What Congress Must Do, with Congressman Joe Kennedy III
The anger and frustration are palpable In The Bubble when Andy and Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy III get together to talk about what’s not getting done in the country and what Congress needs to do to help ease the pain so many Americans are experiencing. Then, we hear from one of the true patriots fighting New-England-style for people’s lives and dignity, disability health care advocate Dennis Heaphy.
Keep up with Andy on Twitter @ASlavitt and Instagram @andyslavitt
Follow Congressman Kennedy @RepJoeKennedy on Twitter and @repkennedy on Instagram.
The Disability Policy Consortium is on Twitter @DPC_MA.
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Check out these resources from today’s episode:
- More information on dexamethasone and COVID-19: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2020-06-16-dexamethasone-reduces-death-hospitalised-patients-severe-respiratory-complications
- Can You Be Evicted During Coronavirus? Here’s How to Find Out: https://www.propublica.org/article/can-you-be-evicted-during-coronavirus-heres-how-to-find-out
- Here’s Andy’s latest JAMA article: The COVID-19 Pandemic Underscores the Need to Address Structural Challenges of the US Health Care System: https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2768097
- Read more about the Heroes Act: https://www.speaker.gov/heroesact
- Want to write to or call your Congresspeople? Here’s a directory: https://www.house.gov/representatives
- CDC information about COVID-19 for people with disabilities: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-with-disabilities.html
- Who are the “essential workers?” The Kaiser Family Foundation takes stock: https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-policy-watch/taking-stock-of-essential-workers/
[00:01] Mitch McConnell: We passed the Senate Cares Act and then a follow onto the Cares Act back in March, I said at the time, we’ll need to take a snapshot of where the country is in July. See what kind of progress is being made by reopening the country. Get an assessment of what did or didn’t work in the Cares Act, and then make a decision about whether to do phase four. We may well do that. And if we do it, we’ll do it in July.
[00:31] Andy Slavitt: Welcome to In the Bubble. This is Andy Slavitt. The voice you just heard was that of Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader. And he was talking about Congress’s plans or lack thereof, to continue to provide support for the public relative to Covid-19 relief. And that’s going to be a big topic in July, and indeed, the topic of our podcast today is going to be Congress, and what Congress needs to do and what Congress owes us. Our guest is Joe Kennedy, who is a congressman from Massachusetts, who is also running for Senate in Massachusetts. Part of the Kennedy family.
[01:15] Andy Slavitt: And so let’s say a little bit about how I’m feeling. I woke up this morning more pissed off than usual. And I’ll get into it probably with Joe when we’re talking. But I really feel like there are so many people in this country that are being let down right now. And probably even more than that, I’m pissed off that the effort isn’t really being made. I think if I saw our leaders trying and failing, I would probably feel a lot better than I do when I feel like we have leaders who just don’t care, or who are seeing things through their own prism. Now, I have pledged to make this as apolitical of a podcast as possible. And I can tell you this: the politics don’t much matter to me as to who’s in charge and who’s making the decisions when it comes to responding to this global pandemic. I think anybody with the compassion and the competency could do the kind of job that we need. I do think part of what I expect of myself is when our leaders are not doing the right thing, as much as possible to try to step up and hold them accountable, because what we do from here is all on us. Look, I don’t expect perfection. I don’t think perfection is possible. I think there are too many tough decisions to be made. But I think the public is facing a situation where, you know, as this month drags on, people are going to be facing eviction. People are going to be facing hunger, as we talked about last week with chef José Andrés. People are facing all kinds of struggles, and we need our elected leaders in this once-in-a-century moment to step up. And they started to, but I think election year politics is sort of drowning it out. And we’ll talk a little bit about that today with Joe. I thought McConnell’s speech was a little bit business as usual in saying, well, I know your unemployment insurance expires, I know you may be in trouble after that. But I’m not going to cede any ground until I get what I want out of that politically. So, Zach, you know, a little bit of politics, but mostly policy. You think that makes sense today?
[03:38] Zach Slavitt: Absolutely. And then we have Dennis Heaphy on segment three.
[03:42] Andy Slavitt: Yeah, that’s right. I think nothing will bring home the magnitude and importance of the decisions we make in talking to Dennis. Dennis is a disability advocate. He is a quadriplegic. He is a brilliant, passionate guy. And I think he will help us understand what the consequences of all of the inaction are, and what the consequences are not just on people like him, because I think Dennis is a little bit reluctant to talk about himself, but on everybody else is impacted by things. So before we get to Joe, Zach, you want to fact us?
