Eight surprises in House Democrats’ $3T coronavirus relief bill
House Democrats on Tuesday released their latest proposal for coronavirus relief — a massive package designed largely to press reluctant GOP leaders in the Senate and White House to get moving on another infusion of emergency aid.
Much of the enormous proposal was expected, providing hundreds of billions of dollars for medical workers, states, small businesses and those left jobless as a result of the expansive economic lockdown sparked by the deadly pandemic.
Yet in choosing to craft the bill without Republican input, Democratic leaders freed themselves to pile the package high with a host of partisan proposals favored by the various factions of their diverse progressive base. And the final product, unveiled Tuesday afternoon by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), featured a number of unexpected provisions sure to grab outsized attention — and criticism from across the aisle.
Here are a few of the more unusual proposals tucked into the $3 trillion package:
Inspector general protections
In a shot at the White House, the Democrats’ legislation would neuter President Trump’s power to fire inspectors general without a specific cause.
The proposal comes just weeks after Trump dismissed Glenn Fine, the acting Pentagon inspector general who was slated to lead oversight of Congress’ coronavirus response, as well as Michael Atkinson, the top watchdog for the intelligence community. Atkinson’s decision to inform Congress of a whistleblower complaint related to Trump’s dealings with Ukraine led to the president’s impeachment in December — and prompted accusations that Trump had fired him as retribution for the humiliating episode.
Under the Democrats’ proposal, the president can remove an inspector general only on specific grounds, including abuse of power, “permanent incapacity,” neglect and “conviction of a felony or conduct involving moral turpitude.”
Mandatory masks on Amtrak
While congressional lawmakers are under no obligation to wear masks in the Capitol, the Democrats want to make it mandatory for those on Amtrak — employees and passengers alike — to do so.
The requirement, if adopted, would run through the duration of the national emergency declared by the president in March. It comes after a number of lawmakers voiced concerns about the lack of masks in airports and train stations on their most recent visit to Capitol Hill in late April, when they voted on the previous emergency relief package.
Provisions for pot businesses
Tucked deep within the Democratic package is popular bipartisan legislation aiding the marijuana industry.
The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, passed by the House in September on a 321-103 vote, would allow cannabis businesses and their providers — many of which have remained open during the coronavirus crisis — to work with federally backed banks and insurers.
Anti-pot groups are objecting to the inclusion of the SAFE legislation, but the author of the bill cheered the decision.
The coronavirus crisis “has only exacerbated the risk posed to cannabis businesses & their employees & they need relief just like any other legitimate business,” Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) tweeted.
I just learned the #SAFEBankingAct is included in the CARES 2.0 package. I have been pushing for this because the #COVID19 crisis has only exacerbated the risk posed to cannabis businesses & their employees & they need relief just like any other legitimate business. #copolitics
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) May 12, 2020
While the Democrats have delayed plans to use general infrastructure spending as a mid-pandemic stimulus, their latest proposal features several infrastructure provisions related directly to the crisis. One of them, the expansion of broadband, was widely expected. Another, a ban on utility companies cutting off water and electricity during the crisis, flew largely under the radar.
Under the legislation, states and utility companies receiving federal help would be required to maintain water and electricity services through the duration of the pandemic, even for those unable to pay their bills. Separately, the package allocates up to $3 billion to help low-income families pay their power and water bills.
EPA study on pollution and health
It’s been long established that poorer, minority communities also tend to be more polluted than wealthier regions of the country. With the arrival of the coronavirus — and revelations that African Americans have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19 — Democrats want to examine the potential link between the disease and pollution exposure.
Their latest bill would do just that, providing $50 million to the Environmental Protection Agency to fund environment justice grants, part of which would go to examine the prevalence of coronavirus in high-pollution districts.
Nursing home ‘strike teams’
In many states, more than half of all COVID-19 deaths being reported are in nursing homes. House Democrats want to establish so-called strike teams that could extinguish coronavirus outbreaks in those senior facilities before they take off.
A provision in the House bill would set aside $150 million for the Department of Health and Human Services to create groups that would be deployed to help nursing facilities contain and manage outbreaks.
It’s not a new idea. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, launched strike teams last month after COVID-19 cases were confirmed in 90 elderly care facilities in his state. His teams include local health care workers, National Guard members and other health experts.
Funding for the arts and humanities
Republicans mocked the first CARES stimulus package that earmarked $25 million to help the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts weather the coronavirus crisis. But Democrats are doubling down in their next package.
They’ve allocated $10 million more for the National Endowment for the Arts to provide relief grants for state and regional arts organizations, and an additional $10 million for National Endowment for the Humanities grants.
The arts and humanities groups each received $75 million in relief aid in the original CARES Act that President Trump signed into law March 27.
Aid for meat and dairy industries
Meat shortages spurred by coronavirus-afflicted meatpacking plants have dominated headlines in recent weeks. Supply-chain problems have also plagued the dairy industry.
The Democrats’ plan aims to ease some of the pain for the meat and dairy industries. It would send emergency aid directly to livestock and poultry producers who have been forced to euthanize livestock due to disruptions related to COVID-19.
It would also create a federal dairy donation program to prevent dairy producers from needing to dump their milk as millions of families go hungry.