On Senate Floor, Portman Outlines Priorities as Negotiations Begin on Next COVID-19 Response Package
WASHINGTON, DC – Today on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) highlighted some of the key policy priorities he is advocating for during the negotiations on the upcoming Phase 5 COVID-19 response package. Portman believes, given the importance of this legislation and the amount of taxpayer funds being spent, that it is critical that both parties work together in a bipartisan way to ensure the health care, economy, education, and other needs of Americans during this ongoing pandemic are addressed. That’s one of the reasons why he does not support the House-passed HEROES Act, which is a $3.5 trillion Democratic wish-list that includes a number of non-COVID-19 related provisions and passed with almost no Republican support back in May.
In his remarks, Portman outlined his support for common-sense solutions that will benefit the American people and allow us to more effectively resolve both the health care and economic challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. Among other priorities, he supports increasing funding for the health care response and greater public safety in schools and the workplace; incentivizing employers to resume hiring workers and workers to reenter the economy; and providing adequate funding and flexibility for state and local governments.
A transcript of the speech can be found below and a video can be found here.
"Mr. President, the legislation that Senator Alexander just talked about probably is something that we ought to look at in connection with this legislation that we are likely to pass here in the Congress in the next week or so regarding the COVID-19 crisis that we face. I’m here on the floor today to talk about that, talk about what the next steps ought to be and how we should be responding as Congress to this unprecedented challenge we have of the pandemic. We’re now about five months into it, and for much of April, and certainly in the month of May, we were seeing pretty good progress on the coronavirus pandemic. The situation was improving. Many of us thought we were turning the corner. Unfortunately, as we have moved into June and July, we’re now trending in the wrong direction in much of the country. Over the past week, the number of hospitalizations, for instance, has risen in many of our states, and there is concern that the situation could worsen when the weather begins to cool. Today in Ohio, our governor announced a statewide mask mandate, as an example. We have not had that yet. And he did so because he’s concerned about some of these numbers. Ohio is not in as bad of shape as some states, but we’re not seeing the progress that we had hoped for.
“The past few months have been a somewhat better story for the economy. After the initial shocks of the self-imposed economic shutdown this past spring, a couple months ago, we have seen a steady rebound taking place in most parts of the country. New unemployment claims put out just last week, while still far too high compared to where we were before this pandemic, are the lowest we have seen since the crisis began. Recent retail sales numbers are about where they were a year ago when there was no pandemic. So we are seeing some better improvement in the economy as compared to the disappointing progress we’re making recently on the pandemic. Thanks to unprecedented federal action, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, which has allowed small businesses to keep their doors open and to retain employees, thanks to some of the targeted tax relief to help our families and also our businesses, we have been able to prevent an even more serious economic collapse that, in my view, would have had a devastating impact on all of us. However, we’re not out of the woods yet. There are still roughly 17 million Americans out of work. That is a lot of Americans, by the way, who have been furloughed through no fault of their own because their businesses are not operating. This corresponds to about an 11 percent unemployment rate, more than three times higher than it was just five months ago. You'll recall that just back in February, we had historically low unemployment. Now we’re up to 11 percent. And of course there are parts of the economy that have not seen the progress that other parts have.
“So there is a lot for us to consider now that Congress is back in session and now that we’re in the middle of negotiating this new what they call Phase 5 coronavirus rescue package. The new legislation is going to have a significant impact on how we address these dual health care and economic crises. So that’s why it’s important, and more important than ever that we figure out how to work together, Republicans and Democrats alike, and make some smart bipartisan policy decisions. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the House of Representatives has proceeded to date. The House Democrats chose to construct their own proposal. It’s called the HEROES Act, rather than working constructively across the aisle to try to find some common ground to help Americans deal with this health care and economic crisis, Democrats chose in May to release an 1,800-page, $3.5 trillion package that included some provisions that have nothing to do with COVID-19. How big is $3.5 trillion? Well, that makes it the biggest piece of legislation ever passed by either the House or the Senate in the history of our country. Never have we had legislation that expensive. $3.5 trillion is also just a lot of money. The budget last year, by the way, was $4.5 trillion. The entire budget for the entire year for our country. And this one bill, $3.5 trillion.
