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Congress has two jobs this instant

Congress has exactly two jobs that have to come before anything else this week:

  1. Sending a check for $2,000 to every person in this country with a Social Security Number
  2. Implementing a continuity-of-government plan so that they can continue to operate even if a quorum can’t be met with a physical meeting inside the Senate chambers
Benjamin Franklin’s “Fugio” Cent: Time flies, and it’s flying fast

The first part of that job is simple: We’re headed straight for an economic brick wall, the likes of which nobody can fully grasp right now. You can’t tell people to stay home for two, four, eight, or more weeks and think the economy just picks up where it left off as though we just took a vacation. But the only way to ensure that people stay home — especially if they’re actively sick — is to make sure they have the cash on hand to meet the basic needs of existence.

Extreme borrowing is justified in extreme circumstances, and putting the equivalent of a full stop on the economy so that we can keep a global pandemic from killing millions of people qualifies, without exception, as an extreme circumstance. This isn’t a matter of adopting a universal basic income because we feel like that’s the right long-term policy. It’s responding to a radical amputation at an accident scene with a tourniquet so the patient can survive long enough to make it to the hospital.

If the United States government can’t borrow a trillion or two trillion dollars at effectively zero-percent interest right now and advance that cash to the public, we’re in grave danger. But that’s what a few months of support are going to cost, and if there’s one stroke of luck in our favor, it’s that “indistinguishable from zero” is the effective interest rate.

To split hairs over who gets what at this time is to slow the release of cash that people need in their hands immediately. $2,000 won’t make any difference to Bill Gates. It could make all the difference to a restaurant worker who’s been laid off and has been living paycheck-to-paycheck while trying to feed a child at home. If there is some inefficiency in sending money to some wealthy households that don’t need it, so be it — there are costs, too, in legislating, differentiating, and ultimately litigating among the recipients. In the words of James Mattis: “Speed equals success.”

The second part is becoming more dreadfully clear by the second: Senator Mitt Romney is in self-quarantine right now because Senator Rand Paul sat next to him and has tested positive for coronavirus. This could lead to utter madness.

James Madison would be utterly ashamed if the Senate were to waste another hour before instituting sensible and modest contingency plans to ensure continuity of quorum voting by Senators whose presence might risk the health of the rest. As Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers:

“The necessity of a Senate is not less indicated by the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.”

In other words, it’s exactly in case of emergency that the Senate is most needed. And this — my God, this — is a national emergency.

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