Category: Politics

The Economics of the COVID-19 Rebate

You will probably be receiving a check from the federal government in the next few months. If you are a single filer and make under $75,000, you will receive the maximum rebate of $1,200. If you make over $75,000, this amount  will be cut by 5% per dollar for every dollar over $75,000, before hitting zero at $99,000.1If you make over $75,000 you can see exactly how much you’ll receive by taking your income above $75,000 subtracted from $24,000 and multiply it by 0.05. For example, if you make $80,000: (24,000-5000)*0.05 = $950. Or you can just use this calculator, I guess. Each dependent child will add $500 as well. If you file jointly the income level rises to $150,000 and if you file as a head of household it rises to $112,500. This rebate is one of the results of the “Phase 3” COVID-19 response package that Congress passed on Friday and President Trump signed later that afternoon.2Phase 1” was the immediate response passed at the beginning of March providing just over $8 billion to health agencies. “Phase 2” was a more thorough piece of legislation addressing sick leave and testing for the uninsured. The goal is to provide immediate aid to Americans who need it and inject a massive stimulus into the economy to counter a rapidly deteriorating economic situation.

You’re probably going to start seeing and reading a lot of articles with advice on what to do with with this money; and while I would love it if the world came to me for their personal financial advice, that is not what I want to do here. Instead I want to lay out the economics of why this rebate is being issued, and why you shouldn’t feel guilty about this money if you receive it but don’t think you need it as much as others might. 

First and foremost, this money is intended to support those who need it, many people are finding themselves temporarily out of work and it goes without saying that if you need to pay rent, buy food, cover expenses, or support yourself and your loved ones, you should use the rebate for that. Please, take care of yourself, take care of your family, be responsible, and don’t think that this means you should not continue to heed the CDC guidance and continue social distancing to the extent you are able. This is not just about you, it’s about hundreds of thousands of Americans who could die or become seriously ill if you and your 300 million compatriots do not keep to yourself. 

Now that the heavy stuff is over, if you are still employed and your life is carrying on more or less financially stable despite your wistful leering out your window at the forbidden out-of-doors, you may feel a little guilty about the check you’re about to receive. There’s a compelling argument to be made that money should only have gone to those who need it: the unemployed or underemployed, especially in the services industry. I have unwittingly made this argument myself, and while the intention is correct, the economics are not.

Spend, Baby, Spend

With little traditional monetary policy action available (the Federal Reserve has already slashed interest rates to near zero and the required reserve ratio, down to 10% since the Great Recession, was slashed to 0% this month for all depository institutions) and an incredibly unorthodox and indeterminate economic slowdown — the signs of which are emerging rapidly — a massive fiscal response or unconventional monetary policy option is necessary. Former Federal Reserve Chairs Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen have historically endorsed the prospect of “helicopter money”, Federal Reserve-financed drops of money on the American public to encourage spending and break away from a contraction verging on a deflationary spiral. And current Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has noted the high possibility of the economy currently being in recession and promised potentially unlimited lending to keep financial markets operating, though he concedes the Fed’s abilities will be limited while the economy is tempered and will be most impactful “when the recovery does come, to make that recovery as strong as possible.” In the immediate term, however, fiscal stimulus is needed. And the Phase 3 COVID-19 legislation is the first major step to assure temporary financial survival and cash to the millions of Americans increasingly finding themselves out of work. So why? Why pay out billions of dollars to give all Americans, even those who don’t need it as much as others, a cash influx?

Because the more anyone spends money, the better off everyone will be. In economics, there is a metric called the marginal propensity to consume (MPC), which is a number between 0 and 1 that reflects what portion of additional disposable income will be spent. For example, if the marginal propensity to consume is 0.4, for every additional dollar you received, you’d spend $0.40 of it and save $0.60. It is the inverse of the marginal propensity to save (MPS).3There is also MPM, the marginal propensity to import, which is not negligible, though it is likely less pervasive in covering immediate costs such as housing, healthcare, and food, so for simplicity’s sake, I will leave it off. You’re welcome. It’s calculated as a derivative of the consumption function (C) over disposable income (Y), given that the change in C over the change in Y is equal to the MPC. The MPC plus the MPS (a derivative of the savings function (S)) is equal to 1:

