Congress’s COVID Relief Bill Includes Direct Checks. It’s Still Not Enough to Help Most Vulnerable

StoryDecember 17, 2020
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After months of inaction, Congress finally appears close to passing a second, $900 billion coronavirus stimulus package. The agreement is likely to include additional unemployment assistance of $300 a week and one-time direct cash payments of between $600 and $700 for people in the U.S. — a sharp reduction from the first COVID check of $1,200. The COVID-19 relief checks were put back in the bill after a major push from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. A new study reports 8 million Americans have been pushed into poverty since the summer, in part due to a lack of federal assistance. “It’s just staggering that Congress can’t come together to help people in their time of need,” says David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect, who has been following stimulus talks closely.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

After months of inaction and facing record-shattering COVID-19 cases and deaths in this country, Congress may finally be close to signing a second, $900 billion coronavirus stimulus package. The agreement is likely to include additional unemployment assistance of $300 a week and one-time direct cash payments of between $600 and $700 — a sharp reduction from the first COVID check of $1,200. The COVID relief checks were put back in the bill after a major push from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

A new study reports that 8 million Americans have been pushed into poverty since summer, in part due to a lack of federal assistance.

Congressmember-elect Cori Bush, who will be representing Missouri’s 1st District, tweeted, quote, “Republicans are going to act like the difference between $600 and $1,200 is no big deal. This is infuriating. I’ve been unhoused. I’ve lived paycheck-to-paycheck. The difference of $600 is having a hotel room or sleeping in the car. $1,200 was already the compromise,” she said.

The stimulus package will not include the Democrats’ desired $160 billion for state and local aid, as a compromise for not including the financial liability protections for corporations that Republicans have been pushing for for months.

Well, to tease this all out, to explain what’s in the stimulus package, what isn’t, we’re joined in Los Angeles by David Dayen, executive director — executive editor of The American Prospect, where he writes a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic called “Unsanitized,” his latest book titled Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power.

David, welcome back to Democracy Now! Just lay out for us what is on the table right now.

DAVID DAYEN: Well, yes, as you described, the two main pieces that you just talked about were the unemployment boost and also extension of two programs that are going to expire next week — the one that helps gig workers get unemployment, the other that extends unemployment benefits — and then there’s this check, this stimulus check of $600, $700, something like that.

I should say that because they wanted to make room for this check, and Republicans have said they don’t want to go above $900 billion, they actually curtailed the boost to unemployment, the $300 a week, by four weeks: It’s now a 12-week program rather than a 16-week extension. So, that’s $1,200 out of the pockets of the unemployed to give a $600 check one time to individuals beyond the unemployed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Aid to states and cities in this package was omitted, and what the impact of that will be?

DAVID DAYEN: Yeah, it’s terrible. I mean, the $160 billion was probably about a third of what was needed to fill budget shortfalls across the country. And so, what you’re going to see, if there’s nothing, is cuts to public safety, cuts to teachers, cuts to public employees, cuts to firefighters, things like that, all over the country, offsetting the benefit of economic stimulus that can be done at the federal level through state and local austerity.

And there’s just this mindset that you can’t go above a certain dollar figure, even though it’s Republicans coming to the table and saying, “Hey, we’re going to lose our majority in the Senate if we give no relief to people before these elections in Georgia.” Democrats might think that, “Well, that puts us in — you know, gives us some of the upper hand here, the ability to say, 'Well, we need state and local relief. We need more money from these one-time stimulus checks. We need more money or an extension of these unemployment benefits.'” But that’s not what’s happening. There’s really a line being drawn at $900 billion, and they’re kicking out the state and local spending, which is going to create really bad austerity throughout the country.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. Postal Service — can you talk about what role it has in this bill? I mean, we have been seeing the rollout of the vaccine, the celebration of FedEx and UPS. Where is the U.S. Postal Service? And what’s happening to it?

DAVID DAYEN: Well, in this bill, there was a $10 billion loan that the Treasury Department previously gave to the U.S. Postal Service. And according to the bipartisan bill being used as a framework here, that would be forgiven. So, that is a boost to the fortunes of the Postal Service, which is actually straining right now because FedEx and UPS are pushing off their less profitable packages and telling — you know, moving them over to the Postal Service, which is clogging kind of the package delivery here in the holiday season. So, that’s one thing that’s going on there.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, David, could you talk about some of the concerns around the Paycheck Protection Program that have been reinstated with this package? What are the issues with that program?

DAVID DAYEN: Well, yes. So, one of the major parts of this bill is the extension of PPP and allowing individuals to get a second draw from PPP loans. However, there’s a provision in here that subtly changes the tax treatment of these forgivable loans. These are reimbursements that are given by the federal government — grants, essentially — and they’re tax-free. They already were made tax-free originally. But under this bill, they could be taken as deductions, as well, which would reduce the tax liability for a host of businesses.

And we know that not only small businesses got these PPP loans. A lot of larger businesses did, as well. So, this could potentially be up to $100 billion in benefit, tax benefits, including benefits to S corporations, which are these corporate structures set up by very rich individuals, that could be used to reduce their tax liability. So, that seems a very egregious part of this bill. And it’s not really getting as much attention as some of the other pieces.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the majority of Congress, the House and the Senate, they are millionaires at least. Talk about the millionaires deciding the pittance that people who are suffering so deeply now may or may not get. In this time of the pandemic, this is news just breaking: In the next three weeks, while Donald Trump is still president, 83,000 Americans will die of COVID.

DAVID DAYEN: Yeah, it’s really staggering that it takes the threat of the loss of a Senate majority to get Republicans, for the first time in nine months, to come back and say, “Yes, we’ll deliver a little bit of relief to the American people,” who haven’t seen any since many of the CARES Act programs expired in July.

What we know, if you look at the economic numbers, is that unemployment for high-wage people has barely budged. It’s pretty much at the same level it was before the pandemic. All of the losses, or practically all of them, have been —

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve got five seconds.

DAVID DAYEN: — in the low-wage sector. Yeah, it’s just staggering that, you know, Congress can’t come together to help people in a time of need.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, we’ll continue to follow this. David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect, where he writes a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic called “Unsanitized.”

Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena. Special thanks to Julie Crosby, Miriam Barnard, Denis Moynihan. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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