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Steady Habits: Finding a path to reopen Connecticut — and America
Congressman John Larson, an 11-term Democrat from East Hartford, has agreed to join President Donald Trump’s task force to reopen the American economy. Here’s what he plans to tell the president.
Date: Wednesday, April 22, 2020
Congressman John Larson is the only member of the Connecticut congressional delegation asked to be part of the “Opening Up America Again” congressional group assembled by President Donald Trump. This group is a sprawling and nominally bipartisan assemblage that features three times as many Republicans as Democrats.
Congressional lawmakers have also been negotiating over a new chunk of money to go out to small businesses hurt by the coronavirus pandemic. We talked on Tuesday afternoon just as the Senate was passing a nearly $500 billion relief package. But even after it’s approved by the House and the president, it may only be a fraction of the money that many Americans need to keep going.
Larson has been in Washington for 20 years. He’s a Democrat serving in a partisan, polarized Congress. And he’s right now unable to do the thing that he just loves to do, shake hands and talk with people in person.
So, John Dankosky and the congressman talked by phone. Dankosky asked him about his decision to serve on President Trump’s congressional group.
Listen to the episode using the player above or read an edited transcript of the conversation below.
Episode 12: Full Transcript
Joining the “Opening Up America Again” Task Force
LARSON: I think anytime that you’re asked by the president, no matter who it is, in the midst of a national and global crisis that we’re in currently to help solve both the coronavirus and standing-up-theeconomy issue, you roll up your sleeves and give it your best. And from the perspective of being from Connecticut and New England, it’s good to have an oar in the water, so to speak, and to be in close contact with Governor Lamont and his team and the work that they’re doing regionally with the governors from this area because of the unique situation that Connecticut finds itself in, being bookended between two very hot spots in New York and Boston. And the special circumstances that that creates.
DANKOSKY: You guys have another meeting planned?
LARSON: Well, funny you should ask that, John. I think one of the skepticisms, a healthy skepticism that all of us had was when will the next meeting be? It’s called together by the president and somewhat by the vice president, who, as you also know, has a task force. The more skeptical would say that this was window dressing for the president to say that we’re attacking and going after this in a bipartisan nature.
DANKOSKY: One could say that.
LARSON: But I think the truth of the matter is that it’s up to the members of the committee. And the president did ask for you to put forward your suggestions. And we’re going to come full force with our suggestions in terms of the kinds of testing, the kinds of treatment, the goal of of a vaccine, all of that, which is so vitally important and I believe inextricably linked. What we need to be doing for minority communities and what we need to be doing in an emergency basis with regard to Social Security, because the elderly are the most vulnerable group that is susceptible, even though this virus will attack young and old. But the most susceptible are the elderly. And I think in talking to our mayors and first selectmen and in talking to our health care professionals in this region, I don’t have hard data. But the anecdotal data and what I’m hearing from them is that that is ringing true. And so that’s where we need to continue to put our emphasis.
We’re also going to try to do some patriotic things. I hope that we can get people to focus on creating a “victory over the virus” bond drive so that we can appeal to people’s patriotism and to people that have means and haven’t been impacted or even those that want to just roll up their sleeves and do something. How about going to a dedicated fund within the Treasury? Much like we did during the Second World War. But in this case, with the money directed, going towards testing and treatment and towards a vaccine and standing up our impacted businesses again in a way that we could, through bonds, allow everybody to be able to participate as they did during the Second World War.
DANKOSKY: I’m wondering if you see this question of opening up America again while we’re still in the midst of this crisis — maybe a little bit past the apex, but certainly not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination — I wonder if in some ways we’re setting this up as a false choice, right? Like there’s there’s a whole team to get America back working again and then there’s this whole other team trying to figure out how we get through this and save as many lives as possible. I guess I’m wondering how you’re viewing this dynamic right now, because so many people are concerned about getting back to work before we’re even out of the woods.
LARSON: Well, it is the appropriate question and it is the conundrum. And here’s how I’ve approached it. John. Look, you have to understand, and I know you do, and I’m sure most of your listeners do as well, that the health of the nation and the health of the economy are inextricably linked and tied. And so therefore, in order to proceed in terms of economic recovery, since consumers make up 70 percent of the GDP of the country, if they don’t feel safe in secure of going back to work or back out into venues where they will consume, then the recovery will not be what we anticipate or hope or expect.