The marginal propensity to consume is important because of an economic concept called the fiscal multiplier, a larger part of multiplier theory, which notes that when the government spends a sum of money, the national net income may increase by more than the increase in spending. This was first conceptualized in the early 1930s by a student of John Maynard Keynes named Richard Kahn, is a key component in Keynesian economics and many of its subschools, and was at the heart of many New Deal policies. You can think of it this way: if the US government were to spend $10 billion to build a brand new spaceship for NASA, GDP increases by $10 billion right off the bat in the production of a new creation; but consider the vast majority of that $10 billion is likely going to labor costs, who then pass much of  that money in the form of buying new things: a new home, new car, or cups of coffee; then those homebuilders, carmakers, and baristas receive a portion of that money that they would not otherwise have received and go on to buy their own new homes, cars, and cups of coffee, and this multiplies out to actually increase GDP by way more than $10 billion even though only $10 billion was initially spent, possibly two, three, five, or ten times as much.

The MPC is how you calculate the multiplier, K, which is equal to one over one minus the MPC, or, effectively, one over the MPS:

The share of labor compensation in GDP has been around 60% since the Great Recession and it’s been estimated that the marginal propensity to consume is around 0.10 (meaning K = 1.11), so let’s assume that in the example above $6 billion goes to the initial labor, who then spend 10% of their additional income, and so on, increasing GDP by $6 billion * 1.11, or $6.66 billion. That’s an additional $660 million in value purely by virtue of having spent money to begin with. And this is not just wishful thinking, this is really how it works, if to a lesser degree than what the traditional economics textbook might imply.4On another note, there’s also an inverse of this, which is the money multiplier, which reflects how banks perpetually lend given deposits. This creates a massive amount of cash in the process as determined by one over the reserve requirement. Recall that the reserve requirement during the Great Recession was 10%, meaning that for every $100 deposited in a bank, a maximum amount of $1000 would be created in a perfectly functioning financial and economic system. The multiplier did not perform at this level due to banks holding reserves over the required ratio (excess reserves). Since banks are not required to lend out cash, the money multiplier is actually closer to 1.2, falling far short of the economic estimate of 100, even if it could be that high in rough practice. Now that the Federal Reserve has dropped the reserve requirements to 0, an infinite amount of money can be created. How exciting! Of course, the marginal propensity to consume is greater at lower income levels, as consumption increases until all needs are met, which is a good argument for some fiscal restraint in capping the income level that receives the cash rebate. Different degrees of and targets for spending will have different multipliers based on who they impact and their mechanisms. Increasing food stamp benefits is estimated to have a multiplier around 1.73, whereas more regressive tax cuts or policies that crowd out more efficient spending like building sports stadiums are often thought and estimated to have multipliers lower than one, resulting in getting less economic gain than what was spent.5Thank you for clicking me and wanting to know more. Crowding out describes a situation wherein the government, due to spending more, “crowds out” investment because it needs to soak up funds via debt, thus cutting off private investment’s access to capital, or at least making capital more expensive. The crowding out phenomenon is a frequent argument against publicly-funded economic growth and Keynesianism as a long term solution. As for taxes, Ricardian equivalence assumes rational consumers who are aware taxation will be required to finance any such spending either now (so less money to them) or later (paid via bonds, the interest on which must also be paid at a later date, so ultimately also less money to them), so saving would increase, thus reducing the multiplier. Empirical modern research on this theory has refuted it, and many of the assumptions behind it are no longer widely held in all but the most basic economic models. But there is still something to be said for consumers at a certain range of income realizing that this will have to be paid for and being more thrifty, expecting a tax increase or inflationary pressure in the future — the bill comes due.

Nonetheless, because this payout is a no-strings-attached rebate, consumers are empowered to spend it on whatever they’d like, and the government is not spending it on what might be a less productive endeavor, the multiplier will almost certainly be positive. People still have to buy food, pay their rent, and take care of their day-to-day needs, and it’s likely those at the lower end of the income scale (who will benefit the most from this bill) will spend more of it on immediate necessities than those who need it less, multiplying out cash and spending power as this inflates earnings from spender to spender. 

There is even precedent for a similar kind of cash handout from not that long ago which gives us an idea of what we can expect. At the onset of the Great Recession, President Bush signed the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, which gave many Americans between $300-$600 with the aim of encouraging spending so as to provide a floor to the weak economy. These types of refundable lump-sum tax rebates were estimated to have a multiplier of about 1.26, comparatively higher than most other tax cut options, though not as high as various types of spending increases. Though the rebate did boost spending to a degree, it was not as much as expected since most Americans saved the money in lieu of spending it and the checks arrived too late to stave off the recession, which was already well underway by the time they arrived in the later half of the year. Nonetheless, it certainly did not hurt the economy, and the cash injection was valuable towards paying off debts, increasing savings (even if this didn’t effectively improve investment, as banks weren’t loaning much out in these times anyway), and providing some cash to many who may have desperately needed it. The situation in the US was also only getting started: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were taken over by the federal government in September, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt only days later, the Troubled Asset Relief Program would be authorized in October and the Federal Reserve didn’t even drop interest rates to zero until December. And that was all before President Obama was sworn in in January of 2009 and had to address the back half of the crisis, managing the automotive industry bailouts and officially exiting the recession in June of 2009, though of course economic malaise would be persistent for the next several years. Though this initial stimulus was only about $152 billion, successive fiscal support such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (which authorized $700 billion, of which only about $440 billion was used), and the Recovery Act (which cost $831 billion) made up most of the federal government’s fiscal response to the recession.6To say nothing of the $4.5 trillion dollars the Federal Reserve provided in quantitative easing to inject additional funds into the financial system and lower long-term interest rates. And while history indicates this was probably not enough and the government should have spent more to mitigate the persistent economic torpidity that would follow, you might note all of these successive bills are already dwarfed by the $2.2 trillion spent on the Phase 3 COVID-19 response legislation alone.

A Recession Unlike Any Other

Despite its size, the Phase 3 COVID-19 response legislation will not be enough. The contraction at hand is not because of the traditional reasons economies fall into recession, such as burst asset bubbles, supply shocks (i.e., a sudden increase in energy prices), financial crises, and the like, wherein there is a decrease in aggregate demand. In recessions like these, the federal government often cuts taxes and increases spending, while central banks increase the money supply to lower interest rates. This encourages businesses to take out cheap loans, new public works projects to provide jobs, and consumers to run out and buy things with all that new cash. This recession is different because we don’t want these things to happen, at least not like that. We want businesses to keep their doors closed, schools to stay shuttered, and the last thing we want is consumers running around outside within six feet of each other waving their $1200 checks. Some have argued that the aim of a COVID-19 response should be to “actually decrease demand; a kind of anti-stimulus.” Tax cuts, more spending, and lower interest rates will not help the economy to the degree they historically have, and may even make the economic scenario worse if things abruptly turned around for folks and they started traveling, going back to work, and shopping around only to spread the virus further. Yes, the economy is in trouble because people aren’t spending — but not because they don’t want to or because they had to cut back. Instead it’s a self-imposed slowdown where governments are begging people to stay inside and requiring businesses to close. No matter how much money you have right now, you’re not going to go on that big vacation to Europe you had planned, nor should you. But it’s worth saying, and now saying again, how weird it is for such behavior to be discouraged in the context of your average recession. 

While discussing the psychology of markets, Keynes once famously remarked that “animal spirits” encouraged consumption and people would spend when these spirits were lifted, as opposed to precisely calculating exactly when their personal budgetary situation would improve. He wrote, “If the animal spirits are dimmed and spontaneous optimism falters, leaving us to depend on nothing but a mathematical expectation, enterprise will fade and die.” And though Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money came out in 1936 in response to the non-pandemic but still extraordinary economic foibles of its time, it is these insights on human behavior and psychology that have made his work so pervasive and applicable even in times like our own. The peoples’ outlook has to be a positive one and government is the only institution that can provide both the hope and support that the economy will need to improve.

Survival, Not Stimulus

The goal of the Phase 3 legislation is to survive. Send out some cash to help get you through a week or two, massively expand unemployment insurance in both its length and magnitude (the bill provides nearly 100% wage replacement for the average worker, which some might argue is the most important part of the law), freeze federal student loan payments until October, and provide loans to small businesses that will not cripple them for months once the economy rebounds. And it does many of these things very well. But if the goal is to do more than just survive and in fact prevent what could become the worst recession of our lifetimes from getting worse, this will not do the job. There are already voices calling for more nuanced and specific ways to trigger direct economic activity like online-only purchase vouchers, provisions for further payments if the crisis lasts longer than a month, and the digitization of or creating contingencies for essential services like education, mental health, and even elections.

