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By voice vote Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the CARES Act, Congress’ third legislative answer to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Senate unanimously passed it 96-0 late Wednesday.
The 883-page package will cost more than $2 trillion. It’s the most expensive fiscal relief package in American history: Forbes noted it’s more than double the largest stimulus bill, which Congress enacted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
It took Congress five drama-filled days to cobble together an agreement, as Democrats twice blocked the bill from coming to the floor. Meanwhile, unemployment claims skyrocketed to an unprecedented 3.3 million last week.
As David Bahnsen wrote for WORLD, the bill provides loans to small businesses, cash for taxpayers, liquidity for corporations, and support for healthcare. Here’s what else is (and isn’t) in the bill:
1. How will this bill impact you?
Most adults with a valid Social Security number can expect a direct deposit (or a check in the mail) from Uncle Sam. Single Americans will receive $1,200 and married couples $2,400. Parents will receive $500 per child under the age of 16. Anyone who earns more than $75,000 individually, or $150,000 on a joint tax return, will get progressively less until the payment caps out at individuals making $99,000 or couples making $198,000.
The legislation only authorizes one-time payments. Payments won’t go to those in the United States illegally. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the Internal Service Revenue will aim to get payments out within three weeks of the bill’s signing, followed by notices in the mail.
2. How will this bill impact your church?
Under a $350 billion paycheck protection program, nonprofits—including houses of worship and Christian schools registered as 501(c)(3)s—are eligible to apply for aid from the Small Business Administration (SBA). The government will guarantee loans to help nonprofits cover operating expenses such as payroll, utilities, and rent. The government will forgive loans used for those expenses.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., explained that pastors can apply online at any Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation-insured bank and should receive the loans within 36 hours. In a Florida Family Policy Council briefing to pastors, Rubio admitted that “it’s an extraordinary measure, something I would vote no for in virtually any other circumstance.”
The proposal is already stirring controversy. The organization American Atheists called the measure a “clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution … the government cannot subsidize worship and other inherently religious activities.”
John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, told me the loans are an opportunity for religious institutions to access public aid during a disaster, and said the government has an interest in making sure the charitable sector survives the pandemic: “This is not a permanent flow of money. They’re not asking churches to become reliant. It’s one-time assistance in an unprecedented environment.” He said the government explicitly leaving religious nonprofits out of the proposal would have been discriminatory.
Travis Wussow with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission told me that the legislation currently has no “strings attached” that hamper religious institutions’ ability to carry out their missions or message. But the SBA still has to issue final regulations, which could add strings.
Wussow added that churches will have to consider seriously whether to use the loan forgiveness component: “That is an area where there could be strings connected, as well as just broader entanglement issues that pastors need to be thinking about.”
3. How will this bill impact unborn babies?
Abortion giant Planned Parenthood cannot obtain the loans available to other small businesses. That’s because SBA rules disqualify nonprofits with more than 500 employees from receiving loans. Planned Parenthood and its affiliates have around 16,000 employees nationwide.
Nothing in the bill explicitly bars smaller abortion providers from getting funding available for businesses, but the Hyde Amendment applies: No funding will directly pay for an abortion.
4. How will this bill impact the unemployed?
The bill gives unemployment benefits an extra $600 per week for the next four months, so some low-income workers will receive more in unemployment benefits than if they had never lost their job.
Some Republican senators complained that provision may create a “perverse incentive” against people getting back to work. GOP Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Rick Scott of Florida, and Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced an amendment to cap unemployment benefits at 100 percent of whatever a person made when last working. Sasse argued that people making more money not working than they would filling some essential jobs at grocery stores or pharmacies could hurt struggling industries.
Others countered that people who quit voluntarily would be ineligible for unemployment insurance, and dismissed concerns that people would not want to get back to work. Democrats also said the unemployment increase would incentivize companies to pay their workers more. Sasse and the other lawmakers got a floor vote on their amendment. But it failed 48-48, short of the 60-vote threshold needed to pass.
5. What concessions did Democrats win?
Several WORLD readers asked what in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s version of the bill made it into the final version, especially after Senate Democrats twice blocked a floor vote to gain leverage. The final language omits many items from Peloi’s list. It does not include provisions that would mandate early voting, curb airlines’ carbon emissions, require corporate boards to report diversity levels, or require any business receiving aid to pay a $15 minimum wage.
Other items made it in, including $75 million for public television and radio, $75 million each or the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and $25 million for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Democrats also secured a provision, on page 524, requiring many businesses that take government loans to remain neutral in the event of a “union organizing effort” during the loan period. Another provision gives the House of Representatives a cool $25 million to cover salaries and expenses.
Democrats also won a provision blocking businesses controlled by the president, heads of executive departments and agencies, and lawmakers from receiving loans or investments from programs included in the bill.
For oversight, the bill creates an “Office of the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery” within the Treasury Department and a five-person congressional panel.
Some lawmakers have advocated working toward another package if this bill doesn’t lift the economy enough.
Editor’s Note: WORLD has updated this story since its original posting.