WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — In a near party-line vote early Saturday morning, the U.S. House approved a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill. Two Democrats broke from the party and voted against its passage: Maine Rep. Jared Golden and Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader.
“During challenging times, the country needs its elected leaders to work together to meet the most urgent needs in their communities. This bill addresses urgent needs, and then buries them under a mountain of unnecessary or untimely spending," Golden explained in a statement following the vote.
The bill, which includes $1,400 stimulus checks, passed in a 219-212 vote, shipping the massive measure to the Senate, where Democrats seem bent on resuscitating their minimum wage push and fights could erupt over state aid and other issues.
The House COVID-19 bill includes the minimum wage increase, so the real battle over its fate will occur when the Senate debates its version over the next two weeks.
The overall relief bill would provide $1,400 payments to individuals, extend emergency unemployment benefits through August and increase tax credits for children and federal subsidies for health insurance.
It also provides billions for schools and colleges, state and local governments, COVID-19 vaccines and testing, renters, food producers, and struggling industries like airlines, restaurants, bars, and concert venues.
Republicans said the bill was too expensive and said too few education dollars would be spent quickly to immediately reopen schools. They said it was laden with gifts to Democratic constituencies like labor unions and funneled money to Democratic-run states they suggested didn't need it because their budgets had bounced back.
Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins has raised similar concerns and has been leading a group of 10 GOP senators in discussions with the Biden administration on an alternative, smaller package. Collins and the group say the relief package should focus on the immediate health needs of the country.
That sharp partisan divide is making the fight a showdown over who voters will reward for heaping more federal spending to combat the coronavirus and revive the economy atop the $4 trillion approved last year.
Golden said he supported $4 trillion in COVID-19 relief in 2020, and said, "I won’t support trillions more in funding that is poorly targeted or in many cases not necessary at this moment in time."
"A lot of people have told me that the danger is Congress going too small and not too big with this package...I know you've heard that," Golden said in a virtual press conference Saturday afternoon. "I don't think that makes sense when you consider that the Biden administration is already saying that are likely to follow this bill with another infrastructure package and economic recovery package rumored to number in the trillions of dollars."
"Between the money spent in 2020 and today's package, we're already nearing $6 trillion in new spending and less than one year," he continued.
He said spending at these levels puts programs like Medicare at risk and "could sap resources needed for important future priorities—critical priorities for the American people, such as rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure or making investments to fix our broken healthcare system."
Golden said he voted "on principle."
"Politically, no doubt, the easiest choice would have been to just vote ‘yes.’ But I didn’t come here to do what was easy," Golden said. "I came here to do what I thought was right. And I do that bill by bill, week to week, from things like the Equality Act, which we voted on Thursday, to this bill we voted yesterday… I call it the way I see it, in the context of the time and my heart on my sleeve."
Watch the full press conference here:
Ultimately, Golden said assistance needs to be targeted at those who need it.
"To send checks out because it's politically popular...someone who's bringing home $170,000—that's like the wealthiest 2% in our state. It's just not necessary," he said. "Give the money to someone who needs it."
He continued to say his constituents want him to support the exact amount of COVID relief or economic recovery that is necessary, "not $1.00 less, and not $1.00 more."
"So, the specifics really do matter," he said.
Maine Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree voted with her party Saturday morning to pass the bill.
In a statement ahead of the vote, Pingree said she would vote to pass the bill "to put money in the pockets of Mainers who are in crisis, make investments to stabilize our economy, and crush the virus with funding to improve testing and vaccine distribution."
"We are just days away from pandemic unemployment benefits running out. Last year Republicans stalled a stimulus package so long it caused a painful lapse in jobless benefits," Pingree continued. "It would be irresponsible for us to allow that to happen again, especially when economists estimate that investing in job-seekers could create or save over five million jobs.”
Golden's full statement:
“During challenging times, the country needs its elected leaders to work together to meet the most urgent needs in their communities. This bill addresses urgent needs, and then buries them under a mountain of unnecessary or untimely spending. In reviewing the bill in its full scope, less than 20 percent of the total spending addresses core COVID challenges that are immediately pressing: funding for vaccine distribution and testing, and emergency federal unemployment programs. I support these portions of the bill wholeheartedly and believe we should do more for the people hardest hit by the pandemic by continuing to extend unemployment programs until economic indicators show they are no longer necessary.
Unfortunately, the path congressional leaders have chosen goes far beyond these key provisions, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. After supporting $4 trillion in emergency COVID relief in 2020, I won’t support trillions more in funding that is poorly targeted or in many cases not necessary at this moment in time.
Outside of the critical funding priorities — unemployment assistance and vaccine and testing aid — the bulk of this bill falls into two categories. The first category is a series of spending provisions that duplicate ongoing COVID assistance programs that Congress has already funded or are poorly designed and wasteful of public resources. These include:
Rental assistance: On a bipartisan basis, Congress approved $25 billion in rental assistance only two months ago, and just yesterday Maine officials announced it was ready to begin accepting applications for the $200 million that was allocated to our state for this purpose. Additional rental assistance may be warranted in the future, but it is not necessary at this time.
