The Congressional Fight over COVID-19 Relief

By Zander Kurita ’22

Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY) (Photo Credit: New York Times)
Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY) (Photo Credit: New York Times)

On March 11th, H.R.6201, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, was introduced to the Appropriations, Budget, and Ways and Means Committees by Representative Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York’s 17th Congressional District. The bill was the first effort to economically aid people who would be most affected. It provided paid sick leave, expanded food assistance and unemployment benefits, as well as ensuring free COVID-19 testing for those who needed it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi preached the necessity of the bill in a statement: “We cannot slow the coronavirus outbreak when workers are stuck with the terrible choice between staying home to avoid spreading illness and the paycheck their family can’t afford to lose.”


Democrats and most Republicans voted together to protect Americans from the effects of COVID-19. In the Senate, all eight nay votes were Republicans, and, in the house, all 40 nay votes were also from representatives of the Republican Party. Though most legislators agreed that the bill would help the American people, Republicans like Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who loyally support President Trump at every turn, resisted. Despite this resistance, the bill passed on March 18 and helped many Americans stay afloat during some of the worst economic times in this country’s history.


The severity of COVID-19 presented many problems that could not be addressed in one piece of legislation. In March, the Senate reintroduced the CARES Act (The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act), changing its purpose from a tax reform bill to a COVID-19 relief bill. The bill passed on March 27 with only six nays in the House and none in the Senate. Like the Families First bill, the CARES Act provided food, health, and income relief for the people who were bound to lose their jobs because of COVID-19, and it covered relief that the federal government would grant to state governments through funds, small businesses through loans and tax relief, and to health care providers through medical supplies, COVID-19 tests, and additional funding. The largest and most recognized part of the bill is the addition of stimulus checks. Americans making under $99,000 received up to $1,200 and up to $500 for each child under 17.


While early hotspot states like New York have seen the number of new cases and deaths decrease, other states have seen extreme spikes in cases and deaths. According to the CDC, Texas, Florida, and California have all surpassed New York in total cases, and those states have 19.6, 25.9, and 22.3 times more cases per week respectively than New York. The “second wave” of COVID-19 presents new problems in new places; therefore, new legislation is required to help millions of Americans.


To confront these new issues, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) introduced another bill: the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act), a $3 trillion dollar plan, which would provide emergency appropriations to federal and state agencies, expand Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment, food and housing assistance, and, increases direct payments of $1,200 per number of adults to $1,200 per number of people in a household. In advocating for the bill and justifying the price, Speaker Pelosi said, “We must think big for the people now because if we don’t, it will cost more in lives and livelihood later." After passing the House, it has been bogged down in the Senate by Mitch McConnel after he called it “a multi-trillion dollar socialist manifesto.”


Democrats and Republicans on the Hill had been able to pass COVID-19 relief legislation up to the introduction of the HEROES Act. In response, Senate Republicans proposed the Health; Economic Assistance; Liability protection; and Schools Act (HEALS Act), a $1 trillion alternative.

So what is the difference between the two plans besides the price tags? The fundamental difference comes from the two parties’ mentalities on how much and on what the government should be spending. Republicans’ mantra through the fight has been the fact that people are making more money through stimulus checks and unemployment than in their regular jobs. For Democrats, this proves that Americans are not being paid enough. This divide can be seen in the difference between the unemployment aspects of the two bills. The Republicans have proposed cutting the $600 extra monthly unemployment, which the Democrats still have in the HEROES Act.


The Heals Act contains an additional $29.4 billion in defense funding. The idea is that the military would use the additional funding in the fight against COVID-19, but, according to Forbes, much of that sum is actually being spent on F-35 fighters, infantry carriers, and Apache helicopters. On Twitter, Senator Bernie Sanders led the call in rejecting the Republicans’ plan, asking his fellow legislators to “stand with the workers, not the Military Industrial Complex.”


Despite Congress’s initial bipartisan passing of the CARES Act and The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, it has proved challenging to sustain as both parties push COVID-19 relief in opposite directions. Now, many suggest the inefficiency of Washington may cost people their livelihoods, with Congress going on recess until September 8 without passing either COVID-19 relief package.