Congress moving the ball forward: Rep. Tom Cole attends virtual town hall

Drew Butler

The Ardmore Chamber of Commerce hosted Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla) via Zoom for a virtual town hall on Tuesday. During the meeting Cole addressed the relief efforts put into place because of the COVID-19 pandemic and gave insight into the additional relief packages which will likely be passed by Congress in the coming weeks and months.

Cole began with a recap of the four bills already passed by Congress to help fight the virus and provide financial relief to the nations citizens and businesses. The first bill gave additional funding to the National Institute of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and nutrition programs. The second bill set aside $100 billion to ensure free testing for the virus and paid sick days and emergency leave for some employees.

The third bill, Cole pointed out, is the largest single bill ever passed in the history of the country. Included in the $2.3 trillion bill were stimulus checks to citizens, an additional $600 a week to individuals forced to go on unemployment, and approximately $350 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) designed to help small businesses.

Cole said the initial PPP funds were exhausted in less than two weeks. Last week an additional $310 billion was added to the program as part of a $490 billion bill passed after several days of negotiation between Democrats and Republicans. Cole said Republicans wanted to add more money into the program, and Democrats, though not opposed to the idea, wanted to include additional funding for hospitals, testing, and state, local, and tribal governments into the bill as well.

“Eventually a compromise was struck,” Cole said. “The PPP got $310 billion, and we also put another $50 billion into an SBA Lone program called the Economic Injury Disaster Loan. $75 billion went to hospitals; $25 billion went to testing. The state and local issue got kicked down the road for bit.”

Cole noted that the initial funds set aside for state, local and tribal governments were not yet depleted. He said the Senate will be back and session next week, and he and other Representatives will also be returning for committee hearings.

While Cole does not anticipate any new legislation in the next few weeks, he believes more relief funding will eventually be passed.

“I can see us going through the PPP funds pretty quickly,” Cole said. “I also think the Democrats are anxious on the financial assistance to state, local and tribal governments. So there’s going to be a major compromise again. The president has talked about making infrastructure part of the next package. It hasn’t been fleshed out very much, so I would just say there’s a lot of moving parts there and not yet a consensus on what to do.”

During the question portion of the town hall, Cole was asked about the additional $600 per week going to those receiving unemployment. Currently this program is set to expire mid-July when unemployment checks will return to their previous rates. Cole said he does not anticipate the additional benefits to be renewed.

“We’re running into some problems,” Cole said. “I was talking with a group of hotel owners who literally can’t get their workers back because they’re making more because of the additional $600 per week, and the same thing is true in a lot of restaurants.”

He said this could prove contentious because he anticipates Democrats will want the extra money to continue.

“In the next package the Democrats would like to do another round of personal assistance like we already did, and I’m sure they’ll want to continue this,” Cole said. “A lot depends of the speed with which the economy come back. Theoretically these workers are supposed to take a job if they’re offered one, and they’re breaking the way(it works) if they remain on unemployment or if they quit the job to go on unemployment. The reality is our unemployment offices are overwhelmed with record levels of filings. So I wouldn’t count on overwhelmed state unemployment offices being able to enforce this or provide their normal level of scrutiny.”

Cole closed by asking people to come to him with any policy suggestions they think could be helpful.

“We’ve literally been tasked to go talk to our constituents,” Cole said. “You’ll anticipate things that honestly we wont think of. There are just so many different kinds businesses with different kinds of needs. Please give us your input. I can’t guarantee it will happen, but I can guarantee it will get serious consideration.”