On Senate Floor, Portman Calls on Senate to Replenish Disaster Relief Fund to Continue $300 Enhanced Federal UI Benefit, Provide Additional Resources for Wildfires & Natural Disasters

September 23, 2020 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC – Today on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman discussed the need for the House and Senate to act to replenish Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) prior to Congress adjourning for the election. Portman called on the Senate to act on his new legislation to provide critical funding to the DRF to continue the enhanced federal unemployment insurance benefit of $300 per week authorized by President Trump’s executive action and provide additional resources to support the federal government’s response to historic wildfires in the West and other natural disasters such as Hurricane Sally. This legislation would appropriate $86.6 billion to the DRF for these purposes, designated as emergency funding, through November 21, 2020.  

The CARES Act appropriated $45 billion to the DRF, of which $44 billion has been obligated to cover six weeks-worth of lost wages assistance per state. The Lost Wages Assistance program provided $300 per week to complement each state’s unemployment insurance benefit. Once each state uses its appropriated six weeks’ worth of funding, the $44 billion cap will have been met, and the benefits will stop. Furthermore, since the DRF is currently funding COVID-19 support and both hurricane and wildfire season are ongoing, ensuring there is appropriate levels of funding in the DRF is crucial.

Senator Portman urged his colleagues to swiftly pass this essential bill to replenish DRF funds so that FEMA is equipped to extend these enhanced federal unemployment benefits and help those impacted by the recent wildfires and natural disasters. 

A transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.

“I’m on the floor today to talk about what the Senate -- and the House -- ought to be doing before we leave town for the election, and that’s helping people who are in need because of the impact of the coronavirus. I know this is the week when we’re focused on the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and that’s appropriate. There is a lot of discussion, also, about filling her seat. We should, of course, all take time to mourn our nation’s loss. But we are also in the middle of an unprecedented health care and economic crisis. I think we have a responsibility to continue working on COVID-19 legislation to respond to those challenges.

“Since this crisis began, Congress has actually come together repeatedly as Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate, and working with the White House to pass five coronavirus relief bills, legislation to address both the health care crisis and the economic freefall that was caused by the virus and the shutdowns. The biggest of these bills was the one you hear about the most, the roughly $2 trillion CARES Act that was passed by a vote of 96-0. Again, these have been bipartisan efforts up to now. Unfortunately, since May, when the last of these five bills was enacted, partisanship has prevailed over good policy, and Washington has been paralyzed, unable to come together for the public good.

“Last week, I came to the floor to highlight how this dynamic has played out with regard to a single issue that’s become particularly important for so many people in my home state of Ohio and around the country. That’s the expanded federal unemployment insurance supplement included in the CARES Act back in March. I had a tele town hall last night. I am trying to do a tele town hall or a Facebook live town hall every week during the pandemic, in part just to stay in touch with people because it’s so hard back home now to visit with people in person. And again, last night, I had two callers call in, both of whom are taking advantage of the current $300 per-week federal supplement provided, really, by the Trump Administration, and talking to me about how they are going to plan for the future. These are individuals who don’t have a job to go back to. One, by the way, is a musician who makes his living playing music, the piano and singing and so on at long-term care facilities, nursing homes. And each one of his previous clients has said that he’s not welcome to come back now. For good reason, but this makes his life pretty tough because that’s what he does for a living. So his question to me was, you know, look, ‘I really appreciate the $300. I need it to get by. I have got my rent, I have got my car payment. What are you guys going to do about that?’ Well, the truth is nothing at this point, and that’s too bad, because that $300 supplement has now ended. In effect, what the president did to continue some help at the federal level had limits, because he did it under the only choice he had, really, which was a Disaster Relief Fund, and that has now run out. So that’s where we are.

