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With McConnell's coronavirus bill, the devil is in the details

Mitch McConnell has unveiled his coronavirus economic package, and it clearly needs some work.
Image: Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell following a news conference on Capitol Hill on March 17, 2020.Susan Walsh / AP

With Congress already having passed two emergency measures in response to the coronavirus crisis, the question isn't whether there will be a third, but rather, what the "Phase 3" package will entail.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday afternoon released his initial pitch, as NBC News' report noted, it includes roughly a half-trillion dollars in emergency aid for distressed industries and small businesses. But it's the direct cash payments to the public that raised eyebrows.

The proposal, expected to cost around $1 trillion, calls for direct payments on a tiered scale. Individuals making $75,000 based on a 2018 tax return would be eligible for $1,200 payments, or $2,400 for couples filing jointly. The payments would decrease for those making more than $75,000, with an income cap of $99,000 per individual or $198,000 for couples. The payments would also increase $500 for each child a person or couple has. However, taxpayers with little or no income tax liability but at least $2,500 of qualifying income would be eligible for only $600 or $1,200 for couples.

As a matter of propriety, it's difficult to defend the idea of making direct payments, but imposing limits that tilt the scales in ways that disadvantage those who have the least. And as a matter of economic policy, it's just as bad: as was obvious during the last economic crisis, those with the lowest incomes are the most likely to spend any benefits that come their way, which necessarily helps boost economic activity at a critical time.

Yes, it's obviously callous to shortchange those with the least, but in a proposal intended to boost the economy, it's also needlessly counter-productive.

What's more, this element of McConnell's plan is a one-time payment. Congressional Democrats have pushed for multiple rounds of payments, which is in line with the position the White House espoused this week.

All things considered, McConnell almost certainly knows that the Senate Republican leadership's plan won't pass -- there's a Democratic-led House, after all -- and it seems like an opening bid as negotiations get underway. That said, if this is where McConnell wants the talks to start, it's going to take precious time to work toward a final solution.

Postscript: Congress' top two Democrats -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer -- issued a joint statement late yesterday sketching out their expectations:

"House and Senate Democrats are united in our commitment to using all tools available to help fight the coronavirus outbreak like the health crisis it is and make sure all workers are protected from the loss of a paycheck or that no family falls into financial ruin because of this pandemic. Democrats support a plan that puts 'Workers First'. That means taking bold action to help workers and small businesses first by greatly increasing unemployment insurance and Medicaid, making massive investments to help small businesses survive, expanding paid sick and family leave, and putting money directly into the hands of those who need it most.

"The number one priority is addressing this health crisis, which requires a Marshall Plan to rebuild our health care infrastructure on a continental scale and ensure the resources are there to test and treat everyone who needs it.

"To earn Democratic support in the Congress, any economic stimulus proposal must include new, strong and strict provisions that prioritize and protect workers, such as banning the recipient companies from buying back stock, rewarding executives, and laying off workers.

"We look forward to working in a bipartisan way to deliver for the American people as soon as humanly possible."