House Democrats on Tuesday unveiled a sprawling 1,815-page, $3 trillion coronavirus relief package that spurns many of the key demands of progressive activists and lawmakers while including proposals that immediately provoked backlash, such as a tax cut for the wealthy and a provision that would allow corporate lobbying organizations to take part in federal small business loan program.
Formally titled the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, the bill (pdf) would provide $1 trillion in additional funding for state and local governments, extend beefed-up unemployment benefits through January of next year, authorize an additional round of one-time $1,200 stimulus payments for adults earning up to $75,000 per year, expand federal nutrition benefits, provide $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service, establish a hazard pay fund for frontline workers, and increase spending on Covid-19 testing.
"It is too small even if it passed as is. As a starting point for negotiation it is going to be a disaster."
—Jon Walker, freelance journalist
While there is much in the bill that progressives support, observers who combed through the nearly 2,000 pages of legislative text were quick to highlight sections and omissions that they deemed unacceptable.
The bill, which the House is expected to vote on as early as Friday, does not contain recurring direct cash payments, a paycheck guarantee, cancellation of rent and mortgage payments, or expansion of Medicare to cover the rapidly growing number of unemployed and uninsured Americans.
The legislation does, however, propose an expansion of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) eligibility to include corporate lobbying organizations—which aggressively pushed for the change—and a bailout for landlords.
"Democratic leadership has had plenty of input from progressive thinkers over the past couple of months. They just care more about the input from corporate lobbyists," tweeted HuffPost senior reporter Zach Carter. "There is just no excuse for this."
BREAKING: House Democrats' new CARES Act proposal would expand PPP loan eligibility to *all* 501(c)(4) and (c)(6) groups with under 500 employees. Our research shows it would cover 99.9% of c6 trade groups. https://t.co/TtSP6aqYLG pic.twitter.com/5b788IRDsx
— Democratic Policy Center (@DemPolicy) May 12, 2020
Instead of expanding Medicare as progressives recommended, the HEROES Act "funds approximately nine months of full premium subsidies for the existing health insurance program COBRA, which allows laid-off or furloughed employees to stay on their health insurance plans," Vox's Ella Nilsen and Li Zhou reported.
Progressives have vocally criticized the COBRA proposal as a mere subsidy to the private insurance industry that would not be nearly as beneficial or cost-effective as the emergency Medicare expansion proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).
Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, pushed hard for the inclusion of her Paycheck Guarantee Act but was rebuffed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has wielded near-unilateral authority over the negotiating process as lawmakers remain in their home districts due to Covid-19 fears.
As an alternative to Jayapal's ambitious paycheck guarantee proposal, which would have provided companies with direct payroll grants to keep workers employed, the newly unveiled legislation proposes an expansion of the Employee Retention Tax Credit.
More than 30 million Americans are suddenly unemployed—without a paycheck today and without health care tomorrow. This is an unprecedented crisis. It is no time for half measures or further delay.
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We need the Paycheck Guarantee Act now.
— Rep. Pramila Jayapal (@RepJayapal) May 12, 2020
Even as the legislation fails to meet demands that progressives characterized as basic steps toward ensuring economic security and public health, the House Democratic leadership has signaled that they're willing to negotiate down even further as talks over the stimulus package continue.
"Democrats acknowledge that their behemoth proposal, whose summary alone is 90 pages, is more of a talking point than legislation that they expect to become law," Politico reported.
Freelance journalist Jon Walker called the HEROES Act "deeply depressing," particularly as an opening bid in negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate and the Trump White House.
"It is too small even if it passed as is," Walker tweeted. "As a starting point for negotiation it is going to be a disaster."
Though critics described the legislation as inadequate as a whole, progressive advocacy groups applauded a number of individual provisions in the bill.
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Action, celebrated the inclusion of a nationwide moratorium on water shut-offs amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"Grassroots efforts across the country have finally paid off today as our congressional leaders move to protect the human right to water," Hauter said in a statement.
Stand Up America, meanwhile, praised the bill's proposal of an additional $3.6 billion in election assistance funding to help states expand vote-by-mail capacity.
"We applaud House Democrats for fighting to protect our democracy and working to provide states the critical resources they need to expand mail-in voting and make in-person voting safer," said Stand Up America founder and president Sean Eldridge. "This bill would help ensure that voters won't be forced to risk their health to cast their ballot amid this pandemic."