On Wednesday afternoon, Vermont Rep. Peter Welch (D) headed back to Washington D.C. for an upcoming vote on a $484 billion relief package.
Before departing, he sat down to answer some questions about COVID-19 response, mail-in voting, and other issues expected to be discussed in Congress throughout the next few months.
What is some of the work you’re eager to get into heading back to D.C., and what does Congress have prepared?
Well, the big vote for us Thursday is to replenish the small business funds that are so desperately needed in Vermont and around the country. It ran out of money in about a week, so we’re going to have a package that we vote on that puts another $320 million into the small business plans to give paid protection leave for our businesses’ payroll protection plan.
We’re emphasizing that should go to the smaller businesses, not to the Shake Shacks of the world. Also, that is something that will be available to our small farmers, it will be very important for them. We’re also putting more money into our hospitals. They have been enormously challenged, obviously, with the impact of the COVID-19 virus.
Third, and this is extremely important, $25 billion into testing. We’re in this period where we’re all social distancing, but when we come out of that, we have to have testing in order to identify folks with COVID-19, do contact tracing to determine who they’ve had contact with, and then quarantine. This step we’re in now of social isolation is extremely important, but it’s not about that as a solution to the problem, it’s putting us in a position to be able to manage the problem.
Sen. Chuck Schumer has signaled a big priority will be legislation to expand mail-in voting. Your thoughts?
We have to have it. The most important right we have in a democracy is to vote, we should have the right to do that easily and safely. Vote by mail is done in Republican states, in Democratic states. It has a lot of support. Where the actual process of voting threatens people’s health, especially the poll workers but the voters as well, we need to give people the opportunity to choose to vote by mail.
Another priority seems to be relief for the U.S. Postal Service, what are your thoughts on that?
The Postal Service was really underfunded already, but we’re seeing how urgent and essential it is. The Postal Service, by the way, has been here longer than the country. It was founded by Benjamin Franklin, and its weathered all kinds of storms like the telegraph and the internet. We need the Postal Service, and it was a real mistake, and really President Trump’s decision, to not fund the it in the last program. We want to do that and we need to do it.
What are you hearing from Vermont small business owners?
They’re extraordinarily concerned about their employees. In Vermont, so many of our small businesses are almost family operations and the people who work there are like family. There’s a real concern from small business folks that I’ve talked to: can these programs, the payroll protection plan, the economic disaster loans, can these work to help us stay alive? They’re wondering when we’re back to normal, can their business reopen? It’s survival, and I have been so impressed with folks that run plumbing businesses, dry goods businesses, cleaners, everybody. They’re doing every single thing they can to try to find a way to hang on and to help their employees through this.
What have been your thoughts on President Trump’s response and his daily press briefings?
Frankly, the federal government has to be a partner to the states. Governor Scott has been making strong and clear decisions on what we have to do to protect our health. The President should be doing everything necessary that can only be done at a national level: getting testing up and running, making sure we have the teams for contact tracing, getting the message out to people that social distancing is really important. Frankly, that national message has been muddled by President Trump, and I think that’s unfortunate.
Going forward, how important will it be for Congress to react quickly to sudden and urgent needs? What can be planned for, and what is going to have to be reactionary work?
Well, the reactionary work is what we’re doing now. The virus got out of control here, we got a slow start. When this is all said and done, we’re going to look back and assign some responsibility and accountability. It is a good thing that you had, in this $2.2 trillion package, the Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi in agreement. It was an indication of how urgent this was to our country.
We’re going to get into the next phase where it’s about revitalizing our economy. Right now it’s about hanging on for dear life. This next phase is going to be really important. I do think we’re making progress as a result of social distancing. It’s painful, because the collateral consequence of doing the step that is required to keep us healthy is that we turn the lights off, or almost off, on the economy. That’s painful, but it puts us in a position where we’re going to be able to manage this going forward.
What are your thought on how the State of Vermont has responded to COVID-19 and the gradual measures for slowly re-opening the economy? What are the dangers of states reopening too soon?
The danger of reopening to soon is we’ll have a flare up of the virus and we’ll get more sick people and more deaths. I think what Governor Scott is doing right is ‘turning the spigot’, as he puts it, a quarter of a turn at a time. It’s going to be based on science and on public health advice. It’s not going to be based on politics. If we do it right and don’t jump the gun, then it can be durable and we can be safe. It probably leads to a more robust return to a full economy. I respect the Governor’s approach on this. He’s being careful, but deliberate.
Are you pushing for help when it comes to funding for states?
We definitely need more funding for the states. Think about it, it’s not just money to the states, it’s about the states having to provide vital services like education to our kids. This is going to be a wicked hit to our property taxpayers, and if the state can’t make its contribution to the education fund, that’s brutal. It’s about people having access to healthcare through the Medicaid program. In Vermont, we saw revenues plunge about $200 million very suddenly even as expenses went through the roof. A major responsibility of Congress as the only entity of government with the fiscal flexibility to do this has to be to get money back to the states so they can be solvent.
Have you considered how long Congress will be dealing with the lingering effects of COVID-19?
The lingering economic issues, I think, are going to be with us for quite awhile. I think what we need to do is hang on, that’s what these major packages are. They’re getting money back to folks on unemployment, to small businesses, and to our healthcare system.
We’re going to have to ask some questions about how we right some of this. For instance, we’ve got to keep our hospitals going, but what we’re seeing is a lack of a public health system that is able to respond on a person-to-person basis. We don’t have a system set up to do the testing, we depend too much on Chinese production of medical safety equipment. Should we be producing more in the United States? I think we should. Should we have investments in public health systems so that folks, when necessary, are available to do the testing and to do the contact tracing? We’re going to be asking questions about how to structure and change our healthcare system and I think others as well.
What has the level of collaboration and cooperation been in Congress?
The general demeanor has been positive, constructive and cooperative. I think that Vice President Pence has been good in working with Congress and I think that despite the incredible differences between Sen. McConnell and Speaker Pelosi, they’ve worked together. House Democrats do want to do more for the states, Sen. McConnell resists that, but that’s a difference. It’s important we get that worked out, but the fact that we came together on this $2.2 trillion package a couple of weeks ago and now Thursday we’ll be approving another package, is an indication that this is not a red state vs. blue state situation, we are all in this together.