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Steady Habits: Three lessons for governing after the pandemic
Congressman Jim Himes has spent some time in recent days debating whether to give himself a buzz cut. Mostly, though, he’s been thinking about what can be learned from the coronavirus pandemic to mitigate a crisis of this magnitude in the future.
Date: Wednesday, April 29, 2020
For the second time in his nearly 12 years in Washington, Congressman Jim Himes is watching a global economic crisis unfold. The public health element of this crisis makes it far different than the Great Recession, of course. But having a front row seat in government for these two catastrophic events has shaped the congressman’s thinking on how to dampen the some of the worst aspects of future crises.
He tells “Steady Habits” host John Dankosky there are three lessons he believes government can learn from today’s public health and economic calamity to mitigate a crisis of this magnitude in the future.
“My god, have we learned some lessons,” he says.
Later, the congressman offers his thoughts on voting amid the pandemic, and what threat foreign interference might pose as the United States adapts its election systems to the crisis.
Listen to the episode using the player above or read an edited transcript of the conversation below.
Episode 13: Full Transcript
Himes’ Life in Quarantine
DANKOSKY: Who’s cutting your hair, Jim Himes?
HIMES: Right now, nobody’s getting my hair, but I will tell you that I’ve looked at more than one YouTube video on giving yourself a buzz cut. So it may it may happen.
DANKOSKY: I was gonna say because at a certain point it’s got to happen, right? Something’s gotta give.
HIMES: That’s exactly right. By the way, if you’re an elected official and you know, you get your picture taken from time to time to the buzzcut is a little bit of a belief. And, you know, when we’re gonna be back to normal because part of me says, you know, I even if I screw up my buzzcut, you know, it’s gonna be a while before anybody sees me in public. On the other hand, you know, if things go well and I look like an idiot, you know?
DANKOSKY asks what it’s been like for HIMES being away from Washington and working remotely like a lot of us.
HIMES: Well, the days are long. You know, I typically start the day with an 8:45 conference call with my staff to lay out the day and talk about issues. And, you know, the issues fall into a couple of categories. One is, you know, making sure that we are doing all we can to disseminate information about all the resources that are out there for people that might be, you know, how you can get your unemployment insurance, you know, problems getting the $1,200 payments. Then there’s a category of things which is about talking about the next package. And you know what needs to be in it and what kind of feedback we’re getting and, you know, what are the problems with the resources that have been made available? And then it is just call after Zoom call after a webinar after WebEx after Google Hangout after Facebook Live, you know, until I sort of feel like I might keel over at about eight or nine o’clock at night.
Trade-Offs in the Stimulus Package
DANKOSKY: Yeah, it gets tiring. And I think it’s harder to keep an eye on the clock. Well, let me ask you about the packages. First of all, the money that Congress has appropriated for small businesses specifically. You know, you’re reading today in The Washington Post, you’ve already got industry leaders saying, great, we got another $310 billion, but that could run out in just a couple days because big companies might snatch all that up. What are you doing to make sure that the money that is supposed to be going to people who need it the most — businesses that are really on the edges and really struggling right now — how do you make sure that those people get it and not big companies that, frankly, don’t need the money?
HIMES: Yeah, well, look, I think we should be honest about the nature of the program, right? You said it was supposed to go to the people who needed it the most. That’s actually not right. And I don’t feel good about that. It was supposed to get a lot of money out really quickly. There was no mechanism in the original CARES bill to create a screening process where you could say, OK, here’s a, you know, 10 person restaurant that’s about to go under. This person should move to the front of the line relative to a publicly traded company that maybe has, you know, a bank line. So when you say it was supposed to, I mean, we need to be clear about this, it wasn’t. And that may have been a mistake. But the trade off and, you know, life is a series of tradeoffs, the tradeoff was remember when the first CARES bill passes, you know, 20 million Americans have already been thrown out of work. Most businesses are saying, I probably have a day or two, maybe a week before I have to start firing people or even closing my doors. And so, you know, the Congress acted extremely quickly through a tried and true mechanism that’s, you know, the bank’s 7a lending mechanism. So this was a case where, whether we like it or not and whether it was the right decision or not, the Congress chose to go with speed, right?
