Rep. Jennifer T. Wexton (D-VA-10) and her Republican challenger, Aliscia Andrews, met for a debate Thursday that pitched two different visions for Congress’s role in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The debate, organized and hosted by the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, focused on issues facing businesses and drew from the Chamber’s own policy positions, ranging from relief for small businesses and the airport, to workforce development, to supporting laws that suppress unionization.
Much of the debate centered around how Congress can help businesses survive and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. That included not only additional relief bills, but automatically forgiving Payroll Protection Program loans below $150,000.
Andrews criticized Congress for not finding bipartisan support to do more; Wexton pointed to the bills that have been passed in the Democrat-majority House of Representatives only to sit for weeks without action in the Republican-majority Senate.
“Let’s not forget that this pandemic did not have to be this bad,” Wexton said. “The president has failed in his leadership from day one.” She said more help would be needed not only for people and businesses, but also state and local governments, and said state and local government austerity measures slowed the recovery from the previous recession.
Now, negotiations remain stalled in Congress and with the White House between competing versions of a follow-up to the CARES Act. President Donald Trump last week said there would be no new relief bill until after the election, then changed his mind the next day.
“If we can agree on 1.8 trillion dollars of relief, and maybe we can’t agree on the other stuff, why can’t we pass that right this second, go ahead and sign that bill, give the people what they need, and then worry about taking care of the other things at a later date?” Andrews said.
With an ongoing public health crisis that sickened millions and killed hundreds of thousands in the U.S., the ongoing legal battle over the Affordable Care Act also came up.
“We need to strengthen and protect the ACA, not tear it down,” Wexton said. “And meanwhile, the Trump administration is in court right now. There is a court case that will be heard one week from the election where the administration is seeking to strike down the ACA in its entirety, which means no more keeping your kids on your policy until they’re 26, no more no more protection for preexisting conditions, no more lifetime caps for medical care.”
While pointing to problems with costs some people have experienced under the law, and the need of some people to change doctors, Andrews slightly differed from many national Republicans on that topic.
“I don’t believe in taking things away unless we have something that’s actually going to make it better,” Andrews said. “That’s where I differ from a lot of people in my party. I think we have to be able to make sure that Americans have what they need, especially healthcare, during the middle of a pandemic. But one of the most important things that we have to do is to make sure that we’re not punishing businesses, that we’re not punishing individuals.”
Affordable housing, a perennial problem in Loudoun and the 10th Congressional District, also came up.
“Land use is a local issue and needs to be handled by the Board of Supervisors,” Andrews said. “We need to make sure that the people that know the area the best, which are the people at the most local level, have the ability to make decisions for our community. The federal government has no business coming in and telling Loudoun County where they need to put things, and I stand 100 percent behind our Board of Supervisors’ ability to do just that.”
Wexton pointed to the rental assistance program included in the HEROES Act, House Democrats’ proposed followup to the CARES Act, and while agreeing locals know best, said the federal government can help.
“We in the federal government can help by providing funding and programs, and getting out of the way,” Wexton said. “That’s why I support things things like Community Development Block Grants, tax credits to encourage private developers to develop more affordable units with their projects, and also just ensuring that we have adequate funding for things like people transitioning from instability.”
They also differed on unions. The House of Representatives in February passed the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO Act, which strengthens workers’ ability to organize and weakens right-to-work laws.
“I absolutely support the PRO Act, and I support the right of people to collectively bargain and come together in a union,” Wexton said. “Let’s remember what unions brought us. Unions built the middle class in this country. Unions brought us the weekend, they brought us the 40-hour work week, they brought us things like employer-sponsored healthcare, and they are absolutely vital to maintaining the strong middle class that we have.”
Andrews said things are different now from the 1930s, “when unions really did need to be there to protect the American worker.”
“We need to make sure that the American worker is empowered, and they’re not going to be empowered by unions,” Andrews said. “We’ve seen in the past several months exactly what unions do. Many times, unions protect the bad guys, as we’ve seen in some recent criminal justice scenarios in the country.”
Businesses at either end of the county and the district also rely on immigration—whether on agricultural labor at wineries and farms, or high-tech workers at data centers or other technology companies. Both candidates said the country’s immigration system needs reform, a common campaign issue for years. Wexton pointed to her vote to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a reform bill which passed the House in December and now remains in committee in the Senate. She also pointed to long backlogs of people waiting for green cards.
Andrews said that immigration paperwork and processes need to be much simpler, to make them accessible such as to people without much education who are seeking asylum in the U.S.
“I love immigration, I think it’s the best thing our country has ever done, to be a beacon of hope to those around the world in need, but we have to fix it,” Andrews said.
With the final phase of the Silver Line Metrorail extension years behind schedule and facing problems with faulty construction materials, the candidates were asked about the federal government’s role. Andrews said eventually, the country will move past the pandemic and workers will once again get on the train to go to work.
“We want to be able to provide that access, but as far as the federal government is concerned, my biggest takeaway there is there needs to be oversight,” Andrews said. “…When we’re putting these contracts forward, when we need to have strong engagements with the community so they know exactly where their money’s going.”
Wexton said the federal government “has skin the game and has a role to play in operating expenses.” Although a major portion of the federal workforce took Metro to work before the pandemic, the federal government contributes only to Metro’s capital budget, not to its operating budget.
And they also faced questions about cybersecurity and infrastructure, including not only broadband and 5G wireless expansion, but also bridges across the Potomac River. Efforts from Virginia to find a spot for a new Potomac crossing have never advanced in large part because Maryland localities have said they have no interest in a new bridge. Both said the federal government can’t push Maryland to change stances on the idea of a new bridge.
On 5G, Andrews said the government should get out of the way. “The tech industry’s been the one to step up and fight for us,” she said, warning that regulating big tech could give China the advantage in attracting global tech companies. Wexton, on the other hand, said the U.S. needs to be cautious about deploying 5G, pointing to concerns that network equipment imported from China may allow surveillance by the Chinese government.
The two met on Thursday, Oct. 15 at the National Conference Center for an in-person but socially distant debate with no crowd that was streamed on the Loudoun Chambers’ Facebook page. Voting is already underway.