Toomey: Congress has provided aid to businesses
Senator and Rep. Keller address local business owners
LEWISTOWN — Sen. Pat Toomey told an invitation-only crowd of local business owners and officials Wednesday that Congress has responded to the unprecedented challenge of the COVID-19 shutdown with an unprecedented response to boost the virus-ravaged economy.
Toomey was joined by Rep. Fred Keller, R-Selinsgrove, whose district includes Mifflin, Juniata, Snyder and Perry counties, at the event organized by the Juniata River Valley Chamber of Commerce inside the courtroom at the Historic Mifflin County Courthouse in Lewistown.
The senator addressed issues such as stimulus payments and whether another round may be forthcoming, temporary federal unemployment benefits and how to fight the pandemic while still allowing people a way to make a living.
Toomey outlined a series of three pieces of legislation that have been passed since the pandemic’s outset, each aimed at a different prong of the congressional effort to help the nation and its economy recover from the COVID-19 crisis.
The first bill was passed in early March and it provided a pool of approximately $7.8 billion for state and local governments to respond to fighting the virus itself. The second bill was passed in mid-March and it aimed to provide resources for small businesses while also creating a federal unemployment benefit of $600 per week through the end of July and ensuring insurance plans fully covered COVID-19 testing. The third bill was the CARES Act passed in late March that provided direct payments of $1,200 per person and $500 per child dependent as well as creating forgivable loan programs for small businesses.
“We authorized and spent about $3 trillion,” Toomey said. “We’ve never contemplated a number near that big before. But that’s what’s in those bills. In addition, we authorized the Federal Reserve to lend another $3 or 4 trillion if all of the facilities they have created are drawn down. So, if you call it $6 trillion, that’s 30% of entire American annual economic output. So, that’s a very, very large number.”
Toomey also said that when the Senate reconvenes in Washington next week, a big topic of conversation will be whether more stimulus is necessary.
“The big question is gonna be ‘do we do another big stimulus … legislation?’ I think the answer is we are likely to do something. The contours are still not entirely clear.”
Toomey and Keller each stated they believe the $600 weekly temporary federal unemployment benefits are too high, leading some to actually see an increased income compared to when they are working. That, Toomey and Keller both said, is creating a disincentive to work and causing problems for employers who are attempting to recall furloughed employees.
“There is a reason historically why we have not paid people more in unemployment benefits than they can earn working,” Toomey said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out. If you have that arrangement, you’re creating a powerful incentive for people not to work and that’s not good for anybody.”
Toomey said that while he believes the $600 weekly benefit won’t be extended, some type of lesser benefit may take its place.
“There might be something — maybe it phases down, maybe it’s a portion of the $600,” Toomey said. “I don’t know how it’s gonna end up. I put this in the category of one of the things that will really slow down an economic recovery if we continue this policy and I think we’re unlikely to continue it in its current form.”
Keller echoed Toomey’s sentiments.
“To the senator’s point, I don’t think it will be the $600,” Keller said. “What it will look like — there may be remnants of it left, but I think it will be much lower. I would be OK with zero, quite frankly, in additional money because we want to be incentivizing people to get back to work because that’s what people want to do. People are hardworking and thoughtful. They want to get back to work and in order to do that, I think we ought to incentivize work and not dependency.”
A couple attendees asked Toomey about what can be done regarding insufficient Medicare reimbursements for care providers and requiring more regulation to prevent “under the table” businesses from being able to undercut licensed ones by avoiding taxes and fees, and if he would support legislation to increase the use of telemedicine in an effort to increase access to care and lower costs.
“Under our system, the state has the primary responsibility for regulating. That’s the way it’s designed,” Toomey said. “I will point out we also have given the states a lot more resources to do this job.”
Toomey also outlined that of the federal CARES Act money Pennsylvania has received, $1.3 billion has yet to be distributed.
Regarding telemedicine, Toomey said, “The rules of Medicare and Medicaid have made it difficult to utilize this technology. A lot of the obstacles were waived in the context of fighting this pandemic and I think it makes a lot of sense to look at which of these waivers should just become permanent so that we continue to take advantage of using technology to get health care to more people and, frankly, (make it) more affordable in most cases.”
Mifflin County Commissioner Rob Postal urged Toomey and Congress to consider how getting the pandemic under control is key to a lasting economic recovery.
“One of the things I’m very encouraged by is the amazing progress I think is being made on therapies and vaccines,” Toomey said. “As horrible as this has been, the truth is that every day that goes by, we are in a better position to deal with this. We are getting there.”
The final question Toomey was asked involved what business owners can do if they are trying to comply with pandemic regulations but are confused as to what is actually required of them to remain open.
“It’s been a struggle, in part because we’ve tried to do so much so quickly,” Toomey said. “The (Paycheck Protection Program) started out with provisions that definitely wouldn’t have worked. … There’s been problems getting consistant guidelines from (the Centers for Disease Control) sometimes and that’s really important so that we can keep everybody safe. My staff has developed a lot of expertise in these areas because they get the same questions from constituents all the time and we’d be happy to help. … I know that’s been a source of frustration. We’re doing the best we can to help constituents get the answers.”
Toomey also expressed support for creating immunity from lawsuits filed by employees against employers who are making a “good faith” effort to protect employees from contracting COVID-19.
“I’ve had business owners say to me ‘If I do everything I’m supposed to do and I follow all the CDC guidelines and I have a worker who comes down with COVID-19, am I gonna get sued?'” Toomey said, “Let’s be honest. There are already attorneys gearing up lawsuits in anticipation of this. I think that’s a problem, so I think, and I’m not alone — this is a consensus view among Republicans and I hope it’s bipartisan — and that is if an employer does in fact make a good faith effort to comply with and establish guidelines. And that would typically probably be the CDC although it might include the state Department of Health, then that should be an immunity from liability. You shouldn’t have to worry about being sued if you did what you were supposed to do to try your best to keep people safe.”