April Issues Preview

QUICK FIX

— April is when the money starts flowing back into the U.S. economy: Household stimulus checks will clear, small-business loans are getting approved, airlines will receive their bailout money and the $100 billion in hospital funds will make its way into the health care system.

— The unemployment rate, which is likely already in double digits, will start to drag the long-term outlook on the economy, putting pressure on Republicans to join Democrats in the "phase four" of coronavirus stimulus.

— Parts of Washington are trying to keep business as usual: The EPA is still deregulating fossil fuels; the FCC is voting on spectrum; and the Department of Education is still issuing sweeping rules.

— The fundamental question by month's end is whether President Donald Trump will forge ahead with efforts to reopen America, regardless of advice from public health officials. That's not just a public policy question, but a political issue for a president looking for a comeback narrative for his reelection.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Show us the stimulus checks: The IRS faces a major test of its resources this month, with the agency expected to start distributing stimulus payments to individuals and families under the third coronavirus-response package. IRS and Treasury Department officials have told lawmakers that they expect to send the first payments via direct deposit in mid-April. Paper checks would start flowing in May — and it could take up to five months to get them all out.

The agency will also implement other tax elements of the rescue packages, including tax credits to keep workers on the payroll at struggling businesses and to help employers pay for sick and family leave. Industries affected by those provisions and others will work on shaping the rules and regulations to their liking. — Toby Eckert

Small-business bailout blues: Banks are beginning to offer $350 billion in small-business loans this month as part of the $2 trillion economic rescue package. But the Paycheck Protection Program, which forgives the loans if a business maintains its payroll, got off to a rocky start Friday as banks scrambled to process applications based on guidelines the Trump administration published just hours earlier. — Mark McQuillan

Airlines' money comes with strings: Congress included $58 billion for airlines in its most recent coronavirus relief package, known as the CARES Act. The questions now are which airlines will apply for the money and what exactly will the Treasury Department require from them in return. The law gives Secretary Steven Mnuchin until today to start cutting checks for the $29 billion in grants that represent half of the total amount of airline aid and that have to be used to pay employees. Airlines can separately apply for $29 billion in loans. Unlike the grants, the law doesn't impose deadlines on the Treasury Department for making loans. — Brianna Gurciullo

Administration dips into hospitals' bailout: The Trump administration is diverting a portion of the $100 billion set aside for health providers in the latest stimulus bill to cover treatments for uninsured coronavirus patients, after refusing to reopen Obamacare insurance marketplaces to help that population. HHS Secretary Alex Azar said hospitals will be paid Medicare rates to cover treatment costs, with more details coming. HHS has wide latitude to divvy up the $100 billion, which hospitals overwhelmed by the pandemic are expected to use to cover the costs of treating the virus and help fill the financial hole left by the wide-scale cancellation of elective surgeries.

Rescuing mortgage companies: The Financial Stability Oversight Council — an interagency body consisting of all the top regulators — is rolling out a plan to prevent mortgage servicers from going under amid the widespread suspension of payments by homeowners, with 2 million homeowners expected to be allowed to suspend mortgage payments by the beginning of May. — Mark McQuillan

Higher education looking for direction: Colleges and universities are also anxious for their slice of more than $14 billion in direct aid from the coronavirus stimulus package as revenues decline, but they are still waiting to hear from the Education Department on how and when it plans to distribute the funding. The department said Saturday it would provide guidance "in the near future." — Bianca Quilantan

Keep medical supplies flowing: Additional trade actions could arrive in April as the administration scrambles for medical supplies. The stimulus includes $1 billion for buying equipment made under the Defense Production Act. But the administration so far has taken what some critics say is an ad hoc approach in deciding when to invoke the powerful emergency law to step up production of medical supplies and halt export of the critical equipment.

The White House also has been working on a new "Buy American" executive order to encourage more domestic production of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro said that remains a priority, but finalizing that order has taken a back seat to more immediate coronavirus concerns. — Kayla Sharpe and Doug Palmer

More aid for agriculture: The $2 trillion relief package added nearly $16 billion to the food stamp program and almost $9 billion for child nutrition initiatives such as school meals. Anti-hunger groups are urging Congress to pass another emergency aid bill with additional food stamp benefits because the $16 billion covers only the applicants newly eligible after losing their jobs.

It's been an expensive year for farm aid for Trump. USDA was given an additional $24 billion to support the ag industry in the latest stimulus bill, with $14 billion going to replenish the Commodity Credit Corporation that has been tapped for Trump's trade bailout for farmers and ranchers. And a $9.5 billion fund was established for emergency aid for the agriculture sector. Expect jockeying among various farm sectors in the coming weeks to ensure that their members get a piece of the various aid programs. — Catherine Boudreau

Pentagon gets funds for Guardsmen: The latest economic rescue package expands military coffers by $10.5 billion. The stimulus includes $1.5 billion to deploy up to 20,000 National Guardsmen for six months in support of state and local coronavirus response efforts. It also carves out $415 million for research and development of vaccines and antiviral pharmaceuticals. — Connor O'Brien

Rescue plan could help unleash telehealth: Washington has been tearing down barriers to telehealth amid the pandemic, hoping that virtual care visits could keep healthy people and mild coronavirus cases out of exam rooms. The latest stimulus package relaxed Medicare's restriction against telehealth payments for new patients. And the FCC last week adopted a telehealth program that would use the $200 million it received in relief aid to help health care providers purchase information technology, internet services and new devices. — Jason Millman

