Last Thursday, President Joe Biden signed an historic $1.9 trillion-dollar COVID relief package into law. The legislation marks Biden’s first major political victory since taking office in January.  

Among its many components, the latest package provides stimulus checks of $1,400 dollars to Americans earning less than $75,000 a year. On Capitol Hill, the powerful Ways and Means Committee was responsible for crafting half of the package – totaling a staggering $941 billion dollars.  

Connecting Point’s Ray Hershel spoke with the committee’s chairman Congressman Richard Neal of Springfield, who says the relief package comes at a critical time in the country’s battle against COVID. 

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Last Thursday, President Joe Biden signed a historic $1.9 trillion dollar COVID relief package into law, scoring his first major political victory in office. Among its many components, the latest package provides checks of $1,400 to Americans earning less than $75,000 a year.

On Capitol Hill, the powerful Ways and Means Committee was responsible for crafting half of the package, totaling a staggering $941 billion dollars. Connecting Point’s Ray Hershel spoke with committee chairman Congressman Richard Neal of Springfield, who says the relief package comes at a critical time in the country’s battle against COVID.

Rep. Richard Neal, (D – Springfield): We are not going to get the full economic recovery until we defeat the virus. And when you consider that in this package, there is money for constituents, there is more money for testing, we expand the Child Credit, we expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, expand the Child Care Credit. There is the Retention Tax Credit expansion this year, there are more dollars for small business loans.

And I think it’s important to remember that we are not on the other side of the pandemic. And certainly this package, I believe, will go a long way toward alleviating some of those concerns.

There’s about 8.5 Billion dollars here for the state of Massachusetts. One hundred million dollars for the city of Springfield. One hundred fifteen million dollars from the city of Worcester. Thirty three million dollars for the city of Pittsfield. I believe, thirty one million for the city of Holyoke.

And I call that up, only to point out that during the pandemic, many of the essential workers who took the most risks, they now are still in the precarious position as to whether or not they’re going to be able to hold onto their jobs. This will give them a long-term, I think, moment of satisfaction.

Ray Hershel, Connecting Point: Well, it certainly was a comprehensive package, as you just mentioned. And most people are familiar, of course, with the stimulus checks that are going out, you know. Fourteen hundred dollars for individuals earning under $75,000 and $2,800 for individuals earning under $150,000.

But that’s only about 22 percent of the total economic stimulus package. So, there’s 78 percent, as you mentioned, that goes to other areas, whether it’s education, whether it states, whether it’s COVID. So, it is a very comprehensive package.

Rep. Richard Neal: Well, I mean, getting our schools open is essential. And I think that there is money here for our air conditioning systems in the schools. I think that there is money here for those that have been laid off.

I think perhaps one of the most important things we did, once again in this legislation, was to provide the bedrock guarantee of expanded and extended unemployment insurance through the fall. These are very critical considerations. I think the multi-employer pension plan relief that we undertook was also essential.

So, this is by most, I think, measurements, perhaps on-par with what Lyndon Johnson did in ’64 and ’65 and what Franklin Roosevelt did back in ’32 and ’33. This is not usurping private sector responsibility, it’s acknowledging that the capacity for some institutions to respond to the pandemic would have to come through governmental assistance.

Ray Hershel: Now, after the stimulus package was signed into law, you talked with President Biden. I’m curious, could you share what the gist of that conversation was, what he told you and what you responded to for the president?

Rep. Richard Neal: So I talked to the president for about ten minutes. He was elated. Congratulated me over and over again for what we were able to get done. Ten million jobs that were lost during this pandemic, a little bit more than one year old now, 10 million jobs. They’ve not come back.

So, even though the national unemployment rate is advertised to a little north of six percent, Janet Yellen, Secretary of the Treasury, she’s made it clear that that number is closer to 10 percent because of the number of people who stopped looking.

Ray Hershel: Republicans have maintained that there’s too much in this bill, too much money. They propose an alternative bill, I think of about a third of the amount.

In terms of what this means for the federal deficit expanding and long term economic growth in our country, how do you feel this this COVID relief package is going to fare?

Rep. Richard Neal: The Federal Reserve has made clear that getting to the other side of the pandemic should be priority number one. Time and again, Jay Powell, Chairman of the Fed, as recently as a couple of days ago, has pointed out that he intends to keep interest rates low for the foreseeable future. Some speculate that means years to come.

He’s trying to get to that inflation number of two percent. This is a tough call. It’s like a bank shot if you’ve ever played pool. And he’s, I think, an authoritative voice on this. I think he’s done a really good job.

However, there is the reality in front of us that it would be very hard for Republicans now, and this is a, I think, a diplomatic critique of their positions. You can’t be just for deficit reduction when there’s a Democratic presidents. And I think it’s fair to say that the debt exploded under President Bush, Jr. And under Donald Trump. They — President Trump took a position, if you remember, that the Republican proposal for the 600 dollar checks was not enough. He wanted two thousand dollar checks. The last American president who paid great attention to the deficits and debt was Bill Clinton.

Since that time, I think there’s been an acknowledgment that a long term investment, some borrowing, is appropriate. But Clinton balanced the budget four times during his presidency. It’s only been balanced five times since the end of World War Two.

Ray Hershel: And if we could look forward just a little bit at this particular point, in terms of what lies ahead. Of course, we’re dealing with COVID, will be for some time now.

What’s the next major initiative that’s going to be coming through Ways and Means that the President is espousing at this point of view? Is that the infrastructure bill?

Rep. Richard Neal: It looks as though it’s going to be infrastructure. We right now, have begun those discussions. I’ve had that conversation with Speaker Pelosi in her office a couple of days ago. We’ve talked about it extensively.

I think there’s a broad acknowledgment that America’s infrastructure has fallen into a broad state of disrepair. Our airports and our railroads are two that come to mind. But we want to expand this to more broadband opportunities, we want to expanded it to sewer and water, perhaps some assistance for school building, with the maintenance of effort from local and state governments.

I have talked extensively about trying to improve rail service between Boston, Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield, and I think that that is a distinct possibility as well.

So, Donald Trump proposed a two trillion dollar infrastructure plan. Joe Biden, I expect, to propose a two trillion dollar infrastructure plan. And I’m OK with a considerable amount of borrowing for that because I think that’s a long term investment.

There aren’t many people — there aren’t many people who buy their home with one payment. You invest over the long period of time, increasing productivity, which then in turn improves the quality of life.