Federal Reserve, Treasury urge Congress to approve more virus relief

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin urged Congress to approve COVID-19 relief funds without further delay, although Democrats continued to attack a decision by Mnuchin to allow five Fed lending programs to expire during the pandemic.

In his most direct comments so far, Powell told the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday that it’s “very important” for Congress to provide economic support.

New funding would serve as a “bridge” for the economy to get from the current environment in which virus infections are spiking, to next year when vaccines should be widely available, Powell said.

“We are trying to get as many people across that bridge as we can,” Powell said.

Without more assistance, Powell said, people will lose their homes and small businesses will fail. “You could lose parts of the economy,” which would slow any recovery next year, he said.

“We are hearing from all over that small businesses are really under pressure,” Powell told lawmakers.

For a second day a number of Democratic lawmakers on the committee challenged Mnuchin’s decision to allow five Fed lending programs to expire at the end of this year, contending that his reading of the law was incorrect. They say it’s a political maneuver to hobble the incoming Biden administration financially.

“There is no justifiable reason for taking these tools away,” Rep. Maxine Waters, chair of the House panel, told Mnuchin. “It is foolish and reckless.”

In a rare split with Treasury last month, the Fed issued a statement saying that it believed it was important to continue providing an economic backstop after Mnuchin said he was terminating the programs.

Mnuchin has repeatedly insisted that he was just following the CARES Act law.

When Powell was asked if he agreed with that interpretation, Powell deferred to Mnuchin.

Powell did say Wednesday that the Fed had issued its statement to make it clear that the central bank was committed to providing further support to the economy.

“We were concerned that the public might misinterpret (Mnuchin’s action) as the Fed stepping back and thinking our work is done,” Powell said.

Asked what Congress should put in a relief bill that could pass in the lame-duck session this month, Mnuchin said his priority would be an authorization allowing the Treasury to use $140 billion in leftover funds to provide small businesses with a second round of Paycheck Protection Program loans.

The PPP program allowed businesses to get loans to keep their workers on the payroll with the loan forgiven if the business met certain terms geared at avoiding layoffs.

Mnuchin said Congress should also consider extending some of the emergency unemployment benefit programs that are being used by around 11 million workers. Those programs will expire at the end of this month without Congressional action.

Lawmakers have been unable to reach agreement on further economic relief after many programs in the $2 trillion CARE Act expired in August. Democrats are seeking more funds than the GOP-controlled Senate has been willing to provide.

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a aid bill totaling around $908 billion, raising hopes that the legislative impasse might be broken. Mnuchin said he was in discussions with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who since this summer has insisted on a larger bill. Mnuchin said unfortunately Pelosi has insisted that a half-a-loaf measure would not be good enough.

“I would encourage Congress in the lame duck,” Mnuchin said. “Let’s get something done.”

He said has been keeping President Donald Trump abreast of the negotiations every day.

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