Here we go again! Congress is back in session and crafting yet another pandemic financial aid bill. The negotiations, by all indications, will be brutal as the fate of the finances of millions of households, businesses, schools, cities and states hang on every twist and turn.
Based on the early reports, I would characterize the pending legislation as likely to be undersized for the economic challenges we still face. That may surprise some readers. It really shouldn’t.
While the trillions already allocated is truly staggering, it’s arguable that our dismal failure to contain the virus was largely wasted. The earlier shutdown was designed to buy us time to squash the first wave and to build our contact tracing capacity to manage later outbreaks. Our failure is the cost of poor leadership and our poisoned politics.
Taking center stage in the current negotiations is how to deal with the extra $600 weekly benefit provided through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program. This economic lifeline for about 30 million people is set to expire in just a few days. The deadline has been known for many months, of course.
This generous benefit has been highly controversial. Some believe it has created a perverse incentive for people to remain unemployed, rather than work. As infections rise to fresh records, it’s an open question if employers are ready to fill the void. Republicans and Democrats would answer the question quite differently.
Another contentious proposal that’s being openly debated is to provide a temporary payroll tax holiday for every employee and employer. It may quickly find itself on the cutting room floor, but the White House is lobbying hard for it. However, even Republicans are wary of this idea as it is a very untargeted approach. It’ll be interesting to watch, especially with an election that’s only 104 days away. Getting a government-provided raise just before mail-in ballots arrive has a nice ring to it.
Speaking of government payments, a real consensus is forming quickly around providing another round of economic impact payments directly to households. From the looks of it, the eligibility for this round of checks and direct deposits may be narrower as millions of households received money they didn’t need.
Finally, in the face of severe budget shortfalls with far-reaching implications, one can hope the normal political lines will be wiped away as Congress considers providing more financial aid to schools, cities and states. If too little financial aid is granted, it will be a real reminder of how our national politics can have tangible downstream impacts on our own local public institutions.
Back in late May, at the height of the economy’s re-opening euphoria, majority leader Mitch McConnell over-confidently declared that the next coronavirus bill will be the “last.” If Congress opts to undersize this next bill – as I suspect they might – I’m afraid I’ll be forced to begin a future column with the same exasperated words, Here We Go Again!