OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Nearly all of Oklahoma’s Congressional representatives and U.S. Senator James Lankford participated in a COVID-19 Congressional Town Hall Wednesday evening, answering questions about several issues that impact the lives of Oklahomans.
KFOR-TV News 4 anchors Kevin Ogle and Joleen Chaney, along with Karen Larsen of KJRH-TV (NBC), hosted the virtual town hall, which aired lived on KFOR at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Lankford and the following members of the U.S. House of Representatives participated in the town hall:
U.S. Representative Kevin Hern (R-1)
U.S. Representative Frank Lucas (R-3)
U.S. Representative Tom Cole (R-4)
U.S. Representative Kendra Horn (D-5)
U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe was asked to participate in the Town Hall, but his schedule prevented him from participating live. However, he did sit down and answer some questions concerning the federal COVID-19 response.
Kevin, Joleen and Karen asked the five national leaders a variety of questions, including questions sent in by Oklahomans.
The first question went to Senator Lankford, who was asked why he voted for the initial $8.3 billion stimulus package to help Americans impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but did not vote in favor of a second stimulus bill.
Lankford said his concern over the second bill is that it would cause small businesses to lay people off.
The next question was for Congressman Hern, who was asked about whether help is on the way for residents who are frustrated because they cannot reach IRS call centers to get answers on the state of their stimulus check. He was also asked what can be done to help those Oklahomans who are not able to immediately get back to work.
Hern said the situation is very frustrating for Oklahomans who are trying to get back to a normal life and need the stimulus checks to get by during the pandemic. He said his office reached out to the IRS but could not get through.
He said he reached out to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. He also said constituents are now telling him that they are starting to get feedback from government offices and that they are receiving their stimulus checks.
A KFOR viewer asked Congressman Lucas if he could comment on COVID-19 conspiracy theories that she feels are creating unsafe circumstances in local communities.
Lucas said under the Constitution, all Americans are guaranteed free speech, but he also said that everyone has a responsibility to think about what they say before saying it.
“We as Oklahomans have a right to say what we want to, but we have to be diligent and careful in what we say. We owe that to our neighbors, we owe that to ourselves,” he said.
The next question went to Congressman Cole, who was asked what is being done to help tribal nations during the pandemic.
Cole said quite a bit is being done to aid Native American tribes. He said the CARES Act provides a billion-plus dollars to the Indian Health Service, and that the money is to be distributed to tribes across the country.
He said in two proceeding bills there was additional money for Native Americans and tribal governments.
Congresswoman Horn was brought into the discussion. She was asked if Oklahoma City – the largest city in her district – reopened too soon during the pandemic.
Horn started off by saying that as community members we are in this together.
“We have to keep that first and foremost in our minds,” she said.
Horn said community members have to be thoughtful and intentional in following the advice of public health authorities.
Horn said officials have to balance the needs of economic engines with the health and well-being of community members.
The next question was given to Senator Lankford, who was asked about the high unemployment rate as a result of the pandemic, and what it would take to get Oklahomans back to work.
Lankford first said that it is inaccurate to compare the current unemployment situation to the Great Depression.
“It’s a very, very different economic issue,” he said.
He said a global pandemic moved into a very strong U.S. economy.
He said the first goal is to manage the health and safety of individuals. The second goal is to figure out what it will take to get the economy going again.
“There’s not an expectation that this is going to be a decade or decade-and-a-half long depression as we faced in the Great Depression,” Lankford said.
He said making structural changes and radical shifts doesn’t line up with the crisis caused by coronavirus.
“We need short term help to people that’s significant,” he said.
Next up, a KFOR viewer’s question was presented to Congressman Cole.
Cole was asked what should be done to give extra protection to essential employees who are being threatened or assaulted when trying to get community members to wear masks inside certain businesses.
“Absolutely it’s important that we protect those individuals who are working on the frontlines during a public health emergency,” he said.
Cole said there are state and federal statutes to protect essential workers during pandemics.
“No one should have the right to harass an individual who’s trying to follow public law and trying to follow the orders of the federal government from the president or the state of Oklahoma from the governor,” he said. “That’s not right, it’s not fair to the people who are trying to protect our health, and it’s not fair to those individuals out there who are at risk.”
Congressman Hern was called upon to discuss whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s suggestion of a guaranteed income during the COVID-19 crisis is sustainable.
Hern said he disagrees with the idea of a guaranteed income.
“We help people out right now because we need to. It’s the right thing to do. The government is what shut down the jobs, so it’s important that we take care of those that we’ve displaced,” he said.
Hern said he’s always been about “guaranteed opportunities, not guaranteed outcomes.”
He said the Oklahomans he’s spoken to want the opportunity to succeed rather than a handout.
Congresswoman Horn also said she does not support the idea of a guaranteed income.
“The challenges that we’re facing with this COVID-19 crisis – the health impacts, the economic impacts – require that we meet the needs of our communities,” Horn said.
Horn said the federal government should instead focus on increasing unemployment benefits, expanding opportunities, emphasizing programs for businesses and industries that are suffering, investing in the health care industry, facilitating COVID-19 testing and acquiring needed medical supplies.
