Wyden: Latest virus aid plan 'nowhere near enough'
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden says the latest federal aid plan offers some help, but it falls far short of what he thinks is needed to help families and businesses reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic downturn.
"It is nowhere near enough," the Oregon Democrat said in an interview after Congress acted on Dec. 21. "I think it is going to be a tough winter for a lot of Oregonians who are walking an economic tightrope."
The plan extends federal benefits for self-employed and gig workers — who did not qualify for unemployment until Wyden got them included earlier this year — and 13 weeks beyond the 26 weeks of regular state benefits. But it limits extra benefits to $300 per person, half of the $600 Wyden secured for four months in the previous aid plan, known as the CARES Act.
The extensions are for 11 weeks through March 13. Some benefits can be paid up to April 4.
President Donald Trump finally signed the bill (HR 133) on Sunday, Dec. 27, but not before he threatened to derail it because he felt the stimulus checks of $600 per person were too low. The $2.2 trillion CARES Act provided for $1,200 checks. The Democratic-led House voted Monday, Dec. 28, for the $2,000 Trump sought, but it's likely to die in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Wyden said he would be happy to vote for the higher amount.
Wyden said Trump's delay, despite the role of Trump's treasury secretary in crafting the compromise plan, will stall the continuation of benefits to needy families.
"For families wondering how they will pay January rent or buy groceries, a weeks-long delay could have serious consequences," Wyden said Dec. 27, after the original interview. "While it's a huge relief that the bill is signed, Donald Trump's tantrum has created unnecessary hardship and stress for millions of families."
Wyden also said the blame is shared by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who tried to advance a much smaller aid plan of $500 billion — far less than the $2.2 trillion and $3.4 trillion plans passed by the House months ago. The final plan was $900 billion, which was attached to a bill extending $1.4 trillion in spending authority through the end of the federal budget year on Sept. 30.
"McConnell dragged his feet for months," Wyden said. "He and his allies said the law was creating a disincentive to work. All he was interested in was a sweetheart liability deal for his allies.
"It was only in the past couple of weeks, when he realized he was going to be hurt in Georgia if he didn't do anything, that he came to the table."
Control of the Senate hinges on two Republican incumbents in runoffs against two Democratic challengers on Jan. 5. Democrats must win both seats, which would allow Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to break a 50-50 tie.
The bill, which runs to almost 5,600 pages, adds a full tax break for business meals that will cost the U.S. Treasury $6 billion in tax collections. (The break was scaled back to 50% in 1986.) It was added in return for changes in the child tax credit and earned-income tax credit used by low-income families, which can use 2019 figures on their 2020 returns due in April.
"That was their demand in order for people trying to get a little help to make rent and buy groceries in the middle of a pandemic," said Wyden, the top Democrat on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee.
Wyden listed a few provisions in the massive bill offering household and business benefits:
• Broadband access: $3 billion more to allow connections by low-income families, a vital service as schools continue online instruction.
• Low-income housing: States will get more money to award tax credits for developers. States also will get $25 billion for rental assistance; Oregon's share is estimated at $200 million, plus $80 million for Portland.
• Telemedicine: Greater flexibility for its use under Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people 65 and older, and for some people with disabilities.
• Tax relief for small brewers, vintners and distillers: They were faced with big increases in federal excise taxes in 2021, but will get permanent relief.
• Business loans: Businesses under the Paycheck Protection Program can deduct expenses that they pay with forgiven loans. Forgiven debt is usually considered taxable income. (Congress added limits to the program in an attempt to curb abuses. The Small Business Administration reported that 5% of the 5 million takers in the initial rounds got nearly 50% of the $522 billion in loans, and that 600 large corporations got the maximum of $10 million each. The new limit for second-time borrowers is $2 million.)
• Employee retention tax credit: The current limit is 50% up to $10,000 in wages paid; the new limit is 70% up to $10,000 paid in any quarter, through July 1. Business can take part in PPP and still take the tax credit, which is subtracted directly from taxes owed.
Although McConnell and Senate Republicans dropped their insistence on limiting business liability against coronavirus-related lawsuits, Democrats in both chambers dropped their demand for more aid to state and local governments and tribes. Oregon got $1.4 billion from the CARES Act total of $150 billion, and Portland, Multnomah County and Washington County shared $247 million.
"People talk about aid to local governments, but nobody knows what that means," Wyden said. "It's about emergency services for communities that had no idea they were going to get hit with a pandemic like this. We will be back with that."
President-elect Joe Biden has said the latest plan is only a starting point for what he will request after he takes office Jan. 20. The new Congress, which has a slimmer Democratic majority in the House, starts on Jan. 6.
Wyden said that 12 years ago, when Biden became vice president and Barack Obama president, Democratic majorities in Congress passed a single stimulus plan of $787 billion. (Three Republicans joined all Democrats to ensure its passage in the Senate.)
Wyden said he agrees with some economists who said even that amount, a record until this year, was not enough to kick-start the economy after the economic downturn back then.
"Democrats took their foot off the gas pedal," he said. "I am making it clear I am not going to let that happen again."
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