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Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Will Hurd

The Hill's Steve Clemons speaks with U.S. House Representative Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdHouse poised to override Trump veto for first time Lawmakers call for including creation of Latino, women's history museums in year-end spending deal House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit MORE (R-Texas) about reframing the way we think about national and economic recovery to more "advancing the economy." Hurd is also a supporter of the José Andrés-supported FEED Act, and believes that school meal programs should be transferred to SNAP. Hurd also charged China with engaging in a global disinformation campaign on the origins of this coronavirus.

Read excerpts from the interview below. 

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Clemons: What this coronavirus has done is it has shaken up the system. It's shown us what is wobbly, shown us what is vulnerable. And I know you and I were talking the other day that recovery is the wrong way to look at this. Tell me how you look at it.

Hurd: When people say recovery that makes me think that we want to get back to a place in time, let's say November of 2019. And I get that. And we talked about getting back to normal. Once we get out of this, I want to be better than when we went through it. And we have the opportunity to do that. You talked about how malware attacks are up, spammers are increasing their activity, people are clicking on scams where it's saying, “If you are a sales person you can get additional money in your stimulus refund.” And so these scammers are continuing to operate, and we should be putting things in place to take advantage and protect ourselves from this. And use some of this, the federal dollars that we're gonna be spending to help states, cities and municipalities better defend themselves against these kinds of scams. But also how can we help modernize the infrastructure of states, cities and counties to deliver better citizen facing services? We know the decisions that we made when it came to unemployment. We increased the federal piece of unemployment $600 a month for I believe it was three or four months. But what happened was the states’ workforce commissions, who deliver and take in the request for unemployment — they didn't have the capacity to deal with the increase. Some of them didn't even have the ability to do a 1-800 number for people to check in on their request. We should be making sure that these workforce commissions are moving into the cloud so that you have data in a way that can be used in the better fashion, where you can check on your claim, these are some of the ideas we should be thinking of. Let's take education. How do you do teaching in an online environment? Some schools, I was talking to some folks that run a charter school in New York City, they had 98 percent attendance everyday in their digital classes. I've talked to some schools in Texas where you have 3 percent. We need to make sure we have the infrastructures so that we can do this online class. And so when I talk about where we’re going, I get the term "recovery," and that's the last phase of dealing with the pandemic, but I want to think about advancements, right? And how to become better out of this. 

 

Clemons: I think that's an important frame. I know that people are stressed right now. You and I were talking about food bank lines. We were talking about you visiting a mask cleaning factory. What is the temperature like of people, their frustration or their confidence that things are going begin moving forward in your district?

Hurd: I would say people are just unsure. Folks want to get back to their routines. They want to get out of their house. A lot of people now want to get back to work. They realize how much they liked being around people multiple hours out of the day. And they're looking for guidance and making sure that our elected officials are using the advice from our medical professionals and scientists to make sure that we can get back to our way of life in a smart way. And let’s just take testing. We all know the importance of testing. I'm right now in my hometown of San Antonio. We have additional testing capacity, meaning we could be testing more people. Not enough people are coming out and testing. So how do we make sure that our communities get to a point where anybody can get tested? Because that's important because it's the asymptomatic people that have COVID-19 that are contributing to community spread. And so being able to be in a place where you have the infrastructure to do that. This mass cleaning facility that I saw, they could do 80,000 masks in six hours and the N95 masks, which are needed for health workers, can be cleaned 20 times. So we're basically increasing our supply by a factor of 20. And how do we make sure that hospitals that know about this are using it and getting access to these kinds of things. So we need to be putting these processes in place. But look, I've been out and seen people going and doing take out. Restaurants are open, many restaurants are open in Texas, and they are social distancing and seeing people do that in a smart way. 

 

Clemons: I'm interested in how you would critique the government. If you were in an executive role, how would you say here are the things we need to begin moving right now.

Hurd: So, I think it's not been uniform. I think that's the frustration. I just gave the examples of how here in Texas, we have an oversupply of tests because we're not having enough people come in and getting tests where in some communities you don't have that access. Part of that is the interaction between the federal government and state and municipalities. My perspective of dealing with HHS, Health and Human Services, CDC and FEMA, here on the ground in Texas, I would give them — I have had great experience with them when we needed. You know, I had a community that literally ran out of PPE at a hospital. They literally had only hours of supplies left. We were able to help them get the resources and that was working through FEMA that were based here in Texas. I recognize that those relationships are not the same in other places. I think here locally, the relationships between cities and counties are incredibly important and San Antonio has a great working relationship. So I think some of this has come down on those relationships on the ground. And look, making sure that right information is being communicated. Let's take what the federal government did when it came to PPP, the Paycheck Protection Program. The whole point of the Paycheck Protection Program was to make sure small businesses were able to keep people on the payroll. And if you keep people on the payroll, they don't have to go on unemployment. Yes, where some people applied and got access to those funds that shouldn't have? That happened. It shouldn't have happened. It did. But the secretary of Treasury is taking steps to get that money back, so it goes to people that need it. But in that first tranche of Paycheck Protection Program loans, 134,000 came to Texas businesses and the average payroll of those businesses was less than $60,000 a month. And so those programs are working. And the fact that we were able to distribute $350 billion with a “B” in eight days? I think that was a success. Did the program need to be tweaked? Absolutely. So if I was doing this, the goal should be anybody can show up to a drive-thru facility, and they can get the diagnostics test, which is the COVID-19, do you have COVID-19 or not, and you get the serological test, the test for the antibodies. And you process the COVID-19 test first. If it's positive, then you're notified. If it's negative, then you do the analysis on the serological test. I think we need to improve the way we do contact tracing, and you can do greater notification of a community. So if you know somebody who gets COVID-19 was shopping at one store at a particular time, should that entire community be notified of that? You can do this in a way where you're protecting the civil liberties of that individual. Apple and Google are working on how do you do this in a technological way so we can move that faster. But these are the areas that we should be trying to get online as quickly as possible.

