House passes $484B package to help small businesses, bolster hospitals and coronavirus testing
Dallas Morning News – The House on Thursday voted 388-5 to approve a nearly $500 billion COVID-19 relief bill to refill a tapped-out small business loan program and to bolster funding for hospitals and coronavirus testing. The measure, which unanimously passed the Senate on Tuesday, now heads to President Donald Trump, who’s indicated he will sign it into law.
Some $310 billion in small business assistance for the recently created Paycheck Protection Program is the legislation’s centerpiece, reflecting the enormous economic strain that the ongoing public health crisis has created for small firms in Texas and beyond.
An earlier $350 billion tranche ran out in less than two weeks as businesses scrambled to get approval for the special loans, which become forgivable if they’re used to maintain payroll. “We must continue our efforts to address the many real and evolving challenges this pandemic presents," said Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston. She said she has heard from many small business owners who couldn’t access the initial funding before it ran out.5
Nearly 135,000 small businesses in Texas got the OK in the first batch, totaling nearly $28.5 billion, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. The number of loans in the Lone Star State was more than any other state, while only California saw a higher dollar amount. But many small outfits were unable to take advantage of the loans, even as some larger firms used a quirk of the program to get approval for high-dollar relief.
Mom-and-pop shops all across Texas have reported dire financial situations as a result. Some have seen revenue plummet as shelter-in-place orders have kept customers at home, while others have been forced to close altogether due to being deemed as nonessential.
Adding to the frustration was the fact that Congress dithered for days after the loan program ran out.
Democrats blocked Republicans’ proposal to just replenish the paycheck protection program. They argued that the small business aid should be paired with additional public health funding. But Republicans objected to that counteroffer before relenting amid protracted negotiations.
Partisanship still evident
Even after reaching an accord — which was backed by every Texas member present — a partisan edge was clear on Thursday in the House’s debate. "How many jobs could we have saved if partisan politics had not reared its ugly head,” asked Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, accusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of holding “up this bill more than a week while small businesses and their workers desperately fought to hold on.”
Congress has now approved four major coronavirus relief bills.
The latest iteration builds upon an unprecedented $2.2 trillion package passed in late March to address the stunning economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, which has left businesses in a lurch amid enforcement of social distancing guidelines designed to slow the outbreak.
But unlike the earlier stimulus bill, which included a large corporate bailout, the clear focus this time was on struggling small businesses.
In addition to the boost for the Paycheck Protection Program, the $484 billion package includes $60 billion for the Small Business Administration’s economic injury disaster loan program, which has been pitched as a way for small businesses to get a quick cash advance.
Those huge sums reflect extraordinary need in Texas and beyond.
“These PPP loans … are essential for small businesses to be able to continue paying their employees and cover their operating costs,” said Rep. Kay Granger, a Fort Worth Republican who noted that more than 1.6 million of those loans have already been approved.
The paycheck protection loans are available to businesses and nonprofits with 500 or fewer employees. Those entities can seek funds to cover eight weeks of payroll, rent and utilities. If the firm maintains its payroll during that period, the loans will be forgiven.
Needed by small businesses
For many small businesses, the program has provided lifeblood.
Tammy Allen owns a dry cleaning franchise in North Dallas. Even when times are flush, she operates on a “nickel and dime profit margin,” with only about two weeks of cash in reserve, she said. Now that many customers aren’t going to work, her business has slowed considerably.
Her $37,000 loan was approved within a day, with the funds arriving this week.
“Total relief,” she said, though she added that there’s still "no guarantee we’re going to make it out of this.” But many others have been left out of a process described by some as convoluted and unfair.
A survey last week of nearly 1,600 U.S. small businesses by National Write Your Congressman, a small business advocacy group, found that more than half of those entities were still awaiting approval for a Paycheck Protection Program loan.
Among those in that camp is Troy Butler, who owns barber shops in Lewisville and Denton.
Under shelter-in-place rules, Troy Cuts hasn’t been allowed to open its doors. Meanwhile, Butler said, the “bills are just stacking up.” He put in for a $25,000 loan to cover rent and utilities and to help his barbers who’ve lost business. But he didn’t get an OK from his bank before the fund ran out.“I’m now at the mercy of my landlords,” he said.
Butler also fumed at reports that some major companies were able to access the small business relief due to carve-outs in the law, while he and other truly small businesses missed out. Some of those big companies — such as Shake Shack, a burger chain –— have since vowed to return the money after public outcry. The Trump administration on Thursday also issued guidelines indicating that those kind of firms are unlikely to qualify for assistance going forward.
But Butler said it was hard to not feel overlooked by Congress and other policy makers. “We don’t even show up on the Richter scale,” he said.
Lawmakers hope that the latest injection of cash will help even more small businesses. They also hailed the legislation’s inclusion of more money to bolster coronavirus testing and to help hospitals, which have been on the front lines of the pandemic.
Lawmakers social distance during debate
“This bill is a good step, and we have much more work to do, including providing assistance to all our cities," said Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas. “Our economic future is directly tied to our public health response.”
Many House members returned to Washington for the vote, despite leadership trying to avoid such gatherings by passing legislation via unanimous consent. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., forced the issue by vowing to object in an effort to obtain a recorded vote.
He was one of five lawmakers to vote against the legislation. The others were Reps. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz.; Ken Buck, R-Colo.; Jody Hice, R-Ga.; and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., voted present.
A handful of Texans didn’t make it back for the vote: Reps. Brian Babin, R-Woodville; John Carter, R-Round Rock; Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin; Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas; Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell; Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth; and Ron Wright, R-Arlington.
In the Capitol, the proceedings matched the moment.
Many lawmakers wore face masks as they spoke on the House floor. The House conducted votes in 10-minute time blocks, allowing a few dozen lawmakers into the chamber at a time. The chamber was cleaned between vote series.
But some lawmakers pushed Congress to return to something resembling a regular routine, sooner rather than later.
“Enough — no more half-assed legislation,” said Rep. Chip Roy, an Austin Republican who was gently chided for using a vulgarity on the House floor. “Congress must convene, not just today but every day until America is back on track.”