Coronavirus Aid Talks Drag On

The extra $600 per week federal unemployment insurance benefit for the coronavirus crisis will expire today, and the eviction moratorium that expired on July 24 will stay expired, as Congress left town for the weekend without any progress towards a new round of legislation providing coronavirus aid.

House Democrats passed a mammoth $3.4 trillion bill in mid-May, and on July 28, Senate Republicans released a package of eight bills said to total around $1 trillion.

The Democratic bill (H.R. 6800, the Heroes Act) would appropriate an additional $30.8 billion for the U.S. Department of Transportation, compared to $10.2 billion in the Senate COVID appropriations bill (S. 4320). But that difference is dwarfed by the fact that the House bill would give state and local governments $915 billion in general-purpose financial aid (to use for replacing revenues lost to coronavirus, in their general funds or their transportation funds or transit agency budgets) in addition to the money given to USDOT to pass through to transit agencies and state DOTs. The Senate bills would give precisely zero to states in general-purpose financial assistance.

All parties agree that some level of emergency unemployment insurance must be extended, but Congressional Republicans differ with Democrats on the appropriate level (the GOP believe that it should be closer to $200 per week over the state payout, Democrats holding on to the current $600 per week over the state level). Republicans are trying to pass a short-term extension of unemployment insurance while they negotiate the rest of the COVID issues. POLITICO’s Hill reporter reported that last night, the White House offered a four-month unemployment extension at the $600 level but was turned down by Democrats.

Before leaving town yesterday, the Senate called up an unrelated bill (S. 178) that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says he will use as a “shell” to pass some form of short-term unemployment insurance extension next week. The Senate will convene at 3 p.m. on Monday, at which time there may be more information forthcoming.

Democratic leaders may meet again with the White House chief of staff and the Treasury Secretary this weekend, but the fact that Senate Republicans could not agree on a single bill to respond to the House (because not all of the Senators involved in drafting the eight parts of the response agreed with all the items in the other seven bills) may mean that McConnell will eventually have to agree to put a bill on the floor supported by the White House, and by a majority of Senate Democrats, but opposed by a majority of Senate Republicans.

The eight Senate GOP bills that form their response to the House bill are:

  1. S. 4317 (Cornyn) – COVID lawsuit liability rules
  2. S. 4318 (Grassley) – another round of $1.200 rebate checks; unemployment insurance extension; and other tax provisions
  3. S. 4319 (Scott) – temporary 100% business meal deduction
  4. S. 4320 (Shelby) – $306 billion in appropriations
  5. S. 4321 (Rubio) – PPP and other small business provisions
  6. S. 4322 (Alexander) – HELP Committee provisions
  7. S. 4323 (Romney) – Trust Fund rescue committees
  8. S. 4324 (Graham) – domestic PPE manufacture and China trade issues

The appropriations bill in that package provides an additional $10 billion in aid for airports, doubling the $10 billion provided in March by the CARES Act. It does not contain any direct aid for local mass transit agencies or for state departments of transportation, because the GOP is holding a line that that kind of aid can only be considered in the broader context of the general-purpose aid to states and localities.

The House was supposed to start a five-week long recess today, but Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) warned members this morning that they should remain available on 24-hour notice to return to Washington to vote on whatever coronavirus aid or unemployment insurance extension they can come up with. Hoyer said “We will not start August district work period until we pass appropriated COVID-19 relief to meet current health and economic crisis confronting out people and our country.”

The Senate, meanwhile, was always scheduled to be in session next week but was hoping to take a month off starting on Friday, August 7. The two sides appear so far apart on the big issues ($0.9 trillion in muni aid, etc) that getting a deal done in seven days may be impossible.

The transportation-specific portions of the Senate response package are summarized below (from our ETW Express earlier in the week).

Airports. The bill appropriates a further $10.0 billion from general revenues for the Airport Improvement Program – $9.5 billion for primary airports and $500 million for non-primary and general aviation airports.

The $9.5 billion is subject to the following rules and restrictions:

  • Any airport that got more than four years of operating funds under the CARES Act shall not be eligible to receive any funding under this act.
  • The money shall be apportioned by the enplanement-based formulas in 49 U.S.C. §47114 (see the specific list of subsections on page 156, lines 13-15 of the bill), except that there shall be no maximum apportionment and no reduced apportionments per §47114(f).
  • Any funds remaining after the §47114 apportionment shall be given out solely based on airport’s share of total passenger enplanements in the most recent calendar year for which apportionments have taken place.
  • Notwithstanding the normal restrictions on AIP funding, funds can be used “for any purpose for which airport revenues may lawfully be used, including operations, public health, cleaning, sanitization, janitorial services, combating the spread of pathogens, and debt service payments.”
  • The federal share of this money shall be 100 percent.

