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Politics & Government

Member Of White House Council of Economic Advisers On The Coronavirus Relief Plan

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This first Friday in February began with a tie getting broken.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: The Senate being equally divided, the vice president votes in the affirmative, and the concurrent resolution as amended is adopted.

KELLY: That was around 5:30 a.m. today. Having worked all night, the Senate passed a key budget resolution with Vice President Kamala Harris casting her first tiebreaker vote.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's a resolution that could pave the way for President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package should Democrats decide to act without Republican support.

KELLY: Then a few hours later this morning came the latest jobs report showing growth, yes, but sluggish. The U.S. has recovered just over half of the 22 million jobs lost last March and April.

CORNISH: At the White House today, Biden said the job numbers bolster the case for his relief bill.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The biggest risk is not going too big. If we go - it's if we go too small.

CORNISH: The package includes money for things like vaccine distribution, stimulus checks and extending unemployment benefits, which expire next month.

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BIDEN: I know some in Congress think we've already done enough to deal with the crisis in the country. Others think that things are getting better and we can afford to sit back and either do little or do nothing at all. That's not what I see.

KELLY: Joining us now to talk through all this is Biden adviser Heather Boushey. She serves on the White House Council of Economic Advisers. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HEATHER BOUSHEY: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

KELLY: Let's start with this latest jobs report. U.S. employers did add almost 50,000 jobs, but the Congressional Budget Office warned this week it could take until 2024 to get back to where employment was pre-pandemic. What is your takeaway from these latest numbers?

BOUSHEY: Well, this is a really disappointing jobs report for January. I mean, what it shows is that over the past three months, we've added about 29,000 jobs per month on average compared to adding nearly a million in the prior three months on average. So we've seen a real slowdown in the pace of job gains. And, you know, CBO projects, as you noted, that if we do not take action and pass the American Rescue Plan, get this relief into place, we are likely to see unemployment remaining high until 2024 above, you know, where it was pre-pandemic. So this really does underscore that there's incredibly high cost in action and the urgency of the economic situation.

KELLY: So you see the solution to this, the answer to how you get jobs back to the millions of people who lost their jobs during this pandemic, as being part of the big COVID relief bill that the Biden administration wants to push through.

BOUSHEY: I think that the economic relief starts with the COVID relief bill because, you know, getting the economy back on track definitely starts with addressing the pandemic. We must contain it. And that's core to this plan - right? - reopening schools, making sure that people get vaccinated, making sure that communities have everything they need to contain the virus while at the same time making sure that families and businesses have the support, the relief they need to weather this crisis - unemployment benefits, direct checks, other kinds of aid, you know, support to help child care centers open safely and then, of course, paid leave for those folks who are sick and need to stay out of work. So it's that one-two punch that I think is so important.

KELLY: Well, let me push you on this to the point that we have to go big. We just heard President Biden make it there. The biggest risk isn't going too big. It's going too small. What if that's wrong? There are a lot of people, not just Republicans, asking - you will have seen this op-ed that's making a lot of waves by Larry Summers, who was Clinton's treasury secretary and worked for President Obama, too, in which he argues $1.9 trillion - it's too big. It could overheat the economy.

BOUSHEY: Well, you know, I'm going to put myself in the same group as Federal Reserve Chairman Powell, who has also said that, you know, the danger of doing too little overwhelms the danger of doing too much. You know, we have...

KELLY: You're saying they're both risky, but you would rather do too much than too little.

BOUSHEY: I would much rather do too much. I mean, Larry Summers is talking about the risk of inflation, but yet we know that that has not been the problem. In fact, the Fed is - has had a hard time getting inflation up to the level at which they want it. And, really, the risk is that you have this long-term scarring on families, on workers and on small businesses and firms that are just unable to weather this crisis while we deal with the pandemic.

KELLY: What about the point that Congress just passed a relief package in December? Not all of that money has even been used yet.

BOUSHEY: Well, that's - you know, the package that passed in December was certainly important. But it was insufficient, and it did not provide enough resources to deal with all the aspects of the pandemic that we need to deal with. And it didn't provide enough relief to families.

KELLY: But, again - forgive me. I'm just trying to make sure I understand this. Not all of that money...

BOUSHEY: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Has even been spent. So how was it insufficient if it's - some of it's still sitting there?

BOUSHEY: Well, we certainly know where it's (inaudible) certain things. So we do know that. And, you know, the danger here is that there's not enough money flowing through the economy. The danger is if we do not get this pandemic under control fast enough, that far outweighs dangers of inflation that are, you know, just - that is not the most pressing concern right now. Really, the most pressing concern is helping families and businesses.

KELLY: One more concern that President Biden has said he is committed to that he feels is pressing is hiking the minimum wage to $15 an hour. That is something the Senate did not advance last night. How committed is the administration to getting that done?

BOUSHEY: Well, the president has said, you know, all through the campaign and into governing that he is definitely committed to raising the minimum wage. He's committed to the $15 an hour. And, you know, he talks a lot - and this is so important. There's so many of those essential workers who've been out there toiling - retail workers, grocery store clerks, you know, child care workers and the like - who really need a raise. And raising the minimum wage is core to that value and core to rewarding the really important work that they are doing and, quite frankly, really important for the recovery.

KELLY: OK. That is Heather Boushey of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. Thanks for your time today, and please come back and keep talking to us as we figure out where this is headed next.

BOUSHEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.