Leahy Statement On The Need To Pass Another COVID-19 Emergency Appropriations Bill

Over three months ago, Congress came together in rare bipartisan fashion to pass the CARES Act, to help address the unprecedented needs of the country and the American people as it began to address a global pandemic.  It was the third emergency appropriations bill Congress has passed this year to address the impact of the coronavirus, yet despite its scope and size, we knew then that absent a miracle, it would not be the last one required.  

Since that time, the number of COVID-19 cases have continued to grow at an alarming rate, as have the number of deaths.  Each death has left in its wake friends, family, and loved ones, all devastated by a loss that can never be undone.  In those three months, we have also seen our economy grind to a halt.  More than 47 million men and women have filed for unemployment.  Families are struggling to pay their bills.  They are worried about putting food on the table, paying their rent, and caring for their children.  Lines at food banks are at historic highs, including in my home state of Vermont.  For many, the situation is desperate. 

I wish I could say we are through the worst of it and that things can now return to normal, but we can’t.  Florida, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Alabama, and Oklahoma, just to name a few, are seeing an alarming spike in cases.  Health experts are ringing the alarm bell, including the Secretary of Health and Human Services who had previously defended this Administration’s anemic response.  This virus is far from vanquished.  As numbers continue to rise across the nation, and new hotspots emerge, it is clear we need another emergency appropriations bill to address this epidemic, and we need it now.     

At times like this the country needs real leadership and vision.  We need to get out in front of this crisis, not respond after the fact.  Clearly, that leadership is not coming from the White House.  The President believes that opening the economy and fighting the virus are competing actions.  This is a false choice.  I believe that only by effectively fighting the virus can we reopen the economy. 

Over six weeks ago, the House passed the HEROES Act.  It is a strong proposal that provides assistance to struggling families, supports state and local governments, battles the virus by funding a responsible testing program, and recognizes the sacrifices being made by grocery store clerks, first responders, nurses, doctors, truckers and more.  It makes critical changes to programs like SNAP, which support some of those among us who are struggling the most.

What has the Senate done since that time?  Nothing.  Despite numerous calls from myself and Democratic leadership in the Senate, weeks have gone by and the White House and the Republican Majority refuse to move forward on a bill, or even start negotiations.

The Majority Leader has publicly stated that he and the White House want to take a “pause” before considering any further emergency legislation related to COVID-19.  The White House alternates between silence on the issue, and sending contradictory messages on what it thinks needs to be done.  But while we wait, cases continue to climb, the death toll mounts, and people continue to struggle. 

To the members on the other side of the aisle that say it is premature to act on another bill, I ask you to consider what we already know. 

At the end of the July, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program Congress included in the CARES Act expires.  This program provides an additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits to more than 28 million Americans.  In many cases, this money is the difference between paying rent and getting evicted.  This money keeps the electricity on and food on the table. 

At the same time, many state-initiated eviction moratoriums are expected to expire soon, and the eviction moratorium for people in federally-assisted housing included in the CARES Act expires in July.  The one-two punch of the expiration of federal unemployment benefits with the end of eviction protections has the potential to displace a record number of people into homelessness.  

As eviction proceedings mount and Americans find they have no way to pay for alternative housing, the homeless shelters will almost certainly swell.  But the shelters themselves are already overcapacity and ill-equipped to handle an influx.  We must act. 

And what about our struggling small businesses?  As of today, the Small Business Administration can no longer approve loans from the popular Personal Paycheck Protection (PPP) program.  The fact that the economy has done as well as it has under very difficult circumstances, can be attributed in part to this program.  But we are far from out of the woods, and small businesses still need help. 

Parents are worried about their children as they struggle with finding safe child care and wonder if schools are going to open in the fall.  If and when they open, many schools will be using some form of online instruction.  But, over 16 million children in this country do not have internet service at home, and 12 million children do not have a home computer or laptop to use.  This in the wealthiest nation in the world.  We need to close this gap by providing reliable internet and broadband service to the millions of households in this country who do not have it.  All kids deserve a good education, not just those from families who can afford it.  Coming from a rural state, this is something I am particularly concerned about.  We can’t wait until the fall to figure this out.  It will be too late. 

We also need to protect our elections.  Due to the pandemic, voters are using common sense and choosing to vote by mail in record numbers.  Many states are unprepared to meet this demand.  Yet Congress has provided only a fraction of the funding needed by states to prepare for the general election so voters do not have choose between voting and getting sick.  By not taking up another emergency spending bill and providing more resources, we are jeopardizing the effectiveness, safety, and efficiency of our elections, and we risk disenfranchising voters who may not receive ballots or who fear standing in line during the epidemic. 

States cannot cover election costs on their own.  They are cash-strapped already from responding to the epidemic.  The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has estimated that states will face budget shortfalls of $615 billion over this fiscal year and the next two fiscal years as a result of COVID.  The Wall Street Journal has estimated that state and local governments have already furloughed or eliminated 1.5 million jobs since the pandemic began.  These are teachers, firefighters, and healthcare workers.  Often the people who are on the frontline of this crisis.  They need our help.  Congress needs to enact another tranche of funding for state and local governments to help them deal with lost revenue or our economy will never recover.

As revenues fall and costs to address COVID increase, Native American tribes have also been forced to furlough workers, curtail healthcare services, and in some cases close down clinics entirely. 

There are numerous other examples of urgent needs, too many to list.  Due to declining revenues and incoming fees, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) may be forced to cut back drastically on services, and furlough at least 13,000 employees, including up to 1700 in Vermont, by August 2nd.  That is four short weeks from now.  The notice to these employees went out this week, leaving these dedicated employees and their families in limbo wondering if they will have a job in August and wondering why Congress will not act to prevent it. 

COVID has caused a three month delay in field operations for the Census and the Department of Commerce needs additional money to ensure we get an accurate count.  Our federal prisons, a hotspot for COVID, have already depleted the money we provided to them in CARES, and need more if they are to prevent further outbreaks.  Even the Senate has depleted the funding Congress provided in CARES to conduct deep cleaning of the Capitol and Senate and House buildings, and to provide important personal protective equipment for Senators and staff. 

And it is imperative that America step up and address this pandemic abroad.  COVID-related needs around the world are spiking.  We cannot defeat the virus right here at home if we do not act now to assist other countries in the global fight against this pandemic.  

Senate Republicans and President Trump must demonstrate leadership and begin negotiations on the next relief bill now, so we can pass a bill next month.  Delay makes no one safer, does nothing to box in the virus, and does nothing to reopen the economy. 

In a few short days, the Senate is scheduled to recess for two-weeks. We lost the window in June to address these issues because Republican leaders refused to act.  If we do nothing else before the Senate goes out of session, we should do what all the experts agree is needed if we are going to defeat this virus:  create a comprehensive testing and contract tracing program and provide the resources needed to implement it.  This is how other countries have succeeded in flattening the curve and containing the spread.  

Yet in a shocking abdication of leadership, the President has thrown up his hands and walked away from this issue.  He even said at a recent campaign rally that we should be doing less testing, not more.  And in a sign that he wasn’t kidding, the federal government recently announced it would shut down numerous federally-funded testing sites across the country, including seven in Texas, where cases are rising.  It’s astonishing. 

If the President can’t or won’t show leadership, Congress must.  The HEROES Act created the COVID-19 National Testing and Contact Tracing Initiative.  It requires the Department of Health and Human Services in coordination with state and local governments to develop a comprehensive testing, contact tracing, surveillance, and monitoring system and it provides $75 billion implement it.  If we want to save lives, reopen the country, and get our economy going again, let’s at least pass this initiative today.     

# # # # #