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Amid the pandemic, a campaign adapts

Chip Brownlee

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He stepped up to the podium, an American flag behind his right shoulder, an Alabama flag to his left. These briefings are much like any other press conference the senator has given since he took office in January 2018, except these are streamed on Facebook Live, and Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama wore a camouflage turkey hunting mask — the same one he’s worn on the floor of the U.S. Senate and in hearings.

He decided to wear it after a turkey hunt with his son and a friend a few weeks ago, with appropriate social-distancing, of course.

“Unfortunately, I think the turkeys were also maintaining social distancing from those who were trying to attract them,” Jones said in an interview. “I just thought, this is kind of nice. Why don’t I just go ahead and wear it? It’s an interesting mask for a southern Democrat.”

Since our interview, Jones has not backed off from his insistence that others wear a mask, too, when in public places. He regularly echoes messages from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson, Gov. Kay Ivey and even Alabama head football coach Nick Saban, who all have stressed the importance of face coverings.

“There is so much misinformation that’s going on out there,” Jones said. “You know, I just feel like I have an obligation. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a scientist. I’m trying to learn and do the best I can. But for me to do the best I can, I’ve got to learn. I’ve got to listen. I think it’s important for the public to do that as well.”

Since he began the live-streamed press conferences seven weeks ago, they’ve gotten more than 300,000 views and have become a parade of the who’s who of Alabama’s COVID response. Public health experts, local officials, doctors and business leaders have been regular guests. Since the COVID-19 crisis began for Alabama in mid-March, Jones, the state’s junior senator, has been one of the most available and outspoken elected officials in Alabama, even when he’s in Washington. He lets public health experts answer questions. He urges caution.

“My responsibility is to get accurate information out from people who know the science and understand what we’re up against from a science and health standpoint,” Jones said in an interview. “Don’t listen to politicians on either side of the aisle unless they are just parroting what a health care professional says. Listen to science and listen to the data.”

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In these briefings, Jones has avoided politics and campaign talk. He rarely casts blame, though he hasn’t been afraid to criticize the Trump administration’s handling of the virus or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for “playing politics.”

A first-term Democrat elected in a surprise upset election in 2017, Jones has been walking a line between praising Alabama’s Republican governor for her leadership and criticizing President Donald Trump for what Jones says has been, and continues to be, a lack of leadership from the White House.

But what’s nearly as noticeable is what he has barely mentioned since Alabama confirmed its first case in March: his re-election campaign.

Jones is up for re-election in November as perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent Democrat in the country.

In a normal world, the campaign would be in full swing by now. But in COVID-era Alabama, despite the governor’s easing of restrictions, Jones does not even have an opponent, yet, and the campaign is in partial hibernation as the senator focuses on his work in his official capacity as a senator.

“Everything except fundraising has been on hold,” Jones said. “We’ve done some campaign Zoom, virtual events. But to be honest with you, I’ve been so engaged since March trying to do those things that I think I need to do as a senator, we still are trying to formulate what a campaign looks like going forward.”

Jones has sent a letter to nearly every agency in the federal government, it seems like, over the past month or two — whether it is the USDA, seeking more aid for cattlemen and dairy producers, or with questions about how the USDA is implementing food assistance programs. Or the Treasury, asking that taxpayers receive their relief stimulus payments on debit cards to make it easier and faster. He’s worked with Republicans like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton to get those things done.

He’s also pushed for expanded economic relief for small businesses and their employees through his Paycheck Security Act, a refundable tax credit of up to $90,000 annually per employee, to rehire and pay laid off and furloughed workers and restore their health care benefits.

If passed, it would also provide small and mid-sized businesses with funds to pay for rent, mortgages, utilities and other operating costs until they can reopen safely and sales begin to recover.

In the past few weeks, Jones has been pressing hard for a plan to bring health care manufacturing back to America — and to Alabama in particular.

