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OpinionEditorial

With the economy stalling, there's no time for half-measures

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to discuss a coronavirus relief package in the Oval Office on Monday. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

For a president and Congress trying to safeguard a nation convulsed by crisis, erring on the side of caution would be reckless.

The $1.9 trillion plan put forth by President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress isn’t perfect. It sends too much money to families and individuals who don’t desperately need it. It creates a legitimate fear of an overheated economy and runaway inflation. It’s also not yet clear that the money will be divvied up in a way that puts the help where it belongs, a particular concern after an earlier stimulus plan shortchanged New York and gave $133 million Nassau County desperately needed to the Town of Hempstead instead.

But Biden’s plan can give the nation the resources it needs to finally contain COVID-19. It can provide the support struggling households and businesses must have to survive now and thrive later. And it can signal that the United States once again has both the ability and the will to confront crises.

In contrast, the $618 billion plan put forward by Republicans to fight our way through COVID-19 errs on the side of caution repeatedly, most notably by ignoring the desperation of states and municipalities suffering for lack of federal aid.

And if Republicans are right to say so much spending won’t be needed, much of what Biden’s plan makes available won’t be spent. If the job market and consumer spending overperform and food insecurity and unemployment fade away, that $1.9 trillion price tag will shrink.

Biden’s plan can most easily be analyzed and compared to the GOP’s by dividing the money into four pots:

The first pot, totaling $750 billion, includes $170 billion for schools and colleges to help them reopen, operate safely and facilitate remote learning, including $6 billion to New York. The GOP plan has only a paltry $20 billion for these paramount priorities.

That pot also includes $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, without which many government workers would be unemployed and communities would be underserved. It also provides $30 billion for the nation’s major transit systems, including at least another $4 billion expected for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. New York, and Long Island in particular, must have this aid. Any negotiations that reduce the total bill cannot be allowed to slash our region’s aid. And it’s critical that the formulas for distributing this aid assure all schools and local governments their share.

It’s the lack of school, state and local aid in the plan proposed by Republicans that undermines their claim that it is a good-faith start to negotiations.

The second pot in Biden’s plan, $600 billion, includes proposed $1,400 checks to most Americans, along with a child tax credit increase. The tax credit increase is good policy, and is not in the GOP plan. But the checks are a clear area where the GOP vision, which begins to phase out family eligibility at $80,000 a year rather than Biden’s $150,000, is better targeted, and the Republican reduction of the grants from $1,400 to $1,000, when so many recipients have suffered no economic loss, is reasonable.

The third pot, of $400 billion, is aid to financially vulnerable households, and Biden’s plan clearly outshines the GOP’s. Biden’s plan extends enhanced unemployment benefits until September at $400 a week, while the GOP’s only runs until June, at $300 a week. If fewer workers than expected need this help after June because employment will have bounced back more quickly than expected, it won’t be paid. But if the job market still lags, the help ought to be available. And the risk created by the GOP plan to pay $100 less per week in benefits to the unemployed isn’t worth the savings it generates.

Last month, the economy gained just 49,000 new jobs. The employment recovery is faltering; the unemployed must be helped.

The fourth pot, the $150 billion to aid businesses in Biden’s blueprint, dwarfs the $50 billion in the GOP plan. Long Island’s businesses are suffering, and carveouts in Biden’s deal like $20 billion for restaurants are crucial to the owners, and the economy.

There is plenty of devil in the details. Divvying up school aid and state and local aid so that they fill needs without supplanting existing funding or creating future obligations is particularly delicate and crucial. The same is true of funds intended to help fight the virus and vaccinate the nation.

This is a crisis, yet, the Democrats should be mindful that the nation has other needs, too. They include trillions of dollars in long-overdue infrastructure modernization, improvements and repairs, and shoring up Medicare and Social Security funding.

But Biden’s plan, while it should be both cheaper and more precisely targeted, is aimed in the right direction. Where Republicans have different priorities, they should negotiate for their needs in this framework. COVID-19 relief can still be a bipartisan effort, but it can’t be an inadequate one.

The editorial board

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