Sen. Bennet on the COVID response we need

Rebecca sits down with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) for a look at the agenda Dems in Congress are trying to advance to get much-needed help to workers and families amid COVID19. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.

With the number of jobless claims now topping 36 million, and economists warning the federal fiscal response to date has been woefully inadequate to head off a long recession if not full-on depression, all eyes are on the Senate, where Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to cast doubt on whether he’ll let any more relief packages through at all.

So, continuing Off-Kilter’s series on poverty & inequality in the era of COVID19… Rebecca sat down (virtually, of course) with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) for an inside look at Senate Republicans’ obstruction in the face of so much hardship — and the agenda Dems in Congress are trying to advance to get much-needed help to families and forestall a long economic winter.

This episode’s guest:

  • Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) (@SenatorBennet)

For more:

  • Here’s a summary of House Dems’ newest relief package proposal
  • Here’s more on Sen. Bennet’s proposal to expand the EITC & CTC to help families amid the COVID downturn — and here a helpful explainer on the broader tax credit proposals he and others were advancing pre-COVID
  • Here’s more on Senate Dems’ push to expand SNAP amid the COVID pandemic
  • And here’s more on the Trump admin’s appeal of the court ruling blocking them from taking SNAP away from 700,000+ jobless workers in the middle of the pandemic (here we go again…)


REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas.

With the number of jobless claims rising to 36 million and counting and economists warning the federal fiscal response to date has been woefully inadequate to head off a long recession, if not full-on depression, all eyes are on the Senate where Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to cast doubt on whether he’ll let any more relief packages through at all. So, continuing Off-Kilter’s series on poverty and inequality in the era of COVID-19, I sat down virtually, of course, with Senator Michael Bennet, the senior senator from Colorado and former Democratic presidential candidate who campaigned on the idea of a universal child allowance. He shares an inside look at Senate Republicans’ obstruction in the face of so much hardship and the agenda Senate Democrats are trying to advance to get much needed help to families and forestall a long economic winter. Let’s take a listen.

Senator, thank you so much for taking the time to join the show.

SENATOR BENNET: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

VALLAS: So, just to dive right in, prior to COVID, many — chief among them, of course, President Trump — talked about the state of the U.S. economy as somehow universally strong. They pointed to the stock market. They pointed maybe to headline statistics like their low overall unemployment rate. But you have been one of many progressive leaders pointing to this moment as something of a proof point for how poorly a huge swath of American families were actually faring in the supposedly strong pre-COVID economy. And obviously, it’s also significant evidence of an array of major cracks in our public policy landscape, particularly for those families that were already struggling before the pandemic. Would love to hear you talk a little bit about what the takeaways in this moment should be along these lines about what was broken long before we knew what a coronavirus was.

BENNET: Yeah, I’ve read a lot recently about how the pandemic has revealed terrible inequality. And really, what it’s done is expose a pre-existing condition of poverty that we should’ve understood was here, and stresses in the economy more generally. I mean, if I had to summarize the last 10 years of town halls in my state, which is exactly 1/3 Republican, 1/3 Democratic, and 1/3 Independent, it’s very easy to do it. It’s people coming and saying, “Michael, we’re working really hard, and we can’t afford” some combination housing, healthcare, higher education, early childhood education. We can’t save, and we feel like our kids are gonna be worse off than we are.” If I think about the families I used to work for in the Denver public schools, most of whom have kids living in poverty, what they would say is, “We are killing ourselves,” which they are. Because many of them are working two and three jobs. “We’re killing ourselves. And no matter what we do, we can’t get our kids out of poverty.” And of course, in one fell swoop with COVID, what we’ve seen is the unbelievable disparate healthcare outcomes for people based on whether they have access to primary care or not. I’m seeing something that I think is still too invisible to too many people, which is the profound educational inequities that exist in our society. And you’re right. All of this is attributable to a failure of policy imagination for decades, I would say for half a century.

