sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the past week. In October, 34 percent of small businesses couldn’t pay their rent. And 25.5 million people are unemployed and receiving unemployment insurance.
The $1.8 trillion White House economic relief proposal, while far smaller than the $3 trillion of the original HEROES Act that passed the House in May, still includes measures that could help millions. The White House proposal includes another $1,200 stimulus payment and $400 a week in supplemental unemployment insurance (down from the extra $600 per week that ended in July).
But rank-and-file Senate Republicans are also uninterested in another stimulus. On a call with the White House on October 10, they used all manner of concerns as fig leaves for their opposition. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) said supporting the deal would be the “death knell” of the GOP majority. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) said, “There’s no appetite right now to spend the White House number or the House number.” But it was Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) who gave the game away, highlighting that a deal could complicate Senate floor timing, interfering with the GOP’s ability to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. Time spent jostling on the stimulus is time not spent on their illegitimate Supreme Court nomination proceedings. But it also shows their fear of losing the Senate itself. Republicans, ever focused on consolidating power, would rather ram through their nomination for this Supreme Court seat than try to save their Senate majority with a stimulus deal, perhaps assuming that a conservative majority on the court will provide a firewall to any Democratic legislation should Republicans lose in the Senate.
Given the opposition from the Republican caucus, McConnell’s even narrower economic relief bill is likely just an attempt to appease the White House by going through the motions. Democrats have long opposed Senate Republican proposals, not simply for failing to go far enough, but also because they’ve historically included a liability shield that not only prevents workers from suing their employer for coronavirus-related liability, but even allows firms to sue their own workers should they try and seek recompense if they get sick.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is leaving the nation vulnerable to a gap in regulatory action, while the Senate GOP is blocking fiscal action — more stimulus checks and desperately needed supplemental unemployment insurance. In the end, while the White House wants one last congressional act to try and claim victory over before the election, and the Senate GOP doesn’t, they both share the same goal: Ensure a potential Biden administration faces maximum economic pain for at least three weeks before the new administration and new Senate is sworn in. It doesn’t matter to Republicans that this economic sabotage means thousands of evictions on New Year’s Day or defaulted student loan borrowers losing their tax refunds. Just as Republicans did in 2010 in relation to the Obama agenda, when Rep. John Boehner promised that “we’re going to do everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down,” the GOP is already focused on sabotaging a hypothetical Biden administration, even in the middle of a raging pandemic.