Despite approving massive bailout measures in the past two weeks, Congress must to do much more to help Americans and the nation’s battered economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic, according to the four members of Maine’s delegation.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, at her home office in North Haven, with her makeshift tower for Zoom calls using a cake pan and a board game. Photo courtesy of Chellie Pingree

Like everyone else in Maine, the four are hunkered down and self isolating after returning from Washington, D.C., last week. Congress is on recess until April 20, but it’s not clear how soon the House and Senate will be able to reconvene.

But that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped working. Members and their staffs are responding to a flood of calls from constituents who are desperate for help.

“We get gut-wrenching calls and emails from people who have literally run out of money,” said Democratic 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree, who is home on North Haven island with a few members of her household. “Their paychecks have stopped, they didn’t have any reserves, they are trying to figure out how to pay their rent – how to get food.”

Calls are coming from people seeking help with unemployment insurance and medical benefits, as well as those trying to keep their small businesses afloat, members said.

Bankers want to know where the money they are supposed to be lending to residents and business is coming from, and businesses want to know how to apply for programs meant to help them, they said.

Sen. Susan Collins at home in Bangor with her dog, Pepper. Photo courtesy of Susan Collins

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, is home in Bangor sheltering with her husband, Tom Daffron, and black Labrador retriever pup, Pepper. Like many others, Collins said she’s found some solace in her dog.

Sen. Angus King, an independent from Brunswick, has been temporarily staying alone at the Brunswick Inn as a precaution. He and Collins both self-quarantined because they worked in close proximity to other lawmakers who contracted COVID-19, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

King said he still sees his wife, Mary Herman, for daily walks. “But we’re on opposite sides of the street,” King said. “It’s the most we’ve been apart in 38 years.” King said he is also talking with Brunswick residents he meets out and about – but still keeping a distance.

The entire delegation has made intensive use of video conferencing.

District 2 Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, said he spent from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday on the phone or in a video conference. Pingree met remotely with the Portland Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. King has also met remotely with large groups, including members of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Just before an interview with a reporter Thursday, Collins said she had been in a conference call with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top adviser to President Trump on the pandemic.

All four have shifted most of their staffs to remote work from home, where they are focusing on getting answers for constituents while familiarizing themselves with how the new laws that Congress approved so quickly are supposed to work.

Sen. Angus King has temporarily self-quarantined as a precaution, because he worked with lawmakers who contracted COVID-19. He sees his wife Mary Herman, for daily walks in Brunswick, but they stay six feet apart. (Photo courtesy Angus King)

Even before the pandemic took hold in this country, Collins’ Maine-based staff worked frantically with the State Department to help bring 93 Mainers home from 16 countries overseas as borders were closed and airlines were suspending operations. Another nine Mainers remain stranded in four countries and staff are still working to get them home.

Collins said one of her top focuses has been helping small businesses understand what’s available to them in the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Both she and King said the businesses and banks that are expected to receive or lend some of the $350 billion guaranteed by the federal government have many questions.

Collins said lenders were starting to get answers and that the program should be in full swing by next week. She said a simple two-page application for employers who are hoping to gain funding through the measure was being rolled out and banks that were already approved lenders with the Small Business Administration would have access to those funds, possibly as soon as Friday.

“I personally think it is more likely to be next week,” Collins said. She said the program also covers those who are self-employed. Access to those loans would start on April 10.

She said ultimately those loans will be converted to grants if employers use the funding for eight weeks of payroll and a handful of other qualifying expenses, such as utilities and rent.

“What I want most is to keep the connections between these small businesses and their employees intact. So, when we get through this crisis,” she said, “– and we will get through this crisis – they will be able to open back up and have their employees come back to work.”

Rep. Jared Golden conducts a video listening session with local small businesses in the last week of March. Photo courtesy of Jared Golden

Many small businesses in Maine depend on family members, friends and neighbors for their workforce, Collins said. “It is so very painful for them to lay their workers off,” Collins said. “That’s the last thing they want to do.”

King said making the new laws work as intended is critical at this stage in the crisis.

“You can have a great idea, or a great law, but if it is not administered properly or adequately or in a timely manner, it won’t work,” King said. “So that’s the kind of thing where there is going to be a lot of work as the administration does the work of building it out.”

When Congress is able to return, what they do next will also be vital to the nation’s recovery, Maine delegation members say.

Golden said he hopes it’s done with transparency and includes the input of all 535 members of the House and Senate. He said he worries about handing too much power to caucus leaders on either side of the aisle and to President Trump.

“I’m very skeptical of the legislative process right now,” Golden said. “I’m sorry, but I don’t really trust McConnell and Schumer and Pelosi and McCarthy and the president’s top team to be putting together the next package. I think the most representative legislation at a time like this should come from the collaborative work of the entire whole.”

Otherwise, Maine’s delegation seem to be in broad agreement that additional legislation, including a federally funded infrastructure package for roads, bridges, broadband and other development that would create and sustain jobs, will be necessary.

King said lawmakers are already working on a fourth federal bill, one that will likely include fixes to any errors in the bills rushed through in response to the pandemic.

Pingree said, inevitably, some will fall through the cracks. Finding those cracks and filling them will be the next important work for Congress once the pandemic passes.

“If we are lucky, we have done enough for now to help get some money into people’s pockets and try to just stabilize daily living,” Pingree said. “But we are going to learn a lot about who fell through the cracks and what we will have to do to broaden these safety nets for business and for people.”

 

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