Ben McAdams and Burgess Owens sound off on federal response to the pandemic

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photos) Democrat Rep. Ben McAdams, left, and Republican Burgess Owens, right, candidates for Utah's 4th Congressional District.

The public health and economic crisis will likely be the top issues as voters fill out their ballots this fall, including in Utah’s 4th Congressional District, where first-term Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams faces a challenge from Republican Burgess Owens.

Pandemic relief will likely remain a top point of contention when the victor heads to Washington, D.C., in January.

Congress will need to contemplate the distribution of a vaccine to millions of Americans after warnings from the Centers for Disease Control that the nation could be grappling with a surge in COVID-19 infections mixed with seasonal flu outbreaks starting this fall.

Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate remain at odds over another round of federal aid during the coronavirus pandemic.

Both Owens and McAdams said Congress’s initial funding package earlier this year was necessary, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES.

“The House, Senate and president all agree – that’s not something we say very often – that responding to this crisis requires federal investment,“ McAdams said this week while addressing Prosperity Utah, a group of entrepreneurs and business influencers. “The worst thing we can do is watch the economy drive off a cliff.”

Responding by email, Owens said the federal government had a responsibility to business owners and employees during forced closures last spring.

“I do feel like Congress took the tragedy as a situation to slide some extras in the bill,” he wrote, “but we absolutely needed to get relief to people after taking away their livelihood.”

The federal deficit reached a record-breaking $2.8 trillion for the fiscal year according to the Treasury Department, largely due to spending from the CARES Act. The national debt could surpass the size of the economy this year, according to projections by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Both candidates expressed concerns over the long-term fiscal fallout from the pandemic.

Owens did not comment specifically on the deficit, but blamed the nation’s ballooning national debt on out-of-control spending by Congress over many years.

“Unfortunately our Congress has spent money they didn’t have for decades,” Owens wrote. “We need to start taking having a balanced budget seriously so that we’re prepared when things like this happen.”

McAdams, too, criticized past federal overspending. Last year, the moderate Democrat sponsored a resolution that would add a constitutional amendment requiring Congress to maintain a balanced budget unless a three-fifths majority approved excess spending. He said if the nation faces another crisis after the pandemic, it could push the nation’s finances “to the brink.”

“The clock has run out,” McAdams said. “Once we are through this crisis, we have to get our fiscal house in order because we are dangerously at risk. Our deficit and level of debt right now is our greatest national security risk.”

That said, both candidates support some level of additional funding for further pandemic relief.

McAdams said he favors renewing a federal supplement for state unemployment payments, but not the $600 per week initially authorized by the CARES Act that expired last month.

“It should never be more profitable to stay at home than it is to go to work,” McAdams said. “Part of the problem is we took a one-size-fits-all approach. Six hundred dollars may be what’s needed in New York City, but it might be something different that’s appropriate in Utah.”

Owens singled out the Paycheck Protection Program, a massive loan fund for small businesses with repayment forgiven if they used the money to retain employees, writing “I would definitely like to see the PPP extended immediately!”

Owens did not answer a question about whether Congress should authorize more funds to help local governments make up for budget shortfalls. McAdams told The Salt Lake Tribune that he believed there is bipartisan support to extend a deadline requiring local governments to spend CARES Act funds by the end of the year.

McAdams said he’d also like to add flexibility to how counties and municipalities can spend those existing CARES dollars, including on budget gaps, instead of authorizing more funds.

“Let local government decide what the highest and best use is,” he said.

With Congress at a standstill, Trump recently issued executive orders and memoranda that continue unemployment payments at $400 a week, with the states covering a portion, and postpone employee payroll taxes.

After governors from both parties balked at the formula, the White House clarified that state’s could count their existing contributions to benefits, meaning the extra payment would amount to $300.

While some Democrats worried that Trump’s proposed payroll tax pause could lead to defunding Social Security, McAdams held firm on his earlier position not to criticize the president’s action.

But, he added, “I think the president would admit his solution is not as robust as it needs to be.”

Owens said he still needed to review the president’s orders, but he supported action that helps Americans while lawmakers are at a stalemate.

“We still have businesses shut down or at partial capacity, action needed to be taken while Congress was busy bickering,” Owens said.

The Trump administration is also pushing an eventual coronavirus vaccine to be approved in record speed leading to fears among some Americans that it won’t be safe. Owens said the process shouldn’t be rushed.

“I think we need to trust our scientists and medical professionals, no deadlines, let them work to develop a vaccine that they can be 100% confident in,” Owens wrote.

Owens did not respond to questions about whether the vaccine should be free and whether Congress should cover vaccine costs, similar to how it funded COVID-19 testing. McAdams, however, said vaccine costs should be covered.

“I think it should be free,” McAdams said. “Insurance sometimes has a role in paying for it, but you never want anyone to not get a test or not get a vaccine because they can’t afford to pay for it. We all benefit if people are vaccinated.”

Once a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 becomes widely available and the dust from the pandemic begins to settle, lawmakers may well find themselves evaluating the cracks laid bare in the nation’s public health system.

“We need to make sure [that] right now, in the depth of this crisis, people continue to have access to health care,” McAdams said. “At the same time, we need to recognize that it’s not affordable for so many people.”

Owens did not call out any specific shortcomings in the country’s health systems, but implied that policy change ought to come from the experts and not politicians.

“I think we have all been extremely impressed by our health care professionals and we’ve seen just how much they’re capable of,” Owens said. “I think if we’ve learned anything, we’ve learned these decisions will be best made in the hands of the professionals and not D.C. bureaucrats bickering on the House floor.”