House Passes $2 Trillion Coronavirus Relief Bill; Guilds, Studios Say It Will Provide Lifeline For Industry

The House of Representatives passed a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill, beating back an effort by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) that would have delayed its approval.

The bill was passed by voice vote, with more than 216 members present in the chamber, spaced apart even in the public galleries so as to practice social distancing.

The legislation passed the Senate unanimously on Wednesday, and now is headed to President Donald Trump’s desk for signature.

The key elements of the bill for the industry include:

Independent contractors and freelancers. The bill would provide unemployment benefits for those who are self-employed, those who are seeking part-time employment, those who do not have sufficient work history or those who otherwise would not qualify for regular benefits. A key provision covers those who saw their future projects canceled because of the coronavirus.

The benefits will run for up to four months, and boost weekly aid by $600. Eligibility is retroactive to Jan. 27.

Industry guilds and unions advocated for the expanded unemployment benefits, fearing that the legislation would not account for the specialized nature of the entertainment workforce.

Thomas Schlamme, the president of the Directors Guild of America, said that “lawmakers have heeded our urgent calls to address the needs of our members and others, everyday working men and women, who were hard hit by the coronavirus crisis as film and television production shut down, including aid for those whose future projects were canceled.”

Charles Rivkin, the chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association, said that the bill “provides critical relief for independent contractors, freelancers, and small businesses who are the backbone of the entertainment industry and among those whose livelihoods are hardest hit by the current public health crisis.”

Harvey Mason, the chairman and interim president/CEO of the Recording Academy, said that “all music industry professionals across the U.S., many of whom rely on multiple gigs for their livelihood, can be grateful that they are included in this extraordinary effort to help Americans.”

Small businesses. The bill includes $350 billion for small businesses (defined as 500 employees or less) to stave off layoffs and continue to pay their employees.

The bill provides eight weeks of federally guaranteed loans under a “paycheck protection program” to cover payroll and other costs for two months, with the loans turning into a grant if the payroll is maintained. The bill also includes tax credits and emergency grants, and a $17 billion fund for debt relief. It also includes a deferral of an employer’s payroll taxes.

The money could provide relief for movie theaters, production houses, independents and other aspects of the industry that are struggling for cash flow and forced to lay off their employees. Rivkin said that film, television and streaming supports 93,000 small businesses, and 87% of them employ fewer than 10 people.

Larger companies. The bill includes $500 billion for distressed industries, with loans and loan guarantees. An inspector general and oversight board will monitor the disbursement, and companies that take the funds are prohibited from doing stock buybacks during the time the loan is outstanding. It’s still unclear how the Treasury Department will define a distressed industry. Movie theater chains have been particularly hard hit, along legitimate theater, theme parks, hotels, cruise lines and live performance venues.

What is still unclear is whether some of the larger theater chains will try to tap into the money.

Public broadcasting and the arts. The legislation provides $75 million each for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Supporters of the outlay say it will help public stations and arts organizations survive a drop in their revenue. More controversial has been the $25 million that will go to the Kennedy Center, as some Republicans have attacked the expenditure as frivolous in a time of crisis. But Trump defended the expenditure as necessary given that the venue has been forced to shutter during the crisis.

The passage in the House was all but guaranteed. What was uncertain was how long it would take.

House leaders had sought to pass it quickly by voice vote, out of concerns over bringing back House members from their home districts at a time of social distancing and isolation. Already, three House members have publicly said that they have tested positive for the coronavirus, and others have said that they are in self-quarantine.

But Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) said that he would raise objections to such a maneuver, given the size of the relief package, and require a recorded vote, something that may have delayed passage until Saturday.

So the call was made earlier on Friday for at least 216 lawmakers to get to the chamber to establish a quorum, something that allowed the voice vote to proceed and for the legislation to pass.

Outside the Capitol, Massie told reporters that there is a “big cover up.” “I came here to make sure our republic doesn’t die in an empty chamber by unanimous consent.”

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