Sorry New York Times, Democrats weren't "blocking" pandemic relief bill
They're improving bad legislation
Typing up Republican talking points with astonishing speed this week, the New York Times led the media charge insisting that Democrats were "blocking" a crucial $1.8 trillion pandemic relief bill. The paper stressed that Democrats "risked a political backlash," suggesting the party's actions were extreme and controversial, as Democratic and Republican leaders parried while trying to pass the important bill.
It was a classic example of how the Beltway press too often embraces and eagerly absorbs Republican rhetoric, especially when Republicans hit the Phony Outrage button, as they so often do in hopes of generating sympathetic press coverage. Fortunately, not all news outlets fell for that trick the way the Times did, and many news organizations covered the relief bill in a much more fair and balanced way.
Make no mistake, the idea that Democrats "blocked" much-needed aid was the Republican talking point. (See here, here, here, and here.) The barrage of messages was nonstop, as Republican officials and their friends in the partisan GOP press hammered their unifying theme — heartless Democrats are blocking relief!
But that's not how legislation works, and certainly not during a time of crisis. Voting ‘No’ on what every Democratic U.S. Senator considered to be a bad bill isn't "blocking" anything, it's voting against a bad bill. Meaning, it's up to Republicans who run the Senate to fashion legislation that can pick up enough votes from across the aisle to ensure passage, which meant the GOP needed 60 votes to advance procedurally. That's how the U.S. Senate has been working for a very long time.
It's startling that at a time of a global pandemic when both parties are anxious to deliver crucial help, Republican leaders in the Senate crafted a bill so objectionable that not a single Democrat was willing to support it, even during an election year. And that included Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, who denounced the bill as a give-away to Wall Street.
This represents a complete failure of leadership from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), whose job it is to make sure he has votes to pass bills in times of a national crisis.
Specifically, Democrats objected to crucial parts of the original GOP bill, including insufficient funds for extending unemployment, not enough money and aid for hospitals and healthcare workers, and more funds needed for destabilized states and localities. Given all that, why did the Times put the onus on Democrats? They didn't write the partisan bill. But Democrats did write a previous pandemic relief bill in the House that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, with a final vote of 363-40.
Still, the Times remained committed to the GOP storyline: "Senate Democrats again blocked action on a $1.8 trillion economic stabilization package on Monday as talks continued with the Trump administration to resolve differences." Misleading Times headlines also did the Republican dirty work. "Emergency Economic Rescue Plan in Limbo as Democrats Block Action," the paper announced, stressing the Democrats' move represented a "stunning setback."
By the way, the Times offered zero evidence that Democrats, who objected to the bill because there wasn't enough protection for workers, would face a "political backlash" by trying to improve it. That was the paper re-purposing GOP spin. For the Times, it was inconceivable that Republicans would face a "political backlash" for being seen as turning a worker crisis relief bill into a corporate bailout.
The Washington Post also traveled down this unfortunate road. "Democrats blocked a $2 trillion coronavirus rescue bill for the second day in a row Monday," the paper reported, adopting GOP framing, word-for-word.
On MSNBC, Andrea Mitchell decried the "bickering" surrounding the bill. So, in order to avoid "bickering," Democrats were supposed to hand over $500 billion of the $1.8 trillion relief bill to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, so he and Trump could retreat behind closed doors and decide which corporations received the massive aid, and then be allowed to withhold the names of the companies landing federal money? (This is the definition of a slush fund.)
Thankfully, other news outlets resisted the GOP framing and covered the sparring over the crucial relief bill with more fairness, and stayed away from the misleading "Democrats block" narrative:
- "Senate's trillion-dollar coronavirus stimulus bill hits speed bump" (Axios)
- "Coronavirus relief bill slows in U.S. Senate, talks continue" (Reuters)
- "Senate showdown over pandemic relief stalls" (ABC News)
The Times shouldn't be in the business of amplifying Republican talking points under the guise of news. And especially not during a national crisis.
UPDATED: As negotiations for the relief bill continued this week, a number of Republicans stepped forward demanding that unemployment payments be reduced. That stalled the bill’s final passage. So did the New York Times post a headline about how “Republicans Block Emergency Relief Bill”? They did not. Instead, the Times posted this passive headline: “Senate Talks on Aid Stall Over Benefits.”
When Democrats objected to bill, they were “blocking.” When Republicans ogjected to the bills, nameless forces were “stalling” the passage. Funny how that work.
📖 GOOD STUFF:
Last winter I read Philip Roth's 2004 novel, "The Plot Against America," and was blown away, especially reading it in the age of Trump. In his classic what-if book, Roth portrays America after Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940 and he forms a pact with Hitler to stay out of World War II, while at home fascisms gains a major foothold. The heart of the novel is about the slow-motion erosion of liberties at home while a cult-like figure rules the country, and seemingly ordinary Americans sign off on the ugly transformation. Oh, and there’s also an amazing twist ending.
The book has been turned into a series that's now airing on HBO. For more background on the novel, this new Smithsonian piece is excellent, "The True Story Behind 'The Plot Against America'."
🎸FUN STUFF — BECAUSE WE ALL NEED A BREAK :
Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors, “Family”
I finally saw Drew Holcomb in concert late last year, and midway through this kitchen-dance song he told a story about the time his wayward uncle with a checkered past showed up unannounced for Christmas one year with a station wagon full of gifts for Drew and his siblings. At one point that day, Drew's father took his brother out to the back deck at the house in Tennessee and asked him, if he stilled owed him money, how could he afford to buy all those gifts? The uncle replied, while taking a drag on a cigarette, "I didn't buy those gifts. I stole them." (The uncle's buddy had a keys to Toys R Us.) The next day, Drew's dad made the kids donate all the gifts.
If you ever get to see Holcomb & the Neighbors, do it! He's one of the good guys, for sure.
You don't choose em, you can't lose em
We all have a song to sing
Some are crazy, some are amazing
All got a little bit of everything
Compare headline tonight:
“Stimulus Bill Delayed in Senate Over Jobless Benefits”
No party identified.
It was the Repubs.
One factor is "Murc’s law", "the widespread assumption that only Democrats have any agency or causal influence over American politics". (Do a Web search for more.) This is related to the "cult of bipartisanship" in establishment media. The belief is that "compromise" and "working across the aisle" are The Way Things Are Supposed To Get Done in U.S. politics, and so any situation where one party "won't play along" with the other is bad. That's why things like this are always framed as a "partisan squabble". Since Republicans hold the White House, the belief is that the other party needs to "work with them" and give concessions. As I've said before, this conveniently means journalists can be lazy and just go with surface-level analysis ("one party has this bill and the other is blocking it") and repeating what politicos say rather than actually looking into boring policy details and analyzing their effects. Politics as sports: "The Red Team is up by three! Can Blue Team manage to hold them off and regroup?"
Also, nothing personal, but nitpick: the Senate effectively needing 60 votes for most bills has not been the way it's worked for a "long time". (Unless you meant a "long time" in the short memory span of the U.S. public.) The filibuster as it works today only dates back to 1970 with the adoption of the "two-track" system. Before that, filibusters halted all business on the Senate floor; thus, they were politically risky and only done rarely, as conservative Democrats famously did for civil rights bills. Now, a filibuster just stops the thing being filibustered, and the Senate can put that business "on hold" and continue to do other things. I think a lot of people don't know this. This means anyone talking about today's filibuster as "how the Senate has always worked" is either ignorant or being disingenuous.