While the COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress was inadequate in many fundamental ways, President Trump’s decision to hold the bill hostage until Dec. 27, has delayed government checks being sent to 14 million Americans whose unemployment benefits had expired.
Although Trump ignored earlier negotiations over the $900 billion relief bill, at the 11th hour he complained that the $600 stimulus checks in the bill weren’t enough and demanded an increase to $2,000. Democrats supported Trump’s proposal, and the House quickly voted to authorize $2,000 checks. But the fate of issuing larger checks now lies with the Republican-controlled Senate that, since May, has blocked a vote on a $3 trillion relief package passed by the House.
The legislation’s resumption and expansion of the Payroll Protection Plan to assist some small businesses, rent relief, continued eviction protection, and food benefits is welcome news. But the relief bill’s $300 additional weekly payment to the unemployed was half of what was given when the pandemic first struck, and the lack of any funds for state and local governments will deepen the economic crisis across the country. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Julio Lopez, the Center for Popular Democracy’s co-director for Community Dignity Campaigns. Here, he assesses the COVID relief package, and the pressure on the incoming Biden administration to increase aid targeted to the nation’s most vulnerable.
JULIO LOPEZ: It’s been so long since people have received anything. For progressive organizations like the Center for Public Democracy, it was like, “Is this what we want? No, we know that we need more.” And when President Trump started talking about $2,000, we were like, “Yeah, that’s what we’ve been saying for awhile.”
You know people need money. And in the middle of the holidays we kind of made this bet that we needed to move something that would support people in this desperate moment, because we knew that we were in the middle of this cut-off where unemployment checks were going to collapse, that the housing eviction moratorium was going to lapse, so we were in this moment where almost 60 million people were gonna lose their unemployment benefits. Forty million people were gonna lose their eviction support moratorium protections and we decided that we were gonna double down and make sure that people at least got some money in their pockets, which is why we supported the $600 checks and we were pushing really hard to make sure that people got something beyond the normal unemployment check so they could be supported.
What happened over the last week is kind of like this crazy world we live in where we end up in this compromise bill that nobody was happy with. Democrats weren’t happy with it. Republicans weren’t happy with it. Even progressive organizations weren’t happy with it and in the middle of that, President Trump decides that he wants $2,000. He waits four days to actually sign the bill, which actually means that about 60 million people lost a week of unemployment benefits because of that lapse, because this bill’s actually is done in a way where the benefits are gonna stop no matter what happens in March. There’s no rollover.
If we wanna stop this virus, we need to be home. And if we need to be home, we need to be able to support our families. And if we need to support our families, then what are the things we need? Then what we need is a home, which means we need to pay our bills. What we need is money, which means that if you’re unemployed, you need a check. And if you’re not working for some reason or another, you need some extra money. So we were saying, if you are asking folks to stay home, just make sure that people can stay at home in a way that’s supportive of them.
SCOTT HARRIS: Julio, I did want to ask you about criticism leveled at several of the items in this relief package that includes major tax breaks for three martini lunches, the sort of meal allowance tax break for big business, as well as some aid for thoroughbred horses in places like Kentucky, the state of Majority Leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell. Anything you want to say about those items which seemed to have no place in an emergency relief package?
JULIO LOPEZ: I think we all knew that this wasn’t going to be a perfect package when this package was started to be negotiated. Leader McConnell was actually asking for corporate liability (protection) for big corporations that were being sued because of their malfeasance when it came to Covid and we were able to get that (off) the table. At the same time, we weren’t able to actually negotiate for more money for state and localities. So this is not a perfect bill at all. It is a bill that has many holes and problems and you’ve just mentioned two of them.
In our minds, it was like, “How do we get people money in their pockets right now? What I’m thinking about is not necessarily how this bill is not perfect. I’m thinking about how are we fighting from the first day Biden takes over as president of the United States for a bill that actually reflects the needs and the wants of people that are suffering because that’s what we need to do.
SCOTT HARRIS: Joe Biden is due to take the oath of the presidency on Jan. 20 and he’s going to have to deal with many crises all at once. But when it comes to emergency relief for people across the country who are suffering from this health and economic crisis, what are the top agenda items that you have and want to apply pressure to the Biden administration to get to work on immediately when they take the reins of power?
JULIO LOPEZ: For us, the most important things are going to be healthcare — of course, we need to make sure that the vaccines are available, that are being distributed and anybody and everybody that can have it, will have it and that any sort of healthcare services are provided free.
On the other hand, we want to make sure everybody is included. We think that if we don’t include, for example, undocumented people, we are actually putting our backs toward the people that are actually working. Even if you are anti-immigration, you should know that these are the people that work our fields and the fact that they are vaccinated is good because we’re all safe. But I think it’s also humane.
We definitely want to make sure that people have money in their pockets. So once again, it’s $600 today, but we’re going to be pushing really hard for $2,000 when President Biden comes in.
The same thing with unemployment. It’s still going to be a fight and I think going back to the Senate fight in Georgia, this is gonna also determine who controls the Senate to move forward with a broader agenda, Democratic agenda or not. I think even then whatever happens, we’re gonna have to push Biden a lot, so we will be in the streets. We already have actions planned for the next month where we’re gonna be pushing President Biden to do as much as he can to make sure people can stay home, people can stay safe and that they have money in their pockets to support their families and their children.
For more information, visit The Center For Popular Democracy at populardemocracy.org.