The cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s emotional appeal to the nation in his inaugural address was for a coming together. “With unity we can do great things,” Biden said. “Important things.”
The first important thing will be reaching an agreement with Congress on emergency funding to help defeat the coronavirus and cushion its impact on the economy. A pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans is an emergency that justifies deficit spending, as long as there is oversight to prevent waste and fraud.
Adding to the urgency: New variants of COVID-19 are more transmissive and perhaps more lethal, so Biden’s rescue package is the right idea at the right time. It just needs to be the right size.
The White House plan calls for $1.9 trillion in spending, after a year of COVID-19 emergency funding that has already added more than $2 trillion to a spiraling national debt. There’s room to scale this back, particularly in light of a new Congressional Budget Office report that predicts a better-than-expected economic recovery.
Ten moderate Republicans countered with a $600 billion alternative, and Biden rightly agreed to meet with them on Monday, holding out hope for the kind of compromise 71% of Americans want to see.
Where is there room for agreement?
President Joe Biden on Jan. 29, 2021.
Funding to directly fight the virus is a no-brainer. Biden is seeking $400 billion for this to correct massive shortfalls left by the previous administration: money to boost production of vaccines and protective equipment, open vaccination centers, hire health workers and, once and for all, expand testing and lab facilities. There’s also $170 billion to help safely reopen K-12 schools and institutions of higher learning.
But the balance of Biden’s proposal consists of direct aid to individuals, assistance for states and businesses, and a proposal to hike the federal minimum wage to $15 from $7.25 an hour. Places to cut include:
►$1,400 stimulus checks. Nearly 10 million Americans still receive jobless benefits because of the pandemic, and a one-time check for $1,400 (on top of a $600 payout approved in December) would go a long way. As we argued then, however, any additional checks ought to be more narrowly targeted to the neediest.
►Other direct aid. While extra unemployment benefits should be extended into summer (they currently end in March), it’s not necessary to increase the federal supplement from $300 a week to $400. Other forms of aid — hikes in child and earned income tax credits, and child care assistance — could better be considered in a future Biden recovery plan that spells out ways to offset the cost through tax hikes. As it is, taking all the proposals together would provide a family of five an annual federal sum of $28,000.
►Minimum wage increase to $15 an hour. This long controversial proposal is best considered as separate legislation that would index the federal wage to inflation and leave states and localities room to go higher.
►A combined $500 billion in state aid. There is rich disagreement between Democrats who want this and Republicans who don’t. A neutral analysis last September of state needs estimated a shortfall of $227 billion over three years, a more appropriate figure.
Biden and Democrats could try to force through their oversized demands by using an arcane and rarely employed process known as budget reconciliation, in which a simple majority — and not the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster in the Senate — would be necessary. But every Democrat, including moderate Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, would have to be on board, and a straight party-line vote would undercut Biden’s promise of unity.
Reconciliation is an alternative if the Republicans refuse to meet Biden halfway. But if there’s anything the parties ought to be able to agree on, it’s a plan to get the pandemic under control, because little else is possible until that happens.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: President Biden, right-size your COVID-19 relief. Here’s what to cut.
Originally published February 1, 2021, 3:22 PM