And so it’s incumbent that we don’t put the cart before the horse, so to speak, and that we have in place the kind of testing, the tracking and the treatment that well, frankly, another Connecticut resident from Westport, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who is now at the American Enterprise Institute and formerly of the FDA, has, I think, outlined very well in a very strong plan. The various degrees of it are being adopted even by this administration.
The conundrum comes in, and when you hear Dr. Fauci and others talking about this saying, well, there are some parts of the nation that are not in the same kind of situation that say Connecticut is bookended between Boston and New York or those metropolitan areas or the Northeast. And even on the West Coast, we’ve seen progress in Washington state and Oregon and California, especially. But by no means are we out of the woods yet. And Dr. Fauci and others are saying that what we need to do is establish that criteria. And everyone on that committee, the first hearing that we had there was in our person on the committee that didn’t suggest that what we need is more testing and testing.
Testing seems to be the key and probably the key to instill confidence amongst consumers that, yes, this is going to be handled appropriately and will restore in them the confidence that it’s safe to go back out from their own standpoint, not withstanding those that are tired of being cooped up, those that are willing to risk all or who feel that this might be a hoax. I will say that the president at least has continued through his health advisers to push back on that. And hopefully as we go forward, it’s those guidelines and, I think, rightfully recognizing that it is not he that will determine that, but it will be the various health departments and governors within their respective states and communities.
And even in the state of Connecticut, the northwest corner may be less impacted than Fairfield County, say, and and vice versa. And so we’re going to find these anomalies. And that’s, I think what we have to make sure that we’re navigating, but doing so with relying on the science and the experts and the health and well-being first and foremost in dealing with this virus as a health crisis, which again, as I said earlier, is inextricably linked to the overall health and well-being of our economy because of the relationship between consumerism, the GDP and a healthy country and a healthy economy.
Increasing Testing to Avoid an ‘Uneven Recovery’
DANKOSKY: So in order to get there, you’re talking about — and many people are talking — about testing. A few weeks ago on our podcast, we talked with Dr. Howard Forman from Yale, who is saying we need to do like a million tests a day. And we are, sir, not even close to that. So how do we get anywhere near the number of tests we need to do in the amount of time we need to do it to start to think about how we open things up? Because, I mean, we’re not get anywhere close to where we need to be to make that happen.
LARSON: You’re right. I think he said we need a million a day and we’re at, what, 50,000? I think we might be up to 100,000, which is still a long shot. And I don’t— there wasn’t a person on the call who didn’t emphasize that there needs to be more testing. What I found interesting and again, another conundrum is that the president was kind of trying to shift the blame. Towards states saying, well, that will be the state responsibility. Clearly, it’s a federal responsibility. This is a global pandemic, a national pandemic.
And these governors have been out pleading for more testing. It’s why a number of us, myself included, have, you know, made sure that we came up with a defense production plan for the country, which the president has the executive authority to do. And we ought to be able to expand and do these tests and ought to be able to get to this point. Or as you point out, John, and as the professor from Yale pointed out, I think it is going to make it problematic for people, even though they may have good intentions of getting back, even though they may feel fine if the doubt still lingers in people’s minds and there isn’t the assurity that you can give them, I think it makes for an uneven recovery at best.
And the goal should be to have a solid rebound and solid recovery and restore the confidence in people, both the consumer confidence and the confidence that government is doing all that it can to assist in the ongoing testing and the PPEs, which, you know, as you know, is the personal protective equipment the gear, in essence — the gowns, the caps, the the boots, the masks, the shields and of course, the ventilators and everything else that goes with that — and why I think it’s so important that we pass yet another tranche of that money on Thursday of this week.
Breaking Down Stimulus 3.5 and Stimulus 4.0
DANKOSKY: Now, John Larson and I were talking about the money that Congress is going to appropriate for the first responders, for people who are dealing with this health crisis and also the money that they’re going to put into this $500 billion dollar package to try to help small businesses that are really, really struggling. But there’s so many other needs right now. The thing I asked him about is even with billions, trillions of dollars appropriated, is it anywhere near enough?
LARSON: Well, the the short answer, of course, is no. And it’s a little bit more complicated than that. But and you mentioned the politics of it. I would say the values behind it as well.
And we’ve seen this in the three previous packages that we’ve had. This is now being appropriately named “3.5” because it doesn’t represent new spending, but it represents money going back out the door to the impacted businesses, as you’ve already mentioned, the through the paycheck protection program.
