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Interview: Rep. Susan Wild on How Congress Can Respond to the Pandemic

(Susan Wild/Facebook)

“The problem is, though, we can’t rely on volunteerism, donations, and gifts for much longer because—quite frankly—most of these places are getting pretty tapped out.”

On August 13th, Merion West editor Erich Prince was joined by Rep. Susan Wild, a Democrat who represents Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. In this conversation, Mr. Prince and Rep. Wild discuss the ongoing state of negotiations on relief for those impacted by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, how cities and organizations in her district are rising to the challenge, and how Congress might be able to tailor its responses to each type of industry affected by the virus. Rep. Wild also briefly weighs in on former Vice President Joe Biden’s recent selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate.

Congresswoman, how are you? 

I’m doing well, Erich. Thank you for reaching out.

So, to get started, between scheduling this interview and now, there was some big news with Vice President Biden’s selection of Senator Harris [as his running mate]. Any reaction to this choice?

Yes, I think it’s an excellent pick. I think that—aside from the historic nature, which has been talked about plenty—I think she’s incredibly well-qualified. I think she brings a lot of dynamic appeal to the ticket. I think the energy that we’ve seen from her and from Joe Biden in the last 24 hours has been remarkable. And the other thing is that she—and this is strictly anecdotal, based on what I’ve seen and heard from my own personal social media platform and from friends—I’m seeing an awful lot of enthusiasm among those suburban women that we’ve heard so much about lately, and they seem pretty excited about her.

And especially in Pennsylvania—I know we talk about the Pennsylvania suburbs as a major battleground.

Yes, and we know it’s a major battleground, and I’m acutely aware because my district is probably pivotal to whoever takes the Pennsylvania in the presidential election. But I think it’s been a shot in the arm for the Biden campaign, as I said to our local newspaper yesterday. The other three running meaning Trump, Pence, and Biden all have something in common that Kamala doesn’t share, and I think that’s a good thing. I think that having a fresh, new face is really, really excellent. And, quite frankly, I’m anxious to see us get away from the divisive talk that’s marked this past year in particular and see someone who’s really talking about ideas and solutions. I think she’s going to be great on that, so I’m happy.

Yes, we will see what happens. So, on the subject of ideas and solutions, let’s talk about some of the responses you’re leading when it comes to the pandemic. I wanted to start out by mentioning how I saw your office had a press release out about some mental health block grants that you’re pretty excited about. I know that mental health has been a major focus for you, and it has been a topic that has come up a lot during this pandemic. 

So, I started working on that with Cheri Bustos—not only before COVID but also before all the policing protests across the country—but I actually think that the timing is excellent. I think that mental health care has been too long just regulated to, “Well, we don’t know what else to do with the mental health crisis, so let’s just call 911.” And this is no condemnation of the police; I think the police probably don’t want to be involved in mental health care issues either, unless there’s some sort of criminal activity. So I think it’s really timely and long overdue. I think the whole concept of bringing a mobile mental health unit to somebody who is in crisis; it’s been used in a few states very successfully, and it makes a lot of sense. Relatives struggle with somebody who is having a serious mental health issue, trying to convince them to go to a hospital. But many people don’t want to go to a hospital, understandably.

I think it provides some alternatives, but even in the context of people now—with everything that we’re going through with COVID—there’s just tremendous mental health implications, particularly among seniors who may be isolated. In addition to seniors, there are all those who may have lost their jobs and are wondering if they’re ever going to go back to that job and wondering how they’re going to pay their bills and that kind of thing. So, I think that it’s probably the best possible time to be talking about mental health care issues, and so I’m really very excited about it. I guess to the extent that there’s any kind of silver lining to this pandemic, it is that we might be focusing on some issues that otherwise would’ve gone below the radar, and this is one of them.

Yes, and it has been interesting for me over the past couple of years to hear more and more members of Congress talking abut mental health. I remember a couple years ago—they were talking about it a lot in the context of veterans, and I’ve just seen that discussion continue.

Yes, and just this year we passed a new suicide hotline bill, and the FCC is on track to turn 988 into a national hotline—I think next year or the year after. I’m happy that those kinds of things are happening, finally.

And the mental health aspect is very much exacerbated by unemployment, and I know that’s a hot discussion right now. Where’s your head at now in terms of everyone trying to reach an agreement on the best path forward on unemployment?

Yesterday, I jokingly said to some of my freshmen colleagues that I think we need to head down to Washington and just sit in until leadership gets an agreement done, and I was only semi-joking. I’m very frustrated by how slowly this has progressed. I know that the Speaker and Chuck Schumer have offered to Mnuchin and Meadows that they would come down a trillion if they would go up a trillion, and that was met with crickets, which is very discouraging because the only way you get to a compromise is by inching toward one. And I’m frustrated by it. I think that every day I spend on the phone talking to constituents—I do a lot of Zoom round tables with groups of constituents. Yesterday, just by way of example, I had a round table with barber shops and hair salons, and that’s just an example of the many that I’ve had.

