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Covid Relief, Gridlock, and ‘Better Late Than Never’

“Congress did their job this week…”

President-elect Joe Biden

Technically, he’s right. 

The members of the House and Senate negotiated their way to a $900 billion bill that will provide Covid-related relief to the American people. 

But as we consider the work Congress did this week, it’s worth considering whether we, the people, are satisfied with the product it delivered. 

The timing of the Covid relief package

  • The Coronavirus Response And Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, introduced on May 12, 2020, passed both houses and was sent to the president for signing 223 days after it was introduced. That translates to about 31 weeks, or 7 months
  • The previous package, known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, was signed into law on March 27, 2020, eight days after its introduction on March 19.  
  • Congress had to pass a two-day extension on December 18 to avoid a government shutdown and provide additional time to settle debate over the bill. 
  • Lawmakers earned at least $106,000 over the course of the 7-month period of gridlock. In its current form, the bill will pay Americans who meet certain criteria $600 each. 

The impossible reading assignment

  • The 5,593-page document was about twice as long as the previous bill that held the record for the longest piece of legislation (2,847 pages). 
  • The text of the bill was released about 2 p.m. EST on December 21, and the vote was held about 10 hours later, just before midnight. 
  • To read the full text within the allotted 10 hours, lawmakers would have to read more than 9 pages per minute.

The outcome

  • The bill passed the House 359 to 53, and it passed the Senate 92 to 6. Many of the lawmakers who voted against the bill were protesting the wasteful spending, as well as the fact that no one had time to actually read the text. Among those who voted against it: Republican Senators Rick Scott (FL), Marsha Blackburn (TN), Rand Paul (KY), Ron Johnson (TX), Mike Lee (UT) and Ted Cruz (TX) as well as House Democrats Rashida Tlaib (MI) and Tulsi Gabbard (HI).
  • President Donald Trump has signaled his disapproval of the bill and has demanded that Congress remove the wasteful spending in exchange for more money that would go directly to Americans. 

“The agreement on this package can be summed up by the expression ‘better late than never.’ After a long and arduous year, after a year full of bad news, finally we have some good news to deliver to the American people.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer

But is “better late than never” good enough? Are we satisfied with “good news” that took more than 7 months to deliver? Are we ok with the fact that the bill that is supposed to be focused on helping the American people also earmarks millions of dollars to lawmakers’ pet projects?

What we can do?

People frequently tell us that they have no idea how to begin the work of repairing this broken system, but awareness is a great start. Thanks for taking the time to read this post. 


  1. Look up your Senators here, and then send an email telling them your thoughts about this bill. It doesn’t have to be a long email. Short is better. Let them know that you’re keeping up and that you intend to stay involved in the legislative process.
  2. Fight the urge to believe that we can’t solve this. Read about the Problem Solvers Caucus, which is working to represent a broad bloc of Americans. If you support the ideas the caucus is promoting, email one of the members to let them know. Let your own senator know, as well. 

Our government is designed to work for us, and we have the power to take action when it doesn’t. If we allow the current moment to pass without taking action, we’ll eventually find ourselves facing another incredibly messy election cycle with four more years of gridlock in our rearview mirrors.

We must resolve not to let this moment pass.

We’ve Tried (Unsuccessfully) to Change the Electoral College 700 Times

As the electoral college meets to cast its votes today, we have two obvious choices, and a less-obvious one as well. We can avoid the topic altogether in an effort to avoid the discord, or we can engage with it, understanding that it will be contentious and divisive. 

Alternatively, or in addition to those options, we can begin the work of learning more about our political system. We can start from a simple agreement that learning more about the process is a good idea, and we can take a small step toward becoming a student of American politics. 

The electoral college is a complicated concept that can’t be easily explained in a few short paragraphs, but any attempt to understand our political system will require us to take the time to muddle through it. 

The electoral college can best be explained by those who thoroughly understand it, so we recommend that you look to them for a thorough explanation.The good news is that there are dozens of videos that explain the complicated concept rather simply:

In short, the electoral college offered a compromise to the founders of our government: a happy medium between allowing the people to elect the president and allowing Congress to choose.

“[T]he election of the President is pretty well guarded … if the manner of it be not perfect, at least it is excellent.” 

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #68

Consider some aspects of the electoral college in the U.S.

1.  Five times in history, the winner of the popular vote was not the winner of the electoral college. In the last 20 years, it has happened twice.

