SEEKONK, Mass. (WPRI) — Democratic Congressman Joe Kennedy III said Monday he thinks the fiscal stimulus bill that Congress is beginning to discuss should include direct cash payments to Americans as part of a broader suite of policies to stabilize the economy.
In an interview with WPRI 12, Kennedy said the two measures that House Democrats has passed so far — one offering aid to states, and a second providing free testing and various emergency benefits — represent only a first step in the response.
“I think there’s a sense of urgency, no doubt,” Kennedy said. “People recognize this is unprecedented in modern American history.”
As soon as the House finished voting overnight Friday into Saturday on the the emergency coronavirus bill negotiated by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Trump’s treasury secretary, Kennedy said Pelosi was “already focused on the next bill.”
Kennedy outlined four priorities for the legislation: funding for community health centers; paid sick leave for franchisee and gig economy workers; direct cash payments to individual Americans; and support for the industries hardest hit by the crisis.
On sick leave, Pelosi has taken heat from some on the left — including the New York Times editorial page — for reaching a compromise with Republicans late last week that failed to extend sick leave to tens of millions of workers. But Kennedy defended her decision.
“I think if anybody thinks Speaker Pelosi doesn’t know how to fight, you should spend some time with Speaker Pelosi,” he said, adding, “I think she pushed as hard as she possibly could.” He said he found it “shocking” that administration officials opposed a broader sick pay mandate.
Now, Kennedy argued, Congress must extend paid leave to workers who have more contingent employment.
“Not just because it’s the right thing to do,” he said, “but if you’ve got somebody that’s an Uber driver and doesn’t get access to it but they’re sick and they have to make ends meet, they’re going to keep driving. Which means people are going to get sick. This is how you have to respond to a pandemic.”
There may be bipartisan support for direct cash payments — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, now a Republican U.S. senator from Utah, proposed Monday sending a $1,000 check to every adult American. Without offering a specific amount, Kennedy said sending money could help ensure “that things don’t come to a screeching halt” as more Americans lose their jobs.
Among the industries that may need federal support, Kennedy said, “Clearly the airlines are facing potential devastation.” He downplayed potential concerns that such funding could be labeled a “bailout,” saying Congress needed “to make sure the American public has confidence that our system is not going to shut down.”
Kennedy himself is in the midst of a hotly contested U.S. Senate primary against incumbent Ed Markey, who over the weekend called for a World War II-style mobilization to battle coronavirus.
The pandemic has already changed the campaign — a debate set for this week was postponed, and Kennedy’s team has shifted to virtual campaigning, cancelling in-person events. On Monday evening, Kennedy’s aides announced he would use his campaign email list to raise money for nonprofits grappling with the health emergency.
“We’ve been out and about across the state an awful lot running a very aggressive retail campaign — a lot of high-fives, a lot of fist bumps, a lot of handshakes, a lot of hugs — can’t do any of that,” he said. “And rightfully so.”
The congressman urged all Americans to follow the orders of elected officials and health experts to wash their hands, stay at home and avoid social contact. “As much as this feels like something way out beyond your control,” he said, “each of us actually can do something to impact the severity and duration of it.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook