The COVID Bill Was Never Going to Be Bipartisan

Why 76% approval means nothing + you can’t make Berger an offer he can’t refuse + our terrible cycling infrastructure + a developer puts the screws to Chapel Hill + Smith College parodies itself

Fri., Feb. 26, 2021 

Happy Friday, peeps. The rain will return today, with a high around 49. Clouds with the chance of showers this weekend, too, with highs in the 60s. Hang in there: March starts Monday. 

As a heads-up: I’m writing a few reporting-intensive features over the next month or two, so I might take some days off from the newsletter to make that happen.


One Year Ago Yesterday: 


Today’s Number: 12

States, including North Carolina, that have yet to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. 

  • The COVID relief bill Democrats are moving through Congress (see item 1) includes additional funding for states that expand Medicaid — not just funding for the expansion, but funding for the entire program. The expansion would cover about 500,000 people. (N&O)

  • It’s designed to be an offer they can’t refuse — unless, that is, their motivations are purely ideological. 

  • Sen. Phil Berger’s office says he’s following the legislation. I think we all know what that means. 


+TODAY’S TOP 5 

1. How Bipartisan Does It Need to Be?

Two facts about President Biden’s COVID relief bill: 

  • It is incredibly popular: 68% to 76% approval, including a healthy chunk of Republicans, as well as massive support in the business world

  • If it passes, it will do so with little or (more likely) no support from Republicans

  • One counterfactual to consider: If in the early days of his presidency, Donald Trump boasted an approval rating in the 50s and proposed legislation with 70% support, what’s the likelihood that congressional Democrats would have uniformly rejected it? My guess: Not high. 

Republicans are replicating their strategy from the Obama era: If the bill wins no Republican votes, it’s not “bipartisan,” which means Biden is breaking his promise to “unify” the country, regardless of how many real-life Republicans approve of the bill’s policies. The wager is that after months of messaging in the Fox News Cinematic Universe — whose narratives are inevitably echoed in the form of “some people say” questions from the likes of Chuck Todd — the bloom will come off the rose. 

  • The strategy worked with President Obama’s stimulus — which was almost as popular as Biden’s bill — because it was too small and loaded with tax cuts to be effective in the short term. 

  • When the economy didn’t quickly recover, the Republican messaging about a convoluted, partisan bill became impossible to shake. 

Democrats learned from that experience, however. This bill is bigger — about twice the size. It sends checks to people. It sends billions to local governments. It incentivizes states to expand Medicaid. It does tangible things to help people right away. And it will pass just as the economy is expected to rev back up. 

  • “Presuming the relief bill passes, Democrats will of course celebrate it as a great victory,” Paul Waldman writes in the Post. “And the consensus is now that over the next year, the pandemic will fade (depending on whether we see new strains of the virus that are resistant to vaccines) and the economy will experience a period of strong growth as we get back to normal life.”

  • “Voters might not care much about legislative wrangling, but that simple story — Democrats are getting things done while Republicans are trying to sabotage everything — is something anyone can understand. It will even have the benefit of being mostly true.”

The question, then, is why congressional Republicans feel no pressure to pass popular legislation that will help their own communities, whereas Democrats would almost certainly act differently were the shoe on the other foot. 

  • The easiest explanation is that they believe Biden and the Democrats will get credit regardless. There’s no upside to making his victory bipartisan. But that’s not the whole picture. 

  • Because of congressional gerrymandering and the small state advantages inherent in the Senate and the electoral college, Democrats have to win large majorities to govern, which means they have to build broad, fragile coalitions. 

  • In this case, to get 50 votes in the Senate, they have to get a bill that’s acceptable to Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin. If Bernie will work toward incremental progress, and Manchin will take his ball and go home; that dynamic will always favor a more conservative outcome. 

  • Republicans can govern as a minority. They have little incentive to work with Democrats, but Democrats have to make a show of working with Republicans. 

To give you a sense of how out of whack things are: 

  • Senate Republicans have not represented a majority of Americans since 1997–99. Following the 1996 election, they represented 50.3% of the population but controlled 55 of 100 Senate seats. 

