Last week, both houses of Congress passed the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a massive stimulus bill designed to respond to the economic shock of the coronavirus crisis.
While there are some good provisions in the bill, like expanded unemployment insurance and aid to hospitals and state and local governments, the amount of direct aid it provided to Americans at risk is far too low, and the amount of money it gives to corporations without any strings attached is far too high. This bill isn’t all bad or good, but it could have been and should have been much better.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the most significant parts of this sprawling piece of legislation:
One of the bill’s largest provisions is a $500 billion fund that will provide loans to corporations in “distressed industries” like the airline industry. This is a massive amount of money that has too little oversight, too few conditions on the companies that accept bailout money, and too little impact on the people who actually need the most help in this crisis, working Americans.
No Strings Attached
The corporations receiving funds as part of this bailout package have very few restrictions on how they can spend the money. Despite the fact that the reason many corporations need a bailout in the first place is that their executives spent virtually all of their profits over the last decade on stock buybacks rather than anything that would make their companies more stable and resilient, the bill only limits companies receiving funds from spending on stock buybacks for a few years.
The bill also allows executives to continue to receive millions of dollars in compensation, all paid for by the American taxpayer. They can’t get raises, but they can still be paid a significant fraction of their previous multi-million dollar salaries. The CEO of Delta, for example, earned $15 million in 2019, and could still be paid as much as $9 million in 2020 after his company gets bailed out.
Perhaps most egregious of all, the bill doesn’t require that the money given to corporations be used to keep their workers employed. It is “encouraged,” but not mandated. Some businesses that can prove that they lost 50% or more of their income this quarter get a small tax credit for keeping people employed, but for the most part none of the major corporations receiving billions of dollars from the federal government are not being forced to, or even incentivized to, keep their workers employed.
Lack of Oversight
The bill does create a special inspector general and a congressional oversight panel, but in total the amount of oversight is minimal at best. The Treasury Department, led by Stephen Mnuchin and Donald Trump, has incredible freedom to choose where and how the money gets spent. The bill requires no public debate or consensus on what industries or companies should receive the funds, leaving this a virtual slush fund for the President and his administration to reward companies based on their own personal feelings.
Direct Cash Payments
The CARES Act mandates that every American resident with adjusted gross income up to $75,000 (or $150,000 for married couples) receive $1,200 ($2,400 for couples), and $500 per child, with payments starting to phase out for people making more than those income levels.
This type of direct cash assistance is good, but $1200 per person is far lower than what was needed, and is far lower than what many other countries are providing. It’s also likely going to take too long to get to the people who need it most. One of the biggest problems with this assistance is that even though the economic shutdown may last for many more months, this is only a one-time payment. This piece of the bill is completely inadequate, and needs to be radically expanded in future legislation.
The bill gives people who are unemployed an extra $600 per week for up to four months, on top of state unemployment benefits intended to make up for 100% of lost wages. Aside from the direct cash payments, this is the largest piece of aid in the bill for normal Americans whose jobs are affected by the country’s economic shutdown. Crucially, the bill allows gig economy workers, who in the past have not been eligible for regular unemployment insurance, to receive benefits.
State and Local Government Aid
The bill allocates $150 billion for state and local governments that are struggling to stay funded. With businesses closed and unemployment claims rising, state and local governments are facing significant budget shortfalls, and this money is intended to keep them afloat. It’s a significant amount of money, but with many states projected to run multi-billion dollar deficits, many governors are saying $150 billion isn’t anywhere near enough.
The bill also provides:
- $100 billion in grants to hospitals to help them fight the spreading coronavirus.
- $10.5 billion to the Pentagon.
- Self-employed individuals the ability to defer their Social Security payroll taxes.
- $10 billion in loans for the US Postal Service.
- $25 billion for food assistance.
- $24 billion for farmers and ranchers.
- $30 billion for schools.