  • Hillary Clinton (D) won the popular vote against Donald Trump (R) in 2016.
  • Al Gore (D) won the popular vote against George W. Bush (R) in 2000.
  • Grover Cleveland (D) won the popular vote against Benjamin Harrison (R) in 1888.
  • Samuel Tilden (D) won the popular vote against Rutherford B. Hayes (R) in 1876.
  • Andrew Jackson won the popular vote against John Quincy Adams in 1824.  (Both were Democratic-Republicans)

2. Federal law does not require electors to vote according to the state results, so occasionally  “faithless electors” go rogue by voting for candidates other than the one to whom they are pledged. The Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that states can require electors to vote as pledged. 

Each state’s electoral college laws are listed here

3. At least 700 proposals have been introduced into Congress that would reform the electoral college process, more than any other constitutional issue.

4. Only two states, Nebraska and Maine, distribute their electoral college votes proportionally, giving votes to the state popular vote winner as well as to the popular vote winner in each congressional district. The remaining states are winner-take-all states in which the winner of the state popular vote gets all the electoral college votes.

5. A majority of Americans want to do away with the electoral college: 

  • Pew Research (2020) puts the number at 58 percent of Americans. 
  • Gallup (2020) puts the number at 61 percent.
  • Hill-HarrisX (2020) says the number is 51 percent. 

Opponents and supporters of the electoral college will passionately argue against and for its existence, and we won’t try to represent all their opinions here. Instead, dig into the details of the process for yourself and decide where you stand. 

As a jumping-off point, consider the following:

  • In 4 of the 5 instances of a popular vote/electoral college disparity, the results favored the same party. (The fifth episode was between two members of the same party.)
  • After so many years without a popular vote/electoral vote disparity, why have we had two in the last 20 years?
  • Why have the attempts to amend the process failed, and who was instrumental in blocking those efforts? 
  • Why do more than half of Americans disapprove of the process?
  • Who does the process benefit in its current form? 
  • If the process doesn’t benefit the American people, are we ok with a process that serves other entities at the expense of the voters?  

The process of trying to understand the complicated American political process won’t be simple, and it can easily feel overwhelming. Many people have shared that they aren’t sure where to start because the problem feels so big. Start here with the electoral college, and begin to understand a small piece of the puzzle. 

The electors will meet today to cast their votes for the 2020 election. You can track this election’s activity here

Public Service Unites Americans

In the weeks and months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans stepped up to serve in a variety of ways. Though they had been deeply divided over the nation’s role in the developing war, people largely set aside their differences and united around a common cause after the 1941 strike on the Hawaiian naval base.

Americans enlisted in the military, served on the homefront, conserved critical supplies, salvaged scrap materials, joined the workforce, and scaled production of military hardware to unthinkable numbers.

In short, Americans generally overcame their differences in the face of a national crisis and sought to serve the greater good. And not only did that public service benefit the nation as a whole, it eased the existing divisions between individual people.

Not surprisingly, recent studies suggest that public service could do the same for America in 2020.

In a 2016 report called Volunteering and Civil Life in America, AmeriCorps reported that “volunteers are more likely than non-volunteers to talk to neighbors, attend community meetings, participate in civic organizations, discuss politics or local issues with family and friends, do favors for neighbors, and fix things in the neighborhood.”

The Stanford Social Innovation Review reported in 2018 that “[v]olunteerism not only supports the impact of community-based organizations in the places where they serve, but also connects individuals to one another and to the issues facing their community. It has the power to unite people of different races, ages, religions, and sexes together for a common cause.

It’s reasonable to suggest we’re facing a national crisis of our own in 2020. Pew Research reported in 2019 that 64 percent of Americans believe that trust in each other is shrinking, and 70 percent of those people believe it’s preventing us from solving problems. Coupled with a pandemic and a disputed election, the odds are not currently in our favor.

But if public service has the power to build trust, and if our nation is suffering under declining trust, an easy first step for each of us is to serve the people around us. To find a way to work with others in our communities for the benefit of something greater than ourselves.

“When we stand shoulder to shoulder to serve with others, we gain another perspective on the lives we share, while using our time and talents to build a stronger nation.”

Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. 

Our communities will be better for it, our nation will benefit, and each of us will, too.

Unexpected Civil Discourse

When Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and law professor Chris Peterson ran against each other for governor of Utah earlier this year, they recorded a public service announcement together reminding voters of the need for decency during elections. They theorized that it was probably the first time two candidates had engaged in such a move, and they pointed to the core American values of decency and democracy as the drivers for the message.

“We can debate issues without degrading each other’s character.”

Chris Peterson, Democrat

“We can disagree without hating each other.”

Spencer Cox, Republican

In an opinion piece they wrote for USA Today, they pointed to the fact that running for office typically means baseless personal attacks, insults, and threats, and a general degrading of our humanity.

They also pointed to the fact that this kind of “tribalism” leaves Americans behind, while civil discourse will move us toward a more perfect union.

