Congress Produces a Mountain

As millions of Americans looked on impatiently, their lawmakers on Capitol Hill worked — and bickered — around the clock for five days over the economic rescue package in the coronavirus crisis.

While they did so, the pandemic did not wait. Every day brought a higher toll of sickness and death, a mounting threat to an already heavily burdened healthcare system, and more and more people faced the abyss as they lost their jobs and businesses went down.

The lawmakers knew they would not be forgiven if they failed to produce a commensurate response in a reasonably short period of time. Finally, late Tuesday night, they reached a deal.

This emergency bill is a mountain: Two trillion dollars. The biggest emergency economic rescue package in history, bigger than the 2008 bank bailout and 2009 recovery act combined.

There is an old saying that when it comes to health, money should be no object. It appears that when it comes to saving the economy, money should be no object either.

And money there is: $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to major industries; $367 billion for small businesses to keep workers on payroll who are forced to stay home; a direct, one-time, safety net payment of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child; $100 billion for direct aid to health care institutions; more than $4 billion to health agencies; $200 million to help nursing homes cope with the challenge; $45 billion for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund and millions more for FEMA grants; and $400 million in election assistance to help states expand early voting and vote-by-mail options. Laid-off workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment, plus a $600 per week add-on, with gig workers like Uber drivers covered for the first time, according to media reports.

As matters were being finalized, faith-based groups — among them Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union–were hoping to have their hard-hit constituents covered as well. Their requests came to $60 billion in emergency funding to help get them through the pandemic.

While negotiations dragged on, the two sides blamed each other for obstructionism; now that the process nears completion, they squabble over taking credit for generous outlays.

Fortunately, the text of the bill will include no highlighting in red or blue to indicate which party was responsible for what.

Arguably, some of the compromises hammered out behind closed doors may be for the best.

Even the Democrats had to recognize that guaranteed loans to corporations are not the ultimate evil when so many jobs are hanging by a thread. For at the end of the day, if they go under, their masses of workers lose their jobs, a disaster for everyone.

On the other hand, Democratic objections that money handed out to large companies needed oversight resulted in a clause providing for creation of an inspector general position to review how the money is spent. It’s another layer of bureaucracy, but it might help to keep recipients honest.

Yet, the measures will ease the pain but not alleviate it. They are an important palliative, but not a cure. Only sure signs that the pandemic is getting under control will enable the country to regain confidence and will enable the economy to recover. That will take time. Health experts think it will be a matter of months rather than weeks.

Predictions aside, now it is incumbent on Congress to finalize the details and incumbent on the administration to implement relief without further delay. Officials were talking about ways to expedite the process, including a unanimous consent vote rather than summoning the full House to return to Washington to vote. The sooner the better. The credit should be distributed generously to both parties if they can get this done now.

On Wednesday, the mood was positive. As a smiling Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters: “This is a very important bipartisan piece of legislation that is going to be very important to help American workers, American business and people across America. So, we couldn’t be more pleased. I’ve spoken to the president many times today, and he’s very pleased with this legislation, and the impact that this is going to have.”

Back to work.