HELENA — As the U.S. House Wednesday passed a new, $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill, Montana’s only congressman voted no, saying the measure is packed with wasteful spending.
“The last time I saw this much pork, I was at a luau in Hawaii and it had an apple in its mouth,” Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., told MTN News shortly before the final vote.
Rosendale’s negative vote on the gigantic aid package came four days after the state delegation’s other Republican, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, also voted no.
Both men said they support spending in the bill that’s targeted at citizens and businesses harmed by the Covid-19 pandemic, such as $1,400 direct payments to those earning less than $75,000 a year, enhanced unemployment benefits and money for vaccines and other health-related needs.
But they said much of the bill is a “liberal wish list” of Democratic Party priorities, unrelated to the pandemic.
“They completely shut Republicans out of this process,” Daines said Wednesday. “They moved forward a package that (Vermont U.S. Sen.) Bernie Sanders said is the most progressive will he’s ever passed, since he’s been here. …
“The more Montanans dig into this $1.3 trillion that’s wasted and not related to Covid-related priorities, the more they’re going to see that this is a mistake.”
No Republican in Congress voted for the measure. They proposed a $600 billion package, thus the $1.3 trillion that they believe is “wasted” spending.
Montana’s Democratic U.S. senator, Jon Tester, supported the bill, saying it is badly needed funding to help individuals, local governments and the nation fully recover from the year-long pandemic, including more money for vaccines.
Rosendale and Daines, however, pointed to parts of the bill they said are not pandemic-related or not an immediate need, including:
· $350 billion for state, local governments and tribal governments. Montana is expected to get $2.7 billion, which is more than one-half of the state’s entire annual budget. Some cities and tribes in the state will get direct payments as well.
But Rosendale and Daines said many states and local governments getting the money may not need it, and some are essentially getting rewarded for mismanaging their budgets.
· $86 billion to bail out 185 failing union pension funds that serve about 1 million retirees. Additional pension funds may be eligible for the grant funding, too.
· $30 billion to shore up mass-transit systems that have been hit hard by the pandemic.
· Money to expand programs in the Affordable Care Act, such as incentives to expand Medicaid expansion in states that haven’t adopted it and increased subsidies for individuals covered by private insurance plans.
· Tens of billions of dollars for schools that can be used for several years into the future, and that is not necessarily tied to a school reopening. One group estimated that Montana schools and colleges will get $380 million in the package.
· $470 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services to help local arts programs and museums.
Daines also pointed to a $5 billion program that can forgive loans for “socially disadvantaged farmers,” which are defined as farmers of racial minorities. Under the program, they can not only have federal loans forgiven, but also get a 20 percent payment on top of it.
“It’s a very troubling provision that is purely, purely race-based instead of need-based,” he said. “I think the more Montanans see that provision, they’ll say, `What in the world is going on in Washington, D.C.’”
The bill also includes an additional $5 billion in aid for farmers, for items such as commodity purchases, grants for food processors and rural development – spending that Daines said he supports.
Daines and Rosendale said $1 trillion remains unspent from Covid-19 relief bills passed by Congress last year, and that that money could have been used to pay for many of the needs in the new bill.
“Why wouldn’t we take the trillion dollars that we have available right now and direct it to absolute relief for the people that need it?” Rosendale asked. “We wouldn’t we get that out the door?”
If that money goes unspent by states or programs for which it’s designated, it would be returned to the federal treasury. Reallocating it would take a separate act by Congress.
Daines also questioned whether another huge push of money is needed for Covid-19 relief, particularly for local governments and states.
“Infection rates are going down, hospitalization rates are coming down significantly … vaccination rates are going up, and GDP (gross domestic product) numbers in January are showing great strength in the economy,” he said. “… There was not a shortfall (in state revenues). So what’s the rush to send billions of dollars into these states, that is not needed?”