Jeff Merkley talks COVID-19

From his home in outer Northeast Portland, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley spoke by phone April 7 about the coronavirus crisis with Northwest Labor Press reporter Don McIntosh — with occasional interruptions from Sadie, his elderly Airedale Terrier.

NW LABOR PRESS: What do you think of the CARES Act [the $2 trillion economic stimulus bill Congress just passed]?

JEFF MERKLEY: I think it’s a really positive contribution to try to stem the complete economic implosion that we’re experiencing. We have never seen a drop in employment like we’ve seen the last two weeks—10 million people filing for unemployment. That’s a 6% increase in unemployment. That’s going from 3% to 9% overnight. Even in 2008-2009, we were seeing 1% per month. We didn’t see this complete collapse. It isn’t that we got everything right, but this is uncharted territory. We needed to take numerous approaches, with the philosophy of ‘let’s tackle this from the ground up,’ not the 2008-2009 approach when it was from Wall Street down. That meant unemployment insurance. That meant small business provisions. That meant big business provisions. That meant investments in health care, in food, state and local government stabilization, education stabilization, housing funds. We’re going to have to evaluate how this unfolds and then do another bill, and then we’ll probably have to do another bill after that. We should get ready for a Corona 4, a Corona 5.

What’s the logic of sending checks of $1,200 to people who haven’t suffered any economic loss?

Because we needed to move really fast to shore up the ability of people to pay basic expenses. And I take your point about those who haven’t suffered loss. But when you have to move quickly, sometimes you need to keep it simple and straightforward. Let’s take for example folks who are having decreased hours. There’s no quick way to immediately compensate for that. Or people who are applying for unemployment insurance, but the applications are overwhelming, so it may be weeks before they get that first check to help them pay their rent or mortgage or keep their utilities turned on. So the logic was to shore up the demand side, and do it from the family, the workers’ side, not from the Wall Street mega bank side.

There were a couple big items left out of it. One was multi-employer pension rescue — a lot of union pensions were on the ropes already, and then to lose maybe 25% of their assets is going to make it worse and put the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation at even more at risk. Why was that left out, and why no rescue for the US Postal Service?

It was left out because Republicans vetoed it, and Republicans control the Senate. There was a moment when we were told that we had won that battle and it was going to be in. There were a lot of smiles around the room. Because we’d been fighting for that rescue, going back to the Butch-Lewis strategy [The House last year passed a bill known as Butch-Lewis that would rescue distressed pensions, but the Senate didn’t take it up.] This was a modified strategy that was laid out, but had significant support from the labor unions that would be affected, and we were really excited that it was going to make it in. But in the end, we weren’t able to get it past the Republican majority in the Senate. But we’ll have another shot with this next bill.

What do you think the next stimulus bill is likely to include?

This was a phenomenally large bill, $2 trillion, but it is a testament to the size of the economic implosion that it’s already clear that’s not going to be enough. I think we’re going to discover that the funds for stabilizing the states and local government are insufficient. I think we’re going to have to look at an extension of the two-month provision for small businesses. There may be, depending on where we are, looking at extending beyond the four months for the robust unemployment. I think we’re going to see our education enterprise need more help. Nancy Pelosi is talking about a trillion dollars. We had hoped and tried to see if we could get some momentum for infrastructure in the last bill. We didn’t get it. We’re going to try again on this next bill. Because this isn’t just about people getting back to where they were gradually. We may see rolling impact from coronavirus for a year or more. All the effort we’re putting into social distancing to slow the contagion means that there are still going to be a lot of people who do not have immunity, and we could see recurrences of the disease. And we know that we have vastly underfunded infrastructure, and we can really put our construction unions to work for a decade with just the catch-up projects. We’re falling behind the rest of the developed world on infrastructure, and that means falling behind on the future economic prospects. And we’ve got to remedy that.

Why do you think the United States of America can’t get masks and gowns to health care workers, and can’t test most people when they get sick?

I think it’s because the administration didn’t take this disease seriously. We had the warning from China about what it was, and China within a week got out the DNA structure of the disease and started ringing the alarm bells. And the Trump administration said, “well, this is just a political issue, it’ll go away on its own, it’s a hoax.” And they should have been convening their key experts on health care and saying, “okay, with a pandemic, what do we need? Well, we have to be able to test rapidly. The World Health Organization has a test out within days. How do we put that into massive production, how do we crank up the Defense Production Act to make that happen? Or, we’re going to need a massive number of face masks and gloves and gowns, and how do we produce those, how much do we have in our strategic reserve?” All those actions could have taken place in January. And here we are in April and the administration is still not aggressively using the Defense Production Act to produce testing supplies and protective equipment. And this is something I feel very personally because my wife is a nurse, and she goes into home hospice settings and has contact with a lot of other nurses. And they’re very concerned, both about getting proper training but also about making sure they have proper equipment. Because they don’t want to transmit the disease from one home to another. They don’t want to bring the disease home to their families.

I must say I think it’s important for us to just pause and say: Our front line health care workers are really heroes as we fight this epidemic. This is a situation where we can talk about the great work being done by union members across the state and across the country: our health care workers, risking their own wellness to save lives; our grocery employees, who are standing in front of a counter with a hundred people passing them through a shift or more; our first responders; our educators.

What’s the plan for the Senate now to reconvene, and do you feel personally at risk, needing to go to Washington DC and gather on the chamber floor to vote?

The expectation is we’ll meet again April 20. That can change at any moment; Mitch McConnell can change the schedule of the Senate, and call us in. I’m adopting every conceivable practice that’s been advocated by our medical workers. I wore a mask into a grocery store when I went to get groceries. I’m keeping six feet of separation, and avoiding handshakes. I feel the same concern that everyone does. … We’ve got to stop the spread. And I must say, if you look at the rolling average of the number of cases in Oregon, we’ve been pretty stable in the last 10 days. You don’t see a big upsurge. It’s been pretty flat. That’s a real compliment to the effort everyone in our state is making. … I doubt we’ll be wearing masks on the [Senate] floor, but you really saw the floor look completely different, with people talking to each other from six feet away. I was really struck to see four senators all standing six feet away from each other in a square. You really have to talk a lot louder on the floor of the Senate. I guess that means folks in the gallery get to listen in better. I did notice that it seemed like the Democratic side was taking that a lot more seriously than the Republican side when we were voting two weeks ago.

Is there anything else you’d want to say to our readers?

I just want to say a huge thank you to our union workers across the state, helping us to get through this very challenging situation. I want to make sure our medical workers get the support they need—all of our frontline workers, grocers, firemen, everyone who’s in a setting where they need protective equipment. I also want those who have lost jobs to know that that’s why we shored up unemployment insurance, to help everyone from the bottom up, keep our economy moving, keep our families stable, reduce the stress over the next rent or mortgage check or utility payment. We have to fight for a country in which families have a solid foundation, and not just have more bailouts for the billionaires.