On March 11, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP), the first piece of major legislation under the Biden administration, which allocates nearly two trillion dollars for relief from the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill, designed to counteract the domestic recession as well as the health and economic consequences of the yearlong pandemic, built upon precedents established in previous relief bills, including the CARES Act and the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 signed into law by the Trump administration. The ARP provides direct payments totaling $1400 to millions of Americans, financial aid to small businesses — with over $28 billion allocated specifically to private restaurant owners — as well as $14 billion to assist with vaccine distribution, $25 billion in rent assistance and an expansion of the annual child tax credit. During its signing, U.S. President Joe Biden remarked that “this bill represents a historic victory for the American people.”
Despite initial polling demonstrating the bill being immensely popular, with 7 out of 10 Americans in support of the bill, Republican and GOP lawmakers stood almost unanimously opposed to its passage. Republicans critiqued the bill for its enormous spending plan, emphasizing the need to make careful decisions on the national debt; the U.S. Treasury Department announced a $1 trillion deficit in government spending the same week. Other Republican lawmakers, such as Representative Steve Scalise (R-La.) dismissed the bill as unfocused, arguing that “this has nothing to do with COVID… this is a failed socialist approach.” Nonetheless, the bill marginally passed the House of Representatives, 218-212, and required Vice President Kamala Harris to cast her first tie-breaking vote in order to give the Senate’s approval to begin revisions.
While millions of Americans are distracted by the excitement of the $1400 check they are about to receive via mail or electronic deposit, this bill is indicative of a larger problem within the American legislative system: gridlock. Economically, the United States generally benefits from a House of Representatives, Senate and Presidential office controlled by the same party. Whether Republican-controlled — usually bringing laissez-faire strategies to incentivize economic growth— or majority Democratic— enacting stimulus to encourage consumer spending— a united government is not only more efficacious, but easier to predict for citizens and business leaders. While today the Democratic Party holds a narrow margin in both the House of Representatives and Senate, American statistics and polling-based news source FiveThirtyEight argues this may not last for long: “the likelihood that Democrats keep both the House and the Senate in 2022 are low, as the president’s party almost always loses seats in the midterm elections.” With our modern level of polarization, and consequent control of Congress seemingly teetering with every election, the political affiliation is becoming more and more important. Remember how stressed you were during the November election?
In many ways today, it feels as though this stress translates into an ever-growing animosity between Democrat or Republican. Some of U.S. President Donald Trump’s critics blame the loss of his second term on his failure to unite the country, instead engaging in bluntly partisan division in cultural touchstones. Even so, this is not the first era of elevated polarization America has faced. During the end of the Gilded Age (1876 – 1896), parties with loose ideological coalitions forced the majority of elections to be called by razor thin margins. Perhaps today we have the opposite issue: extreme partisanship and polarization. The definition of Democrat or Republican has grown to be too dichotomous and we are on one side or the other, blue or red, never gray.