On the hill

Jewish nonprofits push for additional changes to COVID bill

The House released a draft of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that Democrats are hoping to expedite through Congress

House Television via AP

Members of the House of Representatives vote on legislation at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on March 27, 2020.

The House Budget Committee released a draft of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on Friday that House Democrats are hoping to push through the lower chamber by the end of the week. But some Jewish groups are hoping to see further changes in the legislation.

The current 591-page draft of the bill includes, among other provisions, $1,400 checks for Americans, an extension of federal unemployment benefits and additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses — including nonprofits, funding for schools and vaccination efforts and an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour — which seems unlikely to survive the Senate.

This week, the House will further revise the bill before moving it on to the Senate, where it is likely to undergo a range of additional changes. 

Shortly after the draft bill was released, the Jewish Federations of North America sent a letter to government affairs professionals calling on them to join a letter from the National Council of Nonprofits and a JFNA campaign advocating for changes to the COVID bill.

The Orthodox Union, JFNA, Agudath Israel of America, Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, Jewish Art Education Corporation, New York’s Jewish Museum and numerous local Jewish organizations signed the Council of Nonprofits letter in late January.

The letter calls for full unemployment benefit reimbursements for self-insured nonprofits. The current bill includes 75% reimbursements — up from 50% previously — but Nathan Diament, the director of the OU’s Advocacy Center, said the OU is pushing for further increases in the Senate.

Another major request made in the letter — increased charitable-giving incentives — is not included in the bill draft, and is unlikely to be added.

“That’s not in this package, frankly, because it’s expensive,” Diament said. “And even though $1.9 trillion is a lot of money, that would make it even more expensive. So that’s not in the cards.”

JFNA’s campaign focuses on Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — otherwise known as food stamps.

The current bill increases federal contributions to Medicaid home and community-based services by 7.35%. JFNA is calling for a 10% increase. The bill also increases Medicaid and SNAP funding, but to a lesser extent than JFNA requested.

The Jewish organizations backing changes to the legislation are also pushing to increase the funding available for Jewish elementary and secondary schools. The current bill allows non-public schools, including parochial schools, to receive funds designated for addressing learning loss and other academic, social and emotional impacts from the pandemic — including funding for additional instruction sessions like summer school or extra tutoring programs.

Under the bill’s current language, this fund will make up at least 20% of the total $128 billion being provided to the Department of Education.

Diament said the OU is advocating for non-public schools to be given access to a larger slice of the COVID relief funding, not just the learning loss fund. The restrictions introduced in the latest bill were not part of the original CARES Act passed last March.

“Here as currently drafted, it’s only for a very, very small part. So we’re trying to see if in the Senate, we can get that revised, so it follows the CARES Act precedent, and frankly so it’s more fair to Jewish, Catholic and other non-public schools,” Diament told Jewish Insider on Friday.

Despite the concerns, the current version of the bill does include many provisions that Jewish groups and other nonprofits had hoped to see.

Diament applauded Congress for expanding PPP eligibility for nonprofit organizations, another goal laid out in the Council of Nonprofits letter. Larger nonprofits had previously been mostly excluded from the PPP, a restriction which JFNA president Eric Fingerhut also previously bemoaned.

“This is something we and the Jewish Federation and others have been working on for months and months,” Diament said. “We’re thankful that now that’s been mostly corrected in this new legislation.”

According to Diament, the PPP changes are largely thanks to action from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Small Business Committee Chair Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY).

Diament further praised increases to the child tax credit — to $3,600 for children under age 6 and $3,000 to children up to age 17 — as particularly impactful for the Orthodox community.

“The $3,600 tax credit is also going to be of significant help especially to larger families in the Orthodox community that have lots of kids and who are lower and middle income,” he explained.

Senate Democrats are optimistic that Congress can pass the bill — which will, at a minimum, require 50 Democratic votes in the Senate, plus Vice President Kamala Harris —  and send it to President Joe Biden before March 14, when federal unemployment benefits are set to expire.

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