[04:23] Zach Slavitt: Yeah. I’ve talked a few different times about the treatment remdesivir, but I’m hearing some people saying I should talk more about dexamethasone, which is another treatment which is thought to be at least as effective as remdesivir. And basically it’s a steroid that has been shown in decent-sized studies to reduce the death rate of people on ventilators by about a third, and people on oxygen by about a fifth, which is very significant considering that incredibly inexpensive nature of this treatment compared to remdesivir, which we talked about how expensive that was last week. And I’m getting these numbers from University of Oxford.
[05:13] Andy Slavitt: So wait a minute, Zach. So you’re saying that there is a drug that is more effective than remdesivir, less expensive, and yet people haven’t heard about it as much. Why is that?
[05:25] Zach Slavitt: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s more effective, because it’s been studied less. And some of the studies on remdesivir have said that’s actually more effective, but I really don’t know why this one hasn’t been talked about as much. Probably because it came to people’s attention later. This is a steroid that has been commonly used for many health conditions. And people didn’t start using it until more recently.
[06:00] Andy Slavitt: Well, dexi has been saving people’s lives, remdesivir hasn’t really shown the lifesaving benefit yet.
[06:06] Zach Slavitt: I mean, we’ll definitely have to see. But I’m seeing that these are definitely the top two treatments, and we just don’t know yet entirely which one’s better.
[06:16] Andy Slavitt: So that’s as close as it comes to having a debate with Zach. Actually, next Monday, we’re going to have the experts on this topic. And let’s bring up Joe Kennedy, congressman from Massachusetts.
[06:41] Joe Kennedy III: Hello. What’s going on?
[06:47] Andy Slavitt: I got to tell you, like Joe this weekend, I started feeling a little bit pissed off. I don’t know about how you’re feeling, and I came into this morning feeling pissed off. And, you know, it feels like the president went from this isn’t happening. It’s a hoax to yeah, it’s happening, but just learned to live with it, there’s not anything we can do about it. Not stopping at one cemetery, not one hospital, not one kind or compassionate word, not one effort to do it other countries have done, which is get protective gear to the people. And we’re just here in the void. And just pissed.
[07:26] Joe Kennedy III: You are obviously in a better position than almost anybody to know what an appropriate health care response to this moment would have been, which obviously we did not get. What has been, I think, perpetually disappointing about this is just the lack of acknowledgment of the human toll. Two and half million people that are sick, 130,000 people that have died, 50,000 new infections a day that we know about. And I’ll leave it to the experts to divine what that actual real number is, because there’s still a lack of testing. Forty-five million people have lost their jobs. The wrenching nature that this pandemic has wrought on our society is almost without comparison in modern American history. Right. The last thing to be this disruptive was probably going back to World War Two in terms of size and scale and scope, where we’ve had more than twice as many fatalities in the past five months than twice Vietnam, twice Vietnam. And the president’s essentially made a determination that there’s not a whole lot he can do about it. If he talks about it, he’s going to get blamed for it, so let’s just pretend like it’s not happening and people will go about their business and if people die, people die. It’s one of the most obviously disgusting, callous, disturbing political calculations we’ve seen from a human being, let alone the present United States, which is just not what we’re accustomed to seeing in office, regardless as to who occupies it, Democrat or Republican. George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, none of them would have done this. None of them would have done this.
[09:04] Andy Slavitt: So you sit there in Congress and you’re on a powerful committee, the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has a lot of the health care oversights and hearings, and give speeches. But what do you feel is your role? Well, do you think you can do? Because if you’re a taxpayer and you sit here and say, I’m disappointed with the federal government’s response, what should they expect out of Congress, and what do you think you can do in Congress?
