McCollum focused on keeping workers, families safe during crisis

The global pandemic has elected officials spending less time shaking hands and more time taking calls – so much time, in fact, that Congresswoman Betty McCollum recently treated herself to a pair of Apple AirPods. 

“I am on the phone from about 8:30 in the morning to about 6:30 at night, then on and off a little bit on the weekends,” she laughed. “It’s not the most efficient way for us to legislate, but we’re figuring out how to do it.” 

After being endorsed by the Minnesota AFL-CIO last month, the 10-term DFLer from the state’s 4th Congressional District carved out 30 minutes of phone time for this interview with The Union Advocate, featured in our May 2020 edition.

The interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, took place before April 24, when Congress passed a $484 billion relief package with funds for small business loans, hospitals and testing. 

UA: Federal lawmakers have so far passed three sweeping measures to address the public health and economic crises caused by COVID-19. Where have you directed your focus during this process? 

BM: My focus first and foremost has been on working people and their families, and on making sure we have health care facilities that are open and able to run. That meant having the personal protection for frontline workers in our hospitals, as well as in our community clinics. 

And then we needed to make sure that we have testing, which the president has failed miserably at. In order to open up our economy, in order to lift some of these stay-at-home orders, we have to have tests. People need to be able to be diagnosed quickly and effectively … so that we can work on the next phase, which is coming up with treatment and coming up with a vaccine.  

So my focus has been on what we need to do to keep our families safe… 

UA: We’re still hearing alarming accounts from health care and other frontline workers about lack of PPE and medical equipment. Is there more Congress should do, or is it now a supply-chain issue that falls more on the executive branch and states? 

BM: This is a supply-chain issue that I have been concerned about since we had our last epidemic, with H1N1 and SARS. When I was in the Minnesota statehouse, I had the opportunity to work with (former state epidemiologist) Dr. Michael Osterholm. He has been a mentor to me on this. When we were going through the anthrax situation in Washington, D.C., I learned we don’t keep enough of a stockpile or manufacture enough of the things we need… Masks, gowns, syringes, the cotton swabs they need to do the tests – there are so many things we don’t manufacture in this country. When trade shuts down because of war, trade shuts down because of disruption or trade shuts down because of pandemic, we as a country make ourselves vulnerable.  

It’s something a lot of us in Congress have been talking about for years. Then the crisis goes away, and everybody doesn’t want to deal with it. We have to deal with it this time. I hope we’ve learned our lesson. 

UA: Congress has allocated a lot of money to make sure workers remain employed during the crisis, with access to paid leave if they need it. Are you confident that’s happening as the bills are being implemented? And is there proper oversight to ensure corporations benefiting from the stimulus are using that money to pay their workers? 

BM: Two great points that you bring up… With the CARES Act, we knew there were going to be a lot of people who would not be able to go to work. You look at the restaurants right now, they had to close down because of all the contact. We put in place unemployment insurance, and the State of Minnesota … had money in hand to get the money out the door even faster. Sure there’s been hiccups with that, but I feel confident a lot of these issues will get smoothed out and money will get out to families… 

But you also asked about oversight. And for the president of the United States to say (Congress) didn’t need any oversight, with the way he’s been firing people who have been in place for years to work with Congress on oversight of taxpayers’ dollars? Just because he doesn’t agree with them, he’s firing them. That’s wrong. Democrats in the House are going to do our very, very best to make sure these funds are spent the way they were meant to be: to save lives, to keep families from suffering more than they already have and to get our economy back up and running. 

UA: The Postal Service says it’s likely to run out of cash by September. Cities and other local governments are looking at historic shortfalls. Is there a chance Congress would act to address some of these things in a second stimulus? 

BM: I’m on the Appropriations Committee, and we were working with our authorizers on a major infrastructure bill, which, on and off, the president has been interested in working with us on. We could get people back to work, we could get people off the bench, building roads, bridges, broadband, energy efficiency in our schools. But we found out Mitch McConnell was not interested in doing that. 

We still know that our hospitals need money, and we need money for vaccine work. And we know social distancing works; we need to figure out a way to get the economy moving safely. So while these businesses lay in wait for that moment when it’s safe for workers to go back, we have to keep those small community businesses – the hair salons, the restaurants, the plumbing and electric companies – able to keep their employees on hold in a way that provides them some stability and security. 

UA: I know you’ve been a strong supporter of our postal unions here in St. Paul. What does Congress need to do to keep the post office open? 

BM: Well there are bills out there the postal unions have been talking about for years, we just need to pass them. Just think, in a presidential election year, as we’re slowly starting to recover from a pandemic, if we don’t have letter carriers out there delivering ballots. We know what the weather can be like here in November, to ask people to social distance and stand in line outside to vote like they did in Wisconsin? That would just be wrong. 

UA: You will once again be the labor-endorsed candidate on the ballot in the 4th district this year. Has the COVID-19 crisis heightened the stakes of our choice this November, not just locally, but nationally? 

BM:  I think it really has. When I saw what was happening in China in January, it took my breath away. That’s a communist government. We don’t hear about those things as fast as if it had happened in Canada or Australia. So when we hear about it, you know it’s been going on a long time. COVID-19 is an invisible enemy – that’s that only thing the president has said that I’ll agree with him on. His job was to work with world leaders, to work with the WHO to collect the information, to start gearing up and buy ventilators and PPE, to get what we need to keep America safe – and he just failed to do it.  

His comments speak for themselves. It’s just like the flu, or it will all be gone this spring. None of them were based on science; they were all based on wishful thinking. When the health and safety of the people that look to you for leadership is on the line, that’s not the time for wishful thinking. That’s the time for hard thinking. And he failed us miserably. 

UA:  The labor endorsement came despite positions you’ve taken on mining in northern Minnesota that are at odds with some Building Trades unions. What do you say to tradespeople who want an opportunity to work those jobs? 

BM:  First off, I’m not opposed to mining in northern Minnesota, the way it’s often stated generally. I’m a member of the Steel Caucus. I’m on the Defense Committee. I know how important it is to our national security that we have the ability to make it in America. And I’ve carried a lot of language in the interior bill so that steel for taxpayer-funded projects, we make it in America. 

In the early days of taconite mining we learned that it caused some great harm to our waterways, and we’ve been cleaning that up since then. We’ve learned how to be respectful of our environment and not damaging our water quality anymore when taconite mining. The sulfide-ore copper mining in northern Minnesota is a different type of mining than taconite. The waste product kills everything in the water. There is no second chance, no do-over. 

The Superior National Forest has 20 percent of the fresh water in our U.S. Forestry system. All the water adjacent to the Great Lakes on the Minnesota side is in the Boundary Waters area. We are known for fresh water. We are known for clean water. You need fresh, clean water in order to survive… We have a moral responsibility to protect clean, fresh drinking water for our children and future generations. 

I think jobs are important. I think jobs in northern Minnesota are extraordinarily important. The only thing I asked is … prove it to me scientifically that we can do this safely. And 20 months into a 24-month study, the Trump administration stopped the study. They will not show me one piece of paper from it, not one scrap. I’ve repeatedly asked for it. It was paid for with taxpayer money. And before the study was completed, they started removing the moratorium on the leases. I think a reasonable person could say, why did you stop the study? It should bring great concerns to all of us, including my brothers and sisters in northern Minnesota, why we can’t see the study. What don’t they want us to know?  

UA: Finally, how has COVID-19 impacted your office’s work? 

BM: We are here to serve you. Our office is open for business, and we are really anxious to help people navigate their way through COVID-19. 

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