Coronavirus pandemic puts cash handouts on US lawmakers' radars

Liberal and conservative economists have since lined up behind the idea of cash handouts

As lawmakers grapple with how to protect the U.S. economy from the fast-spreading coronavirus, which has forced American life to come to a screeching halt, a surprising idea is gaining bipartisan support in Congress: cash handouts.

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On Monday, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney proposed immediately sending $1,000 checks to every adult American. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton echoed that sentiment, calling for the federal government to send monthly checks to Americans put out of work by the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Neither lawmaker referred to the plan as universal basic income, or UBI, an idea popularized by Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who made it the basis of his now-ceased campaign.

Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a presidential candidate who's no longer appearing on debate stages, has also pressed for emergency UBI, which she called the "most simple, direct means to ensure people can take care of themselves and loved ones."

Earlier in the month, Harvard professor Jason Furman, who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed called "The Case for a Big Coronavirus Stimulus."

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Furman argued that it was necessary for Congress to pass a one-time payment of $1,000 to every adult U.S. citizen or taxpaying resident and $500 to every child who meets the same criteria.

"This is similar to, but somewhat more generous than, what President Bush did in 2008. Back then, electronic deposits were made available within three months. Some consumers might spend the money right away to meet rent if they lose their regular paycheck; others might have stronger balance sheets and spend the money at whatever uncertain date the virus is contained," Furman wrote.

Liberal and conservative economists have since lined up behind the idea of cash handouts, including noted conservative economists Michael Strain and Scott Gottlieb of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

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Other stimulus efforts include an $8.3 billion package of emergency funding for prevention efforts and research earlier this month, and the House passage of a bill aimed at expanding the social safety net, including free COVID-19 testing, even for the uninsured, extending paid sick leave to more Americans and providing billions in funding to state and local governments for food programs and unemployment benefits.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will also pitch lawmakers on an $850 billion coronavirus relief package that could contain provisions like a payroll tax cut and aid for hard-hit industries.

Mnuchin is expected to meet with Senate Republicans on Tuesday to discuss the proposal, which could include broader economic measures like $250 billion in Small Business Association loans, $500 billion for a payroll tax cut and $58 billion for airlines.

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The Senate's discussions on a third round of stimulus took on new urgency as the stock market plummeted again, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average shedding nearly 3,000 points, its second-worst day in history.