Editorial: The coronavirus aid package out of Washington: Trillions and counting

Tribune Content Agency

Did you notice how quickly Washington’s $1 trillion coronavirus spending package swelled to $1.6 trillion, and then $2 trillion? As we write, Senate negotiators sounded close to a deal to deliver $1,200 checks to many Americans, increase unemployment benefits, lend to small businesses, bail out airlines. … Did we miss anything? You bet — and don’t forget, taxpayers, you will pay.

The global pandemic is a public health crisis demanding urgent government responses: to lead the fight to save lives by containing COVID-19, and to manage the potentially cataclysmic fallout by taking steps to protect the financial system, the greater economy and temporarily displaced workers. But manage the fallout shouldn’t mean abandon self-control.

Expectations of a deal were strong enough Tuesday to give Wall Street a huge boost. Investors were endorsing action by Senate leaders and the juicy price tag, not anyone’s judicious spending decisions. Political self-control seems to have disappeared along with handshakes, rush hours and baseball spring training.

You could see temptation and instinct clash with restraint and common sense in Washington while the rest of the nation responsibly coped, worried and waited for the emergency bill to materialize in Congress.

President Donald Trump sounded like he’s already had enough of being the self-described wartime president who will defeat COVID-19. With an eye on Election Day, Trump said he hopes to reopen the country for business in two weeks, well ahead of health experts’ prognosis. Senate Republicans had their own case of the hurry-ups: In one version of their package they were willing to provide $500 billion in aid to distressed businesses with few requirements attached.

Democrats also were eager to view the coronavirus bill as a chalice to be filled to overflowing. A House version offered by Speaker Nancy Pelosi included progressive agenda items wholly unrelated to healing the COVID-19 pandemic, including relaxed rules on voter registration and expanded collective bargaining rights for unions. USA Today columnist James S. Robbins perused the bill and found $100 million for juvenile justice programs, a U.S. Postal Service bailout and the suspension of some aspects of immigration law enforcement. And those gifts help temporarily unemployed restaurant workers … how? By the way, Pelosi’s bill would have upped the ante to $2.5 trillion.

The economic goal of the bill should be to protect vulnerable Americans directly and support healthy small businesses with limited loans so they don’t succumb to this unexpected crisis — and therefore throw even more people out of work.

The scattershot distribution of checks to most adults and children is expensive and inefficient. Expanding unemployment benefits, including to participants in the gig economy, makes better sense.

We don’t like the idea of providing bailouts to favored industries and companies that have been living on the edge. Yes, that includes Chicago-based United Airlines and Boeing. They can seek to raise money from private-sector sources. Government aid to distressed companies distorts competition and allows weaker players to survive and continue their reckless ways.

Few pieces of legislation are perfect, especially big bills enacted in a hurry. By the time this one reaches Trump’s desk, we hope the bucket list items have disappeared and both sides have challenged each other to produce a focused, effective package. For example, as the Washington Post reported, it’s good that negotiators added independent oversight components to the corporate stabilization fund. And the sooner the House version vanishes, the better.

Hopes for reason are tempered by the latest price estimate for the Senate version: $2 trillion and climbing.


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