Some of these items may come in a Phase 4 bill, but given Congress’ deteriorating ability to convene, the Senate’s announcement that it will not return until April 20, and the House’s indefinite recess, by the time such a bill even gets moving it will likely be overdue. This brings us back to what we can do now and what those Americans who are still employed and collecting a paycheck but will also be receiving rebates can do. If you really want to help, do not feel guilty about spending it: buy goods online for delivery, support local restaurants even if you can’t go to them by buying gift cards, subscribe to online fitness courses or support artists by buying digital media. Your spending will have a multiplicative effect on the economy to a larger degree than its surface value, and even spending it on something you may think is frivolous or unessential given all that is at stake can have positive effects for those who may need a source of income right now more than you do. Stay safe, take care of yourself, take care of those near you, stay inside to the degree you can, and if you want to buy that new album, that fancy new blender, or a new board game to help get you through these times — don’t feel guilty about it. You have an opportunity to help out a lot of people by helping yourself.

Running Mates: Episode 3 – 1976 – Mondale v. Dole

Lars and Michael discuss the first post-Watergate presidential election and how Gerald Ford fails to excite or unite his party by picking Bob Dole as his running mate, while Jimmy Carter manages to capture optimism and credibility with Walter Mondale.

The Race is Down to Two Candidates. Their Strongest VP Picks Are Almost Identical.

And just like that, what was once the largest primary field in modern history, became what it was always probably destined to be: a slug fest between the moderates and the left, personified respectively by former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. In the days before Super Tuesday, the legions of moderates behind the recently dropped out candidates Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg coalesced behind the former vice president, with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg joining them shortly thereafter. The only other notable further-left-of-center candidate in the race, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren similarly dropped out after Super Tuesday but has yet to endorse either Sanders or Biden (Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Bloomberg were all quick to endorse Biden following the suspension of their campaigns). The game theory of the Democratic primary that split the more liberal voters on Super Tuesday while unifying the moderate ones allowed Biden to come away with a sizable lead coming out of Super Tuesday.

Within a week, Biden went from being an underdog to favorite with a nearly 99% chance to  secure a majority of delegates and thus, the Democratic nomination for president. Sanders’ probability of becoming the nominee has shrunk to lower than 1%, coming down off a high of nearly 50% following his victory in the Nevada caucuses. Though Sanders hardly has a window to win the nomination now, the nation and media at large have been quick to note the similarities with 2016 primaries. Biden being perceived as more moderate and accessible to Republican voters than Hillary Clinton (and his fellow candidates throughout this primary) and Democrats being more eager than ever to find someone they deem electable both point in his favor. And Biden seems on a path to follow a similar trajectory as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 primary campaign against Sanders by building a moderate coalition of Democrats that are more southern, more diverse, and older than that of Sanders’ supporters.

With these two candidates left,1Yes, Tulsi Gabbard is still in the race, for the <1% of you who constitute her polling average and two earned delegates so far. the primary has come down to a slug fest between two demographically similar candidates (though their supporters are dramatically different, more on that later). We talked in our last check-in on the state of the vice presidential picks after Iowa and New Hampshire about how Sanders and Biden are very similar in what they each bring to the table as a nominee: white, male, septuagenarians with over 25 years in the federal government who are both from very small and very liberal leaning states. This means their strongest vice presidential matches will likely be similar, and indeed, on comparison, they share many of the same top ten picks, most of whom we talked extensively about in our last piece (since they’ve been the front-runners in the tracker for some time now, as Biden and Sanders have been the most likely nominees for months): Senators Kamala Harris, Tammy Duckworth, Mazie Hirono, and Catherine Cortez Masto, as well as former Obama Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (and 2020 presidential candidate) Julian Castro. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan is creeping up in the rankings due to the increasing favorability for Democrats in the generic ballot. Oregon Governor Kate Brown also appears on both of their top ten picks, as does Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, the very same Amy Klobuchar who just endorsed Biden, how interesting

One major new addition to the tracker, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, has already made a sizable impact as the absolute strongest pick for Sanders and in the top four for Biden. Lujan Grisham is a very strong vice presidential candidate compared to these two because of her demographic and regional strengths, as well as her combined experience both as a member of Congress and as a governor. Her exclusion in the original listing of potential VPs was a clear oversight on our end, and she’s ranked number three overall between the candidates.

Where Biden and Sanders differ, they do not do so dramatically. Sanders does not have former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick due to them sharing a region (both are from New England), and Biden misses out on former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe because Sanders’ and McAuliffe’s cumulative experience in federal and non-federal positions add to a 21.31 differential over Biden’s. This is because they’re almost exactly at the correct balance of federal and non-federal experience between them. 

Between the two of them,, Biden and Sanders each have seven women rounding out the top ten, and seven candidates who are non-white. Four of the candidates are from the Far West region and two are from the Southwest. It appears the tracker is favoring geographic and demographic diversity over the competitiveness of states, as only three of these candidates are from states currently within the competitiveness metric: Cortez Masto of Nevada, Ryan of Ohio, and McAuliffe of Virginia. If the race does tighten, New Mexico and Minnesota are on the threshold, so Klobuchar and Lujan Grisham could see their numbers improve even further.

From here on out, as the odds have refined between the two candidates, there won’t be a lot of upheaval unless the generic ballot shifts (these shifts at the margin end up making a large difference, being able to put Ohio or Georgia in play and not have to worry about defending Virginia or Colorado is a huge potential factor in selecting a competitive running mate); but stay tuned for further analysis on who our likely VPs will be and what they individually bring to the ticket.

Other Updates

We have dropped Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Steyer, and Warren from the tracker as they have each dropped out — er, ahem, suspended their campaigns. Though we may work on an at-large tool for Democratic presidential candidates using our VP pick database that lets you play around with possible nominees for fun in the future.

Now that we’re in the endgame now, I will begin researching how to build out the tracker to be slightly less broad. My gut instinct tells me Sanders is unlikely to pick a staunch moderate as a running mate, as he seems more ideologically “pure” than Biden, who might be more inclined to search for a more left-leaning vice presidential pick. There are a few variables I thought about adding in the initial tracker but cast aside for lack of time or out of desire to keep the tracker as broad as possible such as an ideology scale, a more nuanced VPKeySeat metric, or an endorsement discounter (if a potential VP has already endorsed someone, they’re less likely to be picked by the opposing camp, for example). If this gets rolled out you can expect a separate methodology piece and explainer on that.

There is still some fluctuation amongst the various picks’ strengths as the generic ballot adjusts, Democrats now have a seven point tailwind in their favor, which may make some states more in reach (Ohio, R+7; Georgia, R+12) and make others less necessary to defend (Colorado, D+1; Michigan, D+1) than they were a few weeks ago.

Per the note above, I have added New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to the tracker, as both she and Florida Representative Val Demings (also added) have both been mentioned in some recent speculative press about possible vice presidential picks for both Biden and Sanders. Lujan Grisham skyrocketed towards the top of the pack.

Congress Needs to Take the Lead on COVID-19

Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz recently received some attention for wearing a gas mask on the House floor as a messaging gimmick during the novel coronavirus response emergency spending vote. He has been accused of “making light” of the disease and pending public health crisis while the virus bears down upon America and indeed days after his Fallout cosplay stunt on the floor of the House, one of his own constituents died of the virus. Matt Gaetz has defended his display (while still in mask) by pointing out that “members of Congress are human Petri dishes… we fly through the dirtiest airports, we touch everyone we meet, so if anyone’s gonna get coronavirus, it’s totally gonna be Congress.” And the truth is, he’s actually absolutely right about this, even if his methods are in poor taste.

This is not to say members of Congress are uniquely vulnerable — obviously those who work as flight attendants, medical professionals, or in the larger transportation or health industries are as vulnerable, if not more so — but Gaetz’s off color actions and glib comments1I neglected to mention that he also joked about Trump not similarly donning a gas mask because of “what it does to the hair” and advised spring breakers not to cancel their trips to his home state, stating, “In my experience, the things that you consume on spring break will typically kill the coronavirus.” If Gaetz is not a personification of the State of Florida and its unholiness, I don’t know what is. And I’m not just making an easy joke about Florida Man, I can say this, I lived there for five years. speak to a striking concern as to a lack of preparedness by the ones who are tasked with handling national crises. When I’m not writing about elections and members of Congress here at The Postrider, I make my living following members of Congress, congressional hearings, and government schedules professionally. And as the Centers for Disease Control have warned that COVID-19 fully descending on the United States will not be a matter of if, but when, I have noticed a stunning lack of precaution and preparation by Congress for the disease affecting its members and its conduction of business. As the last few weeks have been full of stories of large events being cancelled or delayed due to the virus, notably SXSW in mid-March, Google I/O in mid-May, and the release of No Time to Die, the nation’s lawmakers remain on course to power through their spring and summer schedule with brief recesses. 

