When Congress and the Trump administration quickly cobbled together the massive $600 billion Paycheck Protection Program, they may have created a very rare thing: a bipartisan federal program that largely worked as intended.
More than 16,000 new-vehicle dealerships across the nation — including a few dozen in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam — are selling and servicing vehicles right now and gainfully employing hundreds of thousands of technicians, salespeople, managers, porters and others, thanks to as much as $12 billion in aid to keep those businesses afloat and their workers on the job.
The staggering percentage of dealerships that participated — about nine of every 10 took advantage of the emergency cash to cover payroll and other fixed expenses — is a twin testament to the gravity of the moment as COVID-19 shutdowns took effect and the allure of forgivable loans.
Today, most dealers — and 4.9 million other businesses that took the loans — are awaiting final word on forgiveness requirements. It's important that the process be swift and fair.
The loans were not "free money." They are best thought of as part of a broad social contract between U.S. taxpayers and business owners nationwide to work together to weather an economic storm unparalleled in modern U.S. history. The natural inclination of business owners staring into an economic abyss is to slash expenses, cut jobs and try to survive. The Paycheck Protection loans were a display of faith that if employers fought that urge and kept workers on the payroll, an economic recovery would be easier for all.
That also means that business owners, including dealers, shouldn't be personally profiting from the loans or using them in ways they weren't intended. There are scattered reports of business owners who received loans asking employees for what amount to givebacks. That is anathema to the nature of the program and an insult to every taxpayer now saddled with this large addition to the national debt.
The loan program's final accounting won't be done for a while. Despite some abrupt changes as details were clarified — such as disqualifying large, public companies — the program looks like a winner. It must be concluded with the same high-integrity spirit with which it was launched — but with better execution.