COVID-19 Q&A with Congresswoman Elise Stefanik
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way you interact with your constituents?
For the safety and health of constituents and staff, my office pivoted to using technology to continue to serve New York’s 21st Congressional District. Days are filled with video calls, telephone town halls, and answering incoming emails and phone calls to our office. In addition, we have partnered with local and county governments and community organizations like chambers of commerce to share information in real-time regarding federal resources.
What was the process like as the different stimulus bills were being put together and ultimately voted on?
Congress overwhelmingly passed four bills on a bipartisan basis focused on COVID-19 vaccination research and development, ensuring that individuals do not have to pay for testing, and an economic rescue package for families and small businesses that are facing significant economic uncertainty. The challenging part of developing this legislation was that members are scattered across the country in our home districts.
Have your legislative priorities changed during the outbreak?
My top priority is always serving my constituents. I am known for laser-focusing on representing my district on all legislative issues. The COVID crisis touches every aspect of federal issues, whether it’s Northern Border challenges related to trade and workforce, rural healthcare access and quality, colleges and universities, and overall economic challenges for families and small businesses. This is an unprecedented crisis, and the way I have approached serving my district is a whole-of-government approach and ensuring that we communicate effectively and listen to stakeholders such as county public health officials, local elected officials, hospitals and community health centers, school superintendents and teachers, manufacturers, small businesses, etc.
Has the White House been receptive to congressional input and have they provided regular updates?
Absolutely. The White House has proactively reached out to congressional and state leaders on a bipartisan basis. Governors across the country (including New York) have publicly commented on how responsive this administration has been meeting the needs during this crisis. Additionally, I have participated in numerous bipartisan congressional briefings with Cabinet officials and the president where they listen to the needs of communities across the country. The administration has also been very open to hearing policy suggestions from members of Congress from both parties.
How do you balance the need to restart the economy while still protecting the public health?
Public health data will drive the gradual re-opening process, but in reality, you have to do both because the economic hardship is significant and has overall impacts on public health. In my conversations with local leaders and healthcare providers, many have shared concerns of health crises such as not seeking care for preventable underlying health issues, as well as a spike in domestic violence, child abuse, and addiction. My office is working with local economic development organizations, chambers of commerce, the business community as well as our county public health officials to share best practices for industries so we can safely get back to work.
What is the most important thing the federal government can do to help small businesses moving forward?
I believe that the SBA Paycheck Protection Program was a critical lifeline of support for small businesses. While not perfect, it was imperative to provide financial support for businesses who faced a sudden and unanticipated downturn of no fault of their own. I worked with the Secretary of the Treasury to update the guidance of this program specifically for seasonal businesses, which are critical in my district. The single biggest step we can take to rescue our small businesses is to develop a path forward to safely re-open the economy.
Can testing speed up the process of reopening the economy, and what should the federal government’s role be when it comes to widespread testing?
Increasing our testing capacity is critical to ensuring the safe re-opening of the economy. The federal government has and should continue to play a key role in surging our testing capabilities. With the support of the federal government, New York state has doubled our testing capacity, and we are seeing that increase our test numbers in my district in the North Country. Testing is one of the key metrics laid out by the CDC that will help determine the timeline to re-open, so this goes hand-in-hand with our economic opportunity.
Do you feel there will be an emphasis on infrastructure spending on projects post COVID-19 to help jump-start the economy?
This crisis has crystallized the need for rural infrastructure. Students in my district are now in makeshift home classrooms using laptops, tablets, and mobile devices to continue the school year, but homes that do not have rural broadband are at a significant disadvantage. I have worked with our school superintendents, teachers, and parents during this crisis to identify data that demonstrates how critical rural broadband and cellular are for access to the 21st century economy. Rural broadband needs to be treated as a utility and connect every household in America—no matter how rural.
What changes does Congress need to enact so the country is more prepared for any future pandemics?
We need to develop a strong North American manufacturing base. This crisis has highlighted our dependency on China, whether it’s ventilators, personal protective equipment, or testing supplies. We are even dependent on China for the chemicals used to complete the tests. We need to rebuild and invest in our domestic production capacity and work with our allies in North America and Europe to counter this dependence on China.
You have firsthand knowledge of the LBM industry. You worked at your family’s small business, Premium Plywood Products in Upstate New York. What did that experience teach you that you use as a member of Congress?
Growing up in a small-business family, I understand the hard work it takes to succeed day to day. I was raised with a very strong work ethic and utilize that every single day in Congress. Small businesses also teach you agility and how to solve all sorts of problems and challenges. That is a key skill set in Congress because on any given day, there is an infinite number of issues that cross your desk, and you need to learn quickly and develop solutions to provide support for your district.
Is government doing a good job of balancing the needs of rural areas vs. urban areas during the COVID-19 outbreaks?
As always, I have focused my efforts on my district, which is primarily rural. One of my key priorities was ensuring that rural hospitals were provided with significant federal relief. I worked directly with the hospitals, community health centers, and the Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services to ensure that the formula for calculating federal direct support took into consideration the unique challenges of rural hospitals. To date, I have delivered over $100 million to hospitals and community health centers in my district during the crisis.
Do you see any positive changes that will come about due to the pandemic once the nation is fully recovered?
I support a 9/11 Commission-style committee of experts to develop lessons learned and recommend policy solutions, so we are more prepared in the future. Even throughout this crisis, we have learned so much. One of the most significant lessons in communities across my district is how critical and professional our county public health offices are. While typically not in the public eye, these county public health officials have been truly heroic and have risen to this unprecedented challenge. It has been a privilege to work with them.
On a lighter note, how do you spend your time at home during these days of quarantines and social distancing?
To give you a sense of the scale of incoming emails and phone calls, my iPhone runs out of battery by 10 a.m. I go through multiple rounds of recharging. So, there is not a lot of time otherwise. I have been able to cook at home (we all have increased our home cooking!), which I love to do but normally do not have much time for. I think I have mastered the conference call while cooking evening routine.