As Congress this week returns to Capitol Hill to consider its fourth major pandemic relief and response bill (a fifth bill updated elements contained in a previous bill), I anticipate that there are seven major elements that will be included in some form or fashion.
The Wall Street Journal had an excellent Q&A feature over the weekend that laid out the various issues that the next bill might address. Here’s my take on the items identified in the story:
The first aid package contained a massive expansion of unemployment benefits at $600 above a state’s existing unemployment insurance payment. Lawmakers approved the enhanced benefit knowing that, for many workers, the additional dollars would deliver a temporary income higher than what they were previously earning at their job. It’s unlikely a similarly generous payout will be repeated.
Still, given that unemployment levels remain high, supplementing regular state unemployment insurance is justified, but it should be at a level that does not exceed a worker’s pay before a furlough or a layoff. There are some creative bipartisan proposals that deserve consideration to encourage a return to work without pulling the rug out from under struggling households.
Additional stimulus pay.
The original CARES Act provided up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child in direct cash assistance. Again, given the current high unemployment levels, additional relief makes sense. How much, exactly, and how it is targeted still needs to be settled.
This moment also offers policymakers the chance to consider ways to improve the Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable tax credit aimed at low- and moderate-income working families. One reform could include automatically issuing the credit to qualifying households without requiring the filing of a tax return.
I strongly disagree with those who believe that schools should be penalized if they’re not open during a pandemic for legitimate safety reasons. We cannot and should not force teachers, support personnel, or students into a classroom or school environment where they don’t feel safe.
A carrot approach would be better, delivering funds attached to each student who is attending an in-person educational setting to reflect the increased costs. Funding must be available for face masks, cleaning products, PPE, and the implementation of any other healthcare protocols necessary to improve school safety and hygiene.
Funds should also be available for distance learning, which will be necessary to provide resiliency if schools must close or for students who have underlying health conditions and for whom a return to in-person learning might be delayed.
There should also be funds allocated for all parents and guardians, perhaps subject to income limitations, for expenses related to transportation and connectivity like WiFi or laptops.
In Arizona, it’s estimated that the cost to provide for a safer in-person learning experience is $485 per child.
Liability reform is essential not just for regular businesses attempting to reopen safely and responsibly, but for schools, cities and towns, non-profits as well as healthcare providers. We don’t want concerns over dubious lawsuits to delay our recovery.
This protection should provide certainty for those acting in good faith to follow applicable state and CDC health guidelines. Ideally, there would be safe harbors in any protection.
Bad actors who are grossly negligent or who engage in willful misconduct should not be protected, and the relief should be temporary and targeted to Covid-19.
State and local aid.
Any additional aid to states and cities should provide maximum flexibility to these jurisdictions as long as funds are used to respond to the economic fallout from Covid-19. In other words, federal tax dollars should not be used for things like pension bailouts or other problems that existed long before the pandemic.
It’s important to point out that Congress did appropriate $150 billion in March for state and local governments. It would be useful to have a report on how those dollars were spent and any lessons learned that could be applicable to additional aid. It is worth considering additional aid for U.S. border communities whose finances have been devastated by the prolonged closure to most cross-border travel.
Additional business aid.
The Paycheck Protection Program is arguably the most successful business assistance program in the history of the world. Thus far, this small business rescue effort has provided about 5 million forgivable loans representing more than $515 billion.
In Arizona, the numbers are staggering. More than 81,000 small businesses have received these loans worth more than $8.5 billion.
There’s still about $130 billion left in the program, which after extensions is now set to expire August 8. Congress should extend the program again and more dollars should be added, and all loans already distributed should be completely forgiven if they’re under $150,000.
For smaller businesses, say those with 100 or fewer employees, or businesses in hard hit sectors like hospitality, a second round of lending should be allowed.
Congress should also expand the Employee Retention Tax Credit, which has bipartisan support. The credit helps employers keep their workers on the payroll while relieving a percentage of employment taxes. The president’s payroll tax holiday is truly stimulative and, along with the administration’s deregulatory efforts, could provide the building blocks for a structurally sound recovery.
With the continued tensions between the U.S. and China and the USMCA now in effect, incentives for vital supply chains for things like medical supplies and semiconductors to return to or expand in the U.S. deserve support.
Dealing with the virus.
Additional aid should be directed to testing and contact tracing, as well as building a robust public health infrastructure. It also makes sense to direct money at boosting the number of Americans who get the flu vaccine this year. A raging influenza season on top of Covid-19 could be devastating.
Dollars should be allocated for small- and medium-sized businesses for costs related to PPE and other protocols to make the workplace safer. Arizona Rep. David Schweikert has a good idea to help businesses offset the costs of providing tests for workers.
A massive PR campaign on wearing masks—the closest we have to a silver bullet when people are in public—is needed.
It’s easy to be a critic, but thus far Congress and the administration have risen to the occasion in supplying aid and direction in previous Covid-19 relief bills. I want to particularly thank our U.S. senators, Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally, for working tirelessly and turning their offices into virtual MASH units in assisting their constituents in dealing with this crisis.
Glenn Hamer is president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.