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Congressional Corner With Sean Patrick Maloney

Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney
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The coronavirus response may take years.

In today’s Congressional Corner, New York representative Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat from the 18th district, speaks with WAMC’s Alan Chartock.

Here we are with Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, Democrat of New York's beautiful 18th district. He’s been in office since 2013. I guess, Sean, everybody's talking about the coronavirus. Why don't we start there? How's it affecting your district?

Well, it's been awful. As you know, we're all going through this together. We're holding our own in the lower Hudson Valley, but we have so many friends and coworkers and family who have been affected by this. You know, so many people I represent work in New York City. They may be first responders, you know, some of the police and firefighters, healthcare workers, live in my district and travel to the city to work. But even if you just stay locally, it's affecting every aspect of life and we've lost a lot of friends and neighbors and it's very frustrating because many of us feel the response could have been much more aggressive and in could have prevented some of this from occurring.

Other than being properly sorry and upset about your constituents suffering, what did they actually ask you to do for them?

There are there are two main things happening. One is the health crisis and one is the economic crisis. I think most people understand the common sense of this, that until we defeat the public health crisis, we are not going to be able to restart the economy but people are suffering because of both. And they want us to focus on both, but we have to continue to defeat the coronavirus through our own social distancing, speeding towards a vaccine, speeding towards repurposing existing therapies that may be effective, but we have to restart this economy. That's why the action Congress took, trillions of dollars of help to small businesses, to those who are unemployed, direct payments to families, those steps are important. But they are a stopgap. They are a bridge, maybe that’s a better analogy, to get us to the other side of this public health crisis. So, we have to fight both. And that's what I'm hearing from people.

Are you impressed with the way that Governor Cuomo has been handling himself during this whole thing?

Yes, I'm very impressed with the way the governor's handled this. It's an unprecedented situation, so I'm sure there are always things people could quibble with, but I think that, by and large, the Governor has been outstanding, and forceful, and strong, and clear. And he’s looked this straight in the face, and he has told us what's happening and what we need. I think that is a very important quality of a leader. And it was much more in evidence in Albany than in Washington.

You know, I know him pretty well. He’s been on the air with me an awful lot this year. And, you know, I feel for the guy, he works full out and it's unbelievable. But in the past up to now, Sean, this is a difficult question for you, I know. But, but in the past, he has been somewhat reticent to speak ill of the president because he knows he needs stuff from the president. And he's been saying that over and over again. But now he seems to be ticked off that the President is forgetting about the United States Constitution and the limitations on presidential power. You got any thoughts on that?

Look, I understand that it's a difficult balance between delivering for the people you represent who are struggling, and speaking truth to power, that the governor doesn't have the luxury of engaging in some name calling contest with the President when, every day New York needs more personal protective equipment, we need more, ventilators. We need more help to our first responders, to our hospital system. When the state and our county governments are facing huge budget deficits, Washington has to be a partner to the state of New York just as it would if we had a hurricane come on shore or any other natural disasters. So the governor is going to work with the president. He also has an obligation to tell the truth and to and to I think probably properly criticize the president when the president says things that don't make any sense, or when he says, you know that, that there's no limit on his authority, or he can do whatever he wants as president. We all know that's not the Constitution. But more importantly, it's not the main event. People don't want to see their leaders in some spat when there's a crisis going on. They want to see us working together. And I admire the governor's discipline in working with the president, even when it must have been very frustrating.

Now, look, let's not play games here. You've been mentioned for higher office in New York State for quite a while now. If the governor goes on to higher political office or goes into the cabinet, would you be interested in running for governor?

Yeah, it's not the right time to answer that question, Alan. I understand. I appreciate the, I guess I'm flattered to be to be thought of in that regard. But I think we got a great governor and I think until he plans on doing something else, I don't think I'll I don't think I'll play that game with you today.

Fair enough. You have three children. You're confined to your home. How are you making out personally?