Unemployment is skyrocketing. Businesses are shuttering their doors. The Congress could have taken a different decision. It could have said we’re going to set up a process whereby we evaluate each individual business’ need. We do a check to make sure that the business didn’t have some kind of legal settlement with the Department of Justice. We’re gonna do a check to you know, we could have layered that all in. That would have imposed weeks and weeks and weeks, additional weeks in the process. That’s just not something that can happen overnight, as we’re seeing with the unemployment insurance reforms that we made in the CARES Act.
So, again, I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing, but this program was designed to get a ton of money out quickly and it did that. What it didn’t do was precisely the thing you point out, which is that, you know, it would’ve been nice if there had been a system to get it to those businesses that were really on the verge of collapsing.
DANKOSKY: I’ll back up and say, when I say supposed to, I think that that was the expectation that many Americans had for what was going to come out of these packages. Speed is, of course, a really of the essence right now, we need to get the money out there no matter what, but I think that everyone wants to make sure that it is going to the people in the businesses that need it the most. Now that we’ve gotten some aid money out there and we have a chance to take a look and see how long this is going to go potentially and what a next aid package might look like, would you suggest that we change tack now and start to look more closely at getting the money to the, quote unquote, right businesses as opposed to just all the businesses that put up their hands?
HIMES: Well, we did. I mean, that’s that’s I think the good news and I don’t want to oversell the good news, but we did. I mean, let me take you back to a week ago, precisely a week ago, when Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats were getting absolutely hammered, because when the PPP program ran out of money after eight days, Mitch McConnell and the president said, we want you to come straight to Washington and approve another $250 billion in PPP money and do it right away. And no, we’re not going to listen to any considerations you have about other stuff. We ought to do.
Well, one of those considerations was, you know, hey, we got a recraft this program a little bit because the money, we’ve seen what happened, and the money didn’t get to the smallest of the small businesses. It left out and, as you know, I wrote an op ed with our state treasurer on this, it left out an awful lot of women and minority owned businesses, businesses that didn’t necessarily have, you know, long standing banking relationships or sophisticated legal departments. And so we came back and said, no, we need to fix this.
And we had other asks, too. We wanted $100 billion that we ultimately ended up getting for hospitals and testing. So anyway, we won that one. We got $60 billion set aside for the smallest community banks, for the smallest credit unions and for CDFIs. These are the community development finance institutions that work with the smallest of the small and are often in our disadvantaged communities. So we did that. We said, look, we can’t just make the same mistake all over again. We won. We got $60 billion targeted at those smallest of the small businesses. But in the meantime, we got absolutely hammered. People were saying, how come you’re holding this up? You know, with the program’s run out of money, you’ve got to get down— Well, you know, the answer is there are lots of other needs that need to be taken into account, including better targeting those smallest and most vulnerable businesses.
Three Lessons for Governing After the Pandemic
DANKOSKY: So what does it look like when we come out of crisis mode at some point? And I know that that may seem like a long way away, but all the things that you’re just talking about sort of suggest there are an awful lot of problems in the American workforce with American businesses. But just frankly in America writ large that have been uncovered by this entire crisis and a lot of people who’ve been most affected by these problems for their entire lives would say, well, you just weren’t looking closely enough. But there really is a lot that probably needs to change with the way government supports business. What have you learned about this? What do you think that we could do in a post-pandemic, post-crisis mode to rethink the way that we do all of this stuff that we’re doing and how we best get small businesses the type of support they need so that they can be this economic engine for America?
HIMES: Yeah, great, great question, John. And let me offer you three thoughts.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this because, you know, God willing and with good luck, you know, maybe a couple of months from now where we’re getting back to normal. And we can’t forget the lessons that we’ve learned. And my God, have we learned some lessons. But let me offer up three really big ones.
Number one, we got to be a lot more serious than we’ve ever been about preparation. You know, it’s the classic conundrum, right? You know, you don’t want to pay for that fire extinguisher that sitting, you know, underneath your cabinet in the in the kitchen, you know, because you what you’d rather spend that money on, you know, entertainment or food or whatever. Well, you know what? When you need it, you need it. And you better not fail to take that seriously. And we failed to take this seriously at pretty much every level, most notably at the White House, where they had good information, where they had the power, you know, starting in late January to say, boy, we better buckle down. And it’s not even just January, right? I mean, you know, we lost, you know, 3000 Americans on 9/11 and we subsequently have spent trillions of dollars in the fight against terrorism. You know, now we’ve lost approaching 60,000 Americans, right? Are we going to three months from now, are we going to forget about this and not spend a dime on better health care, on better access to health care? So that’s number one.
