Direct cash payments to most American households were one of the most popular and efficient measures Congress enacted as part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, but lawmakers seem to have lost interest in another round of checks.
Legislators this week resuscitated talks over a new coronavirus relief package, which includes new unemployment assistance, money for vaccine distribution and more aid for businesses and state governments. But none of the potential compromise proposals includes another round of stimulus checks.
“We’re sending money out as a relief for people in distress, as opposed to a stimulus. This is not a stimulus bill,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told HuffPost about bipartisan $900 billion legislation he is crafting with other moderate senators.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the Democratic authors of the compromise, said it was more urgent to get a deal preventing federal unemployment benefits and other emergency programs from expiring, but that he did support another round of direct payments.
“Hopefully that will happen when Joe Biden becomes president,” Manchin said.
Romney’s GOP colleagues pose the biggest obstacle to providing more checks to Americans. They renewed their objections to deficit spending as the prospect of Joe Biden’s victory in the Nov. 3 presidential election became more likely.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in July unveiled a proposal that included a second set of stimulus checks, but he abandoned it after fierce backlash from conservatives over its $1 trillion price tag. McConnell now insists on a slimmed-down, $500 billion measure.
Within three months of Congress passing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the Internal Revenue Service sent direct payments to more than 200 million households. The Economic Impact Payments were arguably more efficient than other big CARES Act initiatives such as unemployment insurance, which state workforce agencies struggled to deliver, and Paycheck Protection Program subsidies, which were funneled through banks that prioritized their wealthiest clients.
The Economic Impact Payments totaled $1,200 per adult and $500 per child, with amounts gradually reduced for individuals who earned more than $75,000 in 2019. Total payments equaled $281 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, meaning they were less costly than the unemployment insurance ($442 billion) or payroll subsidies ($541 billion).
People used the money for basic expenses such as food, shelter, utilities and car payments, according to the Congressional Research Service.
“To me, the quickest way that you can give people the relief that they need is to give a check. It shouldn’t be controversial. We’ve already done it. Yet it’s not in any bills,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told HuffPost, vowing not to support any stimulus package without new direct payments.
People like it when the government helps them: 77% of Americans approved of the CARES Act in March, and 70% said in August they favored another round of direct payments, according to Gallup surveys. Fully 74% said in an October HuffPost/YouGov survey that the government should do another coronavirus relief bill (with or without direct payments).
But lawmakers dithered all summer and fall on another pandemic relief bill, despite broad public support and with COVID-19 cases surging, winter coming, job growth slowing and all CARES Act programs expiring.
Before the election, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin tentatively agreed to include checks as part of a broader deal, but those negotiations collapsed.
Pelosi said Democrats weren’t going to settle for checks and unemployment benefits without a bigger agreement and hinted that she suspected the president just wanted direct payments to help get himself reelected.
“It’s no use giving them a false thing just because the president wants to put a check with his name on it in the mail that we should not be doing all we can,” Pelosi said in an October CNN interview.
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have included direct payments in their most recent demands but have since thrown their support behind a bipartisan compromise that excludes checks.
McConnell, meanwhile, continued on Thursday to bash earlier House-passed legislation that included another round of direct payments, including to some undocumented immigrants. He has not publicly embraced the bipartisan effort by rank-and-file members to reach a deal.
“There is no actual reason why the fates of common-sense policies like a second round of the job-saving Paycheck Protection Program had to be linked to the fates of fringe proposals like stimulus checks for illegal immigrants,” McConnell said in a floor speech on Thursday.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) was more blunt about a new round of checks, telling HuffPost that it “probably doesn’t make it” into another relief package.
Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and is a member of the bipartisan group that helped restart talks this week, said people need to be realistic about what can pass in a sharply divided Congress.
“We have to find a compromise where we can reach a number that we can agree on again and get passed. A substantial something is better than nothing,” King said.