One thing we're learning, in our collective sorrow, is how many mayors and governors of both parties there are across America who are infinitely more capable of responding to a crisis than anybody in the White House. New York's Andrew Cuomo, Ohio's Mike DeWine and others have earned justifiable praise for effective leadership throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, although you'd hardly know it due to the relative dearth of press coverage, emergency benefits extended to ordinary citizens by Congress last week could mean economic salvation for millions.
Also largely unknown to the public is that their underappreciated champion has been House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — pointedly excluded from the White House bill-signing ceremony along with every other Democrat in Washington.
Such are the political facts of life in a nation under siege.
With TV news networks and their star performers focusing upon Rose Garden theatrics, they've neglected the story of how Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer outwitted and outmaneuvered GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to the point that he felt compelled to admit that, "Because the country was desperate for results ... I literally told my own Republican colleagues to 'gag and vote for it.'"
The final Senate vote was 96-0. That's a lot of gagging.
Unlike the original Republican bill, with its proposed $500 billion in corporate bailouts, the $2.2 trillion Pelosi-Schumer effort — formally known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — added $150 billion for hard-pressed state and local governments, another $150 billion for hospitals, and $31 billion for schools. That, and $25 billion for food stamps.
To be sure, there's still plenty of cash for Fortune 500 companies, but oversight has been added to prevent it becoming a political slush fund.
However, the real game-changers for hard-pressed families, as well as the potential salvation of the U.S. economy, are two features many voters are unaware of: paycheck-protection loans, enabling small businesses to retain employees for up to eight weeks, that needn't be repaid; and greatly expanded unemployment insurance for individuals who lose their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The original McConnell bill called for one-time $1,200 checks to be sent to every taxpayer — definitely useful, but hardly a bonanza. To that, Pelosi and Democrats added unemployment insurance providing an additional 13 weeks of cash assistance to state-funded programs. The CARE Act also expands eligibility to include part-time, self-employed and so-called "gig economy" workers such as Uber drivers and food delivery services, providing up to $600 a week income for those practicing social distancing.
Do the arithmetic. That's upward of $10,000 between now and the end of June. With plenty to worry about, people can at least quit obsessing about money. They'll have sufficient funds for rent, food, utilities and other necessities. Nobody's got to risk his or her life to keep the children fed.
(Or pets, for that matter. Around our house there would be hell to pay if Martin and Albert, our two orange tabby rodent consultants, ever glimpsed the porcelain bottom of what we call "the endless supper dish.")
And the best news for the economy is that most of this cash would be spent immediately and locally, bolstering enterprises that need it to keep going. So next time you hear some bloviating politico attack the "do-nothing" Democrats, you can thank Nancy and Chuck.
Of course, unemployment insurance is administered by the states, many of which impose burdensome regulations required by skinflint legislators ever fearful that lazy people will take advantage. (Not that we haven't all known somebody who's tried.) But these are special circumstances, and this is where the aforementioned state governors come in. Times aren't normal: It's their collective duty to clear the hurdles and let the money flow.
Anyway, how this all happened is that Pelosi and Schumer pretty much ran a good-cop/bad-cop number on McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who did the negotiating for the Republicans. Or, as the speaker later explained, "We did jiujitsu on it, that it went from a corporate-first proposal that the Republicans put forth in the Senate to a Democratic workers-first legislation."
McConnell's a vastly overrated legislative strategist to begin with — mainly good at saying no. When he presented a my-way-or-the-highway trillion-dollar package in late March, Democrats shocked him by voting no on a procedural issue. Needing 60 votes to pass, the chamber deadlocked at 48-48.
Republicans threw a big hissy fit. "Is that what we've come to?" ever-melodramatic Maine Sen. Susan Collins asked. "We don't have another day. We don't have another hour. We don't have another minute to delay acting."
OK, fine. So do you want to negotiate with Chuck or Nancy? Good cop or bad cop? McConnell went into hiding. Mnuchin basically gave Schumer most of what he wanted. Possibly because it was good policy. But certainly because nobody wanted to tangle with Pelosi, who's smarter and tougher than them all.
(Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com.)