[09:32] Joe Kennedy III: People are angry and they should be. People are frustrated and they should be. Part of this is that it’s just actually hard. It’s a novel virus. We don’t stand it all that well. There’s more information emerging by the day. Some of that has been contradictory. So there has to be a certain dose of humility from those of us trying to communicate with the public that, hey, this is the best knowledge we have, but we might be back in front of you in a month and say, hey, it turns out we were wrong. But here’s the best of what we’ve got. And to try to make sure that you have this level of trust with the public, because that’s really what you need to build. You need to build a level of confidence so that the public will follow your guidelines, and that means being humble about what we know and what we don’t know. And I think in particular, Dr. Fauci has done a pretty good job of that, which is why he’s gotten, I think, the attention that he deserves. I do think a couple of things here, Andy. One, I think Congress has to keep up the hearings because it’s one thing, I think, for those witnesses, any witness to be at a White House briefing to be taking questions from the press corps in front of the president, who is going to deliver a message that is different from the substance of what the public health experts will tell you. It’s another thing to come before Congress and be asked direct questions about the status of this recovery and have them not give fully honest answers. And I think what we’ve actually seen from these briefings to Congress and our public health officials have done is a far more robust accounting of our progress, the work that still needs to be done, the challenges with the recovery as indicated by the administration and the fact that obviously this virus is not over and it’s not just going to someday disappear. And 99 percent of these cases aren’t harmless.
[11:23] Joe Kennedy III: So, one, you need to expect that we’re still going to keep that pressure on and up. Two, families need more. Clearly. There’s huge concerns about a wave of eviction that’s coming our way. There’s huge concerns that families aren’t going to be able to make ends meet. There’s huge concern about the integrity of our healthcare system, which, again, I know you’re following closely, particularly Texas and Florida and Arizona at this point. The concerns that were so prevalent when we were on a kind of knife’s edge here in Boston two months ago, they’re now being felt elsewhere. And that means Congress has to still step up and lean into this. I think what the president misses here — this virus is just going to go away anytime soon. The level of impact is going to be determined by the level of commitment that we as a nation show to it. And a lot of folks made a lot of really tough sacrifices early on to try to flatten that curve down. We were then told you don’t need to do that anymore, and we opened too quickly. Now, all of a sudden, we’re seeing a second resurgence of this.
[12:28] Joe Kennedy III: I’m scared here in Massachusetts that we’re going to see another recurrence because someone can get on a plane from Florida or Texas or Arizona or California and reinfect people again. And then all of the work that folks have done here is going to essentially get wiped out. And so that’s where you need that leadership to come in and say, hey, if you need to go out, if you absolutely have to, wear a mask. Wash your hands. Even if, you know, knowledge is emerging on some of the stuff, do what we need to do to not get somebody else sick, because this is devastating for those of us that have seen the impacts.
[13:01] Andy Slavitt: Yeah, I mean, look, some of the things that you and I have talked about for years now, both what’s great about our country and what’s most challenging about it are more acute in a crisis like this. The people who suffer the most in a regular environment, the burden is on them even heavier now. I think about this idea that we have created essential workers who are essentially people who you’ll often get paid by the hour and, you know, they’re there delivering food and groceries and cleaning up hospitals and all of these things so that people who can have the luxury to stay home can do it safely. And all the things we talk about, staying home, wearing a mask and all of these things, as you know, and I think you’re exactly right, if you were talking to your constituents everyday, you’d hear this even more and more. But you hear it anyway, which is that people are scared to death. I’m a single mom, I’ve got a sick kid at home, but I had to go out every day and earn a living and a bunch of other people don’t. Or the black community, or the disability community. Someone you know well, we’re going to talk to in a little bit, Dennis Heaphy, who is, I think, one of your constituents, who the amazing disability health care advocate. And his friends are just dying by the day. And you have fought to hold people to account. You’ve fought to try to figure out what the best answers are. And it seems like we’re now at a spot where all of those things are just thrust at us in a way that the safety net is disappearing.
[14:46] Joe Kennedy III: What it does is then it really puts to the American public a choice. You have this moment that actually shows in just visceral and vicious relief that we are not, for many of us, we’re not the country we always thought we were. You can’t look at the rates of which blacks and Hispanics are dying from COVID-19 and not say, hey, everyone, has equal access to health care. We can’t look at the rates by which minorities are getting infected with COVID-19 and say, hey, there isn’t some sort of environmental justice aspect to this in terms of everything from ultra-fine particles and problems with asthma or COPD and incidence of rates of infection to overall health trends.
