Fine Print of Stimulus Bill Contains Special Deals for Industries

WASHINGTON — Restaurants and retailers will get a tweak to federal tax law they have been seeking for more than a year that could save them $15 billion. Community banks are being granted their long-held wish of being freed to reduce the amount of capital they have to hold in reserve.

And for-profit colleges will be able to keep federal loan money from students who drop out because of the coronavirus.

Tucked into the fine print of the largest bailout in United States history — a $2 trillion federal stimulus package agreed to by congressional leaders and the White House early Wednesday in an effort to reduce the economic devastation of the coronavirus outbreak — are a range of provisions that stand to benefit specific industries and interest groups.

Even the fine print in a near-final version of the 619-page bill has fine print. Democrats proudly announced that they had won agreement on language to block President Trump, other government officials and their families from receiving assistance from a $500 billion fund to be administered by the Treasury Department.

But it turns out that Mr. Trump’s companies would not be barred from benefiting from other elements of the bill intended to help broad swaths of American business.

For example, certain hotel owners, even those employing thousands of people, will be eligible for small-business loans, a provision that could potentially benefit Mr. Trump’s company. The Trump Organization could also benefit from the $15 billion change to the tax code won by restaurants and retailers.

The legislation, which could be passed by the Senate and the House and signed into law by Mr. Trump within the next day, is intended primarily to put money in the hands of many households and prop up especially hard-hit industries like airlines. But its sheer size and momentum and the rushed way it was put together made it an irresistible target for lobbyists, who launched a frenzied effort to insert into the must-pass legislation provisions their clients had long sought that in some cases had little to do with the coronavirus crisis.

This lobbying push was unlike any in modern history, as social distancing measures intended to limit the spread of the virus among lawmakers and their staffs left the Capitol eerily quiet. Lobbyists instead pressed their causes to staff members and lawmakers over the phone, or via email. Still, they managed to get through to the key players they wanted to target.

“We went to McConnell’s people, we went to Schumer’s people, and Pelosi’s and McCarthy’s people — we pinged them all,” said Rachelle B. Bernstein, a lobbyist and tax counsel at the National Retail Federation, which pressed successfully for the $15-billion-a-year change in federal tax law.

Referring to her group’s effort to sway the Senate leaders, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, and Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, and the House leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, she said, “We just had to do it at a distance.”

While some industries and companies are benefiting from provisions tailored for them, others appear certain to get a piece of the pie through more general components of the bill, from the $454 billion general purpose fund for businesses and state and local governments to the $50 billion earmarked for airlines and $8 billion for air cargo carriers.

The deal specifically sets aside $17 billion for “businesses critical to maintaining national security” — a category seen as intended at least partly for Boeing, the troubled aircraft manufacturer and Pentagon contractor, whose name appears nowhere in the bill.

“We’ll be helping Boeing,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday evening. “We’ll be helping the airlines, the cruise lines.”

For Capitol Hill veterans, the moment evoked the frenzy around another major bipartisan bailout package, the $475 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, signed into law by President George W. Bush amid a financial meltdown in 2008. The program sent billions of dollars to banks and the auto industry but also helped incite a populist backlash that continues to ripple through politics today.

It took time for a more complete understanding to emerge of the various provisions tucked into TARP, as the 2008 bill was called, and their ramifications for various companies and industries.

And it could take longer to fully assess the coronavirus relief package now making its way through Congress, judging from its size and scope. It authorizes lending and other aid more than four times greater than what was ultimately deployed through TARP, and is meant to help bail out a much wider collection of industries, given the near-shutdown in the United States this month of a wide array of industries, from airlines to hotels, restaurants and even auto manufacturing plants.

As with any complex piece of legislation, this one will create winners and losers.

Despite the effort by Democrats to limit access by top federal officials to the bailout funds, the law would still leave room for Mr. Trump to benefit. At least two of the provisions, intended to help the hotel and restaurant industries, could potentially provide financial help to the Trump Organization.

A spokesman for the Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Trump declined to respond to a question this week about whether his family business intended to take advantage of any of the tax breaks or other benefits included in the legislation.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Trump said at a news conference on Sunday. “I just don’t know what the government assistance would be for what I have. I have hotels.”

Many of these special-interest provisions would be impossible for a casual reader of the legislation to identify. They are written in highly technical language that often does not even mention by name the industry that is supposed to benefit.

For example, on Page 15 of the bill, there is a section with the title “Business Concerns With More Than 1 Physical Location,” although it does not name the actual type of business that it is referring to.

Instead, it says this change in federal law will apply to companies that fit “a North American Industry Classification System code beginning with 72.” What does that code refer to? The hotel and restaurant industry, the codebook makes clear.

