GOP lawmakers are seeking to stoke public concern over the extraordinary levels of federal support: $4 trillion in aid enacted last year, almost $2 trillion more about to be approved, and another multitrillion-dollar proposal expected in the coming months. It’s a strategy that worked a decade ago, when deficit fears spawned the Tea Party movement, which eventually stalled much of President Barack Obama’s agenda.
But congressional Democrats, the White House and many economic experts argue that even as money continues to get to unemployed Americans, small businesses, cities and schools, it’s clear that they and the broader economy require more.
“Just because there’s money unspent doesn’t mean there aren’t still needs,” said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan group that set up the COVID Money Tracker to follow the aid as it goes out.
At this point, most of that unspent money — comprehensive estimates place the figure at $1 trillion — has been assigned to various programs that were designed to distribute it over an extended period of time.
Enhanced unemployment insurance benefits are sent out weekly. Paycheck Protection Program and other small business aid is supplied as employers apply for them. Enhanced federal Medicaid matching funds are provided to states on a regular basis as long as the public health emergency remains in place. And rebates and tax breaks will be doled out after Americans file their taxes.
Focusing on the money left to go out through those and other programs, then, “is mostly a red herring,” said Jason Furman, who was Obama’s chief economist.
Lawmakers could have a real discussion over substantive aspects of the plan, such as the size of the stimulus checks or who should receive them, said Furman, now a Harvard economics professor. But the unspent $1 trillion is simply a reflection of how the relief packages are designed — namely, to spend money over an extended period of time.
“Congress doesn’t legislate once a month for the bills coming up for the next month,” he said. “It is so much better to pass money three months in advance rather than three months late, especially when you’re in the middle of fighting a war.”
Congressional Republicans have made a risky but calculated bet in unifying against Biden’s relief plan, given that it is popular among both Democrats and Republicans across the country. Four in five adults said last month that another economic assistance package was necessary, the Pew Research Center found. And a Morning Consult poll this week showed three in four voters back Biden’s plan.
But zeroing in on the unspent money helps drive home the GOP’s argument that Democrats are the party that “spends money like there’s no tomorrow,” as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) put it this week. Republicans have also framed the legislation as overly generous, a…
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