“We have to ensure that when we are responding to this, that everything we do is timely, targeted and transparent,” she said.
Horn was then asked for her opinion on Vice President Mike Pence not wearing a face mask while visiting the Mayo Clinic, and President Donald Trump not wearing a mask while visiting a factory.
Horn said finger-pointing is not the answer.
“We are all in this together,” she said.
The United States, Horn said, is facing an unprecedented health crisis that has economic impacts.
However, Horn said it is critical that community members listen to health experts, such as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials, about what to do to protect themselves and others from COVID-19.
“Taking precautions is about a way of showing that we care about our friends and our neighbors. [It’s about] protecting those people who have underlying health conditions, our family members, our friends,” Horn said. “And wearing a mask and taking extra time to clean and sanitize and follow the recommendations of the CDC to wash our hands is not just about protecting ourselves, it’s about protecting others as well.”
The question about Trump and Pence not wearing masks in public was then put forward to Congressman Cole.
Cole said he and fellow members of the House of Representatives wear masks when not speaking before Congress and take them off when speaking.
Cole said this policy follows Speaker Pelosi’s example.
“I think that’s the appropriate thing to do,” he said.
Cole said that the vice president did apologize and admit that upon reflection he should have worn a mask while at the Mayo Clinic.
However, Cole said the president and vice president are both tested “every single day.”
He said the mask is more about protecting people around you.
“The odds of either one of them coming down with it and us not knowing almost immediately is pretty low,” he said.
Cole said Trump and Pense are trying to communicate a sense of optimism.
Senator Lankford spoke again to comment on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell previously suggesting the idea that states pursue a bankruptcy route.
Lankford said the bankruptcy route idea is not a viable one.
“Long term, that’s not a viable idea. We need stable cities, communities, we need stable county government to be able to function and be able to operate,” Lankford said.
Lankford said municipalities need to be able to get loans and bonds.
Lankford also discussed how to help the oil industry since commodity prices have recently been below zero for oil.
The senator mentioned the Paycheck Protection Program, which was designed for small businesses. He said the vast majority of energy companies are small.
A viewer question was posed to Congressman Hern, who was asked if representatives feel comfortable returning to Washington and getting back to work during the pandemic.
He was also asked if he thinks Speaker Pelosi will allow members of Congress to get back to Washington.
Hern said he wants to get back to Washington.
“This is the frustrating thing…the average person – we as the American people – are out going shopping, we’re going to Walmart, we’re going to Home Depot, we’re going to Lowe’s, we’re doing things, but somehow, the speaker can’t allow us…can’t figure out how to get us back into Congress to do the people’s work, the job that we were elected to do,” he said.
Hern said it’s even more frustrating that members of Congress will go back to Washington on Friday to vote on a bill that he says Pelosi put together herself with no input from committees.
Hern reemphasized that members of Congress need to get back to Washington and “return America to regular order,” he said.
The discussion was brought back around to Congressman Lucas, who was asked about the Universal Broadband Act, legislation that he introduced in Congress.
Lucas said the COVID-19 crisis has taught Americans that certain tools are critical in enabling society to continue to function its businesses.
“Broadband, internet is one of those critical tools,” he said. “Whether it’s Telehealth or doing your business, it is just critically important that it be available to you.”
Lucas said we live in a society where if broadband is not available in a certain place, people will move.
“Rural America, simply because there are miles between customers, not customers per mile, this has been a slower process in building out,” Lucas said.
Next, Congresswoman Horn was asked how FEMA’s funding for crisis counseling during the pandemic will help mental health initiatives.
“The toll on mental health is not something that should be understated,” Horn said.
Horn said it’s an issue that must be addressed.
“There’s a few pieces to this – isolation, the distance, the impact of the economy – and as this crisis continues, we know that is only going to increase,” she said.
Horn said the CARES Act expanded opportunities for people to get support for mental health, including Telemedicine sessions that enable individuals to get the support they need without having to go to out in public.
COVID-19 testing became the next focal point, and Congressman Cole was asked if he feels the United States is behind or on schedule when it comes to testing.
“We’re not on schedule, but we’re catching up to schedule,” Cole said.
The Congressman said the United States got off to a slow start on coronavirus testing.
“We were very focused on people coming in from China; they did that pretty well,” he said. “But we had a problem with the initial tests at the CDC – we’re looking into that now. But we’re now testing more than any other country in the world. We’re [testing] about 350,000 a day. In Oklahoma, we’ve done close to 100,000 or just 100,000 tests.”
Senator Lankford, a member of the Coronavirus Economic Task Force, was asked the last two questions of the day: What’s needed to get the economy running briskly again, and what’s the outlook on a COVID-19 vaccine being created?
Lankford said the challenge is that not every part of the country is the same or recovering the same. He said Oklahoma’s situation is much different from New York or New Jersey, which has had more deaths from COVID-19 than Oklahoma has had cases.
“What we’ve recommended and what is actually happening is a slow, phased approach,” he said. “As each region, or as each state, sees some success and sees a downward trend, and has enough capacity in their hospital and has enough testing equipment that if they need to ramp up faster they could, they can start to slowly reopen.”
Lankford said he has been given reason to believe that a COVID-19 vaccine that works should be developed by the fall.