Here’s Everything You Need to Know About the Elusive Second Round of COVID-19 Relief Stimulus Checks
Updated | November 13: Despite months of ongoing relief legislation negotiations between House and Senate Democrats and Republicans — and their agreement that another stimulus package is necessary — Congress has remained unable to broker a compromise even in the face of multiple big-budget proposals. While a potential package may still be on the horizon as the post-election congressional term continues, it's looking more and more likely that relief may not arrive until President-elect Biden takes office.
On March 27, federal lawmakers enacted a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package, known as the CARES Act, in order to help Americans navigate financial hardships in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Among its many benefits, the act increased federal unemployment to $600 a week and provided many Americans with relief checks — one-time payments totaling up to $1,200 per individual who reported an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or less in 2019. While the one-time $1,200 relief check certainly helped, millions of unemployed Americans felt (and still feel) that it didn’t go far enough in mitigating the financial burdens caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At that time, as May bills loomed close, Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) proposed the Emergency Money for the People Act (EMPA), which intended to provide stimulus payments of $2,000 a month to qualifying Americans for six months, with the option to renew the program. Moreover, to account for the delayed CARES checks, EMPA would have allowed funds to be distributed by more 21st century payment platforms, like Venmo and PayPal. Of course, that plan didn’t pan out.
In May, Democrats called for another round of $1,200 payments as part of their HEROES Act, which the House passed (but the Senate refused to take up). The Republicans’ HEALS Act, which was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on July 27, also outlined a plan for a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks.
In short, stimulus checks seemed to be something both sides of the aisle could agree upon. That was until Republicans introduced yet another bill in August, nicknamed the "skinny bill" — a pared-down proposal that didn't include stimulus checks at all. Following the GOP's failure to pass the "skinny bill," and then the later March to Common Ground bill that was unveiled in mid-September, lawmakers are once again at an impasse.
The slow decision-making has been frustrating, perhaps even more so for Americans without jobs since the $600 per week unemployment earnings ended on July 31 and the additional $400 weekly unemployment checks resulting from Donald Trump's executive order to restart those payments are largely no longer being provided by most states. According to CNBC, these proposals would "impact nearly 32 million Americans currently receiving unemployment benefits — about five times the level of the Great Recession more than a decade ago." But those millions of Americans are still waiting, and it may be several months before they see more aid.
How Do the Various Proposed Acts Compare to March’s CARES Act?
The number of COVID-19-related relief package acronyms that were being thrown around has made things confusing. So, first things first: What are the key differences between all of these acts? First up, the CARES Act was the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package passed in March — it’s where that first round of relief checks and those enhanced unemployment benefits came from.
As for the follow-ups, the Democratic-led House of Representatives proposed the HEROES Act in May, calling for a relief package worth triple what Republicans aimed to spend in their counter-proposal, the HEALS Act. Now, efforts to reach a compromise between the two — and to pass the GOP's subsequent "skinny bill" and the more recent March to Common Ground framework — have almost completely fallen flat, although even more new proposals may be in the works. As these potential new package proposals emerge, reviewing a quick comparison, particularly of how they relate to the CARES Act, which is the only relief package that's passed thus far, can help cast light on what's on the line.
The Acts at a Glance:
- CARES Act: In total, the package cost $2.2 trillion. It provided stimulus checks to many, but not all, Americans ($1,200 for single filers earning under $75,000 and $2,400 for joint filers under $125,000); provided an extra $500 for all dependents age 17 and under (excluding college students); provided enhanced unemployment benefits of $600 per week in addition to state benefits through July 31; allocated $659 billion in PPP loans for small businesses; and banned late fees until July 25 and evictions until August 24.
- HEROES Act: Coming in at $3 trillion, this proposal would've built off the CARES Act. Eligible Americans would've received $1,200, instead of $500, for up to three dependents per household. Enhanced unemployment benefits would've extended through January 2021 for most workers and continued through March 2021 for independent contractors, part-time workers, people who are self-employed and "gig" workers. PPP loan eligibility was set to expand, and the eviction moratorium would've been extended (and expanded who was covered under that) for an additional 12 months. Lastly, the act would've allocated $300 billion total for housing programs and rental assistance and provided $58 billion in funds for grade schools and $42 billion for higher education.
- HEALS Act: This package totaled $1 trillion in costs and, while it proposed to uphold the stimulus check payments of the CARES Act and expand relief money for dependents ($500 for all dependents, no age limit), it also made key changes. Unemployment benefits would've dropped to $200 per week through September, then gone up to $500 to match 70% of lost wages when added with state benefits. The act would've allocated $190 billion into the PPP fund and expanded eligibility while providing money for a "return to work" bonus for people who secured new jobs. It would've also provided $70 billion to K-12 schools, with the caveat that they had to open in person, and allocated $29 billion for higher education, $1 billion for the Bureau of Indian Education and $5 billion to be used at states’ discretion. The proposal also aimed to protect businesses and schools from being sued for COVID-related issues and intended to allocate $16 billion for novel coronavirus testing.