[15:32] Joe Kennedy III: And so we’ve got this moment here where you have this just brutal reality and honesty staring all of us in the face, and now saying, what are you going to do about it? And so the idea that you can somehow say, oh, the effective policy response here is a tax cut. Right. We can tax cut our way out from this. And we can make sure that if I’m behind a gated community with a private school and private police force and privatize this and that, that somehow I’m going to be able to insulate myself from the spread of the virus. No you’re not. And so if you’re not, the question becomes, OK, well, what do we want? What kind of system do we want to care for our neighbor, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because if the system cares for the neighbor, it will be there to care for me. And perhaps if I’m lucky, we don’t have to care for me because I don’t get sick in the first place and my neighbor doesn’t either. And that’s the question that comes before us from this. And the obvious shoe to drop on that one is it’s wonderful to have this model of health care where millions of people, over 150 million, get their health care from their job until 45 million people lose that job.
[16:50] Joe Kennedy III: And then all of the sudden you go, well, at the moment you lose your job because of a pandemic, and at the moment, there’s a pandemic, and that will mean you actually might need health care, at the moment where if you actually get sick with this thing, you could spend weeks in an ICU attached to a ventilator. Last time I checked, if you are on a ventilator for three weeks in an ICU, you’re probably walking out of there with a bill in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Right?
[17:18] Andy Slavitt: Yeah.
[19:59] So I wrote this thing. I said, what should we expect from Congress during a crisis like this? And I just came up with four things. Maybe you can give Congress a one to 10 on how we’re doing. Number one, the truth. The public is really struggling to know what the real answers are, what’s really going on. Number two, sustained financial support to get through this crisis. Maybe it’s a once in a hundred year crisis. Maybe it ends up being a once in a 50 year crisis. But I’m a small business owner, it took me 20 years to build this business. I barely kept going. I’m losing it. Or I’m going to get evicted. Or I’m just worried because my unemployment insurance runs out and I’m not hearing anything. Number three, a public commitment to the states, who end up carrying out a lot of this work. Number four, and I think you’ll see maybe that it’s different than the first one, but you may think it overlaps and it’s just checks and balances on the administration. The first one I really just mean the truth about what’s going on, what is the data saying? What should we do? Maybe those aren’t the right four, feel free to add or change them. But also would love to know how is Congress doing at helping the American public get those things?
[21:21] Joe Kennedy III: So I think it’s a great question. And I think those four points are right. I think it’s often hard to evaluate Congress writ large because within Congress you’ve got colleagues of mine that still refuse to wear a mask. Some, fewer now, but that still would say that this is up until recently still saying that this was a hoax made up by the left to try to end deep state, to try to de-legitimize the president. And so, you know, those winds cut against those of us that are trying to get accurate information out, even with this sense of humility saying we’re not necessarily certain all of this is going to hold. So you’ve got those folks that are trying to get the truth out. You’ve got those folks that are actively pushing back against it. And you’ve got folks like Mitch McConnell that I just don’t think recognize that it’s really bad, but don’t want to criticize the president, so just don’t really say all that much about this at all and decided to turn and talk about judges instead and pretend that there’s other things going on.
[22:20] Joe Kennedy III: So how is Congress doing on the truth? I’d probably give us on the whole a six or seven, because I think Speaker Pelosi is leaning into this really hard. I think you’re seeing hearings that are trying to get as much information out as we possibly can.
[22:35] Andy Slavitt: All the Fauci soundbites come from Congress.
[22:40] Joe Kennedy III: That’s important. And Senate side as well, most folks, not everybody, but the Senate side as well. You do have those forces pushing back on it that muddy those waters and that the muddying of those waters is not inconsequential. The sustained financing piece, I’d say as of now and, you know, I give the House and Senate different numbers, but I’d give the House probably a seven. We passed the first three trillion dollar bill on the Cares Act, we passed another three trillion in the Heroes Act. There’s an enormous amount of additional financial support in the Heroes Act. But the reason why don’t go higher than that is you go into communities here in Massachusetts, like Chelsea, and the local bodega owner who’s done everything right, as you said, over the course of the past 15 years, but whose first language is not necessarily English and doesn’t have a first-hand relationship with their bank or banker, if you don’t get the first round of TPP funding and you struggle to get the second, holding on for a couple of months before your business goes under is an awfully hard thing to do.