Some of this is likely optics towards maintaining a steady hand and remaining calm under pressure as they passed the supplemental appropriations for response to the virus, which was quickly shepherded and near-unanimously passed by the House, the Senate, and then signed by the president over the course of three days. I hesitate to think that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and the Senate leadership have not at least considered adjusting the calendar in a situation where the virus hits hard and members of Congress are warned to avoid travel between their districts and the capital. But in a time where messaging from the White House has been unclear at best and dangerously mismanaged at worst, where national leadership on the issue has been absent or uncertain, and Americans are unclear on who to listen to or rely on during a potential public health crisis, Congress is in a position to take the lead. It would be comforting and astute for Congress to at least communicate to the nation and internally that it has contingencies in mind, despite this routinely being Congress’ busiest time of year.2Congress embarks on the lengthy and time-consuming budget and appropriations process in the spring and over the summer. 

As the branch closest to the American people, members of Congress are constantly traveling to and from their districts during recesses, as well as attending meetings, fundraisers, campaign events, votes, and functions, some of which have already been affected by the virus. The myth of the elected official working four day weeks, with a week off every month, and entire month-long recesses in August and October is a quaint misunderstanding of reality. Members often work 10 hour days and 70 hours per week while Congress is in session. 78% of members report spending at least 40 weeks per year back home in their districts, which seems pragmatic considering everyone who voted for them is there, as are 85% of their families. And, in case you thought this was just a bunch of Washington fat cats persistently seeking reelection, less than one-fifth of that time is spent on active campaigning or political activities. Remember, most of these members are not a simple train or car ride away. Many of them are forced to commute from California, Alaska, and Hawaii regularly, as opposed to those in the Northeast corridor like Joe Biden, who was famous for riding the 90-minute Amtrak back home to Delaware every night when he served in Congress. With over three-quarters of members traveling so regularly to and from their district, many members spending nights sleeping on the couches in their DC offices, or sharing residences with each other in DC, not to mention that many of the lower-paid Hill staffers who work for members of Congress and their committees cohabitate as well, all in incredibly public jobs, this is a sector primed for the quick spread of disease. If COVID-19 is to be taken seriously by Congress, the supplemental funding is a good start, but the leadership should lay out a plan for their members as well.

Watching the Weekly Leader, published by the House Majority Leader’s office, I’ve been on the look out for any notice or announced contingencies in the event it is no longer advisable for members of Congress to continue traveling or meeting in Washington due to an outbreak. Thus far, as expected, there has been none, but should the virus sweep the city and the country at large, leading to the types of closures other countries have endured, what would happen? Current House rules prohibit any kind of remote voting, though California Congressman Eric Swalwell and former New Mexico Congressman Steve Pearce have submitted resolutions in the past to allow members to vote from their districts on select bills. Even if it were to become the policy of either chamber, there are constitutional concerns with this; Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution requires that “neither House… shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting,” and Section 6 notes privileges for those in “attendance”. Contingencies exist for physically relocating Congress if travel to DC were discouraged, but that linked report also dashes much hope for lawmakers assembling any way other than in one clustered room: “the possibility of remote voting… could require legislative or even constitutional responses.” 

If Washington, DC somehow became a hotbed of the virus, the Congress could physically move to another area on agreement between congressional leadership, specifically the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader, as permitted by the 108th Congress in 2003 under House Concurrent Resolution 1. And if there were political or partisan tension or conflict surrounding when to convene, Article 3, Section 3 allows the president to, “on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them.” A relocation still leaves a wide array of unanswered questions, the answers to which are largely classified, such as security procedures in such an event, not to mention conflict between a state government and a federal government as the seat of government is under the authority of the Congress. Quorum requirements are yet another nightmare, since the Constitution is quite clear that a majority is required for business in each chamber. If lawmakers are self-quarantining in their home districts, or if many were to succumb to the illness themselves, the reality of a crippled legislature unable to conduct any business is a serious reality. Both chambers generally operate on the assumption of a quorum, though members are entitled to ask if a quorum is present — which would provide a workaround in the event members decide to look the other way. This is not uncommon in daily proceedings as it allows for more efficient use of time by members who are off participating in events, hearings, or meetings during the routine proceedings of the chambers. Rule XX of the House contains rules for dealing with a situation in which “the House should be without a quorum due to catastrophic circumstances,” also allows some flexibility in adjusting the provisional number of the House. I don’t want to get into a deep dive of parliamentary procedure here but this is to say that in the event of a crisis there is something on the books for if members are incapacitated, though this could be potentially controversial (and lead to legal challenges, which in and of itself leads to another set of questions on if the Supreme Court can even meet), and does not eliminate the requirement for physical presence of members. 

