Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here.
Washington • Sen. Mitt Romney wants to give working Americans $1,000 to help those in need and stimulate the economy during the coronavirus outbreak.
The Utah Republican said Monday that urgent action is needed to aid workers and wants a direct payment to adults as well as grants to small businesses hit by closures or curtailed operations because of emergency declarations. The one-time, immediate payment Romney is pitching could be extended on a month-to-month basis.
“I’ve been asked, would this be every month? I don’t have the answer to that,” Romney told Utah reporters. “I know it would be the first month that we’d see what would happen thereafter.”
Romney also proposes “bridge grants” to small businesses in need, expanding student aid and deferring college loans for recent graduates affected by the outbreak.
The House passed an economic stimulus bill last week and the Senate is poised to vote on it in the coming days. Romney said his proposal — which is similar to one pushed by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. — could be included in that package or come later.
Romney says he isn’t sure how his proposal would fare in the Senate, though Congress is rushing to help people and businesses impacted by the virus that has killed thousands across the globe.
“I can’t gauge how much support I’ll have on that at this stage,” Romney said. “I know that there are other senators that are looking at the same thing and are inclined in this direction.”
While it’s still unclear how fast the government could issue checks or how it would be implemented, Romney says if Congress passes his measure the Internal Revenue Service could administer the payouts. The cost could top $100 billion every month, Romney said.
“The number would depend, of course, on how many months that would go on, whether it’s just one month or multiple months,” Romney said.
The Utah senator initially wanted to set an income level so the payouts would only go to those individuals making $80,000 a year or less but says now it could be set on a graduated scale or simply given to every adult.
Such a boost to Americans would be welcomed as the U.S. economy teeters because of the virus that shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
“The Federal Reserve is doing what it can on the monetary policy front,” says Mark Hamrick, a senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com, referring to the U.S. central bank that has now shaved its interest rates to essentially zero. "And now eyes are becoming more keenly focused on the fiscal authorities and that means ultimately Congress and the White House. And so I think it’s quite important elected officials do something to address the interruptions in income that many Americans are facing. And this would seem to be a way of trying to do it quickly. "
Romney’s pitch is on top of a boost Congress is debating to help with food stamps, unemployment insurance and paid leave, but Romney says direct payments “will help fill the gaps for Americans that may not quickly navigate different government options.” Such payments were offered to working Americans during the 2001 and 2008 recessions.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., didn’t address Romney’s idea specifically but said Monday that “It is clear that confronting this virus will take boldness, bipartisanship, and a comprehensive approach,” including directly helping “Americans overcome financial challenges in the weeks and months ahead.”
Additionally, Romney proposes the government should:
• Offer grants to small businesses to help with short-term obligations such as payroll and rent if their revenue loss is greater than 50% of the same month’s revenue the prior year. That could cost $50 billion, Romney said, and should be grants, not loans because businesses don’t need to add more debt.
• Increase Pell grants for college students who had unexpected travel, housing or storage costs.
• Defer federal loans to recent college graduates entering an economy struggling because of the outbreak.
• Require all private insurers to cover telehealth services with reimbursement provided by the feds.
Romney said the emergency legislation the Senate passes will be costly but necessary.
“I can’t precisely predict what each senator is going to want to do," Romney said, “but my impression is that people recognize that this is a a unique and singular event in our nation’s history and that that we need to act to help people who are in distress given this terrible disease and that we will be prepared to act in a way which is not bound by financial concerns.”
Romney said Congress should balance its budget annually and not borrow more money.
“You don’t want to borrow for ordinary annual expenditures, which is what we’ve been doing,” Romney said. “But when there’s something that’s extraordinary, which affects the lives of our citizens and could potentially cause our enterprises to go out of business and put people permanently out of work, why, then you have to take whatever action is necessary. And my impression from my fellow colleagues who like me, are budget hawks, they recognize that this is not a time to squeeze the budget. This is a time to get money to people in need.”