No, we are all healthy and, thank God, doing okay. I will tell you candidly that stepping off the treadmill for a few weeks, not traveling as much, being home with my children focusing on basic things like you know, having dinner together, you know, cooking, doing projects around the house working outside, it has been a silver lining to this terrible thing we're all going through. And I've heard that from a lot of people, that it has been a very unusual and in some ways, meaningful break in the usual pace and craziness of our daily lives. Obviously it comes at a terrible price and suffering for so many and so much economic disruption, but for me and my family, we are reminded how blessed we are to have each other in our lives. We are looking out for our neighbors. You know, I'm very proud of my local community. It's been touched by tragedy, we lost several members of the local community, and response locally was really heartwarming. People care about their neighbors, and they've been really stepping up to help. And so maybe some good can come out of this.

What are the kids doing while they're imprisoned in the house?

Well, they are doing their homework, I'm happy to say. I have new respect for teachers who do this every day. Seeing what it takes to get kids to focus on their assignments. They're also helping out, helping out outside. We're doing a bunch of projects. Luckily, the weather has been pretty good. I assume like most families where we're trying to keep busy. We’re trying to not get too, too confined to the house, but we're getting through it. I'm more concerned about those folks who are out there every day, having to go to work, you know, because they can't work remotely, because they're considered essential workers. Everyone should give a thought to our healthcare workers who have just been doing God's work. So impressive putting their own safety on the line to help others. But also all the first responders, all the people working in supermarkets, all the people who are picking up the trash and driving the bus. And there's a lot of people who have to go to work every day to keep this keep this world run. And most of them don't get recognized very often, and they don't get paid a lot of money. But they have been, they have been serving all of us. And those are the people we should be focused on.

There are people who think that President Trump, some reporters have been given a hard time about this, that his administration was very slow to take the pandemic seriously. What lessons are we learning about our preparedness for something like this?

I think there are very tough questions to answer and the problem with our divided politics is that it will sound like a partisan attack. But I don't mean it that way. I hope we can have a bipartisan national commission with some credibility that looks at this thing and learns the lessons. I mean, we have, we have, what a quarter of the population of China, and yet we have six times the number of cases, even when we had two months’ notice that they didn't have. So you tell me how effective our response was compared to say, the Chinese but what about the South Koreans or Singapore? Look at Singapore versus New York City? City of 6 million people right next door to the region first infected, huge amount of travel by tourists and business people from China. And yet they were able to effectively through a national system of testing and an aggressive intervention early on, stop the spread of the virus. Hong Kong, same thing. Many other countries did better than we did. I want to know why. I don't know why we don't have an effective national testing system. I understand why we took so long to stand it up; we still don't have it. And these questions have real importance because this will not be the last time we face a threat like this. And we've got to get it right next time. We are losing 10s of thousands of Americans. And there have to be good answers. And there has to be some learning.

But it doesn't have to be a commission to come up with this. I'm sure you have a sense on your own without anything else about why it took so long to get some tests going and to do what was needed to be done. Some people blame the President; they said he was absent during February. But forget about that. Do you have a view on what we could have done better right now?

Well, sure, I mean, we first you need a centralized presidential command and control structure over every aspect of this crisis. Yes, on the diagnostics, there should have been an immediate priority on a national testing system. We should have had better tests, developed sooner. We still need a rapid results test. We're going to need hundreds of millions of those small, rapid result kits. It's the size of your key-fob for your car. It's noninvasive and immediate results. They’re starting to come on the market and that would give everybody an immediate answer on testing. In addition to that we need antibody testing so we know who has been exposed to the virus and can return to the workforce. That should have been an urgent priority two months ago. But we also should have had the Defense Production Act invoked much sooner for the production of protective equipment for our healthcare workers, critical machinery like ventilators. There should have been better international coordination to learn the lessons and to take advantage of the lead time we squandered. I think there are so many aspects of this pandemic, where we have underperformed as a country, and I don't care what your politics are. And this is not about politics. We should learn how to do this better. Look at the results. There is data out there. We have a smaller population than China. We have 340 million Americans. There are 1.6 billion Chinese. Why do they have one fifth the cases we have when we had two months lead time? There's no good explanation for that, except we fell down on the job. And we need to learn from that and do better.

Sean Patrick Maloney is the Democrat of New York's 18th district. He's been in office since 2013. Sean, thanks so much for being with us this time and when we come back, I got a lot more for 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.