We got to think smart about the risks that we face, what’s really killing Americans and how we address that. Which leads me to my second thought. You know, one of the truly awful things that this coronavirus has uncovered, it’s something that we knew, John, but it’s the unbelievable disparities in access to health care. And the numbers are the numbers are not yet certain. So I don’t want to give you a super specific numbers. But you know what? If you’re black and poor in this country, if you’re Latino, if you’re an immigrant, you are far more likely to die of COVID-19 than if you’re Jim Himes or John Dankosky, you know, with good access to health care. And that just— look, if nothing else, that’s morally wrong.
Third thing, you know, you asked a really interesting question. What can we do to better support our small businesses? You know, there’s a lot we can do to better support our small businesses. We can train people better. We can educate people better. We can give them better access to capital markets. But here’s lesson number three for me. We can’t be in the business of perpetually bailing out the private sector, right? I’ve been doing this for a relatively short period of time, about a decade. And in that decade, I’ve watched two absolutely massive bailouts of the private sector. In 2009, 2008, billions and billions of dollars went to the banking sector. Just last week, billions of dollars go to the airline sector.
Now, now, I understand coronavirus is a little different than the financial services crunch because, you know, we decided to shut down the economy a couple of weeks ago. But nonetheless, look, you know, market economies don’t work if business people believe that they can take really huge risks, not keep a lot of cash on hand, spend that cash on dividends and stock repurchases, whatever it might be. And you know what? When things get ugly, the government will be there to bail me out. We just got to get away from that sort of mindset in our market economy.
Systemic Challenges to Health Care Costs
DANKOSKY: Yeah. And I think, because I want to talk about the second and third things that maybe there were related a little bit, the small business owner, though, was never expecting to get any sort of a bail out. Big corporations always expect to get a bailout, right. Whether it’s the auto industry, the airline industry, whatever. Small businesses are just looking for some cost certainty in a big part of that gets to your second point, which is health care costs. It’s the biggest chunk that most small businesses pay for. Health care costs for individuals and small businesses are nowhere near what they need to be. And that feels like the sort of thing that’s not a bailout, but it’s something the government can actually do quite a bit differently so that you put more dollars into the pockets of small business people by just overhauling the entire system by which we do things right now. Like how do we rethink that? Because those are the dollars we can really put to work for small businesses in order to grow and thrive and be successful moving forward.
HIMES: Yeah, it’s a great question, you know, and it points to a debate that has been raging since I got into this business. You know, when I was a freshman, we did the Affordable Care Act, which, you know, was a fairly incremental change to our health care system. And it expanded Medicaid and, you know, it basically made insurance, you know, a better thing in the sense that insurance companies couldn’t turn away people with preexisting conditions. But the system is just plain screwed up in a couple of obvious ways, John. You know, number one I know why we went to an employer-provided health care system right after World War II or during World War II and companies couldn’t, you know, there were wage and price controls. Companies started saying, hey, instead of giving you the raise, we’re going to give you this really good health insurance.
Well, the problem with that is that lots of people don’t have jobs or lose their jobs. And the idea that you’ll lose your health care when you lose your job is just insane. John, we’ve been living with it for a long time. But you talk to anybody else in the world, they say, why in God’s name would you let that happen? Right? Number two, I have some sympathy for you point out to small businesses. You know, a small business that is making a better widget, they should be focused on making a better widget. They shouldn’t be focused on the intricacies of providing health insurance.
So what’s the answer? You give those small businesses the option to either provide the health insurance or to help their employees.