LOOKING AHEAD TO FOURTH STIMULUS

Sizing up coronavirus' hit on the labor market: Government data is still catching up with job losses from the pandemic. The March jobs numbers showed unemployment at 4.4 percent, but that figure didn't capture the more than 10 million new claims for unemployment in just two weeks. The coronavirus relief bills approved by Congress last month will expand unemployment insurance benefits up to 39 weeks and add $600 for every recipient through July 31. Businesses with fewer than 500 employees will be required to provide employees who are sick with coronavirus or quarantined up to two weeks' sick leave at full pay. Gig workers will be eligible to apply for up to 39 weeks of state unemployment benefits funded entirely by the federal government. Keep an eye out for the April jobs report, which will provide a much clearer picture of the damage to U.S. employment and put extra pressure on Congress for even more economic stimulus. — Rebecca Rainey

Trump looking for a way to help Big Oil: The domestic oil industry is reeling as oil prices plummet due to shuttered economies worldwide and Saudi Arabia and Russia increasing production in a battle for market share. The Trump administration is looking for a way to help industry, after Democratic objections kept Trump's request for $3 billion to purchase oil from U.S. companies for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve out of the latest economic stimulus bill. It's unclear whether such a provision will make it into the next one, as consensus seems to be building for narrow legislation. The president met with top oil executives in the White House on Friday, but the meeting produced few concrete ideas to help industry. — Nick Juliano

What could be coming for tech: Senate Democrats are renewing their push for a dedicated $2 billion for the FCC's E-Rate subsidy program to help with distance learning, and House Democrats say $86 billion in broadband buildout money also belongs in the package. Republicans, meanwhile, have quietly suggested telecom carriers just need some regulatory relief. These talks will probably carry out behind the scenes over April. — John Hendel

Marijuana companies hope fourth time's the charm: Marijuana businesses got shut out of Congress' first three coronavirus relief bills, largely because the federal government still considers pot illegal and therefore ineligible for federal assistance. But marijuana companies are still hoping they might get some relief in the fourth stimulus, especially in the form of cannabis banking legislation. They're also pushing a provision allowing cannabis companies operating in states with legal markets to access assistance through the Small Business Administration. — Paul Demko

CAN'T STOP, WON'T STOP

EPA still on a deregulatory kick: The EPA, along with the Transportation Department, last week rolled back greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and light trucks (Reg. 2060-AU09), fulfilling one of Trump's major promises.

The agency is also forging ahead with its second effort at a science transparency rule (Reg. 2080-AA14), though it has extended the comment period until May 18 — after Democrats and environmental groups argued that the public health experts who should be studying and critiquing the proposal are occupied with the coronavirus pandemic.

And the agency in the coming weeks and months is expected to issue its updated mercury rule for power plants that would also introduce a major change to how regulatory costs and benefits are calculated (Reg. 2060-AT99), as well as a proposed rule locking in the existing national air quality standard for particulate matter rather than strengthening it (Reg. 2060-AS50). — Alex Guillén

Spectrum fights never sleep: The FCC is set to vote April 23 — but not in person — on Chairman Ajit Pai's proposal to open the entire 6 GHz band for unlicensed uses like Wi-Fi. The move would be a boon for tech and cable companies, but it's less happy news for utilities and broadcasters that rely on these same airwaves and have warned that the spectrum-sharing will cause interference with vital public services. Odds are it will pass, however — Commissioner Mike O'Rielly predicted the vote could be unanimous. — John Hendel

Antitrust doesn't either: The many federal and state probes of alleged anti-competitive abuse in the tech industry are continuing to churn ahead. That means Attorney General William Barr may not meet his stated goal of making decisions on the Justice Department's Google inquiry by "early summer." DOJ is also reviewing Google's acquisition of Fitbit, while the FTC is looking into whether Facebook has used acquisitions to cement its dominance. And the House Judiciary Committee's antitrust panel still aims to release initial findings from its own tech probe sometime soon, although the pandemic scotched its plans to do so in March. — Leah Nylen

Look out for rule on campus sexual assault: OMB has completed its review of the proposed Title IX rule , which is expected to shake up how sexual assault and harassment charges are handled at every college campus and K-12 school. The move officially clears the way for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to issue the new rule, but the department says there's no date yet for publication. Some have called on DeVos to put off the final rule until the pandemic is over while others say the rule should be issued immediately. — Bianca Quilantan

Canada's policy landscape: Canada's response to the coronavirus and the plunge in oil prices will seep into just about every policy area for the coming months — from ensuring the country can find enough medical supplies to providing adequate rescue packages to keep its economy and crucial oil sector afloat. The economic impact of the pandemic has already ensured the deficits on the federal balance sheet are soaring to new heights. — Andy Blatchford

HOLDING PATTERN

— The stimulus package effectively pushed back what many perceived to be a deadline for passing drug pricing and surprise billing legislation. The stimulus extended funding for key health programs until late November, likely delaying any action on drug prices and surprise bills until a lame-duck session.

— Hearings and markups on appropriations bills for next fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1, have been canceled for the foreseeable future. So have hearings and classified hearings as part of House and Senate oversight efforts.

— An April 30 markup of the NDAA has been postponed indefinitely by the House Armed Services Committee, but the panel's leaders still aim to have the bill ready for debate by May 1.

— Trade talks between the U.S. and U.K., previously scheduled to begin in March, are still up in the air as USTR has not set a new date.

— The Department of Veterans Affairs has delayed work on building its new electronic health record system.

— USDA was forced to hit pause on part of its plan to push 4 million people off food stamps.

— Federal domestic surveillance powers expired last month after the House and Senate left for recess without taking up an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

— The SEC will delay action on certain rulemaking until May 1.

— The FDA has asked a federal court to extend the e-cigarette review deadline from May 12 to Sept. 9.

— DHS says it will not admit 35,000 H-2B guest workers into the country this summer as promised.

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