O’Halleran: Relief bills need immediate action

September 10, 2020
In The News

WINDOW ROCK

Many Americans were shocked and dismayed when Congress recessed for a summer break in August without finalizing a second coronavirus relief/stimulus package due to a stalemate in negotiations between the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives and the Republican-led U.S. Senate.

This week, as Congress gets back to business in Washington, D.C., questions remain about the next coronavirus relief bill while millions of citizens who have suffered a variety of impacts from the pandemic anxiously wait for answers.

On May 15, the House passed its second coronavirus relief bill, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HR 6800), referred to as the “HEROES Act,” a $3 trillion economic stimulus package, following the $2.2-trillion Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Relief Act, or “CARES,” which was enacted into law in March. While the CARES Act was put together in a matter of weeks, the Heroes Act has been stalled in the Senate for almost four months now in a partisan deadlock.

‘We don’t want the perfect storm’

“We passed the HEROES Act out of the House over a hundred days ago,” said Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz. “For the leadership in the Senate and the administration to hold up action while Americans are dying and Americans are going hungry is counter to what government should be doing.”

As of this week almost 190,000 have died from coronavirus in the U.S., including 527 deaths on Navajo. O’Halleran says it’s the “other side of the aisle” that has refused to negotiate. “The bill has been sitting in the Senate and the majority leader (Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky) has refused to negotiate it until lately,” said O’Halleran. “There’s just a deafness on the other side,” he said.

“One of their concerns is they don’t want to spend too much money and go further in debt. Well, tell that to the families, children and the elders of our nation. This cannot continue to go on.”

In a statement on the Senate floor on Aug. 10, McConnell blamed Democratic leadership for the failure of an agreement. “I had hoped that this week, the Senate would be busy providing more coronavirus aid,” McConnell said. “Chairmen and ranking members would be working overtime, across the aisle, to finalize another major pandemic relief package for the American people. “But sadly for the country, sadly for struggling Americans, the Speaker of the House of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.) and the Senate Democratic leader (Chuck Shumer, D-N.Y.) decided we would not deliver any of that.”

O’Halleran said he hopes the powers that be will find resolution in September. “We’ve been trying to find ways to get the administration and the Senate moving and it just hasn’t gotten through,” said O’Halleran. “Now, finally, the administration and the Democratic leadership of the Senate and the House are negotiating how to move this forward for the American people.”

O’Halleran believes that there is no time to waste with a recent forecast from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that the U.S. could see over 400,000 coronavirus deaths by December. “That’s unacceptable!” said O’Halleran. “That’s what we have to tell the Senate — we don’t want the perfect storm. What we want is the conclusion to what’s happening. Right now we don’t have a vaccine and the only way to control this is with the appropriate safety measures.”

O’Halleran believes stabilizing the country and protecting the American people is paramount to mitigating the virus and the economic fallout. “Lives are too precious, families are too precious and we just can’t keep going down this pathway,” he said. “We know where we’re at now. We know the projections and there’s a critical need by the administration and the leadership in the Republican-controlled Senate to get moving on this.”

Additional relief for tribes

The HEROES Act also contains an additional $20 billion set aside for tribal governments and enterprises to cover ongoing expenses related to COVID-19 starting in 2020.

However, that was the initial request in the CARES Act as well, which, after intense negotiations and pushback from the White House, only yielded $8 billion for tribes. O’Halleran said in addition to the second stimulus for individuals of $1,200 in the Heroes Act, there is more funding for emergency food programs.

“We put additional money to increase food stamps, WIC and other programs,” he said. O’Halleran said that many of the food deliveries to the Navajo Nation in the past five months were funded through the CARES Act. “There was a tremendous amount of movement to get that food out there and we’re trying to do it again,” he said. “The concept is to make sure that people have a stable environment that they can protect themselves and you can’t do that without food and water.”

Additionally, he said there were waivers for most of the food assistance programs so that people who aren’t normally eligible could qualify. According to O’Halleran’s communications director, Kaitlin Hooker, Congress invested $15.51 billion in the CARES Act to help Americans “put food on the table” during the COVID-19 crisis through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also referred to as “food stamps.”

Additionally, the CARES Act provided an additional $100 million to the Food Distribution Program on Native American reservations. “We need to put more money into saving lives and for being prepared for the fall and winter,” said O’Halleran.