[23:39] Andy Slavitt: Let me push you in another element of that, about the Heroes Act, which is to say the criticism of the Heroes Act, which for those who don’t know is a $3 billion bill that House passed largely party lines and may have been some Republicans I can’t recall. But it’s really a negotiating document because McConnell is not going to take it up. The criticism would be from Republicans. That’s a campaign document. That’s a document of all the good things Democrats want. And the Democrats didn’t make any effort to include the minority this time around. And there’d be a greater chance of having something that would actually pass if it felt like the Democrats included the minority. The reason I’m asking about that is a very specific reason, Joe. It’s like when I say how did Congress do? What portion of that is the obligation of the majority party? I think back to the mythology of your uncle’s day, which was sort of like, OK, you’ve got this liberal lion who all of the Republicans trust because he can make deals and he makes people feel included. Now, it may be that day’s gone. Maybe there’s nobody left like that. I don’t know. And I’m really asking this is an honest question, like to what extent is the dysfunctionality of Congress, all the things that have led here since Newt Gingrich’s day, et cetera, that led us to this point where we go, we can get a couple bills done, but then we kind of go McConnell sees the world this way, we see the world that way. Is that just an inevitability?
[25:16] Joe Kennedy III: All of this is a choice, right? What I would tell you, we passed the Heroes Act. Yeah, there was, I believe, some bipartisan support for it. But regardless, Mitch McConnell was not required to take up our version of the bill. Start writing something different. Go ahead. What we’ve got out of that, as you know, over the past two months is nothing. It’s passed the House. It’s collecting dust over on his desk. But if his counter-offer was saying, hey, you know, we putting a trillion dollars, or nearly a trillion dollars for states and municipalities. We’ve seen thousands of teachers laid off here in Massachusetts. To try to make sure that there’s funding there for those teachers. You’re trying to sit here and open up an economy, how are you going to open up an economy without childcare as a dad of two kids, really young kids. You can’t go back to work until you have some place to put your kids. That’s going to cost more money. So the states don’t have it. So if Mr. McConnell says they’ve got a different vision of it, fine. Tell us what that vision is. What we’ve gotten is we don’t need to do this. And that’s the problem. It would be one thing if you were saying, hey, we think it’s three trillion. You think it’s one trillion. OK. Roll up our sleeves and fix it. Fine. We might disagree on it, but roll up your sleeve and try to fix a problem. What we’ve gotten so far is essentially we’re not going to try to fix that problem. Now, I do think they can try to fix the problem in the next three weeks. I think they have to do something before the end of July, which really means because of the August recess, that really means September.
[26:43] Joe Kennedy III: But the fact that it’s taken that long, I think is a devastating indictment of the Senate in terms of an acknowledgment that there is this much pain that is still taking place. Look, it’s a reflection, I think, of people in politics, right? I don’t think that my uncle or John McCain or some of those giants of the past on their own would be able to necessarily pull the Senate or even a House back from some of its worst tendencies that we’ve seen of late in just this hardcore driven ideology. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have folks that view their goal and view success as trying to solve a problem, not just the perpetuation of talking points. And see this as, hey, even if I can’t go home and vilify the other quite as much as I would if Mitch McConnell did nothing, and even if I have to sit there and defend some parts of this that I don’t want to defend, there would be if we had done that, in all likelihood, the food lines across this country would be shorter. As you know, I’ve worked all over the world. I’ve never seen lines for food as long as I did when I was in Chelsea, Massachusetts. And I was there just on Friday at another organization in Everett, the city next door, and lines literally down the block and around the corner. And so, you know, I do think that a big piece of this is a lack of leadership, a lack of willingness to try to find a way to get to yes. And a political choice from those leaders to say I’d rather do nothing than have to defend doing something that’s going to benefit my opponent. You know, the other side of the aisle, which in of itself is a pretty stunning, stinging indictment of all of our politics today.
[28:26] Andy Slavitt: So Zach has a follow up to that.
[28:39] Zach Slavitt: I was wondering how everything relates to the election year and all this happening, especially with you running for Senate, and just like the presidential election and voting and everything.
