Lame-Duck Stimulus

Congress has been fighting for months over the size of the next stimulus package. Now that the election has been more or less decided, there remains a chance that the lame-duck session might pass something in time for Christmas. But should they, and if so how much?

According to internal party polls, TNFN has learned that the majority of the country would be in favor of a limited stimulus package even in a lame-duck Congress. President-Elect Biden has clearly explained that this is his preference, if only to get it out of the way of appointing his new Cabinet. Even the GOP leadership is in favor. In an ideal world, that would be plenty — except nobody can agree on terms.

The Republicans want a bare-bones bill that mainly helps small businesses and schools, with a small unemployment-based bonus for those still out of work. The Democrats are fighting for multiple trillions in government programs and supplemental aid, including a hefty personal check to every taxpayer. Wall Street prefers the DNC package (out of self-interest); the rest of the country is split.

And today, Moderna petitioned the F.D.A. for emergency permission to begin distributing their vaccine, potentially by the end of the month. (Pfizer had done so earlier.)

It’s axiomatic that our economy in general, plus tens of millions of citizens in particular, needs to be able to travel and assemble freely in order to get businesses going again. Restaurants are suffering and so is local retail, and as people have stopped commuting, business districts have all but shut down. Only hospitals are doing a booming business.

Even those who still maintain that COVID is a hoax (a surprising 14%) must grant that, until vaccination is common, the authorities (or, perhaps to them, the conspirators) will be unlikely to relax restrictions. After all, a 95% effective vaccine is still 5% ineffective, which means transmission will be inevitable in full restaurants and offices as long as the virus remains in pandemic numbers. As well, it will take months at least to get the vaccine to those who want it, much less the 42% who don’t. And, even if the Moderna vaccine were available to all Americans tomorrow, it would still be six weeks before normal life resumes.

So we still need a stimulus package regardless of the vaccine news. Even with the most optimistic scenario, it’ll be summer 2021 before reopening gets underway, and later is more likely. Tens of thousands more small businesses will be gone by then, and commercial real estate will be facing a severe crisis — arguably an overdue market adjustment, but nevertheless one which will have a long-term destabilizing economic impact.

One thing that will encourage a faster response among citizens — both those reluctant to vaccinate and those who, given the alternative, would prefer to remain on Unemployment — is a financial incentive. As such, it is reasonable (if somewhat cold-hearted) to limit the size of any stimulus to a minimum while retaining uncertainty about future packages. As an added bonus, that would appeal to the G.O.P. legislative priorities while acknowledging the potential impact to D.N.C. policy created by the upcoming Georgia runoff races.

And yet, at present Congress has a full plate: the next periodic appropriations bill has a deadline of December 11, active CARES Act funding and provisions expire at the end of the month, and there’s been no money appropriated for vaccine distribution — a measly $6 billion, but nobody’s authorized it yet. Congress is scheduled to go home on the 21st, leaving only three weeks to get this all done.

It’s a tough ask. On the other hand, a small stimulus package is the very least Congress can do.

The Not Fake News could use some stimulus too, since we’re on the subject. Don’t forget: Donate a hundred bucks or more and I’ll send you a pair of your very own The Not Fake News mugs, suitable for coffee or half a packet of ramen, whichever you prefer.

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