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Alfonse D'Amato

Congress steps up to battle the coronavirus crisis


It’s good news that Congress was able to reach agreement on a financial rescue of our economy at a moment of grave national emergency. More than $2 trillion will pump oxygen into an economy that’s gasping for life.
Along with the extraordinary measures the Federal Reserve has adopted to help keep businesses and financial institutions alive, the rescue legislation represents for our economy what respirators and ventilators are to those suffering from Covid-19 itself: a life-saving intervention to give them a chance to survive.
It’s particularly heartening that the legislation wasn’t held up for narrow political purposes. Partisanship has no place here.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has shown that kind of nonpartisan leadership. As he has pointed out, the coronavirus doesn’t play politics. It kills Democrats and Republicans alike.
Congress didn’t play politics with the economic life of the nation, either. In a period of just three weeks, bills to help our health care system fight the virus and strengthen social safety net programs like unemployment insurance, Medicaid and food stamps were sent to President Trump and signed into law.

Language added to the rescue legislation provided greater transparency and accountability in the disbursal of $500 billion it set aside for loans to help American businesses meet their cash-flow shortfalls and keep workers on their payrolls. The legislation stipulates that none of the funds can be used by corporations for stock buybacks or executive pay raises. And like the GM-Chrysler rescue bill passed during the Great Recession in 2008, the bill provides that once companies recover, they must repay as much of the money as possible.
If more billions or even trillions of dollars are needed in the next few weeks or months to deal with this crisis, Congress should pass additional appropriations bills and send them to the president, who has signaled that he would sign whatever necessary spending legislation the lawmakers pass. That legislation should provide more help to state and local governments and our hospitals to help them meet the extraordinary costs they face.
The ongoing emergency also presents Washington with a challenge to address some of the underlying problems the spreading virus has highlighted. America can no longer afford to be reliant on China or other countries to produce drugs or medical equipment. That critical production must be brought home to America.
Another thing this crisis has taught us is that the government and business can accomplish more when they cooperate in public-private partnerships. Witness how quickly our auto industry converted to the manufacture of desperately needed ventilators, and how the pharmaceutical industry is working with the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and our academic research facilities to fast-track new treatments and an eventual vaccine. Cutting bureaucratic red tape has been central to getting these things done, and this flexibility should continue to guide government as we move forward.
There are other areas where our government must take a new view. Our unemployment insurance system is proving woefully outdated when it comes to handling an unprecedented flood of jobless claims. Congress should look carefully at replacing unemployment insurance with employment insurance like that offered in Germany, where, in times of economic contraction, the government pays part of workers’ wages to keep them on company payrolls.
We’ll also ultimately need to do something to assure that American workers’ health insurance isn’t interrupted by business downturns, and that they have adequate paid medical leave so they can stay home when they’re sick. The emergency bills move in this direction on both fronts, and that progress should continue.
Our education system needs to learn a lesson from this crisis, too. Families have been getting a crash course in distance learning. In the future, our schools should fully embrace online education to allow students to more seamlessly do their schoolwork at home. That will require making sure that all students are equipped with the computers and internet connections they need.
And for our higher education system, as I’ve said before, that also means discarding an outmoded teaching model that is bankrupting students with crushing debt and inadequate preparation to enter the workforce. When colleges and universities open this fall, they will face a drastically changed landscape, and they will need to change with it.
The emergency measures Congress has taken are bold, life-saving ones that can help get our economy out of this emergency. America has stepped up to battle a crisis. Let’s keep it up.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.