There’s some 310 billion additional dollars scheduled to go out the door, including another 50 to 60 billion, which is going to be debated in the Senate this afternoon for EIDL, which is the Economic Injury Disaster Loan again for small businesses, which will represent an increase there, $75 billion for hospitals and community health centers and health systems, which remember, this was going to be a $250 billion package last week.
But Democrats in the Senate and under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi and Rich Neal in the House insisted that, no, we have to take care of hospitals and we need to continue to focus on testing. And we also need state and local government relief. We are going to get an additional $75 million for hospitals and health care centers, $25 billion for the aforementioned testing, which is so important.
And while this is a compromise bill that will be voted on today in the Senate and then on Thursday in the House, we also expect there’ll be a fourth package. And what we understand is that the main focus of that fourth package will be state and local government that Democrats were arguing should have been in this package. But the compromise is to deal, as you say, with the run that’s occurred on this already by so many small businesses that find themselves in this situation, many who are still were approved but waiting for money, some that have had to wonder whether or not if there’s a second tranche, if they’ll be included in that.
Our office has been inundated with calls with respect to that. And John, after all, what could be wrong with sending money out the door to banks and asking them to distribute it? Right? Nothing could go wrong with that.
DANKOSKY: Nothing could possibly go wrong.
LARSON: We’re arguing very strenuously for oversight and review and accountability. Suffice it to say, there will be an awful lot of that. But the idea was that the effort to get money out the door and anytime you pass legislation as broadly as the CARES Act was with two trillion dollars in a five day period — that’s record time for the United States Congress — and clearly, while it is money that’s needed to address this pandemic, where that money goes, how it’s spent, is it most efficiently and effectively spent in whose hands it goes into. We’ve already seen, as I’m sure you know, that corporations that were doing quite well and didn’t have need for this money were receiving grants and loans. Some have given the money back. Others have not.
Balancing Stimulus for Big and Small Businesses
DANKOSKY: But if you don’t mind, let me stop you on that, though, because I think that that actually brings up a really important point about the lessons learned about our economy after we get out of all this. We have all these thousands of small businesses clamoring, saying we need a little help in order to just stay afloat. And we could have a mass extinction event of small businesses, not just in Connecticut, but in America. But the big corporations, whether or not they get any money out of this particular package or not, they were always set up to be fine in many of the big employers in our state have been the recipients of massive state tax breaks and federal handouts over the years as well.
I’m just wondering, sir, if there’s a way in which we might use this time to rethink the balance of how many millions of Americans are employed by small businesses that don’t get very much help at all from state or federal government. But we seem to spend all of our time worrying about the big defense contractor who does employ maybe tens of thousands of people, but doesn’t exist on the same razor thin margins as the pizzeria or the small equipment manufacturer.
LARSON: Right, that is the essential point. And I think in Connecticut, the SBA has approved 11,930 loans, which, you know, is important. And I think that’s close to three billion dollars that has gone out.
But I think your question is that as we look at what is the backbone of the American economy, and then when we look at, you know, our major employers in the area, which certainly we want to make sure that we’re providing the right kind of structure in an environment. But this is a far different crisis than what we were presented with after the great crash of 2008, 2009, and even far different than our response to terrorism after September the 11th of 2001. So we know how we deal with this, and to your point, how we look at this, and that’s why I think both in the short and long term, a thorough analysis of this — the oversight and review both for the short term and long term and its impact on the respective businesses that we’re seeking to help — is something that’s going to be paramount.
And in terms of our going forward and, I think, to your point is going to reshape the way we think about policy in the future. And it’s not anything that anyone should be proud of, or excited about, but in a crisis of this nature, I think it was Frances Perkins who said to Franklin Delano Roosevelt that, it’s one thing to address the crisis in government, to weigh in with the kind of monetary support that only large government can do. But if we are not structurally looking at what happens after the coronavirus passes — and it will pass — and if we have just thrown money at the problem and I don’t come away with the kind of structural change that we’re seeking so that after the virus passes and the economy stands back up, where are we? And what lessons have we learned? And where have we put our resources?
