The Stew Reporting on government and politics

Cities, states beg for bailouts

Politics | Republicans in Washington hesitate to write blank checks to struggling governments
by Harvest Prude
Posted 5/07/20, 07:00 pm

The coronavirus pandemic has unified Congress in a way few other things have. The first three economic aid bills sailed through both chambers with huge majorities.

But the gulf between parties began to reopen during negotiations for a fourth supplemental package to replenish small business aid. Now Republicans and Democrats appear poised to resume an all-out war as a fifth COVID-19 legislative effort gets underway on Capitol Hill.

Financial aid for state and local governments has emerged as one of the biggest sticking points. Lawmakers are not just split on how and when it should happen, they cannot agree on whether Congress should send states a cash infusion at all.

“Well-run States should not be bailing out poorly run States, using CoronaVirus as the excuse!” President Donald Trump tweeted on Tuesday. “The elimination of Sanctuary Cities, Payroll Taxes, and perhaps Capital Gains Taxes, must be put on the table.”

As unemployment numbers skyrocket—more than 20 million Americans lost their jobs in April—state tax bases have shrunk dramatically. Lawmakers drafted state budgets expecting a booming economy. Now those budgets are next to worthless. Nine states—California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia—plan to ask the U.S. Department of Labor for $36 billion in federal advances to cover unemployment payouts, Politico reported.

Meanwhile, the bipartisan National Governors Association has asked for $500 billion to help states.

But some leading Republicans are tapping the brakes, pointing to long-standing financial issues in some of the states seeking help. Illinois, saddled with a $486 billion debt load, wants a $10 billion bailout to help with its pensions.

“I would certainly be in favor of allowing states to use the bankruptcy route,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told radio host Hugh Hewitt last month. “It saves some cities. And there’s no good reason for it not to be available.”

McConnell’s comments drew widespread criticism, but he has not backed down. Last week, he said he would not support anything that underwrites revenue replacement or long-standing pension problems for states. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., took the same position this week.

GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Rick Scott of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Mike Enzi of Wyoming sent a letter to Trump expressing similar concerns.

“We believe additional money sent to the states for ‘lost revenue’ or without appropriate safeguards will be used to bail out underfunded pensions, reward decades of state mismanagement, and incentivize states to become more reliant on federal taxpayers,” the senators wrote.

So far, Congress has provided $150 billion in aid to states and cities in its $2.2 trillion economic relief package for COVID-19 expenses. Some Republicans, including McCarthy, have floated the idea of giving recipients more flexibility in how they use that money rather than issuing a massive new bailout.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., suggested state and local governments might need $1 trillion. Democrats also have not ruled out underwriting pension payments and want to give states more money for Medicaid. They have backing from governors and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which requested $250 billion in emergency aid to cities. Without it, proponents say, state and local governments will have to lay off millions of workers, and vital services to communities will suffer.

Federal law does not have a provision for states to declare bankruptcy like municipalities can. It would require a change to the bankruptcy code, which does not appear to have a viable path through Congress.

“It may well be necessary in the long run,” said Ramesh Ponnuru, an economic researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. For now, he said, lawmakers should evaluate which state “expenses are a result of this public health and economic emergency and which are the results of mismanagement?”

Jonathan Williams, the chief economist at the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, said fiscal conservatives share a growing sentiment that “enough is enough. We’ve maxed out the federal credit card; any new spending needs to be offset by spending reductions.”

Associated Press/Photo by Richard Drew (file) Associated Press/Photo by Richard Drew (file) Former Vice President Joe Biden

Lacking “discretion to disclose”

The office of the secretary of the Senate this week denied a request from former Vice President Joe Biden to disclose records related to a sexual assault accusation.

Tara Reade, who served on Biden’s Senate staff during his second term in office, said he pushed her against a wall and sexually assaulted her in 1993. Reade said she made a formal complaint that same year about the alleged incident but does not have a copy of it.

Biden and his 2020 presidential campaign staff have forcefully denied the accusation. On Friday, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee called for the secretary of the Senate to release the complaint and any pertinent documents. The secretary’s office said it did not have the “discretion to disclose” the information due to confidentiality requirements.

Reade’s accusation also has piqued interest in documents from Biden’s 36-year Senate career. The University of Delaware, his alma mater, stores his personal records, but he said they did not include personnel files that would shed light on the matter. Biden’s records are set to go public two years after he retires from public life. —H.P.

Associated Press/Photo by Patrick Semansky (file) Associated Press/Photo by Patrick Semansky (file) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Open for confirmations

When the U.S. Senate reconvened on Monday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wasted no time starting the conveyor belt of President Donald Trump’s judicial and administrative nominees.

On Tuesday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence heard from Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, the president’s nominee to serve as director of national intelligence. Ratcliffe withdrew his name from consideration in August 2019 over concerns about his qualifications. This time, he seems set to proceed.

Next week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Justin Walker to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are calling for McConnell to focus on more coronavirus-related legislation.

The U.S. House of Representatives has not returned in full, but its Democratic members are working on another economic relief bill, this time worth $1 trillion. —H.P.

Squashing statehood

President Donald Trump dealt a blow to those pushing for statehood for the District of Columbia. In an interview published on Tuesday in the New York Post, the president said Republicans in Congress would have to be “very, very stupid” to support statehood for the district because the city’s Democratic-leaning population would likely elect two Democratic senators. “No, thank you,” he said. “That’ll never happen.”

Statehood advocates want the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a bill that would trim the nation’s capital down to 2 square miles that would include the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and other federal buildings. The rest of what is currently Washington, D.C., would become a state. —H.P.

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Harvest Prude

Harvest is a political reporter for WORLD's Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate. Harvest resides in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @HarvestPrude.

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  • Kris
    Posted: Fri, 05/08/2020 01:26 pm

    The majority of DC should revert to Maryland, like the land on the other side of the Potomac went back to Virginia. Funny DC residents don't seem to want that. 

    Posted: Mon, 05/11/2020 04:44 pm

    Bailouts for States and Cities floundering because they killed their own economies? And they are refusing to get their people back to work? Not NO, but H - E - Double-Hockey-Stick NO!

  • JerryM
    Posted: Tue, 05/12/2020 06:18 pm

    The secretary of the senate confidentiality argument concerning Reade's report does not make sense if both parties agree to its disclosure?  Could someone please explain or investigate?

    I would expect World to report on the way Democrats are putting together the next bill, privately by Pelosi and her team with no debate.  Is there a story coming on this or did I miss it in World?