What’s Actually In The Relief Bill?

With a nearly $2 trillion price tag, what is hopefully the last COVID-19 relief bill is up for debate in the Senate today — and, probably, tomorrow and the next and…

Due to the curious process under which it’s being considered — the Reconciliation rules — there’s no chance of a filibuster on the table; on the other hand, both the complexity of the proposed legislation and certain parliamentary tricks will create some fairly significant delays. These are normal (if petty) maneuvers; more to the point is considering the complexity of the bill proper.

And that should not be understated; it’s some 628 pages in length, and provides funding for… well, for pretty much everything. In fairness, it should be long; the entire tax revenue of the country in 2021 is likely to be only twice the amount this bill proposes to spend — and that money is already spoken for, one and a half times over. Supercilious pundits (otherwise much like myself) will mention the “culture of endless wars” and suggest that we simply “cut Defense Department spending”, but let’s face it: The entire DoD budget for a year is only a third of this spending bill. If we were to eliminate the entire U.S. military, the money saved wouldn’t pay for half of this bill — and that’s not even considering the nearly two million people who would suddenly be unemployed.

Funny thing is, this bill is about a third the size of the one they passed last year. Go figure.

So, yes, there are going to be some objections, the most obvious of which is “How the f@#$ are we going to pay for it?” Proponents of modern economic theory may well scoff, knowing as they do that economic forces demand debt spending during tough economic times, and accepting that the system itself contains enough flexibility to create some of the wealth that it expends but does not own. Anyone who works in a factory, on a farm, or in any other profession that actually generates real goods may, quite understandably, have some trouble accepting this, but the math actually works. In point of fact, and in the light of Keynesian monetary theory, the better question might be “How can we possibly afford not to do this?”

Bottom line: Governments don’t work like household budgets. Let’s just leave it at that and move on.

There will certainly be some quibbles; Section 7601, for example, provides extra funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. One might reasonably be excused for wondering why PBS needs more money to broadcast during a pandemic. (Custom masks for Big Bird? I’m legitimately curious.) That’s quite a small line item, however; of greater concern might be the entirety of Title X, which appears to send a great deal of money overseas. The provision to increase the minimum wage has already been removed (it’s not a budget item and needs its own law) as have a few other minor bits and pieces. But who can object to vaccine distribution funds?

When all is said and done, the bottom line is likely to remain very near to the $2 trillion mark. This is because a third of the money goes for direct aid to citizens — which is undeniably popular; who among us, after all, intends to object to getting a check in the mail? And because even Senate Republicans aren’t foolish enough to stand in the way of the evident will of the people, the bill itself is eventually going to pass unless someone does something very stupid.

There is one overarching and potentially legitimate objection: Arguably, with the COVID vaccines approaching eighty million doses deployed, it seems unlikely we’ll need to fully fund most of these direct aid programs through the entire summer. It may even be counterproductive with respect to the goal of reopening the retail economy; who would work a menial job when they’re being well-paid not to?

The reality of life for those in the bottom tier of the economy is that people are compelled to work; the alternatives are homelessness and starvation. Massive federal spending will not change this, not unless an actual Universal Basic Income sufficient to cover essential needs starts getting issued — and, again, who’s to pay for it? (Even Yang’s numbers would require a new tax to raise nearly a quarter of the funds… though it’s been argued his numbers are actually more pessimistic than they should be.)

But all this is, in a very real sense, academic; the country needs economic stimulus, which will in part pay for itself. It’s commonly accepted, extremely popular, and not overtly fiscally irresponsible given a modern monetary system. So the bill we’re seeing will probably, for the most part, pass as written, and making that happen will be a very good thing for the country. This would be true whether it were written by Democrats or Republicans. All the partisan squabbling we’re apt to see over the next few days won’t change that.

(Caveat: There does, however, exist a very real chance of a Progressive revolt in the House, as junior Democrats from the radical branch of the party are unlikely to accept the elimination of the minimum wage increase from the bill. What would happen in that case is anyone’s guess. -Editor)


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