Congress returned from recess Tuesday with precious little time left before the first week of October, when the House and Senate legislative calendars call for lawmakers to recess through the Nov. 3 election — and two major tasks left to accomplish. On the first of these, avoiding a government shutdown when current spending authority expires Sept. 30, there has been progress: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have let it be known they favor rapid passage of a temporary bill that would keep federal workers paid and operations going at least through the election. On Congress’s second big job, however — delivering the economy another dose of fiscal support — an impasse continues. It has to end.
The need remains substantial even after last Friday’s unexpectedly strong report from the Labor Department, which showed that the unemployment rate, after peaking in April at 14.7 percent, fell to 8.4 percent in August. This is in contrast to earlier Federal Reserve and Congressional Budget Office forecasts predicting joblessness would still be stuck above 9 percent at the end of the year. What began as a possible second Great Depression now shapes up as a very bad recession — which is bad enough. The U.S. economy still needs 11.5 million jobs to get back to where it was before the coronavirus hit; there are signs that temporary layoffs are mutating into long-term unemployment for workers in some industries.
The jobs report, in other words, was no cause for complacency, of the kind implied by White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow’s breezy remark that the economy could “live with” a failure by Congress to strike a deal, because it is “on a self-sustaining recovery path.” Nor is there a case for going small on a next round of fiscal support, as in the “skinny” deal, reportedly worth about $500 billion, that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is planning to put up for a vote in the Senate. Given the divisions in his party’s ranks — between senators who have coveniently rediscovered fiscal discipline and those who want to run for reelection as supporters of aid — it’s far from clear whether his bill will go anywhere.