Special Capitol Hill Update: COVID-19 Edition

Jason Pye co-authored this post.

Update from the Trump administration: There’s a lot happening on this front, so we’ll keep it brief. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a regulation to allow doctors and other medical professionals the ability to practice across state lines. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has loosened telehealth regulations for Medicare beneficiaries. Calling himself “a wartime president,” President Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act, which requires certain private-sector businesses to prioritize the production of essential materials and services.

The House may or may not be in recess next week: The House is supposed to be in session next week, but that has changed for now. Members received guidance that votes are no longer expected next week. However, members may be summoned to Washington, D.C. if there are developments on another COVID-19 relief package, which appears imminent. Twenty-four hours notice will be provided to members to return to Washington.

The Senate is practicing social distancing: Usually, during roll call votes in the Senate, members can be seen chatting with each other in groups on the floor, some joking with each other or lobbying their colleagues to join their legislation. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed this behavior. Votes are staying open for 30 minutes to allow senators to practice social distancing. Senators have been encouraged to vote and subsequently move to other spaces on the floor rather than gather around the dais. The clerk will recognize senators from anywhere on the floor or from the cloakroom adjacent to the chamber.

Phase II COVID-19 bill is on the path to passage: The Senate just finished processing the Families First Coronavirus Act, H.R. 6201. Three amendments were made in order, each of which requires 60 votes for passage. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) offered an amendment to pay for H.R. 6201 through spending cuts, including ending the war in Afghanistan by the end of the year. The amendment failed by a vote of 3 to 95. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) offered an amendment on paid family and medical leave and sick leave that has been described as “politically charged.” We haven’t seen the text, but one can surmise that it reflects legislation that she rolled out yesterday on paid family and medical leave and sick leave. The Murray amendment was defeated by a vote of 47 to 51. Finally, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has offered an amendment that would strike the paid family and medical leave and sick leave provisions from H.R. 6201. The amendment is co-sponsored by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), and Mike Braun (R-Ind.). Unfortunately, the Johnson amendment failed by a vote of 50 to 48. FreedomWorks supported the Johnson amendment and will include the vote on its 2020 Congressional Scorecard. Just moments ago, the Senate passed H.R. 6201 by a vote of 90 to 8. (The roll call link isn’t available just yet.) H.R. 6201 will soon be transmitted to President Trump for his signatures.

Phase III COVID-19 legislation is brewing: Yesterday, we heard news of a large package being discussed to provide three main things: bailouts to airlines, direct payments to taxpayers, and loans to small businesses. Today, this has been updated and fleshed out to four things according to a document from Treasury, including now provisions to temporarily permit the use of the exchange stabilization fund, which is part of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act. In total, between the $50 billion for airline bailouts, $150 billion for other industries, the $500 billion for direct payments to taxpayers, and the $300 billion for loans to small businesses, the total dollar amount of such a package would be $1 trillion. We’ve also heard that it could exceed $1 trillion. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said the Senate will stay in session until Phase III is passed.

Departments and agencies are also looking for more money: In addition to the Phase III package, the Office of Management and Budget has requested an additional $45.8 billion to be appropriated for various agencies, departments, and bureaus across the federal government to address any number of service concerns they have identified, as well as many that are either barely tangentially related to coronavirus or simply not detailed enough to know what they are. Further, the OMB request seeks to amend its FY 2021 budget request to be $1.3 billion above its original request. As FY 2021 does not begin until September 2020, we view this last request as an improper move by the agency to take advantage of the current crisis and use it as an excuse to try to get more money for itself that it, at this point, cannot possibly know it needs.

People may not want to hear about the budget deficit, but it needs to be mentioned: According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the budget deficit for FY 2020 was projected to be a little more than $1 trillion. Well, add another $1 trillion to that, plus the other unrelated emergency relief legislation Congress has already passed. We still don’t know the fiscal impact of Phase II. Also, with the economy likely to contract, for however long, the deficit-to-GDP ratio could surpass even the height of the 2007-2008 recession.