“We’re so dependent on foreign countries — China and other countries — for our personal protective equipment, including for our prescription drugs,” Jones said. “We need to do all that we can to bring that manufacturing home. We should never ever get caught again in regard to a shortage of PPE because we don’t have enough for this country. There’s no reason why we can’t do it.”

Jones proposes using tax incentives for companies that build medical equipment in the U.S., retrain workers for those jobs and encourages companies to restart idle factories to make health care equipment.

“I think we could be the next healthcare manufacturing hub just like we’ve done so well with automobile manufacturing. There’s no question it’s coming,” Jones said. “Now we want Alabama to be on the forefront of that. I want us to be on the cutting edge of that, to be out front and not lose it to some of the other southern states.”

Regardless of who is nominated as the Republican candidate, Jones faces another uphill battle. As much as he is a full-blooded southerner — someone raised in a family that once supported firebrand segregationist Gov. George Wallace, someone who would wear a camo hunting mask to a press conference, someone who frequents deer stands with a rifle in the winter and turkey hunts in the spring — Jones is also a full-blooded Democrat.

He was a prosecutor appointed by President Bill Clinton, and has been a friend and supporter of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden since the former vice president’s first run for the presidency in the 1980s. In the few years since he took office, Jones has made it a mission to build up the Alabama Democratic Party, which was out of money and without a winning statewide candidate for nearly a decade before his win in 2017.

As much as Jones’s 2017 election — defined by the sexual assault, misconduct and harassment allegations against his opponent former, Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore — was shrouded in uncertainty and surprise, the 2020 campaign is likely to be even more chaotic in that it will be shrouded by concerns over the novel coronavirus.

Not only is Jones, a moderate Democrat, running for re-election in a red state loyal to Trump, he’s doing so in the middle of a pandemic.

“At this point, we would have thought we would have had an opponent by April 1, and more things would be transitioned over to campaign events,” Jones said. “We’ve just not been able to do that, for obvious reasons. But also, it’s just been extremely busy. I’ve felt like it is part of my job to try to be out there as much as I can to let folks know that we’re working. They don’t want to hear a campaign speech.”

While Jones has been holding weekly briefings, with more time in front of the camera than the state’s governor, his potential opponents have taken to attacking each other in public fashion. Trump has repeatedly waded into the fight.

Jones’s challenger hasn’t been picked yet. The primary runoff that will decide between former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was postponed until July because of concerns over the virus.

While the two are battling over their support for Trump, they’ve largely avoided the topic of the pandemic. Sessions releases statements every few weeks calling for plans to “hold the Communist Chinese Government accountable for its cover-up of the Wuhan Virus” and little else.

Sessions’ feud with Trump and Tuberville, which reached a fever-pitch over the weekend, has grabbed far more headlines than anything Sessions or Tuberville have proposed to address the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.

Jones said he’s paying little attention to that feud, even when he gets “@-ed” by the president on Twitter. Trump called Jones a “weak & pathetic puppet for Crazy Nancy Pelosi & Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” on Saturday in a tweet bashing Sessions and supporting Tuberville.

“I don’t really pay much attention to Jeff Sessions and Tommy Tuberville at this point,” Jones said. “We had a hell of a record going into February and March of this year. I was very, very proud of the things we’ve done for veterans, things for businesses, things for farmers. But we’ve been able to do things during this pandemic that have been extremely important for the folks in Alabama.”

No matter how the GOP primary turns out, Jones will be facing off against another unknown, as he has so many times before. Sessions, once a favored son, has drawn repeated criticism from Trump for recusing from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Tuberville has no government experience, though being a football coach might as well be a public office in Alabama.

Despite the virus, Republican campaign groups are beginning to hammer Jones over his support for Biden, and Republicans are banking on picking up Jones’s Senate seat.

Jones said he is confident the voters in Alabama will be able to judge his work separately from the party he is in.

“There are so many things that we have done for so many different groups in Alabama,” Jones said. “I think people are recognizing that all of a sudden, this Democrat who got elected in 2017 is paying attention, and we’ve been there for people. They see what we have done for the last two years, but they also see what we’ve done during this crisis.”

