Rep. Katie Porter on economic relief during pandemic, CDC’s performance, health care and Biden

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy

“Just because somebody has insurance doesn't mean that they can afford to get the treatment under that insurance. And so we see lots of insurance policies that put a lot of limits on COVID testing and won't pay unless the COVID test occurs in a certain setting or is ordered by a certain provider. And that has discouraged a lot of people from getting tested. And I don't want to see a repeat of that with the vaccine,” says Congresswoman Katie Porter. Photo by United States Congress.

House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday rejected a new stimulus package negotiated by a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers. The bill calls for about $900 billion in new COVID relief spending. It would also revive additional weekly unemployment benefits for people who lost their jobs because of the pandemic — but at a lower rate. People would only get $300 extra each week instead of the $600 they got in the early days of the pandemic. 

Even though McConnell rejected this plan, it could still help lawmakers get closer to breaking the logjam on another stimulus package. Time is running out though. Many of the programs established by the first COVID relief package — the CARES Act — expire at the end of the year. 

KCRW talks with Congresswoman Katie Porter, who represents parts of Orange County, was one of the few California Democrats who held onto a seat they flipped two years ago. Four of the seven seats are now back in Republican control.

KCRW: In a few weeks, countless Americans will run out of unemployment benefits. Do you expect Congress to make anything happen between now and then? 

Katie Porter: “I'm certainly going to keep fighting to make sure that we pass relief. And I think it's really important that we don't think of this as stimulus, but that we talk about it as help, as relief. It's really, really urgently needed to help people keep food on the table, to help them keep a roof over their head, to allow our state and local governments to continue doing their important work, to help reopen child care centers. This is really necessary provision. 

So I really reject what Senator McConnell was saying, which is just that we should just do what we agreed on. Our commitment as representatives, and I hope this is true across the aisle, our commitment is to do what is needed to meet the needs of the American people, for government to be there in this terrible pandemic for families. It's not just to do what's easy, it’s to do what's right.”

McConnell is not going to take up the House proposal. Democrats want $600/week in unemployment benefits, but could you live with $300/week?

“Well, I do think that there is nothing wrong with taking these bit by bit, by tackling these as a series of smaller bills, and by moving first on the things that there is agreement on. And so the unemployment insurance, the fact that it's coming to an end, the really urgent need for state/local government funding, I do think that there's a way to do this separately, rather than as a big package, that might help us move things forward. 

That said, it's clear that Congress is not going to win any awards for acting speedily in the current environment. With a Republican-controlled Senate, the most common words out of leader McConnell's mouth are no,

it's always less for people. And it's very hard to go back to your constituents and say, ‘No, you're not getting food assistance. No, you're not getting housing assistance’ when that's what we hear our constituents need right now.”

Are you in a tough bind? Because you are the face of Washington to them. Do they look to you and blame you in part for this logjam? Or are they focused on Mitch McConnell?

“I think one of the things that benefits anyone doing this job is being a straight shooter. I represent a majority-Republican district that myself, I'm a Democrat, and I will tell it like it is to my constituents. And I will say straight up, ‘Congress is failing you right now.’ And as an institution, when you look at the Senate and the House put together and divided government, we are shortchanging the American people, we are not delivering what they need.”

You are in a majority Republican district and won reelection. Many of your colleagues are also in majority Republican districts, they managed to flip their districts two years ago, but they couldn’t retain their seats. Why?

“I think there were a number of factors going on in the election. Obviously, everything from having Trump at the top of the ticket to very high turnout that played out in different ways. 

But I will tell you that my commitment in this last campaign, in my first campaign, and it will be true in my next campaign — is to run on my record of how I've been representing the people in my community. I am proud of the fact that I'm willing to call out very powerful special interests, be they in the government or be they in the private sector. I'm proud of the fact that my office is willing to take questions and engage with constituents with all different points of view. 

In a democracy, we can't be afraid to debate ideas. I think it is a real gift to get to represent a district like this, in which there's strong opinions on lots of different sides of issues, along with lots of people who are overwhelmed by trying to stay safe, by trying to make ends meet, and don't have as many opportunities to engage politically. And how can we create opportunities for them to do so? 

So I very much think that having town halls, being willing to meet with those you disagree with — creates a lot of credibility in people that you're really representing them in the Congress.”

You became famous online when you questioned Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, and that went viral. How are you thinking of the CDC’s performance since then? Has it performed up to expectations or is lacking?

“Well I'm definitely encouraged with the CDC’s progress, where we started with really poor, troubling distribution of testing. All of that was really a lousy start to the pandemic. I think the CDC has a really important role to play in helping to engage people, give people information about the vaccine. And I think there were real lessons to learn from the testing experience, and that we can apply to vaccines. 

… Even though we secured that promise in the hearing that testing would be free, even though Congress passed not one but two laws providing that testing be free — free has actually meant very different things in different parts of the country. Free has often meant you have to have a doctor's order. Free has meant that you have to have your insurance pay. 

… We all want a safe and effective vaccine. I think there are lessons the CDC can learn about the importance of using a public health-oriented approach, rather than a patchwork of private insurance companies and public programs to deliver that vaccine. 

I think it will be slower if we have people worried that their insurance will or won't cover the vaccine.”

What do you think incoming President Joe Biden should be doing about that? And do you think that he should be moving more towards a Medicare for all model? 

“We've chronically under-invested in public health in this country for decades. I think we're seeing some of the consequences of that. So I think there's multiple things that President Biden needs to do. And he's already taken … steps in this direction. 

One is creating a panel of top scientists to advise him and help reassure people that the decisions he's making are being informed by science and not by politics. And that means making sure that the scientists at the CDC or at the NIH are being allowed to question things, to look for holes in the research, to test questions about the studies, about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. 

And then I think a big part of it is making sure that we are focusing on things being actually affordable in people's lives. And just because somebody has insurance doesn't mean that they can afford to get the treatment under that insurance. And so we see lots of insurance policies that put a lot of limits on COVID testing and won't pay unless the COVID test occurs in a certain setting or is ordered by a certain provider. And that has discouraged a lot of people from getting tested. And I don't want to see a repeat of that with the vaccine.”

You cosponsored the Medicare for All Act of 2019. Are you disappointed that Joe Biden does not support that?

“I think that under the Biden administration, we should have an open and robust debate about how to improve our health care system. And I think the more that I talked to people in my district, the more I learn, the more I am concerned about the influence of organizations like big pharma, private equity, which is increasingly buying up our hospitals and doctors’ practices.

We do not have today a free market health care system. I know consumers cannot find out what procedures cost. They are not able to necessarily choose their insurance because the employer often chooses for them. We're not able, for example, to negotiate drug prices under Medicare. And the government's the largest purchaser of drugs in this country. 

… There's a lot to be said for the Medicare for all approach in terms of lowering the cost of health care, and being able to deliver more health care to people.”

You came into office promising big change. Do you feel like it's not possible to do that in this current environment? And does that make you a little bit more jaded about the role you and government can play in people's lives?

“No, I'm a big believer that we can still make progress, and we can still push forward. So we’re in a country where yes, Joe Biden was just elected president, but we also had hundreds of millions of Americans vote for President Trump. … Today we still have a Republican-controlled Senate. 

And the American people need to tell the Senate they want relief. They want help with putting food on the table. They want help with housing. They want help with making sure our state and local government can stay open and continue providing help on the ground. So I think for me, this just makes me more committed to continue to fight for what my community needs.”

Credits

Guest:
Katie Porter - Democratic Congresswoman representing parts of Orange County

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin, Nihar Patel, Bennett Purser