I have been clamoring for emergency focus on Social Security in the short term and then long term planning on this. You know, after the crash of 2008-2009, 90 percent of all Americans still haven’t recovered their wealth and assets. And what a witness their 401k become a 101k. And then even though the economy had been roaring and people were saying, well, things are different and the economy is back, etc. now with the stock market coming down again, people are experiencing that same thing. And yet Social Security’s never missed a payment. And always been there and has been woefully underfunded and hasn’t been made sustainably solvent in 37 years. That was the last time under Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill that Social Security was addressed with respect to solvency, and not coincidentally, this year is marking the first year we’ll be paying more money out of Social Security than is coming in with more than 10,000 baby boomers a day becoming eligible for Social Security.
So if we’re not fixing the underlying structure and problems when we come out of this, when we talk about security and health and the well-being of the nation, then to your point, I think we have missed an opportunity. And whether that’s with respect to small businesses as the backbone and infrastructure issues and where we should be spending our money and what that means in terms of revitalizing the economy, then we’ve missed a grand opportunity. And we continue to insist that those have got to be part of future packages.
DANKOSKY: You made a reference earlier. I was talking about the politics of all this and you made a distinction. You said that this in some ways these debates have to do with values. Can you describe what you’re talking about?
LARSON: Yeah, well, if the value here is about small business and the value here is about the hospitals, the argument with McConnell in this instance was he said, no, listen, we’re just going to put the additional $250 billion into small businesses. That was efficient. And we want that out there. We want it even more strings attached to that in terms of oversight and review. And a general argument was between getting the money out the door and also the latitude of the lenders and the market system to work its way and for people to go through that process.
We said in addition to that — wait a minute — it just can’t be about putting more money out the door. We’ve all witnessed what’s going on with our first responders and those out on the on the frontlines, the true heroes and heroines of this crisis. The doctors, the nurses, the health care providers, the people in the nursing homes, the truck drivers, the grocery clerks. And of course, John, everybody understands and realizes that the you know, the police, the fire, the EMT, the our first responders that have been on the front lines, they need this additional — while we talk about PPP and Washington loves these acronyms — PPE, you know, the personal protection equipment that is so vital and critical to their safety and well-being.
Changing Our Perspective on ‘Essential’ Workers
DANKOSKY: Though does it make us think, once this crisis is over, about the reality of these a lot of these frontline workers you’re talking about people working in nursing homes, people who are working stocking supermarket shelves? It’s almost as though we want to stand behind them and we want to get them the protection that we they need, but then we’re all going to be just fine with them going back to making $9 an hour and having no health benefits afterward. How does that change?
LARSON: Well, you know, again, go back to the party that’s talking about paid family and medical leave, increasing the minimum wage to make sure it’s a livable wage. Changing and enhancing Social Security. Fixing the Affordable Care Act, making accessibility to health and looking at a problem that this is exposed also. And I made this clear on day one on the task force. If we’re not going to look at the impact and the impact specifically on minority communities, not only in our densely populated cities, but I was in Alabama talking about Social Security, you know, back in early February. And we’ve looked and seen the way that this disease strikes the most vulnerable. And the most vulnerable are the elderly. And the most vulnerable amongst the elderly are people of color and women of color specifically.
That’s the data. That’s the facts. And if we don’t get back and fix those issues and those are, again, underlying issues that are exacerbated when we’re dealing with a crisis like this, because it just points out the existing vulnerability that the disease is able to capitalize on in terms of one’s immune system.
And what we need to do about that in terms of the health and well-being of the entire country is to make sure that we’re fixing all the access problems. We’re fixing all the problems with respect to— imagine the attempts to do away with preexisting conditions and the inability to actually see a doctor or a community health center.
I got to commend Governor Lamont again and the 211 line. Anyone listening to this, and people should know this, whether you have insurance or don’t or whether you think, oh, my God, my deductible might be too high. It does not matter. Call that line. Whether you have a regular physician or you have none, you can go to call that line. They will direct you. You will get the medical attention and the testing that you need. That testing is absolutely free. And go get it done for your health and well-being.
DANKOSKY: Congressman Larson, it’s always good to talk with you. Please stay safe and we’ll be back in touch with you.
LARSON: All right. You as well, John. Thanks so much.
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On “Steady Habits,” our goal is to foster meaningful conversations with newsmakers and the journalists who cover them. We’re planning to dig into some of Connecticut’s biggest stories in policy and politics.
John Dankosky, a 25-year radio journalist in Connecticut, will serve as the program’s host.