It is the responsibility of Congress to “pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States”, yet, despite having known for months that the country sorely needed both pandemic relief and a plan to keep the government open, America’s legislative branch has only just gotten around to approving legislation to keep the U.S. from plunging off another fiscal cliff.
With just a few days to go before 2020 ends and a new year begins, the House and Senate have given approval to a $2.3 trillion combined pandemic relief package and omnibus appropriations bill.
The legislation runs about 5,600 pages and was finalized a few hours ago, so it’s a safe assumption that pretty much nobody has read it in its entirety.
Regardless, the deed has been done.
A deal has been struck, votes have been taken, and legislation has been transmitted to the executive branch. If the fiscal megabill agreed to in Congress is signed by Donald Trump as expected, it’ll become law.
The roll call from the Pacific Northwest was unanimous in support of the bill, with all seventeen U.S. representatives from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho voting aye and all six U.S. senators also voting aye.
Only two Democrats in the House opposed the bill: Tulsi Gabbard and Rashida Tlaib. Fifty Republicans voted against it along with one independent.
In the Senate, there were only six nay votes, all from Republicans (Marsha Blackburn, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson, Mike Lee, and Rick Scott).
Pandemic relief and appropriations for 2021 could have been adopted much, much sooner and in a far less rushed fashion if Mitch “The Grim Reaper” McConnell and his narrow-minded Senate Republican caucus hadn’t placed their own interests and desire for power before the needs of the country.
The bill “doesn’t go all the way, but it takes us down the path, a first step,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in floor remarks supporting the legislation.
“I have hope because of the [vaccine] and I hope because of the election of Joe Biden as a President of the United States,” Pelosi said. “A president who will follow science. He will follow science and he will recognize that we have to meet the needs of all of the American people, wherever they live in our country, especially addressing Barbara Lee’s concerns about the communities of color that have been underserved in so much what have we have done.”
“I applaud the bipartisan Congressional economic relief package that will deliver critical resources to fight COVID-19, including funding for vaccine distribution, and much needed temporary relief for workers, families, and small businesses,” President-elect Joe Biden commented in a statement released yesterday.
“This bill provides critical temporary support for millions of Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, support to help keep families in their homes, and food on their table; and direct payments to help Americans make it through a dark winter,” the President-elect said.
“It gives a lifeline to small businesses struggling to stay afloat, having previously found themselves at the back of the line for relief.”
“And, it provides an important downpayment on the investment we need in vaccine procurement and distribution, helping deliver these incredible vaccines around the country and offer the American people protection and peace of mind that there will be light at the end of the tunnel.”
Let’s start with the good news:
- The federal eviction moratorium was extended
- Over $3 billion was provided to help low-income people afford broadband internet during the pandemic
- Long-overdue cash payments will finally be made to mixed-status families
And the bad — this legislation:
- Provides $1.375 billion for Trump’s border wall
- Fails to address the COVID-19 crisis in jails and prisons
- Provides dismal rental assistance
- Fails to ensure testing, treatment, and vaccines for millions of immigrants
There is much, much more that the legislation does and doesn’t do, of course. At almost 5,600 pages, there are zillions upon zillions of provisions in this legislation. Some are virtuous while others are malicious. It’s going to be a while before even skilled, veteran observers are able to independently parse what’s in here.
However, thanks to our congressional delegation, we do have some details on what a few of those virtuous provisions are.
For example, Senator Maria Cantwell announced she was able to secure pandemic relief for struggling newspapers and local media outlets.
“The bill provides $284.5 billion for the entire Paycheck Protection Program, a new infusion of cash for a program that has been a lifeline for small businesses across the country, including 108,000 Washington state small businesses and nonprofits who received $12.5 billion in PPP loans,” according to Cantwell’s office.
“Cantwell’s provision provides a fix to the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) affiliation rule, which previously prevented local news outlets that were owned by larger parent companies from accessing PPP funding,” the Senator’s staff wrote.
“The provision would make newspapers and local radio and TV stations that produce and distribute local news and emergency information eligible for PPP funds even if owned by a larger entity as long as the individual radio or TV station has no more than 500 employees or the individual newspaper has 1,000 or fewer employees. The provision would also make public broadcasters that are operated by large universities eligible for PPP, which would benefit public radio stations like those run out of the University of Washington and Washington State University.”
Cantwell also touted the inclusion of $1 billion in funding for badly needed tribal broadband and $250 million in telehealth programs.
“Indian Country needs a lot of connectivity,” said Cantwell. “So getting more broadband into those communities will be very helpful. The COVID package also contains money… for telehealth. Telehealth is a critical path during the COVID crisis to make sure that communities have the ability to get expert advice into our homes, into our communities, to connect people with information. So this telehealth grant is a very important program in the State of Washington.”
Senator Murray’s office announced that she was able to secure funding for priorities like a new Low-Income Household Drinking Water and Wastewater Emergency Assistance Program. The program will make grants to state, local, and Tribal governments to distribute to drinking water and wastewater utilities, Murray’s staff explain, and received $638 million in funding.
Murray also got language added to put the brakes on the planned closure and sale of the National Archives’ Seattle campus. The fiscal megabill “includes language for NARA and GSA to explore action to prevent the immediate closure of the Sand Point facility as well as identify long-term options to ensure continued access to its contents,” according to Murray’s staff.
The bill also includes Murray’s Water Development Resources Act (WRDA) 2020. This “includes provisions Senator Murray has long fought for to reform the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) and to more equitably distribute money from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) for maintenance projects at America’s ports.”
“For too long, the existing system has forced Washington state ports to operate at a competitive disadvantage, stifling our state’s potential for economic growth and threatening thousands of good paying jobs” Senator Murray said.
“This bill takes critical steps to secure the long-term financial outlook of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, among others, keep jobs in Washington State, and fix this broken system. As a champion for our ports I’m glad we’ll be able to finally make these changes, and I look forward to the bill being signed into law.”
WRDA is a big win for Washington State’s maritime sector, and as Senator Murray says, will help protect some of the best paying blue collar jobs we have left.
As we learn more about what’s in this bill, we’ll have more reflections and analysis to share about it here on the Cascadia Advocate. You can also expect a recap of the bill in the next installment of our series Last Week In Congress.