Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Montana senators back $2 trillion aid package

by Shaylee Ragar

Congress is considering a bill that would boost unemployment benefits, give grants to small businesses and offer loans to various industries, and both Montana senators are supporting it.

A final vote on the bill can’t come soon enough, according to Patrick Barkey, director of Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

“It’s extremely disappointing how long this has taken,” Barkey said.

Although this bill has moved faster than the speed at which Congress generally moves, Barkey said a delay of even one day has a real cost as the U.S. economy continues to fall deeper into a recession.

“The whole premium right now is on speed,” Barkey said.

Senate Democrats blocked the bill on Sunday, saying it didn’t include enough oversight on the $500 billion in loans that would be available to corporations. House Democrats presented a draft of their own bill on Monday night. Republican and Democratic Senate leaders found common ground late Tuesday night.

Democrat Sen. Jon Tester said on a call with reporters that he voted no on Sunday because he wanted a better deal for Montanans and the country. He said the amended bill before the Senate on Wednesday is not perfect, but fundamentally different from what was presented on Sunday and includes improvements like $10 billion for Indian County, $20 billion for veterans and money for schools.

“This legislation is far from perfect, it’s not going to fix every problem, so I’m going to continue to work on further assistance and aid measures,” Tester said.

Tester said he was disappointed that the $500 billion “slush fund” still made it in the bill, which he called an “unchecked bailout.” However, he noted that the bill includes provisions for sideboards like a federal watchdog to protect against fraud.

“It’s a fact that when it’s raining soup in Washington, corporations and special interests put a bowl on their head,” Tester said.

Republican Sen. Steve Daines also spoke with reporters on Wednesday and he expected some of the provisions, like $1,200 checks for individuals, to be rolled out within a month.

Daines said the U.S. is seeing an unprecedented surge in claims for unemployment, and that he’s never seen a situation like what’s been caused by the coronavirus pandemic in his lifetime.

Although the bill has been dubbed an economic stimulus package, Daines reiterated what Senate Republican leadership has said, which is that the bill is not a stimulus, but emergency aid.

“It’s getting help to Montanans who are suffering and are needing immediate relief,” Daines said.

Daines emphasized that the bill includes billions of dollars to fund the development of medication that could treat the coronavirus. He said medications and vaccines are critical to getting the virus under control and preventing a resurgence later on.

“The virus is not going to end until we have immunity,” Daines said.

Both Daines and Tester said the U.S. will accrue debt to pay for the package, and that will have to be a concern for another day.

U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte said in an emailed statement that it’s important for Congress to help Montana businesses and workers during this crisis. He said the bill is a step in the right direction, and that he’s looking forward to seeing the final text and “considering it quickly” in the House.

“After unnecessary delays and obstruction of a bipartisan agreement, I’m relieved partisans stopped playing political games, recognized the urgency to act, and moved forward,” Gianforte said.

In the meantime, people will continue to feel the strain.

The Bozeman Downtown Association released survey results Wednesday showing that of 98 business owners, 97% anticipate revenue will decline by more than 50% in the next month, 47% have closed due to health concerns or government mandates and 57% have laid off employees or placed them on unpaid leave.

Barkey said he flip-flops between being optimistic and pessimistic every hour. He said it’s nearly impossible to forecast what comes next, but the big question is if this package will be enough.

Barkey said some measures like the federal government taking on debt or bailing out corporations are unpopular, but necessary.

“It’s got to be done and we then have to move on,” Barkey said.