Most Iowans in Congress supported latest COVID-19 package

The U.S. House and Senate on December 21 approved a $2.3 trillion package to fund the federal government through September 30, 2021 and provide approximately $900 billion in economic stimulus or relief connected to the coronavirus pandemic.

No one in either chamber had time to read the legislation, which was nearly 5,600 pages long, before voting on it. Statements released by Iowans in Congress, which I’ve enclosed below, highlight many of its key provisions. The unemployment and direct payments to families are clearly insufficient to meet the needs of millions of struggling Americans. Senate Republicans blocked aid to state and local governments, many of which are facing budget shortfalls. President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to push for a much larger economic stimulus package early next year.

The legislation headed to President Donald Trump’s desk includes some long overdue changes, such as new limits on “surprise billing” by health care providers for emergency care and some out-of-network care.

Laura Olson reported for States Newsroom,

House leaders divided the bill into two parts and passed the emergency relief portion on a 359-53 vote. Another portion, which included Pentagon spending for the coming year, passed 327-85. The Senate combined the two bills and cleared the package in an overwhelming 92-6 vote shortly before 11 p.m. CT.

The roll calls (here and here) show yes votes for the three Democrats who represent Iowa in the House: Abby Finkenauer (IA-01), Dave Loebsack (IA-02), and Cindy Axne (IA-03).

Representative Steve King (IA-04) was among a small group of House Republicans who did not vote on either bill. I didn’t see any comment on his social media feeds indicating why he was absent or whether he would have supported the legislation. Published roll call votes indicate King has missed most of the House floor action since the November election.

GOP Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst both supported the legislation in the upper chamber.

Statement released by Representative Abby Finkenauer, December 21:

WASHINGTON, DC – Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer (IA-01) released the following statement on passage of the COVID-19 relief package and Fiscal Year 2021 Appropriations:

“lowans need help as they continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. Since this summer, I have pushed the Senate and White House to work together with the House on a bipartisan agreement that provides the relief hard working families need.

“While I’m happy to have helped pass a deal to help folks just before the holidays, this package will not come close to undoing the pain this year has brought — especially to those who have lost loved ones. The package passed today provides, to an extent, urgently needed help for families, small businesses and so many Iowans struggling under the hardships caused by this pandemic. However, stimulus checks should be higher, and more support given directly to Iowans who need it most.

“While I supported this deal reached by the House, Senate, and White House, it is my sincere hope that the next Congress and Administration will provide additional help to the families, businesses, and local Iowa communities who will still need it.”

Background on relief package and funding bill:

In addition to $600 direct payments to families, supplemental unemployment benefits, and funding for struggling small businesses, the COVID-19 relief package and end-of-year government funding bill includes a number of bills and provisions Congresswoman Finkenauer fought for on behalf of northeast Iowa.

Health Care

● The package incorporates Finkenauer’s Rural Community Hospital Demonstration Extension Act, which will ensure “tweener” hospitals like Grinnell Regional Medical Center will continue to get enhanced reimbursements for the inpatient services they provide for the next five years.
● The package incorporates Finkenauer’s legislation to extend Medicare’s work geographic index floor for three years, ensuring fair reimbursements for physicians in rural areas.
● The package includes Finkenauer-supported legislation to extend Medicaid eligibility to citizens of the Freely Associated States lawfully living in the United States, including the many Marshallese residents of the First District.

Infrastructure

● Includes the bipartisan Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2020, which Congresswoman Finkenauer helped craft and pass through the House. This bill will include policy provisions important to Iowans, including: additional investment in lock and dam infrastructure, changes to improve federal flood mitigation benefit-cost-ratio calculations like for flood protection construction, and Rep. Finkenauer’s amendment to cut red tape and improve communication between the US Army Corps of Engineers and local governments

Appropriations Priorities

● Secured increased funding for endometriosis research, allowing the National Institutes of Health to double their investment in endometriosis research from last year’s funding levels. Endometriosis research will now also be eligible for funding through the Department of Defense Peer-Reviewed Medical Research Program.
● Includes a provision championed by Congresswoman Finkenauer that would increase the federal funding limit for the Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area. The Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area encompasses 117 sites and attractions across Northeast Iowa, including scenic routes, farms, wineries, museums and more. The provision would increase the Area’s federal funding limit, enabling Silos & Smokestacks to continue telling the story of America’s agricultural history, as well as promoting tourism to Northeast Iowa.
● Provides a $10 million increase for the Defense Department’s Manufacturing Technology Program. This funding will be used to support the University of Northern Iowa’s Additive Manufacturing Center partnership with Youngstown State University on supply chain adoption of additive manufacturing, automation, and robotics. This funding and partnership will provide industry-tailored training, access to applied research, and technical assistance to small businesses, so that they can efficiently engage in the defense manufacturing supply chain.