VALLAS: And along those lines, it feels, in a lot of ways, and I think this is probably something a lot of people can identify with, like we’re kind of all in a bus right now that’s crashing in slow motion with the White House and Senate Republicans kind of in the driver’s seat and missing every turn to get off of the highway. And we’re all screaming in the back seat like, “Hey! It doesn’t have to be this way! This! This! We can do all things.” You’re one of those people screaming from the back seat, and I wish you were in the driver’s seat. You know, the numbers, right, just sort of, they start to not even feel real: 36 million jobless claims this week, tens of millions of people losing employer-provided health insurance, the images of the COVID bread lines, cars lined up for miles outside food banks. And, of course, the death toll that continues to mount and which is disproportionately, as you noted, claiming low-income and African-American lives. But longer term, and this is the thing that you, among others, are really kind of screaming from that back seat, it’s not even just about the short-term devastation. It’s also the looming specter of a long and painful recession, if not depression that doesn’t have to be, that we are currently staring down the barrel of if we don’t start to make different choices. What is it like being in the Senate right now with what’s been ranging from no appetite to complete obstruction on the part of the majority for the policies that we know we need amid this unprecedented national emergency?

BENNET: Yeah. First of all, I’ve never thought of it as a school bus, but I have often thought of it as a really angry middle school. And I think it does feel that way a little bit today. McConnell’s obstruction over the last decade has been absolutely epic, and it doesn’t come from nowhere. You know, there was a group of folks who came up in sort of a reaction to Barack Obama, called themselves the Tea Party — then they called themselves the Freedom Caucus — who claimed that they were interested in fiscal discipline and other sorts of ideological views far more outside the mainstream of American political thought in fiscal discipline. And but what they came to Washington really to do was to dismantle the federal government, and in so doing, dismantle our exercise in self-government. I mean, there’s a lot wrong with the way the federal government works. I certainly believe that. I’m from a Western state. We tend to have our suspicions about the way it works. But it’s one thing to want to improve it. It’s another thing to want to disable it, dismantle it. And what you see, I think, in the rise of Donald Trump and in the obstruction of Mitch McConnell is the fulfillment of the reactionary politics that occurred after Barack Obama’s election. And what it has resulted in is, as they said, the dismantling of our exercise of self-government.

Even before COVID, we weren’t able to get anything done. And now we’re faced with the false choice every single day between restoring our economy and protecting the public health. In a competent administration, that would not be a false choice. We’d understand that those two things are inextricably linked together, and we would understand that we need to open the economy because we need to avoid as much devastation as possible. We’d understand that we needed automatic stabilizers to help cushion the fall. And we would understand that we would need to put in place the infrastructure, the public health infrastructure, that’s required to do the testing, to do the contact tracing, ultimately, to do the vaccines that we need. And none of that happens on any given day. So, what we see is President Trump just careening from one day to the next, and unfortunately, right now, the Senate enabling that careening.

So, what I hope is we can get back to a place where we recognize the severity of what we’re facing, to your point, 36 million jobless claims. Brookings just released a study showing that more than one in five households in the country don’t have the money to buy the food they need. And by the way, for families with children, that’s one in three households. I was at the Food Bank of the Rockies just a couple weeks ago, and they were telling me that a third of the families that were there were people that have never sought food assistance before. This is what we’re facing, and things can get a lot worse, to your point. I mean, just like in the last recession, we’ve got a decision to make about whether we want to have a recession or whether we want to have a full-blown depression. And that’s what some of us are trying to head off.

VALLAS: And along those lines, I mean, sort of incorporated in what you were just describing is sort of these two tracks. It’s almost like we’re having two parallel conversations. And on the one hand, there’s this discussion of everything we need to be doing for business and payroll tax cuts, an idea that makes absolutely no sense when the people who most need help right now don’t have jobs. On the other hand, you’ve got — Oh, and I should say also in that column, right, is shielding employers from liability, right, if they let their workers get sick. But on the other hand, seemingly in really an alternate universe, you and other leading Democrats in the Senate and of course, in the House as well, are trying to advance an agenda that would actually help families’ economic circumstances, that is actually responsive to what you and others are hearing from your constituents, like the folks you’re describing who have run out of food and ran out of food weeks ago in many cases. And it’s notable that a lot of the agenda that you are seeking to advance pre-dates the coronavirus pandemic, because, as you noted, poverty was a pre-existing condition. I think that’s a really interesting way to put it. But a lot of those policies are needed now more than ever. And that’s really the argument you are bringing to bear.

