The leaders of the United States Senate and House were all smiles when they faced the media Sunday night to say that details on another COVID-19 relief bill finally had been agreed to. And just to make things simple — as if anything about government operations are ever simple — it will be wrapped together with an omnibus spending plan to fund the federal government through Sept. 30, 2021.
It sounds as if Congress has tied things up for 2020 with a bright red Christmas bow, but we worry about such mammoth bills — not so much for what we know they contain but what we don't know, and what we may not know for months.
We know, for instance, that the bill authorizes $600 direct stimulus payments to most Americans and would establish temporary $300 per week supplemental job benefits.
Money also is targeted for paycheck protection loans for small businesses, individual renters facing eviction, schools, live venues, health care providers and child care.
It's what we don't know that worries us. Democrats, for example, had hoped to extend a corporate bond credit facility and municipal and mainstream lending programs that were created in the March CARES Act. However, those programs were little used because private credit markets quickly resumed normal functions after the early days of the virus.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, said extending emergency spending authority beyond its Dec. 31 cutoff would make the Federal Reserve more of a political arm of whatever administration in power.
"Fiscal and social policy is the rightful realm of the people who are accountable to the American people and that's us, that's Congress," he said.
In the end, Toomey got nearly all the changes he wanted — that the unused money from the lending programs would return to the Federal Reserve, that the programs would end Dec. 31, that they could not be restarted and that they could not be duplicated without congressional approval.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, said the Pennsylvania senator "was a real champion for the American taxpayer this weekend." Without his intervention, he said, Democrats would have used the extension of the emergency spending authority "as a backdoor bailout for cities and states that have mismanaged their finances for decades."
The Senate Joint Economic Committee member also exposed what many Americans may have guessed — that it was the cynicism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, that kept such a relief bill from being completed months ago. With an upcoming election, she blamed President Donald Trump as the fly in the ointment in hopes that Americans would not give him their vote. With the election over and a new president elected, she was willing to commit.
"We could have had this four months ago," Cotton told Fox News. "Although the bill is still being finalized, we basically know what's in it, because it's what Senate Republicans proposed in September but Nancy Pelosi refused to even consider. She said she'd rather have nothing than the bill we proposed in September. It's very disappointing to me that Nancy Pelosi blocked this aid for struggling businesses and families for four months, but I'm glad we're going to get it across the finish line before Christmas."
What's not crossing the finish line in the bill are shades of the summer's defund-the-police movement. While Democrats unsuccessfully sought to cut 25% from deportation operations of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they along with Republicans rejected any cuts to the U.S. Capitol Police force. In the end, money in the Homeland Security spending bill (including money for the Southern border wall) will remain similar to what it was for 2019 and 2020.
What is apparently crossing the line is the successful conclusion to retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander's seven-year quest to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. The provisions to reduce the form from 108 questions to a maximum of 36 questions, according to a news release from his office, "will be included in broader government funding legislation (the COVID/omnibus bill) that the Senate will consider this week."
"It's the single biggest impediment to low-income Tennesseans who want to go to college," he told this page last month, "and in our state it means you don't get your two years of free college unless you fill out that complicated FAFSA. And many people are discouraged by it."
The COVID/omnibus bill was expected to pass Congress late Monday or Tuesday. Some of what we know that's in it will be a relief to many people struggling after the early virus lockdowns. All of it makes us worry further about the country's debt. And what we don't know about what's in it scares us about Congress's now all-too-common reliance on last-minute, omnibus bills.
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