Government action is essential to save lives and to rescue our economy. Let’s get back to work.
Congress has passed three coronavirus packages aimed at providing immediate relief to families, workers, hospitals and small businesses, but with more than 12,000 dead and 10 million out of work, the scale of this tragedy demands we do much more — much faster.
Communities across the country are entering a critical stage. Illnesses are mounting and our health system is stretched to the brink. Early data shows people of color are infected and dying at disproportionately high rates. Unemployment is approaching Depression-era levels. No clear end is in sight for social distancing. The next round of policymaking must squarely address these hard realities — not with a few new nibbles, but with the kind of broad, direct action needed to save lives and save our economy.
Containing the health crisis must be our first priority. I have outlined immediate steps to accomplish a federal surge in testing capacity. In addition to using the powers under the recently invoked Defense Production Act, we must act now to have the government manufacture or contract for the manufacture of critical supplies when markets fail to do so — to produce tests, personal protective equipment, drugs in shortage and any future vaccines and treatments that our scientists develop — not in the thousands, but in the tens of millions. This will ensure swift production and build a stopgap against shortfalls moving forward. We must also use public programs to provide health care free for all who don’t otherwise have it.
As workers lose their jobs, small businesses close and household incomes plummet, we must extend economic relief beyond cash payments to families and individuals. This includes suspending consumer debt collection, enacting a universal national moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, stopping water and utility shut-offs, providing as much broad student loan debt cancellation as possible and finding money to keep child care providers afloat. With older Americans and those with underlying health conditions among the most vulnerable, we must also increase monthly Social Security and disability benefits.
Front-line workers, including health care, transit, farm, grocery, domestic and delivery workers, are putting their lives on the line to keep America functioning. They can’t rely on big business to protect them. Instead, Congress must embrace an Essential Workers Bill of Rights: providing truly universal paid family and medical leave, ensuring all front-line workers have protective equipment to do their job safely, directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to establish emergency safety standards, funding hazard pay, and protecting workers’ rights to collective bargaining and to speak out about dangerous job conditions.
Sustaining our economy also means taking significant steps to keep workers on the payroll even if they need to stay home. Congress has already provided payroll support grants to the airline industry. As big businesses seek federal help, we must condition funding on companies’ keeping workers employed. The small-business payroll program is in dire need of help — cleaning up its confusing rules and bureaucratic administration, ending big-bank shenanigans and ensuring that funding is available for every single small business that qualifies.
To make sure people already struggling with their costs of living aren’t being squeezed by companies out to make a quick buck in a crisis, we need new federal price-gouging laws and stricter enforcement. And we need to ensure that small businesses that want to come back can do so without being forced to sell to giant corporations or predatory private equity funds. That means hitting pause on exploitative corporate takeovers and private equity activity that might help the rich get even richer, but won’t help our economy recover.
Congress must also include strong guardrails to ensure that taxpayer dollars are well spent — and go to workers, and the state, local and tribal governments that need help before a dime goes to corporations or executives who don’t need them. That means including strong conflict-of-interest protections so that no federal official involved can personally profit from government decisions. It means full disclosure of corporate lobbying and a ban on any political spending or lobbying expenditures by companies that collect emergency assistance. And it means strengthening oversight — including the Congressional Oversight Panel, the one form of bailout accountability that the president can’t control.
And last, the election mess in Wisconsin this week has laid bare the enormous risk the coronavirus crisis poses to free and fair elections. If Americans are forced to choose either voting this November or staying safe from the virus, then our democracy will be lost. Adopting, enforcing and funding mandatory reforms to make sure everyone can vote safely is not optional.
Ronald Reagan famously said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” In this epidemic, we’ve seen that among the most frightening words in the English language are “We’re in a crisis and the government doesn’t have a plan to get us out of it.” Our political system has debated the role of government since the founding, but the time for cheap political shots at government is over. Government action is essential to save lives and to rescue our economy. Congress should end its recess and get back to work now.
Elizabeth Warren is a Democratic senator from Massachusetts and a former presidential candidate.