[28:53] Joe Kennedy III: I think the election year, you can’t divorce out of this. And it’s one of the big reasons why I do expect there’s going to be a big bill that moves to the Senate in the next couple weeks. We’ve got an administration that has seen 45 million people lost their jobs. We’ve seen some jobs come back. We’re going to see a whole lot more jobs be lost over the course of the next week when this data comes out because of the closings that you’re going to see in Florida and Texas and other places as they shut down again. If the administration is going to make the argument that the president deserves reelection because of the growth that you’re seeing, he’s going to need to have enormous amounts of stimulus to be able to hire all of those teachers, to be able to hire the childcare workers so that people can go back to work. The federal government remains the only entity that has the ability to print the money to do this. And he’s going to need an awful lot of that help. If it were an election year, maybe it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter so much, but it’s three months out from an election and he is 10 to 12 points down in every single national poll. He has some serious ground to make up. And spending trillions of our dollars is probably his best to try to make up that ground. So I think you’re going to see a fairly sizable bill move through, which in of itself, I mean, look, I think again. I voted for that Heroes Act.
[30:09] Joe Kennedy III: I think there’s a lot in there that is good. I think there’s more still that needs to be done, as we’ve already discussed. But the fact that it takes this amount of pain in cities like Houston, in states like Arizona, for members of Congress there to say, oh, my God, this isn’t a hoax, this is a problem. What did you think we were talking about when I told you that I have multiple friends who have died from this virus? When I told you that there’s a niece of a friend who’s 31 year old who’s been in intensive care for four, I think, 70 days. She was on an ecmo machine, a separate cardiopulmonary system, because your cardiopulmonary system essentially has failed. She was on that machine for four weeks at 31. A teacher in New York City came home when the city shut down and brought the virus back. And she is still facing multiple infections and thankfully is now moved out to long term rehab. But she’s 31, she was healthy. You think we’re making that up? And now I’m devastated for what’s taking place in these American cities, but it took that for you to realize that this wasn’t a game, wasn’t a joke? Learn from what we experienced here, but my God, help me. She wouldn’t have to go through it again.
[33:07] Andy Slavitt: When people feel hopeless about government, or they feel like they can’t affect government — you know, it’s an imperfect process, your representative is never going to agree with you 100 percent of the time. But you can get listened to. I was just wondering if you could reflect on, you know, what are the most effective ways people can get heard. I look around, I mean look around the country after the George Floyd murder here in Minnesota. And I think about how voices were finally getting listened to. Talk a little bit about how people can do that. And do that effectively.
[33:43] Joe Kennedy III: So I think the first thing that people don’t understand is like, let me start with the basics. Call your Congressman’s office, request a meeting. Particularly for a House member, you’re up for reelection every two years, if you’re my constituent and you want to get a meeting with me, I have two choices. I can meet with you or I cannot. If I meet with you, you might tell me something nasty, which, OK, fine. Welcome to the job. If I don’t, you can write a nasty letter to the editor saying I asked to meet with my local congressman and he said no. That’s far worse than you and I disagree on some piece of policy. OK, fine. Again, welcome to the job. But I don’t think people quite understand the power that they have to hold officials accountable and that holding them to account rarely actually happens.
[34:30] Andy Slavitt: Yeah. So if you have an issue and you get 150 phone calls, I think Congressman Kennedy should vote this way or that way. Do you log them all? Record them all. And your staff tells you here’s how people are feeling?
[34:42] Joe Kennedy III: Every single one of them. On any issue, every single call that comes into my office is recorded, we log them all. Every letter we get, they will get a response. It sometimes takes a little while, depending on how many other letters we’ve gotten, and whether the issue is new or or old. But we log all of it and they present that to me.
[35:05] Andy Slavitt: And that letter is a good use of someone’s time. Our city council took up the mask requirement this week. And Lana, who is known to some people on the show, participated in writing letters and having a bunch of people write letters. And all the city council could talk about was how many letters they received pro versus against. And that was to them a very, very important factor. One thing that I know from spending time in Washington is there are people like you who listen, to whom that is very, very, very important. There are people who listen to lobbyists, sure. But you can be more powerful than a lobbyist. What I learned, which was spectacular, was that the only thing more powerful than lobbyists are voters who are speaking out. And when voters don’t speak out, sometimes the only noise that gets heard in Congress are those of lobbyists.
