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Pelosi and Automatic Stabilizers

Speaker Nancy Pelosi conducts a news conference in the Rayburn Room at the Capitol, where she took questions from reporters working offsite because of the COVID-19 pandemic on May 7, 2020. At the news conference she endorsed the idea of using automatic stabilizers to keep coronavirus relief programs running. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Because the details of policy actually matter, I’m taking this opportunity to highlight a really good proposal that Speaker Pelosi is bringing forward for the next stimulus bill:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday endorsed an idea that many Democratic lawmakers have been pushing: to use so-called automatic stabilizers to keep critical coronavirus relief programs running without Congress having to repeatedly re-up funding…

In addition to unemployment benefits, Pelosi said automatic stabilizers could be used for other relief like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, informally known as food stamps, and federal Medicaid reimbursement rates, known as Federal Medical Assistance Percentages (FMAP), “so that you don’t always have to say, ‘Let’s debate whether that’s necessary.’”(Roll Call)

As I’ve said before, Sahm triggers are something that should be standard practice for stimulus legislation, because it actually turns economic and social programs into true automatic stabilizers, ensuring that assistance keeps flowing as long as is necessary without needing repeated votes by Congress.

Many of the specific programs that are being discussed as candidates for Sahm triggers – unemployment insurance and food stamps particularly, but there are arguments for why FMAP and the Paycheck Protection Program should be included as well – are excellent candidates for this kind of procedure. In more than a few of these cases, it’s probably how they should have been designed in the first place. Indeed, while I’m in the middle of praising Speaker Pelosi and Democratic leadership, I’d like to take this opportunity to argue that this idea should be extended to direct stimulus payments, aid to state and local governments, aid to hospitals, and other economic relief measures.

Thankfully, this seems to be an area in which there is genuine consensus among Congressional Democrats, spanning the gamut from the Congressional Progressive Caucus to the New Democrat Coalition. It’s a rare case of policy learning (we don’t know how long the current crisis will last and/or whether there will be repeated cycles of shutdown and startup) and political learning (it’s dangerous to rely on the willingness of Congress to keep passing additional legislation on the same topic, especially when austeritarians have way too much influence) coinciding.

Given the continued propensity of Congressional Republicans to crash the economy in fealty to either their short-term electoral advantage or their ideological agenda, it’s getting harder to make an argument for any legislation or program not being designed in this fashion.

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