Ultimately, they acknowledge that, while kindness won’t solve real problems like Covid-19 or financial struggles, it will help us develop meaningful solutions…

“Not as Republicans and Democrats or liberals and conservatives, but as Americans.”

Peterson and Cox in USA Today

If the two men who were competing for the job were able to overcome partisan politics in the name of civil discourse, there’s hope for us all.

It’s worth noting, too, that the ad garnered more than 628,000 views in its first five hours, suggesting that there’s a fair amount of interest in this kind of political activity.

Perhaps decency is exactly the kind of disruptor our political system needs.

Hot coffee and hot tempers

My son watched a customer throw hot coffee at a barista yesterday because she asked him to wear a mask the next time he came inside the store. 

He shouted at her, threw his drink at her, and then cursed as two customers forced him out of the store.

Without hearing any more details, you might already have made a decision about this situation:

  • There’s very little data to suggest that masks truly make a difference so we shouldn’t be required to wear them.
  • The company shouldn’t require its employees to enforce the mask issue with customers. 
  • The customer should just drive through next time if he doesn’t want to wear a mask.

But none of that is the point. 

We are allowing a growing political divide to degrade our humanity. Instead of clinging to a standard of decency and kindness, we’re allowing our political differences to justify our continued bad behavior. 

Consider this: if someone you care about is on the receiving end of a hot cup of coffee, will the events that led up to it really be your biggest concern?

I taught middle school in an urban school in the late 90s when a discussion broke out about the murder of Selena Quintanilla Perez, a Latina singer who was killed by the head of her fan club. Some of the students in class made light of the fact that the president of the fan club killed the singer, which understandably angered the students who were her fans.

In a sort of verbal retaliation, the Selena fans brought up the fatal shooting of Tupac Shakur, a hip hop artist who died after he was struck by four bullets in a drive-by shooting. As you might expect, the Tupac fans were angry at the thought that someone was making light of his death.

It was a great opportunity to teach empathy and compassion to a group of middle school students in a context that meant something to them. It gave them a chance to understand the perspective of the people on the other side.

We have that opportunity again now. We have a chance to reframe divisive conversations around empathy and compassion for each other, regardless of our differences. We have a chance to try to understand the people on the other side of the discussion.

But someone has to go first.

De Blasio: “…we’ve heard your voices loud and clear…”

The parents of New York City have made their voices heard, and the leadership listened.

After New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on November 18, 2020, that New York schools would close the next day in a response to rising Covid numbers, parents showed up at City Hall to protest the decision.

They were angry that restaurants and gyms, which seem more likely to spread the virus than schools, were still open.

They were angry that the back-and-forth of opening and closing schools has been harmful to the students.

They were angry because remote education has been difficult at best, and impossible in some cases.

They were angry that four government leaders have the power to decide whether they can return to their normal lives and their careers.

So they did something about it. They showed up at City Hall to register their disapproval of the leadership’s decision.

And then, in a stunning reversal, the mayor reversed his decision and announced that the schools would reopen on December 7.

“One of the things that’s been very clear is folks wanted school to keep moving forward and be open so long as it could be done safely,” de Blasio said. “A lot of people have been saying, rightfully, a lot of parents, we’ve heard your voices loud and clear: you wanted schools back open…”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a Nov. 29 press conference

In the face of families who registered their protest, the leadership listened. Coupled with data that showed that the virus isn’t spreading as rapidly among young students, the leadership altered its approach.

It’s a noteworthy development that could move us in the right direction

If you happen to know the families who showed up at city hall, commend them for their efforts. Send a message to Mayor de Blasio or call his office to let him know that you appreciate his willingness to listen and pivot. Or use Twitter or another platform if you prefer.

Most of all, be encouraged.

This is exactly the kind of civic engagement that Americans should embrace in the face of government overreach and political strong-arming. Small steps like this will incrementally remind government officials that this government operates according to the consent of the governed.

Power of the People

I don’t know who originally created this image, but I’ve had it saved on my phone for a very long time.

The phrase “consent of the governed” appears in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

There are many groups that benefit from our continued belief that there’s nothing we can do about the current state of affairs in American politics. The American people are not among them.

No Room for Civility in Politics

If you watched the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett in October of 2020, you saw, in the final moments, an unexpected moment of kindness between two political opponents.

Sen. Diane Feinstein commended Sen. Lindsey Graham for running “…one of the best sets of hearings that I’ve participated in.” And then she hugged him.

And as of today, November 24, 2020, that decision cost her the seat as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary panel. In a move that is typical of the cancel culture we commonly see on both sides of politics, the progressive members of Feinstein’s party demanded her resignation for failing to be aggressive enough in her responses to Graham.