Trump won Alabama by nearly 28 percentage points in 2016, and Jones won by only a razor-thin margin in 2017, despite his opponent being credibly accused of sexual misconduct with women decades his junior. Republicans believe Moore was a particularly terrible general election candidate, and that pretty much any other Republican could beat Jones.

The allegations united a strange and perhaps unprecedented, at least in Alabama’s history, coalition of moderate crossover Republicans and black people, women and young voters who showed up for Jones. Either way, Moore had a history of underperforming in statewide general elections, having come close to losing an election to the Supreme Court in 2012.

But a national crisis is playing into Jones’s strength: handling situations outside of his control. He played the role of the “sane one” in the 2017 special election defined by accusations against his opponent, and he’s likely to be in a similar position again in 2020, regularly putting public health experts front and center while his opponents either avoid the spotlight, try to shift blame overseas or tie Jones to liberal Democrats in Washington.

“I’m not there to have President Trump’s back,” Jones said. “I’m not there to have President Biden’s back. I’m there to have Alabama’s back. And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing and that’s what we’re going to continue to do — doesn’t matter to me how Jeff Sessions or Tommy Tuberville approach what they think needs to be done. I think the people of Alabama want somebody that’s got their back, and not somebody else’s.”

As Jones heads into the 2020 election, he may be largely on his own. The two leading Democratic campaign groups reserved nearly $100 million for the November election in half a dozen states with Republican incumbents, Politico reported. But Jones was left out, and the largest Democratic Senate campaign groups won’t commit to spending big money on his re-election.

But even as those groups won’t commit, Jones is sitting on a war chest that’s nearly 10 times the size of either of his potential opponents. He has nearly $8 million saved up in his campaign account for the upcoming battle.

Chip Brownlee is a political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Congress

Jones calls for more federal funding, support for state Departments of Labor

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U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-AL, today is urging Senate leadership for additional federal funding and support for the state Departments of Labor, which have been overwhelmed by the wave of unemployment insurance claims. This also comes as disturbing reports emerge out of Montgomery, where Alabamians have been camping out overnight outside of an unemployment claims center in search of help with their claims.

“As the nation continues to struggle with the health and economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress must do more to help those who are suffering from unemployment as a result. Alabama’s unemployment rate in May was 9.9 percent and my home state is facing a 70 percent increase in the evictions of renters,” Senator Jones, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, wrote. “This hardship is sadly not unique to Alabama, and Americans across the country are struggling to pay their bills, to keep the lights on, and to put food on their tables.

A recent article in the Montgomery Advertiser detailed a line of unemployed Alabamians that has formed for weeks in a parking lot outside an Alabama Department of Labor (ADOL) claim processing center, with many sleeping outside overnight in the rain or participating in a “black market” system of selling spots in the line.

“While the ADOL has noted that an in-person presence is not required to file or resolve unemployment claims, technical glitches and difficulties reaching ADOL staff have so frustrated claimants that for many, traveling to Montgomery seems to be the only remaining option. These claimants seek such urgent relief that they have been camping out overnight in the hopes that their claims will be resolved.  To make matters worse, Alabama’s unemployment fund is on track to become insolvent within the next month or two,” Senator Jones continued.

“As we continue to observe the grave status of unemployment and its repercussions on our nation, I urge the leadership of the Senate to consider including language that addresses unemployment issues in the next pandemic relief legislation in July. I respectfully urge the inclusion of language providing greater availability of federal funds for state Departments of Labor, to ensure that hardworking Americans can rely on temporary monetary aid to help feed their families and keep a roof over their heads during these trying times,” the letter concluded.

Senator Jones has been a strong advocate for support for working Alabamians throughout the COVID-19 crisis. He has introduced legislation to cover the wages and benthe efits of employees of affected businesses and non-profits until the economic and public health crisis is resolved, and during the negotiations for the CARES Act, he proposed the Small Business Lifeline fund to direct financial assistance to workers through payroll processing companies. Senator Jones has also called for the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration to allow payroll processing companies to disburse the CARES Act small business loans to reduce complications and expedite salaries to workers who have been impacted by the coronavirus.

