U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer is partly right. When it comes to addressing pressing issues related to the next round of federal coronavirus relief, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle "cannot afford to fail."
It's too bad that, in some ways, they already have.
Today is the expiration date on the existing relief package, which included the controversial $600-per-week payment to Americans who lost their jobs amid business shutdowns related to the onset of the pandemic.
While the haggling continues at the U.S. Capitol, roughly 30 million unemployed Americans are wondering how they're going to cover their rent or mortgage payments and stay current on other obligations.
Republicans want to trim the federal weekly unemployment payment to $200, arguing that $600 creates a disincentive for people to get out of the house and seek other work.
A recent study by Yale University economists suggests otherwise, finding "no evidence" that more generous benefits discouraged unemployed workers from going back to their jobs or finding new ones.
There's a more glaring issue with the Republicans' argument, however, and that's the timing of it. At this very moment, many states in the south and the west are now enduring the highest numbers of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death since the virus arrived on American shores earlier this year. There are now 4.2 million infections, and climbing, nationwide, and many states in hotspot areas are now experiencing testing issues and delays.
Is now really the time to cut aid to 30 million unemployed Americans in hopes of pushing them back into the workforce, when so much of the country is in some stage of lockdown and employers of all sizes from coast to coast are hurting as a consequence? Surely, it makes sense to extend the original assistance for a few weeks at least, in hopes the curve out west and in the south will be flattened and conditions improved.
There are issues beyond unemployment, too, namely funding to assist schools as they prepare for reopening and aid for states like New York, where according to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli state tax revenue was down $1.5 billion (17.3%) in June compared to last year. Local governments need help, too; DiNapoli reported sales tax collection across Western New York fell by $45.8 million from April through June compared to the same time last year.
Under normal circumstances, the idea of the federal government continuing to spend trillions on aid packages for households, schools and governments would draw flak from most observers, including many newspaper editorial boards.
These are not normal times.
These days rank among the most challenging in the history of our nation. As we are now seeing — thanks to the federal government's failure to implement a national, comprehensive plan of action for dealing with the virus — infection rates are going up, not down, and our nightmare has come to fruition as things get worse, not better.
Congress should have dealt with all of this weeks ago. By waiting until the CARES Act expired, they're blowing a huge hole in the safety net beneath millions of constituents who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and they have done nothing to assist cash-starved school districts, local governments and states.
Of all the issues, the lack of respect for the unemployed is the most glaring. How would members of Congress like it if we stopped paying them during one of the most distressing years in the history of this great nation? Perhaps a pay cut is in order, considering they have proven themselves unable to do the most basic part of their jobs at a time when their fellow Americans need them most.