The federal government is racing to ease the pain facing the U.S. economy as the coronavirus pandemic makes its swift pivot from public health crisis to financial catastrophe.
The damage from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus, is unlike anything in modern times. Economists have warned the fallout could be similar to that from the 2008 recession, the worst downturn that many Americans can remember.
The reasons are stark. At least 80 million Americans are under virtual lockdown, according to a NBC News tally. California and New York, economic engines and the two most populous U.S. states, have essentially shut down. It is not clear yet when the crisis will be over.
Unemployment numbers are expected to skyrocket. Jobless claims spiked to 281,000 in data posted last week, the highest number since September 2017. Next week’s numbers are estimated to be in the millions.
Governments at the local, state and federal level have taken action to ease the financial burden on Americans, with all 50 states declaring emergencies. But measures taken so far pale in comparison to what economists say will be required to stave off the crisis’s worst consequences.
Congress continues to debate a possible stimulus bill that could reach into the trillions, after it failed to pass a key procedural vote Sunday evening over objections from Democrats that it benefited corporations more than workers.
Below is a list of what the federal government has done so far, counting actions taken by Congress and the executive branch, including the Federal Reserve, which operates independently from political officials. CNBC will continue to update this list as the crisis continues.
March 6: Trump signs $8.3 billion emergency spending package
The first major legislation intended to address COVID-19 was a financial drop in a bucket.
President Donald Trump signed the $8 billion emergency measure on the same day that worldwide cases passed 100,000, in early March. It provided funding to authorities already fighting to contain the outbreak, and allocated $3 billion for vaccine research.
Support for the bill was nearly universal. Only three lawmakers voted against the bill: Reps. Ken Buck, R-Colo., and Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
March 12: Fed says it will pump more than $1 trillion into financial system
The Federal Reserve announced it would inject up to $1.5 trillion into the financial system in an effort to calm the market. The move came amid liquidity concerns and initially sent markets higher, though some observers warned it would not be enough.
March 13: Trump gives people with student loans a break
Trump pledged some reprieve to student loan borrowers, saying that all interest on federal student loans would be waived for the duration of the coronavirus emergency. A week after Trump’s promise, though, borrowers said that interest was still being charged. A spokesman for the Department of Education said interest added after Trump’s announcement will be eliminated retroactively.
March 13: Trump declares national emergency
Trump originally resisted declaring a national emergency over coronavirus, fearing the move would spook financial markets. But when he did so, the major indices rallied, posting their largest single-day gain since October 2008.
The move freed up to $50 billion in financial resources to assist Americans affected by the outbreak.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declared a nationwide public health emergency, a step short of a national emergency, over the coronavirus in January.
March 15: Fed cuts rates to zero, launches $700 billion quantitative easing program
The Fed’s first dramatic action, reminiscent of the 2008 financial crisis, came on a Sunday evening: The central bank cut rates to nearly zero and announced a $700 billion quantitative easing program.
The Fed said its purchases would include $500 billion of Treasurys and $200 billion of agency-backed mortgage securities. The central bank later said it would also buy municipal bonds.
Chairman Jerome Powell said at the time that the near-zero benchmark interest rate would remain “until we’re confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve our maximum employment and price stability goals.”
March 17: Fed takes new steps to keep money flowing
The central bank took big steps to keep money flowing in the U.S. economy: It established a Primary Dealer Credit Facility, which provides short-term funding to big financial firms, and a Commercial Paper Funding Facility to purchase corporate paper from issuers.
The Primary Dealer Credit Facility targets the nation’s 24 largest institutions that buy government securities directly, while the latter is geared toward supporting the flow of credit to households and businesses.The Commercial Paper Funding Facility could total $1 trillion, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.
March 18: Trump signs coronavirus relief plan to expand paid leave
The second coronavirus-related aid package called for more than ten times as much funding as the first.
The $100 billion bill included provisions for emergency paid leave for workers at big businesses, expanded unemployment insurance and free testing. It passed with overwhelming support, 90-8, with two Republican senators missing the vote because they were self-quarantined. The House approved the measure days beforehand by a vote of 363-40-1.
Even as lawmakers were voting on the legislation, talk was swirling of a far more ambitious aid package, somewhere in the realm of $1 trillion. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he would not adjourn the Senate until it passed something “far bolder.”
March 20: Trump invokes the Defense Production Act
After days of mounting pressure, Trump said that he would put the Korean War-era Defense Production Act “into gear” to mobilize private business resources to fight coronavirus.
The act enables the government to compel businesses to manufacture supplies needed during a crisis, such as medical masks, ventilators, gloves and testing swabs.
Even days after Trump said he would put the DPA into gear, though, he signaled he would prefer to have companies manufacture supplies voluntarily. At a briefing on March 22, Trump said “we’re a country not based on nationalizing our business. Call a person over in Venezuela.”
“We’re getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down,” White House advisor Peter Navarro said at the briefing.
March 20: Education Department says borrowers can pause student loan payments, though they already could
A week after Trump said that interest on federal student loans would be waived, the Department of Education said that borrowers could put their monthly payments on pause for at least 60 days during the crisis. One hiccup: They could already do so.
Most borrowers were already entitled to request that their debt be put into temporary postponements known as forbearances and deferments. Mark Kantrowitz, a higher education expert, told CNBC that the the Education Department’s announcement didn’t “really move the needle much.”
March 23: Fed pledges asset purchases with no limit
The central bank made significant adjustments to its earlier quantitative easing announcement, removing limits on its asset purchases.
Rather than committing to a specific amount of purchases, the Fed said it will buy “in the amounts needed to support smooth market functioning and effective transmission of monetary policy to broader financial conditions and the economy.”
The Fed also said that it would add corporate bonds to its asset purchases. The move initially sent markets higher, but the major indices soon fell again as investors waited on action from Congress on a major stimulus bill.