And, you know, they would still pony up, you know, buy reasonable health insurance either on an exchange or what have you. But, John, the core of this conversation, because as you know, we Democrats like we do on so many other issues, we’ve got a, let’s say, robust debate to maybe use a euphemism, between those who are saying “Medicare for All” and those people who are saying “Medicare for All who want it,” and those people who say, no, we should just do better. But look, folks, the core problem here is that it’s unaffordable. Doesn’t matter if Medicare is paying for it or private insurance is paying for it or Medicaid, it’s unaffordable. We pay two times per capita in this country, two times what the average of the rest of the world pays. And the rest of the world gets better health results, right? I mean, that’s almost the definition of insanity or certainly the definition of inefficiency. So until we get serious about really delivering efficient, high quality health care — oh, and by the way, spending as much time thinking about solving chronic illnesses and preventing people from getting chronic illnesses — you can shuffle who pays and who insures till the cows come home and it’s still going to be unaffordable.
DANKOSKY: So the cost is too high. It’s higher here than it is in other developed countries. And they get better results. So we know that. But we’re also looking at a system in which we haven’t invested any of the dollars, clearly, that we’ve spent on health care over the course of the last decade in being ready for something like what is happening right now. I mean, I can’t imagine that the cost of regular health care goes down anytime soon, if what we’re really seeing is we need more hospital beds for a spiking pandemic. We need more frontline health care workers available to deal with something like this. I don’t know, Jim Himes, I feel like the costs are actually only going to go up after all this as opposed to come down.
HIMES: Well, it’s probably important to separate a pandemic from the overall health care system. Of course, they’re related, right? And issues of access, you know, bind those two things. But of course, and we’ve talked about this already, of course, we have to be better prepared for the pandemic. We were unprepared, quite candidly, for a whole bunch of reasons. But we also need to alter the underlying model to make it less expensive. So how do you do that? So my Republican friends like to fixate on liability, on the fact that doctors pay an awful lot of money for health insurance.
You know what? They’re not wrong. They’re not wrong about that. And you know, but they’re but they’re not entirely right either.
Right? I mean, you’ve got to think systemically here, you know, our system today, we’ll spend nothing, almost nothing to keep an individual who’s at risk of type 2 diabetes from getting type 2 diabetes. By way, it’s not expensive to do that. You get into somebodies life a little bit and you can you know, you teach him a little bit about nutrition. You know, about what foods are healthy. You know, it doesn’t cost you a ton of money, but we don’t do that. Instead, we wait for that individual to get type 2 diabetes. Now, that individual needs dialysis three times a week. And you know what? We pay for that. Medicare pays for dialysis for people of any age. And we pay you know what it costs? It costs somewhere between $50,00 and $80,000 a year. So it’s penny, what do they say?
DANKOSKY: Penny wise, pound foolish. Yes.
HIMES: We won’t pay the couple thousand bucks it takes to keep somebody from getting type 2 diabetes. But we will pay the $80,000 a year it pays to to keep that individual alive through dialysis in a tear. I mean, you know, it’s just the money, right? Imagine what life is like when you need to go in three times a week for dialysis. So that that just highlights the structural problem. And one of the reasons why our health care system is so insanely expensive.
‘Nothing Is Free’
DANKOSKY: A last thing for you just on that point, because I want to change topics quickly. When your colleagues, and I’ve seen a number of them say some version of this, which is nobody should have to pay for coronavirus testing or treatment, and invariably they get a thousand tweets that say but then why should I have to pay for my cancer or why should I have to pay for my dialysis or anything else? I mean, there we are having a conversation about Medicare for more or Medicare for all. And I guess I’m wondering when you see that, what do you think that this idea that a lot of Americans are going. Hold it. Why? Why are we going to get a free testing or free treatment for this one thing? Well, I can’t get free testing or free treatment for the thousands of other things that are more important to my life on a daily basis.
HIMES: Yeah, John. I think that feels like a really difficult problem until you’re honest about what we’re really talking about here, right? There’s no free nothing in this world. Nothing is free, right? So the idea that I can get a coronavirus test for free, I say it, right, because it’s an easy thing to shorthand. Nothing is free. So the question is not what should be free and what should not be free, but who should pay? That’s the question, right? And so the answer to that question, in my estimation is that, you know, we should have a progressive system of contributions. You know, that guarantees that every American has access to basic health care.
So, yeah, of course, a coronavirus test should be free. Why? Because some people can’t afford it, but also because if there is an economic disincentive for somebody to go out there and get that test or quite frankly, if there’s an economic disincentive because it’s going to cost you 200 bucks out of pocket to go get that annual physical, it’s going to be a health crisis, right? If I don’t get the tests and I’m positive that has societal implications. I go out and infect other people. So really the question, John, is not should we divvy up, you know, whether— Look, I think most Americans would agree that elective cosmetic surgery that’s on you, right? You know, you want to get a facelift or whatever you think, that’s on you.
