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Katie Porter called for an investigation into PPP layoffs. Under Biden, that could actually happen

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Back in October, a group of Democratic House members wrote to the Small Business Administration asking for an investigation how an owner of dozens of hotels had spent Paycheck Protection Program funding while laying off many of the workers whose paychecks the program was supposed to protect. Now, the signs are good that President-elect Joe Biden is going to take exactly that kind of oversight seriously.  (Disclosure:Kos Media received a Paycheck Protection Program loan.)

recent report from Bloomberg Law notes that, back in April, as the Trump Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was saying it would do basically nothing to enforce the provisions of the CARES Act, former CFPB head Richard Cordray called for tougher enforcement—and Cordray is reportedly under consideration to lead the CFPB again. Cordray’s former deputy director, who should have succeeded him as acting director, is heading up the Biden transition efforts on the CFPB.

That all means that hotel owners—and others—who took money intended to protect jobs only to lay off tons of workers, could face more consequences than they had anticipated.

“Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses keep workers on payroll,” Rep. Katie Porter said in a statement at the time she joined with UNITE HERE Local 11, the hotel workers’ union, to call for an investigation into the hotel layoffs in her area. “Columbia Sussex received millions of taxpayer dollars, yet they continued to lay off workers in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. We need a full audit to see whether this taxpayer-funded program is actually helping the American people—not big corporations.”

In the letter to the SBA, Porter and her colleagues noted that ”Columbia Sussex affiliates borrowed enough money under the PPP to retain more than half its total workforce, but there are reports of Columbia Sussex hotels in California and Alaska operating at 10 percent of normal staffing.” What’s more, “we are concerned that Columbia Sussex may have double counted’ employees as working at multiple affiliates tied to the same hotels, potentially inflating the total value of PPP loans.”

This wouldn’t be the first case of shady dealings around PPP loans, whether it’s predatory lenders getting the funds while some of the businesses that needed help the most getting left out, or applicants lying about why they needed the money and how they qualified for loans. The Biden administration can’t go back in time and make things better last summer, but it should make it a priority to ensure that the PPP gets tough oversight and enforcement.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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Toomey calls for Fed special loan programs to end, setting up clash with Democrats

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The Federal Reserve has doled out billions of dollars in emergency loans to keep the economy afloat during a crippling pandemic, garnering broad bipartisan praise.

Now, the lawmaker who is likely to head the powerful Senate Banking Committee if Republicans keep control of the Senate is signaling that the Fed should stop.

“If someone wants to make the case that we need the government to give money to people or businesses because they’re struggling, by all means you can make that case,” Sen. Pat Toomey told POLITICO. “But that’s not a Fed exercise.”

The Pennsylvania Republican believes that the central bank’s emergency programs — which he called “wildly successful” — should wind down at the end of the year, a spokesperson confirmed. He’s concerned that if the programs are extended, they will be seen as a substitute for fiscal policy, the tax and spending decisions that are the responsibility of Congress and the president.

“That would be a huge mistake,” he said.

While the Fed is an independent agency whose board makes its own policy decisions, it is overseen by the Banking Committee and is sensitive to its views.

Toomey’s stance could put him at odds with the next presidential administration, which will want to continue to prime the pump as much as possible to boost the economy as the coronavirus crisis shows little sign of abating.

It will also set up a conflict with Democrats, such as House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who have faulted the Fed for not doing enough to provide financing for state and local governments, as well as small and midsized businesses that are relying on temporary lending programs.

They have urged the central bank to make the loan terms more generous as the darkening financial outlook for many companies and municipalities heightens the risk that even more Americans will be put out of work.

But Republicans like Toomey, who have historically sought to limit the central bank’s role in the economy, say the Fed’s emergency lending programs have largely served their purpose.

The mere existence of the programs helped restore stability to the financial system after panic over the coronavirus earlier this year threatened to shut down key debt markets. That means borrowers can go to private markets to obtain funds at reasonable rates without needing to turn to the Fed, GOP lawmakers say.

The divergent opinions put the Fed, which seeks to avoid the political spotlight, in an awkward position as the parties debate how much additional money is needed to sustain the economic recovery.

“I would not want to turn what are supposed to be liquidity backstop credit programs into a fiscal, giving-away-money program,” said Toomey, who also sits on a congressional watchdog overseeing $500 billion in coronavirus relief funds.

The emergency lending facilities are already set to expire at the end of the year, though the Fed and the Treasury Department, which together have authority for designing the programs, could choose to extend that deadline. Fed Chair Jerome Powell told reporters Thursday that they were “just now turning to that question” and had not made a decision.

