Trump’s Coronavirus Response Raises Alarms

Trump’s Coronavirus Response Raises Alarms

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Plus: Bernie Sanders explains how he might pay for his plans
Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Trump Wants $2.5 Billion to Fight the Coronavirus. Is It Enough?

“This could be bad.”

With those words, public health officials on Tuesday urged Americans to prepare for the coronavirus to spread across U.S. communities and bring with it potentially significant disruptions to their lives.

“It’s not so much a question of it this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters. She later added: “We are asking the American public to prepare in the expectation that this could be bad.”

But as health officials were asking the public to get ready for a possible domestic outbreak, lawmakers in both parties were questioning whether the Trump administration is adequately preparing to deal with the threat from the virus that has infected nearly 80,000 people in 37 countries and caused more than 2,600 deaths. There are 57 confirmed cases in the United States.

The Trump administration on Monday night sent Congress a request for $1.25 billion in emergency supplemental funding to combat the spread of the virus. The request, detailed in a three-page letter, also calls for shifting $535 million in unused money that had been designated to fight Ebola toward the coronavirus efforts. Hundreds of millions more would be redirected from other health programs and government agencies, bringing the total coronavirus response funding to at least $2.5 billion.

The money to be shifted under the administration plan reportedly includes $37 million from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which funds heating for poor families. “Democrats find this request particularly galling, because it would take money away from another program designed to protect people’s well-being, under the duress of the coronavirus threat,” The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman write.

Democrats have called for emergency funding for weeks, but the administration initially said that no additional money was necessary. In Monday night’s letter, acting White House budget director Russell Vought says that, so far, no agency has been inhibited in its response effort due to lack of resources or authority. And administration officials reportedly told senators Tuesday that the White House would seek additional funding as part of fiscal 2021 spending packages.

Still, lawmakers in both parties expressed concern that the request for $1.25 billion in new funding falls well short of what’s needed right now:

  • Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar Tuesday that the amount could be dangerously insufficient. "It seems to me at the outset that this request for the money, the supplemental, is lowballing it, possibly, and you can't afford to do that," Shelby said during a hearing on the HHS budget. "If you lowball something like this, you'll pay for it later.”
  • “The President’s request for coronavirus response funding is long overdue and completely inadequate to the scale of this emergency,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, adding that the Trump administration had “left critical positions in charge of managing pandemics at the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security vacant” for nearly two years. “Weeks after the Trump Budget called for slashing the CDC budget during this coronavirus epidemic, this undersized funding request shows an ongoing failure to understand urgent public health needs,” Pelosi said.
  • Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called for at least $3.1 billion in funding and for the administration to appoint a “czar” to oversee the response.

  • House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (D-NY) called the administration’s request “woefully insufficient” and joined Pelosi in criticizing the proposal to shift existing funds. “It is profoundly disturbing that their answer now is to raid money Congress has designated for other critical public health priorities,” Lowey said. “House Democrats will move quickly to enact a robust package that fully addresses this global emergency without allowing this administration to steal from other necessary programs.”

Sanders Releases Funding Options for His Big Plans

Facing questions about how he intends to pay for an ambitious policy agenda that includes single-payer health care, student debt cancellation and an expansion of Social Security, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday night released a list of financing proposals.

The list — titled “How Does Bernie Pay for His Major Plans?” — provides some cost estimates for the biggest items on Sanders’ agenda and funding options to pay for them. Details are limited, though, and critics have raised questions about whether the numbers add up and square with mainstream cost and revenue projections.

Here are some of the numbers Sanders provided for key programs:

Tuition-free college and student debt cancellation: The Sanders campaign says it will cost $2.2 trillion over the next decade to eliminate tuition at public colleges and trade schools, and to cancel all student debt. A “modest tax on Wall Street speculation” — separately defined as a 0.5% tax on stock trades, a 0.1% tax on bond trades, and a 0.005% tax on derivatives trades — is projected to raise $2.4 trillion over that time period.