  • Since then, they’ve controlled the Senate for 14 years to the Democrats’ eight. That entire time, Democrats represented a larger share of the American public and, since the 2000 elections, have dominated the national Senate vote. 

That’s why a Democratic proposal can be overwhelming popular — even among Republicans — but not be bipartisan. Until the media figures out how to work this context into its congressional reporting, the concepts of partisanship and unity will continue to be warped beyond recognition.  

Last night: The Senate’s parliamentarian ruled that the minimum wage hike cannot be included in budget reconciliation. So either the Senate Dems will overrule the Senate parliamentarian — which they can, but won’t, do — or they’ll strike the minimum wage hike from the COVID bill.

  • Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema had come out against a $15/hour minimum wage. This ruling lets them off the hook and will probably help the bill gets 50 votes.

  • Democrats might try to negotiate with Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton, who offered a $10/hour minimum bill that comes with several unpalatable immigration enforcement strings attached — in particular, the mandatory use of E-Verify, which Biden campaigned against. But any deal that’s ultimately acceptable to 10 Republicans won’t work for Democrats.

  • All of this is putting off the inevitable: Senate Dems — i.e., Manchin and Sinema — will have to decide whether they’ll allow their caucus’s entire agenda to be held hostage by Republican obstructionism. None of this will get easier once the COVID bill is done.

  • Worth noting: In the last 50-50 Senate, in 2001, the Republicans fired the parliamentarian after he ruled against them on a reconciliation question.

—> OTHER BIDEN NEWS

  • Citing shortfalls in the supply chain, Biden signed an executive order designed to bolster the American manufacturing of semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, and other technologies. Republicans seem keen to codify this into law later this year. (NYT)

  • The Biden administration will soon release a declassified report telling us what everyone knew but Trump denied: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi murdered in 2018. Biden — though not others in the administration — has said he’ll only communicate with the 85-year-old Saudi king, not his 35-year-old heir apparent. (Reuters, WaPo)

  • The U.S. conducted airstrikes on alleged Iranian-allied fighters in Syria “in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq,” according to the Pentagon. (WaPo)

  • To quote a certain White House spokeswoman (from four years ago, when it was a different White House bombing Syria):

Share PRIMER | North Carolina


2. NC House Backs Summer School Program

The state House unanimously backed a bill requiring school districts to provide 150 hours of voluntary in-person summer instruction for students who’ve fallen behind during the pandemic. The districts also have to offer “enrichment activities” such as sports and arts. The details: 

  • Districts would have to prioritize at-risk students, though they wouldn’t have to attend. Other students could attend so long as space permits. 

  • Districts would have to test at the beginning and the end of the program. 

  • The mandate doesn’t come with any money, and charter schools don’t have to do it. (Of course.) Charter school students can, however, enroll in district school programs, as can private school students and homeschoolers. For free. (Of course.) 

  • Read the N&O’s story here.

—> OTHER STATE NEWS

  • The NCGA is moving to crack down on out-of-state debt-settlement companies, which everyone except the industry’s lobbyists seems to agree are predatory. (WRAL)

  • Early versions of North Carolina’s vaccine distribution plan prioritized homeless shelters’ staff and residents. By January, they’d moved near the end of the line, and advocates want to know why. (Carolina Public Press)

  • Clean Air Carolina and the North Carolina Coastal Federation have filed a petition with the Emergency Management Commission asking the state to join a regional partnership to combat climate change by forcing electric power plants to reduce carbon emissions. (NC Health News)

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3. Why We Have Terrible Cycling Infrastructure

Here’s a not-so-fun fact: The state Department of Transportation has a nearly $5 billion budget. Of that, $800,000 — 0.016% — is dedicated to cycling projects. Why is that? 

  • “The Strategic Transportation Investments law establishes the formulas to allocate revenue to public works projects,” Carolina Public Press reports. “In 2013, legislators inserted a provision prohibiting NCDOT’s financial support to towns and metropolitan/rural planning organizations for independent bicycle and pedestrian improvement projects.”