Full text of the letter can be found here and below.

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Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer:

As the nation continues to struggle with the health and economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress must do more to help those who are suffering from unemployment as a result. Alabama’s unemployment rate in May was 9.9%, and my home state is facing a 70% increase in the evictions of renters.  This hardship is sadly not unique to Alabama, and Americans across the country are struggling to pay their bills, to keep the lights on, and to put food on their tables.

Millions of Americans have lost their jobs during this pandemic, and have turned to the unemployment benefits provided by programs in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. These newly created programs have created a much-needed lifeline for folks across the country. Most notably, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program, and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program were created to ensure states would be able to expand coverage of unemployment benefits given the outsized nature of the pandemic on employment.

However, the majority of State Departments of Labor have been experiencing great difficulties in updating their technical systems to withstand the sudden influx of numerous claims, disbursing benefit payments efficiently to claimants, and effectively communicating with claimants who may be frustrated with the speed at which their claims are processed.

The Alabama Department of Labor (ADOL) has disbursed nearly $2 billion in COVID-19 related unemployment compensation benefits under the PUA, FPUC, and PEUC programs. While ADOL has been working incredibly hard for Alabamians, phone call lines remain jammed, and benefits take significant time to process. ADOL has received 576,314 unemployment claims to date, and the Department is staffed enough to field less than 4% of the calls it receives per day. Since the crisis began, ADOL typically receives 210,000 calls per day; yet only 6,000 to 7,000 of those calls can be processed each day.

Put simply, ADOL is overwhelmed by the massive influx of claims. An article in the Montgomery Advertiser, enclosed with this letter, details the difficulties that Alabamians are experiencing.  In an effort to address claims more efficiently, ADOL opened an in-person claims center in Montgomery, Alabama, but it too was inundated by the unmanageable number of claimants.  While the ADOL has noted that an in-person presence is not required to file or resolve unemployment claims, technical glitches and difficulties reaching ADOL staff have so frustrated claimants that for many, traveling to Montgomery seems to be the only remaining option. These claimants seek such urgent relief that they have been camping out overnight in the hopes that their claims will be resolved.  To make matters worse, Alabama’s unemployment fund is on track to become insolvent within the next month or two.

This is not the first time in recent times that state unemployment funds were in need of aid from the federal government. During the Great Recession, states that exhausted unemployment benefit funds were able to borrow from the Treasury Department to strengthen their funds. Given these dire economic times for state and local governments, the ability to access federal funds should be available once again to cover the costs associated with unemployment benefits.

As we continue to observe the grave status of unemployment and its repercussions on our nation, I urge the leadership of the Senate to consider including language that addresses unemployment issues in the next pandemic relief legislation in July. I respectfully urge the inclusion of language providing greater availability of federal funds for state Departments of Labor, to ensure that hardworking Americans can rely on temporary monetary aid to help feed their families and keep a roof over their heads during these trying times.

Sincerely,

Senator Doug Jones

 

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Congress

Sewell votes in favor of $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, on Wednesday voted in favor of H.R. 2, the Moving Forward Act, a $1.5 trillion plan to rebuild American infrastructure.

“Our country is in serious need of bold and comprehensive infrastructure reform,” Sewell said. “This was true before the coronavirus pandemic and it has become increasingly urgent as we continue to grapple with the ongoing healthcare and economic crises resulting from the pandemic.”

“As a member of the Rural Broadband Task Force and a representative of a district that lacks adequate and comprehensive internet access, I am pleased that H.R.2 includes our bill the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, comprehensive legislation which invests$100 billion for high-speed broadband infrastructure in underserved communities,” said Sewell. “This investment will go a long way toward helping people across my district have access to the high-speed, affordable internet services that are necessary in today’s economy. Additionally, the bill’s $40 billion investment in new wastewater infrastructure will be transformative for countless residents of Alabama’s 7th District who lack access to affordable and efficient wastewater services. If we fail to make these investments now, our Nation’s aging infrastructure will continue to collapse and millions of Americans will be left out of our hopeful economic recovery.”

