The GOP is holding up relief for millions of Americans because they want to make sure corporations have blanket protection from workers who get COVID on the job
- The GOP and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are still pushing to include a provision that would make it nearly impossible for workers who contract COVID-19 on the job to fight back against the corporations for which they work.
- Not only is the idea terrible, it is also holding up the coronavirus aid bill that will get economic aid to millions of Americans.
- And now McConnell says that the only way for the GOP to drop the idea is if Democrats give up aid to state and local governments who are facing a budget crisis caused by the pandemic.
- Ed Mierzwinski is Senior Director, Federal Consumer Program, at US PIRG, the Federation of State Public Interest Research Groups.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Congress is scrambling to finish its work before taking a holiday recess, and we'll find out soon if legislators will be generous or Scrooge-like this December.
The divided House and Senate are trying to kick the can before a December 18 government shutdown deadline which would cause a massive disruption to the federal government right before the holidays. Fail to reach an agreement and more than the weather outside will be frightful.
Ideally, lawmakers will also pass a COVID-19 stimulus package to help consumers, communities and businesses hit hard by the financial impact of the pandemic — either attached to the funding bill or separately.
While Democrats would prefer to invest more money and Republicans less, congressional negotiators are apparently moving closer to hammering out the details. Despite the progress, it appears the two sides are stuck on one big, ongoing hang-up championed by the most powerful man on Capitol Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is holding coronavirus relief for all Americans hostage on behalf of a powerful special interest: the US Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber has made it clear for years that one of its long-term goals is to prevent wronged workers and consumers from suing companies that have harmed them, and McConnell has a gift for the Chamber wrapped and ready to send.
A summary of McConnell's newly revised COVID-19 "skinny" package still includes a main stumbling block from the earlier version — the so-called "Right To Work Act." This misleadingly named legislation would grant sweeping federal corporate immunity from a wide variety of pandemic-related lawsuits. In essence, it would make it nearly impossible for a worker or consumer to sue a company if they contracted COVID on the job or while shopping — even if the company was reckless in protecting them.
Worse, the provision does so while also completely undercutting our longstanding state-based liability system.
As I wrote in this space in August: "Currently, our liability system is state-law based. State laws are not exactly the same, but a company that exercises reasonable care to protect workers or consumers would not face negligence claims while one that cut corners or failed to comply with regulatory guidelines would.
"The provision being pushed by the Chamber and Republicans in Congress would substitute a federal court scheme that would only hold companies accountable for pandemic claims when they were either grossly negligent or committed intentional misconduct."
A bipartisan group of legislators has also tried to come up with a compromise. The most recent proposal would "Provide short-term federal protection for coronavirus related lawsuits with the purpose of giving states time to develop their own response."
Neither McConnell's plan nor the compromise is acceptable. Both would reward companies that cut corners at the expense of companies that protect their workers and customers.
And the basic premise of the compromise — to give states time — is faulty and unnecessary. States that wanted to provide corporate immunity already have done so. Other states already have rejected the Chamber's efforts.
For example, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf recently vetoed a proposal to grant sweeping corporate immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits. Wolf said: "Providing immunity for a business that does not rigorously comply with public health orders does not ensure the safety of the public, its employees and is not in the public interest."
That's the right approach and the federal government should take responsibility for the health and safety of the American people, rather than punting it to individual states, although that's par for the course for this pandemic.
In fact, McConnell is still trying to stick it to these states. Most Democrats are rightly not budging on the liability protections, refusing to give even more power to corporations to act with impunity. But, even as the economy shows signs of renewed strain, McConnell's newest solution to the impasse is to offer a deal that has little hope of passing: dropping the liability waiver for corporations so long as Democrats drop their request to send money to cities and states that are facing down massive pandemic-driven budget crunches.
Congress has mostly sat by as a spectator since the pandemic exploded in March. Meanwhile, states and municipalities have had to decide life-defining issues such as when to order business closures or open schools and whether to enforce mask-wearing rules.
That federal inaction makes the hypocrisy on this issue ever more stark. After abdicating its responsibility on almost every COVID-related policy to the states, Congress now wants to make the rules about whether states should allow their citizens to seek redress in court and what reasonable expectations we should have of corporations to act in the public interest in this time of severe societal frailty.
There is something wrong with this picture, especially when there is so much constructive work Congress could be doing to help Americans through the pandemic. Let's hope that the Ghost of Christmas Present spooks Congress enough to do the right thing.
Ed Mierzwinski is Senior Director, Federal Consumer Program, at U.S. PIRG, the Federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, where he has worked since 1989.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).
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