Congress likes to spend money and to create new programs, but when it comes to the coronavirus recovery, lawmakers need to keep it simple.
Congress has already authorized more than $3.6 trillion of relief, of which to date only about half has been spent.
Simple relief is effective relief. The congressional response should remain targeted at containing the virus and streamlining programs that already exist, rather than creating new complexity.
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Individuals and employers don’t need a new series of tax credits or grant programs. They need simplicity, clarity, and flexibility.
The existing pandemic programs are complicated in how they interact—often pushing in opposite directions—and ambiguous in how they are enforced.
To keep people connected to their employers and businesses afloat, Congress created the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program for small businesses; the Employee Retention Credit, a subsidy to keep more people employed; a paid-leave credit to cover the costs of new mandatory paid sick time; a two-year deferral for employer payroll taxes; and new loans and direct support for large businesses, among others.
Each of those programs attempt to keep people employed by offering to businesses incentives tied to keeping up payrolls. However, workers often face different incentives. The expanded unemployment benefits included in the CARES Act make it more profitable not to work than to work for as many as 3 in 4 workers.
Now, Congress is considering additional programs to support specific special interests.
The cleaning industry association is promoting a “Clean Start” tax credit to subsidize business cleaning and disinfecting. Manufacturing associations have cooked up a plan to allow businesses to get immediate cash for more than two dozen tax credits that they would otherwise have to wait to claim.
Still other tax credits aim to offset the cost of coronavirus testing, and some have discussed providing new subsidies to businesses that rehire their laid-off workers or new business tax credits to boost the pay of front-line workers.
While each of those new ideas may sound like a straightforward solution to a pressing problem, when combined and added to the existing relief that Congress has already provided, any benefits to the neediest businesses will get lost in mounting confusion.
The existing programs to retain workers and keep businesses solvent have already suffered from unnecessary complexity. With the exception of Paycheck Protection Program loans, business usage of tax credits and other emergency tax provisions are quite low. Payroll-processing company ADP reported that only 1% of its clients have taken advantage of the employee-retention credit.
Even for the popular Paycheck Protection Program loans, complexity and confusion abound, causing more loan money to be sent back than loaned out on some days in May.
One small business returned the government money, saying the “terms of the PPP loan are like a house built on a sand foundation, constantly shifting.”
Others have struggled to determine whether they meet loan-forgiveness criteria amid shifting closure orders and employees who would prefer to claim unemployment.
Those businesses that have been left out of the first waves of government aid are the smallest and least financially sophisticated. Businesses without existing relationships with banks—which tend to be disproportionately minority-owned—have struggled to get Paycheck Protection Program loans, let alone to comply with the loans’ regulatory requirements.
The smaller the business, and the more limited its financial resources, the less likely it is to benefit from new tax credits and other, inevitably complicated government programs.
New credits for COVID-19 testing of employees (something that most employer- and government-provided health insurance already covers at no cost) or for office cleaning, or refundable green-energy tax credits are unlikely to help those businesses struggling the most.
Proposals for new individual tax credits are also poorly targeted to the crisis at hand and will likely leave Americans with permanent new tax programs, as “temporary” policies have a habit of being continually extended in future years.
The tourism industry is pushing a new tax credit to subsidize more than $8,000 worth of personal vacation costs. Also on the list are new job-training tax credits, expansions of the child and earned-income tax credits, and new child care subsidies.
If Congress determines more aid for individuals is necessary, it should be targeted to those who need it most. Some 142 million Americans are fortunate to have jobs, including 2.5 million jobs added in May and 4.8 million jobs gained in June.
A temporary partial federal match to unemployment benefits after the $600 bonus benefits expire on July 31, for example, would be much better targeted than sending checks to every American or cutting payroll taxes for individuals who still have jobs.
Similarly, if Congress is going to extend additional aid to businesses, lawmakers should do it through existing programs, targeting the aid to those businesses hit hardest by closure orders and simplifying rules for those who do apply.
Novel new credits for cleaning or testing, essential-worker bonuses, or advances on tax credits would further complicate the federal economic response and distract from programs that can better provide temporary and targeted aid.