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.