OPINION: Congressional relief bill is an important step toward addressing the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s not enough

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By THEA M. LEE

Congress passed a $900 billion relief and recovery package last week that provides long-overdue relief to millions of working people, including extensions of pandemic unemployment insurance (UI) programs, stimulus checks, and additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program. It also continues the eviction moratorium, provides rental and nutrition assistance, some funding for the childcare sector, and provides money for COVID-19 testing, tracing, and vaccine distribution.

However, due to the obstruction of Senate Republicans, the package is a fraction of what is required to address the monumental economic damage caused by inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to stop the economic bleeding caused by the coronavirus pandemic and build a strong recovery, this country needs roughly $3 trillion in relief.

AID TO STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTS
One key missing piece from the bill is aid to state and local governments. Without this aid, austerity by state and local governments will result in cuts to essential public services and the loss of millions of jobs in both the public and private sector.

However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell demanded that if state and local aid were included in the bill, truly outrageous corporate immunity provisions would also have to be included. To reach a bipartisan deal, both were dropped.

EMERGENCY LEAVE
Another absurdity in this bill — given that self-quarantining by those who have COVID-19 or have been exposed to it is crucial to contain the spread of the virus — is the failure to extend guaranteed emergency leave.

UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE
The UI provisions in the bill are woefully underpowered. The bill provides an 11-week extension of pandemic UI programs. This was whittled down from a 16-week extension called for in the bipartisan plan released early last week. An 11-week extension is wholly insufficient and guarantees millions will exhaust benefits by the middle of March, when the virus will still be surging and job openings will still be scarce relative to the number of job seekers.

The number of additional weeks of UI was reportedly reduced to “free up” money for the stimulus checks.

This trading-off of one urgently needed tranche of relief for another represents the intellectually bankrupt and immoral logic of austerity economics. There is no economic reason why the total fiscal cost of a relief package needs to be kept below $1 trillion, or any other number. Restricting the generosity of relief and recovery aid on these grounds is pure numerology, and members of Congress should be embarrassed to cite it as justification for their stinginess.

The bill also reinstates enhanced UI payments — however, they are reinstated at only $300 per week, not the $600 per week that was in the CARES Act. It’s highly problematic that the extra payment was reduced to $300 for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that UI is extremely efficient stimulus. Reinstating the full $600 would have created or saved 3.3 million jobs over the next year; the $300 would create or save just half that, even if it were sustained over the entire year rather than just 11 weeks.

WHAT’S STILL NEEDED
It is imperative the incoming Congress pass another substantial stimulus package early in the new year to ensure working people and states and localities receive the economic relief needed to recover from the pandemic. In addition, policymakers should put in place automatic stabilizers, so we never have to witness the disgraceful political behavior of delaying, distorting, and diminishing the needed scale and scope of relief ever again.

(Thea Lee is president of the Economic Policy Institute. Lee came to EPI from the AFL-CIO, where she served as deputy chief of staff and developed a track record of conducting rigorous economic research and overseeing an ambitious policy agenda. She is co-author of “The Field Guide to the Global Economy,” and has authored numerous publications on the North American Free Trade Agreement, the impact of international trade on U.S. wage inequality, and the domestic steel and textile industries. She has been a voice for workers in testimony before congressional committees and in television and radio appearances—including on PBS NewsHour, Good Morning America, NPR’s All Things Considered and Marketplace, Fox Business, and the PBS documentary Commanding Heights.)

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