Small Business

● The package incorporates Finkenauer’s PPE Act to allow businesses to use Paycheck Protection Program loan money to cover the expenses of providing personal protective equipment to their employees.

Derecho Recovery

● Includes provisions from Finkenauer’s Disaster RELIEF Act, which would provide tax relief to Iowans impacted by August’s derecho. Specifically, the package will provide direct tax relief for Iowa families and provide a tax credit to Iowa businesses to help retain employees following the disaster.

Statement released by Representative Cindy Axne, December 21:

Key Axne Priorities Included in Bipartisan Agreement to Fund Critical Programs, Secure New COVID-19 Relief

Provisions include expanded unemployment benefits, rental assistance, a new round of direct payments, an extension of the federal eviction moratorium, and measures to help Iowa’s working families, small businesses, and biofuel industry

WASHINGTON D.C. – Today, the U.S. House of Representatives advanced a comprehensive package of legislation that includes a wide variety of priorities and provisions fought for by Rep. Cindy Axne (IA-03) over the past year.

The bipartisan agreement, H.R. 133, includes a new round of coronavirus (COVID-19) relief for Iowa’s families and communities, provisions to help crack down on surprise medical billing, and full funding for government programs through the end of Fiscal Year 2021.

“This is a long-overdue measure that will help Iowans in need. From direct support for Iowa families to long-term protections provided by new federal law, this legislation does a great deal to not only provide the assistance needed in the midst of a dark winter of health and economic crises, but also invest in the success of our communities and businesses for years to come,” said Rep. Axne. “While this legislation is not perfect, I’m pleased to see key priorities that I have worked to secure this Congress included in the final agreement, such as an extension of unemployment benefits and another round of direct payments, rental assistance and an extension of the eviction moratorium, authorization to roll over unused child care savings into 2021, and provisions to support expansion of broadband connectivity, assistance for our biofuels industry, and much more.”

The COVID-19 relief sections of the legislation contain key priorities championed by Rep. Axne, including:

● $25 billion for the first-ever emergency federal rental assistance program to help families impacted by COVID-19 that are struggling to make rent or have past-due rent and utility payments, as well as an extension of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) eviction moratorium through January 31, 2021.
● An additional $300 per week for all workers receiving unemployment benefits through March 14, 2021.
● An additional round of Economic Impact Payments of $600 for individuals making up to $75,000 per year, $1,200 for couples making up to $150,000 per year, and $600 for each child dependent.
● $284 billion for first and second forgivable PPP loans, with dedicated set-asides for very small businesses and lending through community-based lenders like Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs).
● $10 billion in emergency funds for the child care sector through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program to help stabilize the child care market and allow states to expand child care assistance to essential workers and working families who are in great need of child care services.
● Emergency provisions championed by Rep. Axne to allow unused savings in dependent care assistance plans (DCAPs) and health flexible spending accounts (FSAs) from 2020 to roll over and be used through the end of 2021, which will save families from losing up to $5,000 at the end of the year.
● Statutory language to allow the Department of Agriculture to provide relief funding for biofuels producers and the ethanol industry.
● An extension of refundable payroll tax credits for paid sick and family leave, first approved by Congress earlier this year, through the end of March 2021.

The final agreement also includes other important items pushed by Rep. Axne, such as:

● Funding to improve broadband mapping – which has left many Iowa communities unable to get funding to build new broadband – and the ACCESS Broadband Act, legislation Rep. Axne cosponsored that will improve federal grant accessibility for smaller local providers.
● An extension of FY19 BUILD grant deadlines to provide recipients, including the Central Iowa Water Trails Project, more time to meet deadlines due to delays caused by COVID-19.
● A bipartisan measure to protect patients from surprise medical bills and establish a fair framework to resolve payment disputes between health care providers and health insurance companies.
● More than $4 billion to hard-hit families by allowing them to use their 2019 income to determine how much they receive in the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit.
● The Energy Act of 2020, which invests in clean energy research and development, and includes four bills Rep. Axne cosponsored:
The Wind Energy Research and Development Act, to research and develop wind technologies and their grid integration.
The Solar Energy Research and Development Act, to fund research and development of solar energy technologies.
The ARPA-E Reauthorization Act, which reauthorizes ARPA-E and expands its authority to work on projects relating to nuclear waste clean-up and management issues and projects to improve energy infrastructure, as well as to pursue scale-up and demonstration of transformational clean energy technologies.
The Clean Industrial Technology Act, which creates a research, development, and demonstration program on technologies to reduce emissions from the manufacturing sector, including cement, steel, and chemicals manufacturing processes, high-temperature heat generation, alternative materials, and carbon capture for industrial processes.