As a member of the House Rural Broadband Task Force, Sewell co-led introduction of H.R. 7302, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which invests $100 billion to build high-speed broadband in unserved and underserved communities and ensures that internet service will be affordable. H.R. 7302 provided the framework for the broadband provisions in H.R. 2.

Two of Rep. Sewell’s bills are included as key provisions in H.R. 2. H.R. 1680, New Markets Tax Credit Extension Act of 2019 is designed to spur private investment in low-income rural communities and urban neighborhoods by providing tax credits for private investments made in underserved communities. H.R. 3967, the Municipal Bond Market Support Act of 2019, would help local governments, non-profits, schools, hospitals, universities and other entities reduce costs associated with infrastructure and development projects.

Sewell also co-led three amendments to H.R. 2 that passed this week. These amendments would expand the role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in DOT research, support HBCU infrastructure development, and create a carbon capture, utilization, and storage technology commercialization program and direct an air capture technology program within the Department of Energy.

Sewell’s office said that in light of the pandemic and as schools consider how best to provide resources to students remotely, H.R.2 will provide critical access to both students and teleworkers across Alabama’s 7th Congressional District.

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H.R. 2 would invest more than $1.5 trillion in roads, bridges, transit systems, schools, housing, broadband access and other essential infrastructure.

H.R. 2 now goes to the Senate, where Senate Republicans are likely to make a number of changes to the legislation. The Senate’s 60 votes to end a filibuster rule; however means that any infrastructure bill will have to have bipartisan support to pass the Senate.

Sewell is a member of the House leadership and is in her fifth term representing Alabama’s 7th Congressional District. Sewell had no primary challenger and no Republican is running against her in the Nov. 3 general election.

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Congress

Rep. Sewell leads 83 members of Congress to push for $86 billion for broadband expansion

Brandon Moseley

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via Office of U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, and David Trone, D-Maryland, led 82 of their colleagues in sending a letter Tuesday to leaders of the House and Senate urging them to include in any future COVID-19 relief package at least $86 billion for the deployment of high-speed broadband internet.

Sewell and Trone sent the letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“The coronavirus has only further highlighted the importance of high-speed, affordable internet, as lack of access has made it more difficult for Alabamians to learn from home, access telehealth service and telework during the pandemic,” Sewell said. “It is beyond time that high-speed internet is treated as a basic utility and rolled out to every community across the country. The letter provides the framework for a future relief package that acknowledges just how critical broadband access is and calls on leadership to make a significant investment in its implementation.”

“The coronavirus pandemic has shown that swaths of this country are being left behind by insufficient broadband infrastructure,” Trone said. “It’s time to invest in digital highways to bring the entire country into the 21st century and global economy. I want to thank Congresswoman Sewell and Whip Clyburn for joining in the effort to ensure this critical infrastructure is included in the next Congressional stimulus package.”

According to Microsoft, about 25 million Americans lack access to reliable, high-speed internet and about 3.3 million Alabama residents do not have the minimum broadband speeds needed for video conferencing or streaming at home. The divide disproportionately impacts rural residents — with 19 million of the 25 million Americans without broadband living in rural areas.

“Future stimulus packages should support the deployment of secure and resilient broadband, provide hotspots for students to close the homework gap and allow for distance learning, and expand access and affordability for unserved and underserved communities with sufficient speed and data that reflects American families’ increased reliance on internet access,” they wrote in their letter. “We cannot wait to invest in high-speed broadband deployment necessary to reach every unserved and underserved American family, hospital, school and small business. … If we fail to invest now, millions of American will be disconnected from the economic recovery on the other side of this crisis.”

