The US is about to start a massive experiment in progressive government

You may have read a lot over the weekend about how progressives were angry that the Covid relief bill that’s about to be sent to President Joe Biden’s desk was pared back to get moderate senators on board.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mr. Progressive, wants to disabuse you of that notion. In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Monday night, he was glowing about the new stimulus bill, not just for what it does to fund vaccines, schools and local government operations, but also for the larger progressive wins contained in it — despite the major loss of his $15 minimum wage proposal.

“Anderson, in my view, this is the most significant legislation for working people that has been passed in decades,” Sanders said, adding to Cooper that he’s still got plans to pass the wage hike that was stripped from the bill.

Democrats across the board seem to realize they have to sell this bill to Americans and make them trust that the government can help fix what ails the country, literally and figuratively.

That’s why Sanders’ praise of the bill is very much in line with what White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, describing it as “one of the most consequential and most progressive pieces of legislation in American history.”

The view from the flip side comes from Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican, who similarly said on Fox Business News, “It is a Trojan horse for socialism, it is everything Democrats have wanted wrapped and branded in coronavirus so that people are scared into voting for it.”

It’s certainly true that the Covid bill, which will cost $1.9 trillion over ten years, vastly expands support for Americans in the middle-income groups — people who make a lot more than the poverty level but are well below the 1%. However, it’s more experiment than permanent policy shift.

Most of the key elements end after a year, although what’s generally true in Washington is that once the government passes something to benefit individual voters — tax cuts or new programs — it gets very hard to take them away.

Cooper asked Sanders to explain why the bill is so important. Here’s their exchange along with some contextual annotations below:

COOPER: I just want to go back to something you said at the beginning that you think this is the most significant piece of legislation in decades. Can you just talk more about why you think that is? And what does it say that, you know, the first relief in the beginning, this pandemic got overwhelming Republican support as well. This got no Republican support. What does that say to you?

  • No Republicans have voted for the bill in either the Senate or the House. That’s not expected to change when the Senate version is finally passed again by the House. That’s a very different story from earlier Covid relief bills and also from other massive progressive programs of the past, like Medicare and Social Security. It is, however, in line with recent Washington achievements like the Affordable Care Act and tax cuts.

SANDERS: Well, it says to me that the Republicans are have turned their back on the needs of working families. They used the reconciliation process a few years ago to give a trillion dollars in tax breaks for the top one percent and large corporations. They used the reconciliation process to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act and throw 30 million people off of their healthcare that they had.

  • A contrast for voters. You’re going to hear this a LOT from Democrats over the next two years. They won total control of Washington (with slim Capitol Hill majorities!) in 2020. Now they’re going to ask voters to look at what they’ve done with government.
  • Interesting cost comparison. The cost of the GOP tax cuts, billed at the time at $1.9 trillion, almost exactly mirrors the cost of the Democrats’ stimulus bill, which is $1.9 trillion.
  • Opposite priorities. The tax cut bill gave billions upon billions back to corporations and temporarily cut most Americans taxes at a time when economists said the economy didn’t need it. The Covid bill temporarily gives taxpayer money directly to people.
  • Neither the tax bill nor the Covid bill are going to do anything to balance the budget. Both sides are spending here.

SANDERS on relief checks: Now, that direct payment will be $1,400 for every working-class adult, individuals $75,000 or less, couples, $150,000 or less, plus your children. Family of four gets help of $5,600. And in the midst of this crisis, God only knows that millions and millions of families desperately need that boost.

SANDERS on child poverty: What this legislation does, Anderson, is it addresses a crisis that this country has ignored for too long. We have one of the highest rates of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth. This legislation will expand the child tax credit and lower childhood poverty in America by up to 50 percent.

Yes, we’re going to pay attention to the kids in America, many of whom are struggling for a variety of reasons. This legislation says that in the richest country in the history of the world, people should not be going hungry.

  • Child poverty is a problem in this country. As CNN recently reported, “The US has one of the highest child poverty rates of any wealthy country and one of the lowest shares of national spending on children and families. Roughly 1 in 7 kids live in poverty, according to the most recent Census Bureau data. More than one-quarter of Black children and one-fifth of Hispanic children live below the poverty line.”
  • The bill gives cash to parents. This is perhaps this boldest policy change in the bill and one Democrats will try to carry into the future. It gives monthly payments of up to $300 for young kids under 6 and $250 for older kids up to 17 to couples making up to $150,000 and individuals making $112,500.
  • Versions of this credit have been in place for decades. It has been expanded several times, but the Covid bill will expand it even further and, importantly, make it accessible to many who did not previously qualify for the full amount. Read more.

SANDERS on evictions: In my community, Burlington, Vermont, a few months ago, hundreds of cars lined up for emergency food packages taking place all over this country. This legislation provides help so that when the moratorium on evictions end, people will get assistance to stay in their homes, whether it’s a rental unit or your own home.

  • The federal eviction moratorium is ending. This bill helps with the rent. The bill does not extend a federal eviction moratorium. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began the eviction moratorium last year as part of a public health order. Congress extended it. The federal moratorium ends March 31, at which point back rent will be due. Although some states are working to extend their own versions. In lieu of extending the moratorium, the Covid relief bill earmarks more than $20 billion to help renters and landlords deal with back rent.
  • Progressives would have preferred to extend the moratorium. Here’s the argument from a pair of law professors at CNN Opinion that protection from eviction should become permanent, and paired with brakes to protect landlords. Conversely, here’s a landlord who told CNN Business the moratorium has drained her savings. A judge in Texas recently ruled with landlords and said the moratorium is unconstitutional.

SANDERS on health care: This legislation more than doubles funding for community health centers. In my state, about 25 percent of people get their medical care. They’ve got their dental care. They’ve got low-cost prescription drugs, mental health counseling through community health centers. We have more than doubled funding it.

We’re putting money into getting doctors into underserved areas. We’re putting money into making sure that millions of workers do not lose the pensions that they were promised.

  • Expanding the Affordable Care Act. Sanders doesn’t mention it here, but one very important element of the Covid bill is that it makes many more people eligible for government subsidies to help them buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Currently, people who make more than about 50,000 per year (400% of the federal poverty level) and don’t get insurance through their employer, also don’t get government help to buy health insurance on the private market. This bill removes that cap for the next two years and contains the cost of insurance at 8.5% of a person’s income.

SANDERS on what’s next: So this legislation is quite comprehensive in attempting to address the needs of working families. And obviously, the next reconciliation bill will deal with our structural problems, not just the emergency problems of how we can create millions of good paying jobs, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, and transforming our energy system to protect us from climate change.

  • On to infrastructure! Sanders and progressives think they’ve found a model that works, even if it creates policy that’s not permanent. He talks here about using the budget reconciliation process, which only requires 50 votes, to pass an infrastructure bill that would help transform the US economy away from fossil fuels. He’ll need to figure out how to convince Manchin, the proud moderate who represents a coal state, to get on board.