The central bank might want to maintain its ability to buy corporate bonds on the open market in case investors once again get spooked. It has made more than $13.4 billion in purchases so far, one of its most controversial moves during this crisis, with critics saying it’s propping up weak firms and subsidizing large ones like Apple and Amazon that don’t need help.

If Joe Biden wins the presidency, a new Treasury secretary would also have the power to nudge the Fed to take on more risk in who it lends to. The Fed, in consultation with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, has been extending credit with the expectation that most of the funds will be paid back. That means the aid won’t go to some of the borrowers that need it the most.

Neither the Fed’s municipal lending program nor its “Main Street” lending program — intended for businesses and nonprofits with fewer than 15,000 employees — have come close to doling out all of the funds that are potentially available.

Treasury has set aside as much as $75 billion of CARES Act relief money to cover potential losses from up to $600 billion in Main Street loans, although only about $4 billion in loans have been made under the program, which opened its doors this summer.

Similarly, the Fed has only lent to two entities through its municipal facility: Illinois and New York’s public transit system.

A Biden-appointed Treasury secretary could take a different tack.

“What will be the attitude of the new Treasury secretary who can get through a Republican confirmation?” said Peter Conti-Brown, a Fed expert at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Is it going to be more hands off? Is it going to be more dictating terms?”

He noted that banks have been hesitant to make loans under the Main Street program — under which the Fed will buy 95 percent of a bank loan to a qualifying company or nonprofit — because they still have to do extensive underwriting and bear the risk if a loan defaults.

“The Main Street program has been criticized for having a cumbersome procedural structure that was instigated by the Treasury, so it’s possible that gets relaxed and might see a lot more take up,” Conti-Brown said.

In the meantime, some Democrats have criticized the Fed for not doing more to make the terms attractive to key sectors of the economy that are struggling.

Last Friday, the Fed did move to make its “Main Street” program available to more small firms by lowering the minimum loan amount to $100,000 from $250,000, which could provide struggling small businesses with a low-cost lifeline as the pandemic rages on. But it’s unclear if that will push up demand for the Fed-backed loans.

Bharat Ramamurti, a former aide to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) who now serves on the Congressional Oversight Commission with Toomey, said the Fed should ensure that state and local governments don’t needlessly lay off workers by lowering the rate they charge municipal borrowers and lengthening the terms of the loan.

“To me, it is consistent with the overall mandate of the Fed to provide this money in a way that seeks to promote employment, and I think the state and local program is the most obvious example of that,” Ramamurti said.

“The relevant section of the CARES Act says this money is supposed to be used to address liquidity problems related to Covid,” he said. “It’s a huge stretch to read the word liquidity as just ensuring that private markets provide the loans.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico at November 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Victoria Guida is a financial services reporter covering banking regulations and monetary policy for POLITICO Pro. She covers the Federal Reserve, the FDIC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, as well as Treasury, after four years on the international trade beat, most recently for Pro and previously for Inside U.S. Trade.


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Jobless Americans face debt crunch without more federal aid as bills come due

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A new phase of the economic crisis is looming for the winner of Tuesday’s presidential election: potentially massive defaults by jobless Americans on consumer loans as the chances for more federal relief this year diminish.

Both President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden have called for robust new rescue packages for an economy still suffering from the pandemic, but Congress’s inability to agree on key issues such as the size of unemployment benefits has kept the talks at an impasse for months. Now, millions of Americans are running out of money and will face hard choices between food purchases and payments on rent, credit cards and student loans.

Generous unemployment benefits and stimulus checks given out earlier this year helped many people weather the early months of the crisis — with some even managing to increase their savings. But that support has faded and some of it will run dry by the end of the year. JPMorgan Chase Institute found that in August alone, typical unemployed families spent two-thirds of the additional rainy day funds that they’d built up over the previous four months.

“I fear jobless workers are going to have to make tough choices,” said Fiona Greig, director of consumer research at the institute.

The “Lost Wages Assistance” aid program that Trump ordered after the expiration of more generous federal benefits — including a $600-a-week boost in jobless payments that ended on July 31 — helped bolster some families in September. But by early this month, much of that small pot of money had already been depleted. As a result, the largest U.S. banks warned investors this month that they expect credit card delinquencies to start mounting early next year.

And with coronavirus cases spiking in places like the Midwest, pressure could increase on already struggling small businesses, pushing jobless numbers back up.In a Census Bureau survey this month, roughly a third of small businesses reported only having enough cash to get them through a month or less.

