The coronavirus pandemic has changed daily life for millions. In today’s Congressional Corner, Vermont Representative Peter Welch wraps up his conversation with WAMC’s Alan Chartock.
This interview was recorded on May 20.
Alan Chartock: I'm here in the Congressional Corner with Peter Welch, one of my favorite congressmen, who, like everybody else is sweating this out, right? I mean, personally, you know, everybody talks professionally, but personally, how are you doing?
Representative Peter Welch: You know, I feel very lucky. My wife and I are in our house. We're being strict about this social distancing. That I got, we've got good internet. So I'm able to work a lot on Zoom and on the various other platforms. And, you know, what I find is that there's so many people where it's much, much tougher if they've got kids at home, and they've got to teach them, and try to do their work. Or they have been working and they lost their job. I mean, we've got almost a third of Vermonters who would like to be working are not working, and that is tough, and the financial anxiety that folks are experiencing with that. And then that's on top of the apprehension people have that they or somebody they love may get this disease. So, you know, it's a different way to work. I miss interacting at work. I miss being out among people, I miss doing errands. But what I'm experiencing is just nothing compared to somebody who owns a small business. And they are trying to figure out how to help their own workers, or somebody who's laid off. So it's a tough time. And I think we've just all got to try to hang in there and help each other as best we can.
Well, you make a good point, there's a mental health component to all of this. I know that I'm feeling it. And I think a lot of people are. You know, your routine gets upset. It can be horrible. And we can only feel for people who have it worse than we do.
Yeah, I know that a lot of people do. It's tough. I mean, I think about parents with young kids and they're adapting but the challenge of teaching your children. Becoming a teacher is demanding and then in addition to that, getting the meals on the table and doing the shopping under difficult circumstances, wondering what's going to happen with work and when we're going to get back to that. That's all. That's all the challenge. My observation, people are doing it you know, they're doing what they have to do. But I think what all of us hope is that we are taking the precautions necessary to diminish the strength of this virus, by social distancing by wearing masks, by doing the things that health folks are telling us we should do.
Well, the President won’t wear a mask and he's the leader of the country. Isn't that awful?
He should wear a mask. I mean all of us should. And our governors are wearing masks, our healthcare leaders are wearing masks. I mean, there's no indignity in doing the right thing.
Okay, so let's, let's move on here to the latest attempt to buttress America during this terrible time, and that's the Heroes Act. Tell us what's in it and tell us what the senate finds so difficult to go along with it about?
Well, the Heroes Act is a very ambitious program to meet a very, very stunning challenge, and that is the lockdown of the economy. And what it does, frankly, is built on what we did in the first package. Number one, there's $1,200 checks to individuals, and it's not a substitute for a paycheck, but it helps. Number two, we make significant changes in the PPP program. That's the payroll protection plan. So small businesses have until December 31 to be able to use this. They have more flexibility about what they use for expenses versus their payroll. This is something that is really important if our restaurants are going to have any shot at being helped. The plan also provides significant state and local aid, like Vermont would get about $1.33 billion next year and $1.4 billion the year after that. And then hundreds of millions in aid that goes out to the communities. This is really important. About 13% of the jobs in this country are in state and local government. And those jobs are police, they’re firefighters, they’re teachers. And if we don't provide significant aid to the states, where they don't have the fiscal flexibility and the fiscal capacity, the federal government is going to be very punitive on individuals, property tax payers on employment. So that is a major, major component of this legislation, state and local aid. And then there's other provisions in there that we hope will help our farmers. And there's broadband money in there trying to deploy broadband out into our rural communities and significant help for our hospitals that have been just hammered as a result of COVID.
Now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the Heroes Act would add too much to the deck, and he's dismissed the idea of aid to localities and states as being a blue state bailout. How does your governor, a Republican, a moderate Republican, an old fashioned Republican feel about that?
Well, he favors significant state and local aid, Governor Scott does, and most of the think Republican governors do. The impact on our budget, we could lose in Vermont about a half a billion dollars, about $500 million next year. That's a huge amount of money for us. And that's not because of fiscal mismanagement by the governor’s legislature, that's because of the COVID crisis. So what are we going to do? If you know, all the states basically don't have the borrowing capacity the federal government does. So these would be savage cuts or savage increases in property taxes. So the governors get it, it's where the rubber meets the road and they know they need, from the federal government, the fiscal help to get through this. And this question of borrowing. There's two things I want to say about McConnell in them. He didn't mind borrowing $2.3 trillion dollars for that terrible tax cut of his that went to the top 1% and to the wealthiest international corporations. We now have a situation where we have no alternative but to borrow if we're going to throw people a lifeline and get this economy to come back. I've been a pay as you go person, but we're in a situation where we have to decide whether we're to err on the side of going too big and acting too soon, or go on the side of doing too little and doing it too late. And mistakes will be made but I believe that we have to act on the side of too much too soon, because otherwise we create this undertone that could have a lasting effect for a recession or depression. We have to act and Senator McConnell is just cruelly saying the states should declare bankruptcy, I think would be a prescription for long term economic hardship.
So when it's when it's all counted, Peter Welch, how long will it take for us to get away from what we have just gone through? Some people are saying years and years, I'm assuming?
Well, you know, none of us really know I can tell you what the CBO or the Treasury Department, they think that we’ll be well into next year, but the bottom line here, is it how long and how deep this recession will be, which is going to significantly depend on how energetic and how ambitious our response is now. You know, when you look at the 2008 recession, and most people think this will be worse, the initial response was the stimulus act in the Obama administration. And after that there was enormous pressure from folks like McConnell to start cutting and trimming. And now that the history has been written, most people believe that we would have gotten out sooner had we been more ambitious and not followed the McConnell line, Europe did what McConnell was talking about in their recession was much more prolonged and much deeper than ours. And keep in mind with that, we started bringing the deficit way, way down during the Obama years. So we borrowed when we had to, but then we started paying back when we could. And that's not at all what McConnell's talking about.
I got one last question and we gotta go. But my question is, how do we know that this election is going to be secure? There are many of us who really are quite worried about Donald Trump and what he might pull if he finds himself behind here.
You're right to be worried. And it's why in the Heroes Act, we put in substantial money to allow everyone to vote by mail. In this next election, aside from whatever Trump's up to, there's going to be voter suppression efforts. There is going to be the potential of a health scare. You know, people are gonna, will we be safe to go in a traditional way to a polling place where there's big crowds, and will the poll watchers be safe? You know, we just had that election in Wisconsin and it was risky and some people get sick. So what we want to do is have vote by mail, all across the country and give the voter that right. So if I want to vote by mail, you want to vote by mail, you get that right. So that is in anticipation of both shenanigans and health concerns.
Congressman Peter Welch. The only congressman from all of Vermont. Lots of senators, two of them. One, congressman, and we appreciate you being here with us, Peter. We know how hard you have to work.
Thank you, but no, I mean, it's Vermonters working hard, but I'm delighted to be here, Alan