The White House and top Democrats in Congress spent all of this past week trying to hammer out details of the next COVID-19 stimulus package. Considering the state of the economy, it is good news policymakers are serious about another stimulus bill, but there are a lot of distractions. At the time of writing, things were not looking too promising. Adding to the confusion, President Trump suggested taking unilateral action if a compromise doesn’t emerge. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
The Democrats in the House passed a fifth stimulus package (The HEROES Act) a few months ago, coming in at an eye-popping $3 trillion in new spending and tax cuts. Republicans chose to wait and see how the first few response packages played out. Both sides have a point, but not surprisingly have come at it from completely different places. Democrats taking the kitchen sink approach, while Republicans range from enough is enough, to more action, but much less than the Democrats want.
Meanwhile, the president is considering three executive orders that would delay the collection of federal payroll taxes, reinstitute an expired eviction moratorium, and extend enhanced federal unemployment benefits using $81 billion in unspent aid approved by Congress as part of the CARES Act. The constitutionality of all three would certainly be challenged in court. Economic analyst and occasional presidential advisor Stephen Moore has said President Trump can direct the IRS to stop collecting payroll taxes using the same authority that allowed him to postpone the filing of income tax until July, by declaring a “national economic emergency.”
Can we just say how sick we are of emergency declarations? National Emergency Declarations are not to be taken lightly, and certainly not as a way to simply sidestep Congress or that pesky old Constitution, which we have seen time and again in this administration. Never mind that suspending employees’ payroll tax contribution is a poor choice for getting money into peoples’ hands — certainly much slower than checks in the mail – and obviously doesn’t do much for people who are unemployed. Oh, and it starves already fiscally challenged Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds of needed revenue.
Which brings us to the real problem. Both sides should focus on stimulus measures we know will have immediate economic impacts – and put everything else aside. No extra $20 billion of walking around money for the Agriculture Secretary to hand out, no billions of dollars of bailouts for defense contractors, no blanket liability shields, all of which were in the Senate Republicans’ HEALS Act.
There are extraneous provisions in the Democrats’ HEROES Act as well. It includes the Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act of 2020, which provides benefits for single- and multi-employer pension plans. While pensions are an important issue, a “stimulus” bill does not need to deal with people’s retirement plans. Another point of disagreement is the $25 billion the House bill includes to help shore up the U.S. Postal Service. Again, not a trivial issue, but not a driver of economic stimulus.
And then, of course, there are the politics. The Democratic bill includes $3.6 billion in additional funding for states to hold elections in November. This too does not seem like it would have much economic effect, even if there is bipartisan agreement, among local and state officials anyway, on the need for more election security. The issue of election funding is getting muddied by accusations that Democrats are simply trying to enact a national mail-in voting system, even though the states control how elections are administered.
The hijinks don’t end there.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Shelby (R-AL) has suggested that a full government Continuing Resolution to fund government into fiscal year 2021 may be used as the vehicle to carry an extension of unemployment insurance and a continued moratorium on evictions. This is ironic, considering the Senate has not marked up a single spending bill in subcommittee. Please. The fiscal year doesn’t end until September 30th, the House has finished all but two of dozen bills to fund government next year – albeit in packages of bills that often carried extraneous “emergency” funding and mostly without meaningful opportunity for amendment. But they did them.
The solution isn’t to complicate the process with other extraneous and frankly unnecessary provisions and policy. It is to figure out what has worked so far, how to improve it, and how to respond to the virus and protect people and provide an economic lifeline to people and business to get through the pandemic.