The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Congress needs to address the pandemic economic crisis. This is not the time to worry about deficit spending.

The Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

An earlier version of this op-ed incorrectly stated that private-sector employment remains 11.5 million jobs below its February level. That figure is for the private and public sectors. This version has been updated.

Robert E. Rubin was director of the National Economic Council and treasury secretary during the Clinton administration. Jacob J. Lew was White House budget director in the Clinton and Obama administrations and treasury secretary in the Obama administration.

Our nation faces the worst pandemic in a century, the deepest economic crisis in 90 years and stunning rates of hardship. Congress has returned with only a few weeks before a long recess, yet lawmakers appear to feel little urgency to address the crises.

This is playing with fire. Without swift and substantial action, the hardship tens of millions of Americans face is likely to continue — and grow more acute. Serious negotiations are long overdue.

Given the enormous needs, a package should be as large as can be agreed to, and preferably more than $2 trillion to address the most urgent problems. In a somewhat smaller package, targeting the very highest priorities is critical. A great deal depends on the continued response.

Read more from the Road to Recovery section

Little action has occurred since the House passed the Heroes Act in May. That robust measure is sized to accommodate a broad range of solutions into next year. If a negotiated agreement is smaller, Congress should prioritize the most urgent measures rather than using up available resources on lower priorities. For example, many families would save a sizable portion of stimulus payments rather than spend them now.

The economic case is clear. Private- and public-sector employment remains 11.5 million jobs below its February level, despite unemployment falling somewhat in August. State and local governments have laid off 1.1 million workers, three-fifths of them in K-12 or higher education. In August, 1 in 10 adults reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t get enough to eat, and the rate is significantly higher in families with children. The crisis is deepening long-standing disparities, with Black and Latino families hit the hardest.

These figures could get worse with the expiration of supplemental unemployment benefits. Millions of families have less money to pay their bills and shop, which will make what’s already the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression last even longer.

Congress has allowed various relief measures to expire and has not filled gaps in relief and public health measures. After lawmakers’ negotiations stalled this summer, the president issued a few limited executive actions on matters including unemployment, evictions and student loan repayments. Some of these actions were legally questionable or hard to implement; in any case, they fell far short of what is needed.

For example, the evictions moratorium provides no rental assistance, leaving landlords financially besieged because they are not receiving payments while tenants are piling up rental debt that may create a massive wave of evictions once the moratorium expires at year’s end. A dozen national associations of housing agencies, owners, developers and housing cooperatives recently warned that the country may experience “the greatest rental housing crisis of our lifetime.”

We urge our leaders to take strong bipartisan action and not fiddle around the margins or kick the problems down the road, which would only exacerbate the risks to the economy, to tens of millions of families and to struggling businesses.

Specifically, policymakers should restore federal supplemental unemployment insurance and ensure that jobless workers can draw adequate benefits in the months ahead. They should couple an evictions moratorium with robust rental assistance. And they should increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (also known as food stamps) and extend school replacement meals for children whose schools remain closed so that millions of low-income households — and children — can get enough to eat.

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Strong state and local fiscal relief is especially important and extends well beyond aid for schools. Tax revenues are down sharply because of the recession. States and localities face enormous budget shortfalls amid the constraints of balanced-budget requirements. Without sizable federal relief, many areas will implement harsh cuts in sectors such as education, child care and health care. This would deepen and lengthen the recession and intensify hardship. Many states and localities have postponed such cuts in hopes of receiving federal relief; without it, that dam will break.

Any legislative package should also provide funds to address the pandemic more effectively, including support for testing and contact tracing, and to provide for safe elections this fall. Small businesses also need further relief.

Ideally, relief measures should last into early next year. The economy will still be very weak, and it would be a mistake to expect action from a lame-duck Congress as the country emerges from what is certain to be a divisive election.

We share a history of concern about rising deficits and debt. When the economy is on stronger footing, serious thought must be given to the country’s unsound fiscal trajectory. But with a pandemic raging amid an ongoing, deep recession, this isn’t the time to let deficits stand in the way of adequately addressing the crisis and the great need it has created.

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