Editorial: Millionaire Lawmakers Balk at $2000 One-Time Payment for Struggling Americans

Millions of jobless, struggling Americans have been waiting most of the year for Congress to pass a coronavirus emergency relief package. When lawmakers finally passed a bill that would, among other things, provide $600 one-time direct payments to qualifying Americans, Donald Trump declined to sign it, citing the “ridiculously low” amount of the direct payment. He was right; it is low, and if Trump were some other president, we might conclude that this move came from a place of caring about Americans. We’ve already learned, however, that “caring about Americans” is one of the last items on the minds of Trump and many GOP lawmakers.

For nearly nine months, Congress has been unable to agree on a second coronavirus relief bill to follow the March 2020 CARES Act, as Americans have slipped further into financial distress resulting from fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier, Democrats proposed a bill that included a $2000 one-time payment to qualifying Americans— the same amount Trump specified when he refused to sign the current bill. Republicans, however, some afraid that Americans would squander their stimulus checks, others citing “the deficit,” and others fearful that helping jobless Americans equals socialism, voted against the Democrats’ bill. 

Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) called the proposal for more funds part of the Democrats’ “socialist agenda” to universal basic income.

“Now, we know that what the Democrats are trying to do with this is to put us on a pathway to a guaranteed minimum income, which is one of their socialist agenda items,” she said.

Republicans like Texas Representative Kevin Brady think Americans will spend their stimulus money “inappropriately.” Brady speculated that the money would go toward paying off credit-card debt and “new purchases online at Walmart, Best Buy, or Amazon,” and argued that the money should instead go toward helping small and midsized businesses. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded to Brady, tweeting, “’I don’t support $2k survival checks because it might help people get out of debt that our gov’t inaction helped put or keep them in in the first place.’ – GOP Congressman.”

Just days before Christmas, when the House and Senate agreed on the compromise bill that included a one-time payment of $600, Trump tweeted his criticism of it, leaving lawmakers uncertain as to whether he would sign it, veto it, or simply let time run out on it. “$2000 + $2000 plus other family members. Not $600. Remember, it was China’s fault!” 

Trump criticized his own party, namely Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, for having proposed the $600 amount, on which all parties were led to believe Trump would sign off. Trump did end up signing the bill, without changes, on December 27, but by not signing the bill by Christmas, he allowed millions of Americans’ jobless benefits to lapse.

On December 28, the House passed a standalone bill to increase the one-time direct payments to Americans from $600 to $2000. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has rejected it. 

“The Senate is not going to be bullied into rushing out more borrowed money into the hands of Democrats’ rich friends who don’t need the help,” said McConnell, whose net worth is estimated at $22.5 million.

McConnell has maneuvered to package the $2000 payment proposal in a bill that includes two other items Trump has called for: the establishment of a commission to study voter fraud; and the repeal of Section 230, which provides liability protections for technology companies and other firms.

Republicans who had previously opposed the $2000 direct payment are in a bind. On the one hand, they fear being out of alignment now with the president by voting against it. What’s more, how would it look to their constituents if they voted against it? On the other hand, they sure don’t want their constituents to get their hands on $2,000. 

Not to worry. McConnell is an old hand at tactical gambiteering. He’s pushing Americans deeper into financial desperation by holding up the bill, but that’s not what matters to McConnell.

Knowing that most Democrats are likely to vote against a package that includes a repeal of Section 230 and a provision for a voter fraud commission,  McConnell has set up the perfect scenario for Republicans. If the the bill doesn’t pass, or if the clock runs out on the proposed bill, GOP lawmakers would still be able to say that they supported the $2000 amount. They would also be able to point fingers at the Democrats for voting against relief for Americans. 

Chuck Schumer said out loud what Trump and McConnell already knew— that the additions to the bill would doom its passage. “Any move like this by Sen. McConnell would be a blatant attempt to deprive Americans of a $2,000 survival check.”

Meanwhile, many private citizens are not sleeping at night, worried about how they’re going to make ends meet for another month, week, day. Nearly 12 million American renters will owe an average of $5850 in back rent and utilities by January. Millions of Americans are thousands of dollars behind in monthly expenses as a result of losing their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. Still, GOP lawmakers think a one-time payment of $600, let alone $2000, is too much for them. 

“It’s much better for Congress to err on the side of helping too much than too little,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “There’s nothing scarier than losing your home, especially in January with a pandemic out of control. That would be overwhelming.”

One thing is clear, though: Republicans have shown that they are willing to go to great lengths creating hoops to jump through, and cracks to fall through, in order to avoid helping “too much.”

On the other hand, the GOP isn’t worried at all about enriching themselves, or giving tax breaks to large corporations. And when it comes to seizing the opportunity to look like they care about their constituents without actually having to care, that’s a sweet spot.

Here, it should be noted that, according to OpenSecrets Center for Responsive Politics, most members of the current Congress are millionaires, with a median net worth of $1,008,767. 