“So not only the most costly legislation ever to pass but, again, it’s not just about COVID-19. In fact, one Democratic leader called it, ‘a tremendous opportunity to fix things to fit our vision’, which may be why it passed by a nearly party-line vote. If true, by the way, that vision entails raising taxes on some small businesses. It includes giving out tax breaks largely to benefit very wealthy individuals on both coasts. It has direct payouts to illegal immigrants. It has immigration reforms related to ICE and other things. It has unprecedented mandates on the states to require mail-in voting. And telling states, by the way, that they have to require certain kinds of ID. This has always been within the province of the states to run our election systems. That’s in this legislation. At the same time, out of $3.5 trillion and 1,800 pages, there is nothing there to provide liability protection to our schools, to our hospitals, to our small businesses. No funding for the Paycheck Protection Program. No assistance for Americans trying to get back to work. $3.5 trillion in taxpayer money being appropriated on a party-line vote. I don’t think that’s what people are looking for. I think they want us to get together, as we have already, with four previous COVID-19 legislative packages, and work together to try to get it done.
“We have got to find that common ground. We have got to be sure we pass something that is bipartisan, that supports our health care system, our schools, our local governments, our employers, our families, and that we do it in as targeted a way as possible, given the fact that we already have the largest deficit in the history of our country this year, and of course all this adding to our national debt. We need to do it based on good data, on what has been spent, what remains to be done. We need to keep in mind what is the most important policy proposals to include in this legislation, not make it a catch-all.
“First and most importantly, in my view, we need to increase funding for the health care response and the safety efforts. This is the underlying problem. Until we focus on this pandemic and what the virus is doing, we can spend all the money we want around here and it’s not going to make much of a difference. So we have to be sure that we are focused on the actual problem. I think that means getting our health care professionals the resources they need to effectively respond to this crisis. They need more funding. We need more funding for testing, contact tracing, for PPE, the personal protective gear that unfortunately we still don’t have the stockpiles here that we need. We need to be sure we are doing everything we can do to get this antiviral medication up and going. We have one, remdesivir, that is showing very positive results. We need to be sure that we’re doing everything we can to get this vaccine as quickly as possible, because with a vaccine as we have for the common flu we will be making tremendous progress in pushing back against the virus. But to stop the spread of the virus has to be our top priority in this next bill, as it has been in some of the other legislation. It’s clear from the recent resurgence in cases that we’re still not where we need to be on testing, by the way. I know there has been a lot of discussion recently about testing and whether it’s needed or not. I will just tell you it’s critical because we need to know where the disease is and how it might be spreading. It also gives us much greater confidence in taking steps toward reopening in a safe way. Whether it’s our schools, whether it’s our businesses, going to restaurants, going to bowling alleys, movie theaters -- the testing is very important.
“Last week, I was in Columbus, Ohio, at the Columbus Health Department where officials told me what a huge difference the CARES grant that they have received has made in being able to expand testing. It’s their ability to track and monitor and contain the virus in Columbus and surrounding Franklin County that is needed right now. And they’re doing a great job. They’re providing testing that is drive-by testing. It’s easy to access. If you don’t have insurance to pay for it, it is covered through CARES funding that was passed in the Congress. We are being sure that the funding is providing the best information available as we fight this invisible enemy. We have got to continue to do that, to prioritize bolstering the ability of our health care officials at home to be able to coordinate the response -- state level, local level, national level -- and testing obviously is key to that.
“In addition, as more parts of our country are putting in place safe plans to reopen our economies, we want to make sure that the individuals who went on COVID-19 unemployment lines in the early days of this pandemic have the opportunity and the incentive to reenter the workforce. We have got to be sure our workplaces are safe. This week, I introduced legislation called the Healthy Workplace Tax Credit, a credit on payroll taxes to ensure employers can afford additional safety measures, from the Plexiglas you have probably seen at some places, the shields to be able to protect people, to the PPE that’s needed, the gowns in some cases, the masks, the gloves, hand sanitizer, to be able to afford that, to be sure that there is testing in place so employees and consumers feel safe reentering the economy. This tax credit will support our efforts to make our workplaces healthy and safe and to build consumer confidence that all appropriate measures are being taken. It doesn’t really matter what we say as elected officials. It doesn’t matter what our governors are saying or our local health officials. If people don’t feel safe, don’t feel comfortable, they are not going to reengage in the economy and step forward. So I think this kind of a tax credit should be something that both sides of the aisle can strongly support and we can ensure that we are doing everything we can to get people back to a more normal life.
