Editorial: Mitch McConnell’s coronavirus relief bill wasn’t worth the wait
At the moment, Congress has two tasks more important than any others: Providing the resources and leadership needed to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, and helping the country climb out of the deep recession that the pandemic triggered. Sadly, the long-awaited coronavirus relief package that Senate Republicans released this week falls far short on both fronts.
The need for a fourth major congressional effort became clear not long after states abandoned their stay-at-home orders, leading infection rates to skyrocket. The one thing lawmakers should have been able to agree on immediately is a major increase in funding for testing and contact tracing so that states could better identify where and how the disease was spreading. But in addition to being many days late, Senate Republicans are coming to the table many dollars short on this front. Its proposal includes $16 billion for testing, compared to the $75 billion recommended by a number of healthcare analysts and public health experts.
There is nothing more important to people’s lives and livelihoods than corralling the novel coronavirus. Now is not the time for parsimony.
The GOP package’s efforts to boost the economy are similarly halfhearted, starting with the proposal to renew the higher unemployment benefits that Congress authorized in March at a significantly lower level: an additional $200 per week instead of $600. The $200 would lapse at the end of September, after which the additional payment would raise unemployed workers’ benefits to 70% of their previous wages (state benefits currently replace 40% to 50% of an idled worker’s wages).
The $600 add-on expires this week. Republicans balked at extending it because, they argued, it discouraged laid-off people from returning to work. The federal aid did allow most unemployment workers to make as much as or more than they’d been paid in their last job, but it’s far from clear that masses of Americans were turning down offers of work in defiance of state requirements. To the contrary, employment data from June showed that millions of laid-off Americans did take jobs, but also that there were far more unemployed people than there were jobs available. You can’t take a job that doesn’t exist.
Also hugely problematic: It will take months to upgrade the antiquated unemployment systems in many states to make the change the Senate GOP has proposed, which makes it all but unachievable. The operational costs of those systems, by the way, are largely the federal government’s responsibility.
The extra benefits allowed millions of idled workers to pay their bills, boosting the consumer spending that is the lifeblood of the U.S. economy. The total was about $75 billion a month, economist Gus Faucher of PNC said, adding, “If you take that out of people’s pockets, they’re going to stop spending it.”
Continuing those extra benefits is a much more efficient way to pump money into the economy than cutting low- and middle-income families a check, as Congress did in March and the GOP proposes to do again.
The package includes badly needed aid for schools but ignores the plight of state and local governments hard hit by the recession, setting the stage for more layoffs and cuts in vital government services. It also seeks to boost businesses through more federal loans for small businesses, an effort that, while good in concept, has been marred by poor targeting and execution.
One other piece is a proposal to make businesses immune to COVID-19-related lawsuits until October 2024, retroactive to last December. It is strikingly one-sided, completely excusing companies and institutions from liability for negligent acts that spread the disease. They’d even be shielded from liability for gross negligence if they made “reasonable” efforts to comply with vague governmental guidelines.
Any liability shield should either come with an alternate way for injured people to seek compensation from the government, as is the case with vaccines, or with specific standards that companies must meet for protecting their workers and customers from COVID-19. Besides, contrary to the proposal’s ominous warnings, there’s been no “tidal wave” of lawsuits from consumers; according to a complaint tracker by the Hunton Andrews Kurth law firm, consumers have filed fewer than a dozen COVID-19 related claims in the past month and a half, despite the broad move to reopen businesses.
Some Republicans have balked at the idea of providing any further federal aid because of the record-setting deficit. Such fiscal responsibility would have been more welcome when the economy was growing and the GOP was cutting taxes and throwing money at the Pentagon. The human and economic problems caused by COVID-19 are enormous and ongoing, and they demand a commensurate response.
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