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Economics Of Latest Pandemic Relief Bill

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Senate Democrats tried to force a vote today on whether to send $2,000 relief payments to most Americans as a way to cushion the economic fallout from the pandemic. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says the idea has broad bipartisan support.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: Two-thousand-dollar stimulus checks could mean the difference between American families having groceries for a few extra weeks or going hungry.

CHANG: But it's not clear when or even if the Senate will cast an up or down vote on the $2,000 payments. Congress has already authorized smaller aid payments of $600 as part of a broader coronavirus relief package. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to talk about the economics at stake.

Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

CHANG: So OK, Democrats clearly sense an opportunity here. Can you just catch us up on how we got here?

HORSLEY: Yeah, the Democrats do see an opening. You know, last week, President Trump demanded $2,000 payments, and he threatened to hold the broader relief package hostage unless Congress went along. Ultimately, Trump backed down on that demand. But his support for the larger payments has put a lot of congressional Republicans who would ordinarily be skeptical on the spot. And yesterday, you saw quite a few Republicans in the House vote in favor of larger payments. Democrats hope to see a similar dynamic in the Senate. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders says larger payments would do a lot of good for struggling families.

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BERNIE SANDERS: Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs and their incomes. These families in the middle of the winter now face the threat of eviction and the possibility of being thrown out in the streets.

CHANG: OK. Clearly, the need out there is immense. But not everyone thinks these larger payments are a good idea, right? Can you just explain what exactly is their objection?

HORSLEY: Yeah, the main complaint with these big payments is that some of the money would go to people who don't really need it. It's not well targeted. It's certainly true, as Senator Sanders says, millions of people have lost jobs. That's why it was important to extend unemployment insurance. It's true families are facing eviction. That's why rental assistance is so vital. There have been long lines at food banks, and that's why the relief bill includes extra money for food stamps.

But under this proposal, people who haven't lost jobs, who aren't behind on their rent, would also get $2,000 payments. And while undoubtedly a lot of them could use the money, some would just sock the money away in a bank because a lot of the discretionary things they would usually be spending on, like travel and entertainment, are pretty much off-limits right now.

CHANG: Yeah.

HORSLEY: The cost, Ailsa, for these larger (inaudible) $35 billion. And the critics say, if Congress is willing to spend that kind of money, there are just better ways to do it that would be more helpful to the people who need it most.

CHANG: So why are Democrats pushing these payments so aggressively?

HORSLEY: Well, supporters think Trump's support gives them a rare opportunity to win over some Republicans. And even if direct payments aren't the best way to help the needy, you know, more money in the economy would be better than less. The argument over which kind of spending is most important was louder a few weeks ago when Republicans were insisting that the overall relief package not top $900 billion. So every money you spent on direct payments came at the expense of some other more targeted relief. Now that cap has basically been lifted. You're talking about spending over and above that $900 billion level. So...

CHANG: Yeah.

HORSLEY: ...The fight over which program's most helpful is maybe a little less significant.

CHANG: Well, can we just have a reality check here? I mean, can the federal government actually afford another - what? - $435 billion?

HORSLEY: You know, it's a lot of money. But Senator Schumer tried to preempt the argument that fiscal austerity should be a roadblock here.

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SCHUMER: I don't want to hear that we can't afford it. I don't want to hear that it would add too much to the deficit. Senate Republicans added nearly 2 trillion to the deficit to give corporations a massive tax cut.

HORSLEY: And Schumer's talking there about the total cost of the 2017 tax cut, which helped both corporations and individuals. It's certainly true Republicans' concern over the deficit is selective. They tend to turn a blind eye when it's a Republican in the White House cutting taxes and get a lot more tightfisted when Democrats are in charge. Even fiscal hawks say the middle of a pandemic is not the time to worry about the deficit. The time to do that is when the economy's humming again and we're back near full employment.

CHANG: That is NPR's Scott Horsley.

Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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