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How Does Nancy Pelosi Get Away With Blocking Desperately Needed Relief Aid?

Pelosi didn’t stand in the way of aid for just an hour or two, or a day or two. She stonewalled for two weeks while small-business people across the country struggled to stay afloat in a time in which public fear of the coronavirus and government stay-at-home orders reduced their business incomes to zero.

How does Nancy Pelosi get away with it? How does the speaker of the House, in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic crisis, delay desperately needed aid to small businesses and, in the process, escape blame in a highly politicized environment?

Pelosi didn’t stand in the way of aid for just an hour or two, or a day or two. She stonewalled for two weeks while small-business people across the country struggled to stay afloat in a time in which public fear of the coronavirus and government stay-at-home orders reduced their business incomes to zero.

On March 27, President Trump signed into law an act providing $2.2 trillion to offset the financial damage of the virus. That vast sum of money was divided into several purposes. A big part of it, $349 billion, would go to a new effort called the Paycheck Protection Program. The money was intended as loans for small businesses to use for payroll, benefits, interest on mortgages, rent, and utilities. The idea was that the loans, if used for that purpose, would ultimately be forgiven. The government did not want small-business people to be forced out of business, and it did not want to bury them in debt because of an emergency they did not create.

The Trump administration made a big deal of efforts to get money out the door as quickly as possible. But here was the thing: Everybody knew the $349 billion was just a start. If the program worked as planned, it would run out very quickly. And it did. In less than two weeks, about 1.6 million small businesses got funding. The $349 billion was gone.

Yes, there was a problem with some big businesses, such as restaurant chains Ruth’s Chris, Shake Shack, and others, using a loophole to get money that should not have gone to them. (Shake Shack was shamed into returning the cash.) But, in general, the Paycheck Protection Program worked. Still, it was only a small first step.

From the very beginning, everybody knew Congress would have to act soon, in days, to replenish the money for the program so that other small businesses could have a lifeline. On April 7, more than two weeks ago, the White House sent a letter to Capitol Hill asking for $251 billion in additional funding. Again, everyone knew it would be needed and needed soon. That was the plan all along. The White House wanted quick action. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hoped the Senate would approve a simple bill, one that provided the $251 billion and did not do anything else, on a voice vote.

That’s when Pelosi came in, in tandem with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Word got out that Pelosi and Schumer would demand billions more for healthcare, emergency food aid, and money to state and local governments. They would also insist that half the money be targeted toward women and minorities. April 8, 9, and 10, days in which Congress could have acted and the money gone out the door to businesses, passed without action. On April 11 came reports there was a “logjam” on the legislation. There was talk of a “bipartisan spending negotiation,” the kind of across-the-table horse-trading that can go on for days and weeks on Capitol Hill as business people try to avoid going under.

McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy released a joint statement, saying, “Republicans reject Democrats’ reckless threats to continue blocking job-saving funding unless we renegotiate unrelated programs which are not in similar peril. This will not be Congress’s last word on COVID-19, but this crucial program needs funding now. American workers cannot be used as political hostages.” The two GOP leaders pledged to keep working on that simple bill — $251 billion for small businesses — that would address the problem.

Pelosi’s answer was no, and, remember, as speaker of the House, she is the power player in the relationship with Schumer, who doesn’t control anything. As she blocked aid for businesses, Pelosi tried to burnish her image, going on late-night TV to show off her kitchen — two very expensive-looking refrigerators fully stocked with expensive ice cream. The contrast between Pelosi’s giggly show and tell with her favorite goodies and the plight of struggling workers and businesses in the pandemic led the Trump campaign to make a quickie web ad with the punchline, “‘Let them eat ice cream’ — Nancy Antoinette.”

More days passed. On April 16, nine days after sending the original request, there were reports that Republicans would agree to give Pelosi some of what she wanted — money for hospitals — in exchange for getting the bill moving. Now, there is nothing wrong with more aid to the hospitals that have been hard-hit by the virus crisis. There is also nothing wrong with money for virus testing. It’s just that there was a desperate, urgent need to get the paycheck protection money out the door. It could have been easily accomplished. Why not do it before more small businesses went under?

Still, Pelosi held out. She appeared to feel a remarkable confidence that she would not be skewered in the national media for holding up urgently needed money. And indeed, she was not. In an impressive display of chutzpah, she blamed McConnell for the delay. And so, more days passed.

Republicans finally surrendered on the money, $75 billion for hospitals. They agreed to $25 billion for testing that Pelosi added to her demands. The GOP balked on money for states and local governments.

“This was a debate that was largely about nothing,” Politico Playbook declared, accurately. The effect of the debate about nothing was to delay help for those millions of small-business owners and employees who needed it while Pelosi played politics and showed off her ice cream stash.

And it is still not done. The bill, now expanded to nearly $500 billion, has passed the Senate, with House passage expected Thursday. That will be April 23, 16 days after the first letter to Capitol Hill.

Why did it take 16 days for Congress to pass money for small-business owners that could have been passed in a small fraction of that time? Because Pelosi stopped it. Pure and simple.