Weekly Columns

Congress passed five bipartisan COVID-19 bills last year to help Arkansas families, small businesses and health care providers as we were facing unprecedented times during the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans and Democrats came together to deliver a total of $4 trillion in emergency relief to support medical workers treating patients, research and develop a vaccine, help small business operations continue to pay employees and safely reopen schools. As President Joe Biden called for unity at his inauguration, it was reasonable to hope this spirit of cooperation would extend beyond the first hours of his presidency. Sadly, he hasn’t demonstrated a willingness to work across the aisle.

Senate Republicans went to the White House last month and shared a proposal for targeted spending intended to launch negotiations. New funding directed in a precise way to meet fresh and ongoing needs is the appropriate course of action given there is a significant amount of money that remains to be spent. Federal agencies are still in the process of awarding monies from the bipartisan COVID-19 relief package signed into law late last year.

Just days ago, the Department of Transportation announced $4.5 million in grants for six Arkansas airports to blunt the impact of the economic damage caused by the coronavirus. It’s likely Arkansas is in line for additional funding. As these awards continue to be rolled out, they are further proof that previous relief efforts are still being noticed and implemented.

Now is not the time to pass another massive spending bill, and President Biden isn’t serious about getting the bipartisan support that a measure like this requires.

Congressional Democrats have used a procedural maneuver that requires only a simple majority of the Senate to approve the president’s $1.9 trillion plan. It should be no surprise this bill does not have widespread bipartisan support. It has little to do with pandemic relief. Less than 10 percent of the controversial partisan legislation is targeted to the health response and less than one percent goes toward vaccine distribution. 

Taxpayer dollars are being used to pay for union pensions and bailout states that have mismanaged their finances. It’s wrong to make Arkansas taxpayers foot the bill for states whose leaders imposed severe, extended business shutdowns. This bill rewards bad behavior and penalizes states like ours that have a decreasing unemployment rate.  

There is more money for schools to reopen for in-person learning. Arkansas is a model of how this can be accomplished without additional funds. Schools across the state opened their doors at the beginning of the school year. School districts invested in cleaning supplies, barriers and retrofitted classrooms with prior federal COVID-19 aid.

Over the course of this past year, Congress delivered nearly $68 billion to help bring K-12 students nationwide back into the classroom. As of late February, only a small amount had been spent. 

Instead of ensuring the funds Congress already approved are being used effectively, President Biden has pushed for more spending in the name of emergency relief. In reality, according to the Congressional Budget Office, most of that money won’t be spent for years.

The path forward is to work together, identify the outstanding critical needs and reach consensus. Rather than advancing policies that have nothing to do with beating the virus and putting us on the road to economic recovery, we should be discussing a bipartisan compromise. I looked forward to the president acting on his call for unity, but this isn’t a good start.