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Congress Passes $900 Billion COVID-19 Relief Bill. Is It Enough?

NOEL KING, HOST:

It took months, but late last night, Congress passed a spending package to help people and businesses struggling through the pandemic. It includes $900 billion in aid. And here's how Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey described it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH GOTTHEIMER: This is as close to a Christmas miracle as you can find in a polarized Washington.

KING: A Christmas miracle. So what's actually in this bill? Here with some answers are NPR's Jim Zarroli, who covers business and economics, and our congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Good morning to you both.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: Sue, let's start with you and just regular people who are struggling. What can they expect next?

DAVIS: Well, there's a lot of relief in this bill. And overall, it's going to affect millions of Americans. It's going to extend additional unemployment benefits of about $300 a week through the early spring. It includes people who don't normally qualify for unemployment benefits, like contract and gig workers. There's another round of stimulus checks going out - $600 for most qualifying adults and children. It'll start to phase out for individuals who make over $75,000 and families that make over $150,000. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said yesterday that those checks could start going out as early as next week.

There's billions in here to expand the food stamp program through the early summer. And it also includes an existing - it extends an existing moratorium on certain evictions through January. And there's $25 billion in here to help low-income people pay their rent if they've lost work due to the pandemic. There's also money in it for vaccine distribution. And, Noel, the thing I think parents most want to hear - there's money in there to get schools back up and running safely.

KING: Yes, that's going to make a lot of parents very happy. So this is the microlevel. Jim, let's pull back and look at the macrolevel. Lawmakers got this done - it took them about seven months. The economy is slowly recovering as we speak. So what do they hope that this will do for the economy?

ZARROLI: Yeah, the economy has been recovering, but you're seeing evidence now that the economy is beginning to backslide a bit. You're seeing lots of places reimposing lockdowns, lot of restaurants closing. There are big new restrictions on travel in a lot of places. Unemployment claims were trending down for - a lot for months, but now we've seen something of an uptick. I mean, don't forget - we lost 22 million jobs after the pandemic hit, and we've only recovered about 56% of them. So we have a long way to go. And the idea that we may be losing jobs again is scary. I mean, this could be a harsh winter for the economy. So Congress was under a lot of pressure to do something, and this bill is what they finally came up with.

KING: And $900 billion sounds like and, in fact, is a lot of money. But it's worth noting - Democrats wanted $2 trillion or even more. So do economists say this is enough money?

ZARROLI: Well, if you know - if you talk to a lot of economists, they will say, you know, this - any bill is better than nothing. This will provide a lot of help to people and businesses. These $600 checks are going to make a difference for people who've lost their jobs and maybe can't pay their rent - so will the extra unemployment benefits. But remember, this is a temporary extension. People will begin to run out of unemployment benefits again in the dead of winter. So a lot of economists think this bill really falls short.

I spoke yesterday with Mohamed El-Erian, who is chief economic adviser at Allianz.

MOHAMED EL-ERIAN: We are pushing back the recovery, and we're doing so unnecessarily. We're doing this because the policy response hasn't been up to what's needed. So it is going to mean that we recover less fast and we recover less fully.

KING: This bill is also almost 6,000 pages long. And, Sue, I assume that you've read all of them?

DAVIS: I've read many of them, but I've relied heavily on the CliffsNotes.

KING: (Laughter).

DAVIS: I will admit that, Noel.

KING: What else is worth knowing here?

DAVIS: You know, this is a massive piece of legislation. You know, the - remember, this $900 bill, COVID relief bill, is part of the broader $1.4 trillion package of spending bills that will fund the entirety of the federal government, everything from the Pentagon to the Ag Department, through September. Another important element here is it also includes nearly $300 million more for the Paycheck Protection Program, which has helped keep businesses afloat. All in, PPP has cost taxpayers about a trillion dollars this year.

One other thing in there that wasn't anticipated - it includes a bill to end surprise medical billing, essentially making it harder for health care providers to charge patients for unknowingly using out-of-network services. This was something championed by retiring Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, so he gets a big win on his way out the door.

KING: So just a lot in there. But, Jim, notably, one of the sticking points from the jump was that Democrats wanted money for state and local governments that have been hit hard because they don't have the same tax revenue coming in. This didn't make it into the bill. So how much trouble do state and local governments say they are in?

ZARROLI: You know, there are a lot of cities and towns that are facing just huge fiscal challenges right now. Places that heavily depend on tourism like, you know, Orlando, Fla., Las Vegas, they've been hit really hard. They depend on sales tax and hotel tax, and those revenues have really plummeted 'cause people aren't traveling. You're also seeing big budget deficits in places like New York and Philadelphia because lots of people in those places have moved out or lost their jobs, so they're not paying income tax.

I spoke last week with the mayor of Kansas City, Mo., Quinton Lucas, and he points out that this is coming at a time when cities already have big expenses because of the pandemic. They have to pay for contact tracing and overtime for first responders. And he says, you know, he gets asked all the time - how is his city going to pay these costs?

QUINTON LUCAS: The answer right now is, we don't know where that's coming from. We will continue to address our public safety, our public health issues. But we've got to find money somewhere, and it ain't easy.

KING: What does that mean for people who live in cities that are struggling? What's the knock-on here?

ZARROLI: Well, it means cities and towns will almost certainly have to reduce services - you know, cut back on things like snowplowing and garbage pickup and park maintenance. And they'll have to lay more people off. We've already seen the loss of a million local government jobs this year. We're likely to see more.

KING: OK. And, Sue, look - we know that many Americans will likely need another round of relief aid early next year, the way things are going. But this aid package took seven months to negotiate. Will the next one take that long? And what does that mean for people?

DAVIS: I mean, it could. This has not been a tale of great political management. You know, President-elect Joe Biden is going to have his work cut out for him in mending a lot of these relationships on Capitol Hill. The bill between the top four leaders in Congress - or the relationship between the top four leaders in Congress right now is terrible. I can't state it any more plainly. This did not come together because of leadership; this came together in large part because centrists revolted and forced leaders in the White House back to the table.

So it's a pretty bitter end to the Congress. I think it sets the stage for what could be pretty difficult negotiations with Biden next year, especially with congressional Republicans who, although they voted for these bills, overwhelmingly, have been sending signals that they're going to be increasingly resistant to new spending, especially with a Democrat in the White House.

KING: NPR's Susan Davis and Jim Zarroli. Thank you both. We appreciate it.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

ZARROLI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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