The United States Congress is a complicated institution, and its relationship and reliance on the other branches of government are hard to understate, but this is why Congress should be clear about these issues and their own plans now. Agreement between congressional leaders as to how the schedule would change, how and where they would convene in a situation where Washington becomes untenable for a short time, or in the event a large number of members are incapacitated or otherwise spread across their districts is something they should get in front of now and clearly communicate internally and to the public at large.

Angst within Congress is starting to show after weeks of dragging, with several members self-quarantining in the near term, individual offices rolling out policies, and the respective party caucuses expected to bring it up with their leadership this week. And while the executive branch, which Alexander Hamilton prescribed as the unitary branch, the one most suited to manifest the “energy” and “safety” in a crisis has failed to manage the one potentially before the country, it falls to the people’s branch to take the lead. That starts with an appreciation as the public’s forum for how they will uniquely be affected by it, and must culminate with enterprising to address the scientific, operational, and physical realities of the situation. Congress is rarely proactive, but this crisis is an opportunity to live up to its expectations, it should communicate its plan before it is too late.

Running Mates: Episode 2 – 1972 – Shriver v. Agnew

Lars and Michael discuss Richard Nixon’s deliberation over whether or not to keep his vice president, Spiro Agnew, on the ticket and take a deep dive into the bleak prospects for the Democratic nominee George McGovern and his struggle to even find a running mate in the first place.

Keeping an Eye on Vice Presidential Picks After Iowa and New Hampshire

It took a few days, a lot of miscommunication, a lot of errors, and some late nights, but we finally have the results from both the Iowa Democratic caucuses and the New Hampshire Democratic primary. The Iowa caucuses, the 89th Academy Awards of its time, what with a miscalled winner and a lot of confusion,1Good thing the caucuses didn’t accidentally pronounce someone dead, that would have been awkward. seemed to ultimately (if anticlimactically) deliver a split verdict for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The New Hampshire primary, on the other hand, went off more or less without any drama, but reiterated the idea that this is a crowded, close, and increasingly splintered race with Sanders and Buttigieg neck and neck winning around 25% of the vote each, the only other candidate eligible to receive delegates being Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who came in a close third. After some stunning underperformances by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden, there’s a big question about how this race shapes out as it moves into larger and more diverse states in the coming weeks before culminating in a make-or-break Super Tuesday.

With the first two major races in, it’s time to take a look back at our Vice Presidential Tracker, which we’ve been updating after each contest. This is our first analysis on how it’s looking since voting has begun, and while Iowa and New Hampshire are important simply because they are the first states in the primary, they are by no means representative of the demographics of the Democratic Party, and represent a very small fraction of the delegates that will ultimately determine the nominee. Nonetheless, because we know this, and our favorite election modelers over at FiveThirtyEight know this, we track our rankings against their candidate’s probabilities of reaching a delegate majority. You may recall (or not, because it’s long and starts to talk about math) in our methodology that the “Rank-Score” for the potential vice presidential nominees runs the VP Score through every single possible nominee weighted by their odds at securing a delegate majority and thus becoming the nominee. So, let’s take a look at where we are as of February 15, the weekend after the New Hampshire primary.

Let’s start with the ostensible front-runners. The odds of either Sanders (36%) or Biden (13%) being the nominee are at just under 50% at the time of publishing this article. These two front-runners are unique in that, ideology aside, they are relatively similar in what they each bring as nominees. They’ve both been in the federal government for over 25 years, they are both white and male, and are from very small, very liberal states. This also means that so long as one of them gains at the expense of the other, the vice presidential standings won’t change that much, since you’re running each potential VP pick through the strengths for Biden and Sanders adjusted by their odds of getting a majority of delegates. This is why Senators Kamala Harris, Tammy Duckworth, Mazie Hirono, and Catherine Cortez Masto, along with former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro round out the top five. They are each also individually in the top five strongest picks for both Biden and Sanders. In the senators’ cases, they are each relatively new-on-the-scene (Hirono is the only one so far to have faced reelection as a senator), and are prominent women of color in the Democratic Party. Castro has an advantage in that he’s not up for any kind of reelection and is from a large “swing” state (how contentious Texas will really be in a close presidential year is a matter for debate, see: Beto O’Rourke). Castro and the senators are all of course non-white, which boosts them when we’ve got white men as the frontrunners for the nomination, but another key thing they all share is that they on average have about twice as much non-federal experience as they have federal experience, which balances nicely against Sanders’ and Biden’s decades in federal service. 