Racial disparities also exist between which Americans have access to broadband and which do not. According to a 2017 Joint Economic Committee report, 82 percent of white households have access to high speed internet while just 70 percent of Black households do. Seventy-four percent of Hispanic households do and just 65 percent of Native American households do.

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“We believe that in the response to the COVID-19 crisis an overall investment of $86 billion is needed,” the letter continued. “This would expedite high-speed broadband deployment and expand funding to ensure that Americans who need broadband service can remain connected during this public health crisis and recovery. This includes expanded service for low-income consumers that meet the demands of telework, telehealth and telelearning. For instance, two tools ready to address these issues are the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) existing Lifeline and E-Rate educational connectivity programs.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made it increasingly clear that having access to high speed broadband is a necessity,” the letter said. “We must invest in expanding affordable and reliable high-speed Internet access in the next emergency relief package. We thank you for your attention to this critical issue and looking forward to working in tandem to bring broadband to communities that are in desperate need of this essential tool for life in the 21st Century.”

There is wide bipartisan support for increasing broadband access.

“COVID19 highlights the need for more broadband access in America,” Congressman Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, said. “According to the Federal Communications Commission, 31 percent of rural Americans do not have broadband access at home. During the pandemic, school children without broadband access have been unable to attend classes digitally or complete online homework assignments. Adults have been similarly hamstrung in an increasingly digital economy.”

Sewell is in her fifth term representing Alabama’s 7th Congressional District.

 

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Congress

Brooks to vote no on Democratic infrastructure bill

Brandon Moseley

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Congressman Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, said he will vote no this week on a Democratic infrastructure bill in the House, which he said was “socialism” cloaked in an infrastructure bill.

“Nancy Pelosi & her Socialist comrades are hellbent on destroying America,” Brooks claimed. “They won’t stop spending until America is bankrupt. They covet economic disaster so they can rebuild a Socialist America under the guise of providing economic relief. In this instance, Socialism comes cloaked as an infrastructure bill.”

Brooks cited as examples of excessive spending $29.3 billion in grants and subsidies to Amtrak’s intercity passenger rail service, $500 million a year to pay ports to replace their cargo handling equipment, hundreds of billions for public housing and “shifting funding from roads, streets, bridges and highways badly needed by red states like Alabama to subsidies of blue state inner-city mass transit programs.”

HR2, the Invest in America Act, is sponsored by Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon.

“The Socialists’ latest attempt to bankrupt America is a 2,300+ page bill, drafted behind closed doors by a select few, introduced just last week, that increases America’s debt and deficits by $1.5 trillion!” Brooks claimed. “That’s $1.5 trillion America doesn’t have, has to borrow to get, and cannot afford to pay back. America’s national debt blew through $23 trillion in November, $24 trillion in April, $25 trillion in May, and $26 trillion in June.”

“In April, the Congressional Budget Office (“CBO”) estimated a fiscal year 2020 $3.7 trillion deficit — without including this $1.5 trillion monstrosity,” Brooks said. “Both the CBO and America’s Comptroller General Gene Dodaro regularly describe America’s financial state as ‘unsustainable,’ accounting language for insolvency and bankruptcy.”

“Incredible as it may seem, even without this $1.5 trillion monstrosity, the federal government is on a course to spend roughly $50,000 per American household this year!” Brooks said. “Of course, that spending must first be taken from taxpayers in the form of higher taxes or greater debt. History proves you can’t spend and borrow your way to prosperity. America is no exception.”

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“Socialist Democrats call HR2 an infrastructure bill,” Brooks said. “The fact is, the bill contains more that would impede infrastructure projects than spur them. The bill is chock-full of new top-down, one size fits all Washington mandates and bureaucratic hurdles.”

Both President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats have been urging Congress to pass an infrastructure bill, but the two sides have been unable to agree on just what should be in the infrastructure bill. Republicans like Brooks have expressed concerns over growing the national debt on an infrastructure building spree paid for with growing budget deficits.

Brooks is serving in his fifth term representing Alabama’s 5th Congressional District.

 

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