Business & Money

Hope, doubts about $2.2 trillion spending bill

By Askia Muhammad -Senior Editor- | Last updated: Apr 2, 2020 - 12:04:31 PM

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WASHINGTON—The United States of America adopted a sweeping $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package, intended to provide immediate assistance to many citizens and small businesses, as well as to major industries on the brink of economic collapse amid the ongoing pandemic. Immediate public reaction ranged from relief to skepticism.

President Trump signed $2.2 trillion spending bill.
“When America catches a cold, Black America catches pneumonia,” the Congressional Black Caucus said in a cautious statement. “So as America continues to deal with the impact of the coronavirus health crisis, the CBC is fighting for bold solutions to support the needs of Black families, seniors, workers, businesses, and communities.”

But Congress has much more work to do, according to NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who promised that the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization “will continue to advocate for a fair and equitable recovery plan for marginalized and under-resourced communities.”

The legislation is a critical step toward addressing the needs of those who are most at risk, according to the CBC. “After much negotiation, the final version resulted in an improved, if incomplete, response to the litany of harms caused by this crisis,” the statement said.

But Washington, D.C. officials reacted angrily to the terms of the relief bill. The law categorizes the District as a territory, which means that the Nation’s Capital will be severely shortchanged in the federal stimulus bill. D.C.’s on schedule to receive $500 million in relief funds, while each state, even those with fewer residents than the District, will get at least $1.25 billion.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser called it “unconscionable, given the unique challenges we take on as the seat of government. For everything, we’re treated like a state when it comes to federal funding formulas,” she said, listing housing, Medicaid and education as examples. “We’re treated like a state because we have state functions. And we pay taxes—more taxes than 22 states.”

Critics complain that the package also fails to include an expansion of health coverage to cover Covid-19 treatment for the uninsured. The legislation also fails to increase SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or food stamp benefits.

The legislation excludes immigrants in the country illegally as well as children who are U.S. citizens but have at least one parent who is undocumented. Immigrant advocates also say the bill doesn’t provide sufficient access to coronavirus testing and treatment to some immigrants who are here legally. Many governors said the sweeping stimulus bill fails to provide states with enough money to battle the pandemic.

“This is not going to be over anytime soon,” said Dr. Ray Winbush, director of the Institute of Urban Research at Morgan State University in Baltimore said in an interview. “And you know, we’ve been looking at the Institute, and the thing that we’re fearful of is the social unrest, that’s bound to ensue. And we think that’s going to hit here sometime in late April or early May.”

A Democratic member of the Senate was even frantic about the apparent Republican priorities, Dr. Winbush recalled. “The senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin was screaming at Mitch Mc-Connell during these budget (debates). When they were trying to get this package together and he told (Republican senators during a floor speech), ‘you care more about the health of Wall Street than you do the American people.’

“You know, and it’s true,” Dr. Winbush said. “So, with the Republicans everything is about this: get these financial markets straight because we’re going to lose (at the polls) in November if we don’t.”

So, what’s in this $2 trillion stimulus package for Black people? “Nothing,” said Dr. Winbush at first. “I mean, well, the Democrats got a couple of concessions,” he continued. “The deferment of mortgage payments, and hopefully rent payments, all of those things. That was good.

“You got the unemployment. That was good. That’s what they said that the Republicans fought hardest against,” said Dr. Winbush. One GOP legislator even condemned the unemployment relief during the debate, saying some people will rather collect compensation than work.

But while it’s not being openly acknowledged in this desperate moment, the stimulus package makes some of the campaign proposals of Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) look to be far more acceptable.

“Impacted communities will undoubtedly need to receive repeat direct cash payments to help them weather this crisis,” Mr. Johnson of the NAACP said. “From workers who have lost their jobs to small businesses that will be forced to close to students drowning in student loan debt, we must ensure the safety of our communities and economy through cash injections and other forms of support, without stipulation, for those that are suffering.

“Additionally, our hospitals and health providers throughout this crisis need continued support to ensure all communities receive testing and treatment. We must expand paid family and medical leave for more workers. We must meet the food and nutrition needs of our most vulnerable families through this treacherous time,” Mr. Johnson continued.

“Above all, while this bill provides a down payment to securing our democracy in this time of crisis, we recognize more robust action is required and quickly.”

President Donald Trump signed the unprecedented $2.2 trillion economic rescue package into law March 27, after swift and near-unanimous action by Congress to support businesses, rush resources to overburdened health care providers and help struggling families during the deepening coronavirus epidemic.

Earlier the same day, the House gave near-unanimous approval by voice vote after an impassioned session conducted along the social distancing guidelines imposed by the crisis. Many lawmakers sped to Washington to participate—their numbers swollen after a maverick Republican signaled he’d try to force a roll call vote—though dozens of others remained safely in their home districts. The Senate passed the bill unanimously late March 25.

The legislation will speed government payments of $1,200 to most Americans and increase jobless benefits for millions of people thrown out of work. Businesses big and small will get loans, grants and tax breaks.

Tea party Republicans said government orders to shutter businesses merited actions that conflict with their small-government ideology. Liberals accepted generous corporate rescues that accompany larger unemployment benefits, deferrals of student loans, and an enormous surge of funding for health care and other agencies responding to the crisis.

The bipartisan amity went only so far. Top congressional Democrats were not invited to the White House signing ceremony, said Democratic aides speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the situation.

Many lawmakers summoned the bipartisan spirit of 9/11 and efforts to fight terrorism. Others praised the roles low-income workers play in keeping the country going and the heroism of health care workers.

Some couldn’t restrain their partisan impulses. Republicans chided Democratic leaders for delays and provisions they see as extraneous, such as funding for public broadcasting and the arts; Democrats said too many elements are a bailout for corporations that may not need it.

The House promptly adjourned for a weeks-long recess but will return later in the spring to consider further legislation.

The legislation dwarfs prior Washington responses to crises like 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, and natural disasters.

Key elements are untested, such as grants to small businesses to keep workers on payroll and complex lending programs to larger businesses. Rebate payments will go to people who have retained their jobs. Agencies like the Small Business Administration and state unemployment systems will be severely taxed, and conservatives fear that a new, generous unemployment benefit will dissuade jobless people from returning to the workforce.

The bill amounts to a bridge loan for much of the economy and carries a price tag that equals half the size of the entire $4 trillion-plus annual federal budget.

The legislation also establishes a $454 billion program for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries in hopes of leveraging up to $4.5 trillion in lending to distressed businesses, states, and municipalities.

It also seeks to strengthen the safety net for the poor and homeless. Schools and students would get relief, small business loans payments would be deferred. Evictions from public housing would be put on pause.

Republicans successfully pressed for an employee retention tax credit designed to help companies keep workers on payroll. Companies would also be able to defer payment of the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax. A huge tax break for interest costs and operating losses limited by the 2017 tax overhaul was restored at a $200 billion cost in a boon for the real estate sector.

Most people who contract the new coronavirus have mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)