Virginia lawmakers aren’t in Washington these days, but they’re working overtime to assist constituents in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic.
Before making dinner for her family on Wednesday, Freshman Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger got on the phone and explained her first term in Congress has now been upended. She’s got one staff member working fulltime now on helping her constituents stuck in countries all across the globe get back home, while another staffer has been tracking constituents stuck on cruise ships. Spanberger says it has been a whirlwind.
“Typically a lot of what we're working on is making sure people understand their Veterans Benefits and if they have a defined claim,” she explains. “But certainly not getting people off of cruise ships that are kind of stuck at sea.”
Spanberger is also spearheading a letter from lawmakers meant to pressure the Small Business Administration and Treasury Department to relax their guidelines to the lenders doling out the hundreds of billions of dollars Congress already approved. Spanberger says flexibility is key, along with pressuring banks to move faster.
“So when lenders have been prioritizing their existing clients, you know, while that does make sense from a paperwork standpoint, doing so at the exclusion of new borrowers leaves some without any avenue - without any bank willing or able to take them,” she says.
Freshman Virginia Republican Denver Riggleman was a military mission planner before coming to Congress, but he says he’s never had to learn so much so quickly as he’s had to do in the past few weeks.
“We started a COVID emergency response team, and I did a town hall the day the phase one stimulus package passed,” says Riggleman. “And so I just got done, I think, with my fourth one today. So we've been trying to do one a week or one every other week to keep those to keep everybody informed.”
Riggleman says lawmakers like him have now become the go to place for health questions.
“It's amazing to me the amount of questions I've gotten – even on my personal cell, texting and through staff – on health concerns, and how they actually mitigate those. But also when testing is going to be available, where to go get testing, you know, what kind of symptoms they're looking at,” he explains. “And, obviously, I'm not a doctor, but I'm sending them to the right places.”
While on Thursday Senate Democrats blocked a new bill intended to infuse another two hundred and fifty billion dollars into the Treasury Department, Democrats are expected to support it if they get concessions on things like more funding for health care workers. Northern Virginia Democrat Don Beyer says lawmakers still have more to do.
“This is unprecedented. None of our systems have been designed for shutting down an entire economy,” he explains.
Even fiscal conservatives in the commonwealth are on board with the more than two trillion dollars’ worth of federal assistance that’s already been allocated. Virginia Republican Rob Wittman says it’s vital, and he supports even more.
“It really is just about signaling that there's going to be a backstop there. That there won't be this uncertainty,” says Wittman.
While the immediate crisis is top of their list, Wittman says lawmakers are also trying to help coordinate how cash-strapped employers can keep out of work employees on their payrolls, while also helping connect those business owners with the banks whose loans they’ll need to ramp up their operations once quarantining has ended.
“All those pieces that come together to make sure that we are getting through this but also making sure that once this outbreak subsides that we can ramp back up,” he says.
While everyone seems to be itching to get the economy churning again, for now, public health officials and elected leaders are united on stemming the tide of this global pandemic.