WASHINGTON — The U.S. Capitol is mostly dark and quiet these days, and is likely to stay that way until after Labor Day — even though millions of people like Brianne Torres remain out of work and are getting far less in unemployment payments than they were two weeks ago.
“I don’t get to take a recess from my life. I don’t get to take a recess from paying my bills,” the frustrated Fresno cosmetologist said.
Congress gets a recess. The Senate, which last took votes Aug. 6, is likely to be gone until Sept. 8. The House at the moment plans no votes until Sept. 14. Members have been told they can be recalled to return with 24 hours notice.
As roughly 1,000 people die from the coronavirus each day, and the nation suffers through its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, no one from Congress or the White House tried to formally negotiate an economic relief plan last week, and nothing is planned.
Instead, before leaving town, Democrats and Republicans each blamed the other side for the impasse.
“The Democrats have continued to let working families down. They’re still rejecting any more relief for anyone unless they get a flood of demands with no relationship to COVID-19,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told colleagues. .
The Democratic-run House in May passed a $3.4 trillion relief package that would provide enhanced unemployment benefits through January, send $1 trillion to strapped state and local governments and provide billions for rental assistance and housing programs. Republicans have been particularly critical of the state aid, charging it would help bail out mismanaged pension programs.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the deadlock was the Republicans’ fault.
“We passed our bill 90 days ago. It took them until two weeks ago to come back with a meager piecemeal bill that they put forth. They said, ‘Oh, we all work better up against a deadline.’ No, the virus doesn’t have a deadline and nor does it take a pause,” she told a news conference Thursday.
Democrats have offered to come down to $2 trillion, she said. Republicans have balked at that figure.
The Senate GOP offered a $1 trillion plan July 27, a proposal stymied by disagreements among Senate Republicans.
While GOP leaders got behind the plan, a small group of Republican senators said the government was accumulating too much debt.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Democratic leaders tried to craft a compromise, but talks broke down August 7.
In Fresno, Torres feels helpless when she sees how government is, or is not, operating. Her shop was required to close March 26, then reopened three months later. When Gov. Gavin Newsom reimposed shutdown rules, it closed again in mid-July.
Torres, 29, had been collecting $1,005 a week pretax in unemployment benefits since April, which included a $600 federally funded supplement Congress approved in March. When her shop reopened and then closed, she had a hard time getting benefits straight again.
“I can’t get anyone on the phone,” she said, a common complaint among California’s unemployed. She turned to Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, and his office has also tried to help.
Then came another blow: Washington let the extra $600 expire at the end of July, so now Torres is getting $405 a week before taxes. Trump’s executive action last week should boost that by $300, though there’s no timetable for its implementation. And it’s still a cut.
“It’s super stressful,” she said. “Things are getting pretty tight.”
Torres is a Trump supporter, though the chaos in Washington and Sacramento is leaving her wary of all politicians.
“They see all this as a big political game,” Torres said. “Democrats vs. Republicans. I feel like no one is taking responsibility. I understand they take recesses, but we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
Congress takes August recesses annually. Billed as “district work periods,” members are supposed to travel their states and congressional districts, getting a sense of what matters to people.
They say they hear people blame both Republicans and Democrats. “It’s a mix,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., of who people blame for the inertia. What he hears most, he said, is that “people just want the problem solved.”
Or, said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., blame “depends on who you’re talking to.” He found that if someone has strong partisan views, Washington’s craziness just reinforces those positions.
Polling shows that the more Congress fails to act, the lower its approval ratings go, suggesting usually safe incumbents can face trouble. Last week, 10-term Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., and freshman Rep. Steve Watkins, R-Kansas, lost their primaries.
In New York, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Elliot Engel, a Democrat, was ousted in a primary. Four other incumbents — one Democrat and three Republicans — have lost nominating contests this year.
Gallup polling has found people do want the system to work. As Congress and Trump were agreeing on economic relief plans in the spring, Congress’ job approval ratings hit 20-year highs in April and May.
This summer, the numbers sank to 18%. The anger was widespread — Democrats’ approval of Congress dropped from 39% in the spring to 20%. Republican approval fell from 24% to 14% and independents plunged from 32% to 21%.
Americans appear to be of the “what have you done for me lately?” mindset in assessing Congress,” said Gallup analyst Megan Brenan
Darn right, said Torres.
“I can’t put off paying my bills until they come back after Labor Day,” she said. “You could say I’m on a forced recess.”
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