It took until nearly the last moment, but Congress managed to come together and pass a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package that will quickly deliver much needed-aid.
Working Minnesotans could see $600 in direct relief checks as early as next week, while those unemployed will get an extension in the nick of time, continuing $300-a-week benefits that otherwise would have expired on Dec. 26. As a result of the give-and-take negotiations, that extension will last only last 11 weeks. That is a too-scant window for laid-off workers to get back on their feet. There is $25 billion in assistance for renters unable to make payments. That's not enough, given that a Moody's economic analysis that showed 12 million renters have fallen, on average, more than $5,000 behind on rent and utilities, but it will help.
Rural communities that have struggled to provide online learning for students will get funds for broadband. Small businesses will see a second round of forgivable loans through a resurrection of the Paycheck Protection Program, and there will be help for entertainment venues and news media outlets. There is money for reopening schools and nutrition assistance.
Vaccine distribution, along with testing and tracing programs, will get more than $90 billion — a much-needed boost for states dealing with strained health systems.
But that brings us to one of the biggest shortcomings of this compromise. Early on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell drew a bright line against relief to states that have juggled not only the costs of the pandemic, but the attendant recession that has sent tax revenue plummeting. Minnesota, like many states, is looking at serious projected shortfalls.
Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., an architect of the earlier bipartisan plan, said he was grateful for the compromise but pained at its shortcomings. In an interview with an editorial writer moments after he voted for passage, Phillips called the victory "bittersweet."
While it will deliver help for many, he said, "This was so important and urgent and yet took far too long." But, Phillips said, "we did show the country there are some here in Congress who maybe are not the flashiest, but who take joy in trying to help people."
The bipartisan work should continue; there will be much to do when the 117th Congress convenes on Jan. 3. Economists have said that the states collectively face deficits of $170 billion — just a little more than the $160 billion in state and local aid that had been in the original bipartisan plan Phillips and others championed. That funding should never have been pitted against direct relief for individuals. Both were and are needed.
President-elect Joe Biden says he is committed to additional relief that will include aid for state and local governments — essential to forestall cuts to health care, education at the state level and police at the local level.
This bill, it should be noted, contains far more than COVID relief. It came wrapped in a mega-bill of $2.3 trillion, with $1.4 trillion to fund federal agencies through the end of the fiscal year to prevent a government shutdown, but it is poor governance to send legislators a bill of more than 5,500 pages just hours before a vote. Let's hope Biden will be able to set a more productive tone in working with the next Congress.