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Congress works on SBA aid bill amid overwhelming demand

“Just flood it with money and just go as fast as we can,” small-business CEO pleads

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., is pressing the Trump administration to ease requirements for aid to small businesses.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., is pressing the Trump administration to ease requirements for aid to small businesses. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Small businesses are already banking on getting forgivable small-business loans to survive the coronavirus economic shutdown. But as the funds rapidly deplete and threaten to leave some companies left out, Congress has not yet agreed on how best to refill its coffers.

The Paycheck Protection Program in the third economic rescue package gave the Small Business Administration $349 billion to distribute through private lenders to small businesses that keep paying their workers during the coronavirus shutdowns. Companies can get forgivable loans for up to eight weeks’ worth of payroll and other fixed debts, and if they use it mostly to pay staff, they won’t need to pay it back.

Lenders started taking applications Friday and the demand has been so overwhelming that the administration has asked Congress for another $251 billion. The SBA recorded 220,000 loans for $66 billion as of Tuesday.

“Just flood it with money and just go as fast as we can” said Chris Wink, the CEO of Technical.ly, an online publication based in Philadelphia that covers the tech sector there and in Baltimore, Delaware and Washington. Wink took steps last year to prepare for the inevitable end of the record stretch of economic growth. When two employees left, he let their positions go unfilled, but, like most, he didn’t imagine anything like this.

“I got ahead of it, but, obviously, I wasn’t expecting a global pandemic that brought down the entire economy,” Wink said. “I was expecting to need another life preserver, and instead the boat exploded.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has taken steps to try approving the additional money by unanimous consent during Thursday’s pro forma session, but Democrats have made a counter proposal. Unless the two sides can come to an agreement, the program’s funds might run out before Congress’s scheduled return on April 20.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an NPR interview Wednesday that Democrats don’t agree with the current $251 billion package being backed by the Senate and White House, and cast doubt on whether it could clear the House.

“The bill that they put forth will not get unanimous support in the House, it just won’t,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi outlined specific items Democrats want to see in their version. That included $250 billion more for local governments and hospitals, and specifying $60 billion of the already proposed money to go to businesses that are “underbanked” or “unbanked.”

Republicans denounced the potential delay. “Senate Democrats should drop their shameful threat to block this funding immediately,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “Our small businesses desperately need help — now.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also criticized the Republicans’ proposal — for being too small. “Raising the cap is a start – but it won’t be enough,” she said on Twitter. “Every small business that qualifies should get the help they need, period. We should provide an absolute guarantee.”

Warren also called for simplifying the system by replacing the forgivable loans with a straightforward grant.

For small businesses looking at stagnant revenue streams that will last uncertain amounts of time, getting the money, fast, is all that matters.

Wink’s online Technical.ly publication takes in some ad revenue, but most of the company’s money comes from its job portal and events. Most companies have put hiring on pause until the COVID-19 pandemic ends. And Pennsylvania shut down large gatherings just as Technical.ly was readying for its biggest one: Philly Tech Week. The annual series of expert panels, industry talks and networking events usually accounts for a third of Technical.ly’s yearly revenues. That’s been moved to the fall — assuming the company can survive long enough to get there.

Thanks in part to the belt-tightening, Wink’s company has enough credit and cash on hand to let him promise his staff of 15 there’d be no layoffs for six to eight weeks even if revenue fully stops. That’s better than what most business owners can promise: A JP Morgan Chase Institute study found that less than half of America’s 6 million small companies had enough money to last two weeks without revenues.

Wink found no problems submitting a PPP application Monday with TD Bank, where he has a business line of credit. Small businesses whose banks haven’t joined the PPP program, or who don’t work with traditional lenders at all, have had a harder go of things.

Treasury’s guidance kept banks’ know-your-customer rules in place for new borrowers, meaning they have to do a lot of paperwork to verify information. Most banks have therefore limited PPP applications to existing customers.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC Wednesday that the SBA has 3,500 lenders in its system — up dramatically from 1,800 SBA lenders in 2019 — but that still leaves out thousands of community banks and credit unions. The Independent Community Bankers Association estimates that more than a third of its 5,000 members have been unable to access the SBA’s system, which has crashed under the heavy loads.

On Wednesday, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., criticized SBA and the Treasury for not temporarily lifting the anti-money laundering rules for PPP applicants. “This harms Pennsylvania’s small businesses,” he said in a letter. “Your agencies could ease this pressure by helping lenders overcome regulatory restrictions on serving new customers.”

Toomey also urged the administration to give lenders more guidance on loan documentation. While the SBA has put out a sample loan application, it hasn’t provided a sample loan agreement. In guidance posted Wednesday, the SBA said lenders could rely on existing SBA promissory notes or their own form promissory notes, but that has left bank lawyers leery that regulators may deem their documentation unsatisfactory at some point.

It took Beth Goldstein-Huxen three tries before she found a bank willing to process her PPP application. The Philadelphia-based teacher runs a martial arts dojo with her lawyer husband, Ray. The bank that handles Osagame Martial Arts’ deposits said no, as did Goldstein-Huxen’s personal bank, but First Trust, which did their mortgage, took her application Wednesday, she said.

The funds will be critical for keeping the martial arts studio afloat, and its four part-time instructors paid, said Goldstein-Huxen. “Our business is a real mom-and-pop shop. Ray and I did it on the side” she said. “It’s never made enough money for Ray to give up his job.”

Before the panic, the couple had invested in sprucing up the studio and felt like they were getting close to making it profitable enough to live off of. Now, if she doesn’t get the PPP money, Goldstein-Huxen said she doesn’t know whether the business will survive. When asked if they might take on more debt to keep the dojo going, Goldstein-Huxen paused.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t.”

Wink says he doesn’t know when he might start seeing the funds, but says just submitting the applications have made him feel better. “I feel less irrational” about pledging to keep his staff on through April, Wink said. But if the economy remains in this medically induced coma, and he doesn’t get any government relief, that may have to change at some point.

“When does holding the line on layoffs stop making you a good guy, and when do you start being a dumb guy because the lifeboat capsized with too much weight?” he said.

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