This week: What we need to do better about COVID, plus work-share programs.
Welcome to The Wrap! Each week, we’ll walk through some of the big news and policy headlines from the past seven days to explain what it means.
Now to the thing.
As of Friday evening, we’ve seen 14.3 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. Over 277,000 people have reportedly died.
Here’s one big thing I wanted to cover from this past week:
Here’s where we are with the coronavirus.
Despite the good news about the vaccine developments, we’re currently in the worst part of this pandemic and the outlook for the next few months remains grim. I found this particular graphic about new COVID cases from The Washington Post to be very sobering:
We’ve now hit a point where we see close to or over 200,000 new cases per day. On Wednesday alone, at least 2,855 people died from the virus. That’s close to how many people died in the 9/11 terrorist attack. Current projections foretell we could reach over 400,000 deaths related to COVID-19 by March. Hospitals are swamped, overrun, and lacking the needed number of nurses.
With this in mind, I wanted to revisit the two frames of this pandemic and what we can do to better address these trends.
The public health frame
We’ve just discussed the degree to which things are awful. So, what can we do differently while we wait for a vaccine? The short answer is “not much.” We need to continue social distancing and wearing at least one mask (you should consider wearing two). President-elect Joe Biden shared that he would ask all American people to wear a mask for 100 days, which is significant step further than what the current administration has advised.
One important change we can incorporate: reopen elementary schools, at least partially. This is a departure from many of the current strategies at the state and local levels, but it turns out there isn’t much evidence showing schools are the superspreader environments we expected them to be. Taking into account the very real adverse impacts of remote schooling on kids and their parents, and the need to begin reopening becomes clear. Still, doing so safely is easier said than done; it will need an influx of cash from Washington, which Biden has said he would push for.
We should also be focusing on how to distribute the coronavirus vaccines when they’re available. The CDC has said the 21 million health care workers in the U.S. should be the first to get vaccinated (paywall), but the federal government is mostly deferring to the states on most of the distribution details.
The economic frame
Of course, this being a 101PC piece covering the virus, we have to mention the yet-to-be economic stimulus package.
The need has only grown since negotiations on this in Congress began this summer: Unemployment has remained high while the unemployment insurance benefits boost has expired, jobs growth has stalled, the constant threat of eviction for millions of Americans remains, and the CARES Act programs that have otherwise cushioned the full economic impact of the virus are set to expire at the end of this year.
Talks between the two parties have picked up again with much urgency (paywall). A $908 billion bill proposed by a bipartisan group of senators is the latest point of reference for the Dem and GOP leadership, but some of the same disagreements from earlier in the negotiations persist. The GOP still wants anti-worker liability protections for businesses to be included in this package; this remains a nonstarter for some Democrats. Democrats want a second round of stimulus checks; this is absent from the bill. (Vermont Senator Bernie Sander (I) has said this is part of why he would not be voting for this bill as is.)
For all this progress, the two sides aren’t there yet—any progress feels like a monumental shift because they have been so far apart on many of the details. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he still favors a smaller $500 billion bill that was introduced a few months ago, which President Trump supports. Meanwhile, Biden has urged Congress to pass something before he takes over in late January (paywall).
Related: This $908 billion deal does include some aid for state and local governments, which is desperately needed. This piece by The New York Times explains why (paywall).
There is no doubt that we need to change how we’re trying to mitigate the virus if we want to curb the rising numbers of cases and deaths. We’re saturated in individual and communal fatigue from this pandemic, which makes doing so all the more difficult. But this doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible for taking care of ourselves and each other, and this requires smart and empathetic policy from whom we put in positions of authority.
The latest from Congress:
In addition to the stimulus, there are two other big ongoing stories in Washington. Here’s a quick rundown:
The budget: If you recall, Congress and President Trump agreed to a stop-gap measure for the federal budget back in October. This averted a government shutdown at the time, but now the new deadline of December 11 is rapidly approaching. According to Forbes, it’s increasingly unlikely that an omnibus bill (a full package of budget bills) will get passed, but another continuing resolution (i.e., short-term solution) is probable.
Defense spending: The Defense Department’s huge spending plan, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), has been passed every year for six decades. Congress just passed the 2021 NDAA this week, but Trump is threatening to veto it because it does not repeal a provision that protects tech platforms from being held legally liable for what is posted on their platforms, per CNBC. This kind of protection is pretty unpopular within the GOP, whose members constantly complain about “censorship” on social media and actively seek opportunities to bash Big Tech. Still, Trump appears mostly by himself in this particular fight; there might be a chance Congress will override his veto, or Trump might simply back down. Foreign Policy has more here.
Along with the stimulus, each of these three are a headache by themselves; having all three at the same time is no better. The Washington Post has a primer on how bad this month could be in Congress here (paywall). If you’re interested, The Balance has a good breakdown of federal spending here.
One more thing: The House passed a bill that would effectively legalize marijuana at the federal level. Passage in the Senate isn’t likely, but this remains a pretty historic event. Vox has more here.
In its latest move against undocumented immigrants (and democracy), the Trump Administration again pushed for congressional district apportionment to reflect the number of citizens, not necessarily people. They brought this to the Supreme Court, which was less than enthusiastic about taking the case. Here’s a quick recap:
- In our Constitution, the Census count and the apportionment process has always included people. This includes everybody—citizens and non-citizens.
- The DOJ argued Trump has the authority to change this and say members of Congress only represent citizens and their districts should reflect that.
