Congress Passes Covid Relief And Government Funding Bill

Congress passed an enormous coronavirus relief and federal spending package on Dec. 21 that comes after months of ongoing negotiations and delays between congressional Democrats and Republicans. 

Both the House and Senate voted in favor of the over $2 trillion package, which includes $900 billion in coronavirus relief and $1.4 trillion to fund the federal government through Sept. 30. 

President Donald Trump has threatened not to sign the bill and referred to it as “wasteful,” expressing his frustration with funds being sent overseas and calling for up to 2,000 dollars in direct payments. 

The package was approved in the House by a margin of 359-53 and in the Senate by a margin of 92-6. All six of the votes in opposition were from Republicans. 

In the same package, Congress passed a stopgap spending bill to keep the federal government open until Dec. 28 to prepare further and negotiate the spending bill for President Trump’s approval. 

As it stands, the legislation currently provides $600 direct payments to single Americans (and $1,200 for couples) earning up to $75,000 ($150,000 for couples) in the 2019 tax year with reductions of $5 for every $100 of income earned above the thresholds, according to the House Appropriations Committee. Any single person who makes over $87,000 or a couple earning more than $174,000 will be phased out of direct payments. 

Meanwhile, those with dependents under the age of 17 will receive $600 per dependent, a $100 boost from the package earlier this year, while virtually eliminating direct payments for adult dependents, such as college students or older parents. 

Americans receiving unemployment benefits will receive an additional $300 per week federal unemployment insurance supplement, half of the previous $600 per week supplement offered earlier this year. The package also further extends the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation programs, which expanded unemployment benefits to allow the unemployed to access benefits after their state assistance ran out. 

The rent moratorium passed earlier this year will be extended until Jan. 31

Over  $184 billion in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans will be provided to businesses seeking a second round of funding. The legislation also sets aside $20 billion in grants for companies based in low-income areas and community-based and minority lenders. 

Meanwhile, $15 billion has been allocated toward live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions forced to close their doors due to various lockdown orders.

“This is a very, very fast way of getting money into the economy,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, on the morning before the legislation passed. “Let me emphasize: People are going to see this money at the beginning of next week.” 

Critics of the legislation, including President Trump, note that the over 5,000-page bill contains projects deemed wasteful or not related to the ongoing pandemic. Among them include $10 million for “gender programs” in Pakistan; $2.5 million for “internet freedom” in closed societies; $101 million to combat the “transnational threat of wild poaching and trafficking”; $500 million for Israeli defense purchases, including the Iron Dome missile defense program; and $250 million for Palestinian economic aid. 

The package also includes a 1% across-the-board pay rise for federal employees and a 3% pay raise for all military personnel beginning in 2021. This comes with tremendous funding boosts to various government agencies, such as an additional $36 million to the Office of Personnel Management, which will remain an independent agency, an additional $2.1 billion to Health and Human Services, along with an additional $56 billion for public health workforce and career development efforts; an additional $429 million from last year to the Treasury Department; and even an additional $409 million to the Internal Revenue Service. 

Veteran Affairs will receive a record $243 billion in mandatory and discretionary spending, $90 billion for healthcare services, and $3.2 billion to address disability claims backlog. 

NASA scored $23.3 billion in funding, $642 million more than in the previous fiscal year. This package falls roughly $2 billion short of their initial request, notes SpaceNews. 

Washington also received two new tourist attractions. The legislation approves two new Smithsonian Institutions: the Smithsonian Women’s History Museum Act and the National Museum of the American Latino, along with a declaration condemning the Chinese Communist Party’s role in selecting the successor to the Dalai Lama.

Additionally, Congress has effectively banned surprise medical billing, a practice that has earned a rebuke from both parties over the past years. Under new provisions, health providers will no longer be able to charge absorbent rates to patients who seek services outside of the network. Health providers now must work with insurers to settle on a fair price. These changes will take effect in 2022 and apply to doctors, hospitals, and air ambulances – not ground ambulances

However, the current package does provide roughly $8 billion towards a potentially accelerated distribution of the coronavirus vaccine. 

Numerous companies, such as Facebook, Marriott International, and Discover Financial Services, have said that they will urge employees to take the vaccine but will not mandate it. Many cite respect for fears of the vaccine’s safety, liability concerns of potential virus side effects, or infringement on employers’ personal or religious beliefs. 

Some employers plan to offer 401(k) or cash benefits, while others bar unvaccinated employees from certain activities. 

The package did not directly address whether employers would be authorized to mandate workers to take the new coronavirus vaccine. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently released guidance noting that employers generally can require workers to become vaccinated and ask for proof that they have done so. 

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