The expiring aid risks creating a “fiscal cliff” that, if not addressed by lawmakers, could arrest or reverse a rebound, economists say. White House officials and several Republicans have resisted pressure to approve more spending, but they are at odds over how to proceed, and the path forward is unclear.
The economic damage continues to come into sharper focus, with the Congressional Budget Office on Monday predicting the coronavirus pandemic’s economic fallout will shrink growth by $8 trillion over 10 years. But political fighting has only worsened since the protests began, and emotions turned raw on Monday.
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) called Trump “scum for fueling racist hate and violence in our country” while Trump lit into Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) for his handling of the coronavirus during a call with governors.
Congress does appear poised to approve changes to a small-business loan program as soon as this week that would give certain business owners more time to access government-backed loans and have them forgiven.
Even with that breakthrough, the potential for a sudden cessation of emergency federal help could risk catalyzing extremely heated standoffs across major U.S. cities, many of which are also asking for urgent financial assistance to avoid layoffs and service cuts.
The recent protests were set off by fury over the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer. But many protesters have also cited long-standing economic and legal injustice against black Americans in their demands for change. Blacks and Hispanics are much more likely to have been laid off or died of covid-19 since the outbreak began, according to a recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll.
“The violence, the anxiety that is taking place — we are naive if we think that it’s separable from the economic calamity we are in,” said Darrick Hamilton, an economist and the executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. “Congress needs to do something to mitigate this pain — and at the very least not make it worse.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Friday that lawmakers would wait about a month before making a decision on going forward with a broader relief package, though he said Monday that the small-business aid would proceed very soon. Trump, in particular, has projected optimism about the economy “taking off like a rocket ship” — despite the public notes of caution of some of his senior economic advisers — as public health restrictions are relaxed.
Congressional Democrats passed a $3 trillion tax and spending bill last month that would extend emergency jobless aid, and they also agreed to give small businesses more flexibility on the repayment of emergency loans. The bill also would provide another round of stimulus checks to millions of Americans. The Senate appears prepared to pass the narrow bill to help small businesses this week, but McConnell has rejected the larger relief package and described it as wasteful.
Government aid has dramatically propped up the economy during the current contraction, according to government data. From April to June, the federal government pumped about $1.2 trillion into the economy. Unless Congress renews programs currently set to expire, that number will plummet to about $200 billion from July to September, a $1 trillion decline in federal stimulus, according to Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JP Morgan.
In April, American workers’ pay fell by 7 percent, the federal government reported Friday. Federal support made up the difference. When including government aid, Americans’ personal income jumped by 10.5 percent, a record increase. Without the government support, Americans would have seen a major contraction in their incomes at a time when the pandemic is already causing consumers to constrict their spending.
The most consequential part of Congress’s emergency measures now at risk is the increase in unemployment benefits approved by Congress in March.
Lawmakers approved a $600-per-week hike in unemployment benefits that more than 25 million people are currently receiving. Between March and April, unemployment payments offset half of the decline in aggregate wages while pumping $15 billion a week into the economy overall, even though many states were at that time still struggling to distribute the money, according to Ernie Tedeschi, a former Obama administration economist who served in the Treasury Department.
Senate Republicans and Trump oppose extending that increase, arguing it creates a disincentive for Americans to rejoin the workforce. The White House and some Republicans have expressed openness to replacing the unemployment extension with a “return-to-work” bonus instead, but the path forward for a compromise with Democrats is far from clear. The unemployment benefit increase is set to expire on July 31.
“If the emergency payment is not extended, it will be devastating for family incomes,” Tedeschi said. “That would be equivalent to getting a 50 to 75 percent pay cut overnight to a huge chunk of the American population."
Lawmakers face a similar impasse over whether to send out another round of $1,200 stimulus payments, which economists increasingly believe alleviated some of the worst impacts of the downtown.
Within a few weeks after the payments were approved in late March, the IRS sent or deposited stimulus checks to 80 million American families, a number that has now grown to around 140 million households. Consumer spending had fallen by 32 percent compared with pre-pandemic levels when the stimulus checks started going out. One week later, in mid-April, that number had rebounded to being just 21 percent below pre-pandemic levels.
The checks’ biggest lift to the economy came within the first two weeks after their disbursal, according to a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. About 60 percent of the money still has not been spent, according to a study by a group of economists, as Americans save at unprecedented levels because of uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Consumers are not likely to rush to spend that money anytime soon, economists say, particularly given that another round of checks is unlikely.
“The big surge in spending that happened on receipt of the stimulus checks has mostly come and gone,” said Scott R. Baker, an economist at Northwestern University and one of the paper’s co-authors. “Much of the money is still out there, but it will be spent more smoothly and gradually over the next several months.”
The bill passed by House Democrats last month included another and more generous round of stimulus payments, but that bill is going nowhere in the Republican-led Senate. Trump has instead said his priorities for the next bill are a payroll tax cut and a “liability shield” for employers, while his top economic officials have suggested further aid may not be necessary at all.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka argued that the GOP’s reluctance to act quickly on another expansive relief bill would become unsustainable.
“The pressure is building on them. People are about to run out of the $1,200 checks, the extra unemployment benefits will run out soon, that needs to be extended, the number of people without health care grows every day,” Trumka said in an interview. “All of that puts additional pressure on them to act.”
Congress also faces the expiration of its rescue package for small businesses — the Paycheck Protection Program — which has pushed out more than $500 billion in forgivable loans, primarily to small firms across the country, in a matter of weeks.
The PPP was designed to help businesses meet their payroll needs for eight weeks. It was not structured to cover businesses’ costs indefinitely. The House last week approved a plan to give businesses 24 rather than eight weeks to adhere to the conditions of the loans for them to be forgiven. The House plan also extends the application deadline to apply for loans under for the program, which is now set to expire June 30. McConnell said Monday that he hopes to see the Senate move quickly to pass the House bill.
Even with the PPP, some analysts say more than 100,000 small businesses may have already closed forever.
A lending program operated by the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve, and aimed at assisting companies with up to 15,000 employees — including many that were too big to qualify for the PPP — could provide some relief. It has not yet begun to function, although Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell said Friday that the program was “days away” from making its first loans.
Business groups that are traditional GOP allies largely applaud Congress and the White House for their aggressive actions in the heated early days of the crisis. But they say that having acted to slow the economic free-fall, policymakers must not stop before addressing the second half of the equation — helping the economy recover.
“It’s important that Congress acted to support families and businesses as the economy came to a halt,” said Neil Bradley, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “They can’t now leave it where they found it. They had to do step 1, that was critically important. They now need to do step 2 because that’s equally as important ... they can’t leave it where the bottom is, that’s not acceptable to anyone.”