I would love to start actually with nutrition because you just brought that up, how many families in this country are now struggling to afford food. And you actually have introduced legislation to try to address that. And I should note, this conversation we are having comes as the U.S. Department of Agriculture is filing another appeal, trying to battle the courts to get permission to take food stamps away from about three quarters of a million people. I think that’s an important backdrop to elevate as folks then listen to what you describe as what Democrats are trying to do to actually help people get food.

BENNET: Well, as you know, SNAP is the largest program of food assistance in the country, and it reaches one out of every nine Americans. Again, as a former urban school superintendent, I can’t help noting for everybody that almost half of the recipients are children, which makes it one of the most well-targeted programs at alleviating child hunger. You mentioned agriculture, by the way. Expanding staff is an enormously important thing for us to do, to give predictability to our farmers and to our ranchers at this very difficult time of really low commodity prices. And so, my view is that we ought to increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent and set the minimum benefits at $30. I also think that we should be suspending the work requirements until the economy recovers. When you’ve got more than 30 million people unemployed, you know, they may be, the ones I know in Colorado are aggressively seeking to get re-employed, but they’re going to have a hard time during the depths of this recession.

And so, I think it makes sense to take those requirements away, provide additional funding for the food distribution program on Indian reservations, and basically, we also want to modernize SNAP, so that we ensure that all states use broad-based categorical eligibility, so that if you’re eligible for some other low-income assistance program, then you’d categorically be eligible for SNAP. That creates huge efficiencies in the program, and it just makes a lot of sense. So, I don’t think there’s anything radical at all in this proposal. In fact, it’s what we could do to most quickly get food to poor kids in this country and what we could do to most quickly benefit farmers and ranchers. We’re having a hard time with some of the ideologues here in Washington.

VALLAS: Yeah. And of course, no one more than the current occupant of the White House, who I bring up that appeal, because a lot of what you just described flies directly in the face of the Trump agenda to dismantle food assistance, which the significance of the fact that the Trump U.S. Department of Agriculture is continuing to pursue an appeal in the federal courts to try to get permission to take food stamps away from upwards of three quarters of a million people in the middle of a pandemic, it’s actually using those work requirements that you just mentioned. And another policy they want to move forward is taking away categorical eligibility like you were just describing. So, really kind of the opposite of the agenda that the hunger community, that families who have needed to turn to these programs, and that leaders like you on the Democratic side of the aisle have been trying to kind of build on successes in this program. We’re watching Trump try to dismantle this program brick by brick, even in the middle of a pandemic. And I have to say, the thing that just boggles my mind, perhaps even more than the sort of lack of any human decency that so clearly describes leadership that could pursue those kinds of cuts amid a pandemic, is that if you were actually thinking about this from a macroeconomic policy perspective, you would recognize that SNAP, the food stamp program, is a tremendously effective form of stimulus. So, it’s not just inhumane to take food away from people in the middle of a pandemic that’s causing widespread hardship and hunger, as you described, but it’s also really bad economic policy if what we’re trying to do is to blunt the effects of a recession.

BENNET: Yeah, you’re totally right. And it’s another side. I’m not sure what the metaphors is. But it’s another side of the same coin. These folks are still trying to overturn the Affordable Care Act in the midst of a pandemic when we know that the Medicaid expansion, as has just been revealed to have been a fundamentally important, maybe the most important policy achievement of the last decade. And they’re trying to get rid of that as well, so.

