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Alumni in Congress speak on COVID-19 pandemic

The Capitol building at dusk.
Martin Falbisoner / Wikimedia Commons

University alumni serving in Congress on both sides of the aisle are working together to pass legislation to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Thus far, Congress has passed three emergency coronavirus bills: the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.


The Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, signed into law on March 6, provides $8.3 billion in emergency aid.

“A lot of that was going to state and local public health officials, probably not enough in that first round, but that's why we're coming back with similar kinds of investments in these subsequent rounds at the federal level, but obviously putting the health needs front and center,” said Congressman John Sarbanes ’84 (D-Md.) in an interview with The Daily Princetonian.

Only two members of the House of Representatives voted against the first package. Congressman Ken Buck ’81 (R-Co.) was one of them.

“Since day one, Democrats have politicized the coronavirus. The president’s initial $2.5 billion request was a thoughtful proposal to address our coronavirus response needs,” Buck said in a press release.

“In typical fashion, the House passed a spending package of $8.3 billion with vague plans about how the extra money would be spent. Throwing money at a problem without adequate forethought is not the answer,” he continued.

The Appropriations Act was only the first major legislation aimed at curbing coronavirus. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act was passed in the House 363–40 on March 14 as a way to expand the federal response to the pandemic. 


Buck and Congressman Mike Gallagher ’06 (R-Wi.) both voted against the bill. Gallagher explained his reasoning for opposing the bill in a press release on his website.

“This bill, while well-intentioned, contains a number of unclear provisions that could force small businesses in Northeast Wisconsin to lay off workers or cause them to close their doors altogether,” the release reads.

“To concede, as both sides did, that the bill had serious flaws that would need to be fixed by to-be-determined Executive Branch regulations is legislative malpractice, and that’s not to mention the fact we received this bill at 12:03 a.m. and voted nearly 15 minutes later.”

Congresswoman Terri Sewell ’86 (D-Al.) introduced a provision adopted in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that provides free testing to anyone exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, regardless of insurance.

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“We’ll never get a handle on this crisis if we don’t make sure that everyone who is feeling symptomatic has the ability to get tested. It’s not a luxury for only those who can afford it, in my opinion,” Sewell said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. 

Alumni in Congress also recognized that the effects of coronavirus will reverberate far beyond the public health sector.

“It’s a health crisis, but let’s face it, it also has an economic impact that will reverberate across this nation, and we need to make sure that every American has the wherewithal to endure not only this health crisis but also the economic crisis caused by it,” Sewell said.

Concerns about the economic impact of the pandemic have been a focus of subsequent legislation passed by Congress. The latest stimulus package, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, was signed into law on March 27.

The package includes provisions giving approximately $150 billion to the health care system for personal and protective equipment and more testing resources, direct cash payments to American workers, and approximately $30 billion in emergency education funding.

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi ’95 (D-Il.) fought for economic measures in the CARES Act to support working families and small businesses. As a former small business owner himself, he understands the challenge smaller firms face when trying to secure credit.

“That’s one of the reasons I fought to ensure that the small business loans in the stimulus package wouldn’t have collateral or personal guarantee requirements,” he wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ 

“Regardless of the value of such requirements under other circumstances, during a pandemic and an emerging economic crisis, we shouldn’t be forcing small business owners to choose between their families and their workers.”

Krishnamoorthi also discussed the critical need for more personal protective equipment. His wife, a physician, bought a welder’s mask from a hardware store to protect herself from the virus.

“Her story is far from unique these days as doctors and nurses are reusing masks and improvised equipment so they can keep working. If we don’t provide the people fighting COVID-19 on the frontlines the resources they need, they’ll no longer be able to treat patients, they’ll become them,” he wrote.

As Krishnamoorthi mentioned, many businesses have been greatly affected by the pandemic. States, cities, and counties have forced non-essential businesses to temporarily close in order to follow social distancing protocols.

Buck disagrees with these decisions, calling them “authoritarian limits on our country” in an op-ed for The Colorado Springs Gazette.

“Most of these state and local officials are making these life-altering decisions that limit our civil liberties without a full picture,” Buck wrote. “Fear, not hard science, is leading our government’s response.”

Derek Kilmer ’96 (D-Wa.) is a Congressman from Washington, one of the states most affected by coronavirus. He acknowledged that the CARES Act had some flaws, but it still deserved his support.

“It’s not perfect legislation. I haven’t found much in DC that has qualified as perfect. But this bill undeniably takes important steps to address real problems folks are facing. That’s why I support it,” he said in a press release.

Sarbanes recognized that cooperation between all levels of government is necessary to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

“I think we missed the window in the front end to do containment properly because we just didn't have the testing in place, and that was a ball that was dropped at the federal level,” he said.

“But that’s water under the bridge at this point. We have to all come together, make sure that we're working as a team and as partners at all levels to address the needs people have, and that's certainly where my focus is.”

Senator Ted Cruz ’92 (R-Tx.) had a coronavirus scare of his own when he went into self-quarantine after he came into contact with an infected individual at the Conservative Political Action Conference in early March. He later extended his self-quarantine when he found out he had later interacted with a Spanish government official who also tested positive for COVID-19.

In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ Cruz outlined his priorities in addressing the pandemic.

“I’m focused on protecting American lives and stopping the coronavirus outbreak through increased testing, essential medical supplies, patient capacity, and cures. I’m also focused on providing real economic relief for those hardworking Americans and small businesses who are hurting right now as a result of this outbreak,” Cruz said.

Cruz has introduced a variety of legislation to assist those affected by COVID-19. These bills include the Creating Capacity for Communities in Need Act, which would allow hospitals to expand their operations, and the RESULTs for Coronavirus Patients Act, which would speed up the approval process of new medicines and treatments from other countries.

“These are important steps Congress can take now to flatten the curve and slow the growth of this pandemic. The sooner we act, the sooner we can protect more Americans from contracting this dangerous virus and the sooner we can save more lives,” he said in a press release.

Senator Jeff Merkley GS ’82 (D-Or.) expressed that the CARES Act supports both individual Americans and the economy.

“We must realize that any choice between our lives and our livelihoods is a false choice — we cannot have one without the other. This proposal invests in both health care and the economy,” he said in a press release. “It provides desperately needed relief so that we can save lives now and keep families afloat until we have defeated this virus.”

The alumni had many hopeful messages for University students. Cruz reminded students about the importance of listening to medical experts.

“I would also encourage the students at Princeton and around the country to take this outbreak seriously. Listen to the advice of the medical professionals. If you can, stay home — don’t go out to the bars and other crowded areas,” Cruz wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’

“Practice good hygiene, and if you feel sick, call your medical provider. Together, we can and we will defeat the coronavirus,” he continued.

In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ Buck expanded on his messages in his op-ed about not letting fear overwhelm responses to the pandemic.

“I encourage Princeton students to keep the faith, we can’t let fear and panic push our nation over the brink,” Buck wrote.

Sarbanes reminded students that they are not alone in dealing with the effects of the virus.

“There’s a lot of technology that allows us to reach out and talk with our friends and our family and our co-workers, just so everybody stays connected and can kind of provide that extra level of assuredness and stability,” Sarbanes said.

“I think in combination with the measures we're taking in terms of public health, and in terms of addressing the economic dislocation, that'll be what gets us to the other side of this crisis.”

Sewell encouraged Americans to look beyond partisanship and care for those who are vulnerable.

“It’s important that we put politics aside and not see red or blue, but see American people hurting,” she said.