Statement of CSPI deputy director of federal affairs Colin Schwartz
In the 73 days since the House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, the nation has been waiting for the Senate to provide additional relief to Americans whose lives and livelihoods continue to be threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today we learned that these 73 days have been wasted.
The Senate bill is cruelly out-of-touch with the needs of millions of Americans. Significantly cutting the temporary COVID-related boost to unemployment benefits, as the Senate would do, is beyond callous given the many families grappling with job losses and will prolong the economic downturn.
The bill also omits sorely needed provisions to alleviate food insecurity through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by increasing nutrition benefits and protecting access to the program. Besides addressing a growing and severe hunger crisis, such increases are also well demonstrated to stimulate the economy. The failure to strengthen SNAP is inexplicable given that the Senate bill doubles the tax deduction for business meals. That is, corporate executives are ensured increased meal subsidies while three out of ten families with children struggle to put food on the table.
COVID-19 cases and deaths are rising, and certain sectors of the economy have been coronavirus hot spots, including meatpacking facilities and nursing homes. Yet the Senate bill does nothing to ensure paid sick leave for employees—thus incentivizing sick people to come to work and potentially infect others—and fails to provide practical equipment and other protections for people in high-risk occupations.
The pandemic is also greatly increasing financial pressures on local schools, including the provision of meals to at-risk children. Yet instead of ensuring that school meal programs operate in the black, and guaranteeing that every child gets breakfast and lunch, it seems the administration and the Senate would rather bribe schools into physically reopening—regardless of local virus conditions.
The Senate bill would provide funding to schools that could go toward purchasing additional meals and personal protective equipment, among other things, but only if they physically reopen, prioritizing the ones that have at least half of their students attend school in-person for at least half of the school week. The bill does not provide any financial relief for schools still reeling in the red. The HEROES Act, in contrast, provides financial relief to schools for their meal programs and expands the Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer Program, which provides help to families if schools are closed by providing supplemental food assistance through SNAP.
The Senate bill also would empower the negligence of businesses, including bars and nursing homes that have been reckless or careless about risks, shielding them from liability should their actions cause employees or customers to become infected with COVID-19. Although patently unnecessary, such a shield would only cause businesses to fail to spend funds needed to protect customers and workers, thus further risking public health.
The whole country is watching, aghast, as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens. Yet it seems that Majority Leader McConnell and Senate Republicans occupy an alternate universe in which businesses can prosper without healthy workers, or in which the economy can recover without providing American families the means to eat or stay in their homes.
Senate Democrats and the House of Representatives must lead the way, because there is only one way forward. The right legislation would include steps to slow the spread of the virus, stimulate the economy, support struggling families, alleviate hunger, and protect the safety of American workers. Congress cannot, in this crisis, settle for anything less.
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