 

Clemons: Now I know you've been worried also about the food supply chain, vulnerable communities. What do you think needs to happen by way of securing supply chains but also looking at people who are just really on the precipice of disaster, of not being able to access food?

Hurd: Food security is national security. That's why I'm concerned and pay attention to it. And I'm especially concerned about our kids. No kids should go hungry. And so what is happening in a lot of communities, the only time a kid gets a square meal is when they're at school, right? And now that schools are closed, how do you ensure those kids are getting those two square meals? Well, the way the system, the free and reduced lunch program, is designed, it's designed to provide that kid a “meal”, not food, an actual meal, right? And so now that, you know, many school districts, like one of the school districts here in San Antonio, Northside Independent School District, has gone through some Herculean efforts to try to deliver those meals to those kids. But we're seeing that in some places less than 25 percent of the kids that are on free and reduced lunch are actually accessing these programs. How do we fix that? It's a thing called the Pandemic EBT, Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer. This is basically SNAP funding.

 

Clemons: And so that's the SNAP program?
Hurd: In Texas, it's called a Lone Star Card. It's a card that has, you know, your food stamps on it. You can go to a grocery store and use it like a credit card. So what PEBT does, it says if you have a child that is on free, reduced lunch, we're gonna add additional money to that, to your ability to go out and buy that food in the grocery store to make sure kids are fed. And that is if a parent is already on SNAP. Now, if you're not, then through this PEBT designation, which goes state-by-state, if your kid is on free and reduced lunch then you're gonna be able to get a SNAP benefit in order to make sure your kids eat. You know, this is something again we should be able to do this with the click of a switch. The infrastructure for the state entities that deal with this, the money comes from the federal government, but the state entities are the ones that run it. And how do you have systems that talk to each other and can move quickly? This is important. Because you know, the reason you're having now more people go to the food banks. As you know they're either on unemployment, their kids can't get it, and you are having these long lines, and my fear is when you have these long lines at food bank and the food bank runs out of money, what happens? Right? When you lose hope of being able to feed your children, you know, that's where pandemonium starts, and so making sure we know these are, in essence, inefficiencies within the system that we can improve. This is something that I'm working on. And I'm glad there is guys like José Andrés that are working on this as well, too. And there's a little nuance, we're working on with FEMA making sure FEMA can pay for the food 100 percent and not have a match from the local communities, which is how it works.


Clemons: How much culpability does China have in all that we're seeing here? We know that the virus came from there, but this is beyond that. And what should we be doing now? Many people are saying, “Hey, this is the wrong time to have a trade war.” We need a global cooperative effort to deal with the virus. Where are you right now in both? What do you think of China and what our actions now should be? Or should we be delaying action so that we can get some global coordination and collaboration in rolling back the devastation of this virus?

Hurd: We need that global collaboration in order to deal with this virus, which means you need transparency from all governments, including the the government of China. And we know that the government of China hasn't been transparent at the beginning of this crisis because we know it originated there. I think organizations like the WHO are important to deal with this global pandemic. But we should be getting our allies and the other members of the WHO to be asking the WHO to get these answers from China. And we also now have to understand what is China trying to do right now. We know that the Chinese government is trying to surpass the United States of America as the sole superpower in this world by 2049. 2049 is important because that's when they mark 100 years of Communist rule in mainland China. And we now are seeing their increase in aggressive disinformation campaigns saying this started by the U.S. government and the Army, saying this originated in Italy, trying to distract not only their own populous from the Communist Party's response to this, but also trying to erode trust within Europe and with some of our other allies of saying “Hey, the United States is not a reliable partner to deal with this. We’re the better partner.” So, this disinformation campaign that we're seeing coming from the China should be viewed in their long-term geopolitical interests of surpassing the United States. And they view that where we are right now in this global pandemic is an opportunity for them to supercharge their activity to surpass the United States. So, if we're all gonna be cooperative in dealing with this, then everybody has to be cooperative, and that includes the Chinese government. And that's where I think we should be strengthening our alliances with the EU and those individual countries and using international forum like the WHO to press for greater transparency.