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Senator Coons on the Coronavirus Crisis, $2 Trillion Stimulus: “We Have Overcome Far Greater Things”

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U.S. Senator Coons answers questions about the COVID-19 stimulus bill via video chat in his office in Wilmington, March 27

Working on less than five hours of sleep, US Senator Chris Coons doesn’t seem to be running low on energy after an “insane week” that saw manic stock market whipsawing and passage of an emergency $2 trillion stimulus package.

On Friday afternoon Coons quips that “now we are going to get to see what is in” the historic, colossal legislative product.

It’s a half-serious comment based in some inevitable reality about a 900-page bill urgently assembled in less than a week to give the American people immediate relief from the stunning economic reversals inflicted by the coronavirus, while providing confidence to financial markets desperately seeking certainty.

In fact, Coons has a detailed grasp of the massive bill’s key provisions. He was deeply involved in crafting several elements designed to help small businesses, including some pieces of funding – although he says “there are no earmarks” – that will benefit Delaware.

 

We spoke with Coons at the end of an unprecedented week, the discussion covering specifics of the legislation, its implications for Americans and the senator’s broader perspective on this unsettling moment in global and American history. 

Below is a selection of the interview, edited in some places for brevity.

TSD: Firstly, how are you staying in touch with what is happening here in the state to ensure those voices and needs are understood in Washington and reflected in the stimulus?

Senator Coons: I’ve texted Governor Carney probably six to eight times in the last twenty-four hours.

I’m texting regularly with Dr. Janice Nevin with ChristianaCare, with a half dozen different people. And we are doing regular delegation conference calls, Senator Carper and Congresswoman Rochester and me, and our senior staff. 

Earlier today I did conference calls with the state senate Democratic Caucus and the House Democratic caucus, and I have asked to set that up with the Republican House and Senate caucuses because they’ve all got constituents calling and asking, this thing just passed – what is it we’re going to get? I am doing calls with the State Chamber with all of the local chambers, with most of the largest nonprofits.

I did all of these calls a week ago, in order to get input and to hear people’s concerns and questions.

And now I’m redoing calls with the Delaware Restaurant Association and their CEO Carrie Lieshman. We put together a call with a half dozen of the largest or more engaged restaurant owners. I’m going to continue to do that, as sort of a report back and say ‘here’s what I’m seeing and hearing about this bill.’

 

TSD: Can you outline the key elements of the stimulus – what will it mean for most Delawareans and when should they expect to see some relief?

Coons: The first of course is the $1200 check or payment that’s going directly to adult citizens. About eighty percent of Americans should get some level of payment.

It’s anyone who earns up to $100,000 as a single filer a $200,000 as a married couple. You get the full $1200 if you earn $75,000 or below as an individual, $150,000, as a joint-filing couple.

And there’s an additional $500 per child, which means under 18.

It’s essentially a one size fits all check of $1200 per adult citizen … It drops by $5 per hundred of income from 75,000 100,000. If you make $100,000 or over, you will not get a check.

The goal here was to get liquidity, to get cash out into the hands of the average American as quickly as possible. It was an idea, championed by President Trump, and that ultimately both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate went along with.

This is based off of your 2019 IRS filings. and the people who are most likely to see this income, the most quickly, are those who have a direct deposit relationship with the IRS.

So if you file taxes in 2019, and your tax rebate was set up for a direct deposit to you, then the IRS already knows your relevant marriage status family size, and has an ability to electronically transfer the funds to you. That should be the majority of the payments and those folks should be receiving them relatively quickly. My gut guess is three to four weeks. But a broader group of people are eligible.

 

I wish I could tell you that the IRS IT systems are state of the art and that the IRS workforce is sitting at their desks ready and eager to execute on this.

But the reality is, like, almost all federal employees, they’re mostly working from home, or teleworking. And we have under-invested in the IRS and Treasury IT systems and workforce for a while. They come under my Appropriations Subcommittee. So this has been an issue I’ve been pushing for some time.

The second [major section of the bill] is something I had a personal hand in which is $377 billion in Small Business Administration (SBA) loans and grants.

Seventeen billion of that is through a bill that I wrote that allows all current SBA loan holders … The SBA will be paying the interest in principal on those loans. So it’s essentially a loan forbearance for six months, that sort of clears the decks to allow SBA lenders and SBA staff to focus on the main program which is $350 billion.

 

The definition of small business is 500 employees or below that is loosened, in the case of hospitality. So, restaurants, bars hotels, can have 500 employees per location, regardless of the affiliation rules and joint ownership in order to provide more immediate liquidity and support to one of the hardest-hit industry areas.

Broadly speaking, the way this new paycheck protection program will go, is you go apply for a loan that has zero fees. It is 100 percent federally guaranteed. So it’s not based on your credit rating and can be up to $10 million. The size of it varies depending on the size of the company.

And if you use the overwhelming majority of that loan to pay your payroll, either to continue people on the payroll or to rehire people you’ve just laid off, it converts into a grant.

TSD: Practically what will this mean for most businesses?

Coons: For a small business or restaurant let’s say that had to close.  After a week of trying to figure out what to do, regrettably, they decided to lay off half their workforce.  They can apply for one of these new SBA loans. And as long as they retain their current or remaining workforce and rehire the rest, over the next four-month period that becomes a grant.

 

TSD: What’s the best way for people to get connected to and understand what the process is and get moving on that?

Coons: They can go to my website, coons.senate.gov, there’s a banner that says Cova 19 information and resources, Delaware. There people will find an FAQ and a section that’s specifically for small business that has the phone number and the login for the daily 3 pm SBA Delaware conference call.

My advice would be for folks who don’t already have some relationship with the SBA to connect with one of the many SBA certified lenders in Delaware – that would include WSFS, M&T and Artisans – as well as some of our national banks like Bank of America, and others.

