This article was originally published on May 13, 2020 in the ABA Journal here.
COVID-19 reportedly surfaced in Wuhan, China, last December. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of the virus to be a global pandemic, and two days after that, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.
This abrupt chain of events has transformed every aspect of our world, both domestically and internationally, challenging how we all traditionally think about our businesses, jobs, education, health care and social interactions. In the face of this rapidly changing landscape, our government has had to respond quickly, especially in Congress, where political consensus is often hard to achieve. Not so in the face of the coronavirus.
The congressional response to the COVID-19 epidemic has been swift and impactful. Within one month of the national emergency declaration, Congress closed its doors to the public and suspended its scheduled legislative agenda so it could focus entirely on getting relief to the American people and businesses impacted by the rapid spread of the virus.
The ABA Governmental Affairs Office has remained engaged on many fronts during this crisis, and much has changed, especially the remarkable amount of bipartisanship evident on Capitol Hill. In less than one month, Congress passed three major relief bills, all on overwhelming bipartisan votes, to help Americans through this crisis.
On March 4, the House introduced and passed (415 yeas, 2 nays) its first emergency funding bill, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act. The Senate rapidly followed suit, with a vote of 96 to 1, and the president signed it into law the next day. This act prioritized funding for research and development of vaccines and treatments; medical supplies; and health care preparedness, including grants for state, local and tribal health organizations.
Exactly one week later, Congress turned its attention to helping those affected by the outbreak and making Food and Drug Administration-approved COVID-19 diagnostic testing more accessible. Acting quickly again, the House (363 yeas, 40 nays) and the Senate (90 yeas, 8 nays) passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires certain public employers, or private employers with fewer than 500 employees, to provide emergency paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave through the end of this year.
Employees qualify if they cannot work or telework because the employee is sick or quarantined because of COVID-19, caring for someone else who is sick or exposed, or caring for a school-age child for whom child care is not otherwise available. The act also includes enhanced unemployment benefits and increased funding for food programs for women, children, seniors and low-income Americans.
On March 27, Congress passed its third bipartisan relief package called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, and the president immediately signed it into law. Most significantly, the CARES Act includes cash assistance paid directly to individuals and more than $375 billion for small businesses impacted by COVID-19.
Impact for Attorneys
A number of the CARES Act’s policies could provide relief for people in the legal profession. For example, the act’s Paycheck Protection Program funds forgivable loans to most organizations with fewer than 500 employees to help them pay their employees and keep them on the payroll, including eligible solo practitioners and small firms. Every dollar from the eight-week period after the origination of the loan spent on payroll, utilities, rent, or interest on mortgage debt will be forgiven.
The CARES Act suspends federal student loan repayment obligations for borrowers for six months, during which time interest does not accrue and borrowers get credit as if they had made the payments—including for the purposes of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Employers who make payments to satisfy their employee’s student loan obligations also get an income exclusion.
The CARES Act also includes expanded unemployment benefits, emergency funding to address the legal needs of low-income Americans, election assistance funding, and affordable housing and homelessness-assistance program funding.
Two provisions in this act help trade and professional 501(c)(6) associations—the Employee Retention Payroll Tax Credit and Economic Disaster Loan Grants, both having high eligibility thresholds. The ABA has been fighting for additional relief for these associations to help keep jobs for their employees.
Much was accomplished in the first 30 days of this national emergency, yet the House and Senate have predicted that they are far from done. Committed to providing relief from this crisis for all Americans, Congress has steadfastly demonstrated a bipartisan commitment and ability to move forward on COVID-19-related issues in this ever-changing legislative session. Stay tuned to learn more developments by following us @ABAGrassroots.
This report is written by the ABA’s Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the U.S. government.