Can Ohio’s divided congressional delegation find common ground on coronavirus?

By: - March 20, 2020 1:00 am

WASHINGTON — How much paid leave are Ohio employers required to provide under new federal law? Will they be reimbursed? What benefits will workers get if they aren’t eligible for paid sick leave? How do restaurant and bar owners get in on the state’s liquor buyback program?

Ohio U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson (R-6th) answers these and other questions on an information page he recently put together to help constituents navigate the coronavirus pandemic.

The information clearinghouse is one way he’s sharing information — what he regards as his top priority as the spread of COVID-19 speeds up and the economy slows down. “My main job is being a conduit of information,” he told the Capital Journal in an interview.

He and other Ohio lawmakers are temporarily disbanding national and district offices and sending staff home to work remotely, and following social distancing guidelines themselves. 

In the meantime, they’re hosting telephone town hall meetings, participating in conference calls with state and local officials, addressing constituent questions and concerns and sharing updates through the news and social media.

“The key is we contain this virus,” Ohio U.S. Sen. Rob Portman said this week on a call with reporters.

On Thursday, Ohio’s Department of Health reported 119 cases of COVID-19 in 24 counties. Nationwide, more than 10,000 confirmed and presumptive positive cases — and 150 deaths — have been reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cases have been cited in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and several U.S. territories.

Two federal lawmakers have tested positive for the virus and nearly two dozen — none from Ohio — were under quarantine as of Thursday, according to CNN

Members of Ohio’s congressional delegation are now preparing for a massive emergency spending bill that could inject as much as $1 trillion or more into the economy to support ailing workers and industries. The contours of the bill are still taking shape, but under consideration are direct payments to taxpayers and aid for small businesses and battered industries. 

In a call with reporters this week, Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, called for $2,000 cash payments to adults and children under a certain income threshold, followed by additional direct payments, expanded unemployment insurance and a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

If approved, the next stimulus package would build on two recent laws passed in response to the coronavirus epidemic. One funds research and medical equipment; the other provides universal testing for the virus, increases access to paid sick leave, strengthens unemployment benefits and government food programs, and helps states meet rising costs for Medicaid. 

Fiscal conservatives support massive spending

The multi-billion dollar spending packages have drawn support from members of a party that otherwise prides itself for fiscal conservatism.

All 18 members of Ohio’s congressional delegation — which includes 13 Republicans and five Democrats — voted for the first package. All but two — GOP U.S. Reps. Jim Jordan and Warren Davidson — voted for the second package.

Ohioans need “money in their pocket,” U.S. Rep. Bob Latta, a Republican in the northwestern part of the state, told the Capital Journal. Ohioans are not to blame, he said. They want to go to work, but can’t.

He and others say they’re tamping down their usual partisan differences in order to move legislation quickly through a Congress that has until now been marked by intense gridlock.

“It’s a time to come together as a nation,” Johnson told the Capital Journal. “I want to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Portman echoed the sentiment, noting that lawmakers are putting aside partisanship and not allowing perfection to be the enemy of the good. President Donald Trump, he added, is doing a good job and using an appropriate tone. “My sense is they’re taking it very seriously,” he said.

But the federal response hasn’t been perfect, Portman said. 

Congress, he said, should have passed its second coronavirus package sooner and the president should practice the social distancing guidelines he and his administration is preaching during his daily press conferences.

Brown was much more severe. He lauded GOP Gov. Mike DeWine, who made early calls to cancel large-capacity events, close public schools and shutter bars and restaurants. 

But he said the federal government has failed in its response so far, and he blasted Trump for closing the White House pandemic surveillance office and failing to take major action sooner. Brown also chided Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for sending lawmakers home last weekend before passing the economic relief package. And he called GOP objections to efforts to provide workers with paid sick leave “morally reprehensible.”

Overall, though, Ohio lawmakers sounded a note of bipartisan resolve as the number of cases spikes nationwide. We’ll make it through this “if we stick together,” Johnson said.

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Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens

Allison Stevens is a Washington D.C. reporter for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Ohio Capital Journal.