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Concerns over what got stuffed into the stimulus bill and what is missing

Posted at 11:47 AM, Dec 24, 2020

The latest stimulus package passed by Congress is one of the longest bills to be pushed so quickly through the Senate and the House. The final bill was handed to lawmakers just hours before they voted on it.

“This bill is too long, too complicated,” said Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

EPI expects the $900-billion package will provide an instant jolt to our economy by extending unemployment benefits and enhancing them by $300 a week. It also includes a $600 stimulus check for millions of Americans and $25 billion for housing and eviction protection.

There are hundreds of billions of dollars for Paycheck Protection Program loans, intended for small businesses. However, those touted benefits only take up a couple of pages in the nearly 5,600-page bill.

"There are things in there that don’t belong in there,” said Lee.

In fact, as more experts and government watchdog organizations start to sift through the stimulus bill, which was also tied to an ominous spending bill, the list of non-pandemic related funding and measures grows.

“Some of it is things like horse-racing commissions [funding] and so on, but some of it shouldn’t be in there because it is helping either people or businesses that don’t need the help,” Lee explained.

For example, there’s a tax break on alcohol, and Lee pointed out the alcohol industry is one that has actually thrived during the pandemic. Legislators also included a tax break for what has been dubbed the Three Martini Lunch.

“It’s a deduction for business people who are having expensive lunches out. That has been extended in this bill,” said Lee. "That is not the best way, the most targeted way to help the restaurant industry.”

For all of the non-pandemic-related measures squeezed into this latest deal, there is a surprise in what did not make it in.

“The most important thing that is not in the stimulus bill is aid to state and local governments,” said Lee. "If they don’t get enough aid from the federal government, they will have to start laying off workers.”

Another thing not in the stimulus bill was an extension on the student loan payment pause. Many student loan borrowers will have to start repaying loans in January and interest will begin accruing again.

There is also, notably, no transparency requirement tied to small business PPP loans. Watchdog organizations, like U.S. Public Interest Research Group, have been calling for it for months, given all the issues seen with the first round of PPP loan funding.

"The Department of Justice has actually indicted 57 people so far from stealing over $175 million from the PPP loan program,” said RJ Cross with U.S. PIRG.

Also, lawsuits filed by several news organizations forced the Small Business Administration to reveal more names of companies that have received the forgivable loans. The result has shown that most of the PPP loans issued in the first round, more than $250 billion, went to larger than intended business. The smallest businesses, in which the loans were intended for, actually struggled to get the funding they needed.

U.S. PIRG has fought for months to get transparency requirements tied to PPP loan money to prevent further fraud and corruption in the program, and the group was surprised that was not included in this latest stimulus package.

“If folks are very clear on the fact that information about their loans, their application, and their businesses will be made public, it helps to deter a lot of fraudsters in the beginning,” Cross added. “Congress largely squandered that opportunity to strengthen those measures that would increase public trust in the PPP program.”

Congress is expected to immediately begin working on yet another stimulus bill in January and could address some of the concerns with this latest bill.

"I hope that Congress can come back in 2021 and take up the elements that are missing from this bill,” said Lee.