Universal childcare and pre-K: The $1.5 trillion cost is to be covered by a graduated wealth tax on net worth exceeding $32 million, projected to raise $4.35 trillion.

Green New Deal: His extensive proposal to address climate change would cost an estimated $16.3 trillion, to be paid for by new taxes on the fossil fuel industry, selling green energy, cutting defense spending, raising corporate tax rates and collecting income taxes on millions of new green energy-related jobs.

Expanding Social Security: Sanders wants to increase benefits for low-income seniors by about $1,300 a year. Although he doesn’t provide a cost estimate for doing so, Sanders says he can pay for the plan by raising Social Security taxes on “the wealthiest 1.8 percent of Americans,” with the revenues extending the solvency of the program until 2070.

Medicare for All: Multiple analyses have estimated the additional federal cost of Sanders’ single-payer health plan at roughly $30 trillion over 10 years, a number the senator cited in his interview with “60 Minutes” on Sunday. But his new funding list cites a lower figure of $17.5 trillion in new costs over a decade, which he pays for with a variety of new taxes, including ones on employees (raising $4 trillion), employers ($5.2 trillion), capital gains ($2.5 trillion) and corporations ($1 trillion).

Emma Kinery of Bloomberg News said the revenue options fail to cover the previously cited total cost of Medicare for All. “Sanders has not disputed estimates that his Medicare for All will cost $30 trillion over the next decade, but his document only accounts for about $17.5 trillion,” Kinery wrote Tuesday.

More broadly, Ben Ritz of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute said that if all of Sanders’ agenda were to pass, the funding shortfall would come to about $10 trillion under the senator’s own accounting — and far more if more realistic estimates were used. “After reconciling Sanders’ latest list of pay-fors with these independent estimates, PPI concludes that even if Congress were to adopt every single revenue option Sanders has offered for consideration, it would fall almost $25 trillion short of his proposed spending increases over the next decade – leaving a gap nearly equal to the total value of all goods and services produced by the U.S. economy in one year,” Ritz said.

Will Sanders Bend on Medicare for All?

Would Sen. Bernie Sanders moderate his message on Medicare for All if he secures the Democratic nomination for president?

At The Atlantic, Elaine Godfrey reports that some of Sanders’ supporters and organizers are willing to accept the idea of a public option plan as a compromise on Medicare for All, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested recently, acknowledging that “a president can’t wave a magic wand and pass any legislation they want”:

“While they really do want the [Medicare-for-All] plan to pass, these supporters—grassroots leaders across the country who I talked to over the last week—speak with more skepticism about its chances, often more so than the candidate himself. They said they are clear-eyed about how difficult it will be to achieve such gargantuan reform. And they would be pleased, if not completely satisfied, with passing a public option as a compromise.”

That compromise could wind up resembling current proposals from other Democratic presidential candidates, some of whom have criticized the Sanders plan as unrealistic.

Sanders publicly disagreed with Ocasio-Cortez, saying that his plan was “already a compromise” because it involves a four-year transition period. Sanders’ backers also emphasize that his plan represents the strongest starting point for negotiations on health care reform and criticize rivals who they say hamstring themselves by adopting a compromise position right from the outset.

Still, Godfrey’s reporting suggests that many Sanders supporters realize that Medicare for All faces legislative and political hurdles that might be insurmountable, at least in the immediate future. But, Godfrey notes, those challenges might also turn into a selling point for Sanders — that we might be “getting an early glimpse of the argument he will make to reel in hesitant Democrats in a general election: that a Sanders presidency won’t necessarily mean immediate, revolutionary change.”

The bottom line: That kind of general election messaging would represent a hard pivot from the maximalist position Sanders and many of his supporters have staked out in the primary campaign, and the candidate has shown little inclination to make such pragmatic concessions so far. But Godfrey’s piece suggests that a healthy portion of Sanders’ supporters are taking his vehemence about Medicare for All seriously but not literally.

Democrats will be debating again tonight ahead of the South Carolina primary. You can catch the debate starting at 8 p.m. on CBS stations or online.

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