Potential VP Gain from State Federal XP (years) Non-Federal XP (years) Gain from XP Score with Biden Gain from XP Score with Sanders
Harris 1.79 3 13 24.43 31.74
Duckworth 1.02 11 17 16.62 22.10
Hirono 0.09 14 22 11.41 17.28
Cortez Masto 8.23 3 8 23.92 35.97
Castro 3.09 3 9 24.81 35.18

Harris coming out as a heavier front-runner than the rest of these (she’s rank-scored at almost 40 points) is not a surprise. Recall that even though she’s not from a close state (California’s partisan lean in the tracker at this moment is 24 points Democratic), she is from the largest state, which does ever so slightly factor into her score (when in doubt, bigger is better); this also of course boosts Illinois Senator Duckworth and Castro, both of whom are from large states. Senator Cortez Masto gets an added boost in that she is from a close state, Nevada, but loses a good chunk of her score in the coefficient of our calculation due to the risk of her seat being filled by a Republican in a coming election.

Considering she’s been floated as a Biden running mate pretty heavily, I would say that Harris being in the top five is a good indication that the tracker is generating feasible and relatively intelligent results. Considering Castro is also frequently mentioned as a running mate for some of the remaining candidates, his presence in the top five is also encouraging. The top five picks at the moment reflect a good balance of geographic diversity as well, balanced strongly against the eastern frontrunners.

Closing out the top ten in our overall standings we have another notable name: presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar. Klobuchar is buffeted by the competitiveness and medium-size of her state, Minnesota leans Democrat by only 2 points and carries 10 electoral votes.

As we approach the Nevada caucuses, South Carolina primary, and then Super Tuesday, the one potential VP to watch closest is Mazie Hirono, who is in the top five strongest picks for not only Biden and Sanders, but also the former mayors in the field, Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg. Buttigieg could get traction for squeezing Sanders’ lead in New Hampshire and eking out victory in Iowa, and Bloomberg could start to figure in more heavily what with his unofficial entry into the contests on Super Tuesday. Hirono has received little mention as a possible vice presidential pick, but this looks to be an oversight, as her metrics are good, and she’s been increasingly outspoken about the current administration and the high profile events of the last few years, slowly gaining more name recognition within the party. Her balance of just enough state and federal experience makes her worthy of any shortlist by these septuagenarian frontrunners, and by any up-and-coming mayors who lack much experience at all.

That said, if the Klobucharge (ask my editor, but I stand by I came up with this before the other news outlets did after the New Hampshire primary) proves pervasive and Amy Klobuchar begins gaining traction, or if Elizabeth Warren makes a comeback, we’ll see some new names bumping into the top ten. Tim Ryan and Julian Castro will probably pass over the senators as the highest ranked in this case, and we could see New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and some former Obama administration cabinet members nudge out a few of the governors rounding out the current top ten.

Other Updates

I dropped businessman Andrew Yang off the tracker as he dropped out of the presidential race on the night of the New Hampshire Primary. I have not added him to the potential vice presidential picks, but if one of you Internet people read too much into his ominous tweet, drop me a line and I’ll throw him in there for you.

Due to recent speculation, I added Hillary Clinton as a vice presidential candidate, maybe you’ve heard of her? She is actually a fairly strong running mate for Pete Buttigieg, so keep an eye on him (and her) if Buttigieg continues to do well in the primary.

Now that FiveThirtyEight is tracking specific candidates under it’s “All others” on their primary forecast, we will be using those numbers for each specific potential nominee instead of applying the broad odds for that category at large to each candidate not listed in their overall tracker.

Remember that the state metrics for candidates will all adjust over time as the generic ballot changes. I update this after each primary as well, but it can have a miniscule impact on the competitiveness of various states and, at the margins, can even make a state fall just into our out of the “competitive” range, which could substantially affect a specific VP pick.

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