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There is no time to wait, pass COVID relief now

A version of this editorial first appeared in USA Today.

Like it or not, states are going to impose more shutdowns and social distancing orders as COVID-19 numbers rise and as people move indoors.

Also, like it or not, on Dec. 31 a number of benefits provided in the March CARES Act expire. Among the lapsing provisions are protections against homeowner and renter evictions, increases in the dollar amount and duration of unemployment benefits, and provisions that make these benefits more available to freelancers, small businesses, gig workers and others.

These events could take a huge toll on the economy. Which is why Congress needs to pass an additional relief package now and not wait for the arrival of the Biden administration and a new Congress.

This is not a radical idea espoused only by the deficits-don’t-matter crowd. Nor is it something that benefits one party. It’s a mainstream, pragmatic position espoused by large sectors of the business community as well as the more liberally minded.

Just last month, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell — an appointee of President Donald Trump — urged more stimulus, even at the expense of greater deficits. Without prompt action, Powell said, “household insolvencies and business bankruptcies would rise, harming the productive capacity of the economy, and holding back wage growth.”

These things could play out in many ways. Restaurants and other small businesses could close, leaving empty storefronts in once vibrant commercial zones. Widespread defaults on commercial real estate loans could lead to a tightening of credit for everyone.

The next few months are the most critical period America has yet faced with the pandemic. New cases of COVID-19 are twice what they were during the summer peak, and the infection rate shows no signs of slowing even as the nation awaits the arrival of safe and effective vaccines.

On Capitol Hill, the two sides dug in as they started the lame-duck session. The Democrat-controlled House passed a $3 trillion measure in the spring, then cut it down to a $2.2 trillion plan before the election. The latest version includes a new round of $1,200 checks to individuals and aid to schools, among other things.

The Republican-controlled Senate has considered, but not passed, a $1 trillion measure in the summer, and a plan about half that size just before the election.

Neither side seems inclined to budge. And Trump is a wild card.

Something in the range of $1.5 trillion seems like the most practical idea. The two sides can negotiate what goes into it. They appear to agree on the need for additional stimulus checks, but little else. They must prioritize funding for programs that will directly impact the spread of COVID-19, including money to expedite the distribution of vaccines.

It is time for Congress to put the lives and livelihoods of Americans first and pass an economic relief measure now.

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