“Early on in this pandemic, both Republicans and Democrats recognized the need to bolster the state-run unemployment insurance programs to help offset the massive job losses we saw in March and April. The initial amount was $600 per week, and it was provided by the CARES Act. It came at a big cost to taxpayers. It also provided an income source that made the difference for a lot of folks in the state of Ohio and around the country. During those early months, you remember the government was actually shutting down, a lot of businesses and workers were losing their jobs through no fault of their own, like this individual last night, through no fault of his own not having a job. As the year has gone on, we have made progress. We have slowed the spread of the coronavirus in most states. We have added more testing and personal protective gear. More and more parts of our economy have been able to reopen in a safe and sustainable manner, and that’s great. With the reopening, hiring has picked back up, and we now have far fewer people on unemployment insurance than we did at the beginning of this pandemic. Unemployment is now about 8.4 percent. That was the number for August, down from over 15 percent back in the spring. That’s a big change. Over four million jobs have been added. At the same time, 8.4 percent is still high, very high. Remember, we were at about 3.5 percent just in February of this year. By the way, February was the 19th straight month of wage increases of over 3 percent. We had record low unemployment for many sectors of our economy, and here we are at 8.4 percent. So we are not out of the woods yet. We still have a ways to go.

“Ohio’s unemployment number just came out the day before yesterday. For August, it was 8.9 percent. So 10 percent unemployment is something we are now under. In fact, we are under 9 percent, which is way, way faster than the projections, but still, 8.9 percent unemployment in Ohio is something that we need to focus on. I will say that overall, we’re going in the right direction and that unemployment claims, I think, now are either steadily dropping or holding level in almost every state. That’s certainly true in Ohio. So it’s fair that Congress wanted to take another look at that original unemployment insurance supplement, which was set to expire at the beginning of August, and it did expire, and we wanted to look at it to see what the new supplement ought to be, given the changing economy and given some of the improvements that we saw, and also given the need for more workers as more businesses were reopening.

“Now, $600 per week was a relatively generous benefit, to the point that the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan group around here that gives us advice said if you kept that $600 until next year, which is what the Democrats proposed in their HEROES Act, eight out of ten people, eight out of ten people getting $600 a week would be paid more on unemployment insurance than they would be at their jobs. In other words, you would be making more money unemployed than you would be working. That’s not the way unemployment insurance is supposed to work. That’s not good for an economy that’s trying to reopen. I have been all over my state and talked to employers, small, mid, large-sized employers. Talked to the nonprofits. Talked to people who are working hard to try to provide care to people in the health care sector. They all tell me the same thing, that $600 was a problem because some people were not coming back to work because, again, for most of those people, they could make more on unemployment than they could working. So we needed to adjust it. And yet, Democrats insisted $600 or nothing, or nothing. And so we got nothing.

“Some of us had proposed $300. In that case, some people would be getting paid more on unemployment, but most would not. In fact, most of us would be getting less and some percentage of their salaries. And again, if you lose your job through no fault of your own, particularly because of the government decision to shut down your sector, say a movie theater or a bowling alley or a bar, it seems to me that we ought to be helping. And so the $300 that we proposed was to go until toward the end of the year. But Democrats said no. Kind of a ‘my way or the highway’ approach. Like it’s going to be $600 or we’re going to give these people nothing. We gave people nothing. To me, that was a big mistake. A number of us came to the floor and actually said let’s continue $600 for a week so we can negotiate something. The Democrats said ‘no, we want to end it. We don’t even want to have it temporarily at $600 to be able to negotiate something between the Republicans and Democrats.’ That’s too bad.

“When Congress failed to act, President Trump and his administration stepped in, and what they said was ‘$300 is about the right number. We will provide the states a $300 supplement through what’s called the Disaster Relief Fund.’ Now, in the CARES legislation we talked about earlier. which was the $2 trillion legislation that passed 96-0 around here, a lot of money went out for various causes, for hospitals, for our schools, for our families through unemployment insurance, but it also provided some funding for what’s called the Disaster Relief Fund for COVID-19 purposes. So the president took some of that money for COVID-19 purposes out of the Disaster Relief Fund and said ‘we’re going to, for six weeks, allow the states to use this $300 supplement if they choose to do so.’ They also encouraged the states to provide their own match. What happened was every state but two took the government up on that, and so the vast majority of states said ‘yeah, we’ll do it.’ They didn’t add their match, by the way, but they did take the $300, and a lot of people have been helped by that, because over the past six weeks, that funding has been available.