The Labor Department said Thursday that more than 22 million people were claiming benefits in all federal programs as of the week ending Oct. 10.

Other government data released at the same time showed that the economy in the third quarter regained roughly 60 percent of the economic activity it lost, as many businesses have reopened. But Greig said without additional government support, the results could still be severe for many families, particularly if there is not more improvement in the job market.

“The GDP growth recovery looks much better than the job market numbers” because people are buying goods, but there’s still a severe drought in using many services, which is where most people are employed, said Greig, whose think tank has access to proprietary data from Chase Bank.

The burdens of the pandemic are falling disproportionately on lower-income workers; people making less than $27,000 have seen a nearly 20 percent drop in employment since January, while the job market is almost fully recovered among workers making more than $60,000, according to private-sector data compiled by Opportunity Insights.

Some relief measures are still in place; there’s a nationwide ban on evictions until the end of the year, and many borrowers have had the chance to put off credit card, student loan and mortgage payments. Roughly 7 percent of households with mortgages and 41 percent with student loans were skipping or making reduced payments as of the beginning of October, according to Goldman Sachs researchers.

But those debts are still piling up in the background, which could leave consumers with a crushing burden once those protections expire without something to keep them afloat.

“There will be a massive balloon payment on what people are supposed to pay,” said Megan Greene, an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Lots of people won’t be able to afford that.”

“It’s been surprising to me how long consumers have been able to hold on,” she added. “We’re tempting fate by waiting until next year to re-up some of the stimulus measures.”

Thanks to government aid, aggregate personal income is still up from before the coronavirus crisis, even though wages and salaries are still below pre-pandemic levels, according to economic data released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Personal income decreased $540.6 billion in the third quarter, after rising $1.45 trillion in the second quarter, a drop the agency attributed to a decrease in pandemic-related relief programs.

Part of the danger is that complete information isn’t available, so some areas may be suffering more than we know.

“A lot of the work I do focuses on rural communities, and there’s just not a lot of good data there,” said Gbenga Ajilore, senior economist at the Center for American Progress. “There are canaries in the coal mine, but … we don’t see the areas that are getting hurt because we don’t measure those areas.”

Researchers at Columbia University found that the monthly poverty rate increased to 16.7 percent in September from 15 percent in February, with about 8 million people falling into poverty since May.

Life has gotten harder for the poorest Americans. “We find that at the peak of the crisis (April 2020), the CARES Act successfully blunted a rise in poverty; however, it was not able to stop an increase in deep poverty, defined as resources less than half the poverty line,” that report said.

Maurice Jones heads up the Local Initiatives Support Corp., one of the largest community development financial institutions in the country, and said this has been the biggest year ever for the nonprofit — both in terms of donations and in relief they’re paying out.

“We have something called financial opportunity centers, and the focus of them historically has been on getting people prepared to compete successfully for living wage jobs — thinking more long term, if you will,” he said. “We have had to really adjust and focus on immediate relief. … People are literally having to choose between paying rent and buying groceries.”

Jones said his firm gave out $225 million in grants or forgivable loans between March and the end of September. “We’ve never had a six-month period like that in our history with that kind of deployment of those kinds of dollars,” he said.

He said it could be “a decade’s work” to get poor people back to where they were before the pandemic.

Also, many people don’t have ready access to aid from institutions like Jones’s, which focus on underserved markets, and banks have been tightening lending standards as the financial picture darkens for many borrowers. That means low-income Americans will turn to high-cost payday loans and check cashers to pay their bills, which can mean getting caught in a cycle of debt.

“These are not folks who are in a position to absorb loans at this stage of the game,” Jones said. “We’re not talking about a small chunk of the population. We’re talking tens of millions of people.”

“We gotta get this election behind us and get back to the federal government’s next chapter in helping folks weather the storm.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico at October 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Victoria Guida is a financial services reporter covering banking regulations and monetary policy for POLITICO Pro. She covers the Federal Reserve, the FDIC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, as well as Treasury, after four years on the international trade beat, most recently for Pro and previously for Inside U.S. Trade.


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How Were 46 Million People Trapped by Student Debt? The History of an Unfulfilled Promise

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The democratic principle of tuition-free education in our country pre-dates the founding of the United States. The first public primary education was offered in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, and its legislature created Harvard College the following year to make education available to all qualified students. Even before the Constitution was ratified, the Confederation Congress enacted the Land Ordinance of 1785, which required newly established townships in territories ceded by the British to devote a section of land for a public school. It also passed the Northwest Ordinances, which set out the guidelines for how the territories could become states. Among those guidelines was a requirement to establish public universities and a stipulation that “the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” After the nation declared independence, Thomas Jefferson argued for a formal education system funded through government taxation.