For the other $500 million, after the 0.1 percent oversight set-aside, $8.15 million shall be set aside for the contract tower program, and then the remainder shall be apportioned as in the CARES Act (based on the CPIAS categories, reflecting the aggregate percentage of development costs, and rounded up to the thousand dollars). Funds can be used “for any purpose for which airport revenues can lawfully be used” and the federal cost share shall be 100 percent.

Any airport accepting so much as one dollar of the $10 billion “shall continue to employ, through March 31, 2021, at least 90 percent of the number of individuals employed (after making adjustments for retirements or voluntary employee separations) by the airport as of March 27, 2020” – but the Secretary may waive that requirement on an airport-by-airport basis “if the Secretary determines the airport is experiencing economic hardship as a direct result of the requirement, or the requirement reduces aviation safety or security.”

EAS. The bill appropriates an additional $75 million for the Essential Air Service program “to offset the loss resulting from the coronavirus pandemic of the mandatory overflight fees collected pursuant to section 45301 of title 49, United States Code.” (Normally, many nonstop flights from Mexico and Central America to Europe and Asia (and vice versa) take the great circle route over U.S. airspace, as do all flights from Canada to Mexico, Central and South America. Coronavirus has drastically reduced the number of those flights, which has reduced the amount of money received by the FAA from those foreign airlines for providing air traffic control services over the U.S. Those fees can total around $150 million per year, which goes directly to pay for about half of the EAS program without any action by Congress being necessary, but now, Congress is forced to make up the difference to keep the program going.)

Other USDOT. The bill also appropriates $50 million for FAA Operations, $26.2 million for the Office of the Secretary’s Salaries and Expenses, and $238,500 for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for general coronavirus response activities.

In addition, section 1201 of the bill effectively extends the deadline for the obligation of fiscal year 2018 BUILD grant appropriations from September 30, 2020 to September 30, 2021.

Compared to House bill. The new Senate bill takes a very different approach to the next round of coronavirus appropriations for USDOT than did the bill the House passed in mid-May (the Heroes Act). The following table puts it into perspective on an account-by-account basis. The CARES Act (enacted into law in March) appropriated $36.1 billion for USDOT. The House-passed Heroes bill would provide an additional $30.8 billion. The new Senate bill would only appropriate $10.2 billion.

House- New
Enacted Passed Senate
CARES Act Heroes Act Bill
USDOT Appropriations
Office of the Secretary
Salaries and Expenses 1.8 26.2
Essential Air Service 56.0 75.0
Federal Aviation Administration
Operations 75.0 50.0
Airport Grants 10,000.0 10,000.0
Federal Highway Administration
Highway Infrastructure Programs 15,000.0
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration
Operations and Programs 0.2 0.2
Federal Railroad Administration
Safety and Operations 0.3
Amtrak Northeast Corridor Grants 492.0
Amtrak National Network Grants 526.0
Federal Transit Administration
Transit Infrastructure Grants 25,000.0
Public Transportation Emergency Relief 15,750.0
Maritime Administration
Operations and Training 3.1
State Maritime Academy Operations 1.0
Office of Inspector General
Salaries and Expenses 5.0
TOTAL, USDOT APPROPRIATIONS 36,085.3 30,825.0 10,151.4

Trust fund solvency. Romney’s TRUST Act (text here) will be a part of the unified Senate GOP bill whenever Majority Leader McConnell introduces the whole thing. This is based on bipartisan legislation introduced last October in the Senate (as S. 2733) and the House (as H.R. 4907) by dozens of members from each party. The version of the legislation released today appears identical to those bills except that the dates have been moved ahead one year.

The “Time to Rescue United States Trusts Act” would require the Treasury Secretary, in January 2021, to identify every federal trust fund that has at least $20 billion per year in outlays and for which balances will be inadequate to pay its bills at any time between the enactment of the Act and September 2035. This includes the Social Security and Medicare trust funds but also includes the Highway Trust Fund, even if it does not mention any of them by name.

A bipartisan “Rescue Committee” is to be appointed for each such trust fund, each with 12 Members of Congress appointed by party leaders (3 House D, 3 House R, 3 Senate D, 3 Senate R). Each Rescue Committee will then have until June 1, 2021 to “develop recommendations and legislative language that will significantly improve” the trust fund program in question, including by “increasing the duration of positive balances” and “to the extent practicable, providing for the solvency of the Federal trust fund established” for the program. In order to approve recommendations, a bipartisan majority is necessary (at least 2 members of each party must vote in favor of the final recommendations).

These recommendations would then be introduced as “rescue bills” in the House and Senate and would have “fast track” status in the Senate – a motion to proceed to the rescue bill is not debatable and thus only requires a majority vote. Amendments to a rescue bill would not be allowed in the Senate. The TRUST Act does not limit the number of hours of debate on a rescue bill in the Senate, but it provides that a rescue bill “shall remain the unfinished business until disposed of.”

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