“Unfortunately, sometimes it got paid as a lump sum because by the time the state systems figured out how to administer it, we were close to the end of the six weeks. But people knew that was coming, knew they had $300 to prepare for paying their rent, paying their car payment, paying their mortgage, and that was helpful, that was helpful. Again, now we’re at a point where President Trump’s emergency Lost Wage Assistance Program, which is what that was called, Lost Wage Assistance Program under the Disaster Relief Fund, has tapped out. $44 billion was made available to the states, leaving $25 billion in that Disaster Relief Fund, because that $25 billion was what was projected to be necessary to deal with the natural disasters. So that’s where we are today. $44 billion has been depleted. People who have had unemployment insurance since the disaster began are not going to have it now. It’s going to end. For many people it ended this week, for some next week, for some the week before, but the point is we as a Congress need to act.

“My view is, let’s provide some more funding for the Disaster Relief Fund at least. If we can’t come together with a big COVID-19 package again that helps the schools, that helps small businesses with their Paycheck Protection Program, which I support extending, that helps with regard to getting more money for testing and getting our vaccine more quickly and getting the therapies up, let’s at least provide the administration with some funding in the Disaster Relief Fund so they can continue to respond to this need. Let’s also provide them that funding because they need it for natural disasters. What do I mean by that?

“Well, the other thing that’s happened in the last six weeks, as you’ve probably noticed, is we have had a lot of natural disasters in the West with fires, in the South with hurricanes. So that funding left in the Disaster Relief Fund ought to be supplemented for that purpose as well. This is a temporary program meant to provide a bridge while Congress acts, and that would be great if Congress were to act, but frankly I’m getting kind of discouraged about Congress’ ability to come together again on a bipartisan basis, as much as I wish we would, and I have spoken on this floor about what I think I can see as the points of compromise and the overlap between our two approaches because there’s lots of it. You know, every single Republican, save one, 52 members, a majority of the Senate voted for a proposal a couple of weeks ago that was viewed as a targeted proposal that did provide help for COVID-19, for families, for small businesses, for health care. Democrats had their own idea, which is $3.5 trillion that they wanted. Ours was about $500 billion. There is something in between there. We could come together with something that was sensible, but it looks like that’s unlikely. So at a minimum, let’s move forward with these unemployment insurance supplements that we have been doing. Let’s give the administration the ability to do it, again, through the Disaster Relief Fund.

“This funding shortage would be easy for us to put into the legislation that is likely to come before this chamber in the next 24 hours, which is the Continuing Resolution. That is the funding that is going to pay for the government to continue operating. You know, Congress is supposed to pass individual appropriations bills. There’s 12 of them. We didn’t do them this year because of the partisan gridlock around here, so once again we’re turning to a Continuing Resolution to provide the funding going forward. The House is acting this week, we’re going to act this week or early next week, as I understand it. It would be the perfect place to put more funding into this Disaster Relief Fund for us to be able to provide that $300 benefit that the Administration has been providing to all states but two and to also provide for more help for the natural disasters that are upon us.

“Senator Thom Tillis and I have proposed legislation to do just that. We have a bill out there that we hope Congress would be willing pass. We are also interested again in adding it as an amendment to the Continuing Resolution, to the appropriations bill that’s on its way through here. So with Congress deadlocked on how to come up with a broader solution for COVID-19, let’s at least do this. Let’s say to the administration ‘we want you to continue this program.’ It’s now in place. The states know how it operates. The states have been implementing it. My home state of Ohio has provided funding to people through this. We are appreciative of it.

“Our proposal is very, very straightforward. It simply appropriates $86.6 billion to replenish the Disaster Relief Fund. First, to give FEMA the resources it needs to fully and effectively respond to the natural disasters that are hitting parts of our country hard right now and those that are yet to come, the money won’t be wasted. It will be spent for appropriate things. Second it would allow the $300 per-week Lost Wage Assistance Program to continue through November 21, giving Congress what I hope would be more than enough time to come up with a broader solution to the COVID-19 issue. But at least through the period of time between now and just before Thanksgiving, people would be able to know they’d continue to get this $300 per week supplement to be able to put food on the table, to be able to pay the rent, to pay the car payment, or pay the mortgage, and we, as a Congress, would then be able to say to the people we represent ‘we haven’t forgotten about you.’ If you lost your job through no fault of your own, you ought to be able to continue, continue to be able to provide some help during this interim period.

“This isn’t about political wins and losses. This is about lives, and livelihoods are at stake. I hope my colleagues will join me in a bipartisan effort to support this important common-sense legislation so we can bolster our response to the COVID-19 unemployment crisis and to the natural disasters that are currently facing our country.”                                                          

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