AS THE House of Representatives moves toward passage of its version of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion covid relief package, concerns about the bill’s cost are growing — across the political spectrum. Republican opposition, characterized by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) as something “that will help unify our party,” was predictable. Less easy for Democrats to dismiss are expressions from such authorities as former International Monetary Fund chief economist Olivier Blanchard and former Obama administration economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers, who argue the plan is bigger than necessary to restore pre-pandemic growth, thus diverting resources needed for other goals — and, less certainly, risking inflation.
These concerns can be taken seriously without undercutting valid purposes of Mr. Biden’s plan. The president has challenged his critics: “What would they have me cut? What would they have me leave out? Should we not invest $20 billion to vaccinate the nation? Should we not invest $290 [billion] to extend unemployment insurance for the 11 million Americans who are unemployed so they can get by?”
Our answer to those last two rhetorical questions is no — but those hardly exhaust the options for better focusing his plan on the country’s neediest people and most pressing issues. The first trim should be to Mr. Biden’s proposed $1,400 direct payments, the current House version of which would cost $422 billion. The “checks” would phase out between $75,000 and $100,000 of individual income, and $150,000 and $200,000 for couples — meaning all but the top-earning 10 percent of U.S. households would get at least some cash. That’s a lot of money to shower on the non-poor, especially given findings from economists affiliated with Opportunity Insights that people earning over $78,000 banked past pandemic-crisis “checks” rather than spending them. They estimated that Congress could save up to $200 billion by restricting payments from couples earning more than $78,000, and singles earning more than $50,000, with “minimal impact on economic activity.”
Second, it is increasingly clear that the pandemic reduced states and local governments’ revenue far less than initially feared, especially considering federal aid they have already received. California is in surplus; New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) is proposing tax cuts. Moody’s Analytics’ latest “stress test” of state finances shows that 31 states have enough money “to fully absorb the economic stress of COVID-19,” without substantial budget cuts or tax increases; seven have “most” of what they need. Just 12 states still face budget gaps of 5 percent or more. Yet the House bill contemplates $510 billion in new aid, including $30 billion for transit, $130 billion for public schools and $350 billion in unrestricted funds. By contrast, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget notes, $200 billion would be enough to cover states’ revenue losses and extra school spending through Sept. 30, 2023.
“What would they have me cut?” Mr. Biden asks. Given the essential investments he hopes to begin making later this year in infrastructure, climate research and other high-priority needs, he should listen with an open mind to good-faith answers to that question.
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