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Congressional Corner With Peter Welch

Vermont Congressman Peter Welch

COVID-19 has disrupted daily life across the Northeast.

In today’s Congressional Corner, Vermont Representative Peter Welch speaks with WAMC’s Alan Chartock.

This conversation was recorded on March 24.

We're in the Congressional Corner with Peter Welch. We are delighted to have the only congressman in Vermont on with us. He's been in office in 2007. Peter, obviously, we're speaking in the midst of the corona pandemic. What are Vermont’s needs right now?

Well, they’re really the same is everybody's needs, you know. We're socially isolating and all of our restaurants and bars, and many, most of our businesses are closed down. So there's two urgent challenges for us, the same as everyone else in our country. One is protecting the public health. The number of cases we're having in Vermont is escalating. It’s a steep curve, and the Governor is really emphasizing the absolute urgency of social distancing. So we're doing that, and washing our hands, and being very careful about cleaning surfaces. All that really, really matters, and we're doing it. And then the second urgent need is how do we get through this economically? We've got a situation where the public health response requires us to distance and that in effect means we've got to close down a lot of businesses. So this is really brutal on our small businesses. On individuals, most of whom work real hard, but pay their bills by counting on a month to month paycheck. So that's the challenge that we face and all America faces.

So what can you tell us about, you know, the deal that is being brokered as we speak? And we expect it to be done by the day with between Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell?

Well, first of all, what I'd say is that the deal, from my perspective really has to help individuals first. I mean, the people that are getting really hammered are folks going paycheck to paycheck. That’s the majority of Americans. So we've got to do things that help them, and small businesses where they work, and that can include significantly expanding unemployment. Like, for instance, in our House version, we'd add 600 bucks a month or a week to the top amount you can get on unemployment, which is like $500. Having that amount of money on a regular basis until we get through this is much more important in my mind than just a single check. You know, you get a check for $1,000 and your income is 50, let's say, that's one week. The second thing is unemployment has to cover folks who are self-employed and in the gig economy. You know, there's a lot of independent contractors out there that, they need that help. Small businesses don't need loans. They really need grants. And what we're talking about is any small businesses that get a quote, loan, but keeps their payroll at 80% of what they were paying them before that grant that loan will turn into a grant. You know, one of the significant challenges for the small businesses that have to close down now for public health reasons, is when the lights go back on. We don't even know when that is, will they be there to open up, you know, and that's we that's why we've got to find provide a federal financial backstop so they have a shot at it. The third thing is, so we've got to help our hospitals. They are the front line. In their bottom line revenues have been hammered. They've been required to stop elective medical procedures. And that is in order to preserve the personal protective equipment that is in short supply, and will be needed when there's a surge of cases with the virus. So that revenue gap has been hammering them. And we've got to have in our bill financial support for our hospitals, the large ones and the small ones that are so vital to our well-being in Vermont, in upstate New York. And then finally, we want significant state aid. The hit to the budget in Vermont, it's going to be enormous. And what we've seen in the past big downturns is that assistance to the states is one of the best ways to revive the economy because the state is much more in the frontline than the federal government in trying to get back on track. So those are the elements of a package that will probably be in the range of $2 trillion.

When you borrow $2 trillion, you got to be vigorous. You got to pay interest on $2 trillion. Can we afford that?

We can't afford not to do it. You know, I am worried about the deficit. A lot of us have, and I was very upset about adding $2 trillion to the deficit for that tax cut that I think made no sense and provided no benefit to the vast majority of the American people in small businesses. But sometimes you got to borrow. And that's where we're at now. This is existential with what's going on. With the public health and with our economy, so we've got to do it. And for this reason, you know, so small businesses can recover, so that families can cope through a very difficult time, so that our hospitals can provide the services that our people desperately need. Yes, we've got to borrow. I mean, think of it Alan, somebody in your family gets sick. If you have the money, you pay it. If you don't, you can borrow it, you do, because first things first and that's your health, the health of your family, and your well-being.

Speaking of which, how are you taking care of yourself personally?

Following the guidelines, I mean, we all are, you know, it's in the social distancing. And that's hard for a politician, I'll tell you, but really, really keeping our distance. I live in, you know, on a dirt road. It's kind of easy. I can get out and split wood and do things outside that don't have me interacting with other people. But Margaret and I are being really, really careful. And very, very, I’m washing my hands a lot and for a long time, according to CDC guidelines and just being as careful as I possibly can. I have to get out some. We did a press conference with Governor Scott yesterday. And it was set up in a large auditorium. And limited press were invited, personally. Basically the television press, and then the other press were on via conference call, so that they were part of it, but not in that room. And then at the podium, they set us apart about six feet, the Governor and me and a couple of folks from his administration. So it's pretty baked into how I'm behaving, and how I think all of us are behaving. And it's astonishing, Alan, you know, today is Tuesday. A week ago, Saturday, one in the morning, I was on the floor in the house when we were voting on that second economic package. And there were 600 of us at least 435 members or so. And a lot of staff on the floor. And there was talk about social distancing, but it really hadn't been implemented with the urgency that we've seen this last week.

So do you go to the drug store? That is, are you going to the grocery store?

We’re gonna go to the grocery store, but we've been really trying to space it out. So we're kind of at the end of our supply, so we're planning going to the grocery store this week. We're going to be careful, probably go in an hour when we hope just few people are there as possible. We've got a small store, Dan & Whit’s, great, great, famous store, where what they're doing is taking your order over the internet and then putting in boxes for you to pick up at curbside, or they even deliver? So we're gonna take advantage of that opportunity. We've got a local restaurant, you know, that we have traditionally gone, like two times every three weeks. It's like our date night. And of course Bruce, Carpenter & Main had to close down, but they're doing takeout. So we're going to order a couple of meals from Bruce. But everybody's trying to be really careful here. But my heart goes out really to folks who like Carpenter & Main, like Dan & Whit’s just to mention two places in my own town here in Norwich. They are the lifeblood of the community. I mean, we love to go to Dan & Whit’s and get our groceries, and see our neighbors, and have a cup of coffee. You know, we like to do that with Bruce when Margaret and I, end of the week, both have a dinner, and the wait staff there we've known for years, and they're folks who've got obligations and they can't come into work. So this is so, so hard for anybody, that is the vast majority of the folks all across this country that work hard, but depend on that paycheck for the rent, for their child care for, for the groceries, it's really, really tough. That's why I want us, absolutely, to get something substantial passed in Washington this week.

Well, it is always wonderful to have our friend, our pal, Mr. Welch, Representative Welch, and Peter to those people who know him so well, for being with us and for the kicking off a series of a couple of these conversations. And thank you, Peter. We'll be back soon.

Thank you.

Dr. Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the University at Albany. He hosts the weekly Capitol Connection series, heard on public radio stations around New York. The program, for almost 12 years, highlighted interviews with Governor Mario Cuomo and now continues with conversations with state political leaders. Dr. Chartock also appears each week on The Media Project and The Roundtable and offers commentary on Morning Edition, weekdays at 7:40 a.m.