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Opinion Rescuing restaurants (again) ought to give Congress indigestion


It is axiomatic that the titles of congressional bills, like the titles of Marx Brothers movies (“Duck Soup,” “Horse Feathers”), are not scrupulously informative. Consider the House-passed, $55 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund Replenishment Act, which could be the “No Faction Left Behind Act.”

Arriving as federal spending has driven inflation to a 40-year high, the Replenishment Act indicates disregard for this rule: When you are in a hole, quit digging. The act illustrates a timeless truth — legislative bargaining is additive. And it underscores the inevitable inequities that accompany large-scale government interventions in the economy.

The nation has never experienced as large and abrupt an intervention as the cumulative federal and state lockdowns of commercial activity imposed when covid-19 surged in 2020. The wisdom of those measures is debatable; the pain from them is undeniable. Small businesses of long standing, and families who went into debt to launch, say, restaurants or bars or bakeries just before the pandemic, now have blighted futures — the caprice of rotten luck.

So, in March 2021, seasonal compassion reinforced a political temptation for all seasons — Congress’s temptation to make life less unfair. The American Rescue Plan created the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. By June 2021, the fund’s $28.6 billion had been disbursed to 100,000 applicants in grants averaging $283,000.

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There had, however, been 278,304 applicants seeking $72 billion. Most applicants got to the trough too late, when it was empty. What to do? Do it again, but bigger. Hence the Replenishment Act. The Senate has a $48 billion bill, with more than restaurants eligible for revitalization: gyms, minor league sports teams, companies that support live entertainment events (lighting and sound technicians, etc.), buses and ferries, etc. Including $85 million for certain border region businesses, such as those in (herewith a geography lesson) the Northwest Angle, which CQ Roll Call explains is “a region of Minnesota that is separated from the rest of the state by the Lake of the Woods but shares land borders with Canada,” whose strict pandemic protocols injured Americans living in the Angle.

Among the 435 congressional districts, surely not one lacks businesses eligible for aid, especially from the Senate bill. But, then, weapons systems have been purchased because suppliers of components were spread across the country like tapenade on toast.

Nevertheless, the Replenishment bill barely passed the House 223 to 203 in April, with only six Republicans favoring it and only four Democrats opposed. Forty-three Senate Republicans, objecting to the fact that only a smidgen of the Senate bill’s cost would be offset by economies elsewhere, on May 19 prevented there being 60 votes to proceed with it.

Will an injustice be done if, with the pandemic receding and the economy reviving, nothing is done for those who missed out in the first-come-first-served scramble for the initial (and perhaps final) $28 billion? Christian Britschgi is dubious.

Writing for Reason, he noted six weeks ago that Open Table, the reservation app, “shows that close to 95 percent of restaurants open in 2019 are back to accepting reservations. The number of people making reservations has also returned to 2019 levels.” Furthermore, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that the 11 million people working in restaurants and bars in March 2022 was just 5 percent below the number in March 2019. And by the third quarter of 2021, Britschgi writes, the number of restaurants “had surpassed pre-pandemic levels.”

But what about those other small businesses (gyms, minor league baseball, etc.) the aid could benefit? Six weeks ago — six weeks of economic recovery ago — Britschgi noted that “in general, there are more small businesses open today than existed before the pandemic.” And almost all government-dictated restrictions on commerce have ended.

Well, then, what about that will-o’-the-wisp, fairness? The government closed restaurants and bars because they were considered particularly apt to endanger the public by spreading the coronavirus, so the public should compensate everyone for losses suffered on the public’s behalf.

That is a serious consideration. So, however, is this:

Once government begins to pursue the chimera of ever-more-perfect fairness, it finds — actually, it incites — more and more factions claiming that justice demands their inclusion in the government’s ever-expanding plans for smoothing life’s rough surfaces. Congress can talk about refilling the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, but it can never be full enough to service all factions who can claim, with some plausibility, that they experienced unfairness not easily distinguished from that suffered by factions who benefited from the first $28 billion.

There comes a point where the right policy is: Stop smoothing. And stop digging.