House COVID-19 bill includes low-income utility aid

$1.5 billion would go toward helping households pay heating and cooling bills

A utility pole is laden with wires in an alley off 10th Street Southeast in Washington, D.C.  (CQ Roll Call file photo)
A utility pole is laden with wires in an alley off 10th Street Southeast in Washington, D.C. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 12, 2020 at 5:54pm

House Democrats included in their latest coronavirus relief legislation spending to help low-income households pay utility bills and to support commercial fisheries.

The more than $3 trillion bill released Tuesday is expected to go to the House floor on Friday. It’s the latest in a series of spending measures to help revive an economy brought to a near-halt by the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 80,000 Americans. 

Both parties have sought to use the crisis to reach separate policy goals. 

Republicans maneuvered to help the oil and gas industry, which is hemorrhaging jobs due in part to historically low oil prices, while Democrats cast the moment as a time to reshape the country to brace for climate change and decarbonize its economy.

The legislation appears to stop well short of any broad energy or environmental overhauls. Many of the House Democrats’ provisions will likely not survive in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Democrats included $1.5 billion to help low-income residents pay heating and cooling bills, as well as provisions to block utilities from shutting off water and electricity service.

“Now more than ever, Americans need to feel confident that their access to safe water and reliable power will continue uninterrupted, and this legislation provides that peace of mind,” Reps. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said in a joint statement with Reps. Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., and Paul Tonko, D-N.Y.

Nearly 60 percent of states do not have legal barriers against shutting off utility services by the end of the month, according to Jean Su, director of the energy justice program at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group.

“We need Congress to pass a nationwide moratorium to stop families from falling through the cracks,” Su said in a statement.

The EPA would receive $50 million for grants to help low-income and racial minority communities address pollution and investigate links between pollution and health ailments.

The bill would distribute at least $1 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for firefighting efforts.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would receive $100 million for disaster relief for the fishing industry, which has seen customers dry up as restaurants closed.

NOAA announced last week it was distributing $300 million to the fishing industry from the roughly $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill signed into law on March 27. 

“Disbursing fisheries disaster assistance funds is often a complex and time-consuming process,” NOAA spokeswoman Jasmine Blackwell said in an emailed statement. “Over the past month, NOAA’s Fisheries team worked tirelessly to produce a data-driven, well-reasoned, and equitable way to distribute the unprecedented $300 million in assistance funding to impacted states, tribes, and territories.”

The novel coronavirus has its origins in bats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the House bill would allocate $71 million for “activities” about “wildlife-borne” disease to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and $40 million for research on wildlife-borne disease to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The legislation does not mention the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which the Trump administration has opened for oil companies to store their excess oil during an international petroleum glut.

Senate Democrats were pleased when they stripped out a $3 billion provision from the earlier March virus relief law. They called the provision, which would have gone to the Energy Department to buy oil for the SPR, a “bailout.”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., took a different tack on a call with reporters Tuesday, saying, “I think this is a time to restock the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and make sure that we have a supply.”

Still, he said large companies were not the focus. “In terms of jobs,” he said, “we’re dealing with individuals, not with industries.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.