Women Rule Podcast

Rep. Jayapal: Trump’s coronavirus response is like ‘The Hunger Games’

A conversation with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal on the pandemic, why she thinks the economy isn't quite ready to reopen, and what she wishes the Trump administration got wrong.

Pramila Jayapal

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Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal suffers no illusions about how difficult the path ahead will be — and how dire the present moment is. And she’s also clear-eyed at who she thinks is to blame for the cascade of catastrophes Americans have borne during the pandemic.

“This president has been intransigent about how he has approached this crisis,” Jayapal said Tuesday in an interview for POLITICO’s Women Rule podcast. “Everything from false information — whether it's about drugs, disinfectants, vaccines — [to] completely ignoring public health, railing on the CDC, which is our friend in this moment and needs all the backup possible.”

Particularly frustrating to Jayapal is the continued shortage of medical supplies like personal protective equipment for frontline workers and the long-necked swabs needed for coronavirus tests.

“States have sort of been left to play out ‘The Hunger Games’ on procuring swabs,” said Jayapal. “Literally, we have governors — my governor included — calling random people in China to try to get swabs off the back of a truck somewhere and get them here, only to find out then that perhaps they're not validated; they're not good for use. Same thing with PPE.”

“There is no question in my mind that if the president had taken a very different approach to this from the beginning — invoked the Defense Production Act immediately to push manufacturing of PPE, test supplies, all of those things that were desperately needed early on so that we weren't competing in a global marketplace for those same products — that we would be in a very different place,” said Jayapal.

Now, even as many states begin the process of reopening their economies, Jayapal remains concerned about the U.S.’s lagging response — and the double-standard she sees between the working conditions most Americans will face and the way the White House is approaching the virus when it comes to its own employees.

“While people want to get back to work … the reality is we're not ready yet,” said Jayapal. “We don't have the extensive testing, contact tracing and isolation in place. And you look at the White House and Donald Trump — they're testing everybody. They're doing contact tracing and isolating. Well, if the White House is doing that for their folks, they should make sure that everybody in the country has that. And that is not the case right now.”

On Tuesday, Jayapal spoke with POLITICO’s Anna Palmer. What follows are excerpts of that interview, edited for length and readability. For more, listen to the interview on the newest episode of Women Rule.

Anna Palmer: Before we get started on everything happening in Congress — and there's a lot to cover — I wanted to see if we could get a quick update on what's happening in your district, which is in the Seattle region and was one of the earliest hit by the coronavirus.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal: Our first case was the first case in the country, and it was diagnosed on January 21st. So, in many ways, our state has been at the forefront of leading the response, and a lot of other places have looked to us. We were able to flatten the curve significantly by restrictions early on. We just, however, passed our 1,000th fatality, and we are still struggling with all the things that many other states are struggling with. We have flattened the curve, but the problem is we're still seeing hundreds of cases every day and we don't have the testing/treatment/isolation capacity in place that we need to have even as we start to reopen slowly.

For my constituents, what I hear every day is they're devastated. They're incredibly anxious. There are a lot of frontline workers who are still working without safety. A lot of people who still have not received a stimulus check. Our employment system is, I think, excellent. But the reality is there are too many people on unemployment. And so the unemployment insurance system is creaking and groaning under the weight of just too much too quickly. There are a lot of people who still haven't received their unemployment claims, even though we are better than other states. So people are saying to me, 'I'm getting kicked out of my home, I haven't received my unemployment, the stimulus check is not enough, even if I have gotten it. And I don't know what I don't know how to think about life.' And that anxiety is palpable from the hundreds of calls I get every day.

Palmer: There's spent a lot of criticism about the fits and starts of how this administration has approached not only in getting PPE, but testing and its advice for reopening the country. Yesterday, the president made a lot of news over the fact that he said he was taking an untested drug that a lot of experts have said is unsafe. He's still not wearing a mask. How impactful do you think it is that the president is kind of on a different page than a lot of his health experts and what a lot of the experts around the country are saying about how to approach this crisis?

Jayapal: It's enormous. This president has been intransigent about how he has approached this crisis, this pandemic. Everything from false information — whether it's about drugs, disinfectants, vaccines — you know, completely ignoring public health, railing on the CDC, which is our friend in this moment and needs all the backup possible.

There is no question in my mind that if the president had taken a very different approach to this from the beginning — invoked the Defense Production Act immediately to push manufacturing of PPE, test supplies, all of those things that were desperately needed early on so that we weren't competing in a global marketplace for those same products — that we would be in a very different place. We would have expanded testing significantly. We would have had the PPE for frontline workers. States would have followed the lead and guidance of the federal government, which is exactly what the federal government should be doing: providing the leadership and the guidance to states so that they know what they should be doing and how they should go about both shuttering their economies and reopening when safe. None of that has happened. None of that.

