Four must-haves in Congress’ next pan­demic res­cue pack­age

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION -

No sooner did pro­fes­sional base­ball re­turn last week, after months of plan­ning to make the games safe dur­ing the pan­demic, than the en­tire sea­son was thrown into doubt when COVID-19 swept through the Mi­ami Mar­lins.

There is a les­son in that not only for pro­fes­sional sports, which we’re re­ally feel­ing the loss of right now, but also for law­mak­ers in Wash­ing­ton who are craft­ing a mas­sive new pan­demic re­lief bill:

All our man-made plans are doomed if de­signed for a wished-for world.

At the core of al­most ev­ery dis­agree­ment be­tween Democrats and Repub­li­cans about how big the fed­eral re­lief bill should be — and what it should in­clude — is a fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent view about how long it will be be­fore life in the United States can re­turn to normal.

Democrats, lis­ten­ing to the sci­en­tists, think it could be many more months or even years. They are propos­ing a $3 tril­lion re­lief bill. Repub­li­cans are lean­ing hard into that wished-for world. They are push­ing a $1 tril­lion bill.

With that in mind, here are four pro­vi­sions of any re­lief bill we’d like to stress:

$600 weekly un­em­ploy­ment re­lief

Se­nate Repub­li­cans and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion are call­ing for slash­ing by two-thirds the $600 weekly fed­eral un­em­ploy­ment pay­ments that work­ers have been re­ceiv­ing since April. The Repub­li­can ar­gu­ment is that the $600, when com­bined with state un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, dis­cour­ages peo­ple from go­ing back to work.

As Repub­li­can Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said, “The an­swer to these chal­lenges will not sim­ply be shov­el­ing cash out of Wash­ing­ton; the an­swer to these chal­lenges will be get­ting peo­ple back to work.”

Get back to work how? Ask the Mi­ami Mar­lins about that. Re­open­ing the coun­try too soon, as many states have learned, just fu­els the pan­demic. And a study re­leased this week by a team of Yale Univer­sity econ­o­mists con­cludes that the ex­tra $600 has not dis­cour­aged peo­ple from re­turn­ing to work.

“Work­ers fac­ing larger ex­pan­sions in un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance ben­e­fits have re­turned to their pre­vi­ous jobs over time at sim­i­lar rates as oth­ers,” the econ­o­mists wrote. “We find no ev­i­dence that more gen­er­ous ben­e­fits dis­in­cen­tivized work ei­ther at the on­set of the ex­pan­sion or as firms looked to re­turn to busi­ness over time.”

Work­place safety stan­dards

The best as­sur­ance that busi­nesses will take rea­son­able pre­cau­tions to pro­tect their work­ers from catch­ing the coro­n­avirus is the risk of be­ing sued if they do not. But, as part of the new pan­demic re­lief pack­age, Repub­li­cans want to cre­ate a li­a­bil­ity shield for busi­nesses. Work­ers who get sick would not be able to sue.

The no­tion that an em­ployee’s right to a safe work en­vi­ron­ment should be leg­is­lated away is ab­surd. A bet­ter so­lu­tion sug­gested by Democrats, given that even the most con­sci­en­tious em­ploy­ers un­der­stand­ably worry about mer­it­less law­suits, would be for the Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion to es­tab­lish legally en­force­able stan­dards for pan­demic-re­lated safety in work­places.

Com­pa­nies that ad­here to the stan­dards, main­tain­ing proper in­fec­tion-con­trol mea­sures, would have lit­tle to fear.

As­sis­tance to state and lo­cal govern­ments

The pan­demic has dev­as­tated state and mu­nic­i­pal fi­nances across the coun­try, in­clud­ing the fi­nances of Illi­nois and Chicago. The new re­lief bill should in­clude sub­stan­tially more di­rect aid to states and cities — and al­low greater flex­i­bil­ity than in pre­vi­ous re­lief pack­ages as to how the money is spent.

No­body be­lieves Wash­ing­ton should bail out state and lo­cal govern­ments for long­stand­ing fi­nan­cial prob­lems of their own mak­ing. Illi­nois, most ob­vi­ously, should not be al­lowed to put a penny of any new fed­eral money to­ward pay­ing down the state’s $138 bil­lion un­funded pen­sion li­a­bil­ity, decades in the mak­ing.

But state and mu­nic­i­pal fi­nances have been ham­mered ev­ery which way by the pan­demic. Tax rev­enues, such as from casi­nos and re­tail sales, are in de­cline while nec­es­sary ex­penses, such as for health care and un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance, are on the up­swing.

Chicago’s bud­get short­fall stands at $700 mil­lion, the re­sult of vir­tu­ally ev­ery city rev­enue stream tak­ing a pan­demic-re­lated hit. Yet the city faces un­prece­dented ex­penses, such as for men­tal health ser­vices and rental as­sis­tance, to keep peo­ple fed, housed and clothed. Peo­ple are hurt­ing.

States and cities — not Wash­ing­ton gov­ern­ment — are best po­si­tioned to spend re­lief money ef­fec­tively to avoid fur­loughs, lay­offs and a deep­en­ing re­ces­sion.

We frankly won­der about the good sense of any­body who would ef­fec­tively en­cour­age Congress to take a pass on Illi­nois and Chicago now — in this time of cri­sis — be­cause of past fis­cal mis­man­age­ment. They should get their pri­or­i­ties right.

Elec­tion se­cu­rity

The pan­demic will test the in­tegrity of our na­tion’s elec­tions like noth­ing be­fore.

Vot­ers must be able to cast a bal­lot safely, which for many of them will mean vot­ing by mail. Elec­tion of­fices will have to print many more mail-in bal­lots, go the ex­tra mile to clean and pro­tect polling equip­ment and sites, and hire work­ers to ed­u­cate the public as to all the changes.

Democrats want to in­clude $3.6 bil­lion in the new re­lief pack­age to pay for elec­tion se­cu­rity, a rel­a­tively mod­est sum for such a big job, yet Repub­li­cans are balk­ing.

Why the party that frets the most about the dan­ger of voter fraud should be so re­luc­tant to safe­guard against voter fraud — or a plain Elec­tion Day mess — is be­yond us.

DREW ANGERER/GETTY IM­AGES

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, R-Ky., ar­rives Tues­day on Capi­tol Hill, where he and Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials would dis­cuss a new coro­n­avirus eco­nomic stim­u­lus pack­age.

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