WASHINGTON — Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled 117th Congress will benefit from what freshman Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., did at the end of the 116th. It and Hawley will soon recede into the mists of memory, but this should be remembered: Before Hawley immolated his brief political career (see the photo of his clenched-fist salute of solidarity as he walked past the mob that was about to sack the Capitol), he seemed certain to be a presidential candidate in 2024. Which probably explains his performance during the December auction in the Senate.
In late December, President Donald Trump, who was thinking that Hawley and kindred congressional spirits could deliver to him a second term, decided that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., were right to demand that pandemic relief-cum-stimulus legislation should feature $2,000 checks showered evenhandedly on those in need and on scores of millions who are not. Three senatorial mini-Trumps — Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; and Hawley — promptly joined the Pelosi-Schumer-Trump Axis of Generosity.
Rubio had favored $600 checks when he tweeted the requisite (for Republicans) six words, and then pirouetted to the predictable seventh: “I am concerned about the debt, but …” Regarding Rubio as a potential rival for the 2024 presidential nomination, Hawley increased the bidding to $2,000, joined, of course, by Graham, who, after golfing with Trump, proclaimed $2,000 “reasonable” and said: “Let’s go big for the American people.” Hawley tweeted an argument for $2,000 that made up in concision what it lacked in precision: “There’s obviously plenty of $$ to do it.”
Brevity is the soul of Twitter, as well as of (thank you, Dorothy Parker) lingerie, so Hawley could not dwell on details. Perhaps he meant that there always is “plenty” of money — even though the national debt increased $4.2 trillion in fiscal 2020 — because any sum can be borrowed or printed. Hawley avoided specifics, but populists often advocate diverting foreign aid to finance domestic largess. Polls show that Americans consistently believe that foreign aid is about 25% of the federal budget. In fiscal 2020 it was $40 billion, less than 1% of the budget. Hawley’s $2,000 checks would have added $464 billion to the deficit.
The Pelosi-Schumer-Trump-Hawley-Rubio-Graham collaboration was a taste of the bipartisanship for which Americans say they hunger. Indeed, 44 Republican members of the House — 22% of the Republican caucus — voted with Pelosi’s members for $2,000. The Senate auction, however, was truncated before the collaborators could ask, “Why not $3,000?” Adult supervision, in the form of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., intervened.
He noted that The Washington Post, New York Times, Larry Summers (treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton and head of President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council) and many other liberal voices have opposed non-targeted checks not linked to need. The measure that McConnell blocked was slightly progressive in that the flow of money from the federal spigot would have slowed until it stopped by fully excluding families of five earning above $350,000. Such a family is in the top 2% of household incomes. So, presumably, the desperate bottom 98% of households need what Democrats were calling “survival checks.”
The geyser of “stimulus” checks approved in March did not stimulate because the money was mostly saved or used to pay down debt. The Manhattan Institute’s Brian Riedl reports that the overall personal-savings rate soared from 8% to 32%: People are avoiding air travel and restaurants not because they are impecunious but because they are prudent. And the Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip notes that “aggregate wages and salaries were just 0.4% lower in November than before the pandemic. Thanks to past stimulus, total income was actually 2% higher.”
If Hawley, Rubio and Graham squint, they can see a silver lining on the dark cloud of Democratic control of the Senate: Majority Leader Schumer will soon give them an opportunity to vote for $2,000 disbursements. The national debt has increased almost 40% in the past four years. But when congressional Republicans rediscover (the rhetoric of) frugality, as surely they will at noon Jan. 20, Biden can cite Hawley’s assurance that there “obviously” is “plenty” of money.
Until late December, the shapeshifting Graham — John McCain is my hero; no, Donald Trump, McCain’s despiser, is; stay tuned for Act 3 — had a lock on the title of most ludicrous senator. Then Hawley, auction bidder and mob inciter, pounced. Graham’s lock has been picked. Sic transit gloria mundi.
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George Will is a political writer for The Washington Post and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.