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Congressional Corner With Joe Courtney

Congressman Joe Courtney

Alan Chartock: Here we are in the Congressional Corner with our friend Joe Courtney. He's the congressman from the beautiful second district of Connecticut, and it is beautiful, Long Island Sound not that long a swim to Fire Island. So my question to you, Joe is COVID. You know, we have these two things going on right now, we have the concept of the police and police reform, and we have COVID. And COVID, a lot of people thought was going away and then we could start to reopen things. You got any thoughts on that?

Representative Joe Courtney: Well, you know, I like many Americans always try to listen closely to Anthony Fauci you know, who, again, has been crystal clear about the fact that this virus is the nightmare virus because number one, it is so lethal, and number two because it's so transmissible, and you know the idea that warm weather, was going to kind of just burn it all out like SARS did in the past, obviously is not happening. I was talking to a buddy of mine a couple days ago lives in Phoenix where, you know, the average temperature is about 110 degrees for the last week or so. And as you know, they're really in a place where they're worried about enough ICU beds in the Phoenix area because of the uptick and increase in COVID hospitalizations. So, you know, I think in the northeast we went to just a brutal shelter in place for two and a half months or so. And we're starting to see the foot’s coming off the brake a little bit. But, as Fauci said, this virus is not going anywhere, and it's going to be around for a while and that's why I think political leadership who in cases like Arizona, recklessly, I think, reopened the economy, and they're starting to really see the ill effects of it. And despite the fact that the President doesn't talk about anymore doesn't do his daily press briefings anymore on it. We're not out of the woods.

By no means. Okay, so let's go from there to the police reform. We're all talking about police reform. Does the Congress have a role in this?

It does. I mean, the federal government does provide some funding for police departments in a variety of ways. So there's definitely leverage in terms of standards that can be made uniform and national. And that's exactly what the Justice in Policing Act seeks to do. And obviously the changes that it's talking about, banning chokeholds, universal use of body cameras, the elimination of no knock warrants, and also eliminating qualified immunity, which really is that civil justice shell that really has allowed some really bad actors and bad situations go with no redress for the victims in those cases. So the bill bundles all that into a large package along with many other provisions in terms of changing retraining, or new training and retraining, dealing with issues of racial profiling. Again, there's a variety of federal laws, civil rights laws, as well as budget levers that I think gives Congress absolute strong position in terms of really making a national change, because, again, individually, I could rattle off different towns in eastern Connecticut that have already adopted body cameras, eliminated chokehold restraint in terms of how they train officers to deal with restraining people that they're struggling with, but not going after their windpipe. But it's too ad hoc. It's too sporadic. And I think that's really where, again, I think this bill is totally on target in terms of just trying to change a national standard, so that we reduce these, you know, really just gut wrenching, horrible incidents.

You know, we do have this thing, you're talking about the Justice in Policing Act. The question I have is, it would have been unthinkable to think that the Senate was gonna pass it. But right now, the Senate’s under a lot of pressure with the Republicans, aren't they?

They are, I mean, again, they have more seats to defend than Democrats this cycle. So that's sort of number one, in terms of just their political calculation on this, but number two if you look at the polling, support across the board, Republican, independent voters for making these changes is stratospheric. I mean, we're talking in the 80% range. And lastly, again, it's just the fact that we've discussed in the past, the sort of organic, visible, peaceful protests that have gone on in not just urban America, but rural America, I think is really kind of shaking them up. And they recognize they just can't stonewall this, like they've done with so many other issues.

Joe Courtney, I know I'm jumping around a lot. But I want to go back to COVID for a moment. You’re a Congressman, you're used to being in a room with 435 people,4 34 others, that's not happening now. So how is your job changed?

Well, after this call, I'm going to be getting on a virtual hearing with the Education and Labor Committee. The topic actually is reopening schools in the middle of a pandemic which is another one of these incredibly new challenges that we're going to be facing real fast. And it requires a lot of planning and thinking. But anyway, I mean, that's sort of like the new normal for Congress. A week before last night I chaired my Sea Power Committee hearing. Again, I flew down to Washington for that, but a lot of the other members zoomed in from other parts of the country and, you know, you walk into the committee room, all the members rather than be bunched up next to each other on the dais you know, we're all sort of spaced out wearing masks until it's time to speak. The mic is covered with a Velcro covering, purell everywhere, gloves. And so it's just going to be like that for I think the rest of this, certainly the rest of this Congress and probably into the new Congress as well. When we vote on the floor, we do it in alphabetical batches. It’s almost like you feel like you're back in kindergarten or elementary school and they call you down. And so and it's slow. I mean, doing it that way, you can't do a two, three minute electronic vote. I mean, it just takes over an hour to have people come down and do that. But the House physician's office and the sergeant of arms have really, I think, thought long and hard about ways of trying to reduce density and adhere to social distancing. I don't have to tell you, Alan, the average age of Congress is on the higher end. And so, you've got people who are inherently at risk. So it's something that I thought I'd seen it all, but now this this one definitely takes the cake.

None of us have seen it all. That's for sure.

Yeah, no, that's right.

So tell me about voting by proxy, what was that like?

So, you know, again, there are members who I said, who have situations where they themselves have tested positive. They have family members that they're caring for who've tested positive or are in quarantine. And the notion that they had to be in the middle of a public health emergency on a plane coming to Washington, putting themselves and the rest of their coworkers and staff and colleagues at risk made absolutely no sense. So we did adopt a rule that allowed a member to cast votes for up to 10 other members. Again, if there's like individual written permission for that individual vote, it's not a carte blanche. You know, I can vote for Joe Courtney. And as many votes as I want without even talking to him or getting permission to vote a certain way. I mean, it was very strict, you know, very structured. If you look at the British Parliament, Australian Parliament, New Zealand Parliament, French, they adopted proxy voting as a way again, of trying to keep legislation moving, but not creating a public health risk for not just the members but also the people who work in these in these buildings. So, you know, the Republicans put up a stink over it. I just have to say I think of almost in terms of it was just ridiculous. And as I said the British Parliament, the mother of all Parliaments there is no more hidebound procedural old rules than in London and they adopted proxy voting without even thinking twice. And, you know, obviously the world didn't come to an end. And by the way, it hasn't in Washington either. We did pass major legislation that President Trump signed with the proxy rule to extend the PPP program, the Paycheck Protection Program, small business lending program, and after all their, the fact of the matter is the bill passed and it was signed into law. No one's gonna challenge it in terms of whether it's valid, it was perfectly valid.

It's always great to talk to our pal Joe Courtney of the beautiful second district of Connecticut right up there up to the Long Island Sound. All that swimming, all that clamming, going crabbing. It's great. It's great to talk to you, Joe. And when we come back the next time we'll talk about Connecticut and phase two of its reopening plan.

Happy to.

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.
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