Reps weighing relief efforts

Congress is debating the next steps in a massive government response to the new coronavirus pandemic, now surging across the country and throwing daily life into disarray.

Even as hospitals in the hardest-hit areas record more cases of the COVID-19 illness, Congress is moving to aid the millions of workers already losing their jobs or facing shorter hours amid mandatory shutdowns.

And while local representatives — including Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, and Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-15th District — have backed bipartisan relief efforts so far, the next phase remains uncertain.

“The impact is going to be significant,” Joyce said in an interview Saturday, adding: “This is a war.”

Joyce was among 363 House members to vote for a so-called Phase 2 relief package last weekend, establishing free virus testing and making early changes to unemployment and sick leave for some workers. Those at companies with more than 50 and fewer than 500 employees are set for paid sick leave under the new law, which nevertheless leaves the vast majority of American workers without guaranteed leave.

Sick-leave reforms and business closures — some mandated by state and local governments, others resulting from dwindling demand — could mean fewer people congregating in packed restaurants, factories and offices. That’s a key element of “flattening the curve,” the process of slowing transmission rates so hospitals aren’t overwhelmed by fast-moving outbreaks.

“Mitigation needs to be addressed by each and every one of us,” Joyce, one of a handful of physicians in Congress, said. “We want to level that curve out.”

Many in Congress are calling for more, however. Economic indicators suggest a surge in unemployment far greater than during the 2007-08 financial crisis and the recession that followed. And as the Senate prepares its “Phase 3” economic package, Joyce is holding back on firm statements for or against possible provisions.

“I’m available to address all potential options,” he said. “All options will be carefully considered.”

Those options range from beefed-up unemployment benefits to large cash payments for every American. With millions out of work and facing mounting bills, some in Congress and President Donald Trump’s administration are calling for swift cash payments to every American.

A plan released last week by GOP senators would issue payments up to $1,200 for every adult and less for every child. Lower-income families would receive smaller amounts under the plan.

Republicans in the Senate were slated to release a final plan Saturday afternoon.

Joyce declined to comment on details of a possible proposal before its release. While he did not rule out cash payments or draw any legislative red lines, he called for relief to small businesses.

“All options will be carefully considered. I want to see what options are available right now … and we will make a careful, thoughtful decision,” he said.

Republicans have also considered financial assistance to industries hit hardest by the sudden economic shock: A White House proposal last week would extend hundreds of millions of dollars in bailouts to airlines, casinos and hotel operators.

“Senator McConnell has released his proposal for a third coronavirus response package,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week, “which is not at all pro-worker and puts corporations ahead of working people. … As written, it is a non-starter.”

Again, Joyce did not make a firm ruling on bailouts, although he focused on aid to small businesses.

Even as Congress tries to soften the economic blow of mass unemployment and a falling stock market, loyal Trump allies are praising the administration’s response. The White House has issued regular briefings on the federal response, with a so-called “whole-of-government approach” drawing many agencies into the process.

Trump himself has offered mixed messages, sometimes downplaying the pandemic’s significance or citing possible treatments as signs that it can be more easily contained. Last week, he said state officials should bear more responsibility for obtaining desperately needed medical equipment.

“Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work, and they are doing a lot of this work,” he told reporters. “The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.”

Trump’s administration has edged toward a war posture: Last week, he invoked the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era law that allows the president to order needed production. But as of this weekend, there was no indication that specific orders had been made.

Joyce said the invocation is itself an “important tool in the tool belt,” and allows the government to assess which companies can help. Hospital staff in hard-hit areas are calling for more masks, gloves and ventilators — all in short supply, and likely to get shorter.

Even if government orders come through, it’s unclear how soon supplies can be made available. On Saturday, Joyce said more has to be done to slow the spread and mitigate its effects.

“The soldiers involved in this war are the doctors, the nurses, the health care providers,” he said. “These people are the foot soldiers against the coronavirus.”

Lawmakers to vote from home

State General Assembly members are working from home, after historic rule changes last week ended the need to be physically present in the Capitol to vote.

With Gov. Tom Wolf closing “non-life-sustaining” businesses across the state in response to the new coronavirus outbreak, lawmakers are debating plans to mitigate the effects and extend help to struggling workers.

But some complained that gathering in a crowded chamber would be dangerous, with health officials advising against large gatherings and calling for people to keep their distance.

The House voted to enable remote voting, while the Senate is enabling members to vote from home on COVID-19 legislation.

“In light of the declared world pandemic and our commonwealth’s methodical response, this is a good short-term approach to get work done in Harrisburg,” House Democratic Leader Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Cheswick, said in a written statement. “Once we had a chance to explain our concerns to Republican leaders we were able to reach agreement. They also agreed with us there’s no value in quickly throwing together incomplete legislation in the crisis.”

Ryan Brown writes a political column for the Mirror.