Sunday, March 7, 2021
March 7, 2021

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Westneat: Congress doesn’t get pandemic

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As we head into year two of the coronavirus pandemic, one of the more baffling parts of the experience has been how we still don’t seem to quite get it.

I mean if you walk around downtown or in your local store, it’s remarkable how many citizens go to the trouble of doing their civic duty to wear a mask — yet haven’t accepted that the mask probably ought to cover at least some of the holes in the face.

Goal for the pandemic, year two: That we finally grasp this disease isn’t spread through the chin.

More seriously, take Congress, which found its way to passing another virus aid bill last week. Financial relief is desperately needed in some sectors, so I guess we should say our thanks and move on.

But coming nine months after the initial aid bills, some of this one is still so askew from what’s needed that it’s the legislative equivalent of wearing a mask on your chin.

Start with the most publicized part, stimulus checks. Everyone from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump was exclaiming how these cash rebates could be just what the pandemic doctor ordered.

It’s odd, because we already tried sending flat-rate checks back in the spring. And we know they didn’t really do much.

Why? Because the pandemic turned out to be the great unequalizer. Surprisingly, the vast majority of people kept working and being paid just fine. The economic crisis isn’t everywhere. It’s more of an acute problem, with the bottom falling out for a group who desperately need help now.

This is no minor flaw. More than 33 million people who are well enough off to be in the top 20 percent earning bracket will get stimulus checks anyway, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy in D.C. Meanwhile for those who really need cash, $600 ain’t much.

“A better targeted bill could have distributed bigger payments to fewer households at the same cost,” another tax analyst noted — something that should have been obvious by this time to Congress.

The same scattershot approach plagues the business relief. The restaurant industry is getting direct aid, which is great, and unemployment payments got a boost, which is right on target. These are among the businesses and people most in need.

But some of the rest of what Congress did makes you wonder if they were wearing the masks over their eyes.

By now you’ve heard about the biggest outrage: the so-called “three martini lunch” deduction, in which the nation’s corporate executives were gifted a 100 percent tax deduction for business meals. That’s right — 320,000 Americans are dead and 11 million out of work due to a pandemic in which restaurants are being closed by order of the government, and Congress chose this moment to set aside $6.3 billion in taxpayer money to reward CEOs for going out to lunch.

“The GOP loves corporate socialism,” said Bernie Sanders, who, you’ve got to admit, would know some socialism when he sees it.

A section of the bill crafted by both parties though is titled “The Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Tax Relief Act of 2020,” and it contains dozens of such special interest tax breaks — for NASCAR racetracks, the owners of thoroughbred horses, even makers of electric motorcycles.

“Many of these are classic special interest tax breaks that do not benefit the overall economy in any way,” one tax analyst told The Washington Post.

One industry that got a break, alcohol, is also one of the pandemic’s winners.

With the way America is drinking through the pandemic, it seems a stronger case could be made to raise taxes on booze, not cut them. Instead in the new year the only thing we’ll be raising are fully-deductible martinis.

Back when this started, there was a lot of talk about how the coronavirus had so clearly exposed the inequities in society that we couldn’t, wouldn’t, go back to the same old way of doing business.

The same old way is having a thing to say about that.

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