HEROES vs. HEALS

Those Americans who have suffered hardship due to the pandemic, from job loss, eviction, foreclosure, and bankruptcy to food insecurity and health-related issues due to the lockdowns and closures, were hopeful about the aid that could come available through the HEROES Act.

However, it is expected that Republicans will want to significantly trim the $3 trillion proposed in the act to a lesser amount, which has been the primary source of the stalemate in negotiations.

In late July, McConnell fell short of rallying Republican senators behind the $1 trillion Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act as a countermeasure to the $3 trillion HEROES Act passed by the House. Any compromise is likely to be found somewhere in between the provisions of the HEALS Act and the HEROES Act.

Many Americans have been counting on a second stimulus check, but that also hangs in the balance at this moment. McConnell had endorsed the idea of a second stimulus check but also indicated that fewer people would qualify this time around.

However, on Tuesday it was announced that the newly scaled down GOP relief bill will not include the $1,200 direct payments. Dozens of other issues include the $600 supplement for unemployment, the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, hazard pay for essential workers, assistance for renters and homeowners, aid to state and local governments, funds for educational institutions, and student loan forgiveness.

Deadline ‘must be changed’

Other important bills that impact Navajo also await action. On July 9, O’Halleran introduced legislation (HR 7557), cosponsored by Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., to extend the deadline for tribes to spend CARES Act money from Dec. 30 to Dec. 30, 2022.

The bill would provide more time for tribes to plan and efficiently spend their share of the CARES Act money. On July 21, U.S. senators Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., introduced companion bipartisan legislation. “We need to extend the deadline so that each nation has adequate time to debate and discuss within their governing bodies, just as we did, and allocate the monies most effectively,” said O’Halleran.

While the CARES Act was signed into law on March 27, tribes did not receive any funds until May 5. The first distribution to tribes of $4.8 billion was based on population count. The balance of $3.2 billion, allocated based on the number of employees and COVID-19 related expenditures, didn’t start going out until June. In total, the Navajo Nation received $714 million in CARES Act funds.

If an extension is not granted, monies not spent by Dec. 30 will revert back to the U.S. treasury. “The U.S. Department of Treasury failed Indian Country by delaying the disbursement of funds… Now, we are working around the clock to expedite the use of the CARES Act funds to address immediate needs and for the long-term benefit of our Navajo people,” stated President Jonathan Nez in a press release advocating for the extension.

As of last week, the Navajo Nation had spent just over $16 million of its $714 million allocation. A Navajo Times request for an update to that figure from the president’s office, speaker’s office and the controller received no response. “When people put deadlines of Dec. 30, especially with tribal nations, they’ve got to understand that in the first place they’ve been underfunded for so long, and in the second place there are a lot of issues out there that can’t just be turned around on a dime,” said O’Halleran. “The legislation says it has to be spent, not planned, by end of December. That’s just ridiculous!”

O’Halleran said he doesn’t believe there are any local governments anywhere in America that could spend that much money in such a short timeframe, especially while trying to address the ongoing COVID-19 problems.

It is even more of a challenge on Navajo where infrastructure issues such as lack of running water, electricity, and shortages of food have compounded the severity of the pandemic, he said.

Add to that the sheer size of the Navajo Nation, the government shutdown and the lack of available workers on the Nation, and it’s even more challenging, said O’Halleran. O’Halleran’s extension bill was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on July 9 with no action taken since. “We have to get this done,” said O’Halleran. “It must be changed.”

Infrastructure deficiencies

On May 29, O’Halleran and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, also introduced a bill (HR 7056) for $2.67 billion for the Indian Health Service’s Sanitation Facilities Construction Program that provides technical and financial assistance to tribes for the development, renovation, and construction of water supply, sewage, and solid waste disposal facilities.

The bill addresses the IHS Sanitation Facilities Deficiency list, which was presented in a 2018 report to Congress, outlining sanitation deficiency levels for tribes. “Now, more than ever before, it is critical that families in tribal communities across America have access to safe water, wastewater, and sanitation systems for public health purposes,” said O’Halleran.

“These much-needed funds have been placed firmly on Congress’s back burner for far too long, and the lack of attention to this matter has now complicated the already acute public health crisis, especially on the Navajo Nation in my district.”

Roughly 30% of residents on Navajo live without access to running water and adequate plumbing. HR 7056 was referred to the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States by the Committee on Natural Resources on June 22 with no action taken since.