Progressive lawmakers push people first in coronavirus relief
Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was among the most outspoken in demands for a new coronavirus stimulus package that really focuses on working people rather than big corporations. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

WASHINGTON—With events moving quickly towards yet another economic stimulus bill hitting Capitol Hill, progressive lawmakers and groups have banded together and are lobbying hard to ensure the measure puts people, not corporate interests, first.

But they have one big obstacle to overcome: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is determined the next economic relief bill contains $250 billion for so-called “small businesses,” and smaller sums sent to hurting hospitals and to states and cities who have seen their revenues disappear – and nothing at all for workers.

The measure is expected to hit Congress by the end of the week of April 24, following behind three earlier laws, notably, the $2.2 trillion economic relief bill solons passed and GOP President Donald Trump grumbled about, then signed on March 18. He then took credit for it in big letters and a photo splashed on the White House website.

That measure was designed to blunt the economic crash resulting from massive closures ordered to cure or halt the “community spread” of the coronavirus pandemic. As of the morning of April 20, the coronavirus had sickened 749,666 people in the U.S., and 35,012 had died.

The closures also threw 22 million people out of jobs so far, shooting the U.S. jobless rate up over 10 percent, the Economic Policy Institute calculates. That hit led to the $1,200 electronic payments from the Treasury to most – but not all – adults in the U.S. and $500 per child. It also led to expansion of jobless benefits by $600 for each person who gets them, but state jobless benefit systems have crashed under the workload.

That was deliberate, Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Pramilla Jayapal, D-Wash., said. “Mass unemployment is a policy choice,” she declared. In Europe and other developed nations, systems were structured to keep people on the job or paid even if they are laid off. The progressive package includes her permanent payments of salaries of up to $100,000, plus guaranteed retention of health insurance.

The progressive lawmakers and groups on the April 20 press teleconference made it clear that dollars for small businesses and pittances for the others won’t fly as far as they’re concerned.

“McConnell said he’s tired of Democrats trying to force their wish lists” into economic stimulus laws, said Reggie Hubbard, Washington strategic coordinator for MoveOn, which assembled both the 50-group coalition behind the progressives’ package and the teleconference. “We have to do something big to address that,” added Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a Painters member who’s the other Progressive Caucus co-chair.

The most outspoken was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., whose congressional district, populated by a majority of vulnerable people who are black, brown, low-income or all of those, has suffered more illnesses and deaths than any other in the U.S.

If the next stimulus bill “matches up with what has been reported, I will not support it,” she declared.

“It is insulting to think we can pass such a small amount of money, pat ourselves on the back and leave town again” after lawmakers just returned – or tried to – from a three-week recess. “I have to make condolence calls every single day…I won’t vote for a five-dollar bill.”

Instead, the lawmakers, including Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minn., and Jayapal and Pocan, are pushing the much more comprehensive package.

It would focus on money for people. Ocasio-Cortez, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, said it should have continuing $2,000 monthly payments to adults and $1,000 to kids until the crisis is over. Pressley said it should include rent and mortgage forbearance, along with provisions to ensure landlords and banks don’t come down all at once on people’s heads when those restrictions are lifted.

Tlaib, recalling the lead in Flint, Michigan’s water, said it must guarantee clean water to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. She’s dropped a bill in the hopper to demand that and wants to include it in the progressive package, too. After all, she pointed out, people need clean water to wash their hands multiple times a day, as the government recommends, to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“And it’ll be very difficult to support a bill that doesn’t have relief for state and local governments,” said Jayapal. The states and cities have asked for $500 billion, and Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.,  a former mayor, and Bill Cassidy, R-La., promised in a separate teleconference the same day to push that in the next economic stimulus bill, not this one. But McConnell may oppose that, too, they warned.

Pocan said the progressives would bring up their strong package in a conference call of all House Democrats on the afternoon of April 20. But he and the others admitted they’re hamstrung because all they know about what McConnell, the GOP Trump government and their allies would back comes from news reports, not the measure itself.

What they know of that GOP plan, they don’t like, said both the lawmakers and the progressive groups.

One other big hole the progressives plan to fix: Exclusion of undocumented people, a point that steamed both Ocasio-Cortez and Greisa Martinez-Rosas of United We Dream said. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) moved four days before to fill that hole with state payments, since 10% of Californian workers are undocumented.

The progressive package also would have a strong pro-worker section, authored by several of the progressives and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., strengthening – for front-line workers against the pandemic — the right to organize and defend themselves, putting workers on corporate boards, restricting executive pay and perks and corporate stock buybacks and enacting other pro-worker provisions.

That, however, did not come up in the April 20 call. It will come up in an April 21 press conference on “labor’s plan for reopening the economy,” to be unveiled by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

Tlaib summarized the progressives’ agenda for the stimulus package as going far beyond cash.

“We are talking here about leverage against structural racism and economic oppression,” said Tlaib, who, like Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, an independent, is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist. “Our neighbors have been in ‘survivor mode’ because of these broken systems.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.