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An economic stimulus measure could still pass this year despite an election upheaval

A general view of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on October 21, 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. AP Photo by Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA

After months of on-again, off-again negotiations, the Trump administration and Capitol Hill Democrats may finally agree on a fresh injection of federal aid amid high unemployment and a resurgence in coronavirus infections. It’s one of several opportunities for legislative cooperation in Washington—if both parties are committed to taking them, say two members of Northeastern’s faculty. 

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“Clearly there’s going to be some common ground around stimulus, because both sides have an interest in getting something done,” says David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer and information sciences.

Another law that could get a bipartisan update is the Affordable Care Act, which the Supreme Court is taking up on Tuesday. The case raises a new question about the constitutionality of the law’s individual mandate provision, which requires most Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty. But even if the high court strikes down the Obama-era healthcare law over the mandate, the law could be reinstated if Congress makes a few minor tweaks.

“It’s really one sentence,” says Wendy Parmet, university distinguished professor of law and director of Northeastern’s Center for Health Policy and Law. “[Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell can go back to his troops and say we prevented a public option and socialized medicine, and [President-elect Joe] Biden can say we protected preexisting conditions and health care for young people staying on their parents’ plans.

“If they want to act like grown ups, that seems to me to be one compromise they can make.”

On the stimulus bill, lead negotiators Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were unable to strike a deal shortly before the election that saw Biden capture enough electoral votes to win the White House.

Photo by Northeastern University

President Donald Trump is disputing the outcome, but if Biden is sworn in come January he will be working with a House and Senate that have narrower majorities, regardless of which party emerges with the most seats. The House looks like it will remain in Democrats’ hands, but the outcome of the Senate won’t be known until January.

With the election largely over, the mood may be right for striking a deal on an economic package, says Lazer.

“They don’t have an election anymore where the negotiators are focused on the electoral implications of cutting a deal, he says.

Indeed, the day after the election, McConnell said a new round of economic aid should take place before the end of the year to directly help those impacted by the pandemic. 

We need to sit down and talk to each other like we did back in March and April and address the problem, and I’m confident we will no matter who ends up running the government,” McConnell said, according to The Washington Post.

The wildcard remains Trump, Lazer said: “It just doesn’t feel like he’s in a cooperative mood right now.”

Cooperation may not follow the change in the political dynamic in January.

With legislative accomplishments hard to come by, Biden is expected to begin his administration with a flurry of executive orders related to immigration, the environment, a face mask mandate, the economy, and a range of other issues—much like his former boss, President Barack Obama, did in his second term, Lazer says.

“There’s a lot that will change, but very little of it will be legislative,” says Lazer.

Another area for deal-making could be turning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration into independent agencies free of political interference. Parmet sees possible bipartisanship support for sending more federal dollars to financially strapped state and local health care systems, especially for hospitals in rural parts of the country that are struggling with the pandemic.

“This is not a red state thing or a blue state thing,” Parmet says. “Hospitals and clinics around the country are overwhelmed.”

In spite of the optimism over potential areas of agreement, Lazer says Washington could quickly revert back to its old ways and find itself mired in obstructionism and gridlock.

“It reminds of the scene in The Godfather where the tough guys talk about who they killed,” Lazer says. “And they turn to each other and rationalize away the murders by saying ‘This is business we’ve chosen.’”

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