It’s been a long, dark year for most Americans. After a first stimulus package passed in May, there seemed to be hope that the US government would take the needs of its citizens seriously. In other countries around the world, citizens have been receiving direct payments to offset the enormous loss of income caused by job disruptions due to the COVID-19 virus, especially due to lockdowns. However, it soon became clear that the first package was almost a fluke – they passed it in spite of themselves.
And people who had bills, and needed groceries, and couldn’t pay rent, they began to feel desperate as the months ticked by. Pandemic unemployment bumps expired, and still no more relief was forthcoming from Washington. Finally, at the 11th hour as they faced a looming government shutdown over a lack of a budget plan, Congress managed to pass a milquetoast second stimulus package. But what was included this time?
The Battle For the Second Stimulus
The road to an agreement for a second stimulus package has been long and fraught. Before the election in November, Americans began holding their breath. It was assumed that senators in battleground districts would push hard for the stimulus talks to conclude, to throw a bone to desperate and weary voters. However, as Election Day came and went, and unemployment bumps expired, hopelessness began to set in. In early December, it was announced that the Senate was close to an agreement – finally – but then shared that direct payments to citizens would not be included in the final package.
But in Georgia, where Kelly Loeffler and David Purdue are facing stiff competition against Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff – voters turned on the GOP. Georgia unexpectedly flipped blue this year after being a Republican stronghold for decades. So in the weeks leading up to the run-off between Loeffler, Purdue, Warnock, and Ossoff, voter opinion has been carefully watched by those at the top. Whichever party wins the run-off races in Georgia in January will determine the balance of power in the Senate. Whoever controls the Senate will either be able to help or hinder President-elect Joe Biden after January 20th. The stakes could not possibly be higher.
And as Georgia, now no longer a reliably Republican state, eyed the run-off elections, Congressional Republicans began to feel the pressure. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell addressed fellow Republicans and told them that the Georgia Republicans were, “getting hammered,” by Congress’s failure to act. This spurred Republicans to come to the table in good faith – and to consider another round of direct payments, which they had been opposing staunchly.
Much of the disagreement had been over the stimulus package’s price tag. Democrats wanted a larger bill, with larger direct payments to citizens, more unemployment bumps, and more aide directly to programs helping everyday Americans. Republicans wanted to keep the bill smaller, weren’t enthusiastic about direct payments to citizens, and demanded that protection for corporations be included that would keep them safe from legal repercussions if they chose to endanger or fire workers in relation to the pandemic.
Outgoing President Donald Trump put a lot of pressure on Republican colleagues to keep direct payments in the second package. As it became clear in mid-December that the talks were nearing an agreement, Trump planned to address his Senate colleagues and ask them to increase the direct payment amounts – up to $2,000 per eligible adult. However, aides quickly intervened. There was concern that Trump’s intercession would cause the talks to crumble. And Congress was feeling the time tick away.
So finally, at the literal 11th hour – late in the evening on December 20th, Democrats and Republicans shook hands on a deal.
Here’s what the second stimulus package will include, if it passes the Monday vote (which it is expected to do):
- Direct stimulus payments to eligible adults. $600 per adult, $600 per child, for individuals making under $75K a year. It is expected the money will be released similarly to the May payments; those with incomes under $20K a year should be first in line. Direct deposit recipients could see their money within two weeks.
- Unemployment bumps would return. Per CNN, “The jobless would receive a $300 weekly federal enhancement in benefits for 11 weeks, from the end of December through mid-March under the deal. The amount is half of the earlier federal boost, which ran out at the end of July.Also, the agreement calls for extensions of two other pandemic unemployment programs that were created in the CARES Act in March. Both are currently set to expire at the end of this week, affecting an estimated 12 million people.”
- Small business loans. The package would reopen the Payment Protection Program, closed in August, and allow struggling small businesses to seek a second loan.
- $82 billion in aid to K-12 schools and colleges, and an addition $10 billion to child care provider facilities.
- Rental aid and protections. It would extend the eviction moratorium and offer $25 billion in relief to those struggling to pay rent.
- Food assistance. “Food stamps” programs would see benefits increased by 15% for six months. $400 million would be sent to food assistance programs, and just over $180 million to programs that provide meals to vulnerable senior citizens.
- $20 billion allocated to purchase vaccines so that they are available for everyone regardless of ability to afford them. An additional $8 billion is set aside to facilitate distribution.
What’s Not Included
Most notably, what’s not included is direct payments to state and local governments. In a package passed by the Democrat-majority House earlier this year, another round of direct assistant payments would have been sent to struggling state and local governments. However, Republicans firmly planted their heels over this topic, claiming the government shouldn’t have to bail out states or counties that have failed to respond adequately to the virus. This is a bit of an ironic stance, as some of the hardest hit states are Republican strongholds.
What’s also not included are McConnell’s corporate protections. The Senate Majority Leader had fought hard to include protection for corporations that would see them safe from legal action if workers chose to sue over risky working conditions, closures, or openings related to the virus. Pressure in the Georgia run-offs and the possibility of losing his Majority seat prompted McConnell to ease off that demand – for now.
When Will Americans See Relief?
Heartbreakingly, not in time for Christmas. If the bill passes as expected today, direct deposits could be in bank accounts by the end of December or first two weeks of January. Paper checks will take another month or two beyond that. However, for families starving through the winter, this aid may be coming too late. An increase in grocery theft, homelessness, and suicides all point to a country grappling with a hopeless situation. Congress’s failure to act until now – nearly on the Eve of Christmas – is a grim reminder of how removed politicians are from the plight of the average American.