Story by Ty Betts
Making sense of what happens during one day on Capitol Hill is a difficult task. Matthew Hitt, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Colorado State University, studies years’ worth of American politics, and he can’t compare the federal response to the current COVID-19 outbreak to anything this country has seen before.
In response to this pandemic, a $2 trillion stimulus package, the largest in U.S. history, passed through the Senate and House of Representatives and was signed into law March 27 by President Trump. Hitt, whose research interests include federal policy and how Congress reaches decisions, offered insight into the significance of this enormous relief plan and what it could mean going forward.
What initially stood out to Hitt was the speed at which this bill was passed.
“This is unbelievably quick,” Hitt said. “We had to get to that place where a solid majority in both houses and the presidency all generally liked what was in there more than they didn’t like it.”
Considering the scope and size of this bill, Hitt views it as a rapidly formed piece of legislation.
“To get an agreement through Congress on $2 trillion in spending in a matter of a few weeks is pretty impressive,” Hitt said. “There was concern there was going to be no bill at all, which is not uncommon, even for a major crisis like this.”
Several sticking points from both parties slowed the approval of a relief plan. Hitt explained that many Democrats wanted to see a green stimulus package, requiring companies receiving support to lessen their climate impact.
In addition, some representatives thought there should be ongoing payments to Americans, while others worried that overly generous payments and unemployment support would disincentivize people from returning to work as the crisis eases.
“Nobody got everything they wanted,” Hitt said. “This is no one’s dream version of a bill that’s everything they’d say they need and nothing they don’t.”
For Hitt, deciding which party came away with more of its wishes satisfied is difficult to say.
“I do think the bill reflects a mix of liberal and conservative priorities,” Hitt said. “In terms of what the balance is … I’m not sure if we’ve had enough time to really dig into it yet and really think through all of the ramifications.”
Who gets what?
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act will provide money to businesses, individuals and governments while supporting public health efforts.
Most of the money will be sent to individuals in payments of around $1,200, which Hitt notes isn’t something the federal government has been known to do. The last time Americans received cash payments from the government was during the George W. Bush administration in 2008, but the amounts were much smaller.
“That’s something that’s going to be very noticeable to people in a way that most federal action is not, frankly,” Hitt said.
Large corporations will also be receiving a major portion of this spending. But not all industries have received equal assistance.
“Some sectors got help — some sectors didn’t,” Hitt said.
The cruise ship industry, which has taken a substantial hit during the pandemic, won’t qualify for any assistance with the relief plan. Airline industries, on the other hand, will receive billions of dollars in relief.
“Those are quick decisions that are being made that put a lot of jobs, money and the future of the American economy at stake,” Hitt said.
While the hope is that this is the only stimulus the American economy will need, if another bill is passed, Hitt could see it focused on helping city and state governments. Unlike the federal government, state and local governments must balance their budgets. If sales tax and income tax drop, state revenue drops with it. The stimulus package allocates money to local and state governments already, but the coming months will tell if they need more.
Because this stimulus package is so substantial, Hitt hopes we don’t have to see another one like it again for some time.
“If there’s a need perceived for a bill this big again in the immediate future, we’re in a lot of trouble,” Hitt explained, as it would indicate the situation has escalated dramatically. Yet smaller bills meant to fill in gaps or add to portions of the legislation could come from Washington in the days ahead.
From a research standpoint, Hitt believes the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak will offer a valuable learning experience, particularly by looking at the states.
“The American states have a really strong amount of latitude in how they’ve responded,” Hitt said. “Scholars will be looking at how the governors of states like Texas, Florida, Washington, Colorado, New York and California all responded differently. And that’s going to be quite interesting.”
Hitt, along with many other political scientists, will use this information to figure out what worked and what didn’t.
The stimulus bill certainly brings out strong feelings from people of all political affiliations. For those who found the politics and negotiations during this time of crisis frustrating, Hitt has one piece of advice that he likes to remind his students.
“If you like laws or sausages, don’t watch either being made,” Hitt joked, noting this is unfair to many talented sausage makers.
But like many Americans, Hitt is keeping a close eye on the politics of this situation and what it will mean economically, while always prioritizing the human life and human health impacts of COVID-19, “which is by far the most serious thing we’re dealing with. And we always have to keep that front and center.”