This report was written by Andrew Perez and Julia Rock.
A group of Republican senators is pushing to cut the size of the next round of COVID-19 relief checks and significantly limit who’s eligible to receive the payments, as the Biden administration continues to indicate that it would be open to further restricting who’s eligible for survival checks.
Last month, President Joe Biden promised that $2,000 checks would “go out the door immediately” if Democrats managed to win the two Georgia senate runoff races and claim control of the Senate. After Democrats pulled off two miracle victories in Georgia, Biden quickly narrowed his pledge to new $1,400 checks, asserting that the $600 checks authorized by Congress in December were a down payment on his plan.
On Sunday, ten moderate Republicans proposed new $1,000 checks instead as part of their own scaled-down coronavirus relief package. Under their proposal, survival checks would go to far fewer Americans than in previous relief bills — only to “families who need assistance the most,” according to a letter they sent to the White House.
While the details haven’t been released yet, one Republican involved in the effort, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, told CNN on Sunday that direct payments should only go to individuals earning less than $50,000 and families earning less than $100,000.
In previous COVID relief bills, full rounds of survival checks have gone to individuals earning up to $75,000 and couples earning up to $150,000. Limiting assistance the way Portman described would cut off relief to millions of Americans who have previously received economic impact payments.
Republicans’ insistence that relief checks go only to poorer Americans is a relatively recent objection.
At least two Republicans involved in the new effort, Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, co-sponsored a standalone bill last summer that would have sent out $1,000 checks using the same income thresholds as the COVID relief legislation passed by Congress in December.
Just a few years ago, Senate Republicans passed a tax overhaul specifically designed to benefit the wealthy and slash the corporate tax rate.
While early reporting suggests that Democrats are unlikely to go along with the new proposal from moderate Republicans, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia helped kick off the push for limiting payment eligibility, repeatedly insisting that new rounds of relief checks be more targeted even though the payments have been means tested all along.
Biden, meanwhile, indicated last week that he would be open to setting new income limits for the checks, and National Economic Council director Brian Deese reiterated on Sunday that the White House is open to changing the income caps.
When CNN host Dana Bash pressed Deese to say whether the administration will “target those $1,400 checks,” Deese responded: “Yes, on the $1,400 checks, we are open to looking at how to make the entire package effective at achieving its objective, including providing support to families with children, providing direct child tax credits to families that have children and who have been hit the hardest in this crisis.”
After Bash again asked whether the White House wants to see checks be “more targeted to the people who need them most and not go to people who aren't going to spend them,” Deese replied: “We're open to that idea. We're open to ideas across the board.”
Biden economic adviser Jared Bernstein has publicly pushed back against the idea of further means testing the checks. Bernstein said last week that the checks are "better targeted than I think most people realize," and explained — because this somehow has to be said — that "it's not just people at the bottom who need the money."
Elite Media Preaching Austerity
The push to limit eligibility for COVID survival checks was initially sparked by discredited austerity economist Larry Summers and the editorial boards employed by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Mike Bloomberg.
Their campaign was boosted by a questionable economic analysis released last week suggesting that middle-income Americans don’t need money because they didn’t immediately spend the $600 checks that Congress sent out in December.
The study by economists at Opportunity Insights — a Harvard think tank funded by the family foundations of billionaires Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Bloomberg — found that higher-income households will only spend about $45 of the $600 checks within the first month of receiving them.
The economists suggested that new COVID relief payments should be limited to individuals earning less than $50,000 and couples earning less than $75,000 — a proposal that would make about half of all U.S. households ineligible for survival checks, according to census data.
The study was favorably cited in a series of purportedly objective news articles and opinion columns arguing that survival checks should be more limited.
“Cutting off stimulus checks to Americans earning over $75,000 could be wise, new data suggests,” one Washington Post headline read. “It’s not progressive to give money to the rich,” Post columnist Catherine Rampell wrote. Of course, Post owner Bezos is one of the richest men in the world and has seen his net worth nearly double during the pandemic.
Bloomberg News warned that “Biden’s stimulus risks giving money to people who won’t spend it.” The piece failed to note the organizational and financial ties between Mike Bloomberg’s philanthropy and Opportunity Insights.
Bloomberg money manager Steve Rattner, who agreed to pay $10 million a decade ago to resolve claims he paid bribes to score state pension business, wrote a New York Times column arguing that the Biden stimulus plan isn’t “well targeted to help the neediest.”
Despite data showing that the survival checks are distributed more fairly than other popular programs, Rattner cautioned that “some” of the spending in Biden’s plan “will go to workers in the top 10 percent — hardly a struggling group of Americans.”
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