WASHINGTON — Sherrod Brown was pissed off.
For days, the U.S. Senate had delayed crafting a massive coronavirus relief bill as the economy went into free fall. Rather than work through the weekend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had flown home to watch Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh swear in a local right-wing judge. And now, one of McConnell’s fellow Republicans, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, was trying to delay yet again, this time citing parliamentary rules.
Brown had heard enough.
“I think you just watched what’s wrong with this place,” he growled from behind desk 88 on the Senate floor. Jabbing his finger in the air, his mop of curly salt-and-pepper hair looking more unruly than usual, he walked out from behind his desk, threw open the doors to the Senate floor, and pointed down the hall to McConnell’s office as he berated the Republican leader for not negotiating a relief bill as fast as possible while working Americans suffered.
“Who can say anything but this is a national crisis?” Brown asked. “We’re going to make our unwillingness to do anything contingent on some parliamentary trick? No.”
The video of Brown’s fiery floor speech has been watched more than a million times. One journalist compared him to James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The Senate soon passed two of three planned coronavirus relief bills. But on Sunday night, Brown was one of 47 senators who voted against the so-called “Phase 3” relief bill, which included nearly half a trillion dollars to bail out big corporations, with little oversight, and contained plenty more giveaways for major industries.
“The banks always use [a crisis] to weaken rules so they can get more highly leveraged, jeopardizing the economy later but putting more money in their pockets,” Brown tells Rolling Stone. “We all know that — and Trump wants to do it that way. The question is: How do we stop that? The Democrats are united on that.”
Over his nearly three decades in Congress, Brown, who is 67, has developed a reputation as the voice of the working man and woman. He warned about the devastating consequences of NAFTA decades ago when free trade and globalization were Democratic Party gospel. And now, as lawmakers scramble to pass legislation that will help the American people survive what could be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Brown is one of the loudest voices in Congress demanding that coronavirus relief bills help regular working people and not become a massive bailout for banks, airlines, and other big corporations.
Brown recently spoke with Rolling Stone about what should be included in a coronavirus relief package, why he wants the president to use the Defense Production Act to manufacture badly needed medical equipment, and why Americans should not listen to Trump during the pandemic.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
What happened in that moment on the Senate floor?
[Sen. Dick] Durbin [of Illinois] was impatiently, for all the right reasons, saying we needed to do this tonight. A Republican stood up and did what some people in this body do — he gave some parliamentary sleight-of-hand reason for the delay. And so I just took off on that.
Why aren’t we doing this? Three, four, five days of delay when people are scared, when people are angry, when people are anxious about their future. They know they’re about to lose their job or they’ve already lost it; they don’t know if they’re going to be able to pay their rent; they don’t know what’s going to happen to their sister who’s not feeling well but has to choose between going to work or taking a day without pay, or even worse can’t get a test for what she thinks might be the coronavirus.
I’ve watched a lot of your floor remarks. I don’t think I’ve seen one like that. That was pretty raw.
People are pretty upset, and I hear it all the time. Lincoln’s staff used to say, “Stay in the White House, win the war, free the slaves, and preserve the union.” Lincoln would say, “No, I’ve got to get my public-opinion bath.”
I do that with roundtables where I’ll sit with 15 farmers in northwest Ohio or a dozen teachers in Columbus or a cross-section of people in Zanesville and just listen to them for an hour and a half and ask questions.
I’m doing that over the phone now, gathering people in Ashtabula or Youngstown or Cleveland or Dayton. I see their challenges. I see what [Ohio Gov. Mike] DeWine has done well, while Trump was still saying this was a hoax and blamed everybody but himself for this seven-week delay that has cost people their health for sure, in many cases worse.
What needs to be in the relief package responding to this pandemic?
First is making sure there is sick pay so that the $12-an-hour low-income worker without sick days doesn’t have to choose between going to work and infecting her co-workers or staying home and losing $100 that she can’t afford and still be able to pay her rent.
Boosting testing capacity and hospital capacity are the most important things. And getting protective equipment. Those are the essential things we can do to corral COVID-19.
We need to put money in people’s pockets. But a $2,000 or $1,000 check is surely not enough. It doesn’t take care of paying the rent three weeks from now, if it’s even enough for this week. Clearly, we need to scale up unemployment insurance, so people can get it quicker and it’s more generous.
We need to make sure we prohibit anybody from being foreclosed on or evicted. Small businesses — we need to keep them alive so they can scale up when we’re out of this crisis.
When we help large corporations like airlines, there [needs to be] very tight strings attached. No stock buybacks, no sending jobs overseas, no outsourcing jobs like food service and security and custodial jobs and paying $10 or $11 an hour. No golden parachutes for the executives. No taxpayer dollars used to bust unions. All those things should be tightly wound around any package. Because the package is all about workers, not about corporate bailouts.
What is the Defense Production Act? You said you’ve been pushing Trump on that as well.
I’m hearing in every one of these calls I make, every hospital administrator, every doctor, every fire chief and rescue squad is talking about their shortage of equipment. So I called on the president to invoke the Defense Production Act.
It gives the president the authority in a national emergency to go to corporations and manufacturers and help us with this. They’re well-compensated. It’s not a government takeover, but it’s just commandeering as much of the manufacturing as we can into producing the protective equipment and any kind of breathing devices public-health officials tell us we need.
Is that happening? The president tweeted about it but still hasn’t followed through on that.
After we sent the letter, he said he was going to do it. Unfortunately, he’s fired so many of his career staff. The political people in charge generally don’t have these skills, but there are people who do. It’s really important that he do that quickly because you hear all kinds of health care facilities say they’re running out of masks and all kinds of stuff. [Ed. note: Trump continues to send conflicting signals about the Defense Production Act. The White House invoked it last week but has waited to actually use it, insisting that governors buy their own equipment. On Tuesday, FEMA Director Peter Gaynor claimed Trump would use the act to obtain badly needed medical equipment, but it’s unclear if that’s happened.]
More than 600 days ago, you raised the issue of Trump and John Bolton disbanding the pandemic team inside the National Security Council.
I wrote the letter, I think, about a week after he disbanded this. Just some quick background: The admiral in charge of this office had worked for [George W.] Bush managing the international combating of malaria. Then he worked for Obama on a global health security office where the function of the office was to surveil countries around the world looking for epidemics that might evolve into a pandemic and recognize them in their early stages.
One of the greatest things we do in our country, we send health care people around the world to help them with problems. We partly do it for our own interest, to keep it out of the country, but we do it for humanitarian reasons. The White House had nobody doing that. This guy’s job was to do that. They had people who might’ve had some ideas about it, but no focus. Imagine if he were there — [Dr. Tony] Fauci said how important it would’ve been if he were there. If he had been there, in November, he maybe first sees this before the Chinese acknowledge it. Maybe it would’ve been 10th of December, he would’ve had the wherewithal and gravitas and position to go to the president and say, “We’ve got to start preparing for this.”
But for the rest of December, all of January, all of February, [Trump] didn’t declare a health care emergency. Until March, 10th of March. All that time lost, more people get sick, and more people die.
Should we listen to what the president says in the middle of this pandemic, if he’s going to say things that are wrong?
We should listen to the public-health professionals. What Pence and Trump say moves some people, but they’re not reliable spokespeople to combat this pandemic, so I listen to the public-health professionals who have done this before. They’ve never seen something quite like this, but they are the best-equipped to do it.
What the president says is either misleading or wrong or outright lies, or always for his political benefit. I just don’t think any of us have time for that in late March of 2020.