As it prepares to adjourn for good, the lame duck 116th Congress stumbled toward year-end legislation that would keep the federal government running and provide a $900 billion down payment on coronavirus relief. The need is acute even as manufacturers deliver vaccines approved for emergency use: COVID-19 is surging, unemployment claims are rising, and the consumer spending that drives the U.S. economy is declining. Yet the eight-month wait for congressional action is culminating in inadequate legislation, setting the stage for still more human suffering and economic hardship.
The coronavirus package is a mixed bag and helps some, but not others.
- It includes $82 billion to help equip schools and college campuses to reopen safely and address budget shortfalls, with $2.75 billion earmarked for private schools with restrictions and public accountability requirements.
- Despite evidence of as many as 16 million students without access to the Internet, GOP leaders refused to provide billions in necessary funding via the successful E-Rate program to help ensure students forced to learn remotely can do so.
- For higher education, the bill removes a prohibition on Pell Grants for incarcerated students and restores eligibility to students defrauded by their college; it also includes a simplification of the financial aid (FAFSA) form and financial aid calculations that may expand Pell eligibility. But it fails to extend the moratorium on payments and interest accrual for student-loan borrowers, which will expire on January 31, 2021.
- It includes $13 billion to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by 15 percent as well as Pandemic EBT for families with children in childcare programs and meals for seniors.
- Tax credits for employers that provide paid emergency sick leave is included, but this is a half-measure at best that does not guarantee workers who are sick or exposed can safely stay home without losing pay.
Enhanced unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of the year are expected to be renewed at the level of $300 per week—half the current amount. Certain individuals will also receive a one-time payment of $600—half the amount provided by the CARES Act in March, with $500 per child dependent. The bill does not include state and local aid to help avoid laying off educators, firefighters, and other essential public servants.
As of this writing, the package is expected to be passed by both chambers and then signed into law.