While Congress struggles to figure out the best way to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, it is very apparent that immediate relief measures are necessary, if only to buy time for a more comprehensive approach. Layoffs are already happening and with they continue, it will result in more economic disruption from diminished consumption.
1. Sending out checks isn't fast enough (and can't happen in two weeks)
There is, fortunately, some recognition of that speed is imperative, but there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. The wrong way is what the Trump administration is proposing, namely sending everyone a check. Besides being poorly tailored—$1,000 isn't enough for those who really need help and is wasted on many other folks—the problem is it just cannot happen fast enough. No one is being honest about the operational problems. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is going around saying that he wants to get checks for $1,000 to every American within two weeks. That's just not possible, and Mnuchin should stop overpromising.
Here's why it won't work fast enough: for Treasury to send everyone a check, it would need to know where to send the checks. It doesn't. Treasury knows where to send checks to individuals who are receiving Social Security and Disability Insurance (actually, it would be electronic transfers in almost all such cases). But what about everyone else? Treasury doesn't know (a) who is still alive, and (b) where they live. The first problem might mean sending out some checks that shouldn't happen, but the second problem is more serious, as it means that checks won't get where they need to go. Treasury is able to send me a tax refund because I give an address with my tax return. At best Treasury has year-old information, which will be wrong for many people. Those people who most need the money are the people who are most likely to have moved in the last year—economically insecure renters (see Matthew Desmond's Evicted on this). Sending everyone a check really isn't a very good solution.
2. Foreclosure/eviction moratoria are equivalent to an immediate cash injection to the economy.
Fortunately, there's a better solution: an immediate national moratorium on foreclosures, evictions, repossessions, utility disconnects, garnishments, default judgments, and negative credit reporting for all consumers and small businesses. The point of a national collection action moratorium is not to be nice to debtors. A national collection moratorium is a stimulus measure: it has the effect of immediately injecting cash into the economy in that it allows people and businesses to shift funds from debt service obligations to other consumption. It's basically a giant forced loan from creditors to debtors. And it happens immediately, without any administrative apparatus. There's nothing else that will have such a big effect so immediately. Congress should move on moratorium legislation asap as a stand-alone bill to buy itself some more time for a longer-term fix.
Now let's be clear—what I am talking about is not debt forgiveness. It is forced forbearance. The debts will still be owed and may accrue interest and late fees (there may be ways to limit those, but that's another matter). That's important because it substantially reduces the argument that the delay constitutes a Taking—government is always free to change how remedies operate, such as changing foreclosure timelines, etc. without the changes being a Taking.
This is exactly what a moratorium would be doing. A number of states and localities have already undertaken such moratoria, and FHFA and HUD have done so for federally or GSE insured or guarantied loans. But we've got a national crisis, so this should be done uniformly on the federal level using the Interstate Commerce power for the entire consumer and small business debt market. Given that all collection actions involve the mails or wires and that debt markets are national, this seems squarely within the scope of federal power.
Now a collection moratorium is not a permanent fix and will cause some dislocations itself. Consumers/small businesses will eventually need to come current on their obligations, and they may need assistance to do so, but that's something that we can work on later when we're not in free fall. But right now what we need more than anything is time, and a collection moratorium can buy us some time more broadly and more immediately than any other possible step.