SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal Sen. Mitt Romney floated to send Americans money to help them tread the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic appears to be gaining momentum in the Senate and the Trump administration.
In a meeting among Senate Republicans, which included Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, there was “a good deal of agreement” on cutting checks as soon as possible, Romney said. The amount would probably be more than $1,000 per adult and include an income cutoff, possibly at $75,000 to $80,000 a year, he said.
“I’m less focused on the precise amount of the individual checks than I am upon the desire to get these things out when people need them and also at a time when they can help encourage our economy along,” the Utah Republican said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
Lawmakers are contemplating a cost of about $250 billion, he said. The plan would be for a one-time payment, but that could change if the crisis continues, Romney said.
Mnuchin told reporters Tuesday at a White House press conference that the administration will do something to get people money as soon as possible.
“We are looking at sending checks to Americans immediately. ... Many companies have now shut down, whether it is bars or restaurants,” he said. “Americans need cash now, and the president wants to get cash now. And I mean now, in the next two weeks.”
On Monday, Romney suggested the government send all adults a $1,000 check to help ensure families and workers can meet their short-term obligations and increase spending in the economy. He estimated that would cost $100 billion for one month.
While Romney said he couldn’t gauge the support for the idea, it appears to be gaining favor with Republicans and Democrats. Neither Mnuchin nor President Donald Trump mentioned a specific plan at the press conference.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has proposed cutting a $1,000 tax-rebate check to every adult tax filer who makes less than $100,000, and $500 for every dependent. Five Democratic senators and one independent Tuesday called for an initial $2,000 payment, with subsequent payments stepping down over time.
“My impression is that people recognize that this is a unique and singular event in our nation’s history, and that we need to act to help people who are in distress given this terrible disease,” he said.
Trump said he likes the idea of a payroll tax holiday but that it could take months to get people money.
“We don’t really have months in terms of people living, you have people that work on tips,” he said.
Romney encouraged young people, who are not as severely impacted by COVID-19, to continue buying things.
“The economy needs to go on,” he said. “If you’re planning on buying a car, buy the car. If you want to buy some new clothes, do so. This is not a time to stop buying things.”
Romney, who headed the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, said Tokyo will have to make a judgment call on whether to put on hold the 2020 Summer Games based on the number of COVID-19 cases it’s seeing. One option, he said, would be to host the Games with spectators watching on TV, not in person.
“That’s something I’d be considering were I in their position,” he said.
Natalie Gochnour, associate dean of the University of Utah’s business school and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber, said the advantage of the government sending out checks is that it could be done quickly.
“The economic policy challenge is to minimize harm during the public health emergency. Just like we try to flatten the curve to exposure, we want to lift the bottom from the economic downfall that we’re experiencing,” she said. “You want to get money into the hands of people who are disadvantaged by this economy, and that’s a pretty broad group of people.
“Sending checks to Americans is a small piece of many things that need to happen to stimulate the economy, lessen the economic impact and shorten the duration of the economic shock,” Gochnour said.
“As a general rule, the response by federal and state government has to be rapid and large and agile and present. It has to be right now,” she said.
The problem with writing checks to everyone is that it’s “quite blunt,” she said, adding that it’s better to target those in greatest need, but that makes it more bureaucratic and takes away from the speed.
Mnuchin didn’t say how much money Americans could potentially expect to receive, but indicated the Trump administration could exclude wealthy people. He says there are some numbers out there and they may be a “little bit bigger than what’s in the press.”
“It is clear we don’t need to send people who make a million dollars a year checks. But that’s one of the ideas we like,” he said.
Trump said the administration wants to get checks to people “as quickly as possible.”
Mnuchin said the administration would work with the Senate, which is considering a relief package the House has approved. Conversations also will take place with the House, he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., intends to bring up the House-passed relief package in the Senate as is, meaning without provisions for individual payments, government-guaranteed small business loans and loans for larger industries such as airlines. Those measures could be taken up separately in the coming weeks, he said.
Utah GOP Rep. Chris Stewart isn’t hip on Romney’s idea.
“I think the proposal is overly broad and ill-conceived. Bill Gates doesn’t need $1,000. Mitt Romney doesn’t need $1,000. I don’t need $1,000. We should focus our efforts on those who have lost their jobs and small-business owners, not people whose lives have not yet been affected,” he said in a statement.
Romney said he would hope people who don’t need the money would give it to charity or someone who does need it.
Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, said he’s talking to Romney’s office about the senator’s proposal. He said he’s already supported legislation that provides immediate and ongoing relief for individuals and small businesses coping with the health and economic fallout from the coronavirus.
“As I continue to evaluate risks to the economy and to businesses and employees, I’m considering next steps, including Sen. Romney’s idea to send $1,000 checks to adults to help cushion financial hardship immediately,” McAdams said.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, believes every good idea should be put on the table to be evaluated, and he is looking forward to seeing more specifics on Romney’s proposal, said his spokeswoman, Ally Riding.
Curtis, she said, supports looking for ways to put money into the economy and is especially concerned with helping the most vulnerable populations.