Americans are screaming for government officials to do their jobs already.
Unfortunately, many officials — at least, the ones with substantial firepower left — refuse to act. They need to stop letting the perfect (or the stupid) be the enemy of the good.
To be sure, the Federal Reserve is doing what it can. In an emergency meeting over the weekend, central bankers took extreme action, including measures last adopted during the financial crisis a decade ago.
They slashed the Fed funds rate to near zero; restarted quantitative easing; cut the rate at which banks can get emergency loans through the Fed’s “discount window”; and activated currency swap lines with five other central banks.
In other words, the Fed fired virtually every bullet it had — using all artillery on hand, from squirt-gun to bazooka.
Yet, U.S. equity markets still crashed. Monday’s session started with such a sharp plunge that circuit breakers had to temporarily halt trading. By day’s end, the S&P 500 closed down about 12 percent.
That’s not a reflection of Fed failure. Rather, it’s the market’s way of saying: There just isn’t that much monetary policy can do to keep an economic crisis at bay. With interest rates already so low, the central bank had limited ammunition to fight a recession, especially one begun by a global pandemic.
Which is why we need fiscal policymakers to step up and do something useful. Yesterday.
Alas, GOP lawmakers and the White House have been dragging their feet, distracted by bad ideas, as well as good ones that can be addressed later.
Just as President Donald Trump had obsessively pressured the Fed to cut rates to zero long before it made sense to do so — before coronavirus was even a twinkle in a Wuhan bat’s eye — the president has become fixated on a similarly unhelpful fiscal fix: a payroll tax cut.
He and his aides have argued repeatedly for this stimulus measure, including on TV Monday. Why is not clear; neither political party seems interested in it right now, and for good reason: It wouldn’t help people out of work.
“It would give the most money to people least likely to spend it, and the least money to those most likely to spend it,” said Sharon Parrott, a senior vice president at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
To Trump’s chagrin, a payroll tax cut was missing from the bill the Democratic-controlled House passed early Saturday. Still, it contains other measures that would meaningfully address some of the pandemic’s economic fallout (including some the White House has embraced).
Among its provisions are free coronavirus testing, additional funding for unemployment insurance programs and more generous food assistance.
Critically, it would provide support for states whose budgets are about to get squeezed by both falling tax revenue and increasing costs. It does this by increasing the share of Medicaid program costs paid by the federal government so long as a public health emergency declaration remains in place.
And, of course, it includes expanded paid sick leave and family leave to allow people to stay home from work without fear of missing their entire paycheck.
Even so, as many on both the left and right have pointed out, the legislation does not go nearly far enough.
For instance, the paid-leave portions of the bill have huge loopholes; they do not apply to large firms with more than 500 employees, and allow waivers for the family leave provisions for firms with fewer than 50 employees. The firms that do have to provide leave might have to wait on federal reimbursement for longer than we want them to.
Lots of other worthwhile options have been proposed that are not included, such as direct cash payments to families (proposed Monday by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, among others). Or a temporary cut to state sales taxes, financed by the federal government.
Again, these fixes and additional measures are worth considering. But it doesn’t make sense to hold up further votes on the good-if-not-perfect House-passed template while each and every possible improvement is debated, as Republican lawmakers such as Texas Rep. Louis Gohmert and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton have been doing. A global recession is likely already here; there will be opportunities later to top up this bill.
After all, it’s not as if lawmakers will be able to pass one and only one response to the coming health crisis. We should count ourselves exceptionally lucky if that’s all that is eventually required.