Congress got a big thank you from Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, for its work on passing the $900 billion COVID aid package that was signed into law Dec. 27.
"There are significant bipartisan achievements within this relief bill, and politicians and staff who have worked around the clock to bring this to completion should be commended," Archbishop Coakley said in a Dec. 28 statement.
No mention was made in the statement of President Donald Trump, who balked for nearly a week after both houses of Congress passed the massive -- 5,593 pages -- aid bill Dec. 21, nearly a week before the president relented and signed the bill after initially calling it "a disgrace."
But Archbishop Coakley did not exactly let Congress off the hook, either. "There are also important issues that Congress will need to take up at the beginning of the new year," he said.
"Continued bipartisan efforts are strongly encouraged to help the millions who have lost health insurance; ensure the safety of persons in prisons, jails, and detention centers; provide foreign assistance for vulnerable people in poorer countries; provide additional state and local funding; and address the expiring relief in this new package as need continues."
The bill includes stimulus checks of $600 per person for those making $75,000 or less, including spouses and minor children. Trump, a Republican, said after its passage the checks should have been for $2,000, but an effort by House Democrats to increase it to $2,000 was beat back by the GOP. But benefits are available for "mixed status" families, where one spouse is not legally in the United States.
The bill also extends federal unemployment benefits of up to $300 per week. but for just 11 weeks. It provides about $25 billion in emergency assistance to renters, and extends a moratorium on evictions through the end of January.
The biggest chunk in the package is $325 billion in business aid, with $275 billion of that going for a new round of Paycheck Protection Program funding.
Other government aid includes $82 billion for schools. "There is also generous aid to students and teachers in public and nonpublic schools that will include meaningful help for Catholic schools," Archbishop Coakley said.
Included in the bill is about $2.75 billion reserved for nonpublic school students, set to be distributed through state educational agencies who will administer disbursement of those funds and invite private schools to apply.
Even so, Catholic school enrollment has slipped more than 6 percent, "the largest in a generation," said a Dec. 28 statement by the National Catholic Educational Association. "Many school leaders have been asked to do more with less in a time when all students and families have been severely impacted by the pandemic."
There is also $45 billion for transportation needs including Amtrak, $20 billion for vaccine distribution and $13 billion to expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The package allows states and cities to use unspent money approved for them by the Cares Act for a full year after the bill was signed into law March 27. Under the CARES Act, any unspent money at the at the end of 2020 would have to be returned to the federal government.
The bill also includes $1.4 billion in new funding for Trump's border wall with Mexico and new border security technology.
Between April and October, different bishops had written nine times to congressional committees and leaders, to all members of Congress or to Trump himself, seeking particular forms of aid to help Americans who took a pandemic-related economic hit.