I also think most Americans would agree that whether you’re rich or poor, you ought to have affordable access to lifesaving treatment. And so it’s just how do we structure a system? Because, you know, people raise hell and they say, oh, well, you’re going to have rationing, you’re going to have rationing. Guess what? We do have rationing. Don’t kid yourself. In this country, we have taken an implicit decision that we will ration health care based on whether you can pay for it or based on whether you have a job that provides health insurance. So we ration health care in this country. We just don’t do it in any thoughtful and deliberate way.
Foreign Threats to Election Security
DANKOSKY: A last thing for you here, and I want to switch gears a little bit. Another thing that I think is probably going to change substantially coming out of all this is the way in which we think about voting in America. And given what happened with the 2016 election and interference from Russia and perhaps other outside agents, do you have concerns about some sort of a mail-in ballot or going towards something that is substantially different than what we’ve done in the past given the potential for outside influence that we’ve had in previous elections?
HIMES: Yeah, great, great question, John. So it’s sort of a two-part question. What about the mechanics of actually voting? Do you do mail-in? Do you have to show up? Early voting? All that good stuff. On that, I’m pretty clear, which is that in contrast to what we’re doing and a lot of states, particularly red states and the United States, we should be making it really easy for people to vote.
So, you know, at a minimum, we should have not voting just on the second Tuesday of November, but we should have the option to mail-in your vote. You know, we should make it easy for people to vote. I don’t— I worry a little bit, but I don’t worry a lot about the ability of a foreign entity like China or Russia to alter that process. Now, they could and we need to guard against it, right? You know, voting is fundamentally electronic and we’ve got to very closely monitor that. So then you’ve got the issue of foreign meddling. And again, it’s not impossible to imagine that Russia could get into our systems. It would be hard and we would likely notice it. But what I worry a lot more about, John, is misinformation and disinformation and propaganda. Because I’ve seen it up close and personal. And we even see it happening right now. You know, there’s all these wild rumors that the Chinese are trying to circulate about how coronavirus was actually, you know, developed in a U.S. weapons lab.
It happened during the HIV crisis. There was a very deliberate Soviet attempt to tell this story to the world that HIV was developed in the United States deliberately designed to try to depopulate Africa. And that’s bad in any ordinary circumstance when we’re as polarized as we are right now. And I see this every day. I mean, you just got to go look at a Facebook page or whatever when people are absolutely desperate to hang on to that little bit of information which validates their preexisting beliefs.
You know, we are ripe for the picking on disinformation and propaganda. And, you know, there’s something government can do about that. And the security services are very good at naming and shaming, you know, Chinese bad actors. And, you know, we indicted the Russian Internet Research Agency. But you know where the responsibility for this lies? It lies on the shoulder of every American citizen who has the great good fortune of being an American citizen. And with that great good fortune comes the responsibility to think a little critically, to not just forward that crazy email that you got that says you can cure COVID by gargling hot salt water.
DANKOSKY: But how much responsibility, you know, falls on the platforms that they’re using? On Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram or others?
HIMES: Yeah. Great question, John, and let me let me be brief since I haven’t been brief in my last answers, but the answer to that is some responsibility. You know, taking down hate speech indicating when information is clearly unfactual. But it’s a harder problem than it looks at first blush, right? Because, I mean, think about it, First Amendment in this country, it’s our core amendment. We say government doesn’t get to control the information that we see. We’ve got to be real careful about a world in which Facebook and Twitter and the other social media platforms also control the information that we see. I’m not sure I want a bunch of Mark Zuckerberg’s friends deciding that Jim Himes can see this, but can’t see that. So the best answer I can give you is that they have some responsibility to take down clearly inflammatory, hateful incitements to violence, terrorist recruiting, that kind of thing. But then you pretty quickly get into a little bit of a gray area.
DANKOSKY: Well, Congressman, thanks so much for spending some time with me. I really appreciate it.
HIMES: Thank you, John. Thanks for the opportunity.
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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.