The best that can be said of the pandemic relief bill hammered out before Christmas is that it’s better than nothing. Indeed, “nothing” seemed like a real possibility until not long ago. But with pressure mounting on the Republican candidates in Georgia’s Senate runoffs and last spring’s CARES Act about to expire, Mitch McConnell and the GOP decided it might be a bad idea to leave Washington before delivering assistance to the millions of Americans who are in economic distress because of the pandemic. The $900 billion compromise package came none too soon. But it also comes up far too short.
True, the deal provides urgently needed funding for small businesses, vaccine distribution, education, transportation, and health care, and includes a short-term extension of CARES Act benefits for millions who are out of work. It also restores the enhanced unemployment payments that lapsed earlier in 2020, but not at the level Congress approved last March. And it provides only a $600 one-time direct payment to individuals, half the amount that the CARES Act provided and less than what most economists had recommended. Democrats dropped demands to help fund struggling state and municipal governments—a considerable concession, given the straits many localities are in—while Republicans set aside their demands for shielding businesses from COVID-related liabilities. At the last minute, the GOP inserted a provision that would curtail the Federal Reserve’s role in refunding pandemic relief programs, which seemed aimed mostly at making it harder for the incoming administration to deal with the crisis. The differences in priorities are telling, and they’re likely to be on display when leaders meet on additional relief legislation in the weeks and months to come. Sen. Elizabeth Warren says Americans still aren’t getting the help they need, while President-elect Biden has characterized the deal as only a “down payment” on a larger package.