Congress and the President Do Something Big for a Change

One congressman said he and other longtime Democratic lawmakers feared they’d never do anything consequential in Congress again. But the American Rescue Plan (aka the Covid relief bill) will be extremely consequential. There’s much more in it than $1,400 checks for most Americans and extended benefits for the unemployed.

Paul Waldman of The Washington Post describes some of the bill’s other features, the totality of which make this an historic bill (that, unlike the only major legislation of the past four years, isn’t designed to help corporations or the rich):

If anything, we’ve underplayed how significant this bill is.

Yes, those subsidy checks are important . . . A family of four with a household income under $150,000 will get $5,600, even before other measures, such as the boosted child tax credit, are accounted for. That . . . will provide a tremendous boost of economic activity that will accelerate the recovery; the American economy is now projected to grow this year at a pace we haven’t seen in decades.

But . . . the bill is full of provisions that could have significant or even transformative effects on the country, many of which have gotten little or no attention:

The child tax credit. For the next year, the bill increases the child tax credit and makes more of it “refundable,” which means that more people with very low incomes will be able to get that credit as a refund even if they’re paying little or nothing in taxes. It will also send the child tax credit to families on a monthly basis, rather than having it as something they might or might not get as a lump sum after filing their taxes. . . . 

The Earned Income Tax Credit. The bill expands the EITC for childless low-income workers; 17 million of them could see a boost in their after-tax income.

Pensions. The bill includes a provision championed by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) that bails out a group of 185 multi-employer union pension plans that are in danger of failing. As the New York Times put it, “without the rescue, more than a million retired truck drivers, retail clerks, builders and others could be forced to forgo retirement income.”

Student loan debt. Under current law, if you have outstanding student loan debt that is canceled, the IRS treats your forgiven debt as income, which can result in a huge tax bill. Millions of borrowers on repayment plans pay a set portion of their income every month, and after 20 years the remaining balance is forgiven. The ARP would make that kind of loan forgiveness tax-free, and it would also apply to future loan forgiveness the Biden administration might undertake.

Exploitation of veteran students. The ARP closes a loophole in student-loan rules that has provided an incentive for colleges, particularly for-profit operations, to heavily recruit veterans paying for college with the G.I. Bill; these veterans are often roped in with false promises and then left without a degree or a good education.

Farmers. The ARP provides billions of dollars in assistance to disadvantaged farmers, many of whom are Black. As The Post reports, the bill would benefit “Black farmers in a way that some experts say no legislation has since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Affordable Care Act subsidies. Under the ACA, only those earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or $106,000 for a family of four, are eligible for any subsidies to help afford health insurance they buy on the private marketplaces. The ARP removes that limit, meaning those at higher incomes could get some help if their insurance costs more than 8.5 percent of their income. In addition to removing this “subsidy cliff,” it also enhances the subsidies for those at lower incomes, which will mean significant premium cuts for many people.

Medicaid expansion. Twelve states have still refused to accept the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid, leaving huge numbers of poor citizens without health coverage. The ARP boosts the federal contribution to Medicaid so that holdout states will actually make money if they accept the expansion. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, if Texas accepted the expansion, it would [improve] its state budget [and provide] coverage to 878,000 uninsured, low-income Texans.

Mass transit. The bill includes $30 billion to shore up mass transit systems that were hit hard by the pandemic, forestalling service and maintenance cuts. As Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute says, “Where we’d normally see the recovery worse from cuts, and financial weakness used as a cynical excuse to slash, privatize, and never restore public functions, the ARP moves to stop that dead in its tracks.”

There’s plenty more, including funds for child care, rental assistance and food assistance, among other things. Some of these provisions, including the student loan forgiveness provision, the pension bailout and the “subsidy cliff” fix, will only be in effect until 2025. Democrats are hoping that they’ll prove popular and effective enough that they can be made permanent. It’s a good bet that at least some of them will.

There’s a lot more to say about this bill, especially how it represents a rethinking of fiscal policy and the incentives government provides citizens. . . . But the big picture of the American Rescue Plan is that, to paraphrase a former vice president, this is a seriously big deal. And the more we learn about it as it gets implemented, the bigger it will probably look.