Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. USDA photo

One of the most dynamic and striking figures in American history, General George S. Patton, was famous for saying “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Those words, which were uttered 75 years ago at a time of world crisis when he was leading the Third Army through France and Germany, ring true today, albeit during a different kind of crisis — but one that poses a lethal and devastating impact if not addressed decisively.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney

To underscore that point, last week the government’s GDP numbers released for the second quarter of 2020 showed that the U.S. economy shrunk by 10% — the largest drop since the government began recording such numbers in 1947. Even more alarming, the Department of Labor reported for the second week in a row that first-time unemployment claims grew again to 1.43 million, a trend that Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell warned, means the second quarter figures are not a fluke.

Make no mistake, the coronavirus pandemic is a world crisis that no amount of political spin can gloss over. It screams out for strong action in Washington —more specifically, in the U.S. Senate.

Last Monday, July 27, the U.S. Senate marked 73 days since passage of the HEROES Act (H.R. 6800) COVID-19 relief bill in the House of Representatives. If enacted, the HEROES Act would be the fifth Congressional response to the COVID-19 pandemic since it was declared a national emergency on Jan. 31. That same day, Republican Senate leaders -–without the support of their own caucus —- unveiled a slapdash, stingy, and purely partisan bill that was stunningly inadequate to address America’s painful ordeal. Even President Trump called it “semi-irrelevant.”

At the end of last week, as 77 days was turning into 78, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell failed to even bring his COVID-19 relief bill to the floor for a vote. Instead, stunningly, he recessed the Senate.

In contrast to the Senate, the House debated and passed the HEROES Act on May 15 —more than 11 weeks ago. The HEROES Act would ensure that struggling Americans —the unemployed, small businesses, local government and farmers, to name a few— get the continued support they need while we struggle to overcome COVID-19.

Also last week, at the same time as over 1.4 unemployed Americans applied for unemployment benefits for the first time, the emergency aid Congress created for them in the CARES Act ran out. Tragically, for two months, the Senate Majority Leader turned a deaf ear to these victims of the recession and to the warnings of Fed. Chairman Jerome Powell, saying he wanted “a pause.”  Since then, the COVID-19 virus and recession did not “pause,” and neither have the bills that working Americans and the newly poor have to pay for food, shelter, and health care.

Revenue loss and uncertainty

In Connecticut, town governments are facing revenue loss and uncertainty while they’re simultaneously taking on costly new public services for first responders. Small businesses and some large, particularly in retail and hospitality, as well as non-profit programs, are losing income, causing layoffs and closures. Farmers are still experiencing a major dip in sales and prices, and school districts and day care centers are stuck in a no-win battle to reopen safely with inadequate tools.

The House heeded the bipartisan consensus of economic experts when we passed the HEROES Act back in May. The bill would immediately pump resources to small and mid-sized towns, schools and childcare centers, workers, and many others to weather the storm of the coronavirus global pandemic. By ignoring the warning signs, the Senate wasted nearly ten weeks of time that should have been spent negotiating a new emergency relief package. Instead, millions are now on the brink of a financial cliff as federal unemployment pandemic assistance has expired in an economy with a higher jobless rate than the peak of the 2009 financial collapse.

As the bill’s title implies, the HEROES Act also contained new support for the workers who have kept this country going. Nurses, first responders, sanitation workers, postal workers, EMTs and others have continued to go to work, and deserve compensation. Many of these essential workers are in state and local government, which are in a financial tailspin right now. We’ve got to do more to support these workers, and our towns who rely on them, and the HEROES Act would.

The HEROES Act set aside $87.5 billion specifically for communities with a population of less than 50,000 —which includes every town in eastern Connecticut’s second district. That’s a first in federal assistance to local governments, and what’s more is that these funds would arrive based on a population formula, without any redirection or reduction by state government. The HEROES Act would also provide $100 billion for education, K-12 and higher education, and $25 billion in assistance  for the postal service.

Preserving employment and services in the public sector was only part of the bill. H.R. 6800 would also make smart changes to the Small Business Administration’s emergency lending programs. It would give more flexibility to allow employers to claim loan forgiveness for 24 weeks of payroll instead of the current eight, eliminate any tax liability for a small business’s use of the loan proceeds for overhead, and more. H.R. 6800 would also allow small businesses to write-off purchases for PPE and other COVID-19 expenses.

For our farming economy, the HEROES Act would create a “dairy donation” program to reimburse farmers when they donate their dairy products to local food assistance programs, as well as increase other nutrition help to take the burden off of food banks and soup kitchens. It also infuses $25 billion to a fragile U.S. Postal Service that’s operating in the red just 90 days from an election that will see absentee voting in record numbers.

It’s important to note that the 630,000-member postal workforce has stayed on the job, delivering stimulus checks, unemployment benefits and absentee ballots, despite the risk. According to the Inspector General of the Labor Department, 6,190 of them have incurred COVID-19 infections. In contract to HEROES, the Senate provided no funds for nutrition (but did make “Three Martini” business lunches fully deductible), and completely stiffed state and local governments who are on the front lines responding to both the virus and the recession. Hospitals whose ICUs are under siege got a fraction of the help afforded in the HEROES Act.

The Senate’s “pause,” which may have seemed clever to Senator McConnell months ago, now poses a malignant threat to our country’s capacity to stop the virus and shorten the recession. The House gave the Senate a blueprint for the next bipartisan aid bill over 80 days ago when we passed the HEROES Act. McConnell’s inaction has already cost our communities, and further delay will cost us even more. The Senate was always going to have difference with the HEROES Act —that’s how the legislative process works— but it’s time for them to wake up to the warnings of the Fed. Chair, Republican governors, and many in the business community about the magnitude of the crisis that’s staring us in the face.

The House is ready to move on a comprehensive package. Like the CARES Act last March, we’re ready to get another bipartisan deal done. We’ve been ready over 11 weeks, and this Friday makes 12.

Time’s up, Senator McConnell. As General Patton said, “lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat, represents eastern Connecticut’s Second District.

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