Image for Freshman GOP Senator Floats Ambitious Payroll Protection Plan

As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures, which has prompted GOP Missouri Senator Josh Hawley to propose that  the federal government pay 80 percent of worker wages at private businesses until it is safe to lift the COVID-19 lockdown.

“The rationale is simple.,” Hawley says. “Workers should not be forced into unemployment because of the government’s health measures prompted by this crisis. Workers should be able to keep their jobs, and be ready to get back to work as soon as practicable.

Hawley is the youngest sitting US senator at age 40 and a vocal supporter of President Trump, which is why his ambitious financial relief proposal has stunned some political observers. However, his plan is consistent with an emerging conservative viewpoint that believes focusing too much on “free market fundamentalism” has come at the expense of workers, communities and churches.

“Events are overtaking us, and so now we’ve got to adapt,” Hawley told The Washington Post. “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.”

Hawley floated his plan as congressional leaders haggle over a fourth coronavirus emergency relief package. Trump has asked for another $250 billion to reload the Paycheck Protection Program, a key lifeline for small businesses that was contained in the previous $2 trillion relief package, but has been overrun with demand. Democrats want $500 billion in additional spending, with set-asides for minority, women and veteran-owned small businesses, $100 billion for hospitals and community health centers, $150 billion for state and local governments and a 15 percent increase in food stamp benefits.

Hawley calls the exercise a debate over half-measures.

Before taking his law degree from Yale, Hawley majored in history at Stanford, where he says he intensively studied 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 explained in his Post interview. “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.’”

His unorthodox idea is based on a similar plan in effect in the United Kingdom that has prevented mass layoffs during the coronavirus outbreak. Hawley insists the concept is not “inherently unconservative,” noting job losses stem from government actions that block people from working for the sake of public health.

“The only reason that you deliver the money through the employer is the employer pays the wages,” Hawley says. “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.”

There are other elements in Hawley’s proposal. To combat a “Grand Canyon size fault in our supply chain,” he wants to require stateside production of key medical supplies, offering low-interest, federally backed financing for companies that repatriate production lines. Hawley would require businesses to maintain rainy day funds to ensure liquidity in future crises. And he urges steps to limit increased corporate concentration, making it harder for investors to gobble up businesses and decimate small towns.

“The number one thing is that this crisis should not be opportunity for profiteering by Wall Street,” Hawley told the Post. “It should not be that a select few folks on Wall Street are able to make out like bandits from this while the rest of our nation suffers.”

Many conservatives have worried aloud that emergency powers assumed by the federal, state and local governments could move the nation closer to authoritarian rule if those powers aren’t surrendered after the crisis passes. Hawley’s response: “I guess, at the moment, I’m more concerned about chaos that leads to 20 and 30 percent unemployment.”

The conservative National Review didn’t quite embrace Hawley’s pandemic economic prescription, but left the door open for supporting it. “To protect public health, governments throughout the country are shutting businesses down. It is not just morally right, but also important to a quick recovery that those businesses be kept afloat and connected to their workers. That is why we supported the $2 trillion ‘Phase Three’ relief bill, and it’s why we support efforts to improve these policies or replace them with something better. Lawmakers should especially study a new proposal from Josh Hawley that would take an entirely different approach to the rescue. Let’s get Phase Three up and running as best we can, and let’s be open to trying something new in Phase Four.”

That openness may arise as Trump administration officials release sobering new modeling that suggests COVID-19 infections could spike again if stay-at-home orders are lifted too soon. Economists are predicting that the economy will continue to stagger and recover slowly even with a relatively early relaxation of the lockdown. They cite badly disrupted global supply chains and hesitancy to resume normal practices until there is widespread testing to show the virus has been largely contained.