But what I’m hearing from people is abject desperation. They’re just incredibly worried about whether they’re going to be able to make it, even until the end of the year. The businesses that have managed to stay open—I hear two different things on the unemployment front, which you raised. I’m hearing from an awful lot of constituents who have literally survived off of unemployment for the last several months and have told me that that extra $600 was essential, and it helped them pay COBRA and that kind of thing. Then, I’ve heard from small businesses that—in some cases—it’s been a problem in terms of attracting workers to come back, and so I think it’s a balancing act. I’ve always maintained that we want to put people to work, and we want people to have jobs. We’re not interested in creating a permanent unemployment system.

I suppose a lot of Republicans are also saying that same thing.

They are, but I don’t think the answer is to just get rid of supplemental unemployment altogether. And the problem is—as much as I would like to be talking about a different formula or different ways of approaching unemployment—the fact of the matter is that all of the states had to gear up for this new unemployment system back in March. That took forever. I know in Pennsylvania it took a long, long time to get it up and running properly, and so if we switch it around to something new, then that’s going to happen all over again. And, frankly, if we had been talking about this six weeks ago—or eight weeks ago—when the Heroes Act was first passed, it might have had more time to adapt. But, now we have let that supplemental unemployment lapse. And if it takes four weeks to get up and running with a new system—and, frankly, I don’t think they could because we haven’t allocated any state or local funding—the well is dry. Right now, unfortunately—and I say this somewhat reluctantly—I think we have to extend supplemental unemployment to where it is, at least in the short term while we figure something else out. People are literally going to start starving soon, and I don’t think that’s an overstatement.

On a related note, I know you’ve been involved in this Restaurants Act and have been looking at the restaurant side of things, and it seemed like there was a lot of bipartisan support, for example, for that measure.

Yes, and we get new people to sign onto it every day. Earl Blumenauer has been a champion, and I’ve been right behind him with this. Small restaurants are another round table that I had quite a while ago, listening to their concerns. And, honestly, I think restaurants—and I’m talking more about locally and independently owned restaurants—really are a big source of the culture of a community. They’re a driver of the economy. Here in the Lehigh Valley, when I first moved here, we didn’t have much in the way of restaurants. Now, 35 years later, we have an unbelievable array of smaller restaurants that really have contributed tremendously to the community. And I’d hate to see them go under. Unfortunately, I think the PPP just was not tailored to an industry like the restaurant industry. So, I hope we can move this forward. I will say—just to digress for a moment—that I am a big fan of the idea of doing smaller, discrete bills that aren’t trying to solve every problem in the world.

So more bills focused to a particular industry or business?

Yes, and for a few reasons: 1) because you’re able to tailor it more, as in the case of restaurants 2) because it forces an up or down a vote by legislators, and when you do these massive bills, you give too many people an easy out on why they didn’t vote for it i.e. because there was too much in it or something like that. So, that’s the way I would like to see things approached. But I’m not Speaker of the House, so I don’t get to make those decisions; I do think, though, that we would be well served to try and be specifically responsive as much as we can.

So, for example, you had that round table with the barber shops and hair salons. Perhaps, there could be Restaurants Act-style legislation tailored for their industry?

Well, that might be too narrow because there would be so many bills and because restaurants really had a deeper set of circumstances. A lot of what I was hearing from the barber shops and was what I was hearing from general business owners was that they needed the PPP desperately, but that they’re afraid of taking out additional loans. They would welcome more money from the government, but they aren’t going to take out more loans. They need some grants because they’re scared to death about what the future holds, and I get that. How can we expect them to sign off on a loan that they may never be able to repay? I was also just hearing that many of them took advantage of the unemployment that was finally available to independent contractors and sole proprietors—in the areas where unemployment wasn’t traditionally available. So, what I was hearing from them was that they need more of that, as well as some improvement from the PPP.

I wanted to ask you—in your district, in the Lehigh Valley, are there any stories—whether it’s these businesses, certain health care groups, or schools trying to get started up again—where you think people are rising to the challenge and innovating as best they can during this pandemic? 

I’ve been really impressed by the frontline response to what’s happening here. Our local municipalities, as struggling as they are—the City of Easton and the City of Bethlehem—have offered grant programs to small businesses. Believe me, I know these cities are struggling terribly. The local chamber of commerce has two different programs to assist small business owners in understanding PPP and all the small business help that’s available. Most of these people are not lawyers or accountants.

I think that’s a major challenge for people—just navigating the various bureaucracies and the various paperwork. I think it’s a big challenge for people because, as you said, they’re not lawyers.

It’s been remarkable, and, in the Lehigh Valley, I have seen a number of Hispanic organizations that have stepped up to offer bilingual support in navigating these programs. I have to say that if I was going to give one shout out, it would be to all these local groups that have really come together and demonstrated the best of their communities to try to help folks out, and I think it’s commendable. But, I should also throw in there the food banks and everyone that supports them. The problem is, though, we can’t rely on volunteerism, donations, and gifts for much longer because—quite frankly—most of these places are getting pretty tapped out. And so I know that we have no choice but to get another package done quickly, and we have to put aside our differences. I hate to use an overused phrase, but we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of good.

I think that phrase is spot on in this occasion.

Yes. That’s what we’re doing right now, and that really troubles me.

Congresswoman, thank you for your time—always good to touch base and hear what you’ve been up to. 

Thank you so much, take care.

Erich J. Prince is the editor at Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. His opinion writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress.

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