Food assistance: In December, I joined with my colleagues to extend a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits through June 30, 2021. The bill we are voting on today provides no additional enhancements to that current policy, but instead further extends the 15 percent increase until September 30, 2021. I am certainly open to supporting additional food assistance after June 30, should the circumstances warrant it, but I believe Congress should make that decision when the moment requires it.
Child care assistance: This bill devotes $40 billion to child care assistance. Just two months ago, Congress allocated $10 billion in additional child care assistance to states. Maine only received its allocation on February 4. As with other programs, I believe it is irresponsible to quadruple our investment before we more fully release existing funds and determine what will be needed to help us through the final stages of the pandemic.
Aid to state and local governments: Over the past year, I have supported $150 billion in aid to states and localities, a critical investment that has helped Maine weather some of the worst periods of the pandemic. As a result of these investments and quick and responsible leadership by Governor Janet Mills, Maine has now been presented with a two-year budget proposal by the governor that is balanced and that makes key investments in education and public health and sets money aside for the state's Rainy Day Fund. Just this week, the state announced its revenue projections are up $154 million over projections for the first seven months of this fiscal year. While some additional aid may be warranted, the $350 billion authorized by this bill far exceeds the actual budget gaps confronting states and localities. I hope that the Senate chooses to better target this funding.
Schools: This legislation devotes $170 billion to primary and secondary schools and colleges. It has been said this funding is necessary to reopen schools. However, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that less than 8 percent of this funding will be spent before the end of this school year, and only about a third in the next two years. I have heard from school systems in Maine that have yet to spend the entirety of federal aid provided to them in previous COVID legislation in 2020. Making sure our kids can be back in the classroom full time, in a safe environment for both students and educators is critical but is not a problem that can be solved by simply increasing funding.The CDC has set a standard for safety, and fully reopened K-12 schools are not a possibility in many communities until our vaccine program has eliminated the threat of community spread.
Small businesses: I have also supported COVID assistance for small businesses in need, and my office has worked tirelessly to connect Maine small businesses owners with the resources they need to weather the pandemic. Importantly, $144 billion remains available for disbursement from the Paycheck Protection Program, and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant that Congress authorized in December has yet to open for applications.
Direct payments: This bill allocates $1,400 direct checks to individuals making up to $75,000 and married couples making up to $150,000, with phased-down checks for households with incomes as high as $200,000. Under this bill, it is estimated that over 90 percent of Maine tax filers would receive a check from the federal government. While those who have lost jobs or had hours reduced ought to receive income support, it is a waste to send a third round of government checks to wealthy individuals making almost three times the average household salary in Maine’s Second Congressional District. The data shows that among higher-income households, many of the direct checks sent in December were deposited into savings. That money would be better spent on continued unemployment assistance for those who have lost jobs to this pandemic.
The second category of spending is a series of policies worthy of consideration under regular order but that do not belong in an emergency spending bill. This bill contains approximately $250 billion in these kinds of provisions, including a one-year expansion of the Child Tax Credit, a two-year enhancement of premium subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, and multiemployer pension reform. These are sensible — and in some cases bipartisan — policies on their own, and I would be likely to support them as standalone, paid-for legislation. However, using emergency spending legislation to enact these provisions is not a responsible way to make meaningful public policy that can stand the test of time.
In the end, my concerns with this legislation are not only about these individual provisions, but also about the compounding effect of the spending decisions of the past year. On a bipartisan basis, Congress came together last year to pass multiple COVID-related bills, spending over $4 trillion dollars to help Americans weather the pandemic and its economic effects. Those decisions were made at critical junctures -- an economy in freefall, sudden and mass unemployment, and a more recent winter surge in COVID cases. The moment we find ourselves in now, while critical, is not clouded by the uncertainty we experienced last year. While still in the distance, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We have several effective vaccines in circulation, and manufacturers are continuing to scale up production. Many state budgets, like ours in Maine, are beginning to show signs of resilience and recovery. Adding another $2 trillion in spending at this moment exceeds the demonstrated needs of our communities and fails to take into account the nearly $1 trillion in new funding we passed just two months ago, much of which has yet to hit the economy.
Many have popularly claimed that the biggest threat is not that Congress goes too big but that it goes too small in responding to the current economic situation. They are ignoring the possibility of a much-anticipated infrastructure proposal from the Biden Administration later this year which could offer a chance for Congress to further boost the economy if necessary. Between the money spent in 2020 and today’s package, we are already nearing $6 trillion in new spending in less than one year. This amount of new spending is unprecedented since World War II. It’s not unreasonable to take a step back and ask ourselves if we are making every dollar count and picking the right priorities. At some point, the bill has to come due, and when it does, it could put at risk critical programs such as Medicare or sap resources needed for important future priorities, from rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure to fixing our broken healthcare system.”