Thursday, March 4, 2021
March 4, 2021

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In Our View: Congress must act quickly to provide relief

The Columbian
Published:

Without Congressional action, an estimated 12 million Americans will see unemployment benefits run out by the end of the year. Eviction moratoriums will expire, and student loan payments will resume. And vital public health efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic will lose funding.

While promising vaccines provide hope that COVID-19 eventually will be brought under control, the prospect of economic calamity requires immediate attention. Officials must move quickly to provide relief for American workers and businesses owners, along with state and municipal governments.

Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed a package of $908 billion in aid for families, small businesses, employees and health care providers intended to last through March. “This effort represents a bridge to get America’s workers, small businesses and communities through this challenging time until vaccines and treatments are readily available,” said Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus that devised the proposal.

The plan should provide a framework for negotiations between congressional leaders from both parties and both chambers. But disagreements remain as Congress belatedly addresses the issue.

Most important is an extension of federal unemployment benefits, which are scheduled to expire Dec. 31. Recently, with a surge of the virus leading to increased businesses shutdowns, more than 700,000 workers have filed unemployment claims each week.

That extension will draw widespread support, but there is likely to be disagreement over additional unemployment payments. The CARES Act passed in March provided an extra $600 a week; the working framework for current negotiations calls for payments of $300 a week beyond traditional unemployment rates.

There also is widespread support for a renewal of the Paycheck Protection Program, which earlier provided funds for employers to keep paying workers.

Likely to be more contentious is assistance for state and local governments, which have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Governments have trimmed programs and workforces and are preparing for more cutbacks as the pandemic continues.

That issue will highlight the partisan divide in Congress. President Trump has complained about bailing out states, falsely claiming that Democratic-run states are suffering the most. Instead, according a recent report from Moody’s Analytics, six of the seven states expected to see the biggest revenue declines over the next two years are led by Republican governors and voted for Trump this year.

The proposal from the Problem Solvers Caucus includes $160 billion for state, local and tribal governments. More likely is needed, particularly for small governments that did not benefit from the first round of payments, but Republican leadership in the Senate has demonstrated no desire to come to the aid of state and local governments.

That funding is essential for continuing public-health efforts to track and mitigate coronavirus. Washington state and local governments received about $3 billion from the CARES Act; much of that money is still at work in public-health efforts, but by law can only be used for that purpose through Dec. 30.

Unfortunately, it is clear that we still will be in the midst of the pandemic by that time. Congress must act quickly to provide help for Americans suffering from the economic impact of the virus.

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