Rep. Fortenberry: Stimulus Package is "Massive, Unprecedented, Necessary"

March 26, 2020, 12:40 p.m. ·

(Courtesy: Rep. Fortenberry)

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The U.S. Senate passed a $2 trillion stimulus bill Wednesday aimed at helping the country deal with the coronavirus crisis. The bill now moves to the House and a vote is expected there Friday. NET News Director Dennis Kellogg spoke with Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry Wednesday night about the package and its potential impact.

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NET News: We're looking at a $2 trillion stimulus package and it may seem strange to say this, but is it enough?

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry: It's massive, unprecedented, it's necessary. The country is suffering. There's so much uncertainty and really this is about protecting health, protecting individuals and families, and protecting small business. So it's a lot of money to roll out quickly, things are moving very fast and changing rapidly. No one could have imagined we'd be in this place even as little as a week or so ago. So, I don't know if it's enough. It's certainly a lot. It is a major, major lift by the federal government to try to stabilize both our healthcare system and create the conditions for economic well-being. Once we get past this pandemic.

NET News: Can you tell us specifically what you like about this package and what you don't like about it?

Congressman Fortenberry: Well, I don't think the words "like" and "dislike" are appropriate in this situation. This is an emergency measure. It is necessary to undertake this kind of intervention to save our economy, to save our healthcare system, to save lives, to help individuals and families and small businesses who are in dire circumstances.

So in any bill like this once it's finally done, there's going to be plenty of things to grumble about or to rethink, but overall the option of trying to again move significant funds to stabilize our healthcare system while enacting social distancing policies and along with the closures, as hurtful as that has been, gives us some time so that our healthcare system is not overrun by this pandemic. And hopefully with the surge of testing and better treatments forthcoming, we can get in front of this so we don't end up in a situation like other countries of ever-escalating disease rates and death. In the meanwhile, providing a bridge for our economic well-being, especially to small business is a key to keeping people working and getting us past this point so that we can turn a corner, defeat the disease, and protect people's economic well-being.

NET News: Now on the business side, as it moves through the Senate, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska was one of four Republican senators who introduced an amendment, an amendment, that basically is concerned that portions of this package will incentivize unemployment by paying unemployed workers more than they would have made if they were working. Is that a concern for you?

Congressman Fortenberry: Well, the treasury secretary was just on the phone with us and he addressed this issue. There was an average number that was given for the bill, so that states that have more generous payment amount versus states that have lower unemployment amounts, it was just an average that was picked. It might be the result that in certain cases unemployment benefits may actually be higher than wages. But on average the ability for each state is different in terms of unemployment benefits. So that a number was picked so that you're actually helping lower-income workers across the country and not simply subsidizing people of little bit higher income. So I'm sorry it's a complicated answer. So it's just an average that was taken and yes, obviously in certain circumstances and certain state's it actually might incentivize less work. But I think with this time of low unemployment in general, where we were before the pandemic, creating a bridge to stabilizing our economic system gets people the chance to again survive in this period economically and then get right back to work. So I understand the consideration and it's important that he brought it up, but again it was just an average pick because different states have different unemployment situations.

NET News: President Trump has expressed concern about the possibility of wrecking the economy over coronavirus. Is it a legitimate point or do you think he's trying to push this through and open businesses too soon?

Congressman Fortenberry: There's a two-step process here that we must undertake. First of all, we must get our nation well and protect the health of our citizens, without that we have nothing left, and yet at the same time the cure for the disease can't be worse than the disease itself. So that's the important part of this bill. It protects America's health. It protects individuals and families with direct assistance to them and it protects small businesses. So if we can turn the corner on the virus and buy time with a bridge toward assistance of small businesses and directly to individuals that creates the conditions in which we can get back to work and protect our health at the same time and that's the goal. Timelines are difficult to peg. Obviously you want a best case scenario that the pandemic has slowed or has ceased and that people are going back to work in safety. And trying to align those two things is very, very tricky. But again, it's a two-step process to do both at once. Protect our health. Protect our economic well-being.

NET News: How do you think this package is going to be received in the House? Is it going to get done quickly or is there going to be a lot of debate?

Congressman Fortenberry: Well, there is a lot of debate going on right now. And I think it's important to act and act swiftly. I think it will pass the House. Again, we're on a lot of telephone conference calls as members of the House of Representatives are spread throughout the country, asking, peppering the treasury secretary and others with questions about specifics. But overall, I think there's a real spirit of solidarity here and urgency that we have to work on something that is unprecedented that's akin to the conditions that led to the Great Depression, so that we can again protect the healthcare system of America, get people well, find treatments, appropriately embrace as hard as it is to social distancing and closure policies while we also help our small businesses survive in this time, and turn the corner on the pandemic and do not destroy our economic well-being in the process.

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