Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wants the United States to follow Europe’s lead. That’s not something conservatives like him normally say, but he believes desperate times call for desperate measures.
The rising star on the right proposes that the federal government replicate what’s been working in the United Kingdom to keep layoffs limited and immediately begin covering 80 percent of worker wages at all private businesses, up to the national median wage, until the emergency caused by the novel coronavirus is over. He also advocates paying financial bonuses for businesses to rehire workers laid off over the past month.
As party leaders squabble over how best to expand the pool of money available for small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program, what the freshman senator envisions in the fourth phase of congressional action is vastly more ambitious and costly than anything his Republican colleagues have outlined. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has cast doubt on the need for another gargantuan spending measure after the third phase cost $2 trillion. But Hawley is adamant that half measures won’t avert another Great Depression.
The Labor Department said Thursday that more than 17 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the past four weeks, including 6.6 million last week. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell unveiled over $2 trillion in new loans in his latest bid to keep the economy afloat. JPMorgan Chase now predicts the unemployment rate will hit 20 percent, and the economy will shrink by 40 percent, in the second quarter.
“Events are overtaking us, and so now we’ve got to adapt. That’s what I’m trying to do here,” Hawley said toward the end of a 35-minute phone interview from his house in Springfield, Mo. “I personally do not want to ride the roller coaster, not knowing where the bottom is, and that’s what I’m afraid that we’re on right now. It’s like, ‘Wow, we’re going down, down, down, down, down, down, down.’ Nobody can see the bottom. I personally don’t care to find out where the bottom might be!”
The Stanford-trained historian and Yale-educated lawyer has spoken at length with several economists, obsessively studied what other Western countries are doing to stanch their economic wounds and intensively read about what worked and what didn’t during the New Deal. “One of the things that I take away from that study – thinking back through our history, thinking back to the ‘20s and the ‘30s – is that one of the things you have to be willing to do is be adaptable,” Hawley said. “You can’t get locked into the mentality that ‘this is the only way we have to deal with this situation.’ You’ve got to be willing to say, ‘if that’s not working, let’s try something else.’”
Hawley insists that his preferred approach, while unorthodox, is not inherently unconservative because government policies have effectively blocked people from working – for good public health reasons, he hastens to add. This makes it only fair to compensate workers for the duration of the crisis, he argues, adding that relief should focus more on helping people than corporations.
“The only reason that you deliver the money through the employer is the employer pays the wages,” he said. “My view is that the American worker shouldn’t be asked to shoulder the burden of unemployment when they haven’t done anything wrong. In these extraordinary times, I think the government ought to step forward and say we are going to protect as many jobs as we can. We ought to make it our goal to protect every job.”
I asked Hawley whether he worries that the federal government will accumulate too much power during this crisis and never give it back. “I guess, at the moment, I’m more concerned about chaos that leads to 20 and 30 percent unemployment,” he said.
Hawley, who defeated Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill in the 2018 midterms, has been a vocal supporter of President Trump and consistently voted for his agenda. He has also emerged as an outspoken critic of corporate power, especially large technology companies, and emphasizes that the right needs to evolve to offer more help for those being left behind in the gig economy. Hawley is part of the small conservative clique in Congress that’s challenging what’s increasingly being called free-market fundamentalism. His view is that Republicans have been too focused on promoting individualism and corporatism over the last generation at the expense of communities and churches. (I wrote last year on his brand of right-wing populism and emergence as a new variety of culture warrior.)