Amid the pandemic, eyes turn to Congress for Relief

Original story posted on: December 2, 2020

December will be a busy month for lawmakers.

Like the rest of us, Congress has a lot to do before the end of the year. Unlike the rest of us, they’ve only given themselves 10 working days to do it.

First, without funding, the federal government will shut down on Dec. 11. While it looks pretty certain that Congress will pass something, for now, it boils down to whether they can come together and keep the government funded for the next year in a comprehensive “omnibus” package, or whether they’ll kick the can forward a couple of months and leave the issue for the next Congress and the incoming Biden Administration.  

Also on the (possible) to-do list: a COVID relief package. As we know, the virus numbers continue to grow, while many of the safety-net provisions of previous packages have run out (or will run out by the end of the year). Again, everyone appears to support passing another package – and soon – but the Republican Senate still wants their $500 billion package, while Democrats keep pointing to their $2 trillion package passed by the House six months ago. The only crack in either’s armor at this point is that certain members of Biden’s team are hinting that Democrats should agree to a smaller package in order to get something, anything, through before the end of the year.

The new variable on these two issues is President Trump. It’s not clear how he will lean on either of them in the post-election period. For example, the Trump Administration is letting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell take the driver’s seat on the COVID relief talks, when before the election, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin had the wheel. In the background, however, Trump does continue to tweet his support for some kind of relief package.

There are also at least two issues that Congress is working on that President Trump does not agree with: one, a Defense Authorization Bill that includes a provision requiring the renaming of any armed forces bases named after Confederate leaders, and two, the president’s planned arms sale to Saudi Arabia that a bipartisan group of senators is trying to stop.

Turning away from Congress for a moment, COVID-19 contact tracing efforts across the country are getting overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of infected individuals. In response, just before Thanksgiving, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) added guidance on how local agencies should prioritize who they follow up with in their contact tracing, starting with those who are hospitalized or are healthcare personnel. Of less priority are those not obviously at risk and non-essential workers.

On a related note, at least five states are asking people who test positive for COVID-19 to follow up and contact their own close contacts about possible exposure, because contact tracers in those states can’t keep up.

Finally, in cases decided in May and July of this year, the Supreme Court ruled that local officials could impose restrictions to protect the public’s health, including limiting the numbers of those who could gather for religious ceremonies and meetings. Last week, the Supreme Court shifted away from that position and ruled that government agencies could not restrict religious gatherings.

The difference between the past rulings and the most recent one is that Justice Amy Coney Barrett has joined the court. The ruling gives a sense of how the Supreme Court could decide cases going forward, when government restrictions during the pandemic are challenged by arguments based on claims of certain constitutional rights. 

Programming Note: Matthew Albright is a permanent panelist on Monitor Mondays. Listen to his legislative update sponsored by Zelis, Mondays at 10 a.m. EST.

Matthew Albright

Matthew Albright is the chief legislative affairs officer at Zelis Healthcare. Previously, Albright was senior manager at CAQH CORE, and earlier, he was the acting deputy director of the Office of E-Health and Services for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

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