With COVID-19 infections and deaths climbing fast, Congress is moving at a remarkable pace to throw an unprecedented amount of federal resources — $2 trillion in tax dollars and a $4-trillion boost from the Federal Reserve — at the strained U.S. healthcare system and the collapsing U.S. economy.
Even better, the two political parties have climbed out of their customary ideological foxholes to provide bipartisan support for approaches that usually divide them. Republicans are lining up behind a record amount of deficit spending, including no-strings-attached cash grants to most Americans. Democrats are agreeing to bail out businesses large and small with handouts and tax breaks. And the obligatory partisan squabbling was over almost as quickly as it started, with the Senate passing the bill unanimously on Wednesday and the House expected to approve it Friday.
The bill is the third in a series of increasingly costly measures to respond to the health and financial effects of the COVID-19 virus. Sadly but not surprisingly, it has its share of unwelcome special-interest provisions that have only tenuous relations with the outbreak. Among them are a $17-billion loan program seemingly designed to rescue Boeing from the hole it dug for itself with the 737 Max fiasco and a huge tax break for wealthy real estate investors. At least Senate Democrats successfully pushed for more transparency and oversight to help keep the biggest of the loan programs accountable.
The hidden gifts for well-connected interests are coming to light only now, with the bill well on its way to final passage, because of the many shortcuts taken to speed it through Congress. And speed is essential because of the weeks it will take for the grants and loans provided by the bill to be delivered from the Treasury to those who qualify.
That's the measure's Achilles' heel. The need for the money is already great; witness the shocking surge in claims for unemployment benefits filed last week. By some estimates, the country is on its way to double-digit unemployment, with more people sidelined than in the last recession.
The best features of the bill are the ones that provide a financial cushion to counteract the sharp drop in demand for goods and services. These include grant and loan programs to help companies and nonprofits keep workers on their payrolls, as well as expanded unemployment benefits for those laid off or whose gigs dry up as a result of the outbreak.
The timing of the aid matters, however. According to the California Legislative Analyst's Office, the flood of new unemployment claims could substantially delay the first benefit checks that go out to laid-off workers — in this state, by more than three weeks — unless states streamline their systems. Similar administrative hurdles stand in the way of other rescue provisions.
The sooner the federal dollars start to flow, the more they will mitigate the damage to businesses, families and the economy as a whole. Lawmakers deserve praise for teeing up so much aid in short order, albeit with some indefensible riders. Now it's up to government to get the money flowing quickly and transparently.