Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Congress May Finally Give Americans More Money

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Eight months after Congress cut the first stimulus checks to help Americans absorb the shock of a pandemic-induced recession, it’s finally making plans for a second round. “We are going to stay right here, right here, until we are finished,” Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, said on Thursday, “even if that means working through the weekend.”

How does the relief package differ from the first one Congress passed in March, and will it be enough to help workers, unemployed people and businesses weather the winter? Here’s what people are saying.

Inside the deal

A follow-up to the $2 trillion Cares Act, which was widely credited with staving off economic disaster, has been a long time coming. The House of Representatives twice passed relief packages — a $3.4 trillion one, the Heroes Act, in May and a scaled-back $2.2 trillion version in October — but both went nowhere in the Senate, where Republican members disputed the necessity and cost of additional aid.

As a compromise, the White House put its weight behind a $1.8 trillion deal in October that some Democrats felt was acceptable, but Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, rejected it — possibly, the White House suggested, because she did not want to hand President Trump a legislative victory before the election — while Senate Republicans revolted against it.

But with the last remnants of the Cares Act expiring at the end of December, and with the Georgia runoff elections that will determine control of the Senate taking place at the beginning of January, the delay has become untenable for both parties. The details are not yet final, but the package, spearheaded by a bipartisan group of senators, is reported to be a $900 billion proposal including the following provisions:

A second round of relief checks, of between $600 and $700 each, down from $1,200 in the Cares Act, with an additional $600 per child. The checks were not part of the initial deal, but Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Josh Hawley of Missouri pushed for their inclusion by threatening to block government funding legislation.

$300 enhancement of weekly unemployment insurance benefits, down from the $600 enhancement that expired at the end of July.

$300 billion in small business aid.

$25 billion for emergency rental assistance, which will apply to both past and future rent payments.

An extension of the federal eviction moratorium to Jan. 31.

The proposal is also notable for what it doesn’t include: There is no liability shield to protect corporations against coronavirus-related lawsuits from workers, which Mr. McConnell had previously said was indispensable, nor is there aid to state and local governments, a major concession from Democrats.

The deal is expected to become law before next week, when Congress breaks for the holidays. For many Americans, the relief cannot come soon enough:

Nearly 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty since the summer, after the poverty rate declined in the spring because of the Cares Act.

One in eight adults do not have enough to eat. In households with children, that number is one in six.

Nearly 12 million renters will owe an estimated average $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January.

‘Far too paltry’

The largest objection to the $900 billion package is that it is simply not enough money to carry Americans to the other side of the pandemic. In a summer survey of 25 economists conducted by The Washington Post, 20 urged $2 trillion or more in relief, while only five favored roughly $1 trillion. “The risk of overdoing it is less than the risk of under doing it,” Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, told Congress this month.

So why are Republicans insisting on a smaller bill? In The Washington Post, Greg Sargent argues that it’s because they want to saddle the Biden presidency with a halting recovery. “If the underlying economic damage done to the economy is serious — and the recent jobs report suggests a whole lot of jobs aren’t coming back — we could see a long, brutal slog of a recovery, similar to the one during the Obama presidency,” he writes. And because Mr. McConnell’s newfound motivation to pass a bill appears linked to the Georgia runoffs, Mr. Sargent argues that Republicans will be much more resistant next year to economic relief if they retain control of the Senate.

Some on the left, however, blame Democrats for not taking the $1.8 trillion deal the White House offered in October, if only to weaponize Republican opposition to it before the election. “Those who see the previous proposals as missed political opportunities that might have helped Democrats take the Senate are, of course, operating on a different plane from Pelosi and leadership,” Osita Nwanevu writes. “Forcing McConnell to say no was too difficult to be bothered with; instead, they said no themselves.”

But even granting the $900 billion constraint, many are criticizing the Democrats for making the wrong trade-offs. As Jeff Stein has reported for The Washington Post, some experts say that stimulus checks are not sufficiently targeted toward those most in need. And to extract stimulus checks as a concession from Republicans, Democrats reportedly were forced not only to forfeit state and local aid but also to shorten the duration of the enhanced unemployment program to three months from four. To some, this seemed like a lousy deal. Jordan Weissmann, Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent, tweeted:

At the same time, others have argued that the stimulus checks are necessary because they reach tens of millions of people in need who aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance, such as those with low wages or disabilities as well as the deeply impoverished. The stimulus checks can also be distributed much more quickly and efficiently, as Claudia Sahm, an economist and expert on recessions, tweeted.

The relief proposal has also come under fire for offering a “double-dip” benefit to small businesses. The benefit — which some Democrats have pushed for and some Republicans have opposed — will allow businesses to deduct their already tax-free, forgivable loans from their taxable income. Because about 70 percent of business income is earned by the top 1 percent of taxpayers, according to Adam Looney of the Brookings Institution, the provision would amount to a $120 billion windfall to wealthy Americans. “It’s hard to imagine a tax cut that is so large in magnitude and still so targeted to those who need it least,” he told Mother Jones.

‘Better than nothing’

The Times editorial board argues that the deal, flawed as it is, is still worth taking. “A wave of good news about vaccines offers reason for hope that the coronavirus pandemic will loosen its grip next year and that economic growth will accelerate,” the board writes. “It’s not enough money, but Republicans are refusing to do more, and Democratic leaders have concluded that some aid is better than nothing.”

The eviction ban extension and rental assistance, for example, will offer the more than 30 million people estimated to be at risk of eviction a much-needed, if temporary, reprieve. “While $25 billion in emergency rental assistance is clearly not enough to meet the estimated $70 billion in accrued back rent or the ongoing need for rental assistance to keep families stably housed, these resources are essential and desperately needed,” Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said in a statement. “Extending the moratorium through January provides time for emergency rental assistance to be distributed, and for President-elect Biden to improve and further extend the moratorium immediately after being sworn into office.”

Concerns about the absence of state and local funding may also be less urgent than some think. For months, as states continue to face severe budget shortfalls, local officials across the country have been warning that they do not have enough money to keep their transportation systems afloat and carry out a mass vaccination campaign.

“We need to make sure that state and local communities have the money to get the job done,” Senator Cory Booker said on Wednesday of the need for more vaccine funding. “We know that when these barriers are erected or the challenges are faced, they’re most difficult when it comes to Black and brown communities, in low income and poor communities.”

But the current proposal still does have some state and local aid, even if it's not earmarked as such, the business journalist Josh Barro points out. It includes, for example, $82 billion for schools, $35 billion for health care providers, $16 billion for testing, tracing and vaccine distribution, $10 billion for broadband and $15 billion for public transit.

And with the addition of stimulus checks, even Mr. Sanders appeared to warm slightly to the compromise bill. “I’m glad we’re at some $600 per working class adult and $600 for the kids,” he said. “For a family of four, that would be $2,400, which I think will be pretty good news during this rather bleak Christmas period. But we have got to do more.”

Senators Mitt Romney and Joe Manchin, part of the bipartisan group of lawmakers who helped craft the legislation, say they anticipated such criticism. “We realize that the smaller bill will not be popular in our respective parties,” they write in The Washington Post. “But we are confident that it provides the emergency Covid-19 relief our nation desperately needs to get us all through the early spring.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.

MORE ON CORONAVIRUS RELIEF

“The C.D.C. banned evictions for those affected by Covid. Why are tenants being thrown out on the street?” [NBC]

“What’s Between 30 Million Americans and an Eviction Tsunami?” [The New York Times]

“Whatever Congress does on stimulus, millions of workers are already screwed” [Vox]

“More Americans are shoplifting food as aid runs out during the pandemic” [The Washington Post]

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