The provision says that if a company owns multiple hotels, even if the overall hotel or restaurant chain has more than 500 employees — the limit to qualify for treatment as a small business — it will still be able to take advantage of the small-business benefits offered in the rescue package.

That means loans from the federal government worth up to 2.5 times the firm’s monthly payroll that will not have to be repaid if the hotel company uses them to keep paying employees during any coronavirus shutdowns.

Representatives from the American Hotel & Lodging Association reached out to Senate Republicans and Democrats to push them to insert the language, arguing that it would allow the federal assistance to cover an additional 33,000 hotels, with a total of about one million employees.

The large corporations that own the big brands — like Marriott or Hilton — would not be eligible. But any individual hotel, including from one of these brands, that has fewer than 500 employees would be. Many hotels are owned by franchisees.

The provision could benefit the Trump Organization, which operates a relatively small chain, with six hotels in the United States in cities including New York, Washington and Chicago. Several Trump hotels are members of the trade association. Last year Mr. Trump reported annual revenues in 2018 of at least $434.9 million from all of his holdings, including many that are not hotels.

A representative for the trade group said executives at the Trump Organization were not involved in the lobbying effort. Representatives of the Trump Organization did not respond to a question on Wednesday about the provision.

The tweak to the tax code sought by the nation’s retailers and grocers could mean $15 billion a year worth of tax savings for hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and other retailers. Groups representing those industries separately intervened with both Mr. Trump and leaders on Capitol Hill to push lawmakers to include it in the final package.

The provision could potentially benefit Mr. Trump’s companies, among many others, by allowing them to immediately write off money spent on renovations at hotels or restaurants, instead of having to take the deduction over 37 years.

Industry lobbyists have been pushing for the change for more than a year. They have called it a technical correction to the 2017 tax legislation that Mr. Trump signed into law. The provision is simply called “Technical Amendments Regarding Qualified Improvement Property.”

It would allow hotels, restaurants and retailers that have spent money fixing up their properties in the last two years to accelerate the way they write off those expenses, effectively giving them an immediate tax refund, Ms. Bernstein, the industry lobbyist said. They could then use the refund to help cover bills during the crisis. The special tax benefit would be retroactive to 2018 and would last for at least three more years, before it is gradually phased out.

“If you let us amend our returns, we will be getting billions back and it will help us pay our employees and our rents and stay in business until consumers can come back into our stores,” Ms. Bernstein said, echoing the argument she said she made over the phone or via email to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The industry also sent a letter last week to Mr. Trump himself, citing the benefit this change in the law would bring for owners of hotels and restaurants and retailers.

Another business that could benefit from the bill is for-profit colleges, which have been championed by some Republicans, but targeted as predatory by Democrats and advocates for student borrowers.

A provision in the bill would allow all colleges to retain federal funds allocated to help educate qualifying students, even if the students in question dropped out because of coronavirus-related emergencies. While the provision applies to all colleges, critics of for-profit colleges contend that, because those schools tend to have higher dropout rates, they would be able to retain more of the money they collect via federal loans to their students than would traditional nonprofit colleges.

“What’s happening now is causing a crisis for all sectors of higher ed, and I understand the intent, but it would disproportionately help for-profit schools because their dropout rates are higher than other segments of higher ed,” said Toby Merrill, the founder of the Project on Predatory Student Lending. While the bill provides a six-month suspension of payments from student borrowers, she called that “insufficient to meet the crisis.”

The bill also contains a six-month extension of federal funding through the end of November for abstinence-only education programs favored by social conservatives who are a critical Republican voting bloc. The extension is coupled with one for sex education programs that provide information about birth control and safe sex, which are supported by reproductive rights groups that tend to back Democrats.

Provisions sought by the nation’s smaller banks, a powerful constituency, were also included in the bill. One change would allow those banks — which represent 95 percent of all the banks in the United States — to have lower requirements for capital reserves, the buffer that financial institutions are required to keep on hand to ensure they remain solvent if they run into trouble.

The industry late last year had fought for the change, and lost. This time the banks used the disaster to reopen the fight and get the lower capital requirements they wanted, arguing that it would allow them to do more lending to small businesses during the coronavirus emergency. An estimated 400 banks in the United States should now be able to give out more loans while operating with less capital, if the change in law is adopted. It would remain in effect as long as the virus emergency continued, although the industry is already discussing looking for ways to make it permanent.

The proposal drew immediate opposition from some analysts, who said it would allow too much risk.

“These banks over the past three years have gotten a lot of what they wanted,” said Gregg Gelzinis, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, the liberal research organization. “Even though we’re in a crisis scenario right now, it doesn’t seem like that is changing.”

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