Congress

Congress Could Pass a $900 Billion COVID Stimulus Bill This Week. Or There Might Be a Government Shutdown.

Unsettled political circumstances and the ongoing pandemic crossed with Congress' broken bill-passing process is a recipe for chaos.

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By the end of this week, Congress might pass another massive COVID-19 relief bill aimed at bailing out small businesses and filling the coffers of state and local governments—or the federal government might be heading into another end-of-year shutdown.

That such a wide range of outcomes exists is as much an indication of Congress' broken and dysfunctional bill-passing procedure as it is a sign of the uniquely weird lame-duck session the government is currently staggering through. With control of the Senate still undecided pending two runoff elections in Georgia next month and President Donald Trump (and many Republicans in Congress) still refusing to acknowledge the result of last month's election, the unsettled political situation is spilling over into the policy making arena.

Not that Congress needs much help in making a mess of things. A recent track record that includes two shutdowns—along with a few other near-misses—and unprecedented levels of peacetime deficit spending is proof enough of that.

Unlike the late-in-the-year budgets in 2017 and 2018 that caused government shutdowns, however, this year's must-pass spending bills are complicated by the ongoing pandemic. For months, Congress has debated the passage of another COVID-19 relief bill—with various proposals costing between $500 billion and $3 trillion—without success.

The centerpiece of the latest proposal, a $908 billion package, is the provision that would give $300 per week to unemployed workers—that is a federal boost to whatever state-level unemployment benefits those same workers might also qualify for—extending benefits that are otherwise set to expire later this month. It also includes $160 billion in funding for state and local governments, a scaled down version of the bailout Democrats have been seeking for months. The package includes $300 billion in new funding for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which pays businesses to keep workers on the payroll even if they aren't working, and $25 billion in housing assistance to help Americans pay rents, mortgages, utility bills, and the like.

Notably absent from the package is another round of direct payments to all or most Americans, like the $1,200 checks sent by the federal government as part of the major relief bill passed in March. Populists on both sides of the aisle, including Sens. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) and Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.), have called for the inclusion of direct payments even though there seems to be little justification for the federal government to send money to people who have not lost their jobs.

It remains unclear whether the new bill will pass. The latest gambit to get it through Congress, Politico reported Sunday, involves splitting the package into two bills in the hopes that at least one will have enough support to pass the Senate. The $160 billion in aid for state and local governments will be severed from the other proposals under a bipartisan proposal offered by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R–La.) and Joe Manchin (D–W. Va.).

Dividing the massive relief bill into smaller portions makes more sense than asking lawmakers to cast an up-or-down vote on the entire measure. Indeed, the all-or-nothing nature of congressional policy making—in which rank-and-file members are presented with omnibus bills and told to take it or leave it, with little opportunity to offer amendments or build consensus for certain provisions—is simultaneously a recipe for gridlock and for ever-escalating spending, as procedural critics like Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.) frequently note.

Regardless of what happens with the COVID-19 relief bill, Congress also must pass a bill this week to continue funding the federal government. On Friday, Trump signed a one-week stopgap bill to prevent a shutdown.

The federal spending bill touches on the controversies surrounding the COVID-19 relief bill, with Sanders promising to block its passage unless an aid bill is passed as well.

And because this is Congress, there is plenty of wasteful spending stuffed into the end-of-year budget omnibus bill. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), a nonpartisan group that favors balanced budgets, has identified about $100 billion in "debt-financed spending" wrapped into the proposal, including a $60 billion bailout for multi-employer pension plans in financial trouble and a series of gimmicky increases to spending caps for various programs.

That spending "has nothing to do with funding the government, fighting the pandemic, and rescuing the economy," says Maya MacGuineas, president of the CRFB. "With so many actual needs, even a fraction of that would be inappropriate."

With so much uncertainty surrounding what could be a very busy end-of-year week for Congress, just about the only thing we can know for sure is that there has to be a better way to do these things.

