ALBANY, N.Y. — U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko last week gave members and guests of the Albany Rotary Club an insider’s look at the COVID-19 bill moving through the House of Representatives that will provide needed relief for state and local governments across the country.
The 50-minute virtual meeting on Feb. 17 saw a congressman at ease among friendly constituents; a legislator happy to give them insights as to the types of bills being drawn up and moved forward by the Democratic House majority.
Tonko, D-Amsterdam, noted that upon taking the reins of the federal government the Biden administration had plenty of choices where it should focus its attention. It chose to make responding to the COVID-19 pandemic its priority.
“I feel President [Joe] Biden has made the right choice,” Tonko said. “In order to grow back our economy and impact the economy in a robust, competitive, just way we need to crush the virus.”
In discussing the finer points on how that was happening, Tonko said the COVID bill had worked its way through eight House committees in the last week, including the Energy and Commerce Committee of which he is a member. As the bill was marked up in each committee it was moved to the budget committee.
“That committee has the awesome task of fitting it into the restrictive qualities of the House resolution which takes us to reconciliation; a concept that the Senate works on when they rely on something less than 60 votes,” he said. “Reconciliation is unique as a vehicle and we’re trying our best to comply with the restrictions so that all of the numbers work, the arithmetic works, and that we are in compliance so that the final package in the House can be sent to the U.S. Senate.”
The COVID bill Tonko and the other House members are working on has $440 billion in relief for local and state governments, $23 billion of which is destined for New York state. Tonko estimated that just over $445 million will come into the Capital Region.
“Many have advanced the notion that this must be included in the COVID bill because our local governments were bleeding revenues,” he said. “Sales taxes were down and revenues were down tremendously. This was not about mismanagement or misappropriation; it was about the impacts from COVID that went far beyond anything they could do to avoid in terms of consequences.”
The $445 million, he said, will help with essential services, things like water treatment facility operations, police officers, firefighters, and sanitation workers.
“If these funds are not included these areas would be correspondingly reduced or discontinued,” Tonko said. “So it’s important to make sure we continue to fund this type of municipal effort.”
Also, the bill includes $182 billion for schools to see that when they are opened it ‘ done as safely as possible, $14 billion for vaccines to increase the supply, $46 billion for testing, contact tracing and mitigation, $8 billion for increasing by 100,000 the number of full-time health workers, $25 billion toward healthcare disparity to protect especially vulnerable populations, and $4 billion for behavioral and mental health services because data show there is a spike in mental health disorders because of the virus.
Tonko added the bill will have additional funds for families struggling to pay utilities. This item is the hotly discussed $1,400 federal checks Democrats want distributed to those making less than $75,000 per year.
The relief effort is one part of the full COVID bill that totals $1.9 trillion.
“It’s our way to work toward building back better, but we can’t do that until we crush the virus,” he told those attending the meeting.
To help in the effort to crush the virus and hype production Tonko sent letters last week to the management of two makers of the COVID-19 vaccine asking them directly what help the House could provide them to get the country the vaccine supplies it needs.
“I want them to address the Defense Production Act and vaccine storage,” he said. “I asked that they take in any factors how we in government can help.”
After the COVID bill, Tonko said Congress intends to take up the infrastructure bill, a legislative item he wants to be broad in scope.
When the floor was opened to questions topics included the finer points within the COVID bill, wind development, electric cars, aid for the arts, and Bill Gates’ latest book.
The meeting’s final questioner asked what he had gone through during the breach of the Capitol on Jan. 6.
In answering the question, Tonko gave a vivid firsthand account of what it was like to be inside the Capitol, in his case the gallery in the House, as the insurrectionist mob pushed its way into the building.
“We began to see people being whisked out of the chamber like the speaker, the majority leader, and the minority leader and we knew something was happening,” he said. “Then you could hear the crowd, and the police shouted, ‘Lock every door’.
"The crowd got louder and louder, then we heard noises like shots, and then came the order to get the gas masks out. It was quite threatening. You began to realize you might become a statistic.”
In order to get to the tunnel leading to the Rayburn Building, Tonko and others near him had to cross the entire gallery, section by section stepping over divider railings. After that, as they moved down the tunnel, he noticed House members with respiratory problems stopping for breath, others hyperventilating, and still others moving slowly due to recent surgeries.
“As I moved farther down the tunnel I recalled a description I’d read after 9/11 of people walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (out of Manhattan) covered head to toe in white asbestos, oblivious to it all, moving as a herd as quickly as possible. It was a frightening situation.”