Although this agreement is expected to be the last comprehensive package passed by the 116th Congress, Rep. Axne is already emphasizing the additional work left to be done in the new year.

“While this is an important agreement that helps keep our government open and fund long-term investments that will help recovery and growth of our nation, the emergency COVID-19 provisions of this bill are still only short-term relief,” said Rep. Axne. “This cannot and should not be Congress’ last act to help those suffering through dual health and economic crises – and when the 117th Congress begins in just a few short weeks, I look forward to working with my colleagues in both parties to continue the important work of supporting our constituents. Just as we know that this virus will not disappear on January 1st, we should not think that our efforts to support families, businesses, and communities will end when the book closes on this session.”

H.R. 133 also includes important provisions to support Iowa’s communities and critical programs that help Iowans:

● Essential funding for vaccine procurement and distribution – $19 billion for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) for manufacturing and procurement of vaccines and therapeutics and $8.75 billion to the CDC to aid distribution and tracking of vaccines across state and local public health agencies.
● An additional $54.3 billion for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and $22.7 billion for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.
● Streamlines the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and expands outreach and awareness to make it easier for Iowans to apply and qualify for federal student aid.
● Over $11 billion to the Department of Agriculture to continue to support producers, growers, and processors affected by COVID-19 market disruptions.
● An extension of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which expanded coverage to the self-employed, gig workers, and others in nontraditional employment, and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, which provides additional weeks of federally funded unemployment benefits to individuals who exhaust their regular state benefits.
● An extension of Iowa’s ability to use remaining funds in its $1.25 billion allocation from the Coronavirus Relief Fund until December 31, 2021.
● Reauthorization of the second generation biofuel tax credit, which was due to expire at the end of 2020. Rep. Axne successfully fought to renew the tax credit in the past.
● $13 billion for nutrition assistance, including a 15% increase in monthly SNAP benefits.

In order to finalize the compromise agreement on necessary improvements to flood control measures, the agreement also includes the bipartisan Water Resources Development Act of 2020.

Statement released by Senator Joni Ernst, December 21:

Ernst: More COVID-19 Relief is Soon Headed Iowans’ Way
Ernst worked across the aisle to ensure more help for Iowa child care centers, small businesses, farmers, health care systems; first time aid for biofuel producers, local news outlets

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) today supported and helped deliver additional COVID-19 relief for Iowans in the bipartisan package that passed the Senate.

“I’ve long been calling for Congress to provide additional relief to Iowans and all Americans who continue to suffer through this pandemic; and now, more COVID-19 relief is soon headed Iowans’ way,” said Senator Joni Ernst.

“With this new bipartisan relief package, we are bolstering the Paycheck Protection Program for Iowa small businesses – including our local news outlets; supporting child care centers and working families; aiding Iowa farmers and biofuel producers; and helping make sure our health care systems – including those in Iowa’s rural areas—continue to have what they need to fight this virus and distribute the vaccine. This bipartisan bill will bring much-needed aid to Iowans on the front lines of this pandemic, those who are facing unemployment, and families fighting to stay afloat.”

Below are just some of the key measures that Senator Ernst helped deliver for Iowans through this COVID-19 relief package:
● Provides direct payments of up to $600 per person and $600 per child
● Permits USDA to make payments to producers for losses incurred from the depopulation of livestock and poultry due to insufficient processing access
● Provides assistance to agricultural producers, growers, processors, specialty crops, non-specialty crops, dairy, livestock, poultry, and contract livestock and poultry producers
● Allows for payments to producers of advanced biofuel, biomass-based diesel, cellulosic biofuel, conventional biofuel, or renewable fuel
● Temporarily increases monthly SNAP benefits by 15%
● Increases broadband funding, including support for rural broadband and telehealth
● Supports grants to stabilize the child care sector and allow providers to safely reopen
● Allows for a second round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans for struggling businesses
● Makes local chambers of commerce and news outlets eligible for the PPP and improves loan access for farmers
● Provides for manufacturing and procurement of vaccines and therapeutics and for CDC to ensure broad-based distribution, access, and vaccine coverage to all Americans
● Provides resources to states and localities for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, containment, and mitigation
● Supports hospitals and health care providers with additional relief funds
● Creates a voluntary Medicare payment designation that allows struggling rural hospitals to convert to a Rural Emergency Hospital to preserve access to emergency medical care in rural areas
● Funds support for mental health and substance abuse services
● Allows all Medicare beneficiaries to receive mental health services through telehealth on a permanent basis

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