Top U.S. economic officials are being pressed for answers about government relief efforts amid COVID-19. Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey sits on the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, as well as the Congressional Oversight Commission that monitors spending from the CARES Act. Toomey joins Judy Woodruff to discuss why he isn’t ready to deliver more federal aid to states.
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As we just heard, the country's top economic leaders were pressed for answers today on Capitol Hill about the government's relief and rescue efforts.
We are going to speak with two senators who were part of this, starting with Senator Pat Toomey, Republican from Pennsylvania. He is on the Senate Banking Committee. He's also a member of the Congressional Oversight Commission. That's a new committee watching over the spending of the CARES Act money.
Senator Toomey, thank you very much for talking with us.
We heard you express concern today at the hearing about the effects of the economy — on the economy long term if people end up staying out of work for such a long time.
Is that now a greater concern for you than COVID-19 coming back later in the year, there being a resurgence of it? How do you weigh the two?
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.:
You know, Judy, it's a great question, but, you know, I'm reminded of the reason we took the extraordinary, draconian step of closing the economy, right, for the first time in the history of the country.
The government made it — you know, just forbid economic activity, forbid people from earning a livelihood. There was a very specific and clearly articulated reason for doing that, and the reason was to prevent the spread of the virus from happening so quickly that so many people would get sick all at once that they would overwhelm our hospital capacities.
It has been abundantly clear for weeks now that we're not going to overwhelm our hospitals. We have all kinds of excess capacity in hospitals.
In much of Pennsylvania, we have half-empty hospitals. So, that danger has long since passed. And yet every day that goes by that we continue the lockdown now, presumably for some other reason, we're destroying livelihoods. We're destroying businesses. We have bankruptcies.
Some will never come back. And we will undo a lot of the good that we were doing for an awful lot of Americans and Pennsylvanians. So, at this point, I really think the best course of action is to proceed with a cautious, prudent reopening that includes the kinds of measures that we all have learned, the CDC guidelines of keeping physical distance and wearing masks and washing hands.
Those are behaviors we didn't engage in at all whatsoever in January and February. We will engage in those things now. We are engaging in those behaviors.
So, I think the risk is much, much lower. We know much more about this. We have much greater capacity to fight any kind of resurgence of the virus. And we need people to be able to get back to having a livelihood.
As you know, the folks on the other side of the aisle, a number of them are saying they are still worried, though, about health effects.
They don't think enough has been done, has been put in place to make the workplace safe enough for workers. What do you say to that?
Sen. Pat Toomey:
Well, so that's a new argument, right?
The initial one was, we couldn't overwhelm hospitals. Now that that's not a risk, we have a new argument. But the fact is, this is a disease that is very, very dangerous for a very, very small percentage of our population.
We know who is vulnerable to this. It's older people and specifically people who have underlying health care problems, especially the elderly.
So, in Pennsylvania, for instance — I think this is probably pretty typical across the country — fully 69 percent of all fatalities have happened inside nursing homes, where this disease spread. And that's a whole issue about how that happened.
But it tells you something when the overwhelming majority of the deaths occur in the most vulnerable subset of our most vulnerable age group. Those people need to be protected. There — we need all kinds of security measures to protect people who are living in assisted living and nursing homes.
But the fact is, 30-year-old factory workers are not vulnerable anything like older folks are. And with the safety precautions that the CDC recommends, they can be kept safe.
Let me ask you about attempts by the Congress to help people who are hurting, whether people own a business or whether people are out of work.
As you know, the House has passed a bill that would aim — be aimed in part at helping state and local governments. We hear leaders of state and local governments now crying out for help, saying they are either — they have already laid off people, furloughed people, or are about to have to do that.
They're having to cut back important services to the public in their communities. Why isn't this more of an urgent need in your mind and on the part of other Republicans who say, let's go slow?
Sen. Pat Toomey:
Well, in part, Judy, because of what we have already done.
We have sent hundreds of billions of dollars to our states, $150 billion right off the bat to deal with anything remotely related to COVID-19, to be allocated by governors across their states, their commonwealths. Some of it went directly to the largest counties, of which we have handful in Pennsylvania, for instance.
But that's not all. We also increased the federal share of Medicaid. The federal government already pays a majority of the cost of Medicaid. Now we pay an even bigger share. We spent — we sent a tremendous amount of money to hospitals, billions and billions of dollars for primary and secondary and tertiary education, all of which relieves state budgets from those categories.
So, again, I think, given that we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars to the states, it's probably time to pause and say, well, what exactly are the other needs, why did they arise, and whether it's appropriate for that to be dealt with at a state and local level or the federal level, and that's a subject for a robust debate.
So, very quickly, when Fed Chairman Jerome Powell says he's concerned about state and local government employees being out of work and worsening the economy long term because they're not working, what's your response?
Sen. Pat Toomey:
Well, it could — launching another round of hundreds of billions or trillions, if Nancy Pelosi had her way, is not necessarily a better outcome. Right?
There's no free lunch. This doesn't come at zero cost. If it did, if there were no cost to just distributing money, then we could just send a million-dollar check to every man, woman, and child in the country. And everything would be great.
I don't think anybody thinks that you can actually do that and not have really, really dire consequences. We have pumped out trillions of dollars in matter of weeks. Nothing like this has ever handed before.
I think prudence just suggests we need to proceed slowly here. The other thing is to be — let's be candid. Not all states are in comparable situations. Some states have been fiscally very prudent. They got have modest budgets relative to their population. They have got rainy day funds.
Other states are essentially insolvent. They have been extremely imprudent. And it is going to be difficult to figure out, well, why do the taxpayers of the states that have been more cautious, prudent, why are they supposed to subsidize the other states?
And what's the formula by which we do that? I'm not sure anybody's got an easy answer to that just yet.
Senator Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania, thank you, sir, very much. Appreciate your joining us.
Sen. Pat Toomey:
Thanks for having me.