The old joke about how to eat an elephant might seem out of place when the task involves the donkeys and pachyderms in Congress, but the one-bite-at-a-time advice works with just hours left before a Friday deadline arrives with the possibility of a federal government shutdown and what may be a final chance this year to adopt economic relief to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Congress last passed such relief in March with the CARES Act, now projected to cost about $1.7 trillion — adjusted down from $2.2 trillion by the Congressional Budget Office — that is credited with bolstering the economy and aiding unemployed workers and small businesses following the first two surges of the pandemic in spring and summer. The Democratic-led House attempted to follow that with an estimated $3 trillion in spending in May, but found no support in the Republican-controlled Senate. Nor did Senate leaders budge when Democrats floated a $2 trillion package.
Earlier this month, with the nation suffering a third — and far worse — covid surge, a bipartisan group in Congress proposed a relief package under a $1 trillion — $908 billion — that held some promise of passage. That is, until it met opposition over two provisions: Democrats wanted $160 billion included in aid to state and local governments facing reduced tax receipts and increased demand for services, which the GOP has largely opposed; and Republicans sought to grant liability protection for businesses from covid-related lawsuits, resisted by Democrats.
Bipartisan lawmakers again sought to make the bite more manageable Monday by breaking off those two most-contentious provisions into their own bill and reducing the larger relief bill to $748 billion, attaching it to the comprehensive government funding bill that must pass Friday to avoid a shutdown.
That leaves plenty of elephant — in terms of additional aid and stimulus — for the next Congress, but lawmakers need to clear what’s left on the plate. Without further delay.
Among the most pressing needs is an extension of unemployment benefits, which will run out after Christmas for about 12 million Americans. Along with extending those benefits for 16 weeks, the package will also restart weekly supplemental jobless payments, $300 a week instead of the $600 a week that the Cares Act provided, which ran out at the end of July.
Also included in the current package is about $300 billion for aid for small businesses and a second round of the Paycheck Protection Program that helped businesses avoid layoffs.
And there’s funding to assist the distribution of coronavirus vaccines that began this week, more personal protective equipment for front-line health workers, rental assistance and a one-month extension of the eviction moratorium, emergency food assistance and help for farmers, ranchers and others in the food supply chain.
The two House members who represent Snohomish County, Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-1st District, and Rep. Rick Larsen, D-2nd District, in interviews last week, said they supported the latest proposal, as they had the earlier proposals.
“We should not adjourn without passing something as a down payment,” Larsen said, emphasizing the need to take up a new relief package by the next Congress.
The latest package has support from the 104 members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition in the House, which DelBene, who is now a coalition vice-chairwoman, will lead in the 117th Congress when it convenes Jan. 6.
DelBene was frustrated with last-minute tinkering suggested by some, including a White House proposal to swap out some or all of the unemployment aid for a one-time $600 stimulus to all Americans.
“The president chimed in too late to the game,” DelBene said, stressing the need to stick with the bipartisan proposal before Congress. “We need to get relief to the American people.”
The death toll from covid has now surpassed 302,000 Americans, with more than 16.6 million coronavirus cases reported. The rolling seven-day average of new infections has risen to its highest point of the year, 66 per 100,000 U.S. residents; 52 per 100,000 in Washington state.
That’s brought on an extension of the restrictions that U.S. governors, including Gov. Jay Inslee instituted last month, including limiting restaurants to take-out and delivery and closures for other businesses. Those restrictions, of course, are at best a threat and at worst the last straw for many small businesses, which makes imperative this aid package and what can follow next year.
In a commentary published in The Herald on Tuesday, Martha Ackelsberg, a professor emerita at Smith College, writes that our personal freedoms and the mask mandates and restrictions on businesses are not at odds with each other; that the mandates help ensure our rights during the threat of a pandemic. But there remains a shared responsibility, organized in government action, to provide support to those who are asked to suspend some of their rights.
“It was government policy that recognized that collective caring behavior cannot be sustained without communal support. The CARES Act articulated, through a series of government programs, the idea that no one should be forced to be a martyr — say, to lose their livelihood — for the benefit of others,” she writes.
The mandates and restrictions protect the health and lives of all Americans; the CARES Act and the aid packages that follow support those families and businesses most affected by those restrictions.
There is great relief in seeing the start of distribution of covid vaccines that will build herd immunity in our communities, our state and our nation, but it will be well into the new year before we reach a level where that immunity will take hold and the danger of covid has passed.
“From every single account I’ve read, there’s a legitimate light at the end of the tunnel,” Larsen said. “But it’s still a long tunnel.”