What will happen when millions of people are evicted in the coming months? What will happen to their children? How will people eat? This is not the concern of the GOP lawmakers. Their concern is that Americans won’t appropriately use the crumbs they’re thrown, and they’re willing to let the country go down in flames in order to throw as few crumbs as possible.

Editorial: The Coronavirus Pandemic Didn’t Create the Holes in Our System

One could conjecture that as much as the coronavirus pandemic has hurt our economy, it is the ongoing failures of lawmakers to truly champion Americans in need, and the lack of existing systems to work for their benefit, that  have done at least as much damage over time.

This weekend, tens of millions of unemployed Americans stand to lose the emergency supplemental unemployment assistance that has helped them through joblessness during the coronavirus pandemic. The federal benefit supplement, part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the CARES Act), will expire on Saturday. Senate Republicans can’t agree on a new coronavirus legislative package to present to Democrats, and it’s uncertain how, or if, the bill will address an extension to the federal emergency jobless benefit supplement.

While the Republicans haggle over what to include in a new relief bill, millions of Americans fear losing their homes, no longer having health insurance, and figuring out which bills to pay and which they’ll have to let go for now.  Some are still waiting to begin receiving their first round of unemployment benefits, due to outdated and backlogged claims processing systems in various states.

Back in May, House Democrats passed an economic stimulus bill that would, among other things, extend the federal unemployment benefit supplement created in the CARES Act through the end of the year, as well as provide another round of one-time stimulus checks to Americans. That bill, however, has been sitting on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk.

GOP Senators hope to agree on their own bill to present to Democrats by Monday, July 27. It’s not certain whether the bill will include an extension of the emergency unemployment benefit, or whether that will be addressed separately.

The GOP bill is expected to include, among other items, funds for schools, some of which would be tied to reopening classrooms. It would also include a new round of stimulus payments to individuals. McConnell, however, is pressing for the stimulus payments to go only to Americans earning less than $40,000 a year, which would leave many Americans falling through the cracks.

President Trump had pushed for including a payroll tax cut, possibly instead of extending federal unemployment benefits. Though he had threatened not to sign a bill without a tax cut, Republicans have resisted, since it would only help those who still receive paychecks. Additionally, it would drain the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.

Reflecting the perspective of someone who has apparently never experienced financial hardship, conservative economist Stephen Moore, who advised Trump during his 2016 campaign, disagreed. “We’ve gone in less than 10 days from Trump saying that he won’t sign a bill without a payroll tax cut to the bill they’re drafting not having a payroll tax cut,” he said. “There is no benefit from dumping money from helicopters into people’s laps.”

If the supplemental benefit is not extended, unemployed Americans will revert back to receiving only their state unemployment benefits, which average $370 per week. One could argue that they are the people who would benefit from some money dumped into their laps.

Many Republicans have agreed on temporarily extending the emergency unemployment benefit, but reducing it from the original $600 per week to $200 per week.

But, says Ernie Tedeschi, who was a Treasury Department economist during the Obama administration, “U.S. Gross Domestic Product would be 1.33 percentage points smaller at the end of the year than if the benefit were extended at $600 per week for the rest of the year.” He added that the resulting reduction in spending would lead to more than 1 million fewer jobs.

Other Republicans oppose extending the unemployment supplement at all because they worry that it will be a disincentive for jobless Americans to return to work. A “back-to-work” incentive payment has also been suggested instead of an extended jobless benefit supplement.

“It’s not a difficult concept. You don’t get paid more to stay home than you do when you have a job,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Perhaps they’re thinking that Americans should just heed Ivanka Trump’s tone-deaf advice and “find something new,” even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

As Senate Republicans dicker over how little assistance they can get away with giving Americans, and what stipulations they can put on the assistance, it’s apparent that what concerns many Republican lawmakers most is the fear that some American somewhere might get a dollar he or she isn’t entitled to. They fret over the possibility that someone might not be jumping through enough hoops for the assistance they receive.

But let’s suppose that for some Americans, the lack of motivation to seek work is due to the fact that their unemployment benefit is greater than what they’d earned at their jobs. When someone can earn more from a jobless benefit than they can when they work full-time (or more), the problem is not with the employee, it’s with the lack of a livable minimum wage.

Republican lawmakers continue to collect their salaries and enjoy their excellent health insurance as they fail to act on behalf of American workers. Their squeamishness for what they see as “handouts,” and the requirements they continually want to set up to ensure that no one gets “too much” have perpetuated an inept and inadequate social welfare system, leaving many hardworking Americans without a safety net– especially if they were living paycheck to paycheck during better economic times.

When millions of Americans have no safety net, or fall through the holes of a weak safety net, it reverberates throughout the U.S. economy. The coronavirus pandemic has only magnified this. It may have exacerbated our economic situation, but more than that, it has highlighted the glaring ways in which our system has failed, and continues to fail, many Americans.

White House and Republican senators reach tentative deal on new coronavirus stimulus package | CBS News [2020-07-23]

Coronavirus stimulus: Mnuchin says there is a ‘fundamental’ agreement between White House and GOP | Yahoo Finance [2020-07-23]