- Doing this would shift much of the political power and federal funding away from states like California, Texas, New York, and Florida, all of which have large undocumented populations.
- Subtracting the number of undocumented people from the Census count might not be feasible, as acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall didn’t specify how the Trump admin would do it during oral arguments for this case.
- The court was a bit annoyed following this. Justice Samuel Alito admitted he was “frustrated” because, “It could be that we’re dealing a possibility that is quite important. It could be that this is much ado about very little. It depends on what the Census Bureau and the Department of Commerce are able to do.”
While it doesn’t quite look likely that the president will get his way, it’s still an alarming move by Trump. It’s no secret that he and members of his party actively seek out ways to disenfranchise people of color or otherwise weaken these communities’ political power, and this is just the most recent brazen attempt to retain Republican-minoritarian control on Congress and politics on multiple levels.
Related: Nina Perales, Vice President of Litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, explains how this move by the WH fits into the broader Trump strategy of weakening the Latino vote.
- President-elect Joe Biden is lining up picks for his cabinet, some of whom are already facing resistance from the left and right. Notably, Neera Tanden is Biden’s pick for Office of Management and Budget Director. President of the think tank Center for American Progress, Tanden has close ties to the Clintons. Her center-left views on domestic policy have dusted up some bad blood between her and the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party. GOP senators are similarly signaling they will make her confirmation difficult. Additionally, though this is not confirmed, Biden is considering Rahm Emanuel for Transportation Secretary. Emanuel is also facing criticism from the left mostly due to his conduct as Chicago’s mayor, particularly concerning his suppression of information regarding the 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald.
- New York Magazine has a running list of Biden’s high-level picks here.
- Scott Atlas, President Trump’s advisor on the coronavirus, resigned on Monday. A non-expert on infectious diseases, Atlas has been heavily involved in the White House’s botched COVID strategy. Notably, he was a big proponent of reaching herd immunity to fight the virus. Sad to see him go…?
- President Trump is reportedly considering pardons for many of his aides, allies, and family members. And himself. Please note, Trump, members of his family, and most of the people under consideration have not been charged with any federal crimes so these are basically “pre-pardons,” which do have some precedent. Still, the legality of a president pardoning himself is not settled. It all does make you wonder, what will we learn about this administration after Trump leaves office?
- A federal judge ordered the Trump admin to fully restore the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Remember: DACA is the program that protects undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children from being deported.
- It turns out Google has been spying on employees and firing ones that were trying to organize a union. That’s illegal.
News from abroad:
- Some countries are readying their coronavirus vaccine distribution plans, namely the UK, France, and Belgium. The latter two will offer the vaccine for free.
- Many in France have taken to the streets in protest over the past few days in response to a new law that restricts cell phone documentation by civilians during police encounters.
- After weeks of blocking the European Union from approving its multi-annual budget and COVID-19 relief package, Poland appears to be softening its opposition to the “rule of law” stipulations for these deals. The country’s relationship with the bloc has become increasingly strained; Politico explores why a “Polexit” is likely (but also unlikely).
- The EU and the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States approved a new 20-year deal that outlines how the union and the 79-member group will tackle topics like immigration, environmental regulation, human rights, and security. This replaces an existing deal.
- Wildfire season isn’t over for California: the Bond Fire has forced some 25,000 residents from their homes.
- Singapore officially allows cultured meat to be sold. This is lab-grown meat; it’s produced from the cells of livestock animals. So why is this included in our “climate news” section? Because, if we were to make a serious pivot to this kind of meat, we could significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Here’s a quick Twitter thread exploring this.
What to expect next week:
- Congress: Continued negotiations for the stimulus package, plus some sort of continuing resolution or short-term deal on the federal budget.
One Last Thought: Work-Share Programs
With initial and ongoing unemployment insurance claims remaining stubbornly high each week, it’s a bit of a head scratcher that more states or the federal government have not adopted work-share programs.
Here’s roughly how a work-share program (AKA a short-term compensation program) works during an economic downturn:
- Instead of laying off workers, an employer reduces some or all of its employees’ hours.
- These workers take a wage cut because of the reduced hours.
- Some of the lost wages are replaced by the state unemployment insurance system.
The biggest appeal of such a program is obvious: Massive layoffs are avoided and workers recover some of the lost wages. Plus there are some other important effects of work-share programs:
- Businesses retain workers they spent time training, and they decrease their turnover costs.
- The statistical severity of spikes in unemployment are diluted, helping the state and local governments and economies.
- The long-term economic costs of a recession on workers, their employers, and the state are less severe.
In other words, this simultaneously supports workers, employers, and the economy. That’s why it’s typically supported by both labor unions and the business community, popular among workers and employers, and used more heavily in other countries. Currently, 27 states have some version of a work-share program, though they all don’t necessarily use them fully.
A work-share program wouldn’t help all sectors, but it would have especially helped some of the ones most deeply impacted by the pandemic, such as the restaurant industry. This concept is also especially complementary to the U.S., where most people get their insurance through their jobs. If workers took reductions in hours and wages instead of their employers laying them off, these workers would retain any benefits they receive, including health insurance. This is doubly important to consider during this pandemic, during which several millions of Americans who have lost their jobs have also lost their health insurance.
At this point, it wouldn’t be quite as effective to implement work-share programs—they need to be in place before an economic downturn to have the largest impact. Still, this doesn’t change the fact that we know they work and should consider more widespread adoption.
That’s a wrap. In case you missed it over the holiday, check out 101PC’s latest piece on myths about immigration.