WASHINGTON ― As Congress begins working on a huge fiscal package to prop up the economy and soften the blow for people who are suffering from the coronavirus epidemic and its effects on their livelihoods, Democrats are demanding that any taxpayer bailout to major industries include restrictions on corporate bonuses and stock buybacks.
The issue of corporate accountability remains fresh in many lawmakers’ minds. In 2009, amid the Great Recession, the insurance company American International Group (AIG) handed out millions in bonuses after receiving a bailout from the federal government. The move prompted widespread criticism from both parties on Capitol Hill and further soured the public on the idea of taxpayer-funded bailouts, especially to Wall Street.
To address the severe economic shock currently gripping the country, the Trump administration is working on an emergency stimulus proposal of at least $1 trillion that includes $50 billion in loans for the airline industry, which has been hit hard by the crisis. The package calls for an additional $150 billion in loans for unnamed “severely distressed sectors” of the economy. According to The Washington Post, those might include hotels, casinos, cruise lines, and the oil and gas industry. Other groups are also lining up for a lifeline, including restaurant chains, the nation’s mayors, and nonprofit groups.
“Certainly, the hotel industry, the cruise ship industry, the airlines, those are all prime candidates, absolutely,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday when asked about the administration’s plans for targeted relief to businesses.
According to the Post, the administration’s fiscal proposal for certain industries does include limits “on increases in executive compensation until repayment of the loans.”
But Democrats are calling on the Treasury Department to go even further, urging them to set specific conditions — that will apply beyond the coronavirus crisis — on taxpayer funds that go to corporations.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who recently dropped out of the 2020 presidential race, laid out what she called a “progressive litmus test” for the bailouts on Tuesday. The eight-point plan calls for companies who receive taxpayer funds to provide a $15 minimum wage, keep people on their payrolls, maintain collective bargaining agreements, and permanently ban stock buybacks, among other steps.
“Funds must come with strings attached to ensure that the money goes to maintain payroll, not to enrich shareholders or pay executive bonuses,” Warren said in an op-ed this week. “Giant corporations that receive substantial loans from taxpayers should be required to set aside one or more board seats for a representative elected by the company’s workers. Violations should trigger criminal penalties and clawbacks.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), meanwhile, noted that many airline companies repurchased their own stocks to reward their investors when times were good.
“Let’s not forget that the reason many airlines are so short on cash right now is that they have spent billions on stock buybacks ― money they had to send out when they should have been saving it for a rainy day, for their customers and workers,” Schumer said in a floor speech on Wednesday. “That issue should be addressed.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) added on Twitter: “There is no straight-face justification to give no-strings-attached cash to an industry that had the chance to use massive profits and tax cuts to build a rainy day fund, but instead used the money to pad investor returns and executive pay.”
Corporate stock buybacks skyrocketed after Trump signed the 2017 Republican tax cut into law. In fact, over the last five years, 50 of the largest U.S. corporations repurchased a staggering $1.1 trillion of their own stock, according to a Wednesday memo from the advocacy group Economic Liberties Project.
But Democrats aren’t the only ones who are calling for conditions to bailouts for major industries that are severely affected by the economic crisis. Keith Anderson, co-founder of investment firm BlackRock, suggested in a letter to The New York Times this week that stock warrants should be attached to any loans given by the federal government, similar to what a private investor would require when bailing out a troubled company.
“The vast majority” of these entities, Anderson wrote, “have spent the last decade of unprecedented economic expansion buying back their outstanding shares — as Royal Caribbean Cruises and Delta and American Airlines have done — in an effort to increase their per-share earnings and their share prices.”
“While I hope that the citizens of our country who are most in need and the small businesses that have no access to capital markets are in the front of the line for assistance, when it does come time to lend a hand to these public companies, any loan or bailout should also provide a reward to the citizens of our country who are lending them money,” he added.