  • NCDOT can allocate up to 10% of its annual capital budget to nonhighway projects, and many roadway projects include some pedestrian or cycling lane. (The department doesn’t track those.) But the point is, multimodal transportation is an afterthought at best. 

The pandemic, advocates told CPP, has made cycling more attractive.  

  • Terry Lansdell of BikeWalk NC: “People experienced neighborhoods again during the shutdown. They went outside, became more active, and realized that a lot was lacking. They realized there was not a continuous sidewalk. They realized there weren’t bike lanes.”

Earlier this month, the state released NC Moves 2050, its first long-range transportation plan. (Side note: How is it 2021, and North Carolina is just now releasing its first long-range plan?) The plan recommends eight strategies to improve transportation, including better mass transit, sidewalks, and dedicated bike lanes. 

  • Those things require money. 

  • There is no money. 

  • Mike Sule of Asheville on Bikes: “What really draws people to bikes are safe facilities, [but] so much of our infrastructure puts cyclists and pedestrians in peril.”

Say hello


4. Developer Bullies Chapel Hill into No-Win Scenario

If you’re looking for a(nother) developer to hate, may I humbly suggest the Durham-based Stackhouse Properties, which is pulling some shit on the town of Chapel Hill? 

  • Before we begin: Mobile home courts are, by their nature, strange entities. People own the home, but they rent the land it’s on. So they invest money into where they live, build a community, and then, one day, a developer buys the place and jacks up the rent or tells them to move their houses somewhere else because he wants to build an apartment building. (Good luck!) They often have little recourse. 

  • Compounding matters, residents tend to be lower-income and, in Orange County, Spanish-speaking and sometimes lacking status. Which is to say, they’re not in a power position. 

With that out of the way, here’s the sitch: 

  • Stackhouse bought a 14-acre mobile home court in 2019, one of the last in Chapel Hill. 

  • It then submitted a plan to move 16 of the 73 homes on the site so it could build a massive self-storage facility and replace an existing gas station. 

  • If the town accepted the deal, it would limit rent increases — currently $450–$500 — and maintain up to 83 lots for at least 15 years. 

  • If the town refused, it would evict everyone and build an apartment building. 

  • Of course, the rent-control agreement would probably be unenforceable under state law, and, as council member Jessica Anderson pointed out, Stackhouse is essentially coercing them into accepting a project that doesn’t conform to the town’s land-use plans for this busy stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. 

If you accept the premise that this is an unwelcome project — the council seems to agree on that point — Stackhouse has forced the town into a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. (Or, as one town source described it to me, a “shit sandwich.”)

  • For Team Damned If You Do, Jessica Anderson: “The narrative being spread by [Stackhouse] that the town is responsible for the displacement of these residents is both unwise and outrageous. I refuse to be manipulated or threatened into a land-use decision, not only because this current proposal doesn’t even protect residents but it sets a terrible precedent for future applications.”

  • For Team Damned If You Don’t, Tai Huyhn: “It is reckless to think we will have the resources and the availability of land or anything to help these 73 families relocate to anywhere in our town. That’s just unrealistic and irresponsible. These are homeowners. They own their homes; they’ve invested so much into them. … You can’t ask these people to just pick that up and move it across town or to the county. That’s just not how that works.” (N&O)

To my mind, both of these are valid arguments — and the underlying problem is how much leverage state law affords developers. But there’s nothing the town council can do about that right now. It has two choices: approve, or don’t. 

  • On Wednesday, it voted 5–3 to approve. 

  • That’s a majority, but not the supermajority the project needed to forgo a second vote. It will go back to the council on March 10. 

—> OTHER DEVELOPMENT NEWS

The Triangle Business Journal (subscription required) has several interesting bits of construction-related news: 

  • Kane Realty has submitted plans for the North Hills Innovation District it announced last month. Those plans include “an 18-story tower and an accompanying outdoor amenity building labeled Tower V and the Pumphouse.” Tower V will be “a mixed-use office tower complete with ground-floor retail and 458,463 square feet of Class A office space.” The Pumphouse — God, what a name — will be “a 3,305-square-foot amenity building with outdoor space.” 