Brian Fallon, executive director of the advocacy group Demand Justice, summed up exactly what is wrong with our current political system in his response to Feinstein’s resignation.

“Going forward, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee must be led by someone who will not wishfully cling to a bygone era of civility and decorum that Republicans abandoned long ago.”

… [W]ishfully cling to a bygone era?

Are we really so divided that there’s no room for even a kind word to others who serve in the same governing body?

This brand of thinking perpetuates the bad blood in our broken political system. It prioritizes the needs of the party and ignores the fact that the people involved in this exchange are both Americans serving at the will of the people.

…[C]ivility and decorum that Republicans abandoned long ago?

If it’s true that the Republicans abandoned this kind of good will long ago, (and I certainly won’t defend them), then what we most need are mature, measured leaders who will recognize the opportunity to lead the return to civility and decorum instead of promoting a “race to the bottom.”

The hard truth about our current political stalemate is that destructive behavior only generates more destructive behavior and ensures a downward spiral that we’ll never escape. It’s no surprise that we see this kind of conduct because the existing system demands unconditional loyalty to the parties above all else.

And here’s where continued incivility will land us:

“But civility is even more important because it creates an environment in which people are able to have meaningful conversations on the most difficult matters. Incivility infuriates opponents, making them want to respond in kind. Incivility makes opponents feel under assault and vulnerable, causing them to lash out. Incivility turns a discussion about a policy matter into a personal fight between combatants.”

Andy Smarick, The Bulwark

Someone must have the courage to go first. Like the soldiers in the Christmas Truce of 1914, someone has to be the first to stick a neck out and do the hard right thing.

In this case, Feinstein went first, and though it cost her something, her choice has set an example for what’s possible if we never lose sight of the fact that the people in the opposite trenches are fellow Americans, and they aren’t the enemy.

If we want her effort to matter, others have to follow her example, even when it costs them something. And it likely will. But those small efforts will create momentum and force the party leadership to notice that change is coming.

If you appreciate Senator Feinstein’s efforts at civility, consider letting her know. (Emailing her is tricky if you don’t live in California, but consider Twitter, a phone call, or traditional mail. )

It won’t reverse the decision about the Judiciary Committee, but she will know that her effort meant something to someone, and she’ll take that knowledge forward with her into her other roles in government. Without our encouragement, this could be the last time she takes this kind of stand.

When the soldiers in World War I chose to do the hard right thing by coming out of their foxholes unarmed, their literal lives were on the line.

Though no one’s physical life is in danger here, moving to trust those in the opposing trenches will surely cost us something. But it could be the beginning of a story that people will tell for years to come. And it could mark the beginning of the end of the divisiveness and partisanship that have brought us where we are today.

Americans Want Choices

A majority of Americans want more election choices.

In a September 2020 Hill-HarrisX poll, 60 percent of Americans stated a need for a meaningful third party outside of the existing two-party system. Of the 3,758 registered voters, 61 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of Independents, and 51 percent of Republicans shared a belief that America needs a viable third party.

When the participants were broken down by gender, race, income, education, and age, the results held true, with a majority in each case supporting the idea of a third party.

The problem, of course, is that the two-party system has set an impossibly high barrier for entry for third parties. While the two major parties are automatically included on each ballot, other parties must gather hundreds of thousands of signatures in order to be included.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, which is run by members of the two major parties, has established seemingly reasonable rules for third-party candidates who want to participate in the debates, but the requirements are stacked against them.

Consider this: in order for a third-party candidate to appear on the presidential debate state, the candidate must register at least 15 percent support across a total of five national polls. What they fail to mention is that those national polls might not actually mention the third-party candidate in their polling efforts.

If, for example, the polling representative only mentions the names of the two major candidates in her question, how will a third-party candidate legitimately muster 15 percent support?

The last time a third-party candidate was allowed to participate in the presidential debate, it was 1992, and Ross Perot was only allowed to appear because the other two candidates insisted on it. (Each was assuming that Perot’s participation would hurt the other.)

More than 160 million people voted in 2020, the highest voter participation ever recorded in an American presidential election. The American people engaged in the political process in record numbers, with a voter turnout of about 67 percent.

This year’s ground swell of participation has the potential to change the election conversation in America if we refuse to let up. People are paying attention, and we’ve just wrapped up a vicious election cycle that arguably didn’t include the best candidates that our nation has to offer.

There are a number of ways for voters to engage in this conversation, and the best first step is to read the information for yourself.

If the American people want more options, they should have them. Our government runs according to the consent of the governed, and politicians who choose to ignore our wishes should be held accountable. It’s up to us to do it.