On Sunday, almost nine months after the CARES Act was signed into law, Congress agreed on a second stimulus package after weeks of post-election negotiation — a $908 billion bill that is less than half the size of the original coronavirus relief package. On Monday, both the House and Senate voted to pass the second stimulus by overwhelming margins. Trump is expected to sign it into law, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said Americans could start seeing stimulus checks as soon as next week.
The bill, part of a $2.3 trillion spending package, comes just days before millions of Americans are slated to lose federal unemployment aid at the end of the year, and as the pandemic continues to set records for new cases, hospitalizations, and daily death counts. To help alleviate the first crisis, the bill will provide a $600 check for every Americans making up to $75,000, as well as $300 per week in federal unemployment benefits for an additional 11 weeks. To help slow down the second crisis, the bill includes $69 billion to expand vaccine distribution, test-and-trace measures, and other public-health efforts.
The congressional approval comes after multiple one-day stopgap spending bills, which were needed to prolong the negotiations as Democrats fought for state and local assistance and Republicans pushed for a liability shield to protect corporations from employees reporting unsafe pandemic conditions. (Both efforts were cut on the Senate floor.) Below are the most prominent measures in the second stimulus package.
$286 billion in direct aid, including $600 checks and $300 weekly unemployment benefits
The second stimulus will include $600 direct checks to Americans making less than $75,000 per year and weekly federal unemployment benefits at $300 per week — exactly half the amount provided in the CARES Act. While the $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation ran for about 16 weeks as part of the initial stimulus, the $300 federal unemployment boost will run for 11 weeks, through March 14. As for the direct payments, families with children will also be eligible for $600 per child.
In addition to these diminished programs, the new bill will also extend the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program providing benefits to the self-employed and contract and gig workers for 11 weeks.
$325 billion for small businesses
The bulk of small-business aid, some $284 billion, will go to forgivable loans as part of the Paycheck Protection Program, allowing businesses with fewer than 500 employees to cover payroll, rent, and utilities. Another $15 billion will go to live venues, cultural institutions, and movie theaters as part of the Save Our Stages Act, which has been incorporated into the larger stimulus.
$82 billion for schools
Most of the spending for schools is divvied up between the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund ($54.3 billion) and the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund ($22.7 billion), programs that provide funding to states to distribute to schools according to local demands. Money from the CARES Act allotted to ESSER mostly helped state education departments build out technological capacity for remote learning or support nutritional services. Money for HEERF covered pandemic-related costs and provided colleges with funding to give directly to students through emergency financial-aid grants.
$69 billion for public-health measures, including vaccination and testing
Funding for direct efforts to combat the pandemic include $20 billion for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority — the office within the Department of Health and Human Services — for vaccine procurement and distribution. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will also receive $9 billion for the vaccination effort.
States will also receive $22 billion for test-and-trace programs, which are crucial to understanding and slowing the spread of the virus in the months before vaccines begin to have a population-level effect.
$45 billion for transportation, including over $4 billion for the MTA
The second stimulus will include $15 billion for airline payroll support, $10 billion for state highways, another $2 billion for airports and related businesses, and $1 billion for Amtrak. Wrapped into the $14 billion secured for public transit is a sum of around $4 billion for the MTA, which received the same amount of funding as it did during the CARES Act.
As Curbed notes, the aid will “stave off the 40 percent reduction in subway service and 9,000 layoffs that the MTA had previously proposed as necessary measures for balancing the huge budget gap caused by the pandemic-driven decline in ridership.” However, the MTA will still be forced to “cut service on the Long Island Rail Road, hike fares and tolls in the spring, and … assume $2.9 billion in debt to cover operating expenses.” The agency is still facing an $8 billion deficit through 2024.
$25 billion in rental assistance
One of the few areas in which the second stimulus expands on the CARES Act is in rental assistance, providing aid to qualified families who are not able to make rent or pay off past-due rent. These funds can be also be used for rent and utility payments. The measure also extends the imperfect CDC eviction moratorium through January 31, 2021. As many as 20 million Americans have fallen behind on rent during the pandemic.
Around $13 billion for additional SNAP benefits
With as many as 50 million Americans facing food insecurity this year, $13 billion from the second stimulus will go toward food-assistance programs, including SNAP benefits, after years of efforts by the Trump administration to make cuts to the program. The bill will include another $13 billion in direct payments, buys, and loans to farmers who have taken hits during the pandemic.
A ban on most surprise medical bills
In at least one case, Congress used the massive stimulus bill to address a problem not directly related to the pandemic: surprise medical bills, which have long been a scourge of American health care.
The problem arises when a patient receives treatment — often in an emergency setting — that does not fall under their insurance coverage, then is slapped with an exorbitant bill after the fact, sometimes in the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. It has received more attention in recent years as journalists have documented some of the more egregious examples.
The new stimulus bill mandates that in most cases, health providers will have to haggle with insurance companies to negotiate a fair price for patients in such cases, rather than charging the full cost to the patients themselves. The provision begins in 2022, and doesn’t cover ground ambulance trips, which are a frequent source of surprise billing.
Banning or limiting surprise medical bills had overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and was (not surprisingly) very popular in public opinion polls. Yet following through took years, as Congress faced fierce lobbying from some hospital groups and private-equity firms, who have made a killing off the practice.
And some weird stuff, too
The $900 billion COVID-19 relief measure was tacked onto the $1.4 trillion omnibus spending package, a massive end-of-the-year measure that would reportedly be the longest bill ever passed by Congress and contains some unexpected items. Among the miscellanea is a “three-martini lunch” tax provision that would allow businesses to temporarily deduct 100 percent of their corporate meal expenses — carry out food as well as sit-down meals — off their federal taxes, compared to the 50 percent that they are usually able to deduct. For months, Trump has championed the expanded meal deduction through 2022 as a way to help the struggling restaurant industry by increasing spending in restaurants and income for staff, but Democrats have denounced the measure, which they say targets business executives who are not urgently struggling in the current economic climate. Conservative tax experts have also criticized the proposal as ineffective, the Washington Post reports. During negotiations, Democrats ultimately agreed to the “three-martini lunch” deduction, which is expected to cost taxpayers an estimated $6 billion per year, in exchange for other tax provisions.
Other weird add-on provisions include:
• A statement of policy regarding the succession or reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, part of an entire section on Tibet
• The establishment of two new Smithsonian museums
• $2 billion for Space Force
• $35 billion for clean energy research and development
• Giving West Virginia a national park
• Banning the USPS from mailing electronic vaping products
• Several changes to copyright law, including increased penalties for illegal streaming
• The decriminalization of various minor violations, including the transportation of water hyacinths, alligator grass, or water chestnut plants across state lines and the unauthorized use of the Swiss coat of arms, the 4-H Club emblem, the “Smokey Bear” character or name, the “Woodsy Owl” character, name or slogan, or “The Golden Eagle Insignia”
• The requirement of carbon monoxide detectors in public housing
• The establishment of an anti-doping program for horse racing, as well as a new racetrack safety program