The “Time Bomb” is Ticking

An open letter to Susan Collins, Angus King and Chellie Pingree

From left: Maine Sen. Susan Collins, Sen. Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree.

April 10, 2020

Attn: Rep. Chellie Pingree, Sen. Angus King and Sen. Susan Collins:

In the 22 years I’ve been a professional journalist in Maine, I’ve had occasion to criticize each of you in print for one action or another that I considered objectionable. I have not, however, been moved to write you directly to express my concerns. That changed today.

I read with horror the New York Times’ April 9 article, “Small Businesses Wait for Cash as Disaster Loan Program Unravels.” Reporter Stacy Cowley attempted to answer the urgent questions I and millions of others have been asking regarding the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program.

In that regard, Cowley failed, principally because the SBA did not respond to the Times’ requests for comment. But the quotes from small-business owners who’ve tried to get answers from the SBA are illuminating. They reveal a government agency completely overwhelmed by the task of processing disaster-aid claims, one whose employees are providing information (on the rare occasions they can be reached) that is wildly inconsistent with the guidelines of the program as originally presented to the public.  

Those guidelines include a $2 million limit on claims (since reduced, apparently, to $15,000), and the provision of a $10,000 cash grant to applicants within three days of the SBA’s receipt of their application, regardless of whether that application was approved (which has simply not been done). I applied for an EIDL in mid-March on behalf of my small business, Mainer News Cooperative, and promptly re-applied for the “emergency” $10,000 grant the same day it was offered to the public. I have received no response and no aid of any kind in the weeks that have followed.

It is inconceivable that you were unaware that the EIDL program was cratering. Yet your primary response was to create another SBA initiative, the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), that is, by design, much more complex and more limited in its ability to provide aid to Maine’s small businesses. Then you funded the PPP to the tune of $349 billion, while the EIDL program and its “emergency” grant component have been allocated just $17 billion in total. Furthermore, as you are well aware, the PPP has also been a colossal failure: inaccessible to huge numbers of business owners, insufficiently funded, and structured in a way that makes it impossible for many who do receive a loan to have that loan forgiven, due to the unlikelihood they will be able to rehire their workers at the end of June.  

A business like mine, which also applied for a PPP loan, now has three distinct applications submitted for SBA review. How an agency crushed by the initial wave of EIDL loan applications was expected to handle two additional programs — even with, in the case of the PPP, the assistance of private lenders — is beyond comprehension.

But I’m not writing to complain about past mistakes. I’m writing to demand action now, today. As you and your colleagues in Congress craft the next “phase” of aid for small businesses, I demand you do the following:

• Guarantee full funding of the EIDL program so it can meet its obligations under its original terms.

• Honor the SBA’s promise to provide $10,000 as soon as possible to all applicants who have submitted a legitimate EIDL application.

• Provide the SBA with the staff and resources necessary to process all EIDL claims as soon as possible.

• Provide clear guidelines for the EIDL program so applicants can know what amount of aid they’re qualified to receive and under what terms that aid will be provided.

Let’s be clear about the context in which these demands are being made. This pandemic was a predictable outcome of natural processes that have repeatedly manifested in recent decades and, indeed, over centuries of human history. As the Times, the Washington Post and others have documented, our government’s inept response to the emergence of COVID-19 fell well short of what was necessary to prevent the worst consequences to human health and the economy. As a result, the government’s responsibility to protect lives — in particular, those of medical workers in our grossly unprepared hospitals — fell to individual citizens and business owners, who have gone to unprecedented lengths, at great personal sacrifice, to keep our neighbors safe.

Imagine the consequences if Mainers behaved the way Congress and the SBA have responded to this disaster. If, for example, I, being a person of enormous wealth and power, promised a neighbor in desperate need that I would help, then refused to respond to their inquiries and entreaties. Or if I promised them $100, then told them it would be $10, further informed them that they would have to pay that money back, with interest, and then failed to hand over that 10 bucks.

Could I walk down the street after that, secure in my standing as a citizen worthy of my neighbors’ courtesy and respect? Certainly not. And neither can you — who, unlike me, actually do have access to enormous wealth and the power to hand it out to all those in need.

The gross negligence being exposed by reporting like the aforementioned article in the Times is rapidly eroding what little remains of the bond of trust between citizens and their government. A colleague of mine who’s been privy to the pleas of dozens of independent contractors in Maine described their mounting fury and desperation as a “ticking time bomb.” As this fundamental bond in the social contract cracks beyond repair, you can expect the same results that have always followed its dissolution: violence, anarchy, mass deprivation and depravity, ultimately leading to the nation’s collapse. Put another way, you and I can have disagreements over the details of public policy and still maintain a civil discourse. But when your negligence causes the destruction of my life’s work and imperils the lives of all my loved ones, civility will be the first thing thrown out the proverbial window.

So get this done. Give every worker and enterprise, no matter how small or struggling, the aid they need to survive this crisis and to get back to work, at full strength, as soon as it’s safe to do so. The IRS knows exactly how much money every citizen and business earns. It shouldn’t be difficult to verify our losses and send us checks sufficient to make us whole.

Lastly, stop haggling over money as if it were in short supply. You know damn well that is not the case. You have granted the Federal Reserve authority to provide many trillions of dollars to backstop the debts of banks and corporations, entities whose greed and callous indifference to the well-being of workaday Americans put us in a precarious position well before the virus reached our shores. You rubber-stamp military budgets approaching $1 trillion every year for an arm of the government (the Pentagon) that can’t even perform a competent audit of its spending, and that is worse than useless against the real threats our nation faces, including pandemics and the climate crisis.

I am publishing this letter on mainernews.com, the website of our free monthly print publication, Mainer. My colleagues and I will continue to inform our tens of thousands of readers about your conduct during this crisis, including your response to the demands I listed above. For the sake of all of us, I sincerely hope you do the right thing before it’s too late.

Sincerely,

Chris Busby

Editor-in-Chief, Mainer