Latest CARES Act follow-on bill excludes first responders
With hazard pay not included in recent bill, members push to fund local-level government in next round
Expected to meet for minutes, the U.S. Senate instead heard over an hour of debate on Tuesday on Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, which revisits elements of the CARES Act and adds funding for hospitals. The House is expected to vote on the bill Thursday.
Crucially, the bill leaves out monies for state, local and tribal governments whose budgets are in freefall after the economy was shut down by governors desperate to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted that bill includes $25 billion for more COVID-19 tests and a national testing plan – seen as critical to gradually reopening civil society – but emphasized on the floor and in a subsequent press conference that funds for lower-level governments must make it into the fourth major coronavirus-related package.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi attacked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Thursday over the exclusion of first responders: “Unfortunately, they do not want to put the heroes into this bill as fully as they should by supporting state and local. And what does the distinguished leader on the Senate side, Mr. Connell, say? ‘I'm not doing any more bills. I think the states should go bankrupt.’ Oh, really? And not pay the healthcare workers and public hospitals and the rest of first responders?”
Local budget crunch collides with federal deficit worry
Already, first responders and others “are being laid off because the local governments and the state governments are starving and not getting their revenues,” Schumer said. Democrats, he continued, “fought and fought, but unfortunately, on the other side of the aisle, they resisted. I hope they won't resist in COVID 4. We are going to need a large, large amount of money to help our localities so those policemen, firefighters and bus drivers are not laid off.”
But adding another $483.4 billion to the CARES Act’s $2 trillion price tag wasn’t going to advance without opponents’ making their voices heard.
“We can't just spend another half-trillion dollars every week or two or three and hope and pretend that it is going to turn out okay,” Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) argued. “The upcoming challenges are far too numerous and onerous and complex to leave up to just a few staff meetings behind closed doors.”
“We can choose to legislate, in which case we have to convene, or we can stay in recess and not legislate,” Lee asserted, echoing colleagues anxious to work. “Different parts of the country will face different kinds of threats and, therefore, have different kinds of needs.”
Governors are under building pressure to balance public health demands with increased economic stressors of extending stay-at-home orders. Mental health risks, domestic and substance abuse are known results of prolonged economic inactivity. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a doctor who tested positive for COVID-19 in March and later volunteered at a Kentucky hospital, assessed that “no amount of money – not all the money in China – will save us from ourselves. Our only hope of rescuing this great country is to reopen the economy.”
Paul said he returned to Washington “so that history will record that not everyone gave in to the massive debt Congress is creating.”
Additionally, Schumer wrote colleagues that the administration has agreed to a future provision letting states and localities use $150 billion in last month's aid package to cover revenue gaps, rather than only coronavirus-related expenditures.
More is on the way, Schumer told reporters: “There will be a big, broad, bold COVID 4. For anyone who thinks this is the last train out of the station, that is not even close to the case.”
Dozens of proposals await Congress on reconvening
Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Mike Bennet (D-Colo.) held a press call on April 22 to announce their bill to create a “health force” akin to the National Guard, Teach for American and the Peace Corps.
Describing the group as a force multiplier to “complement the work of our highly trained and skilled medical professionals like nurses, home health aides, doctors and paramedics,” Gillibrand explained that thousands of workers “would be dedicated to combating the coronavirus carrying out testing tracing, and eventually vaccination.”
Money for lower-level governments remains the top priority for her and others. “I talk to my mayors and my governor and my county executives every day, and I could tell you they're all in the red, and they're laying off police officers, firefighters – the core workforce that our counties and cities employ just because they can't keep payroll, and so they're really up against a wall,” Gillibrand said.
Hazard pay for frontline workers, which has generally referred to hospital and public safety workers, also did not make it into the CARES Act supplemental. A pair of bills offered in the House – one for military members exposed during their work alongside civilians, the other for healthcare workers, but not first responders.
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), interviewed on the steps of the Capitol, noted: “I admire every frontline responder. The police go to any call. The firemen go to any fire. The ambulance personnel goes to any accident. So I'll let them be the judge of that. In South Carolina, they haven't voiced an opinion that they're not getting hazard pay; I mean, they're willing to take the risk. And again, we need to take the risk coming back up here and figuring out how we can pay – but first responders have been a great inspiration for me and for others.”
To date, the only committed funding for first responders came from an $836 million allocation good through September 2024 to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for exposure prevention training. That funding was contained in the first coronavirus response bill signed by President Trump on March 6.
Over 250 bills have been filed since the onset of the pandemic in the United States – ways to institute vaccination, mobile and other widespread testing, bolster food and poverty programs, state assistance specifically, veterans’ care, program data collection, increased Wi-Fi use, banking and credit protections, and more.
What’s ahead for public safety
Expect public safety personnel to come first as testing regimens are developed and precautions are extended well into 2021.
Members of Congress want to express praise through complementary resolutions also queued. One bill by freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) recognizes the bravery of all and loss of some to the virus in the course of service.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi added after Senate action: “We have healthcare workers transit workers, police, fire, EMS – all kinds of public employees who risked their lives to save lives and now lose their jobs … this is most unfortunate and this cannot stand.”