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Chicago Tribune Op-Ed: $1.9 trillion for a COVID-19 relief package should be the minimum — not the max

February 17, 2021

This week marks the 12-year anniversary of President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the historic stimulus package passed in 2009 to lift the nation out of the Great Recession and put millions of Americans back to work.

In appeasing Republican concerns of spending too much money on a single relief package, Obama’s final $800 billion package was only two-thirds of the $1.2 trillion stimulus proposal originally recommended by the administration economists. Even after cuts were made, Republicans decried it as too much. In reality, it was not enough.

While the bold legislation certainly cushioned the financial downturn and fueled longer-term economic competitiveness, the price of aiming too small on relief resulted in a sluggish jobless recession that cost millions of low-income families — mostly people of color — their homes, livelihoods and savings. In fact, the unemployment rate during the month of the 2010 midterm election was 9.8%, nearly the same it had been a full year before.

As President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package inches closer to passing Congress, Democrats cannot afford to make the same mistakes we made over a decade ago. And we are in a much worse situation than in 2009.

Last Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said the real unemployment rate today is close to 10%. “The pandemic has led to the largest 12-month decline in labor force participation since at least 1948,” stated the Republican-appointed chairman.

And yet, like they did a decade ago, Republicans in Congress today are preaching from their faux gospel of fiscal conservatism.

Earlier this month, a group of 10 Republican lawmakers presented a $618 billion counterproposal. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine called it “premature” for Congress to consider a relief package in the trillions. Similarly, amendments have been proposed to limit stimulus checks based on new income thresholds to cut the cost.

Just last week, the Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board called on Congress to hold “money until it has a clearer picture of the actual impact of the pandemic” and proclaimed that it was “not clear that Americans need another round of stimulus payments in the amount of $1,400 per person.”

But the picture could not be any clearer: The greatest risk is doing too little to keep Americans above water and creating permanent economic scarring that stalls our recovery.

The dire situation Powell described last week is seen in communities across America. Two million women have left the labor force entirely, 29 million Americans face food insecurity, and an estimated 14 million are behind on payments.

Additionally, states and cities across America — run by elected officials from both political parties — face historic budget shortfalls. The last COVID-19 relief package excluded state and local aid, and the Republicans’ counterproposal would continue to ignore this looming crisis that will have catastrophic consequences. Economists predict 5.3 million workers likely will lose their jobs by the end of 2021. Simply put, the fate of our state and cities is a kitchen table economics issue.

The very last thing Congress should be doing is aiming to help fewer people.

In my first few weeks as a member of Congress, I’ve seen and experienced how polarized our politics is. But providing Americans with the relief they need is not polarizing. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, 2 out of 3 Americans support the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion stimulus relief bill. The provision for $1,400 stimulus payments is supported by nearly 80% of Americans, including 70% of Republican voters. Not only is this relief plan practical — it’s popular.

Even our leading national economic experts agree that helping more working families far outweighs fears of spending too much. In fact, their estimated costs of relief to revitalize our economy is no less than $3 trillion, dwarfing President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package.

Congress has a massive mandate. Failing to harness the will to act is failing to learn from the mistakes of the past.

If a $1.9 trillion tax cut for the ultrawealthy was justifiable four years ago, surely a $1.9 trillion rescue plan during a pandemic is appropriate today. But where was that sense of fiscal restraint when Republicans passed a massive tax cut in 2017? After all, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected this needless tax cut would cost $1.9 trillion over 10 years.

Fiscal responsibility must mean meeting the economic needs of today, not hypocritical concerns about the national debt. Americans need and want a robust relief package that meets the scale of the public health and economic crises.

The cost of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan must be the floor, not the ceiling.

Marie Newman, a Democrat, is the U.S. representative for Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District.