Last year, as the coronavirus was just starting to upend life in the U.S., Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) was chairman of the Senate Small Business committee. Rubio, Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.), Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) and several others played key roles in crafting what would become the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
In an interview with Yahoo Finance, Rubio remembered incredible uncertainty at the time — and the urgency lawmakers felt to keep small business afloat as the nation shut down.
"We were in a race against time," said Rubio.
The rollout of the program was rocky, as big name businesses took (and largely returned) PPP loans and the smallest businesses struggled to apply for the forgivable loans. Rubio told Yahoo Finance the biggest challenge in the beginning was how to onboard new lenders. If he could do it all over again, he said he would figure out a way to get new lenders in the system faster.
"We knew we needed more lenders," said Rubio. "One of the things we didn't foresee was that a lot of the larger banks would obviously handle commercial clients through the commercial lending division, but their small business clients were being handled through their business accounts and...they didn't prioritize it. And that really became a bottleneck early in the first days, the first weeks of the initial program."
'This would have to become a direct assistance program'
Rubio told Yahoo Finance lawmakers were initially thinking of ways to help small businesses deal with supply chain disruptions. They were considering loan programs to ensure those businesses had access to capital, but it became clear in March that the U.S. government would have to go much further than that.
"This would have to become a direct assistance program," said Rubio. "The idea of millions of people just being turned on the unemployment system beyond what we already saw was unimaginable. It would be, I thought it would be catastrophic. I didn't think the system could handle it."
The Paycheck Protection Program provided forgivable loans to small businesses who kept their workers on the payroll. Lawmakers tweaked the program several times over the past year as they tried to target the neediest businesses, give employers more flexibly, and allow some businesses to take out a second loan.
Lawmakers and the Biden administration are still working on the program. This week Congress passed a two-month extension of the PPP.
Last month, President Joe Biden announced several changes — including making sole proprietors eligible for more money. However, the changes have caused some confusion. Sole proprietors who now qualify for larger loans worried they wouldn't have time to apply before the March 31 deadline. Others who already received their loans before the new formula was put in place are frustrated they could have received a bigger loan.
"If you make a change in the program on eligibility, I think it's unfair to the people who at one time applied and were denied," said Rubio.
There is bipartisan support for making the change retroactive. Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.), Chairman of the Small Business Committee, said on the Senate floor Thursday he's committed to working on the tweak in the coming weeks.
Jessica Smith is chief political correspondent for Yahoo Finance, based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaASmith8.