The House passed two immigration bills aimed at curtailing the Trump administration's efforts to limit immigration from certain countries and is expected to pass an economic stimulus package (see below) later today. The Senate discontinued debate on a broad bipartisan energy reform bill after failing to reach agreement on which amendments would be given votes.
The House will be out of session and return to Washington the week of March 23. The Senate will take up stimulus legislation by either passing the House-passed bill or its own bill.
All of the chatter in Washington this week was about the virus and, increasingly, its short- and long-term economic impacts. As such, talk about an economic stimulus plan has accelerated. We cover this in various pieces below.
Can a Final Stimulus Bill Become Law?
Probably. Lawmakers from both parties and the President have differed on how to most effectively address the virus' impact on the economy, but the political imperative of acting in a time of national crisis likely will be powerful enough to push a final bill forward. Furthermore, some areas of common agreement have given both sides a basis on which to negotiate. Stimulus may be provided in various bills over time, rather than one comprehensive bill.
Will There be One Stimulus Bill or Various Bills?
Probably the latter. We believe Congress will want to enact something immediately to show the markets and voters that it can act quickly in a time of crisis. An initial bill will be easiest to pass since it will contain "low hanging fruit" supported by both sides. Subsequent bills may follow as the economic impact of the virus is better understood. However, any subsequent stimulus bill will be tougher to agree on than the first one.
What Will be Included in a Final Bill?
Both the bill being negotiated in the House as we write this (early Friday morning) and the President's national address on Wednesday night highlight the need to provide assistance for workers affected by the virus. We expect paycheck replacement and expanded sick leave to be made available to these workers in a final stimulus bill. Any final bill will also provide free testing for the virus and guarantees of insurance coverage for testing and treatment of the virus. There is also bipartisan support for providing eligible school children with continued coverage under a federally-subsidized meal plan while their schools are closed (22 million kids get this service currently) as well as expanding lending for small- and medium-sized businesses that have been hit hard by the crisis. Funding for special protective equipment will also be provided to emergency workers. We feel very confident that these provisions described above will be included in an initial bill, while many other provisions would need to be negotiated as part of subsequent packages.
What Will be Left Out of a Final Package?
We don't believe a full, one-year payroll tax holiday, as proposed by President Trump, will be included in this initial bill. Various proposals to lower tax rates for certain individuals will also not get bipartisan traction. Democratic ideas to give all individuals a direct cash payment are also likely to be left out. No specific industries will get large-scale bail-outs, though some businesses or industries may win a provision to have certain taxes delayed (deferrals of taxes could also be done through executive branch action). We don’t think taxpayers will get rebate checks, as they have in past emergencies. Finally, there won't be tariff relief or any provisions directly relating to the supply chain disruptions in China that have hurt many US companies.
The House will pass its bill today, and the Senate will either vote on it early next week (if it is bipartisan and has President Trump's support) or craft a different bill that contains various Republican priorities. The Senate has called off its recess next week and the House may follow suit depending on the Senate action. Both sides will work behind the scenes to try to negotiate a final agreement in the coming days to avoid any delays. Ideally, a bipartisan bill supported by the White House will pass quickly, but if the House bill does not have strong bipartisan support, passage of a final bill by both chambers may be pushed off until later this month. A second bill could begin to materialize in April. Public pressure due to disruptions to daily life and escalating infection cases in the US will force expeditious action.
Adding to the Deficit.
The cost of the $8.3 billion bill to address coronavirus that was signed into law last week will increase the deficit. The House and Senate vote totals for the bill were a combined 511-3, which is as bipartisan as any bill gets. We do not expect this impending stimulus bill (or any subsequent bills) to be offset with spending reductions or tax increases. Emergency funding is rarely offset and is generally added to the deficit when it occurs. This is precisely why lawmakers and the administration should address the deficit during more normal times, which they haven't done for too long.
Congress and the Virus.
The virus is the first, second and third issue in every conversation we have had with lawmakers this week. They are learning, as we all are, new things about the makeup and hazard of this virus every day. They have a relatively higher risk of catching the virus given their frequent use of busy airports, attendance at large political and constituent events, constant hand-shaking and interaction with the many daily visitors to the US Capitol from all over the world (visits to the Capitol are now being temporarily halted). A majority of the 535 House and Senate members are 60 years old or over, the highest-risk group for infection. As of today, eight members of Congress have self-quarantined, and more will do so as the virus spreads. Unlike many other workers, Congress cannot work primarily from home. Members need to be congregated to negotiate and vote on bills when needed, and emergencies often present a need to pass legislation. There is no system for Congress to vote via telephone or computer, and while a bill to enable the House to vote remotely has been proposed, it could not be implemented in a timely enough fashion to address the current crisis even if the measure passed. It's likely a matter of time before a member of Congress tests positive (the first staff person was confirmed infected this week).
Beyond sectors like travel and tourism that are already reeling from the impact of the coronavirus outbreak, business as a whole has high stakes in how it handles the coronavirus and its impact. The healthcare industry is clearly at the front line of the response. With the pharmaceutical and insurance industries already under the spotlight, many members of Congress have called for legislation to ensure that any treatment is affordable and that patients have copays and deductibles waived. Indeed, these are key areas of focus in House Democrats’ stimulus proposal. Meanwhile, banks are being pushed by lawmakers and regulators to provide forbearance measures (such as waivers of fees and grace periods on loan repayments) to customers negatively impacted by the virus. Technology companies will face scrutiny of their actions to combat misinformation regarding the virus on their social media networks. Stock buyback plans and large executive compensation packages will be big targets for lawmakers and presidential candidates alike. Even after the outbreak abates, businesses will face questions in hearings and other fora on how they responded to this crisis.
The Final Word
A Path for Bernie?
The fight goes on for Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) despite his significant losses over the past two weeks. His decision to stay in the race was not unexpected given his refusal to drop out of the 2016 race even after it was mathematically impossible for him to get a majority of the delegates. So, what is the possibility of Senator Sanders winning the nomination at this time? He is not mathematically eliminated yet and in fact is only about 150 delegates behind Biden. Nevertheless, the path for him to overtake the former Vice President is razor thin. To do so, Senator Sanders would need to win over 55% of the total delegates remaining in the primary, a steep challenge since he has not cleared 55% of the vote in any of the primaries. Additionally, the largest remaining state in terms of delegates is Florida, which votes on Tuesday (March 17) and heavily favors Biden. Senator Sanders' chances seem to almost entirely rely on a superlative performance at this Sunday's debate (a one-on-one affair) and major unforced errors by Biden that could give primary voters pause.