Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) On The Urgent Need For COVID Relief

It’s been 321 days since the first COVID-19 case was reported in the United States.  It’s been 282 days since the first COVID-19 death was reported in the United States.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate in November was 6.7 percent, nearly double the rate in November of last year.  Hundreds of thousands of small businesses across the country have closed, permanently, due to COVID.

As of today, there are more than 14.8 million reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States – one million more than just a week ago.  More than 282,000 Americans have died.

And it has been 256 days since the Senate passed the CARES Act.  Two hundred and fifty-six days since the Senate acted in a comprehensive, meaningful way to address the real – and mounting – concerns and needs of our constituents.  Healthcare workers and caregivers, business owners and employees, teachers and students – all in need of support in these difficult and uncertain times.  Families wrestling with heightened food insecurity, and the threat of eviction hanging over them.  States strapped by budget shortfalls, forced to lay off thousands of employees.

It’s been 205 days since the House first passed the HEROES Act.  And it’s been 65 days since they stepped forward to offer a substantial compromise on the HEROES Act, and pass it again. 

And where does it sit?  On the Republican Leader’s desk, collecting dust, as the largest, and most significant bill in the McConnell legislative graveyard.

Like millions of Americans, I am encouraged by the news in recent weeks that pharmaceutical companies are making significant progress in vaccine development.  I am encouraged that some of those vaccines may be available as early as later this month.  But let’s not forget why we were able to develop vaccines so quickly – it is because of long-standing federal investments in cutting edge research at the National Institutes of Health.   NIH-funded research in genetic and genomic sequencing enabled the rapid and efficient pivot to COVID-19 research that led to the vaccine.  This is the power of federal dollars, targeted to solve a national problem.  And this is what we need more of now.     

The development of several promise vaccines is great news.  But without a comprehensive plan in place – and the resources to implement it – how can we ensure vaccination is safe, effective, widely available, and free?

It is a complete abdication of our responsibility as elected representatives that we have simply failed to act.  Now, I know that my friends across the aisle will rush to the Floor, and blame Democrats for stalling their inadequate face-saving proposal that they went through the motions to bring forward before the elections.  Sure, that proposal made some investments in small businesses, and provided some unemployment relief, albeit at significantly reduced levels.  But it also tied educational relief to forcing kids back into the classroom, even when conditions were not safe to accommodate it.  It failed to deliver on relief to state and local governments, which are continuing to try to provide essential services to their communities.  It included nothing for Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP), no funding for mental health service, no funding for nutrition assistance, not a dime for NIH research, and it failed to put forward a vigorous plan or investment in vaccination production and distribution.

So what did it do?  Create a shield for corporate misconduct.  Republicans are more keen to shield corporate cronies than to work on behalf of the American people.  It’s a sham.  And it’s a shame.

In my home state of Vermont, the Governor and state legislature, and mayors and town leaders across the state have taken bold moves to slow the spread of COVID.  These moves – which have resulted in lower instances of the virus than elsewhere in the country – have not come without cost.  Unemployment remains, and small businesses continue to struggle.  And that says nothing of the personal hardships families are facing across our small state.

One elderly woman called my office, expressing frustration with the President.  She also told my staff that she’s only been able to visit her husband, who is in a medical rehab facility, a couple of times during this pandemic, due to COVID restrictions.  This isn’t an anecdote – it’s a tragedy. 

In Vermont, the state and local governments are worrying about how to clear the roads this winter if COVID hits the plow crews.  Snow removal isn’t a luxury in Vermont in the winter – it’s a necessity.

My staff has spoken with one Vermont mother who is raising a son with autism.  With school systems strained to their limits, special education services have been sharply reduced.  This will have lasting impacts on these students, both educationally and socially.

And, for those facing challenges like addiction, depression, or mental health issues, or who were simply down on their luck before COVID hit earlier this year, access to vital resources like counseling or intervention has been made more complicated by COVID restrictions, often with tragic results.  I have heard of one Vermonter who passed away, alone, in a motel room in Rutland in October.  Battling mental health issues, he’d become homeless just as COVID struck earlier this year, and due to the risks of the virus, family and friends were unable to take him into their homes.  This isn’t just a story; it’s a man’s life.  And there are so many more people out there facing the same struggles.

We are seeing images of car lines at food banks stretching for miles as an unprecedented wave of food insecurity is washing over our country.  In my state alone, one in every four Vermonters are now food insecure.  Before this pandemic, it was already an unacceptable one in 10. 

We are asking children to learn without providing the necessary resources to their teachers, families to pay rent without their jobs, and people to deal with their chronic illnesses while our hospitals are all stretched to capacity.  All of this while an unacceptable amount of people are unsure how they will put food on the table through the end of the week.  It is unconscionable. 

And the leadership across the aisle here in the Senate says we only need a targeted approach, and they point to the stock market as proof?  Nonsense.  The economy will not recover until we vanquish the virus.  It is that simple, and that basic.  And people are suffering now.   This is the cost of inaction.  Inaction on real, comprehensive, bold COVID relief legislation. 

Now, with our backs against the wall with a funding deadline looming, we are racing to accomplish what should have been done months ago: annual appropriations bills to keep our government running.  We must pass these bills before Congress adjourns this year so there are no disruptions in government services during this difficult time in our country.  That would only exacerbate the growing problems facing many Americans today.   But our annual appropriations bills are no substitute for the significant investment we need to confront this national – and international – emergency.  We need a comprehensive COVID relief bill.  It’s time to get serious.

Time is wasting.  How many hours have we spent racing to confirm nomination after nomination, at the expense of everything else, including dealing with the emergency of this pandemic, while COVID cases soar and more and more people succumb to this virus?  How much more time will the Senate waste, while American families and communities suffer?  It’s time for us to do our job.  The American people are suffering enough.  We shouldn’t be adding to that strain by playing politics with these essential priorities.

I am hearing from Vermonters, every day, worried about unemployment benefits, their children’s education, their health or that of their loved ones, about food security, and about keeping their homes and paying their bills.  The Senate, at its best, is the conscience of the nation.  It’s long past time we start acting like it.  Two hundred and fifty-six days since the Senate took meaningful action.  We shouldn’t wait one day longer.

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