Federal lawmakers have been busy in recent days and weeks with a spate of bills aimed at carrying individuals and businesses through what U.S. Representative Derek Kilmer (WA-06) calls the greatest health crisis of this generation.
But not having a comprehensive, coordinated effort on a national level to significantly increase COVID-19 testing is “a recipe for disaster,” Kilmer and other Washington state legislators wrote to Vice President Mike Pence on April 28.
Kilmer reiterated that concern in a Friday conference call with the Peninsula Daily News editorial board, including Publisher Terry Ward, Executive Editor Leah Leach and Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb.
To some degree, he said, the lack of coronavirus test kits and Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) in Washington state and elsewhere is a lack of coordination between state governments.
“We can’t depend on 50 states to come up with their own strategy,” he said.
Kilmer said a bipartisan call to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for more diagnostic tests and test kits went out on Feb. 4.
“It’s May 1 and we’re still talking about the lack of testing capacity — that’s an enormous issue,” he said Friday.
“We need to see more action on that front.”
The 2019 novel coronavirus had as of mid-day Friday affected more than 1.1 million Americans and killed more than 65,000 nationwide.
In the wake of the passage of the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act — which invested $25 billion in COVID-19 testing and requires the federal government to develop a plan to scale up testing — Kilmer, U.S. Senator Patty Murray and Rep. Kim Schrier (WA-08) wrote to Pence this week urging the creating of a strong national COVID-19 testing system. The letter was also signed by several Washington legislators, including Senator Maria Cantwell.
“Public health officials in Washington state and across the country require a strong testing system to get the information they need to determine when our states and communities can begin eventual reductions in social distancing efforts without compromising public health,” they wrote.
Help for rural communities, businesses
In Friday’s interview, Kilmer detailed Congress’ four massive pieces of legislation to address the economic impact of the 2019 novel coronavirus. The most significant came on March 27 when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law.
The $2 trillion-plus bill was designed to provide assistance to individual workers and businesses, along with state and local governments.
CARES sought to carry through individuals on unemployment to the tune of $600 per week for up to four months, and expanded the eligibility for unemployment to include part-time and contract workers.
The move was unprecedented in terms of how unemployment should function, Kilmer said Friday, but apropos for unprecedented times. Governments generally don’t want to distribute unemployment funds that are more than what a worker was already making on the job, he said, but “public health professionals do not want you knocking on doors, pounding the pavement (looking for jobs).”
“This is playing out in every community in the country,” Kilmer said.
The CARES legislation also came with targeted funds via the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a loan program that made $349 billion available to small businesses via the Small Business Administration’s existing loan program.
“The best way to not have unemployment is for (people) to not lose their jobs in the first place,” Kilmer said.
Applications for PPP loans became available on April 3, and the program ran out of funds within 13 days.
“There was a bumpy roll-out,” Kilmer noted.
Congress approved another $310 billion for small business loans via the PPP and Health Care Enhancement Act in mid-April, legislation that also benefited small- and mid-sized banks and agricultural businesses.
Kilmer is hoping to have more assistance for small businesses in coming days. On April 24, he and Rep. Madeleine Dean (PA-04) introduced their co-sponsored Restore America’s Main Street Act, seeking to “deliver immediate immediate and unrestricted relief to America’s small businesses through a first-ever small business rebate check.”
The bill would give small businesses — $1.5 million or less in gross receipts and 50 or fewer employees — a rebate check equal to 30 percent of the gross receipts reported in the previous year, up to $120,000. Self-employed individuals and certain charitable organizations would also be eligible for the rebate. Main Street rebates would not count as taxable income and not have to be repaid.
“While new programs like the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loans are providing significant assistance to millions of small businesses, many others are struggling to gain access,” Kilmer said in a statement last week. “This rebate will help our nation’s small businesses to retain employees, pay critical bills, and keep the lights on.”
Another bill, introduced on April by Rep. Joe Neguse (CO-2) and now listing 144 co-sponsors, is the Coronavirus Community Relief Act, looking to provide coronavirus relief fund for units of government with a population of 500,000 or less.
The significant economic spending is critical now, Kilmer said in Friday’s interview.
“Economists across the political spectrum, from the far left to far right and in between, say now is the time you have to make these investments, both to save lives and to avoid a great depression,” he said.
Kilmer said building in triggers that would automatically supply more funding for a particular program, along with strong oversight and safeguards, is key to keep these kinds of emergency federal funding programs effective.
“We have to ensure dollars are used as efficiently and effectively and strategically as possible,” he said. “What employers want from government is an environment of trust and predictability.”
As for long-term economic impacts of such programs, Kilmer said federal lawmakers are going to have to put in considerable work on budgeting and debt, to not “cut our way out of it tax our way out of it … (but) to have a comprehensive approach to debt as a nation.”