“As we tackle this health care challenge head on, we also can’t afford to step back on our efforts to combat the drug epidemic. Remember the opioid crisis that we were facing for the last couple of years. It’s devastated communities all around our country, including my home state of Ohio. Unfortunately, we’re seeing that during this coronavirus pandemic, the number of addictions and overdoses and overdose deaths is growing. This is very concerning, particularly because, thanks to a lot of efforts, including efforts in this body, to provide more treatment and recovery and prevention services, we were finally making progress. In 2018, in my state of Ohio, we had a 22 percent decrease in opioid overdose deaths. Every single year for the previous dozen years, we had seen increases. We were finally making progress. Now, unfortunately, we seem to be backtracking because of the COVID crisis. People are isolated. People are feeling anxiety. People are not being able to access the treatment that they used to be able to access. So in this legislation, we should also be sure that we make permanent the progress we have made recently with coronavirus in providing more telehealth treatment, making that more accessible. I’ve introduced legislation called the TREATS Act that would do just that so we don’t lose ground on this other deadly disease.
“We also need to look forward to the fall and ensure we have funding to support the schools so they are able to safely reopen their doors to students. Keeping our children out of the classroom for a protracted period of time has already had a negative impact on many of them with regard to educational advancement. We have heard this from the experts, the American Pediatric Society, the pediatricians back home, the doctors who are looking at this situation and saying it’s very helpful in terms of getting kids back to school for education, but also for their mental health, also for their social skills. On top of that, many parents, of course, have been forced to make impossible decisions. Do they go to work and earn a paycheck or do they stay home and care for their child? So reopening the schools or having effective child care is very important. We need to act fast to ensure children don’t lose more progress. Our Phase 5 legislation should provide funding to help schools safely reopen, whether it’s providing additional masks, gloves, and other personal protective gear, or other resources as we’ve have talked about. I think that money is well-spent.
“Second, we have got to get the economy moving again. To do that, I believe we need to remove the disincentive currently in place whereby, interestingly, we tried to help on unemployment insurance, but we provided a flat $600 payment that has actually disincentivized a lot of people to go to work. Why? Because most individuals are making more on unemployment insurance than in their previous job. A University of Chicago study says that 60 percent to 70 percent of those who are on unemployment insurance are making more on UI than they did working. As part of this negotiation, I believe Congress should and will extend the additional federal unemployment insurance benefit in some form. But you shouldn’t get paid more not to work. And I think that’s a principle that we all agree with, I hope, on both sides of the aisle. We should fix this disincentive to work by making the benefit a percentage of your previous income. By the way, a July 13 Yahoo Finance-Harris poll found that 62 percent of these Americans believe these enhanced UI benefits serve as a disincentive to work. They’re right, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can help people to ensure they get the support they need but not have them being paid more than they would if they were going to work. Depending on how high the federal payment is, by the way, we ought to also consider a bonus, a return-to-work bonus for individuals that they’d receive on top of their paycheck. In other words, take part of their federal benefit with them back to work. I’ve been promoting this since May. We haven’t been able to pass it yet around here, but I think this would help people, help those workers who do want to go back to work to be able to make that tough decision without having a financial disincentive. Help our small businesses and others who need the workforce badly, help our economy begin to be able to reopen properly.
“This idea, by the way, has broad support across the country. That same poll I talked about found that 69 percent of respondents support a return-to-work bonus. There are various ways we can accomplish this goal, but I believe it would be helpful if it’s paired with an extension of the unemployment insurance. So this is something we have to focus on and come up with a bipartisan consensus, a compromise, to be able to ensure that we are not paying people more not to work but ensure we are taking care of people who are furloughed through no fault of their own. I also think we should be considering provisions to help incentivize the hiring from the employer side. So it’s also providing more of an incentive to bring people on board. A couple of ways to do this that make a lot of sense to me, because it’s building on legislation we’ve already passed, is to expand and repurpose the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, to add a category for COVID-19 furloughed individuals. Also the employee retention tax credit from the CARES Act we passed just a short while ago can be improved to make it more encompassing and a better hiring credit. Helping to subsidize the marginal cost of a new hire will allow businesses to ramp up operations more quickly as the economy reopens and also bring more individuals off of the unemployment rolls and into the workforce. I hope these are part of whatever legislative package we end up with, and again, these two should both be bipartisan. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit has always been bipartisan. The retention tax credit was bipartisan in the CARES Act. These are things we can and should get done.
