The original Back to the Future, where Marty McFly time travels from his real life in 1985 back to 1955 in a plutonium-powered DeLorean is a classic. Back to the Future Part II, where Marty time travels to several different years is like many sequels – still somewhat enjoyable – but doesn’t quite measure up. You can think of the CARES Act from early 2020 as the original movie: pleasing to most observers and a novel approach to the problem. Unfortunately, the American Rescue Plan (ARP – CARES Act part deux) doesn’t quite measure up. For us, and a lot of people who will be watching, this misses the mark. Not that it is bad, but it could have been and should be, better.
Think of the “Common Sense Principles” that we at Taxpayers for Common Sense laid out in our last Weekly Wastebasket as the original movie. A script that when followed, ensures everything is in place to allow the future to play out as it should for the next generation. This Weekly Wastebasket is the sequel – the one where we try to keep that future on track and out of jeopardy. Because emergency spending, of the kind contemplated by the American Rescue Plan, should be for emergencies, not just political priorities of the moment.
For instance, spending that doesn’t expire for more than four years is hard to justify as an “emergency.” But that’s just what the Defense Production Act portion of the bill, recently passed by the House and now in front of the Senate, does. Rather than leave the funds available until 2025 for other generic pandemic supplies for the future, lawmakers should create triggers for reporting back and justifying the expenses.
We agree that pandemics have costs, particularly medical costs, that must be addressed. But requiring the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to reimburse veterans for all copays since early last year, even if the medical problem was not related to COVID-19, is an abuse of the supposed purpose of this legislation. And the Department of Veterans Affairs is also given an additional $13.4 billion for “medical care and health needs” with no indication that those needs must be related to today’s pandemic.
On the side of appropriate spending in ARP, billions of dollars are added to enable the administration of vaccines and improve contact tracing. But, as you will see in this same TCS analysis, the Children’s Health Improvement Program (CHIP) is required to cover vaccines without the legislation appropriating any further funds to pay for this new requirement. That’s not good for the future.
Then there’s the suspicious appropriation of $73.5 million to three specific universities. Two of these three (Gallaudet and Howard) also received specific appropriations in the CARES Act. What’s going on there? Because we care about the future, we care about higher education. But color us puzzled why three, and only three, universities are singled out for specific amounts of federal funding to cover COVID-19 issues.
Congress folk who represent agriculture interests were plenty busy making sure $16 billion in farm income and nutrition assistance programs is in the bill. With unemployment and food insecurity higher than pre-pandemic, this partially makes sense. But the USDA is sitting on $11 billion that last December’s relief bill provided for farm subsidies. Using a “must-pass” pandemic appropriation bill to further pad the bottom lines of farming and ranching businesses doesn’t make sense.
Instead, we prefer the kind of relief contemplated for the restaurant industry through the new Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Yes, at $25 billion it’s a massive new program. But the good news is that the money is specifically targeted at expenses these restaurants either cannot meet because of a lack of income, or would not have, were it not for the pandemic. Oversight is necessary for this new fund, but it’s the kind of targeted relief that seems to make common sense.
Finally, we have concerns about the “temporary” expansion of the temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit. No, that wasn’t a typo. The 2017 tax cut bill “temporarily” doubled the Child Tax Credit to $2,000 through 2025. This legislation expands it to $3,000 per child ($3,600 if under six years old) but just for 2021. Again, these changes may not have an enormous price tag for this year, “only” a little more than $100 billion. But history teaches us there is almost no chance this will actually be a temporary expansion. And it is fully refundable, meaning you get the cash whether you owe taxes or not. This is a powerful provision to lift people out of poverty, but it remains to be seen if it is the best tool or if there are other ways to do it or offset the policies’ cost. Extended for 10 years, it’s a trillion-dollar hit to revenue.
Traveling back to the future, we can see major costs and liabilities in some provisions of ARP. We’ve brought you along on our trip to the future so we can keep our descendants out of debtor’s prison. Just you, the folks at Taxpayers for Common Sense, and Marty McFly.