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$2,000 stimulus checks have lawmakers barking up the wrong tree

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., walks past reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.
| Susan Walsh, Associated Press

The on-again-off-again $2,000 stimulus check idea is on once again — kind of — as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has rolled it into a bill with two other measures that are unpopular with Democrats and wants — but has not committed — to put the whole package up for a vote.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer didn’t mince his words: It “will not pass the House and cannot become law.”

Good.

First, few benefits can come from poorly crafted policy. It’s a simple equation: Bad inputs equal bad outputs.

Voting for stimulus checks has nothing to do with changes to online speech rules and establishing a commission to investigate election fraud. Each item should be its own clean bill that allows time for debate and amendments.

Of course, McConnell has something else in mind. He’s trying to blunt the blow President Donald Trump has dealt to the Republicans when he sided with Democrats in calling for more stimulus money. Senate Republicans concerned about the debt don’t want to cross the president, and the Georgia senators embattled in a runoff want to support the checks, so McConnell is giving everyone a way out by toying with a political poison pill.

But Trump’s insistence in this case could be a really expensive mistake, and it’s got lawmakers barking up the wrong tree.

The country doesn’t need to spend more than $400 billion extra so that working-age adults — some of whom haven’t missed a paycheck yet — can get a lump sum from the IRS (a loan!) that covers two months’ rent and some groceries. Even with an income cap at $75,000 or so per adult, the money is bound to end up in the pockets of some who stash it in savings or spend it at Best Buy. Real stimulating.

What the country does need is a concerted effort to help those whose lives and livelihoods have been ravaged by the pandemic. Data collected by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah shows funding unemployment insurance, SNAP and other targeted programs has a demonstrably better outcome and offers a higher bang for your buck than individual checks, which have the worst gross domestic product multiplier effect of the options analyzed.

Why? Because unemployment insurance and SNAP actually get used. By definition the money flows to people and families who can’t afford food, rent or utilities.

Consider Utah’s economic recovery. Economist Natalie Gochnour told me over the phone she’s optimistic Utah’s economy could stop contracting in the near future, perhaps the next 30 days. That’s amazing news, but not everyone in Utah is so happy. Those in tourism and entertainment have struggled mightily. Why shouldn’t they get the lion’s share of assistance rather than blanket the whole state with cash?

Checks made sense in the spring when the economy needed a shot in the arm to stay afloat. Now, as mountains of evidence point toward a “K” shaped recovery in which some industries thrive while others crash, the money needs to go to the programs that will make the most difference.

Plus, doling out $2,000 checks is fraught with political pitfalls. “The political damage to the GOP comes from Donald Trump,” writes the Wall Street Journal editorial board, “who is lashing out at all and sundry in defeat — no matter if it also helps to elect a Democratic Senate.”

Pushing the idea too far might give Trump a win at the expense of his party. But hey, at least they’ll have a $2,000 consolation prize to put in their savings accounts.

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