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Dems bow to the trial lawyer lobby

WASHINGTON — The Post reports that Congress is “racing” to pass emergency pandemic relief legislation by the end of the week. Racing? Democrats have been refusing GOP offers on pandemic relief since last summer, during which time nearly 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty because emergency benefit programs expired.

Before Election Day, Democrats blocked COVID-19 relief in order to hurt President Trump at the polls. So, what has been the holdup since then? Simple. Democrats have blocked small business loans; unemployment subsidies; emergency rental and food assistance; funds for testing, tracing and vaccine distribution; and extended student loan forbearance — all to protect the ability of personal injury lawyers to cash in on the pandemic.

There has long been bipartisan agreement on the broad outlines of a COVID relief bill. There were just two major sticking points: Democrats wanted $160 billion to bail out state and local governments — which most Republicans opposed. And Republicans wanted temporary liability protection for small businesses, first responders, medical personnel, schools and others who were trying their best to abide by the ever-shifting public health guidance during this pandemic — which most Democrats opposed.

To break the impasse, Republicans in the Senate bipartisan working group agreed to support the state and local aid if Democrats would agree to protect Americans against frivolous lawsuits. But Democrats, except for Sen. Joe Manchin III, would not agree to even limited liability protection that would expire when the public health emergency was lifted — a time that will be determined by President-elect Joe Biden. The most they would accept was a six-month moratorium on coronavirus-related lawsuits, which was a paper delay that simply gave trial lawyers six additional months to prepare their cases.

On Dec. 8, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave Democrats a choice: Pass a bill that includes both liability reform and state and local aid, or one that sets aside both. He made the same offer in April. The difference is now Democrats know their opposition has become politically untenable. Biden doesn’t want to inherit a slowing economy that will be even worse off without a COVID relief package. And the optics of Democratic governors in places such as New York and California closing restaurants and businesses, while Democrats on Capitol Hill block relief to help workers survive the new lockdowns, look terrible.

But instead of compromising on liability reform, Democrats threw state and local governments under the bus. Last spring, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi drew a red line, declaring that Democrats would approve no more COVID relief packages without aid to state and local governments. Republicans opposed the aid because they believed Democrats were using the pandemic as a pretext to bail out blue states for decades of high spending and fiscal mismanagement. But now Pelosi is crossing that red line, forgoing $160 billion for state and local governments and their workers. Why? Because in order to get it, she would have to compromise on liability reform, and the personal injury lawyers won’t allow it.

That is stunning. In all my many years in Washington, I’ve never seen a constituency with such total dominance over a political party. There are no votes at stake here; it’s all about money. Overall, lawyers send Democrats 95% of their political donations, and the American Association for Justice — the top trial lawyer lobby — directed over 97% of its contributions to Democrats this cycle. Indeed, given a choice between helping public-sector union workers, who would have benefited from the state and local bailouts, and protecting the personal injury lawyers, Democrats chose the lawyers.

It’s simply shameful that Democrats are willing to leave Americans, who did their best to operate safely during the past year, exposed to frivolous litigation. These are people who kept our grocery shelves stocked, educated our children, and helped the sick and most vulnerable. They should not now be subject to litigation, unless they engaged in gross negligence or willful misconduct.

Indeed, the failure to include liability reform undermines the whole purpose of passing emergency economic relief. The billions spent keeping small businesses and nonprofits afloat will be for naught if they are ultimately shuttered trying to defend themselves from unfair lawsuits arising from a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. If that happens, it will be because the Democratic Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the trial lawyers’ bar.

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

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