Jefferson’s vision took form over the course of more than a century, as state and local governments began creating primary schools and then high schools. The federal government became involved in higher education in the 19th century with the creation of land grant colleges and other institutions, used primarily to teach agriculture and education after the Civil War. These institutions created opportunities for people who had long been locked out of the learning process, including formerly enslaved African Americans and impoverished people of all races.

State universities and colleges rapidly expanded as well. By the middle of the 20th century, low-cost or tuition-free education was available in many American states. After the Second World War, the federal government once again turned to education to promote opportunities for its citizens and economic growth for all. The G.I. Bill paid educational expenses for 8 million people, without regard to individual wealth, which helped create a robust middle class and contributed to the vibrant growth economy of the 1950s and 1960s. While those opportunities were still denied to many people as the result of racism, efforts were underway to improve educational access for people of color.

The Reagan era ushered in a belief that government programs, including education, stood in the way of people’s dreams and should be severely cut back. Public goods came to be seen as investments, ones that were purely economic in nature. For these reasons, among others, a nation that had expanded publicly funded education for centuries decided to reverse course. Instead of funding higher education on the principle that it benefits us all, the country began shifting the cost to individual students.

In the 1950s, as part of the National Defense Education Act, student loans were created as an experiment in social engineering. Concerned about competition with the Soviet Union, policymakers wanted to increase students’ capabilities in math and sciences. To do that, the country needed more teachers. So, lawmakers offered loans to college students, with the opportunity to have half the loan canceled after 10 years if they became teachers.

The experiment failed. Researchers have not been able to prove that the student loan program led more people to become teachers, despite multiple attempts to do so. The experiment was also cruel. Over the years, the student loan program was expanded, with the claim that a student’s personal investment in their education was an “investment” that would pay off in higher wages. Banks and other private lenders were brought into the process and given considerable incentives and subsidies to issue student loans, without considering the burden being imposed on the student. This financial opportunity was given to banking interests that were already wealthy, with little thought of the resulting damage to an economically sustainable future.

Proponents of financializing the cost of higher education argued that it was cheaper to lend money to students than it was for federal and state governments to provide grants for their education, even after paying subsidies to the private sector for their loans. An entire industry grew up around this process. State and nonprofit guaranty agencies were created to insure the loans. These agencies got paid, no matter what: when loans were issued, when loans became delinquent, when borrowers defaulted, and when they collected on defaulted loans.

In response, most states created guaranty agencies so they could make money from people who needed to borrow to pay for ever-increasing tuitions and fees. Now, states had an extra incentive to cut funding for public higher education. Not only would they save on expenditures, but they could increase the need for students to borrow, which increased their revenue. In many cases, these guaranty agencies don’t handle the loans themselves. They pass the work on to private debt collectors who take collection fees and are aggressive in their handling of cases.

The system took on a life of its own. By the mid-1990s, student loans had surpassed grants in funding students’ higher education. But a system built on debt financing only works if borrowers pay back their loans. That led Congress to make the system even crueler with the Bankruptcy Amendments and Federal Judgeship Act of 1984, which exempted student loans from bankruptcy proceedings and subjected borrowers to draconian collection tools. These tools included wage garnishment without a court order and the seizure of Social Security checks and tax refunds. The Clinton and Obama administrations attempted to lessen the burden slightly by allowing the federal government to lend directly to students while introducing income-based repayment options, but the system’s fundamental cruelty remains unchanged today.

It is time to recognize that the cruel experiment in financing higher education through student loans has failed. It has captured 46 million people and their families in a student loan trap, including people who received vocational training, and has weakened the financial strength of higher education. Inescapable debt is a major driver of social collapse. It has made the racial wealth gap worse and weakened the entire economy, as debt holders are prevented from buying homes or consumer goods, starting families, or opening new businesses. It’s time to restore funds for higher education and cancel student debt for the victims of this failed experiment.

Learn more at Freedom to Prosper.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute on September 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the authors:

Mary Green Swig is a senior fellow at the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University and co-founder of Freedom to Prosper.

Steven L. Swig is a senior fellow at the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University and co-founder of Freedom to Prosper.

David A. Bergeron is a senior fellow for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. Bergeron previously served as the acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Richard “RJ” Eskow is senior adviser for health and economic justice at Social Security Works. He is also the host of The Zero Hour, a syndicated progressive radio and television program.