The issue is for me, all these things, I was focused on a lot of this stuff in a presidential campaign that I ran, which very few people in America noticed. But I put forward something called the Real Deal, which was meant to be responsive to the economic worries that I had been hearing, and I’ve already repeated to you earlier in terms of what I was hearing in my town halls. I mean, there are things we can do! I mean, one thing we could stop doing is giving tax cuts to the wealthiest people in America. Since 2001, between Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, we’ve cut taxes by $5 trillion, almost all of which has gone to the wealthiest people in America. By the way, we didn’t pay for any of it. So, it would’ve been as if the mayor of your town came to you and said, “We’re going to borrow more money than we’ve ever borrowed before.” And you said, “Well, what are you going to use that for? I’m worried about you borrowing all that money.” And he said, “Well, I’m not going to use it for roads and bridges. I’m not going to use it to plow the snow. I’m not going to use it for schools or parks or community centers or healthcare or mental healthcare, something we desperately need as a country.” “Well, what are you going to use the money for?” “I’m going to take it and give it to the wealthiest zip code in our town.” And that is utterly irrational, but that has been our policy.

Instead, for example, enacting the American Family Act that I’ve had for a number of years with Sherrod Brown, which is a dramatic increase to the Child Tax Credit, which in one year would cut childhood poverty in this country by 40 percent. It would end $2/day poverty for kids living in this country. And it would seem to me, but without adding a single bureaucrat to the federal government, it would seem to me that all people of different ideological stripes could support that on the theory that having fewer poor children in this country is a benefit not just to them, but to the future of the democracy as well.

VALLAS: Well, and Senator, I have to say, just so you know, I was one of those people who paid significant attention to your presidential campaign in no small part.

BENNET: One of those three people. Thank you.

VALLAS: No, no! There were a lot more than three of us. But it’s because a core part of your campaign was really that message about child poverty and about, in particular, your proposal. And it’s part of that bill you just mentioned that you have with Senator Brown, who has also been on the show talking about these policies as well. At the core of that is your proposal for building on those effective tax credits, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, in really pretty significant and bold ways, really one of the proposals that’s in there that did get a lot of attention, and your presidential campaign brought a lot of attention to this policy, you now and Senator Brown are actually saying we need these policies now as part of our COVID response, right?

BENNET: Right.

VALLAS: So, really timely to be talking about this. But is creating a child allowance so that we don’t have families in this country who can’t afford to provide for their kids, particularly in the early years of life. There’s also a really significant proposal in there to basically close a massive gap in the Earned Income Tax Credit for some of the workers who are hardest hit in this moment. So, I actually would love to hear you talk a little bit more about why we need these policies now and who they would help.

BENNET: They would help millions and millions of Americans: millions of American children who are living in poverty, millions of working Americans who are not able to support their families no matter how hard they work. I was really pleased to see that Sherrod Brown and my version of the American Family Act was included in the House legislation that was introduced this week, the most recent COVID legislation. It’s only for one year. I wish that it had been for much longer than that. But I think that one year is going to give us a chance to understand what the effects really could be. And again, it’s not some expansion of government. It is a transfer directly to families and to their kids. And from when I think about my old life as a school superintendent, and I think about the huge educational inequities that are just profound that exist in our country that are deeply, deeply unfair — and that’s a whole other conversation — but I think about what could we do nationally to give kids a fighting chance? And what we could do is reduce their poverty rates dramatically. And so, that’s why I’ve been working on this bill for years. And again, I’m glad it was included at least just for a year in the House version. I hope that augurs well for things to come.

But essentially, what are we after? And what we’re after is getting back to a place where when the economy grows, it grows for everyone, not just the people at the very top, and not just because we hate people at the very top or even because we do. Because I don’t. But because our democracy can’t survive when you’ve got the level of income inequality that we have, when you’ve got decade after decade after decade for half a century, when 90 percent of the American people had no economic mobility at all. Democracies can’t survive that lack of economic mobility. So, I think all of us coming out of this crisis need to come together and figure out how to adopt a set of policies and practices, because not all just about laws that we pass. It’s about how we treat our employees and how we think about our communities and move forward in a way under a banner that says it’s just not acceptable to us as Americans for us to live in a society where 9 out of 10 Americans have no economic mobility, and no matter how hard they work, they can’t supply their kids with a middle-class life or lift their kids out of poverty. And again, this is not a matter of pitting anybody against anybody. It’s a matter of saying we want this democracy to survive in a way that we can pass it off proudly to the next generation of Americans. We are a long way from that set of politics in Washington, D.C. But my hope is that, you know, as we go through this crisis, it will not just illuminate the issues that confront us, but inspire us all to want to act together to make progress. Because I know we can.

