Four must-haves in Congress’ next pandemic rescue package

Unemployment relief must continue. Workplace safety standards must be tangible. And then there’s election security, along with more assistance for state and local governments.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, arrives at a luncheon on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, where he and Trump administration officials would discuss a new coronavirus economic stimulus package.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

No sooner did professional baseball return last week, after months of planning to make the games safe during the pandemic, than the entire season was thrown into doubt when COVID-19 swept through the Miami Marlins.

There is a lesson in that not only for professional sports, which we’re really feeling the loss of right now, but also for lawmakers in Washington who are crafting a massive new pandemic relief bill:

All our man-made plans are doomed if designed for a wished-for world.

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At the core of almost every disagreement between Democrats and Republicans about how big the federal relief bill should be — and what it should include — is a fundamentally different view about how long it will be before life in the United States can return to normal.

Democrats, listening to the scientists, think it could be many more months or even years. They are proposing a $3 trillion relief bill. Republicans are leaning hard into that wished-for world. They are pushing a $1 trillion bill.

With that in mind, here are four provisions of any relief bill we’d like to stress:

$600 weekly unemployment relief

Senate Republicans and the Trump administration are calling for slashing by two-thirds the $600 weekly federal unemployment payments that workers have been receiving since April. The Republican argument is that the $600, when combined with state unemployment benefits, discourages people from going back to work.

As Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said, “The answer to these challenges will not simply be shoveling cash out of Washington; the answer to these challenges will be getting people back to work.”

Get back to work how? Ask the Miami Marlins about that. Reopening the country too soon, as many states have learned, just fuels the pandemic. And a study released this week by a team of Yale University economists concludes that the extra $600 has not discouraged people from returning to work.

”Workers facing larger expansions in unemployment insurance benefits have returned to their previous jobs over time at similar rates as others,” the economists wrote. “We find no evidence that more generous benefits disincentivized work either at the onset of the expansion or as firms looked to return to business over time.”

Workplace safety standards

The best assurance that businesses will take reasonable precautions to protect their workers from catching the coronavirus is the risk of being sued if they do not. But, as part of the new pandemic relief package, Republicans want to create a liability shield for businesses. Workers who get sick would not be able to sue.

The notion that an employee’s right to a safe work environment should be legislated away is absurd. A better solution suggested by Democrats, given that even the most conscientious employers understandably worry about meritless lawsuits, would be for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to establish legally enforceable standards for pandemic-related safety in workplaces.

Companies that adhere to the standards, maintaining proper infection-control measures, would have little to fear.

Assistance to state and local governments

The pandemic has devastated state and municipal finances across the country, including the finances of Illinois and Chicago. The new relief bill should include substantially more direct aid to states and cities — and allow greater flexibility than in previous relief packages as to how the money is spent.

Nobody believes Washington should bail out state and local governments for long-standing financial problems of their own making. Illinois, most obviously, should not be allowed to put a penny of any new federal money toward paying down the state’s $138 billion unfunded pension liability, decades in the making.

But state and municipal finances have been hammered every which way by the pandemic. Tax revenues, such as from casinos and retail sales, are in decline while necessary expenses, such as for health care and unemployment insurance, are on the upswing.

Chicago’s budget shortfall stands at $700 million, the result of virtually every city revenue stream taking a pandemic-related hit. Yet the city faces unprecedented expenses, such as for mental health services and rental assistance, to keep people fed, housed and clothed. People are hurting.

States and cities — not Washington government — are best positioned to spend relief money effectively to avoid furloughs, layoffs and a deepening recession.

We frankly wonder about the good sense of anybody who would effectively encourage Congress to take a pass on Illinois and Chicago now — in this time of crisis — because of past fiscal mismanagement. They should get their priorities right.

Election security

The pandemic will test the integrity of our nation’s elections like nothing before.

Voters must be able to cast a ballot safely, which for many of them will mean voting by mail. Election offices will have to print many more mail-in ballots, go the extra mile to clean and protect polling equipment and sites, and hire workers to educate the public as to all the changes.

Democrats want to include $3.6 billion in the new relief package to pay for election security, a relatively modest sum for such a big job, yet Republicans are balking.

Why the party that frets the most about the danger of voter fraud should be so reluctant to safeguard against voter fraud — or a plain Election Day mess — is beyond us.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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