“We should be sure to stick with what has worked at this point in the coronavirus response. One of the biggest successes, of course, has been this PPP loan program. However, one flaw in the original law creating the PPP program was that it put in place barriers to loans for those owners who had unrelated felony records. This was brought to my attention by a constituent of mine. His name is Troy Parker. He’s a person who’s done everything you would expect you would want someone to do who comes off a felony conviction, a mistake that he made. He was given a second chance and took it. He started a small business, a cleaning business and he’s hired a lot of second-chance individuals, returning citizens. He gives them a chance, an opportunity, and he’s been successful. But during the coronavirus pandemic, he lost a lot of his business, as you can imagine. So he applied for a PPP loan. He was told he couldn’t get one. Why? Because he had a felony record. He had a conviction for a financial crime and it was within the last five years. It was several years ago but within the last five years so he couldn’t get a PPP loan. He’s just the kind of individual we would want to help. So thanks to Troy, we engaged on this issue when we learned about it. We worked with the Treasury Department. We got some immediate relief in terms of a rule but we now have to put that into law to provide the relief that’s needed to provide certainty and to codify it. So the Paycheck Protection Program Second Chance Act does that. It’s bipartisan -- Senator Cardin and I have introduced this legislation. It’s got to be part of the next bill because it makes so much sense.
“We also need a plan to adapt our economy for a future where many individuals may be living more of their lives at home and online. This is easier in some urban areas where you have access to broadband, but it can be a huge hurdle in some other areas, particularly rural parts of our country, including parts of Ohio. Think about it. We’re relying much more on telehealth, much more on tele-learning, much more on teleworking. And yet in many parts of the country, there’s no access to the kind of Wi-Fi, the kind of broadband that you need to be able to do so effectively. Earlier this month I introduced bipartisan, bicameral legislation to accelerate broadband access across the country to help our economy. Rural America deserves the same level of access to broadband and including this legislation in the Phase 5 package would help them get it faster.
“Third, we need to solve the growing problem of state and local governments running out of funding the longer this crisis continues. This has affected some critical public safety services like EMS, firefighters, and police departments, leaving more Americans vulnerable at the worst possible time. Ohio is particularly vulnerable to this because many of our local governments are so reliant on income taxes. In fact, the Brookings Institution has determined four of the top five cities in America will feel the largest fiscal impact are probably cities in Ohio. Back in April, Senator Brown and I urged Treasury to provide more flexibility so local governments can use the CARES funding that’s been provided for these critical services like police and fire. And while the administration, thanks to Secretary Mnuchin understanding and acting on this, did so administratively, it now has to be codified to be sure we have the needed certainty. When I was home the last few weeks I heard a lot about this from our county commissioners, from our municipalities, from our mayors saying 'we don’t know if we can use these funds this way or that way. We have to be sure we have some certainty here. We don’t want to have to repay this funding.' So this codification will also be very important. The flexibility I hope is something both sides of the aisle can agree to. Why shouldn’t we have more flexibility with regards to the CARES funding? By the way, some of it hasn’t been spent yet. So we still have in Ohio, as an example, $850 million that is slated to go to the local communities, to our commissioners, and to our mayors for our cities that are under 500,000. And yet we don’t have the flexibility, certainty we need there. So that’s important to pass as part of this legislation.
“These are just a few policy proposals I believe that can make an immediate and lasting impact in our response to the challenges we face with this coronavirus pandemic. I’m sure that in the coming days we’ll be discussing the next steps forward in-depth because I believe we all recognize how important it is to get this right and to move quickly on it. Unemployment, by the way, expires, the $600 on July 31, at the end of next week. That’s a deadline we can’t let pass. We’re facing a momentous test of our ability to come together once again to address a disease that’s changed almost every aspect of our lives seemingly overnight. It’s our responsibility to do that. Now is the time to put aside partisanship, get away from our partisan corners, and work together on some of these constructive solutions. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle. My colleague from Washington state, my colleagues from North Dakota, my colleagues who I know share my concern that we can’t allow this opportunity to pass. We have to once again come together. As we’ve said tonight, there are many of these things that are bipartisan where there can be a lot of consensus. We’ve got to move forward to support our health care system, our schools, our employers, our families as we work to overcome this crisis.”