Lobbyists representing airlines, hotels, cruise lines and casinos are in a desperate fight for cash but what about ordinary workers?
A feeding frenzy is under way by lobbyists representing airlines, hotels, cruise lines, casinos and other powerful interests as Congress and the Trump administration craft a $1tn stimulus bill to provide hundreds of billions each for big industries, small businesses and individuals hurt by the coronavirus crisis.
Washington lobbyists and watchdog groups say that in their lobbying blitzes industries have been vying aggressively with each other in a compressed timeframe to grab multibillion-dollar bailout loans and other assistance.
Lobbying yielded huge dividends on Thursday when a giant stimulus plan authored by Senate Republicans and the Treasury was released. The Republican measure, which Democrats were shut out of, calls for $500bn in direct payments to individuals; $300bn in small business assistance; and $200bn, mainly in loans, for big industries such as airlines, cruise companies and hotels hurt financially by the pandemic.
The package also contains support for healthcare professionals and patients and corporate tax cuts.
However, the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, and House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, quickly criticized key parts of this Republican package, and are presenting alternative measures in a newly released $750bn Democratic Senate plan while a House one is being crafted. The two Democrats issued a statement backing plans that put workers first, with stronger provisions to prevent companies using bailout loans for stock buybacks and executive pay hikes.
But industry lobbyists scored big in the Republican stimulus plan and are expected to keep the pressure on as Congress works to forge a compromise.
The Republican bill provides passenger airlines and air cargo carriers up to $58bn in loans, while a mix of hotels, cruise ships, shopping malls and other sectors were given $150bn to help weather the economic downturn.
Hours before the Republican measure was released, Trump said he expected the package would provide help for the airlines, cruise lines and probably hotels. On Tuesday, Trump met with hotel industry executives who reportedly asked for $150bn in help and another $100bn for their suppliers.
Watchdog groups are raising red flags about the $50bn loan package for Americas big passenger airlines which in recent years have drawn growing consumer complaints, while spending tens of billions on stock buybacks. And the $150bn in the Republican bill for the well-connected hotel industry which Trumps family business is heavily engaged in and other industries have also generated criticism.
An emergency like this highlights the inequities of a system where well-connected industries can lobby directly for specific carve-outs and potentially cushion wealthy executives, said Robert Maguire, research director at the watchdog Crew.
In the Trump era, however, that imbalance comes with the unprecedented conflicts of interest that arise from the fact that the president still owns and profits from businesses in industries that are calling for billions in taxpayer assistance which, if approved, would benefit him personally.
Other tensions have been sparked by heavy lobbying by financially battered and scandal tarred aircraft maker Boeing which has sought billions in help
Trump said on Wednesday: We have to protect Boeing. But one airline industry lobbyist said he sees no sympathy for Boeing during the coronavirus crisis. Its not clear if the Republican bill gives them a shot at financial help.
Senator Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on his chambers finance panel, in a statement told the Guardian he will not back a no-strings attached bailout laden with corporate tax goodies that primarily benefits CEOs. These industries got massive tax breaks just two years ago, spending billions on stock buybacks for wealthy shareholders, so there would need to be significant guardrails on any assistance.
Some lobbyists warn of a public backlash if the stimulus package turns into a big honeypot where money is disbursed to big business with too few controls. I think the public is going to look very skeptically at special industry bailouts that dont address critical needs in the midst of the crisis, said John Jonas, a veteran healthcare lobbyist with Akin Gump, a giant law and lobbying firm.
This kind of economic package is going to create a lot of mischief, said Don Duncan, who used to run the DC office of oil giant ConocoPhillips. Congress and the administration need to clearly define where such economic help is justified and needed most to avoid misuse of tax dollars.
Unlike many big lobbying skirmishes, this one has been moving at warp speed. Other veteran influence peddlers say the lobbying frenzy has been spurred by the huge sums of money up for grabs. When youre dealing with a $1tn package, many industries will put their hats in the ring, quipped one lobbyist.
Cruise lines, for instance, have pushed hard for financial help to offset lost business, and may get some special sympathy in an election year since they are a big player in the key battleground state of Florida.
Florida is the center of the industry, and important in 2020, said a lobbyist who seemed confident they would get help.
To move the Republican bill out of the Senate quickly, lobbyists and their Republican allies are trying to line up seven moderate Democrats to make it filibuster-proof, and McConnell on Friday said he hoped the Senate would be ready to vote on Monday. But theres considerable uncertainty if that will happen without making some major concessions to Democrats, as well as some Republican senators who have various concerns.
Schumer and Pelosi seem committed to more worker protection measures and provisions to ensure that industry loans will not lead to corporate boondoggles. Pelosi and Schumer fired off an early salvo in a joint statement.
We are beginning to review Senator McConnells proposal and on first reading, it is not at all pro-worker and instead puts corporations way ahead of workers.
The two top Democrats are expected to have significant input into the final bill which could be approved before months end by both chambers after significant compromises are hashed out as lobbyists for airlines, hotels and other industries keep the heat on to get as much as possible.