Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin found themselves in the hot seat on Tuesday as U.S. lawmakers grilled them about the uneven nature of the fiscal response to the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Powell and Mnuchin were testifying to the Senate Banking Committee as Congress considers whether to roll out trillions of dollars of additional aid to bolster an economy that was brought to a virtual standstill by lockdowns imposed in March and April.
The Trump administration has been criticized for initially downplaying the pandemic, which has now killed more than 90,000 Americans, and not ensuring that enough medical supplies were in place to battle the virus.
Essential workers "put their lives on the line for very low wages, and they're still worried about paying their bills. Is that fair?," Sherrod Brown, a Democratic senator from Ohio, asked Mnuchin.
When Mnuchin started to thank "all the essential workers," Brown interrupted him. "Thanking is great, but is it fair our economy pays the essential workers so little in such work conditions?"
Senators are also expected to have sharp questions about the additional actions needed to keep the world's largest economy afloat, and missteps in rolling out some $3 trillion in aid so far. (See graphic showing how the money moved.)
As more states reopen businesses, the government is closing in on the end of an eight-week program to funnel money to small businesses to avoid layoffs, prompting calls to extend the $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program. President Donald Trump said on Monday that such an extension "should be easy."
Fiscal relief so far has been lopsided, with big banks getting easy access to Fed backstops, but mom-and-pop businesses initially shut out of paycheck lending programs. Meanwhile, some of the country's lowest-paid workers are doing the most dangerous jobs.
While over 30 million unemployment claims have been processed since March, workers are reporting delays of weeks or months in getting checks, with others saying they are locked out of claiming benefits.
Mnuchin, in written testimony published on Tuesday, said he sees high unemployment during the second quarter, but that the overall situation is expected to improve as the economy starts to reopen.
"Working closely with governors, we are beginning to open the economy in a way that minimizes risks to workers and customers," Mnuchin said. "We expect economic conditions to improve in the third and fourth quarters."
Powell, in prepared remarks for the hearing, said the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March was "critical" to the U.S. central bank's ability to expand credit throughout the economy to offset the blow from the coronavirus.
Other programs aimed at helping larger companies and municipal bond issuers through a sharp recession are just getting started.
The U.S. central bank has slashed interest rates to near zero and set up a broad network of programs to ensure financial markets continue to function during the pandemic. It has also established precedent-setting lending facilities for companies and the first-ever corporate bond purchases.
In remarks broadcast on Sunday night, Powell said unemployment may hit 25% before it begins to fall, with a contraction in gross domestic product of 20% or more. He added that positive "medical metrics" that can build consumer confidence would be critical.
Senators are also likely to try to elicit the two officials' views on the $3 trillion aid bill crafted by Democrats in the House of Representatives. It narrowly passed the Democratic-controlled chamber on Friday, but is opposed by Republicans in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Before the hearing on Tuesday, Mnuchin met with Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy at the U.S. Capitol, according to the White House.
Mnuchin also will face questions by the Senate banking panel over processing glitches that held up small-business loan applications as the Paycheck Protection Program was rushed into service in early April, as well as on abrupt policy changes that required many larger, publicly traded restaurant chains with access to capital markets to return their funds under the threat of audits.
A separate congressional oversight board issued its first report on the response, consisting largely of questions that could be asked in Tuesday's hearing.
Among them are how the agencies will measure success and isolate the effects of the measures from other state and federal efforts.
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