Democrats Fail to Fight For Working Families in COVID-19 Emergency Relief Bills

Interview with David Sirota, political commentator, columnist, former advisor to Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, conducted by Scott Harris

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the world, the United States has more than 1 million cases of COVID-19, the nation with the most infections, one-third of the confirmed cases in the world today. Deaths from the coronavirus in the U.S. has now passed 57,000, although the actual number of those who died after contracting the disease is estimated to be much higher due to the lack of widespread testing.

To address the pandemic and the parallel economic crisis, the House approved a nearly $500 billion coronavirus rescue package on April 23 that the Senate allocates $321 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, the small business rescue fund that ran out of money last week. The funding bill, which took two weeks to negotiate between the Democratic-controlled House and the GOP majority Senate, also provides $60 billion in economic disaster loans for small businesses, $75 billion in emergency relief for hospitals and $25 billion to increase coronavirus testing. The measure, approved 388 to 5 in the House, is the fourth coronavirus emergency funding bill to have passed Congress in less than two months, totaling $2.7 trillion in federal funds to fight the pandemic.

The only Democrat to vote against the April 23 rescue package was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, who maintains that the legislation failed to provide rent and mortgage relief, funding for hemorrhaging state and local governments, hazard pay for frontline workers or health insurance for those who’ve lost their employer-sponsored health insurance coverage. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with David Sirota, a political commentator, columnist and author, who served as a senior advisor and speechwriter on the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign. Here, he criticizes the Democratic congressional leadership for being unwilling to fight for the aid urgently needed by the working families they purport to represent.

DAVID SIROTA: Well, the Democrats have some leverage because they control the House. And that means that the Democrats could pass a series of relief bills that would then dare the Republican-controlled Senate to reject it. And that has not happened. Instead, what’s happened is that the House has waited for (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell to pass bills that are essentially in large part corporate giveaways. And then McConnell drops it in their lap and then they’re left to either vote it up or down, potentially being accused of holding up emergency legislation for the economy and for people struggling with the coronavirus crisis. And to be clear, there are some important provisions in all of these bills, you know, to expand unemployment and the like. And what the usual tactic is that you’ll take a smaller bill filled with the good stuff that the public will like and you’ll attach large corporate bailouts to it and then you’ll dare the opposition party to reject it and argue that if they reject it, they’re holding up money for regular people.

The Democrats could flip the script. They could use their leverage in controlling the House to say, “We’re going to pass a big package of legislation to help workers. And if the Republicans want to reject it, let’s have that fight.” They have not used that power. They refuse to stand up and have that fight. And I think it’s in part because One, in many cases, the Democratic leader has to answer to the same corporate donors that the Republicans are working for when it comes to corporate bailouts. And Two, the Democrats have learned to fever the Republican retribution campaign, which in the 2000 and 2010s, Republicans oftentimes accused Democrats of holding up, being obstructionist. They’re holding up legislation when it came to the war, the Iraq war, when it came to the financial bailout. And I think the Democrats now have this learned helplessness, this learned fear that if they ever try to stand up, they’ll be vilified.

You know, at a certain point if you’re not willing to have the fight, you exude weakness. And we end up getting policies like we got in these emergency relief packages, which could have been far better and were instead used as a vehicle to transfer more wealth up the income scale. So you have to start wondering whether how much of it is that the Democrats are afraid and how much of it is the Democrats are corrupt? What’s the point of winning the U.S. House if you’re not going to use that power for good in a national emergency?

SCOTT HARRIS: David, one of the major points you’ve made here tonight is that the Democratic party has a certain pathology where they continuously bring a pillow to a knife fight with the Republicans who have this real ethos of all-out war when it comes to American politics. What’s the role of activists do you think in moving the Democrats to a position where they’ll find their spine and stand up to Republicans and Trump? And, of course this is not just about this administration, but going back many years. The Democrats have found themselves in a very weak position because they haven’t really struck out on many progressive principles that they’re willing to fight for.

DAVID SIROTA: Well, I think it’s a reminder that the fight to get more Democrats in office — but also better Democrats in office — is a fight that will have to go on probably for the rest of our lives. I mean, a big part of the problem here is that there may be Democrats in office, but clearly there are not enough who are willing to stand up and actually fight. And I think that, you know, I think if you’re living in a blue state or you’re living in a blue congressional district or a blue state legislative district, it’s not just worrying about the general election and whatever district you’re working in. It’s also worrying about the primary because the primary decides effectively what kind of Democrat will end up going into Congress.

So my point here is that, you know, the Democratic party sort of put out this idea that contested primaries are bad. They’re dangerous. They potentially weaken general election nominees and elections that we need to win. There’s no historical evidence for that at all. I mean, there just isn’t. Everyone remembers the 2008 primary — Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — a very contested primary that got very nasty. I would argue it made Barack Obama a stronger candidate for the general election. And that’s in part why he won the general election of 2008. And I think that having contested tough primaries at every level of government where activists are working hard to put better Democrats into office and not just more Democrats — more and better Democrats into office is the best possible way forward to make sure that we are not in this position for the rest of our lives. And it’s going to take a lot of work. It’s not an overnight solution. You know, and I think people are frustrated that they want single solutions. They want quick solutions. And I get it. I mean, I spent the last year — more than a year of my life out of 20 years of my life of working in this kind of stuff — but the last year of my life trying to win a presidential primary. And it’s just a reminder to me that, you know, the work has to go on. It’s not going to be quick. The progress is made at a slow pace. It may be too slow, but if we all give up, no progress will be made at all.

For more information, visit David Sirota’s website at davidsirota.com.

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