Those are the folks who will get up to speed the fastest and be the most able to do this. There is no fee to the applicant, but there is a fee to reimburse the bank for processing.

So my hope is that that fee is generous enough that it’ll incentivize banks to really move people onto these accounts. We are asking the SBA to push out the door – more money in a shorter period by probably 20 times – they have ever put out in a year. So there will inevitably be some bottlenecks here, and I’m hoping people will stay in touch, about what the questions are and what the issues are.

 

TSD: And there are two other major chunks of funding, for hospitals and larger American businesses?

Coons: Yes, the single biggest pool of dedicated funding is $500 billion.

That’s essentially for the support of some of our largest public companies that are in airlines, or airline related. American and Delta and United, as well as Boeing and GE, as well as some of the cargo carriers.

There are some very specific provisions around aviation. The airline industry asked for $58 billion. And there are some real restrictions on what the airlines can do with their bailout money. There are restrictions on executive bonuses stock buybacks and dividends for the term of their loans plus one year. And there are restrictions on laying off the workforce.

The concern here among many senators was that we repeat some of what happened in 2008 – 2009, where bailouts were offered to banks and financial services companies, and in some cases, they were also paying big bonuses and laying people off. This I think is a different circumstance though, as I said to a lot of my colleagues.

We also pushed for transparency and accountability around the spending of that pool of money and the entire pool; there is going to be a Special Inspector General, as there was for TARP. There is an accountability board made up of inspectors general, the funding for which and the statutory authorization which came through my appropriation subcommittee.

 

There’s $130 billion for supporting hospitals and health systems.

There’s $150 billion for state counties and local government as a backstop for the exceptional resource demand that you’re seeing in a number of states.

And one of the things I fought for, there was a ‘small state’ floor. If you take the US population of 350 million and divide it by 150 billion, the state of Delaware should get about 430 million dollars. But there is a ‘small state’ floor of $1.25 billion. So that is a ballpark of what will come into the state. It’ll be at least that or more.

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons practices the elbow bump as he visits H.B. du Pont Middle School in Hockessin, March 13, 2020.

TSD: You were involved in an effort around elections …

Coons: You’ve seen Delaware, we’ve already delayed our presidential primary. There are eight other larger states like Ohio and Kentucky, Louisiana, that have delayed their presidential primaries. 

But I don’t think we should see our November presidential election delayed because of this pandemic.

So I wanted a bill Senator Klobuchar and Senator Wyden and I wrote embedded in this bill to require that every state have a plan to vote by mail in the event that pandemic continues and worsens.

At the end of the day that was not viewed by some of my colleagues as urgent or imminent enough. So we did not get the authorizing language.

We did get $400 million in the bill to improve public health, safety, vote by mail for those states that requested.

But when I didn’t get that provision, I used that as the opportunity to call around a half dozen colleagues and say, ‘I know you want, you know, fuel efficiency for the airlines, you want solar cell tax credits, you want forgiveness of all student loans in this bill, and I hear you. But it’s frankly time for us to focus on the things that we can get and the things that are directly related to this pandemic.’ Because I’ll tell you, for the two days after every Democrat voted to hold up the bill, I was in DC and was answering calls at my front desk.

 

TSD: There are some provisions in the legislation that could specifically benefit Delaware …

Coons: Amtrak, of course, is very close to my heart. When Senator Carper and I rode down to Washington, I think it was a week ago, there were six passengers on a six-car train.

We’ve got $1.1 billion dollars for Amtrak. And one of the things I’ve been pressing for is that during this period… that they use some of these resources at the Bear and Wilmington shops [which employ hundreds of workers] to do some of the deferred maintenance. So to keep the guys who work in Delaware fully employed and upgrade and repair and maintain those trains. 

Also, NIMBL, the National Institute for Innovation in Biopharmaceutical Manufacturing at the University of Delaware, but it’s something I’m very close to and excited about. There is, as you know, there are no earmarks.

 

TSD: How do you put this situation into perspective for your constituents – this is one of the most challenging and uncertain times most people have collectively faced.

Coons: I’ve been really encouraged by a dozen stories I could tell you about specific Delaware companies or individuals who are going above and beyond to volunteer whether it’s, folks sewing extra masks for frontline health workers or it’s Bloom Energy retooling their Newark plant to help refurbish ventilators or its Incyte and the University of Delaware offering to help with reagents for the super high-throughput, high-speed testing equipment that ChristianaCare has from Roche that doesn’t have any reagents so they can’t use it.

There’s … Dogfish Head converting their distillery line to making hand sanitizer.

This is enormously disruptive – we’ve got 10,000 people who just filed in Delaware for unemployment, which is a record in the last 30 years. We’ve got millions of Americans newly unemployed. We’ve got lots of parents with kids home from school or college with a very uncertain future. I’d urge your readers to stay connected.

 

If you’ve got a faith community to engage with them even though we’re not physically sitting in synagogue or going to mosque or sitting in our churches together. This time of year has always been a time of renewal and of re-engagement with our core values.

Most of our faith traditions have something that is essential to our families and to our faith that happens in the middle of spring. And I just think it’s important for us to take some time with our families, for ourselves, to protect not just our physical health, but our mental health and our spiritual wellbeing. And I know that there are lots of faith community leaders in Delaware, eager to help connect people to service opportunities.

I think that this is a moment for us to try and put aside the tools of partisanship and pick up the instruments of our national purpose, and to be reminded that we have overcome far greater things.

But in living memory, we have never had at the same time, a global pandemic and a short, sharp recession such as we’re already in. And if we don’t make good decisions and pull together in a public-spirited way, we’ll struggle to get through this.

 

 

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