U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is infuriated by one issue that gets the goat of many Americans – especially his political opponents in the Republican Party, the $26.5 trillion federal deficit
But Bennet, D-Colo., does not see limiting growth of programs as a key aspect to deal with the red ink – the country set a one-month record in June adding $864 billion to the deficit.
Instead, he told a meeting of The Durango Herald editorial board on Monday that the federal government should have used the low-interest rate environment of the last few years to underwrite massive infrastructure building to repair America’s decaying roads, bridges, hospitals, airports and other public facilities.
“We should have invested in every bit of infrastructure we could find in a zero-percent interest rate environment. But we didn’t do that. Instead we invested in a health care system that is two times as expensive as any other system in the industrialized world. We fought two wars in the Middle East, and we used it to finance tax cuts for the wealthy,” he said.
Bennet drew upon a metaphor, saying the way the federal government took on debt the past several years could be compared to a hypothetical decision by the Durango City Council to assume debt not to finance roads, sidewalks, utility repairs but to instead spend “improving the two wealthiest neighborhoods in Durango.”
So far, the nation has not had to pay for taking on ever greater amounts of debt with the interest rate hovering near zero, but Bennet said when the interest reaches 5%, it’s likely paying back the national debt will become increasingly difficult, crowding out other needs that demand federal attention – and spending.
“Democrats don’t care about the debt, and Republicans say they care, but they are lying about it,” he said.
Dealing with the challenges of COVID-19, Bennet said, meant the nation has no alternative but to increase the debt to overcome the economic hit the novel coronavirus has delivered to communities across the country.
Coronavirus reliefCongress is likely to pass further relief measures to aid in the recovery from the novel coronavirus, but future relief measures are likely to be limited – chiefly at the insistence of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“McConnell wants the measure to be limited for reasons I don’t completely understand,” Bennet said.
However, Bennet said President Donald Trump – if acting only on instincts of self-preservation in an election year – is putting pressure on Senate Republicans for a more robust relief measure.
Conversations he’s had with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Bennet said, convince him the administration is looking for a bigger package in the next round of COVID-19 relief than the majority Republicans in the Senate.
Unemployment insurance, which has given those out of work $600 more per week since the March passage of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, combined with other measures such as the Paycheck Protection Program has worked “fairly well,” Bennet said.
He noted unemployment insurance has kept about 12 million people out of poverty.
“We now need to have a conversation about ramping down enhanced unemployment so it doesn’t serve as a disincentive to work,” he said.
Masks, managing locallyAs COVID-19 cases are again spiking across the nation, Bennet said a lack of leadership from the president has largely wasted the shutdown period, a time frame when federal action could have added to laboratories’ testing capacities for the virus.
At one point, he said, testing results had been reduced to one or two days, but now as a second wave spikes across the country, some areas are seeing delays in getting results of up to seven to 11 days.
Better leadership from the White House, he said, could have opened a path for the federal government to better prepare the country, not only for augmenting laboratories to deal with more tests but also to bolster contact tracing and research capabilities studying how to defeat the pathogen.
“Are we going to manage the virus or is the virus going to manage us?” he said.
Bennet has called for $75 billion to be spent on creating what he calls “a health force” that would aid public health professionals with COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and delivering meals to seniors during the pandemic.
Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritikus, who sat in on the meeting, said the college was forced to adapt rapidly to a changing and challenging situation without much guidance from the federal government.
“We are managing local issues governments are meant to solve. We aren’t PPE experts. We’ve learned accordingly,” he said.
Bennet praised Durango’s response to COVID-19, saying a walk down Main Avenue Sunday night showed to him the town has adapted to the new environment as well as any he’s seen.
He praised Durango’s decision to require masks in public spaces and its efforts to adhere to social-distancing rules.
However, he said as travel becomes more frequent and public health rules are relaxed, communities like Durango will be increasingly challenged to slow the spread of the virus.
“Your problem is people from Arizona or Texas walking around not wearing a mask,” he said.
He said it is unfortunate the refusal to wear a mask has become a symbol of supporting individual freedom rather than viewed as a wise behavior taken in an effort to slow COVID-19’s spread.