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Congressional Corner With Joe Courtney

Congressman Joe Courtney

What does the Nutmeg State need to fight COVID-19?

In today’s Congressional Corner, WAMC’s Alan Chartock continues speaking with Connecticut Representative Joe Courtney.

This conversation was recorded March 30.

Here we are in the Congressional Corner with Congressman Joe Courtney, who lives, works out of the beautiful second district of Connecticut, and it is beautiful. And he's been in office since 2007. Hey, Joe, how you getting along with Ned Lamont, the governor? Are you and he creating strategies together?

Yes. And I give him very high marks for how he's handled this situation. He, again has invoked emergency powers, which is allowed at a time of a crisis. But I actually think he's been extremely measured and thoughtful in terms of just the way, his message to the people of the state every day. He’s had a press conference, but he's always had, you know, experts with him, trying to keep it very fact based and trying to get very practical advice out to people. Again, there is clearly an orders out there for non-essential businesses not to operate. But again, I think he was, you know, very balanced in terms of how he defined all that. We certainly have been in touch with the Governor's office about the Cares Act. Because, again, you know, we want to make sure that state programs and the new federal programs under the Cares Act, are going to be working in tandem together. So we did a joint Town Hall on Friday, literally, when I was driving back from Washington. I was, I think, in the New Jersey Turnpike, when we were making the call, but again, walked him through the new forgivable loan program that Congress created in the Cares Act, which again, he is definitely going to sort of use that through the State Department of Economic and Community Development, which is sort of a small business agency for the state of Connecticut to coordinate with SBA. The other sort of really big, you know, sort of Nexus right now is the new unemployment compensation provisions in the Cares Act, which again, expanded the scope of who can claim unemployment. People who are self-employed, independent contractors, sort of the gig economy, folks that traditionally really haven't been sort of part of the unplanned compensation system, Congress extended coverage to them. And again, there's the increase in weekly payments of $600. That's going to be a real challenge for implementation because, again, unemployment compensation, as you know Alan is operated through State Departments of Labor. This is not like the cash assistance that's going to go through the IRS. That's the $1,200 payment for single, times two for married couples. The unemployment compensation has to flow through State Departments of Labor and in the state of Connecticut, like many, many other states in the country, the computer systems are pretty antiquated. And it's going to be really very challenging in terms of implementing that expanded scope of who can claim, plus the size of the claim. So, you know, that's something that we're working very closely with the Commissioner of Labor to get good information out to people, just to try and manage expectations for folks because that $600 weekly payment, which obviously has been reported, and it should be, because that's in the new law, is going to take a while for it to really start showing up in people's unemployment checks. And again, that is very accessible. He, you know, again, I think is a very positive person, just in his DNA and so I think he's trying to be as reassuring and supportive of local governments who, again, are obviously, frontline places where stuff is going through healthcare systems, which particularly in the western part of Connecticut, where the number of positive test results for COVID is definitely much more frequent than in Eastern Connecticut, which I represent. And, you know, trying to stay as transparent and up to date and truthful with people about just, you know, what, what the state's plans are in terms of health care infrastructure, trying to get help out to people.

So how does the congressional delegation, give us some insight, work with a governor? Do you have meetings with him? Do individual members just get on the phone with him? Does he call you? Do you call him?

So I, you know, again, I know some of the folks who work in his cabinet and the Commissioner of Labor, as I said, because that is such a stress point right now with the unemployment. Commissioner Kurt Westby, I mean, I've been texting and calling him directly. And with that, again, I am able to reach him by phone and text. I try not to overdo it because I know he's just swamped with people trying to get his attention, but he, again has, also through his staff really been very accessible in terms of talking about what's in what was going to be in the Cares Act. You know, the question of personal protective equipment, which again, is a national crisis right now, you know. Because Congress in COVID, phase two, the bill, the second bill that we passed, which was on March 18, again, by relaxing some of the FDA requirements about masks that can be used in healthcare settings that are the N-95s that construction firms use, because it basically is the same mask. It keeps out airborne pathogens, whether it's dust or, paint chips or whether it's COVID virus, when Congress relaxed that FDA rule that opened really a whole new opportunity in terms of donations of N-95 masks. And we're seeing that with some of the defense firms in Connecticut Electric Boat, General Dynamics made a contribution. The nuclear power plant, Dominion had masks which they've contributed to the state sort of clearinghouse. We've had construction firms that have made donations, and you know, those N-95s, as you know, those are precious right now. We definitely have got to make sure our healthcare staff, my wife is a nurse practitioner so this is very personal to me, gets the protection they need so they can do their job. And if there's something that frankly, keeps me be awake at night, it is still this incredible, shocking inability to get equipment out to people. And when we when the dust clears from this, I mean, we as a country really need to look at designating a critical supply chain in terms of our medical healthcare system, just like we do with military manufacturing. Again, we have Buy America provisions that protects and keeps our supply chain into critical defense manufacturing. Well, frankly, it's time we've got to do that and not offshore the supply chain for whether it's testing devices or critical personal protective equipment. That's what's really I think crippled our ability to get the essential medical devices out there to make sure that we know are able to combat COVID.

OK, so Joe, let one last question only have a minute. How is Trump doing?

So you know, I am very frustrated that he, I mean, he's done some things, right. I mean, he did belatedly listen to Fauci in terms of extending the emergency order through April 30. I mean, that had to happen. On the other hand, the Defense Production Act, which is a tool that the federal government can use to coordinate the personal protective equipment, I mean, frankly, it's just been bungled. There's just total confusion out there. And that's why every state every hospital’s out there scrambling. The federal government has a role to coordinate the delivery of critical equipment like that, and there is legal authority for the federal government to do that. And he has just been blowing hot and cold on the Defense Production Act, and I give him failing grade in terms of critical need right now in terms of his powers to help coordinate.

Joe Courtney is the Congressman from Connecticut's beautiful second district. He's in office in office since 2007, and he's a friend and he's always here for us and we so appreciate your thanks for being with us.


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.