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Among those who got PPP loans: Washington lobbying firms

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More than two dozen lobbying, public affairs and consulting firms got loans designed to help small businesses weather the pandemic.

More than two dozen Washington lobbying, public affairs and consulting firms received loans from the federal government to help them weather the pandemic, according to data released on Monday by the Small Business Administration.

Firms that derive more than 50 percent of their revenue from lobbying or political work are barred from receiving the loans — which can be forgiven if companies meet certain benchmarks — under the agency’s rules. The American Association of Political Consultants unsuccessfully sued to overturn the prohibition earlier this year.

But several lobbying firms secured loans through the Paycheck Protection Program despite the rules, including Van Scoyoc Associates, the No. 10 lobbying firm in town last year by revenue, according to a POLITICO analysis of disclosure filings. The firm received a loan of between $1 million and $2 million last month, which helped it retain 63 jobs, according to the data.

Van Scoyoc lobbies for clients that include Amazon, Comcast, FedEx and Lockheed Martin, according to disclosure filings. The firm didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Waxman Strategies, the lobbying firm run by former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and his son, Michael Waxman, also received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which Michael Waxman said totaled less than $500,000.

Michael Waxman said the firm was able to apply for the loan because lobbying accounts for less than 50 percent of the firm’s revenue. “It’s only a small fraction of our work,” he wrote in an email to POLITICO.

“The last thing we want to do is lay off employees, now or at any time,” he added. “And we’re thankful the Paycheck Protection Program was designed to provide support for small businesses like ours to weather financially stressful conditions and a still uncertain economic future.”

The lobbying firm APCO Worldwide received a loan of between $5 million and $10 million, while the lobbying firm Banner Public Affairs got between $350,000 and $1 million, according to the data. Another lobbying firm, the Conafay Group, received between $150,000 and $350,000.

Other lobbying firms that received the loans are primarily law firms, such as Miller & Chevalier; Kasowitz Benson Torres; Wiley; Kelley Drye & Warren; and Van Ness Feldman.

Kasowitz Benson Torres has done legal work this cycle for America First Action, a super PAC backing President Donald Trump’s reelection, as well as the Republican National Committee, according to campaign finance records.

Marc Kasowitz, a partner at the firm, also worked as a personal lawyer to President Donald Trump during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

A Kasowitz Benson Torres spokeswoman said that “together with substantial cost-saving measures and greatly reduced partner distributions,” the loan “enabled us to preserve the jobs of our hundreds of employees at full salary and benefits without interruption.”

The Paycheck Protection Program was created by Congress in March to help businesses with fewer than 500 employees make it through the pandemic — with some exceptions. Strip clubs, payday loan companies and businesses that get most of their revenues from gambling, lobbying or political work were allbarred from receiving the loans under SBA rules.

The agency changed the rules for casinos and other gambling businesses in April under pressure from the casino industry and the Nevada congressional delegation, but lobbying firms weren’t so lucky. Trade groups such as the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers are also prohibited from applying for the loans; more than 2,000 trade groups sent a letter to lawmakers last week urging them to change the rules.

But the rules don’t appear to have prevented a number of firms in the influence industry from receiving aid. Many of them are public affairs firms that aim to influence the federal government in ways that don’t require them to register as lobbyists.

The Clyde Group, for instance, states on its website that it can help “corporations and organizations achieve their policy, legislative, regulatory and legal goals by shaping strategies around decision-makers and relevant influencers.” The firm received between $350,000 and $1 million in April, helping to save 26 jobs, according to the data.

The DCI Group, which Bloomberg Businessweek reported in 2018 had conducted six Washington influence campaigns on behalf of hedge funds, received between $2 million and $5 million, helping to preserve the jobs of 96 employees, according to the data.

Neither firm responded to requests for comment.

At least one public affairs firm that received a loan has returned it.

Precision Strategies, a firm started by three veterans of President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, received a loan of between $1 million and $2 million in May, according to the data. Stephanie Cutter, one of the firm’s co-founders, said they had applied for loan as a precautionary measure but ultimately decided they didn’t need it as much as others might.

“We returned the loan in full last month because we decided there were other small businesses across the country that were more deserving of this money than we were,” she said.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on July 6, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Theodoric Meyer covers lobbying for POLITICO and writes the POLITICO Influence newsletter. He previously covered the 2016 campaign for POLITICO and worked as a reporting fellow for ProPublica in New York. He was a lead reporter on ProPublica’s “After the Flood” series on the federal government’s troubled flood insurance program, which won the Deadline Club Award for Local Reporting. He’s a graduate of McGill University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.


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