CHN: Coronavirus Emergency Aid Added to FY21 Funding and More, But the President Wants Changes

Between March 27, when Congress enacted the CARES Act in response to the pandemic, and December 21, when Congress finally passed more relief, the coronavirus death toll rose from nearly 1,300 to over 320,000, with over 18 million confirmed U.S. cases.  By the end of December, at least 12 million more workers will lose unemployment benefits and the moratorium on evictions will expire, threatening millions of families, if the new bill is not signed into law.  But the day after Congress acted, President Trump surprised many by calling the bill a “disgrace” and objecting to a number of provisions.  He repeated his call for $2,000 direct payments to adults instead of the $600 per person payment in the enacted bill.  He opposed the bill’s inclusion of such payments to households that include immigrants.  He criticized as “wasteful” a number of provisions within the full-year annual appropriations bill, including foreign aid funding, clean water and fish management provisions, and funding for the Smithsonian.  The President, nonetheless, did not expressly say he would veto the bill. Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer both jumped on Trump’s call for $2,000 direct payments and urged the House and Senate to approve that increased amount. Speaker Pelosi tweeted that she would call for unanimous consent in the House on Christmas Eve to raise the direct payment amount to $2,000. 

And so the “done deal” of a 5,500+ page bill that combined full-year appropriations for all areas of government with $900 billion in COVID relief, plus tax measures, water resources management, and limits on surprise medical billing is now thrown into question.  There is a chance Congress will act to increase the direct payments, perhaps satisfying the President. But should the President veto the bill, it would take two-thirds votes in the House and Senate to override.  The bill passed both chambers by more than two-thirds, but such action could take days more.  Under one scenario, Trump could delay his veto until time ran out on the current Congress, leaving no opportunity for it to override (called a “pocket veto”).   

More delay or a successful veto would bring on the disasters the relief package was designed to avert. At minimum, continued receipt of unemployment benefits could be interrupted for some weeks.  The eviction moratorium would expire at the end of December.  The bill’s funding for the distribution of the long-awaited vaccines, the needed cash for families that lost income, increased SNAP and child nutrition aid to fight hunger, and help for struggling businesses and schools would be delayed.   

Further complicating matters, the stop-gap spending bill to assure continued funding of regular government operations expires on December 28.  If the $1.4 trillion omnibus appropriations legislation that is part of the package before the President is not approved by the deadline, there will be a government shutdown. 

It is worth noting two items not included in all the more than 5,500 pages.  Despite Majority Leader McConnell’s insistence there would be no bill without protecting businesses and other entities from lawsuits over unsafe COVID practices, vehement opposition kept such immunity out of the bill. Advocates believe that meat-packing plants, nursing homes, and other businesses should be required to follow mandatory safety procedures and should not be immune to lawsuits when they do not. There was a painful cost:  much needed aid to states and localities was also left out of this package (see the section on state and local governments, below).  The second item:  there is no provision to extend the deadline for Congress and states to receive 2020 Census data for the purposes of apportioning the number of House members each state will get and for redrawing district lines for state and federal office-holders.  Because of pandemic-caused delays in counting as well as the Trump Administration’s undermining of accuracy and the law by attempting not to count immigrants, the Census Bureau cannot meet current statutory deadlines for transmitting the count accurately.  Congress should extend the deadline to allow the Census Bureau time to correct errors they have found with the count.  Because Census data is used to determine the funding communities get to serve children and families with low incomes, an inaccurate count is certain to deny funding to those who need it most.  It is regrettable that Congress missed the opportunity to extend the deadlines here.