Risch: Voting ‘no’ to relief bill was unthinkable

by Chuck Malloy
| April 6, 2020 1:25 PM

Think back to a couple of months ago, when senators only had to worry about whether to remove an impeached president. Those were the good-old-days – light work compared to the coronavirus pandemic.

Health officials tell us that if we do everything right – such as staying home and going broke – we might have only 200,000 or so deaths. Do the wrong things, or pretend that the health crisis does not exist, and the death toll could be in the millions.

Election-year politics doesn’t matter. People aren’t worried about what Bernie Sanders is doing, or talking about the hot congressional races coming up. Opinions continue to flow both ways about President Trump, but they seem so irrelevant.

“He’s going to be criticized by people who don’t like him or hate him, and complimented by people who think he’s doing a pretty decent job,” said Idaho Sen. Jim Risch. “But it’s all useless. What’s going on is bigger than one man.”

And, as we have found out, it’s bigger than partisan politics. Risch and fellow Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo – two longtime deficit hawks – ended up voting for a $2.2 trillion relief package (almost half of the annual federal budget) that passed the Senate on a 96-0 vote and sailed through the House. Crapo, as chairman of the banking committee, played a pivotal role in crafting the bill in which almost nobody (aside from Crapo and policy wonks) neither had the time, nor inclination, to digest.

In a political sense, this was the apocalypse – when Republicans and Democrats could set aside political differences and act in the nation’s best interests. As the senators will say, it’s something that needed to be done, regardless of political philosophy.

“The coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic has challenged our sense of normalcy and it has tested every institution of daily life we know,” Crapo wrote. “The crisis has had a major impact on the physical and economic health of our country, and a major response has been required.”

Risch says that members of Congress, Republican or Democrat, could write down a long list of things they don’t like about the relief package. But voting “no,” as Risch and Crapo often do on big-spending packages, was not a realistic option.

“The consequences of doing nothing and letting this go its own direction are unthinkable,” Risch said. “The first consideration was individual relief, because it was so obvious that people were going to be unemployed. Small businesses, which employ half the people in America, were going to be closing down with no cash flow.”

It’s possible that there are more relief packages to come.

“It depends on what happens with the pandemic,” Risch says. Will the coronavirus go the way of the seasonal flu, or will it continue to spread?

“If you can answer that question, then I can tell you where we’re going economically, but right now nobody can answer that question,” he said.

What makes this crisis unique is there’s no playbook for handling this crisis. The nation is equipped to deal with wars, economic downturns and natural disasters, and some situations are handled better than others. But nobody could ever imagine that New York’s Times Square would look as empty as the streets of Osburn, Idaho.

Of course, the absence of a playbook won’t stop the second-guessing – especially as it relates to President Trump. Were we prepared enough? Why was the federal government so slow to react, or distribute the medical supplies? And how about those ridiculous statements regarding the nation returning to normal by Easter? Here’s Risch’s take:

“The strength of America is not with one man, or the president of the United States. The strength lies with the American people, and that’s how we’re going to get through this.”

Amen to that. From my end, I’m seeing people stepping up efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and otherwise doing what’s good for the country.

Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.