- The "Skinny Bill": Introduced in August, this second GOP economic relief bill proposal was a much more pared-down offering than HEROES and HEALS. Compared to the $1 trillion cost of HEALS, this bill would've cost just $500 billion, with none of that money funding stimulus checks. Instead, it would've been allocated toward funding the U.S. Postal Service, testing for the coronavirus, the PPP fund, help for U.S. schools and the enhanced unemployment provisions Donald Trump outlined in previous executive orders to continue those payments. Unemployment payments under this act would've included $300 coming from the federal government and $100 from state governments, for a total of $400 per check through December 2020. Additionally, $10 billion would've gone towards funding the USPS.
- March to Common Ground: This latest bill introduced in September neared the CARES Act in cost, potentially reaching $2 trillion, and again proposed one-time $1,200 stimulus checks for individuals along with one-time $500 payments per child or dependent adult. It also would've provided need-based rental assistance and allocated funds to support eviction moratoriums through January of 2021. In addition, March to Common Ground would've reserved $120 billion for unemployment funds and another $290 billion for small businesses and nonprofits, $240 billion of which would've gone towards PPP loans with the remainder reserved for various tax credits. Like the "skinny bill," March to Common Ground also included funding for the USPS but bumped the amount up to $15 billion. In addition to over $500 billion for state aid, this plan would've directed $145 billion to schools and childcare programs and another $100 billion to COVID-19 testing and healthcare.
Why Have These Proposed Acts Been So Hotly Contested?
While the Republican-helmed HEALS Act initially seemed to be the frontrunner, both HEROES and HEALS were hotly contested. And now that multiple follow-up proposals have fallen flat, things are becoming even more complicated. Democrats objected to the HEALS Act because it didn’t extend unemployment benefits in full; they were also pushing for larger stimulus checks and $1 trillion in state aid.
Why did negotiations between HEALS and HEROES fall apart? Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi summed it up by noting, "We're very far apart. It's very unfortunate." The two parties ultimately failed to reach a satisfying agreement because what the groups wanted from their separate plans was so different that it was difficult to find common ground on which to work things out. And the "skinny bill" left both sides with less to work with — the simplified offering failed to make it easier to focus on the few specific issues it did address.
In addition, the bipartisan March to Common Ground began facing criticism almost immediately following its introduction. Top House Democrats noted that the plan did provide a usable framework that future bills could build off of in hopes of a compromise, but they also said that it ultimately didn't do enough to limit the struggles many Americans have been facing throughout the pandemic. In a joint statement, House committee leaders noted, "While we appreciate every attempt at providing critical relief to American families, the...proposal falls short of what is needed to save lives and boost the economy." According to Li Zhou of Vox, the cost of the bill was likely also higher than what Republican leaders would've been comfortable with. Although March for Common Ground faced quick dismissal, it's clear that pressure to find a solution is mounting, especially as the presidential election looms.
What's Happening With a Second Round of Stimulus Checks?
Specific details regarding eligibility for stimulus provisions will remain unknown until yet another package proposal appears to be moving forward. However, based on previous plans proposed by both Democrats and the GOP, the qualifications for the second round of relief checks could remain similar to the qualifications of the CARES Act. That is, individual adults who reported adjusted gross income of $75,000 or less on their 2019 tax returns could receive a one-time $1,200 payment, whereas married couples who filed jointly and made less than $150,000 could receive $2,400. Qualifying earners would potentially receive an additional $500 for each child or adult dependent under the age of 17.
Under the CARES Act, non-citizens and undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. were ineligible for federal payments — in fact, U.S. citizens who are married to someone who is an undocumented immigrant or non-citizen were also ineligible. According to The New York Times, roughly 1.2 million American citizens are married to undocumented immigrants, meaning a large segment of the population did not receive aid. Mixed-status couples who file jointly might qualify for stimulus relief, but this will remain unknown until a second relief package has been made official.
Although coming proposals may provide some reassurance that politicians haven't abandoned a compromise yet, and although Speaker Pelosi has vowed that the House will find a way to move forward with a plan, much still remains unknown about future stimulus checks and other economic and health-focused relief. As negotiations continue to stall, many Americans are eager for answers, direction and aid. Here's hoping that all comes sooner rather than later.
Right now, decisions are still being made and everything is up in the air. Please check back for the most up-to-date information on the second round of stimulus checks and COVID-19-related relief.