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Lessons From Congress' Last Experience Helping Rescue An Economy In Free Fall

Robin Radaetz holds a sign in front of the Lehman Brothers headquarters in 2008 in New York. Lehman Brothers' Chapter 11 declaration was the biggest bankruptcy filing ever at the time.
Mary Altaffer
Robin Radaetz holds a sign in front of the Lehman Brothers headquarters in 2008 in New York. Lehman Brothers' Chapter 11 declaration was the biggest bankruptcy filing ever at the time.

When Congress voted last month to approve the largest legislative package in modern history, most lawmakers were already saying that the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill wouldn't be enough to save the economy.

Now, less than three weeks later, talks are stalled over a White House request to refill the nearly empty coffers of the small business loan program. Democrats and Republicans are sparring over when and how to pass the money they all agree must be spent.

This kind of fight is all too familiar to those on Capitol Hill who legislated through the last financial meltdown in 2008 and 2009. While the two crises are vastly different in their scope and origin, Congress will have to repeat the familiar struggle to balance conflicting advice and ideas for how to save the economy while also avoiding a swift political fallout.

For former Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican who later became House majority leader, the memory of the moment he tried to understand the scope of the 2008 financial crisis is crystal clear. He vividly remembers the day the chairman of the Federal Reserve came to Capitol Hill and told lawmakers the banking system could collapse.

"And we were sort of asking the question, like, 'What do you mean that the banking system would collapse, wouldn't work?' " Cantor recalled in an interview earlier this month. "And one of the responses was, 'Well, your constituents can wake up tomorrow morning and go to the ATM and there'll be no cash.' "

The sudden onset and depth of the crisis in the fall of 2008 mirrored the fears in Congress today. What started as a seemingly remote problem — big banks having trouble with mortgages or, in this case, a flu catching on in China — could quickly spiral and Congress would need to imagine the ways to prevent unimaginable consequences. Cantor said that during the last recession, Congress was trying to keep the financial systems moving so that the structures that support the economy didn't disappear. But he noted the politics of propping up large banks as the ripple effects hit Main Street can't compare to the political calculations that come with trying to save the economy from an outside force like a virus.

"[Coronavirus] wasn't anyone's fault," Cantor said. "And then the government just said, 'Everyone stay home,' which shuts down the economy. So I think in a way, the urgency was that much more magnified."

And the response so far has been much faster and larger. In September 2008, Congress approved the then-record-breaking $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, with a bipartisan vote.

Recession response showed multiple actions were needed

Like the $2.2 trillion relief package Congress passed by voice vote last month, that first attempt in 2008 wasn't enough to fix the economy.

Democrats retained control of Congress that Novemeber and immediately got to work on a massive stimulus with newly elected President Obama. A sea of new Democrats took office in 2009, like Tom Perriello of Virginia, and started their congressional careers by debating the largest fiscal stimulus on record while also learning the limits of the federal government.

"The scale of the problem and the urgency required us to do a lot of different things at once," Perriello said in an interview last week. "The federal government actually has a limited number of ways to get out resources to people quickly."

At the time, Democrats wanted to rethink the entire economy — create jobs and opportunity for people who had been left behind. And they wanted to use this stimulus bill to help get that started.

But they were also in a hurry. Phil Schiliro, Obama's director of legislative affairs at the time, said economists warned them that the country was on the precipice of a depression.

So Congress rushed. Lawmakers were sworn in on Jan. 3, 2009, and the $787 billion stimulus was signed into law on Feb. 17.

"The normal legislative process, the normal process of holding hearings just wasn't possible," Schiliro said in an interview. "Something very similar has happened in the bills over the last month."

By the time the massive stimulus was done, Democrats had to pass it without a single Republican vote in the House. The bipartisanship that helped get TARP signed into law just months earlier had crumbled as political winds shifted.

Cantor said lawmakers shouldn't be surprised if the unity on the coronavirus response shifts, too — even before the election.

"This is gonna get political," Cantor said. "I mean, for sure, you can already see the attacks that are coming."

There are consequences to quick action as well. In the rush to pass the 2009 stimulus bill, some members voted without even reading it, a factor that would carry political consequences for years to come.

And even legislation that moves quickly by congressional standards can be slow to take effect for most people.

"One of the fundamental problems was the economy didn't recover in time," Schiliro said. "There were deep-seated problems. It was going to take awhile."

Democrats had approved massive changes to the economy and billions in spending. And then they shifted just months later to rewriting the nation's health care system.

Political fallout from big congressional votes

Democrats say all of those changes worked. Jobs did come back, Schiliro said, and the recovery lasted basically until last month. But politics moved faster.

Perriello lost his seat after one term in a massive wave election in 2010. Democrats lost 63 seats and control of the House.

Cantor's bank bailout vote, which he still defends, was used against him when he lost a primary challenge in 2014.

There's no way to know when the damage from the virus will fade. But Congress will learn whether their actions went far enough when the country votes in November.

But Perriello said lawmakers can't be thinking about that when they're voting on aid.

"The most important thing is to know whatever happens in the next election that you did what was right," Perriello said. "That you stepped up and used the power that you had in Congress to try to help people."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 16, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio of this story, as well as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say Democrats took control of Congress after the 2008 elections. The party was already in the majority of both the Senate and the House, but the presidency did switch to the Democrats. In addition, we incorrectly say the stimulus bill that passed in February 2009 received no Republican votes. Although no House Republicans supported the bill, three GOP senators voted yes.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.