SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Just one second. I have to go. I have to get Reggie (ph) to lie down again.
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
HORSLEY: OK, Reggie, we're taping the podcast, so you have to go lie down. Go lie down.
DAVIS: Hope you're getting this audio.
HORSLEY: Good boy. All right.
BRIAN: Hey, y'all. This is Brian (ph) from New Orleans, La., where I'm waiting on the sidewalk side of St. Charles Avenue and Harmony Street for a Mardi Gras parade that won't be here until 2022.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: That's a long wait.
BRIAN: This episode was recorded at...
DAVIS: 2:05 p.m. on Tuesday, February 16.
BRIAN: Things may have changed since then, but I'll still be waiting. Happy Mardi Gras, everyone.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
DAVIS: Happy Mardi Gras.
SNELL: That's some dedication right there.
DAVIS: You know, Mardi Gras is one of those things that I currently would not want to go to, but now post-pandemic, it actually sounds pretty amazing to me at this point.
SNELL: Oh, for sure. Get me a babysitter, and I will be right there (laughter).
DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I also cover Congress.
DAVIS: And we have NPR's chief economics correspondent here with us today.
Hey, Scott Horsley.
HORSLEY: Good to be with y'all.
DAVIS: Last week, while most of us were consumed with impeachment coverage, the House was advancing what is likely to become one of the most expensive spending bills in American history, around $2 trillion. It's President Biden's plan to bring the country out of the COVID-19 pandemic and get us all back to normal life, whatever that might look like.
Kelsey, you've done the work of digging through the details of what House Democrats are putting together. So let's start with the question that I think most listeners have - is, you know, what's in this bill that's going to affect their life?
SNELL: I think the things that people are watching most closely is the inclusion of a $1,400 new round of direct checks or stimulus checks, depending on how you want to think about it, and a $15 minimum wage increase. But we'll come back to that one because that one's a little complicated.
And there's also something in here that I think is really interesting and that I'm going to be watching really closely, which are changes to programs aimed at lifting kids in particular out of poverty. There's a change to the child tax credit that is basically an experiment in trying to send people direct money through an advanceable tax credit, so essentially direct checks from the IRS for the year 2021. And there are some changes to the earned income tax credit for people who don't have kids, aimed at moving more people who are not connected to the - you know, the child payment system - moving them out of poverty.
DAVIS: Scott, there's also money in this bill for state and local governments, for more vaccines, for schools. But I wonder how you would rate this as sort of - from an economics perspective. How much boost is it going to bring, and how stimulating is this package?
HORSLEY: A lot of the proponents would call this not so much a stimulus bill but still a relief bill. That is - a lot of this is still aimed at just keeping families and businesses afloat until we get to the other side of the pandemic. And some of the provisions would do that very effectively. We know, for example, that the money that goes for unemployment benefits does a lot to keep unemployed workers and their families' head above water. The longer-term things, like the child tax credit, could be very effective in lifting people out of poverty.
Things like the direct payments - it's very interesting. We have a little experiment with the direct payments that went out at the beginning of January under the $900 billion bill that was passed at the end of last year. And the folks at Opportunity Insights, which is an economic research group, have been tracking that, and they break it out by income level. It's very, very interesting.
For families at the lower end of the income ladder, as soon as that money hit their bank accounts, it was spent. And you can see it - a big jump in spending by lower-income families just, you know, within days of that money getting out the door. For middle-income families, it was less pronounced. And then for upper-income families, it really had no effect either because they were making so much they didn't qualify for the payments or because they just didn't need it, and so they just put it in the bank.
SNELL: That's part of the reason that, you know, some progressives are framing these as basically, like, not just relief checks, but, like, critical life checks for some people. They're saying that they're - that these direct payments are the ways that people who have gotten behind on rent or on utility payments - that's the way that they're keeping up.
But really, the criticism is that these are not well tailored. They are going to people, as Scott said, who are more middle-income who are just putting them into savings and aren't using them for their intended purpose. And Scott, you and I've talked about this in the past, but there are a lot of economists who say unemployment is just simply a more useful way to get people who need money money.
HORSLEY: That's right. And the unemployment benefits that were passed at the end of December - they're set to run out in the middle of March - between the middle of March and the beginning of April. And so without the extension that's in this $1.9 trillion bill, you'd have millions of unemployed workers who would be out of luck.
SNELL: And to be clear, that is an extension through August 29 of this year. And it would increase the weekly federal benefit from $300 to $400.
DAVIS: Kelsey, one of the political criticisms of the bill that is coming from Republicans is they essentially say Democrats are just putting together a wish list of policies that they wanted to put into law for a long time well before the pandemic. And they're just taking advantage of this opportunity. Is there some truth to that?
SNELL: Yeah, and Democrats will absolutely admit that, too. They're saying that it took one of the worst economic situations in a generation to give Democrats the control over the House, the Senate and the White House in a moment when they were campaigning on policies that have been kind of foundational to the way they think about the relationship between the government and people. And Democrats said that they made promises to voters that they were going to increase the involvement of the federal government in people's daily economic lives, and that is what they're doing. So, yes, it is a wish list for Democrats. But Democrats say that's the wish list they campaigned on.
HORSLEY: There's definitely pieces of this bill that are directly tied to the pandemic, whether it's money for vaccine distribution or aid to make up money that the states lost strictly because of the pandemic. But then there are policies like that child tax credit or the $15 minimum wage that are just things that Democrats think would be a good policy. And they're happy to attach them to this train that's leaving the station.
SNELL: And this is not new for parties to do this, but this is one of those times when this economic situation is so dire that Democrats are kind of pulling out any and all stops with the argument that they need to get it right.
DAVIS: Especially when a bill is almost certain to be signed into law, which this one has a very good chance of that - that they often become - we call them Christmas trees, like everything that gets attached that can get attached because so rare do those opportunities come along.
DAVIS: All right. Well, let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk more about this bill and when it's going to get a vote.
And we're back. And one of the economic criticisms of this bill is that it could almost be too helpful, that the economy doesn't need another $2 trillion pumped into it right now.
Scott, can you talk about that criticism and maybe give us a little bit of reality check on what the economic perspective is of putting that $2 trillion into the U.S. economy?
HORSLEY: Sure. I mean, we still have millions of people who are out of work. So we are still feeling the effects of this recession. But there's no question the economy has bounced back more quickly than many forecasters thought it would do last spring. And in fact, congressional forecasters now say GDP, the measure of overall economic output, will be back to its pre-pandemic levels sometime by the middle of this year. And so the hole that they see to be filled is not anywhere near $1.9 trillion.
And so some of the critics - and these are both Republican and some Democratic critics - say if you put, you know, $1.9 trillion worth of new fuel on a fire that's already burning pretty hot, there's a danger the economy would overheat, and then we might get something which we haven't seen in this country in a long time, which is inflation.
Now, the administration is not very concerned about that. And Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who, of course, was the nation's No. 1 inflation watchdog when she was chair of the Federal Reserve, says, look; if we get inflation, we can deal with that. We've got bigger problems to deal with. So let's not worry about that. They're - they say the much bigger risk is doing too little rather than doing too much.
SNELL: One argument that I've heard from Democrats kind of pushing back on Republicans who say that they need to wait and see what happened with the last round of funding is they say that there's a really big difference between Wall Street and the economy that shows up in, like, GDP reports and things like that and the personal economies of people who were most harmed in this pandemic. They say that the - their goal is to target things more to the people who have lost jobs, the people who are, you know, working in essential worker positions but have to figure out child care or people who, you know, were in a tenuous position when it comes to food security or housing security before the pandemic who have been set back even further who, you know, maybe don't register as much on the greater Wall Street version of the economy.
DAVIS: Politically, do you see this as maybe Democrats learning the lesson of 2009? And when I say that, you know, when we had the financial crisis, the Obama administration, of which now-President Biden was obviously a part of, many Democrats looking back feel like they didn't do enough and that they tried to bring Republicans on board. And they never got them anyway, and they should have just gone bigger and bolder. And it seems like Democrats now are willing to say, you know what? We don't need Republicans to get this done. Let's go as big and as bold as we possibly can.
HORSLEY: In hindsight, there are definitely people who - the lesson they draw is that the Democrats didn't go big enough after the last recession, and that was partly because they were trying to win over Republicans. It was also because there were Democrats in the caucus at that time, conservative Democrats, who didn't want to spend any more. And you know, the $787 billion stimulus that was passed early in 2009 was absolutely every dollar that the Obama administration thought they could squeeze out of that - what was at the time a pretty big Democratic majority, a much bigger majority than Democrats have right now.
DAVIS: Kelsey, the House often passes something more aggressive and, in this case, more progressive that can ultimately get through the Senate. What roadblocks do you see this House bill heading for in the Senate? And specifically, I'm thinking about in the inclusion of the eventual increase to a $15 minimum wage.
SNELL: Yeah, what Scott's talking about there - the worries about more moderate Democrats, 2009 - the version of that right now is the $15 minimum wage. Democrats included it in there. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders says it has to be in there. But everybody - all of the leaders and even Sanders himself - acknowledged that it might not even make it through the procedural hurdles in the Senate.
So there is that challenge. But Democrats could work around that challenge. They could come up with other ways to make that work if they had unanimous support. But they don't have that. People like Joe Manchin of West Virginia don't necessarily think that $15 is where they need to be going. He's talked about a number closer to $12. He says that it's just not uniformly necessary across the country.
And so if they don't have unanimous agreement in a situation where they only have 50% exactly of the Senate, plus one with the vice president voting, they can't move stuff like that. So $15 minimum wage is the one that comes to mind when I think of the thing that is most challenged by the politics and the process in the Senate.
DAVIS: All right. So the big question now is, when's it going to get a vote?
SNELL: The House is set to vote on this at the end of next week, and then it'll move over to the Senate, where there are still some things up in the air. We don't really know how the committees are going to approach this. There is a possibility that the Senate committees could just say, this bill looks great, send it to the floor or - you know, it's the Senate. There are a lot of different options for what they could do (laughter). But the goal still is - for Democrats, their goal is to get it done by, you know, early enough to make sure that unemployment benefits don't run out in the middle of March.
DAVIS: All right. I think that's it for today.
Scott Horsley, thank you so much for joining us.
HORSLEY: Always good to be with y'all.
DAVIS: And we'll be back tomorrow. Until then, head to npr.org/politicsnewsletter for a roundup of our best online analysis.
I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I also cover Congress.
DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
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