Let’s get one thing clear: Democrats are the ones who want to move more aggressively to confront this recession. Here are the major points of contention:
Who gets help? The bill now looks certain to include both direct payments to individuals and help to businesses. The former will probably wind up being just checks, while the latter will include a combination of loans, loan guarantees and cash.
But there’s also a question of how much to focus specifically on the unemployed. After all, those hit hardest are the ones who just lost their jobs.
The midsize stimulus President Trump already signed contained extra funds for unemployment insurance (UI). But as budget expert Jacob Leibenluft of the Center for American Progress told me, “Given the scale of what we’re seeing, what we have is not nearly enough.”
Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities agreed. "Much more is needed, including broader eligibility and higher replacement rates” for unemployment insurance, Bernstein told me.
In other words, you want to make more people eligible — including gig workers who right now can’t get UI — and replace more than just a portion of their income as we do now.
Given that some predict we could lose 5 million jobs in April alone, UI may be the most obvious channel to pump money to those who need it most. So a big question is how much that system is going to be boosted.
Democrats have proposed increasing UI benefits, getting them to people more quickly, allowing them to last longer and expanding them to unemployed workers who aren’t currently eligible. Republicans haven’t said publicly how much they’d agree to expand the program.
How big will direct cash payments be? On direct checks to Americans — a different program from UI — there’s a major division between the parties. The Republican plan would give each adult earning less than $75,000 (or $150,000 for families) a one-time payment of $1,200, with $500 for each child.
Democrats in the Senate have proposed a more generous payment of $2,000 per person now, followed by an additional payment of $1,500 per person in June and further payments if the economy fails to recover. The most substantial proposal was made by Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee; theirs would give $2,000 per adult and $1,000 per child every month as long as the economic crisis lasts.
Most surprisingly, the initial Republican proposal actually provides less money for the poorest Americans; instead of $1,200 per adult, they could get as little as $600 if they make too little to pay federal income taxes.
Every Democrat I’ve spoken to has reacted to this proposal with shock and said that there’s no way Democrats will ever accept it.
What do businesses get? This is both a “what” and a “how” question. The Republican proposal would provide $300 billion in small-business loans, some of which could be forgiven if the businesses use the money to keep workers on the payroll even if they aren’t working. That could enable people to return to work quickly once things improve, without having to find a new employer.
Republicans would also provide billions to industries that are particularly affected, including airlines. But Democrats are wary of giving blank checks to hugely profitable corporations, so they want to impose strict requirements on the corporations taking this money. That could include an end to stock buybacks, and even higher minimum pay and guarantees against layoffs.
What other provisions are involved? Democrats have suggested a suite of other potential provisions, including temporarily halting or forgiving student loan payments, increasing food stamps, assistance specifically for rent payments, enhanced paid leave and a moratorium on home foreclosures. But one of the most urgent needs is aid to the states.
“We have states right now that are immediately facing a crisis from both ends,” says Leibenluft.
First, they’re being faced with huge new costs, to address the public health crisis and to provide safety-net support. But the recession will also cause tax revenues to plunge — and they must balance budgets. This is exactly what happened in the Great Recession, leading to teachers and other state workers being laid off and cutbacks in state spending at precisely the worst moment.
Democrats will almost certainly be pushing for greater state aid than Republicans initially favor.
When does it end? Economists have stressed the need to tie the continuation of various forms of assistance to economic conditions. So stimulus would continue until unemployment fell below a certain level or gross domestic product growth increased a certain amount. Among other things, that would keep Republicans from choking off the government’s help for the recovery if a Democrat is elected president.
One key dynamic right now is that Republicans are far outside their comfort zone. They want to act to alleviate the recession, but they have a general inclination against bold and expensive government action (unless it’s a war or a big tax cut) and against acting through safety-net programs they don’t like anyway, including UI and food stamps.
Which means that despite the fact that Trump would be the greatest political recipient of strong and swift action, Republicans are the ones resisting going too far.
The greatest danger now is what it has been all along: that Republicans will succeed in restraining the federal government’s effort, and we’ll do too little or do it too slowly.