VALLAS: Senator, in the last minute that I have with you, you mentioned that House bill that was unveiled earlier this week. It’s a broad package of a range of different priorities that have not yet been included in prior packages or which represent necessary additions or amendments like an extensions of things that are going to run out. The Republicans in the Senate are, of course, saying that the package is DOA in the Senate. But I would love to offer you the chance to comment on the package just a little bit apart from the EITC/Child Tax Credit piece that you just lifted up, which was included at least for a year in that package. Are there any parts of this package that you thought may actually have a shot at getting support in the Senate from Republicans who have been wielding all kinds of tools for obstruction to date? And are there specific pieces of the package that you believe are going to develop its hard lines for Senate Dems as you look at what this package represents as a starting point for the Senate?

BENNET: Well, it’s always hard to judge what Mitch McConnell is going to do. Right now, he’s basically saying we don’t even need a package, and maybe states should go bankrupt, which is pretty hardhearted in a moment when states are seeing revenue declines of roughly 30 percent. Counties in Colorado, just to take that, my state, are seeing revenue declines of 25 to 70 percent and are having to lay off people, which, of course, that also has a compounding effect because of the…and could threaten to move us from a recession to a depression if we lose millions of public employees in the process of all of this. So, some of the things that I think were key in the House bill that I’d love to see supported the Senate, first of all, state and local relief. I thought that we needed to have $500 billion for state governments. They included that. $375 billion for local governments. There’s not a governor in the country, Republican or Democrat, who hasn’t supported that increase to state governments. And so, I hope that’ll ultimately get support in the Senate. It’s desperately needed, again, if we’re not going to compound the issues that we’re concerned about.

I had called for a health force in the Senate with Kirsten Gillibrand, because we’re going to need hundreds of thousands of people to do the contact tracing, to do the testing, to ultimately to administer the vaccines. And our public health infrastructure in America, because of our failure to invest over the years, is not up to the task. There’s a version of that included in the House bill. And Republicans in the Senate may not want that. I don’t know what their feeling’s going to be, but they’re going to have to have some answer to that. Because there isn’t anybody to keep us safe if we don’t have some investment here. And what I’m trying to avoid is a cycle where we open and we close and we open and we close and we open and we close because we keep getting rolling infections from the pandemic. So, that can be avoided by a little bit of an investment today.

The last thing I’ll mention is something we started with, which is the SNAP benefit expansion, which was included in the House bill and consistent with my proposal to increase benefits up to 15 percent. I know that’s something that the Republicans historically have not wanted. But in these exceptional circumstances, when we’re trying to help our kids and trying to find a way to help our farmers and ranchers, that’s the best way to do it. And so, I hope that people will see the light.

VALLAS: I’ve been speaking with the senior senator from Colorado, Senator Michael Bennet. He sits on the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Agriculture Committee and of course, was a Democratic presidential candidate in the 2020 primary cycle, heavily focusing his campaign on child poverty and the EITC and the Child Tax Credit. Senator, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show and for all of your tremendous leadership on all of these issues.

BENNET: Thank you.

VALLAS: Appreciate your role in the back seat, but wish you were in the driver’s seat.

BENNET: [chuckles] Thank you for everything. And I hope everybody stays safe and takes care of each other. Thank you.

VALLAS: And that does it for this episode of Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. The show is produced by Will Urquhart. Transcripts are courtesy of Cheryl Green. Find us on the airwaves on the We Act Radio Network and the Progressive Voices Network, and say hi and send us your show pitches on Twitter @OffKilterShow. And of course, find us anytime on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next time.

Off-Kilter is the podcast about poverty and inequality—and everything they intersect with. **Show archive 2017-May ‘21** Current episodes: