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Congressional Corner With Richard Neal

Congressman Richard Neal
public domain

When it comes to COVID-19, the U.S. is playing catch-up.

In today’s Congressional Corner, Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal continues his conversation with WAMC’s Alan Chartock.

This conversation was recorded April 9.

Richie Neal, how's the government doing in its response to the coronavirus that we have seen the president once describe as a Democratic hoax. And now, he’s saying he's on top of it.

I think it's getting considerably better. And I think that we got off to a confusing start. I think that there was an element of denial, I think when the President compared it to but a flu, I think that was a mistake. I think that there is now evidence that has been sorted that indicates that part of the slow start that we had was because there were some in the administration who were in denial. And I think that this is an argument that we should be able to make vigorously on behalf of people like Tony Fauci, and those at the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and others. These are the careerists. These are the people you depend upon. And they were all to the person, warning that this was a pandemic. And I think that the reluctance at the White House to acknowledge that and the president treating it as if it was simply a flu, or a strain of the flu meant that it was it was very slow to develop a response. And I think that clearly, that has been part of the problem. It's the confusing, or the mixed messages in the early stages. And every time I watch the briefings in the afternoon, I want to say let's hear from Tony Fauci. Let's hear from the individuals that are standing behind the president. They're the ones that are the experts. Those are the ones that we should depend upon at this time of peril.

What would you do if this president who loves to fire people fired Tony Fauci?

I mean, I'd be gravely disappointed and I think that if he was worried about an economic recovery, which we all want to see happen, but I think that it clearly is something that the President measures every day by the stock market, I think the stock market and other economic indicators would tank if he fired to Tony Fauci. I think they know that at the White House.

Has Massachusetts gotten what it needs from the feds?

I think we're all trying to figure out these FEMA standards and others, because those are decisions that are made at the national level. And I know in the past of 48 or 72 hours, I've had to intervene directly. In one instance, and I think that Massachusetts is doing okay,in this instance, I think that everybody seems to be singing from the same hymnal. But at the same time, I think that it's clear whether you're looking at the Holyoke Soldiers Home or you're looking at some of the nursing homes, including in Williamstown, that these are very perilous moments and we have to treat it I think, as I've tried very hard in Washington, to put aside some of the partisan differences and to get on with some of the solutions. I mean, when I was developing with the speaker and the White House, including Secretary Mnuchin when I was developing my thoughts on this as to what to do with the CARES Act, I never heard one person on the line say, introducing themselves by saying “Well, I'm a socialist” or “I'm a Democrat”, or “I'm a Libertarian” or “I'm a Republican”. They all want to get this straightened out.

Yeah. Let me talk to you about the stimulus package. Are people getting that money? I mean, I don't know how folks are getting along?

Yeah, yeah, next week on Monday, beginning on Monday, and through the week, about 60 million Americans will receive their checks. And we had to use channels that were readily available to make sure that we could identify the people that were going to receive the checks. So we relied heavily upon the Social Security Administration because they have the pipeline. And then we went to the IRS because we could look for tax ID numbers. So in the discussions that we had, trying to figure out what cash infusion would look like, the determination was that we would go to single filers making under $75,000 a year, and joint filers making $150,000 a year, largely because we thought that those people at the bottom in the middle of the economic scale, they would be the people that not only would need it the most for day to day sustenance, but just as importantly, they would be the ones that would spend it. So that cash infusion was very meaningful. And I think that the way that that was done, there was an understanding that that had to get out the door very quickly. And I think even the challenges that we have with the small business loan program that's starting to repair itself. So I think that's an encouraging sign. But the guidance just came from the Treasury, to community bankers and others as to how those loans could be processed and accessed. And I'm hopeful that many of the things that we did, including expanding the definition of unemployment insurance, this was all based on advice from top notch economists and others as to how we should proceed. So in that sense, I think that even though it might have been a bit rocky in the rollout, the Herculean task that was in front of us is being addressed.

You mentioned the Holyoke Home. You have a 95 -year-old uncle there, I understand?

90 years old.

Yes. Now Yeah.

Now, that's gotta scare you because those are the places that are really open to infection. And we've seen it as you mentioned, in Williamstown, and there.

Well, it’s in nursing homes across the state as well as the country. And also that was part of the major problem, if you recall, in Seattle, Washington. It’s because of the proximity of those individuals who oftentimes are a bit immobile. And the contact that they have with staff and others, if you were at the Soldier's Home, you would see that the in the dementia unit in other places the Alzheimer's unit that they sit them very close to each other.

Was your uncle a soldier?

He was in the Marine Corps and served in Korea, and as he always said, one year, one month and one day, but who's counting. And he has been at the Soldiers Home and I will say that he would say that he has received good care there. This epidemic that hit there, suddenly the Governor's investigating it, the Attorney General's investigating it and I think those are the appropriate agencies.

What is the premise for those investigations? It's not that it’s just that it happened, but that somebody did something wrong.

Well, I think that there's been an ongoing argument about staffing there. And remember it, it's a Soldier's Home, but not part of the Federal galaxy, so would not be overseen every day by the Veterans Administration. So I would not have had many complaints or if any, at all, those would would have been directed to state legislators if they if they were forthcoming, as well as to state agencies. But what's important to remember about the Holyoke Soldiers Home is that it is not a hospital in the sense that people are going out to get surgery. It's a home, this is a residence. This is where our veterans live, men and women who served still from World War II through Vietnam, and making sure that their years there should be comfortable was not something that we anticipated with the outbreak of this disease, that's for sure.

And one last question, because I know that my producer Ian Pickus is a tough guy. So I only have one more minute to ask you a question and that is in this particular segment. And that is Williamstown. Now Williamstown has a nursing home and it too has some problems.

They do. And I think that one of the things that we've done in the CARES Act, and the CARES legislation is there is more money for nursing homes, and making sure that that money gets through so that they can be better prepared for what is happening here, I think is essential. And the Chelsea Soldiers Home, there only two in the state, they've had the some of the same problems, but there are nursing homes across the state that have had that same difficulty as well. And these are tragic stories. I think that people that have contacted the disease and subsequently died, what's just heart wrenching is the fact that loved ones did not have a chance to say goodbye to them. And even if they knew they were in death throes that there was never that moment of reflection when you might hold somebody's hand and say goodbye.

Richie Neal, what a pleasure to talk to you, and what an honor. I know how hard you're working. You wrote the bill, at least the Democratic side of it. You've worked so hard and I know that you know, it never stops for you and you find some time for us, and we so appreciate it. When we come back the next time, I want to ask you about a certain tax return. OK?

You've got it.

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..