It has been incredibly frustrating to watch because states have sort of been left to play out “The Hunger Games” on procuring swabs. I mean, literally, we have governors, my governor included, calling random people in China to try to get swabs off the back of a truck somewhere and get them here, only to find out then that perhaps they're not validated; they're not good for use. Same thing with PPE. I just think that the president has sort of come to this place where he's willing to sacrifice people's lives. And that's all that I see happening.

So the evaluation that has come from the Institute of Health Metrics, which is right here in my district — it's the evaluation models for fatalities that the White House touted early on. They have now increased their number of deaths, projected fatalities to a median of 132,000, I think it is, with a high of 233,000. So just imagine potentially looking at a quarter-million deaths. We have already long surpassed the [American death toll from the] Vietnam War. We may get to a place where we quickly surpass World War I deaths of American lives. And so I just think that this administration is intransigent and cruel in how its approached this pandemic.

Palmer: There's been a ton of questions about whether the Capitol is prepared to safely reopen. Is that something you're concerned about? Have you taken any extra precautions just based on what you are seeing and best practices that maybe aren't being forced upon you, but that you want to take to keep people safe?

Jayapal: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we have taken a lot of precautions. We're still telling everybody to telework, to work from home. I don't think we're safe yet to go back to work. And I think that that's true in the Capitol; it's true in workplaces across the country. At this point, it's not mandated that you wear a mask on the floor [of the House]. And there were mostly Republicans who were not wearing masks when they walked into the elevator, when they came onto the floor. The reality here is that while people want to get back to work and I think we should talk about why that is, because I think there are a few different reasons and some of them we can mitigate. The reality is we're not ready yet. We don't have the extensive testing, contact tracing and isolation in place. And you look at the White House and Donald Trump, you know, they're testing everybody. They're doing contact tracing and isolating. Well, if the White House is doing that for their folks, they should make sure that everybody in the country has that. And that is not the case right now. That is not the case in the Capitol, but it's also not the case in workplaces across the country. We're sending workers back when it's completely unsafe with no regard to their safety.

Palmer: I want to take a step back a bit. You've been through a lot of firsts. You were the first Indian-American woman to serve in the U.S. House, the first woman to represent your district and the first Asian-American to represent Washington state in Congress —

Jayapal: And the first person of color the Democrats have ever sent to Congress [from Washington state], actually.

Palmer: Talk about that just in terms of the historic nature of all of those “firsts.” Did you feel extra pressure?

Jayapal: I've always sort of been in that position. You know, I came to the United States when I was 16 by myself as an immigrant. My parents have never lived on the same continent as me since that time. And so, yes, there's always been real pressure to succeed, because when your parents make that kind of a sacrifice — and they were not wealthy, they had about $5,000 in their bank account; they used all of it to send me here — I think you do feel that additional pressure to always succeed. Mostly, that's a good thing. And sometimes, you know, it's a self-flagellating thing. But yes, I think I've often been in that situation: the only person of color, the only woman of color.

I ran for the state Senate and served there for two years before coming to Congress. I was the only woman of color in the state Senate. And that's in what's thought of as a relatively liberal state. I take pride in that only because I think it provides a different way for other people to see their futures. Of course, I'm proud of it for myself. But the real benefit is that I never want to be the last. And so how do I use this opportunity to help change that dynamic for other people? And I think so many people tell me that they see their futures differently because I am here. And that, to me, is a source of great pride.

Palmer: It must have been lonely, I imagine, in some cases to be kind of the first.

Jayapal: It is lonely, yes. It is lonely. But I think that a lot of leadership is lonely. If you are really providing true leadership, it often means that you're there before other people are there. I think that's true of some of the most important policies that I push.

Palmer: Something that comes up in Women Rule conversations a lot is facing sexism in the workplace. You've talked about it in regards to Congress. Can you give us a little bit of the backstory there?

Jayapal: Yes, definitely. I definitely have to deal with it. For sure. As you know, it's it's sort of baked into our structures. You know, it's baked into the way people see us. But I think I think that, you know, you can't let that stop you. And the question is, really, do you engage with every incident of sexism or do you try to be a little bit more strategic? I pity the poor men who are so afraid of our talents as women, because most of the time it's because of their insecurity and not because of anything that we have done. You know, if only they could, you know, we could all be as big as we really are able to be without people feeling like they get small because we are big.

