Looking Back at Congressional Coronavirus Aid Bills

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Looking Back at Congressional Coronavirus Aid Bills

With the passage of a new coronavirus relief bill by Congress this week, 2020 will be ending with the federal government authorizing nearly $4 billion to be spent on dealing with this pandemic. This spending has been approved by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, it has come after significant wrangling by Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the Trump Administration. 


The aid packages began shortly after the seriousness of the pandemic was becoming apparent to the U.S. public. In early, March the House of Representatives voted 415-2 and the Senate voted 96-1 to send a $8.3 billion spending bill to President Trump. The money in this legislation concerned vaccine development and use, prevention activities, preparedness for the virus, and for federal response if the virus spreads widely.


There was little opposition to this legislation in either the House or the Senate. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) offered an amendment to cut funding from international programs to offset the new spending in this bill. By a vote of 81-15, senators tabled, or killed, the amendment. Sen. Paul was the only senator to vote against the final version of the bill.


Congress quickly passed a second coronavirus-related bill that same month. Here’s how VoteSpotter described that bill:


To mandate that businesses with fewer than 500 employees offer paid sick leave for two weeks, increase federal unemployment insurance payments to the states by $1 billion, provide more federal money for food aid programs prohibit the Trump Administration from strengthening social welfare benefit work requirements, and provide waivers to insurance companies to give no-cost coronavirus tests, among other things.


The House passed that bill 363-40 while the Senate approved it 90-8.


That was followed in late March by the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act:This bill incudes:

  • Expanded unemployment benefits
  • A one-time $1,200 payment to Americans whose income is under $75,000
  • A $500 billion fund administered by the Federal Reserve to provide liquidity to businesses
  • A $367 billion small business loan program that becomes a grant if firms don’t lay off employees
  • $130 billion in aid for hospitals
  • $25 billion aid package for airlines


This $2.2 trillion bill is the most expensive single bill ever passed by Congress. While there was some disagreement about the details of the bill, it did not face a dissenting vote in either chamber. 


April saw another round of coronavirus aid, with the House passing an aid bill by a vote of 388-5 and the Senate approving it by a voice vote. This $484 billion bill contained these provisions, among other things:

  • $310 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program
  • $75 billion for hospital aid
  • $25 billion for coronavirus testing
  • $60 billion for disaster loans and grants


After this, the bipartisan consensus for coronavirus aid broke down. The House of Representatives passed another aid bill in May along largely partisan lines, with 208 members supporting it and 199 opposing it. This bill included:

  • Nearly $1 trillion in aid for state and local governments
  • $200 billion to provide hazard pay for front-line workers
  • Another round of direct payments to households
  • $175 billion in housing aid
  • $75 billion for more testing


The Senate did not act on this legislation or any coronavirus bill until September. Throughout this time, President Trump continued to push for a payroll tax cut to be a main focus of any new coronavirus relief bill. In July, an administration spokesperson issued this statement:


As he has done since the beginning of this pandemic, President Trump wants to provide relief to hardworking Americans who have been impacted by this virus and one way of doing that is with a payroll tax holiday. He’s called on Congress to pass this before and he believes it must be part of any phase four package.


This idea never gained traction with either Democrats or Republicans in Congress, however. Some expressed the idea that such a tax cut would do little in terms of economic stimulus and would make the fiscal problems of entitlement programs like Medicare worse.


On September 10, Senate Republicans attempted to pass what they called a “skinny” coronavirus aid bill. Here is how VoteSpotter described the bill:


To provide an additional $300-per-week payment in unemployment benefits, an expanded loan program for small businesses affected by coronavirus, $105 billion for schools to deal with coronavirus as well as to fund school choice, $20 billion for farmers and ranchers affected by coronavirus, $31 billion for vaccines, $16 billion for testing and contact tracing, and $10 billion in loan forgiveness for the Postal Service if it makes certain reforms, among other things.


By a vote of 52-47, the Senate failed to meet the 3/5 margin necessary to proceed to debate. 


Talks to put together a bipartisan aid bill did not make much progress prior to the November election. Many Democrats and Republicans were waiting to see what the election results would be, hoping that voters would give their party an advantage. Once the election occurred, however, there appeared to be renewed desire to pass a bill.


The legislation that emerged did not contain the state and local aid provisions sought by Democrats nor the business liability shield sought by Republicans. Each side dropped demands for its favored position in order to pass a bill that had a variety of measures with bipartisan support. The price tag for this new aid legislation is $900 billion. Among other things, it contains these provisions:

  • A $600 check for most Americans
  • Continuing to allow self-employed workers and gig workers access to unemployment benefits
  • An extension of time limit for receiving unemployment benefits
  • An additional $300 boost in unemployment benefits
  • The Paycheck Protection Program, which offered forgivable loans to businesses affected by the pandemic, was extended and provided with more funding
  • An extension of the eviction moratorium that was set to expire within weeks
  • Funding for schools to reopen
  • An expansion in the eligibility of Pell Grants
  • Funding to purchase vaccines
  • $16 billion for airlines
  • A prohibition on surprise medical billing


With the coronavirus pandemic likely to continue affecting workers and the economy for months to come, there will likely be another push for an aid bill once Joe Biden is inaugurated president.


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