Opinion: After demanding restraint from regular Coloradans, politicians need to dial it back too
The Center Square
Take it from me, an immigrant who became an U.S. citizen and a Colorado resident in his early 30s: America is an unruly country. That’s not a criticism, however. Unruly simply means we are not readily ruled, disciplined or managed by government. We want to be represented, not ruled.
This is why the American response to COVID-19 has been so challenging. Against our instincts, we have mostly heeded the directives of government officials, staying home from work and school and limiting contact with family and friends, despite very high personal and financial costs.
Yes, there have been high-profile exceptions and calls by some for even stricter directives. But still, the data show a massive change in behavior.
According to the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, personal movement across the U.S. dropped by more than 50% during the pandemic’s first wave. More recently, a roughly 30% reduction in personal movement from pre-pandemic levels has been reported. Generally speaking, this put the U.S. somewhere between Canada and Denmark in terms of social distancing.
Then there’s air travel: From the weekend before Thanksgiving to the weekend after Christmas, passenger numbers were down 63% compared to the same period last year, according to the Transportation Security Administration. In absolute terms, that’s 47 million fewer passengers making trips during the holiday season.
Show some restraint, our leaders said, and people listened — even when it turned out some of our leaders didn’t believe in following the same rules they set for everybody else. Those officials failed an important test of public trust. But an even bigger test is just around the corner.
When Congress and state legislatures reconvene in 2021, our leaders face a choice: They can stick to the basics and focus on the essential steps required to end the pandemic, reopen the economy and bring back jobs. Or they can take an ideological path, pursuing all the same agenda items they had before the pandemic struck.
For some, the ideological path is tempting. Right now, it’s extremely difficult for the public to meaningfully participate in the legislative process, meaning less scrutiny for big and controversial measures. Donors and activist groups will demand that lawmakers take advantage of the situation, no doubt.
Will lawmakers show restraint and put their ideological plans on hold, just like everyday Americans have put their lives on hold? Or will they set a lower standard for themselves, and do what they were planning to do anyway? That’s the bigger test.
Personally, I hope our leaders dial it back. Years ago, as a reporter in Congress, I saw what happened when lawmakers failed to give the Great Recession their full attention so they could wage ideological battles on energy and health care instead. It was bad for the country, and the economic crisis we faced in 2009 pales in comparison to the challenges we will face in 2021.
At the federal level, Congress will have its hands full overseeing vaccine distribution and making sure health systems at the state and local level have the resources they need. Another essential task will be surveying the economic and social damage caused by the pandemic, and what it will take to repair that damage.
Short-term stimulus and tax policies are critical, of course, but federal policymakers should be thinking further ahead. A national infrastructure program, for example, could provide years — not months — of support as the nation’s free enterprise system gets back on its feet.
According to the Colorado Infrastructure Committee, a major investment in roads, bridges, water systems, communication networks and other forms of infrastructure “can speed the pace of the recovery both in the short term and over the long haul, reinforcing and maximizing the impact of other positive actions in the public and private sectors.” I was one of several advisers to the committee, which identified an infrastructure backlog of roughly $17 billion to $20 billion in Colorado alone.
For the Colorado legislature, managing vaccine distribution and returning schools to in-person learning will be critical, followed by stabilizing the state budget. By definition, this means getting Colorado businesses fully open again, because the state cannot deficit spend. No matter where you stand politically, tax revenue comes from one place — the private economy.
Business leaders have come to the table with a report called Road to Recovery, which was produced by the Colorado Business Roundtable and the Common Sense Institute, where I’m a fellow. The two organizations brought together leaders from across the state economy – including the aerospace, education and construction sectors – to recommend strategies for “a faster and more sustainable” economic comeback.
Some highlights: Keep reopening costs as low as possible because taxes and fees for unemployment insurance and paid leave are already set to increase. Stabilize the health care system and take time to measure the effectiveness of recent reforms before moving ahead with other changes. Address the critical shortage of child care businesses which has made Colorado one of the most expensive states for full-time infant care.
Business owners, employees and families have shown remarkable restraint in the face of this pandemic. They deserve to be represented in the same manner by their government. This is a time for getting the basics right, not rushing into ideological battles.
Simon Lomax is a researcher and adviser to free-enterprise groups and business coalitions in energy, health care, education, housing and other economic sectors. He is a former Bloomberg News reporter and a former congressional fellow with the American Political Science Association. The views expressed are his own.
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