NEXT: A New Warning That International Pandemic Responses Are Eroding Freedom

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  4. Notably absent from the package is another round of direct payments to all or most Americans, like the $1,200 checks sent by the federal government as part of the major relief bill passed in March.

    Dang it. I was gonna use the money to buy an AR. Still not sure if I want an AR-15 or and AR-10.

    1. Buy a shotgun. You know, it’s harder to use an assault weapon to hit something than it is a shotgun, OK. So if you want to keep people away in an earthquake, buy some shotgun shells.

      1. I’ve been putting off buying a shotgun since I’m gonna inherit at least three from various relatives who are in their mid 70s. But yeah, I should add an 870 to my arsenal.

  5. The protracted and acrimonious debate over this bill for months is why Americans despise politicians. They are getting nothing done. Hell, they cannot even stay out of the way. At some point, people will start taking matters into their own hands, and civil society will break down. We literally have millions unemployed. Their jobs are gone. Vaccine immunity is roughly a year away (assumes 200MM-250MM would need to be vaccinated). They have been denied their means of spiritual comfort (religious free exercise).

    I did something this weekend I never thought I’d never do. I visited a gun range because I am pretty sure things will come to a head soon enough. And made appointments at the range for the next six months. When civil society disintegrates, and we are watching this unfold in front of our eyes right now, it becomes everyone for themselves.

    My God, what happened to my country?!

    1. The internet, I’d say.

      1. Video games.

    2. Something, something those meddling kids!

  6. Congress hasn’t passed a timely budget since 1996, so what’s the big deal now?

  7. Congress Could Pass a $900 Billion COVID Stimulus Bill This Week. Or There Might Be a Government Shutdown.

    You can’t look away, and that’s exactly how they want it.

    When it comes to living rent-free in people’s heads, Trump’s a piker compared to Congress.

  8. Government shutdown?!? More like political theater!

  9. President Donald Trump (and many Republicans in Congress) still refusing to acknowledge the result of last month’s election

    Words matter Boehm.

    Of course they acknowledge the result of the election. You don’t file lawsuits over something that you don’t think exists. It is also wrong to say they don’t accept the results for the same reason. They do however, claim the results are illegitimate, which is a completely rational viewpoint until and unless sufficient investigations have been completed.

    Your need to make people you despise appear unhinged is itself unhinged.

    1. trump and the others still talking about the election are unhinged. all the lawsuits have fallen flat, there has been zero actual evidence found…… at what point do you admit it is appropriate to say it really is a bunch of BS?

      1. …at what point do you admit it is appropriate to say it really is a bunch of BS?

        That’s a question only answerable on an individual level, as you’re kind of asking which straw broke the camel’s back or… how many grains of sand does it takeep to become a heap .

  10. What’s with the “broken bill-passing process” idiot-speak? Do we want Congress to be more efficient at passing spending bills now?

    1. Exactly. Doesn’t it still work exactly like it has for 200+ years? The House proposes a bill, or the Senate proposes a bill. The respective bodies vote, and if the vote passes, the bill is sent to the other body for ratification or reconciliation. A final vote in both bodies may be needed if the bill was amended. Then the President can sign it.

      The *politics* of passing a bill may be broken, but I don’t think the process is markedly different from 50 or 100 years ago.

  11. i vote shutdown.

  12. Shutdown. All the way.

  13. Spend $900B or shut it down? Congress needs to break out the $1 trillion coin and give it a flip.

  14. “broken bill-passing process” — NOT ‘broken’. It was designed that way!! The founders were quite brilliant in putting in checks and balances on a tyrannical government. The fact we see a butt-load of congressmen violate their Oath-of-Office and a SCOTUS who doesn’t even address the Constitution 99% of the time – That’s what is BROKEN.

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  16. Here’s hoping for the shutdown option.

  17. Biden, the Great Uniter, blaming the (Republican) Senate on the lack of covid relief after (Democratic Speaker) Pelosi refuse to negotiate until after the election. I am sure the Democratic House will also shut down the government and blame it all on the Senate. The Great Uniter! LOL

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