COVID-19 aid remains stymied in Congress
Health risks, economic impact of pandemic continue to mount
As of mid-September, at least 197,000 people had died from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. Beyond these fatalities, the number of COVID-related cases diagnosed reached 6.5 million people and continues to rise.
Beyond the health effects, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of Aug. 31, over 80% of adults with plans for post-high-school education either cancelled or significantly changed those plans this fall. Further, a significant number of consumers are housing-challenged, with one-third of adults anticipating either eviction or foreclosure in the next two months, and over 36% of adults continuing to telework due to the pandemic.
Since late July, consumers and small businesses have hoped for a renewed federal commitment for COVID-19 aid. But no successful compromise on two vastly different aid proposals has yet to emerge. A failed Sept. 10 vote on the U.S. Senate’s majority-sponsored proposal leaves the House-passed aid package as the only legislative option to have been approved by a chamber.
In a news conference held later that same day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted an earlier offer to compromise on the scale of aid. That offer proposed to cut the cost of the House-passed version to $2.2 trillion and asked the Senate to increase the size of its proposal.
“Let’s not have a skinny bill when we have a massive problem,” said Pelosi.
“Congress needs to respond in a way that meets the nation’s very real and urgent needs,” added Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer after the upper chamber’s roll call vote.
In the meantime, as the pandemic claims more lives every day, too many people can’t find work, especially Black and brown workers who are bearing the brunt of this economic and public health crisis.
The Senate proposal, known as the HEALS Act, emphasized cost breaks for businesses instead of consumer relief.
For instance, it would have shielded employers from liability lawsuits under federal accommodations law if related to COVID-19 risk and lack of requested workplace accommodations. Another proposal would have temporarily doubled business deductions to 100% for business meals through Dec. 31, 2020. It provided for increased funds for the Paycheck Protection Program but contained few consumer protection provisions and no rental assistance or relief for student borrowers. Though it provided $105 billion in aid for K-12 schools and postsecondary institutions, this earmark included monies for private schools, and reserved funds for schools that reopen.
“This bill is an inadequate response to our current economic fallout and public health crisis, said Ashley Harrington, federal advocacy director and senior policy counsel with the Center for Responsible Lending.
“More than five months have passed since Congress approved a substantive, bipartisan bill to help families stay afloat during this pandemic. Low-income families, particularly families of color who have yet to recover from the Great Recession, have been hit the hardest by this pandemic and the economic fallout,” Harrington added. “Without a comprehensive response, renters will continue to live with anxiety under threat of eviction, student borrowers will suffocate under crushing debt and small business owners will close their doors permanently, which will distress local economies.”
By contrast, the House version, known as the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act, which passed the House with a 208-199 vote on May 15, advocates broad and comprehensive support for consumers and small businesses, including:
• $100 billion in new emergency rental assistance
• $75 billion for homeowner assistance
• $11.5 billion in homeless grants
• $1 billion to expand Section 8 housing vouchers
The House measure would also forbid negative credit reporting and debt collection. Another key provision would require the Federal Reserve to make low-cost, deferrable loans to small businesses, nonprofits and public universities, as well as provide a broad assortment of new and renewed assistance targeted to essential workers, first responders, minority-owned and other small businesses, and people experiencing homelessness. It also provides extended payment relief for student loan borrowers, including debt cancellation for some borrowers.
“Inaction and subpar responses to this pandemic are dangerous, irresponsible and unacceptable,” concluded Harrington. “Each day that passes without a comprehensive bill will cause irreparable harm to families who are living on the margins and struggling to get by.”
Charlene Crowell is a senior fellow with the Center for Responsible Lending.