Did Congress get it right with the new coronavirus stimulus?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Congress on Monday passed a long-awaited stimulus package that will provide relief to Americans struggling to cope with the economic ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.

The massive, $900 billion bill includes a round of $600 stimulus checks for most Americans, an extra $300 a week for people receiving unemployment, $325 billion in aid for small businesses, money for virus response and vaccinations, education funding and much more.

The new package is less than half the size of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that Congress passed in March. That bill, particularly its $600 unemployment enhancement, was credited for helping the country avoid an even more devastating economic collapse and setting the stage for a gradual recovery after the initial shock of the pandemic. But critical elements of the CARES Act expired over the summer. Since then, nearly 8 million people have fallen into poverty, according to one study, while a growing number of Americans have struggled with hunger and millions have fallen desperately behind on their housing payments.

The coronavirus continued to wreak havoc on the economy as the initial bill’s provisions expired. Negotiations on the next stimulus package were stalled for months as lawmakers struggled to find common ground between House Democrats’ $3 trillion initial proposal and a $500 billion plan pushed by Senate Republicans. The final agreement passed by Congress omitted two of the main sticking points that were holding up a deal. Democrats did not get the funding to support state and local governments they wanted. Liability protections to shield businesses from COVID-related lawsuits, once considered a “red line” for the GOP, were left out as well.

Why there’s debate

To many, the new stimulus package is too little and too late given the incredible amount of economic suffering Americans are enduring. The $600 individual checks and $300 unemployment enhancement — both half of what was in the CARES Act — aren’t nearly enough to rescue the millions of people who have been left without a lifeline for months, they argue. Key elements in the package, like the enhanced unemployment benefits, expire in mid-March, which may be too early given the expected course of vaccinations across the country.

Others say there’s far too much focus on what the bill isn’t and not nearly enough on what it is: a desperately-needed lifeline for those in the most dire financial circumstances. On top of the headline provisions, the package includes things like a federal eviction moratorium and food assistance that will make a tremendous difference for struggling families. While it may not be as robust as it needs to be, the bill will prevent the devastating consequences of passing nothing at all.

There has also been criticism of how the money is apportioned within the bill. Direct cash payments are seen by many as an inefficient or even wasteful way to stimulate the economy, since a good share of the money will go to people who are doing reasonably well. It would have been better, they argue, to target people who need it most.

What’s next

President Trump on Tuesday night railed against the bill and demanded Congress pass a new version with larger direct payment checks. It’s unclear whether he intends to veto the legislation if lawmakers don’t acquiesce to his demand. If Trump does sign the bill soon, stimulus checks could begin arriving in Americans’ bank accounts as soon as next week, according to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to push for additional stimulus, which will likely include aid for state governments, when he takes office on Jan. 20. The prospects of that potential legislation may hinge on the results of the upcoming Senate runoff elections in Georgia. If Democrats win both races, they’ll take control of the chamber and transform future negotiations.

Perspectives

The package isn’t enough, but it’s better than nothing

“For now… this deal is the only option for additional coronavirus relief as millions of Americans grapple with unemployment, looming evictions, and soaring coronavirus case counts.” — Li Zhou, Vox

The bill comes up short for the people who help the it most

“Times are not hard for everyone equally. And after months of delays, the people who need the most are getting less than before for entirely arbitrary reasons.” — Hayes Brown, MSNBC

The package buys the country time to get through the worst months of the pandemic

“With vaccinations underway, there is reason to hope that the coronavirus pandemic will begin to loosen its grip next year and that economic growth will accelerate. This deal creates a bridge from now until then.” — Editorial, New York Times

The bill is a good first step, but much more is needed

“This deal is not enough, but it’s a start to provide some relief to the millions who are hurting. It will be up to a new Congress and new president to finish the job.” — Editorial, Tampa Bay Times

$600 checks aren’t enough for struggling Americans

“Those onetime $600 federal stimulus checks that Congress was voting on Monday night are unbelievably miserly. It took members nine months to come up with a federal relief package and that’s what they came up with? Shameful.” — Jenice Armstrong, Philadelphia Inquirer

Sending checks to most Americans is wasteful

“The blunderbuss approach was defensible in the spring when haste was in order to alleviate hardship and shore up the economy. But this time Congress should have means-tested aid to get it to the people most likely to need it, those with household incomes closer to the national median.” — Editorial, Chicago Tribune

Cutting enhanced unemployment in half is wise

“The new $300 weekly boost will replace an earlier $600-a-week bonus. …This smaller, more reasonable top-up should help those most in need without overly discouraging them from returning to work if they can find jobs, and it will hopefully reverse the recent rise in poverty.” — Robert Verbruggen, National Review

Benefits may not last long enough to get Americans through the pandemic

“The thing to keep in mind about this relief bill is that it only really builds a bridge to late March, early April, when benefits will start to lapse and many businesses will finish spending their PPP money down. So the big question is how fast we can distribute vaccines.” — Slate reporter Jordan Weissmann

A smaller stimulus focused on helping the most vulnerable would have been better

“the economy, which rebounded sharply in the summer only to level off in recent weeks, doesn’t need stimulus at this point. The public needs relief — not everyone, just the minority who’ve experienced the pandemic most acutely.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

The bill sets the country up for a long, slow economic recovery

“An optimistic reading is that, with around $1 trillion in spending…if the Biden administration successfully manages the taming of the virus and people snap back to spending again, the economy could rebound. But if the underlying economic damage done to the economy is serious… we could see a long, brutal slog of a recovery, similar to the one during the Obama presidency.” — Greg Sargent, Washington Post

It shouldn’t be assumed that more stimulus will come down the road

“Democrats are vowing that this isn’t the last economic relief package of the pandemic and that things will be different once Joe Biden takes the oath of office, but will they?” — Editorial, Baltimore Sun

It’s a mistake to leave state and local funding out

“The narrow fiscal package…from this lame duck congressional session will force President-elect Joe Biden’s administration to deal immediately with a long-delayed priority: supporting state and local governments.” — Mohamed A. El-Erian, Bloomberg

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