[35:55] Joe Kennedy III: I obviously don’t do this job for the lobbyists. I do this job to care about people. Government was literally created to address the problems that confront us all. The way in which we try to solve them, address them anyway, is through government, which means you’ve got to hear from people if you’re going to try to build that consensus. So part of my job is to actually go out and be proactive to hear from people. But part of that, like in any relationship, is going to be reflective of people being willing to share that opinion with me. And I’ll do everything we can to be out there and available. But I need folks that are willing to talk to me about it. And if there’s an issue that I don’t know a lot about, help educate me or point in the right direction. And if you think I’m wrong, fine. I’m not agree with anybody on every issue. I’m not sure I agree with myself on every issue, depending on the day or time of day. But I don’t think people, particularly voters and your constituents, quite have a full understanding about how powerful those voices are, because ultimately I work for them, not the other way around.
[36:55] Andy Slavitt: And that’s a great optimistic note to sort of try and bring this to a close. I love what you said about the government is created to address the challenges that confront us all. Just great. So how nervous were you doing the Democratic response to Trump?
[37:13] Joe Kennedy III: I have been around politics long enough to know that speech, the response to the state of the union, is almost a surefire way to end a political career. And I always sat down and said, why would anybody ever say yes to that? And then I got asked by Speaker Nancy Pelosi completely out of the blue to do it, and of course, I went, I’d be so honored. And then I walked out and went oh, my God, what do I do? You know, I worked really hard with the speech. No one wants to hear you drone on for too long, so keep it probably seven, eight minutes. And we had some other things that I knew I wanted to talk about and touch on. One of the hardest parts to it is the time that you go is based off of the president. You go whenever he’s done. And they don’t give you the topic of his speech beforehand. So you’re just kind of sitting there ready to go when the president starts his speech because maybe he’s going to be done in 20 minutes. But he went on for about an hour and a half. And you’re just sitting there waiting. And I’m sitting there trying to drink enough water so I don’t have a cottonmouth and pull a Marco Rubio and then go to the bathroom so you don’t have to, like, stand up on stage needing to go while you’re sitting in front of a national television audience.
[38:39] Joe Kennedy III: And that process back and forth just goes on and on and on and on and on and on for an hour and a half. And then you have a five-minute window after it leaves the chamber. And so they bring me down from the holder where I am at a vocational school in my district. And I go up on that podium and I get a crowd of 100 people in front of me, which I don’t even think you could see. You couldn’t see in the spot in the camera. But you get up there and then I’m like, okay, a minute to go and you’re just standing there in front of 100 people waiting. And then, like, the lights go dark and it’s like 30 seconds to go. And you’re standing there in silence for 30 seconds just staring at a camera, waiting for a light to go on. And it’s miserable. And so you’re just like waiting for this, staring at this thing, waiting in the longest 30 seconds of your life.
[39:36] Andy Slavitt: You represent to me a lot of what the ideals are and should be about people who serve the country. You listen, you’re passionate, you don’t agree with everybody on everything, but you state your views. You really deeply care. In all of the time that I haven’t gotten to know you, I love talking to you because you genuinely want to hear how you should be thinking about things. Like Obama, you’re less concerned about the politics. you’re more concerned about what’s right. And it’s a pleasure to have a friend like that. So thanks so much for all of your service and for being on.
[40:19] Joe Kennedy III: Right back at you. Obviously, thank you for the kind comments. I’m not sure there’s another person that has done more for standing up and protecting our health care than you have. And they came real close to repealing it. And I think a lot of folks would say that the coalition that you helped build was a big reason why they didn’t. So forever indebted to you, my friend. Thank you.
[40:48] Andy Slavitt: Thanks to Joe, and thanks in particular for letting us be hard on him. Joe is one of our best, I think. And nice to have really young, promising, practical, idealistic people in our Congress. And now we’re going to talk to one of his constituents. Dennis Heaphy, disability advocate and a health care expert. He has a phenomenal personal story. I think you’ll love to hear from him and the passion in this conversation. I’m so glad Dennis joined us. So let’s have a conversation with him.
[41:34] Dennis Heaphy: I honestly, I don’t feel like a human being sometimes. Let me rephrase that. I feel like I know I’m a human being and I have my own intrinsic value. But I don’t want my humanity denied or my life forfeited for the sake of the economy. I mean, I just won’t.
