The Stew Reporting on government and politics

Trillion-dollar relief

Politics | Congress pushes through legislation to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic
by Harvest Prude
Posted 3/19/20, 04:44 pm

WASHINGTON—The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be doing the unthinkable on Capitol Hill: forcing swift, bipartisan action.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has announced that his Senate colleagues will not leave town until they pass a third emergency economic aid package—a massive bill that will dwarf the two President Donald Trump already signed into law. McConnell said Congress will move at “warp speed” to approve a $1 trillion relief plan the White House unveiled on Wednesday.

The sense of urgency comes not just from the growing economic needs of Americans: Late Wednesday, news broke that two congressmen tested positive for the new coronavirus. The announcements from Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, led several lawmakers to go immediately into self-isolation.

The latest relief plan calls for an infusion of cash to affected business sectors—including $50 billion for airlines and another $150 billion for other hard-hit industries. It would also give interruption loans totaling $300 billion to small businesses.

Meanwhile, most American adults would receive direct payments in April and May based on their income level and family size. In an interview with Fox Business, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the White House proposed $1,000 for each adult and $500 for each child—meaning a family of four would receive $3,000 in the coming weeks.

Stan Veuger, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the effectiveness of direct cash payments will likely depend on who gets them and how they spend the money. For people in the upper or middle class, “they’re just going to put money in the bank,” he said. For those who are at risk of losing their jobs or facing a drastic reduction in hours, “a thousand bucks … is not a lot.”

Veuger praised more specific proposals to aid small businesses: “I’d rather see a broad-based package that keeps businesses afloat so that people can go back to their jobs when hopefully things start operating.”

The $1 trillion package would exceed the economic relief bills Congress passed under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama during the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. Those cost $700 billion and $800 billion. Republicans parlayed voter angst over Congress’ big spending into the tea party wave of 2010, but few have voiced fiscal concerns about the current proposals.

Democrats so far are not opposed to the idea of direct cash payments to taxpayers, either. “Nancy Pelosi and Rashida Tlaib are not going to rage against [this] like the tea party did,” Veuger said.

Congress has already approved two emergency aid measures. On March 5, lawmakers passed an $8 billion package focused on healthcare, allocating more funding for tests and treatment. Then this week, the president signed into law a $104 billion bill covering food aid, sick pay, unemployment insurance, and free COVID-19 testing.

It’s unclear if and when the House will reconvene from its recess to consider the new legislation once it passes the Senate. The risk of traveling—especially for older lawmakers—has led to increasing calls for mobile voting, but that would take legislation to enact. The average age of members of the House of Representatives is about 58 years old. In the Senate, it’s almost 63.

Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin (file) Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin (file) Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifying at a Senate committee on FISA investigation hearings in December

Fiddling with FISA

Congress let three counterterrorism surveillance tools expire briefly before passing a stop-gap extension on Monday. A political impasse over how the government has used the tools, particularly the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, led to the temporary lapse.

Last week, the House passed a bipartisan bill that would have modestly reformed FISA and reauthorized it through 2023. But the changes didn’t go far enough for President Donald Trump and some Republicans who wanted to hammer out more serious reforms before renewing the surveillance powers.

Intelligence officials say FISA helps them track down and apprehend foreign terror suspects, but critics say its use against American citizens violates the U.S. Constitution.

In December, U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz released a report that found the FBI had sufficient cause for launching the probe into Russia’s interference into the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But it also said investigators made 17 errors in their FISA court application to surveil Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

Now, lawmakers have until the end of May to debate long-term reforms. —H.P.

Associated Press/Photo by Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times Associated Press/Photo by Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (right) concedes the Democratic primary in Oak Lawn, Ill., on Wednesday, as his wife, Judy, looks on.

Pro-life Democrat pushed out

Liberal challenger Marie Newman ousted incumbent U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski in Illinois’ Democratic primary on Tuesday, shrinking the almost-nonexistent pro-life wing of the party. Lipinski has served eight terms despite numerous attempts from the left to unseat him. Those efforts—including one from Newman two years ago—typically focused on Lipinski’s pro-life record.

Lipinski also angered Democrats when he voted against the Affordable Care Act and for the Defense of Marriage Act, but on Wednesday, he told reporters his pro-life views cost him reelection this year.

“I was pilloried in millions of dollars of TV ads and mailers because of this,” Lipinski said. “I was shunned by my colleagues and other Democratic Party members and operators. … The pressure on the Democratic Party on the life issue has never been as great as it is now.”

Pro-life groups supported Lipinski’s reelection bid in 2020, but not as much as he had hoped, according to the Catholic News Agency. Meanwhile, Newman was flush with cash and garnered endorsements from pro-abortion groups; Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Lipinski is the first House incumbent to lose a primary election this year.

The coronavirus pandemic may have also hurt him: He had a strong following among older voters, who face the highest health risk from COVID-19 and may have stayed home. —H.P.

Associated Press/Photo by Mary Altaffer (file) Associated Press/Photo by Mary Altaffer (file) Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld

Trump clears Republican primary field

The “Never Trump” wing of the Republican Party went out with a whimper this week. Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld suspended his presidential campaign on Wednesday, a day after President Donald Trump locked up enough delegates to clinch the Republican nomination.

Weld served as governor of Massachusetts from 1991 to 1997 and was the Libertarian vice presidential nominee in 2016.

Two other Republican challengers, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and former Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, previously withdrew from the race, leaving Trump as the GOP’s undisputed nominee. —J.C. Derrick

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Harvest Prude

Harvest is a political reporter for WORLD's Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate. Harvest resides in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @HarvestPrude.

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