Don’t forget elderly inmates: Our friends Brett Tolman and Holly Harris have a great piece at FoxNews.com on how Congress could help elderly inmates by passing H.R. 4018 as part of COVID-19 package. H.R. 4018 fixes a technical issue related to the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program that was created by the First Step Act. Elderly individuals inside the prison system require more healthcare services, which drives up the costs to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and thus also to taxpayers. The Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program allows nonviolent prisoners who are 60 years of age or older and have served two-thirds or more of their sentences to be transferred into home confinement. This is a more cost-effective means of handling elderly prisoners, who will also, as a result, have access to better medical care. Where H.R. 4018 comes in is to include good time credits into the calculation. H.R. 4018 would simply provide for good time credits to be factored into the determination for eligibility for the program. As Tolman and Harris explain, “Given the current crisis, we are hopeful President Trump would work diligently to ensure his administration facilitates the transfer of these elderly, sick and vulnerable people to home confinement as soon as possible. In fact, an emergency proposal should give the BOP the flexibility to suspend its own regulations and transfer inmates as soon as possible, and/or give inmates the opportunity to take their request for transfer to home confinement directly to a judge.”

FreedomWorks has taken a number of positions and actions on COVID-19: From the outset of congressional and administration action on coronavirus, we have paid close attention to things as they are developing and offered our input on various proposals and actions. They are outlined here, in chronological order and with brief explainers.

3/5/20 — Key Vote YES on the Paul Amendment to H.R. 6047 to Pay for Coronavirus Emergency Spending: This amendment by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), which was tabled by a vote of 85-15, would have rescinded unobligated balances for certain programs to offset the initial $8.3 trillion coronavirus funding bill.

3/11/20 — Coronavirus and Its Impact: Here, we explored how Americans and governments were reacting to the impact of the coronavirus with Washington Times’ Health Reporter Shen Wu Tan.

3/12/20 — House Key Vote NO on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, H.R. 6201: This bill, the second piece of legislation dealing with coronavirus, was the end product of a terrible process and wound up as little more than a wishlist of policies that Democrats would like to see made permanent, and irresponsibly expanded programs like Medicaid, SNAP, and paid leave — family, medical, and sick — without an idea of the impact it would have on Americans.

3/13/20 — A Tale of Two Diseases: Coronavirus and Over-regulation: Here, we outlined how government over-regulation hampers the ability of all to respond adequately to the coronavirus.

3/17/20 — Senate Key Vote NO on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, H.R. 6201: Although some changes were made to the House-passed bill before it was received in the Senate, this bill still presents huge problems to workers and businesses via the mandates imposed on the private sector, threatening innumerable jobs across the country of those very workers it purports to help.

3/17/20 — Paid Leave Provisions of COVID-19 Bill Will Hurt Small Businesses: Here, we explain and elaborate on the above point regarding how harmful the paid leave mandates truly are.

3/17/20 — FreedomWorks Applauds Trump Administration Regulatory Relief for Telehealth and Coronavirus Testing: As noted, we were thrilled to see some of the regulatory burdens like those outlined in our Tale of Two Diseases blog being addressed by the Trump Administration’s CMS and FDA in order to allow our nation to better counter the pandemic.

3/17/20 — History Shows Direct Assistance Won’t Boost Consumption: Here, we explain why the idea of government-issued direct taxpayer assistance in the form of dollars will not have its intended effect. Senator Andrew Yang… Er… Mitt Romney (?-Utah) floated the idea of a monthly $1000 check to every American, and unfortunately, it seems that this idea has gained traction in the administration as well, as it is part of Treasury’s outlined plan for a third package.

3/18/20 — Sen. Ron Johnson’s Amendment Would Salvage the Second COVID-19 Response Bill: Here, we explain how Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-Wis.) amendment to H.R. 6201 would have entirely removed the extremely problematic new mandates for paid family, medical, and sick leave as well as the associated tax credits. Had this amendment succeeded, FreedomWorks would have dropped its key vote against the package. However, of course, it failed to be adopted by a vote of 50-48. There was a 60-vote threshold for it to be adopted.