Palmer: I want to talk to you about the Heroes Act, the $3 trillion bill House Democrats voted on last week. There's obviously been a lot of criticism about it from the more progressive wing that it didn't go far enough; criticism from moderates that taking the vote could hurt them in the election; Republicans just critical of the bill in general — that it wasn't a serious bill to go to war with next coronavirus relief package. You helped negotiate parts of that bill, but then voted against it. Can you kind of walk us through your thinking?

Jayapal: Absolutely. So a couple of things. One, it is absolutely urgent for us to respond. There is deep devastation. And Congress not acting is really not an option. So that's the first thing. The second thing is there were some good things in the package, and I'm grateful to the people who negotiated for those things — and some of them included things that were my priorities as well. But this takes me to my third point: I really believe that a proposal that originates in the Democratic House should have a very clear focus on the things that we can do that are really going to solve or make a huge impact in the crisis that's facing us, and that the scale has to be big enough. It's not the amount of money, by the way; I think the amount of money was fine; I could have spent more. The issue is what solutions are we offering? We needed a solution around jobs, recovering paychecks and putting money consistently in people's pockets and protecting small businesses.

I had been pushing for my Paycheck Guarantee Act, which is now called the Paycheck Recovery Act. We just introduced it [on Tuesday morning] with 92 co-sponsors, including many, many moderates, because we Democrats should be the party of keeping workers in their jobs and not sending them off onto unemployment. If you do that, the second part of the solution is you can target the assistance that you need — whether it's rental assistance, stimulus checks, etc. — to the people who need it the most, because most people now hopefully will be getting paychecks and that will take care of rent, that will take care food on the table, that will provide some consistency for them and certainty around what they can do with their lives going forward. Then you target the other assistance to the people that need it the most.

To me, the package should have included solutions that would have ensured health care for everyone. And I'm not talking about Medicare for All; I'm talking about all kinds of other ways you can do that. And also would have ensured that people could keep their jobs and that we could end mass unemployment or at least dramatically reduce it. That's what most countries around the world have done. And that's certainly what the United States of America should do.

We now have 36 million Americans who have filed for unemployment in just the last eight weeks. And if we don't do something, we will be at 40 and 50 percent unemployment and it will be incredibly difficult for the economy to recover. And frankly, all of the structural inequities around race and gender will be so baked in, because those are the people that have the hardest time coming out of unemployment and finding a job because of the discrimination in the system. So I genuinely felt I couldn't vote for it.

Palmer: There's been some likening of the progressive wing of the House Democrats to the Freedom Caucus, the conservative group of Republicans. The Freedom Caucus started to kill bills or stop legislative process in order to enact their will on the chamber. Is there a time in the future where you, as a leader of the progressives, feel like you are going to take more of those strong-arm tactics, or is that just not the style of politics that's within the Democratic Party?

Jayapal: I always resist comparisons to the Freedom Caucus, because I think the Freedom Caucus was a party of "no" and the Progressive Caucus as a party of "yes." But is it true that we need to be willing to flex our muscles, if you will? I mean, we've done it a few times with some success. When Nancy Pelosi was being elected speaker of the House, we negotiated some very important things. Not everybody understands how important they were, but you wouldn't see Katie Porter on the Financial Services Committee or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the Financial Services Committee if we hadn't negotiated to get freshmen onto those committees and to get a certain number of progressives onto all of these committees. And so we have done that effectively. We did it around a budget fight, as well.

I think that we just need to get a little bit more comfortable in two things. [One is] really being united around one specific ask. I don't think we do that very well because progressives care about a lot of things and so it becomes difficult to say, well, this is the one thing that if it's not in the bill, we won't vote for it. And I think the second issue is we do have to get comfortable with recognizing that power never concedes anything without a demand, as Frederick Douglass said. There is no reason to change the way things are if you don't actually give a challenge to it. And it doesn't mean that you're taking on leadership in a negative way. That's not how I think about it.

I think of Nancy Pelosi as being a master negotiator, and she thinks in terms of her votes, she is incredibly hard working. She never sleeps. She's quite brilliant in any number of things, and one of them is the art of negotiation. She understands power very well; she used it on her own as a young legislator coming to Congress and standing up against leadership on AIDS funding. People have to understand that it isn't a slap in the face to leadership to take something on and to try to make it better; sometimes they may even be looking for that every once in a while, though, they'll never say it.

To hear more, listen to the full podcast episode here. Women Rule takes listeners backstage with female bosses for real talk on how they made it and what advice they have for women looking to lead.