Spending Bill Passes Congress but Faces Uncertain Future

On December 21, Congress passed a $2.3 trillion funding bill for the 2021 fiscal year along with COVID relief measures.  The proposal is 5,593 pages long and considered to be the second-biggest economic rescue package in U.S. history.

Fiscal year 2020 funding ended on September 30, and Congress has passed short-term funding bills to keep the government functioning since then. President Trump signed the new bill, which Congress passed by an overwhelming margin. It will continue government funding through September 2021.

COVID-19 relief

The bill provides pandemic relief for individuals, including a $600 rebate to taxpayers earning less than $75,000 per year and an extra $300 per week for people receiving unemployment benefits. There will also be a payment of $600 per dependent child under the age of 17.

President Trump and Congressional Democrats have expressed an interest in increasing the $600 payments to $2,000 per person, but Congressional Republicans remain opposed.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) begun under the CARES Act would continue under the new law.

These payments will be available in Puerto Rico as well as in the States and the other territories.

Territories in the bill

The bill provides funding for the territories of the United States as well as the States, although sometimes in a different form as the territories are not always included in federal programs.

For example, $614,000,000 in grants will be provided to Puerto Rico and American Samoa for their nutrition assistance block grants in response to the pandemic.  Other territories, which are part of the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, will receive more generous and reliable funding assistance through a 15% increase in the monthly SNAP benefit level for each recipient and $100 million for state administrative costs.  (See here for more about Puerto Rico’s treatment in federal nutrition assistance programs.)

The legislative proposal also partly fixes a federal law that has had a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of U.S. residents from the former territories of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau.

Citizens from these sovereign nations, which have signed Compacts of Free Association with the United States, are permitted to travel without visas to the United States even though they do not qualify for U.S. citizenship.  In return, the U.S. has complete authority over the defense and security of these nations, controlling their land, water, and air rights.  The U.S. Army also runs a preeminent military base in the Marshall Islands without input from local government.

In 1996, in a new law intended to limit the eligibility of immigrants for federal benefits, U.S. residents from the three Freely Associated States (FAS) were barred from federal financial assistance programs including the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), Medicaid, Social Security Income (SSI) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

After a long wait of almost 25 years, the pending proposal would reinstate Medicaid eligibility for FAS nationals when they live in the United States.

The bill does not make U.S. residents from the Freely Associated States eligible for nutrition, TANF and SSI benefits when they move to the states, and none of the three nations that have signed compacts of free association with the United States qualify in any way for Medicaid, TANF, SSI and NAP benefits within their own borders.

Will the bill become law?

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made a statement supporting the bill. However, Trump posted a video on Twitter complaining about the bill. “It really is a disgrace,” he said.”It’s called the Covid Relief Bill, but it has almost nothing to do with Covid.”

The COVID-19 relief measures are a part of the overall spending bill that in many instances follows the President’s own recommendations in his proposed fiscal year 2021 budget.

Trump listed a number of provisions of which he disapproved, including poultry production technology and fisheries management. He notably objected to the “only $600” provided in individual payments. “It wasn’t their fault,” he said. “It was China’s fault.” He also claimed that “no one” had read the bill.

If the bill does not become law by January 3, 2021, Congress will have to recommence the legislative process in the next congressional session.

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