Despite the historic crisis, Sinclair report focuses on whether the pandemic relief bill is too big

February 5, 2021 Media Matters

A Sinclair report which focused almost exclusively on the amount of money appropriated and spent so far to address the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States misleadingly suggested that the $1.9 trillion relief package currently under considerations would come at too high a cost. Many economists, however, say that this level of spending is necessary to help those struggling during this crisis — and indeed some believe it’s not nearly enough to ease the huge economic hardship the pandemic has inflicted on our country.

President Joe Biden’s bill, called the American Rescue Plan, includes direct economic relief such as $1,400 checks for Americans, extended unemployment insurance, housing assistance, child care assistance, paid sick leave to millions more Americans, and assistance to state and local governments for help with vaccination and schools. Republican lawmakers have floated a much smaller bill — at less than one-third the size of Biden’s proposal — that leaves out much needed relief.

But as many leading economists have explained, Biden’s proposed spending limit is necessary to meet the challenge of the pandemic. A letter from the leaders of the National Employment Law Center, the Economic Policy Institute, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Center for American Progress, and the Roosevelt Institute explained that “President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan—with its critical public health investments to beat COVID-19, its aid to help struggling families, and its assistance to states, localities, tribes, and territories—is an appropriate scale of new spending under current conditions.” The letter also explained that the additional relief passed in December was insufficient:

Household hardship remains significantly above pre-pandemic levels. Almost 24 million adults reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t get enough to eat, the most recent Census data show, and more than 15 million renters reported that they were behind on rent. Hardship rates are particularly high among families with children, particularly Black and Latinx households with children, raising serious concerns about the long-term consequences for children’s health and academic outcomes.

Congress must act fast and pass further legislation that reflects the scale of the crisis. The Emergency Coronavirus Relief Act, enacted in December, was a needed stopgap measure, but it didn’t do nearly enough to address the depth and breadth of today’s hardship. It will end far too soon, and it lacks key components of relief.

Repairing the economy and labor market will require that we get the virus under control, and that we also provide a significant amount of investment and support. With the economy down 10 million jobs and millions of people working part time because there isn’t enough business for them to work full time, the time for bold action is now. The economy will not fully recover until the virus is no longer a public health threat, which is why we must be aggressive in our public health response while we also support those who are struggling and boost the economy.

The risk from providing too little in relief and economic recovery far outweighs the risk of providing too much.

Joel Friedman, a vice president at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, also explained the long-term economic dangers of not doing enough, or waiting too long to pass additional relief:

While the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) latest economic projections (which assume no further fiscal support) show a stronger recovery than its July projections, they also show the economy not achieving its full-capacity potential until 2025. The number of people employed won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 and the unemployment rate won’t fall below 4.0 percent until 2026, CBO predicts.

Given the state of the economy and the millions of people who can’t afford enough food or pay the rent, the risk of doing too little far outweighs the risk of doing too much. Policymakers must not repeat the mistakes of the Great Recession, when they failed to follow up on the important aid provided by the 2009 Recovery Act. Instead, they pivoted to a posture of austerity even as the economy remained weak, slowing the recovery and leaving many laid-off workers facing particularly long unemployment.

And policymakers must move quickly. “Delay can be deadly,” economists Alan Blinder and R. Glenn Hubbard (senior officials in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, respectively) warned recently. “This is a national emergency and must be treated as such. That means agreeing on a big relief package quickly.”

As the long wait for the December package showed, delays in reaching agreement have a high cost — a cost that is not evenly borne across lines of race, ethnicity, and income. By the time policymakers finally enacted it, key relief measures enacted earlier in the year had already dried up, contributing to an increase in hardship rates that left families unable to afford food and slowing the recovery.

Economists Adam S. Hersh and Mark Paul argued in support of several trillion dollars more in spending relief “to get American families and businesses working at their full potential,” along with automatic triggers in case the recovery drags along. In a policy brief for The Groundwork Collaborative, an organization dedicated to advancing a progressive economic worldview, they write: “Without significantly more Congressional action American families and businesses will struggle to recover from the damages done by today’s crisis and to overcome the structural economic problems that left us so vulnerable to shocks like COVID-19.”

But these conclusions were excluded from Sinclair reporter James Rosen’s February 3 news package. Rosen only briefly mentioned that Biden was “arguing that spending more now will hasten the country’s recovery, medical and economic.” Instead, his segment was largely framed around the “surprising numbers relating to the COVID crisis” that Rosen used to suggest that the relief packages that Congress had already passed appropriated more than enough money needed. Rosen’s segment aired on at least 55 Sinclair-owned or -operated local TV stations in 35 states, according to a Kinetiq transcript search — and likely aired on many more, as it was rebroadcast on the February 4 edition of Sinclair’s The National Desk, which airs on 68 stations, many of which are not included in Kinetiq’s data.

Read on Media Matters.