  • An unknown developer has filed plans to build 19 three-story townhomes near Dillard and Holloway in East Durham. “The plans show two rows of townhomes served by surface parking. The retail portion features 826 square feet in a single-story structure on the northern end of the project.”

  • The Atlanta-based PulteGroup filed plans to build 192 houses near Research Triangle Park, while the Virginia-based Bonaventure wants to build 521 “upscale” apartments over 35 acres in that same general vicinity. 

—> OTHER LOCAL NEWS

  • A consultant’s report found that the Apex Police Department is, well, racist AF. Or, in consultant speak: “A culture [exists] and is being supported where officers were comfortable making comments that were blatantly racist and out of touch for serving a multiracial community.” The “good” news: “The Black and Hispanic populations are low among the citizenry.” (Via N&O, subscribers only)

  • Wake County schools will continue to have school resource officers — over the objections of advocates who want to end the school-to-prison pipeline — but the Board of Education wants to modify its agreement with law enforcement agencies and better define the role of SROs. (WRAL)


5. Smith College Becomes a Parody of Smith College

Let’s stipulate that the right’s obsession with cancel culture — joined by self-important Glenn Greenwald types — is more about escaping accountability under the guise of intellectual freedom. This has taken on renewed fury since the Capitol riot (the CPAC convention this weekend is literally called “America Uncanceled”). But conservatives have long directed victimized outrage at college campuses, which they’ve characterized as quasi-left-wing reeducation camps that rigidly enforce social justice values. Every so often, an anecdote comes along to help make the case. 

That brings us to Smith College, where progressivism stuck its head of its own ass at the expense of ruining innocent lives. 

  • In 2018, a Black student named Oumou Kanoute posted on Facebook that she was eating lunch in a dorm lounge when a cop, who may have had a lethal weapon, demanded to know what she was doing there. The encounter left her near a “meltdown.”

  • This followed a pattern of harassment, she wrote. 

  • Kanoute labeled a cafeteria worker “racist,” as she did a janitor whom she believed — wrongly — had called security. 

  • The janitor who actually called the police officer was put on paid leave. 

  • The president of the college publicly apologized to the student, and the school hired a firm to investigate.  

Fast-forward three months, when the report came in. The facts weren’t what Kanoute made them out to be. 

  • The lounge was off-limits to students that day. 

  • The janitor had been instructed to call security if he noticed any students in there, because the lounge was being used by a summer camp, and everyone who had access to the summer camp needed a background check. 

  • The janitor she labeled a racist wasn’t on campus when this happened. 

  • The cafeteria worker had simply mentioned to her that students weren’t supposed to use that lounge. 

  • The officer, like all on campus, was unarmed. 

  • Kanoute couldn’t substantiate her allegations of a pattern of harassment. 

Those facts changed little about the school’s approach, The New York Times reports: 

  • “[College President Kathleen] McCartney said the report validated Ms. Kanoute’s lived experience, notably the fear she felt at the sight of the police officer. ‘I suspect many of you will conclude, as did I,’ she wrote, ‘it is impossible to rule out the potential role of implicit racial bias.’ … Ms. McCartney offered no public apology to the employees after the report was released.”

  • The cafeteria worker eventually got furloughed. When she applied for a job at a local restaurant, the manager asked, “Aren’t you the one involved in that incident?” She didn’t get the job. 

—> OTHER INCLUSION NEWS 

  • Amid the racial justice reckoning that followed the George Floyd protests, The New York Times commissioned a report on its own workplace culture. It concluded: “Our current culture and systems are not enabling our workforce to thrive and do its best work. This is true across many types of difference: race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, socioeconomic background, ideological viewpoints, and more. But it is particularly true for people of color, many of whom described unsettling and sometimes painful day-to-day workplace experiences.” (Poynter)