Congress lurches toward sending help for coronavirus | Editorial
Federal stimulus should target jobless and struggling businesses and churn out money quickly
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, center, walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday. (Associated Press / Patrick Semansky)
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, center, walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday. (Associated Press / Patrick Semansky) [ PATRICK SEMANSKY | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published March 24, 2020

A mammoth federal stimulus plan of nearly $2 trillion that slowly moved toward votes in Congress late Tuesday has many positive elements. While the package is imperfect, it would get real money into the hands of hard-hit Americans and small businesses desperate for help in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, it also requires reasonable concessions from corporate giants looking for billions in taxpayer bailouts. As flawed as some of the unknown details may turn out to be, the broad concepts are solid and this financial life preserver needs to get to President Donald Trump and into law as quickly as possible.

Cash and unemployment assistance. The Senate plan gives every adult earning less than $99,000 per year up to $1,200, plus an additional $500 per child. That would help Americans cover the basics and churn money quickly through a devastated economy. Republicans reportedly agreed to the Democrats’ request to extend unemployment assistance an additional month, to four months, and both sides agreed to cover part-time workers and the self-employed. This may be only a down payment.

Small business. A bipartisan Senate agreement provides up to $350 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses, or those with 500 or fewer employees. The money would act as bridge financing to help companies stabilize cash flow and keep employees on the job. This is a good start, but keeping small companies afloat temporarily and paychecks circulating throughout the economy is essential to avoiding larger shocks from a collapsing jobs market. The self-employed will need additional assistance.

Big industries. The Senate bill provides $58 billion in secured loans for passenger airlines and cargo carriers, and another $450 billion in collateral-backed loans or loan guarantees for major industrial sectors. This is more defensible than the request by large companies for outright grants, and the Trump administration was right to agree to a Democratic demand for tougher oversight - including a watchdog agency - so Americans can see how this money is spent.

Paid leave. Senate Democrats appear to have fallen short in using this stimulus to address the major gaps in paid sick leave that remained even with the legislation Congress approved and Trump signed last week. That measure doesn’t apply to companies with more than 500 employers, and small businesses can receive hardship exemptions, leaving the vast majority of Americans to still face the untenable choice of going to work sick and infecting co-workers or staying home without pay.

Other: Democrats wrangled an additional $25 billion for hospitals, bringing the total to $100 billion, which is more in-line with the expanding scale of this public health crisis. The package also include tens of billions of dollars to state and local governments who are building front lines of defense in individual communities. The House will need to ensure that big states like Florida, which are heavily dependent on specific sectors like tourism, are sufficiently provided and not strangled in red tape.

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Senate Republicans and Democrats wasted valuable time this week by trying to lard-up the package with non-essential provisions aimed at scoring political points. The sooner this gets to the president’s desk, the sooner anxious Americans can breathe just a bit easier. Congress will have another chance to provide more help as this crisis unfolds and a clearer picture emerges of the devastating human and financial cost of this pandemic.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news