Showdown Over Federal Coronavirus Relief Bill Means Longer Waits for Aid

by Ben Adlin

Update on Stimulus Payments: Direct Deposits and prepaid debit card mailings have begun according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Physical checks will begin to be mailed December 30.

President Donald Trump’s last-minute second-guessing of a congressionally approved COVID-19 relief package will almost certainly delay direct monetary payments to Americans, once expected to begin going out as early as next week. But the president’s criticism of the bill, which came abruptly after weeks of partisan negotiations, has also given Democrats an opening to increase payments to $2,000 per person, up from $600 in the version already approved by lawmakers.

At this point, however, the increase is far from certain. Democrats’ effort to make the change quickly Thursday morning through a procedure called a unanimous consent motion was rejected by House Republicans on Thursday morning, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said the House will hold another vote on the change next week.

“On Monday, I will bring the House back to session where we will hold a recorded vote on our stand-alone bill to increase economic impact payments to $2,000,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Hopefully by then the President will have already signed the bipartisan and bicameral legislation to keep government open and to deliver coronavirus relief.”

The current relief package — with the lower, $600-per-person payments — was passed by Congress on Monday evening and is currently awaiting the president’s signature. It would also expand unemployment benefits and earmark more money for schools, rental assistance, food programs for families, vaccine distribution, and other programs.

The nearly $900 billion in pandemic-related aid is part of a larger, $2.3 trillion congressional spending package that would also fund the government through October. Trump was widely expected to sign the legislation, which lawmakers passed with veto-proof, bipartisan support.

Rather than signing the bill into law, however, the president instead took to Twitter to criticize it. In a video posted Tuesday evening, he slammed the legislation as “a disgrace,” attacking certain funding provisions and calling the $600 payments insufficient, blindsiding Republicans and Democrats alike.

“Despite all of this wasteful spending and much more, the $900 billion package provides hardworking taxpayers with only $600 each in relief payments,” he said, “and not enough money is given to small businesses, and in particular restaurants, whose owners have suffered so grievously.”

While the bill does include some aid for restaurants, such as expanded access to Paycheck Protection Program loans, it left out the so-called Restaurants Act, a provision that would have funnelled $120 billion to restaurants and bars with fewer than 20 locations.

Some of the president’s claims about the legislation in Monday’s video were false, such as his assertion that more relief would go to noncitizens than citizens.

Trump didn’t explicitly threaten to veto the bill, and some lawmakers have speculated that even if he did, Congress would likely overturn his veto. But the president has demanded lawmakers bring him a new bill that includes the higher payments. That’s led to the Democratic push to increase the amount, challenging Republicans to oppose it and risk backlash from voters.

A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat whose district stretches from Tacoma to North Bellevue and includes most of South Seattle, told the Emerald in an email Wednesday that the congressman felt pursuing the increase was justified.

“I absolutely believe we should provide more than $600 in direct cash payments,” the spokesperson said. “This support provided in this COVID-19 relief package is necessary, but insufficient for the magnitude of the crisis.”

If the president doesn’t sign the federal spending bill by Saturday, a number of other federal benefits programs will also be put on hold. Each day that Trump fails to sign a relief package will also mean more delays for Americans waiting on direct relief, Smith’s office said. 

“Any delay in the package being signed into law would delay direct cash payments getting to people, even if by just a few days,” the spokesperson said. “However, a few day delay in signing in order to increase payments to $2,000 would absolutely be worth it.”

Who gets direct aid, and how much?

Even after Thursday’s vote, it’s still not clear how much money the final relief package will direct toward individual Americans and their families. The bill already passed by Congress would send $600 to individuals who made up to $75,000 last year, with less money going to people who earned more than that. Married couples who make up to $150,000 would receive $1,200. Those amounts are half of what Americans received through the CARES Act, which was responsible for the first round of direct payments earlier this year.

Amounts received under the proposed increase would be $2,000 per person and $4,000 for married couples. Lawmakers have not announced any other changes to what has already been approved.

For Americans receiving unemployment, those benefits would go up by $300 per week through March 14 under the bill, though it’s not yet clear when that benefit would begin.

Certain families could actually receive more in direct payments under the current legislation than they did in the first round of payments earlier this year. American citizens who were married to non-American citizens, for example, were excluded from payments under the CARES Act, as were their children. Under the new relief package, mixed-citizenship married couples and their children would be eligible for the payments, although noncitizens themselves would not.

Families with children would also receive more for each dependent child—$600 per child, up from $500 in the CARES Act. Dependent adults, such as some college students or older family members, would not qualify for aid.

An individual’s or couple’s earnings are determined through their latest tax filing, in this case from 2019. Omni Calculator has an online tool to estimate how much stimulus money you might receive.

Direct payments would not be subject to income or other taxes, although many other federal benefits—including expanded unemployment benefits—are taxable.

How do I sign up?

As a general rule, the relief payments will be sent the same way as the earlier round of payments. If you got a direct deposit into your bank account last time, expect the same to happen this time. If you got a check, keep an eye on your mailbox for another. How you get your payment depends on whether the IRS has your bank information from past tax payments.

Like last time, the government is expected to provide a tracking tool to allow people to monitor the status of payments.

When do I get the money?

After Congress’s approval of the relief package earlier this week, some reports said payments could go out by the end of the year. That’s looking less likely after Trump’s pushback on that bill and Democrats’ effort to increase direct aid.

How quickly relief money gets to Americans depends on how soon those disagreements can be ironed out. If the president doesn’t sign a bill by Monday, parts of the government will begin to shut down and certain federal benefits programs will be put on pause.

Once Trump does sign a bill — whether the current one or a revised version with more aid — payments are expected to arrive relatively quickly. The spokesperson for Smith’s office said they expect fewer frustrations than with the first round of aid.

“Since the federal government already went through the process of sending direct payments from the CARES Act, we anticipate getting money in the hands of people can be done quicker and with less hiccups than in the spring,” they said. “That is regardless of if the amount is $600 or $2,000.”

As the fight over direct payment amounts plays out, local officials have issued statements calling out federal officials, especially Republicans, for failing to effectively address the pandemic or support the millions of Americans who can’t make ends meet. Nationwide, 35.3% of U.S. adults could face eviction or foreclosure in the next two months, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey last week, while 31% said they expect someone in their household to lose employment income in the next four weeks.

“All around King County, I’m seeing people struggle on a level I haven’t seen in my 30 years here,” said King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, whose 2nd District includes most of South Seattle. “I get countless emails and calls from people telling me they can’t afford their rent and they’re on the verge of eviction once the moratorium ends.”

Zahilay, Smith, and other elected officials have encouraged residents who are having trouble accessing benefits programs to contact their offices, which often have staff specifically tasked to help constituents navigate problems.

“From helping ensure Social Security benefits are received to working with the [Department of Veterans Affairs],” said the spokesperson for Smith’s office, “we welcome and encourage any constituent having trouble with a federal agency to reach out so we can do anything [and] everything in our purview to assist.”

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer.

The featured image of the United States Senate building is attributed to Cocoabiscuit under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)