Like cherry blossom petals, money from the COVID stimulus bill is falling everywhere

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When Congress opened the spigots of spending in a bill President Biden signed last week, it used a nozzle to spray the money everywhere, including on the government itself. Federal Drive with Tom Temin got a quick summary and a look ahead from WTOP capitol hill correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And a lot of this money is going to government operations government employees. Give us the top line story here Mitchell.

Mitchell Miller: Sure thing. Well, nearly a fifth of the money will go into those stimulus checks. And then there’s another $360 billion that will go to state and local governments. But after that, a lot of it does go to a lot of federal agencies, the federal government. For example, the federal disaster relief fund will get close to $50 billion. That can include the purchase of supplies and protective gear, also actually covers COVID funeral expenses in cases. But it also sets aside money for disasters, as the federal government often does. Another $10 billion would go to the Defense Production Act, again for medical supplies, and then there would be $50 billion that would go toward testing and tracing — as well as $16 billion for vaccine distribution. Now, Republicans have sharply criticized this, as you know, arguing basically that they say only about 9% of the package actually goes directly to addressing the coronavirus. And they also say if you add everything up that the individual taxpayer would ultimately pay about more than $4,000. Additionally, even after you subtract that $1400 stimulus check, but obviously a ton of money is going to be going out this, the largest piece of legislation of course since the CARES Act was passed last year.

Tom Temin: And those funerals, by the way, whose funerals would it to pay for?

Mitchell Miller: Well, my understanding is that they would be for federal employees. But I’m still trying to dig deeper into how that would actually work. But that is lumped into that. And it’s kind of an interesting, in addition to that, I was looking over some of the language of it. So I’m still trying to exactly figure out who that would pay for.

Tom Temin: I wonder if you can get a coffin on the GSA schedule to go with it? We’ll have to see about that. And then this billion dollars to upgrade it, something Gerry Connolly is quite enthusiastic about.

Mitchell Miller: Oh, absolutely. They have been trying to get a lot of money for IT upgrades, as you know, and this is really the largest infusion of money for that that’s ever gone to this program, about $650 million for cybersecurity, another $350 million for the modernization efforts. So Gerry Connolly has been pushing this, as you well know, for a long time basically saying that the IT infrastructure in many areas of the federal government and in many agencies is effectively broken. And he believes this is really going to help federal agencies better respond to the pandemic, and of course, over the long term will probably help with a lot of computer issues at a lot of federal agencies.

Tom Temin: Well, I think if any agency at any level wants to get good at scheduling vaccines, they should just borrow from CVS, their system works quite well already. I don’t know what they paid for it. But yeah, so that’s all in there. And then, of course, the 3610 provision. That’s a number from an other bill, but it gives federal contractors coverage for those that can’t make it into the facilities.

Mitchell Miller: Right. And this is one as we know that Virginia Senator Mark Warner, along with Florida Senator Marco Rubio, they had been touting this really saying that you’ve got to continue to extend this, which was started under the CARES Act, basically saying that the government will continue to pay federal contractors if they can’t work for any reason related to the pandemic. It was due to expire at the end of the month. Senator Warner said we’ve really got to extend this just incase. So this really takes it all the way through September 30. And it got overwhelming support in the Senate when it was amended before all of this legislation went back to the House last week.

Tom Temin: And I guess Friday, you might have said would have been the official anniversary of when the government shutdown, or not shutdown, but scattered everyone because of the COVID and the telework began. And so it’s been a busy time for Congress itself. Did they mark the year anniversary in any particular way?

Mitchell Miller: Well, they did. There were a lot of speeches, a lot of moments really here on the Hill where they said, look at what happened a year ago. And it really is amazing to think about. I actually looked back at one of my pictures on my phone, what was happening during that week, and believe it or not, this is how normal things still we’re right on the cusp. The picture that I had was a picture of local lawmakers from the Virginia and Maryland delegations actually posing with the World Series trophy from the Washington Nationals. All together of course, nobody wearing masks or anything like that. So a lot of moments last week to mark this. And really everybody, of course, getting behind on the Democratic side with the $1.9 trillion package, Republicans obviously have a lot of reservations. But this is what’s going to be happening over the next few weeks is Democrats are going to try to be touting this. Republicans are trying to, you know death by 1000 paper cuts, saying no this is not such a good deal, there’s a lot of things in here that are wasteful. So you’re going to see the president and vice president Kamala Harris going out on the road, basically pressing for this because they think that over a decade ago when there was the rescue package in 2009, that the Obama administration did not do enough of that. And then we’ve got to look ahead to what Congress is going to be addressing after COVID relief. And one of the biggest issues, of course, will be infrastructure, there’s a lot of talk about whether or not the Republicans and Democrats might be able to finally get together on this. As you know, it became kind of a punch line during the Trump administration that every few months it was going to be infrastructure week, and then absolutely nothing would happen. But there is a lot of optimism, at least on the Democratic side, that they might be able to get something. I think though that the Democrats may be overshooting a bit here, they’re again talking about another huge package. And Republicans are already holding their nose at this nearly $2 trillion COVID relief package. So they’re going to have a lot of work to do to try to get both sides together on that issue.

Tom Temin: I wanted to also ask you about an interview you did with Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin. And he’s had a personally very, very difficult year, something you wouldn’t wish on anyone. And yet, he’s also shepherded the impeachment bill at the end of the Trump administration, post Trump administration and so forth. So what did he tell you about what he expects in the year ahead?

Mitchell Miller: Well, it was very interesting to talk to him because anybody who has been really literally in the middle of history, and he’s a former constitutional scholar, and then he dealt with the tragedy of his son who died by suicide, Tommy, right at the end of the year. As he said, it was the most wretched year. But then he poured all of his energy into the impeachment process. And he said it was actually helpful to him, given his background that he was able to focus on that while still dealing with the grief of his son. But through all of that he is actually as we look through to 2021, he’s very positive right now, he says I’m optimistic that things are really turning around. We talked about the fact that a year ago, as you mentioned, things were not really going very well. He was one of the lawmakers who was proposing legislation to get the federal government working more closely with states that didn’t really come together. But he feels now that is happening and that he has a lot of optimism, of course about the vaccine being distributed. We had President Biden last week announcing the fact that he intends to get the vaccine or at least offer it to people by May 1. So after going through just a tumultuous year, it’s really remarkable to talk to somebody like Congressman Raskin and see that he is generally an upbeat lawmaker, given all that he went through to see that he is seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for 2021.

Tom Temin: Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. As always, thanks so much.

Mitchell Miller: You bet.

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