Updated April 8 @ 6:53 a.m.
Congress has already passed three relief bills worth trillions of dollars in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But as that money flows out, one thing is coming into sharp relief for many lawmakers: It might not be enough.
Congressional leaders and the White House are eyeing a fourth coronavirus package. And members of the Colorado delegation already have ideas for what should be included.
Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette said she and her House colleagues are working on what they call “CARES 2.0.” — a follow up to the massive relief bill signed in late March. DeGette said their focus is on the most vulnerable individuals and employers.
“It would be small businesses. It would be strengthening unemployment benefits, and giving families additional direct payments,” she explained. The package would provide additional assistance to state and local governments, who are bearing much of the brunt of the public health crisis and have felt short-changed in the previous aid bills.
There is a $150 billion budget stabilization fund for localities included in the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion package passed in March. But cities and counties with populations under 500,000 can’t access those federal dollars.
“We must ensure that every community in Colorado has the needed relief and funds to equip our communities and recover from this public health emergency,” Democratic Congressman Joe Neguse said. He’s introduced a new bill that would provide $250 billion in stabilization funds for local communities. He’s hoping that money, as well as language that would remove the population cap, are included in any fourth stimulus package.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter is also advocating for more direct payments to people. It’s something House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also wants to see included in any package moving forward. It would be a way to help ensure demand in the economy once businesses start re-opening.
Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner are also working to help smaller communities in the state. In a letter, they urged the Treasury Department to ensure small and rural communities receive their “fair share,” as well as give them the flexibility to address “many unanticipated expenditures and fill revenue gaps” stemming from the COVID-19 response.
“This pandemic is an unprecedented crisis for our country — one that demands an unprecedented response from the federal government,” Bennet said. The Democrat added much has been done, but it’s clear more assistance will be needed for families, workers and the health care system. “And we should continue that support until the public health crisis is over and the economy is back to full strength.”
And that’s been the overall theme for most of the state’s congressional delegation: More needs to be done, and not just for families and local governments, but for the whole economy.
Perlmutter said that it’s not just about dealing with the medical emergency caused by COVID-19, anymore. Congress needs to look at stabilizing the economy, and then stimulating it. It’s an idea that is popular across the political aisle.
“There ought to be a package that gives what I call ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’” Gardner said. Think economic stimulus or job creation ideas like an infrastructure package. “Whether you call it Phase 4, Phase 5 or Phase 6, there is certainly more work that needs to be done.”
That could include issues that haven’t come up yet, like acute hospice care. Gardner, like many in the delegation, has held numerous town halls to hear from Coloradans about the issues affecting them. And it’s shaping what they want to see in future relief bills, and the urgency they feel about passing something.
There are also some Colorado-specific proposals brewing. For example, Gardner would like to see the remainder of this year’s U.S. Forest Service fee payments waived for ski areas that lease public lands. He sees that as a way to help ski areas rebound after suffering an abrupt and early end to the season because of the pandemic.
Lawmakers also have their eyes on continuing some of the efforts they’ve already launched, like the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. That’s a loan program designed to encourage companies to keep workers on the payroll during this crisis, by covering their wages. There’s wide agreement in Congress that the program needs more money.
Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday he’s hopeful the Senate can replenish the fund via unanimous consent or voice vote during the chamber’s next pro forma session in two days. On Wednesday, Democratic leaders said they want to see that fund, plus money for hospitals, state and local government and food for needy families included in any emergency funding measure.
There’s also the question of direct aid for children; the CARES Act set the cut off for the $500 benefit at 16 years old. Some want to expand that to make sure families with dependent children 17 and older also qualify for direct assistance. Democratic Rep. Jason Crow is a co-sponsor of a bill that would expand it to all kids 19 and under, and students 24 and under.
McConnell has put the brakes on the idea of pushing through another relief bill right away. And there are many Republicans who feel the same way.
Republican Rep. Scott Tipton isn’t opposed to the idea of another package. But he’d like to wait to see how the economy responds to the initial rounds of stimulus first. And then if Congress needs to act, it should be thoughtful, he said.
“We spent an incredible amount of treasure of the American people, that’s where the tax dollars come from in these first three tranches that we’ve had. When we move to a fourth one, let’s make sure it’s focused and meeting some of the needs that were not met,” he said.
For him, that would include expanding opportunity zones in small communities, improving broadband infrastructure in underserved communities and help for rural hospitals.
While Tipton supported all three coronavirus relief bills, his Republican House colleague Doug Lamborn only backed the first two. Lamborn said any discussion of a Phase 4 bill is “premature” at this time. But if one does move forward, it should be focused on those individuals most affected by the virus, and not help localities backfill their own lost tax revenue. This crisis, Lamborn said, shouldn’t be an excuse for lawmakers to disregard the nation’s long-term fiscal health.
“Congress must also pass a balanced budget amendment so that moving forward, we begin to address our alarming national debt,” he said.
Only one member of the delegation didn’t support any of the bills, and that was Republican Rep. Ken Buck. CPR News requested an interview and comment from Buck on this issue, but his office did not respond. Previously, he said the bills, which included funds unrelated to fighting the coronavirus, would harm future generations by drastically increasing national debt.
“While it is clearly necessary to do something to help our country fight this disease,” Buck said during the House debate on the CARES Act. “This bill is not the answer. Our country needs help, but this cure is worse than the problem.”
While Perlmutter understands the concerns surrounding the budget, he said the money Congress is spending should be gauged against the damage done to the U.S. economy on the whole because of the pandemic.
“What we’ve done so far is big, by normal standards. But compared to the amount of money that has been lost, and the amount of wealth that has shrunk, it’s still a small portion,” he said.
Perlmutter said there is an appetite in Congress to do more to deal with this crisis, “no doubt about it.”
With unemployment numbers expected to continue their historic climb, there will be pressure on lawmakers to act quickly and in a bipartisan manner. But even Congress these days is working from home and not expected back in Washington, D.C., until at least April 20.