United States Capitol

This is the United States Capitol building in Washington D.C. Jan. 31, 2017.

THE ISSUE

Democrats have control, though it’s razor-thin, of both chambers of Congress, and that appears to be good news regarding the prospects for Democratic President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. The proposal “includes $350 billion in aid for state and local governments across the country,” according to an article in Monday’s LNP | LancasterOnline from The Caucus, an LNP Media Group watchdog publication focusing on state government. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that the House intends to vote on Biden’s proposal by the end of next week.

We don’t think it’s vital that every element of the president’s costly and necessary American Rescue Plan be set in stone. For example, we believe the $1,400 per person relief checks could be more targeted than the past two stimulus checks, to provide the maximum help to the most vulnerable Americans while somewhat lowering the overall cost of the legislation.

And while, as we wrote last month, it’s past time to engage in serious discussions about the minimum wage, we believe that could be handled in a separate bill this year, which might help to expedite the current aid package to address a pandemic that has killed more than 492,000 Americans.

There should be swift negotiations and bipartisan discussions in Congress about how Biden’s proposal can be honed to be even more effective.

But, ultimately, we believe two things.

The package must be big.

And it cannot wait.

Since this health crisis began, Congress has been neither aggressive enough nor timely enough in addressing the unique challenges to the health care infrastructure, the economy and social services.

Biden’s plan includes billions to bolster vaccine distribution efforts at the community level. As we have seen — to our immense frustration — that help is sorely needed.

There’s another — perhaps less obvious — aspect of the proposed relief package we want to focus on today.

According to a Jan. 20 White House news release, “President Biden is calling on Congress to provide $350 billion in emergency funding for state, local, and territorial governments to ensure that they are in a position to keep front line public workers on the job and paid, while also effectively distributing the vaccine, scaling testing, reopening schools, and maintaining other vital services.”

The economic fallout of COVID-19 has been devastating for local governments. Lancaster city Mayor Danene Sorace and the mayors of four other Pennsylvania cities, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, made that point in a joint op-ed that was published in Wednesday’s LNP | LancasterOnline.

They emphasized that if Congress can “go big” with the relief package, communities will be able to vaccinate at a quicker pace, which will push us more swiftly toward the end of this health crisis. Everyone should share that hope and goal.

The mayors also described how interconnected we all are during this ongoing crisis. And they detailed what federal relief would mean for their constituents and cities.

“Essential services such as public health, public safety and sanitation are at risk,” they wrote. “We can’t allow partisan politics to make us forget what we learned from the last recession: Cities are economic engines for their regions, and not spending enough on federal stimulus will result in cuts at the local level that slow the pace of economic recovery in the long run.”

As The Caucus article explained, this specific call for help was mostly ignored throughout 2020: “Local and state officials pleaded with Congress and then-President Donald Trump to include billions in federal spending to fill the holes blown in their budgets by the pandemic-driven economic slowdown, but leaders of the Republican-run Senate dismissed the requests as bailouts that would mostly benefit Democratic controlled state and local governments.”

Those Senate GOP leaders got it wrong.

The economic damage wrought by COVID-19 is not partisan. America’s cities, counties and states are populated by Republicans and Democrats. All of whom need police, fire and emergency services.

Public safety benefits all. The notion of keeping it properly staffed and funded — especially in a health crisis — should not be a political football.

“It’s really a jobs issue and a public safety issue at its core,” U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, told The Caucus. “If you have the worst public health crisis in 100 years, that public health crisis leads to an economic calamity, and part of an economic calamity is that state and local county governments have their budgets devastated.”

Pennsylvania’s other U.S. senator, Republican Pat Toomey, has been rightly praised in recent days for the courage of his vote to convict Trump in the former president’s Senate impeachment trial for inciting violence against the U.S. government.

But Toomey has expressed some wariness of the “staggering” size of Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal, The Caucus reported.

“The economy has rebounded well since last April. The unemployment rate has fallen by more than half of what it was then and savings and disposable income rates are currently at or near record high levels,” Toomey said in a statement. “Another round of stimulus checks and other aid will not address the biggest problem facing Americans — concerns about traveling, socializing, and dining out during the pandemic. Getting the vaccine into people’s arms as quickly as possible does.”

To Toomey’s points:

— Part of the stimulus certainly addresses getting the vaccine into people’s arms as quickly as possible.

— Millions of struggling American families absolutely need another relief check.

— Many sectors of the economy continue to struggle.

— And unemployment remains alarmingly high.

If Toomey wants Americans traveling, socializing and dining out again, the fastest way to get there is through aggressive and immediate action by Congress to bolster the vaccination infrastructure and keep families, businesses and local governments afloat in the meantime.

It would be ideal if Toomey and other Republicans could agree — and offer their own ideas and enhancements for the relief package — as quickly as possible.

But time is of the essence.

“I like bipartisanship, and I want to pursue it as far as we can,” Casey told The Caucus. “But we can’t have two months of hand-holding to do bipartisanship when people are hurting and we’ve got to get vaccines into the arms of tens of millions of Americans. We’ve got to act.”

We agree. We must go big. 

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