[41:56] Dennis Heaphy: I’m angry at the framing of COVID and it being a war. The war is about fighting for corporations and the economic well-being of the one percent at the expense of people like myself, people with disabilities, elders, African-Americans, as collateral damage to moving forward with such a great vision of an economy that only supports a few people. I have family members, people in my life, people I love who don’t see how dangerous this is. I see how even in Massachusetts, which is such a fantastic state, how there’s a shift in moving toward what really has been a vision of equity and towards one that’s more focused on ROI. And even though we’ve got great people in Massachusetts who are looking at equity, it really has been squeezed by ROI. There’s no vision of really creating a prevention-oriented service delivery system that protects people before a crisis hits. Not just one crisis, we’re facing multiple crises at once. The scar has been ripped off of racism for everyone to see. White people can’t turn away from the truth of systemic racism and its impact on the African-American community and minority communities. If you look at the workforce of frontline workers who are being put most at risk, these are African-Americans, women and other minority populations, single moms putting themselves on the front lines and they’re risking themselves for really what is a white population, if we look at the baby boomer generation. AARP and other organizations have been pointing out for years that we’re facing a crisis in frontline workers to provide care for elders and disabilities in the community. And the crisis is compounded by the devaluation of frontline workers. And we’re seeing it exacerbated in COVID. It’s almost impossible to find personal care attendants because they’re either afraid of contracting COVID or their kids or at home. They’re not at school. They’ve got folks at home they have to take care. Or we’ve seen the impact of the big chill on these people’s lives.
[44:20] Dennis Heaphy: It’s untenable. For me, the bottom line is that unless we as a country come together and look at COVID as an opportunity to address the ills of our society, things are only going to get worse. There’s something that’s poisonous, that’s toxic in our culture, that wants to do away with any support, anything that says we have an obligation to the other, an obligation to support our neighbor. And we need people to come together nationally to support the Affordable Care Act and recognize that it’s just one step in the right direction towards creating an equitable healthcare delivery system. And that it may provide an answer to not only COVID, but future pandemics that are coming down the line. And the last thing I’m gonna say is I’m very scared as a person with a disability because I see folks around dying of COVID. I see that the health care providers don’t have the skills needed to provide a level of care that you people with disabilities need in hospitals. And I don’t know what’s going to happen this fall or this winter when COVID and the flu and pneumonia all come together. Hospitals are not going to be able to provide care for folks with the most complex needs. If all of these medical conditions come together at one time.
[46:09] Dennis Heaphy: Andy, I guess what I feel is missing is a Larry Kramer who spoke out during the AIDS epidemic about just the urgency of this crisis. You know, demanding that something be done. People are dying and no one seems to care because these are people who are isolated. People who are in nursing homes, people who are in congregate settings, people with disabilities, low income people. And because these are the outsiders in American society, it’s quiet and it’s distant from people. So people just don’t seem to care. And that, I think, is what makes me very angry about the situation. We need a Larry Kramer, someone who is going to speak out with anger and say to the government, our lives matter. This is not the time for people just to sit around and politicians are talking about what we can and can be doing, what the financial constraints are. We just need action. We need decisive action. We need the government to say that this actually is a crisis and that they’re going to do whatever it takes to save the lives of elders and folks with disabilities and folks on the front line. Because if they don’t do that, then all society is going to lose out, and we will be judged very poorly in history.
[47:39] Andy Slavitt: All right. Thanks to Dennis. Let me tell you quickly about next week’s episodes, because they are the knowledge-is-power episodes. First of all, on Monday. We have a tool kit episode. Our second tool kit. Our first one, you may remember, was on how to talk to people about masks and social distancing. Our second is about vaccines and we’re going to have two amazing scientists that are really going to give us the information we need to know. And then that’s going to be Monday and then this coming Wednesday, Larry Brilliant, who is the phenomenal scientist behind the movie Contagion and is also the guy who cured smallpox. He’s one of the smartest people around when it comes to talking about global pandemics and the really fun to talk to despite the weightiness of the topic. So tune in next week. I think we’ll all learn a lot together. Have a great rest of the week. Over and out.
[48:37] Andy Slavitt: Thanks for listening to In the Bubble. Hope you rate us highly. We are a production of Lemonada Media. Kryssy Pease is our producer. Ivan Kuraev is our editor. Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs executive produce the show and run our lives. My son Zach Slavitt is my cool co-host and onsite producer. Music is by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill. You can find out more about our show on social media @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me at a @ASlavitt on Twitter or @AndySlavitt on Instagram. If you liked what you heard today, please, please, please tell your friends to come listen, but from a distance. And for now, stay safe. Share some joy. And we will get through this together. And #StayHome.