Exclusive — Coronavirus Commission Chair Kay Coles James: Battle Not ‘Either’ Economy ‘Or’ Health, ‘We Must Do Both’

Kay Coles James
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Kay Coles James, the president of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation and the chairwoman of the extra-governmental National Coronavirus Recovery Commission that President Donald Trump has recognized, told Breitbart News in an exclusive interview on Tuesday that the commission she is chairing is aimed at helping address both the public health crisis and the economic crisis—stressing they are not mutually exclusive.

James chairs the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission that just released recommendations on how to safely reopen the country from lockdowns that have been in place the past several weeks in many U.S. states. The organization, comprised of several outside-of-government leaders like former U.S. senators, former governors, business and other private sector leaders, and faith leaders, has been in communication with White House officials and President Trump in recent weeks. The commission held a call with the president last week, and the president also publicly recognized its work on recommendations to reopen society during a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing last week.

“I think the genesis of this was with one of our economists who said very early on, ‘You know we really need a top tier commission that can help us think through how to get this economy going again,’” James said in an exclusive interview with Breitbart News on the commission’s work this week. “Paul [Winfree] actually tweeted about it, and the next thing we know the president is saying ‘Gee, I think we’re going to have a commission on how to reopen government.’ We actually were up and running a couple of days before, but one of the things that’s unique about what we’re doing at Heritage is when you’re sitting around and sometimes feel helpless and about can I do? What can I do to contribute to resolving this? What do we do at think tanks? We come up with ideas. We help people with difficult public policy issues. So why not have an institution like the Heritage Foundation put its best thinkers to work in trying to resolve many of these very complex issues. Then it occurred to us as well that our commission should be made up with a broad base of perspectives to get the best ideas, so we do have a small business owner, we do have people from the minority community, we do have former governors on the commission for the local perspective, we have former CMS officials and health policy experts as well as individuals who come from the economic side of the equation. So it is a very, very broad-based coalition of individuals who are all very outspoken. So any issue that we look at or put in front of them we have the benefit of having a broad spectrum of ideas to sort of flesh them out.”

James is also a member of the president’s Great American Economic Revival working group aimed at reopening the U.S. economy as the coronavirus recedes. She said the work of both that group with the White House and the extra-governmental commission she is leading are working in tandem to try to tackle these complex policy questions facing not just the federal government but state and local governments as well.

“The president’s team is a great one, and I’m honored to be a part of it, but they’re all, however, individuals who are at the top of corporations,” James said. “We wanted to make sure as well that the gap workers, the wage earners, the hourly workers had a seat at the table as well as we’re coming up with these. So I think that’s some of the things that are different. But we started also with a set of principles to guide our thinking. One, we had to operate in a way that’s a little different from most commissions—we had to operate very quickly. Producing great work that isn’t available for another 12 months would be irrelevant and not helpful. So we have to necessarily move quickly. Two, we have some of the best thinkers in our country at the Heritage Foundation, so they are able to produce drafts and ideas that we can then stress test with the Commission. We’re able to put all of that work, all of that brainpower together with these recommendations.”

James’ commission this week rolled out 47 guidelines for recommendations for states as they reopen across the country. In so doing, James told Breitbart News, the goal from her commission is that the prevailing establishment conventional wisdom that only one of the two—the economy or the public’s health—could be saved at any one time must be confronted.

“We also knew we had to get rid of the ‘or,’” James said. “Do we protect health or open the economy? The two are not mutually exclusive. The virus is an enemy, and a failing economy is an enemy as well—they’re both foes and we have to attack them both. We should not pit them against each other. Good health policy is good economic policy and good economic policy is in fact good for the health of the nation. So it’s not either or. We can, we will, and we must do both. Those are sort of some of the parameters we set out as we started deliberations. There’s no disagreement that we need to get our country working again. There’s also no disagreement that we need to do it in a way that protects the health and well-being of our citizens. So, all of the recommendations that you see that will be coming forward have those as the sort of background principles on which to operate.”

In the beginning of the fight against the coronavirus, the federal government and many state governments dropped the focus on the economy to focus purely on the public health.

“That was absolutely the right thing to do, by the way,” James said of that decision.

But now that real-world data on the pandemic is rolling in and the nation has been able to understand the reality of the virus’s effects on the public and prepare for this long-term fight after having been initially caught off guard, James said it is time for the governments in this country from each level to begin to adjust the public policy response to it to address every element of the pandemic’s effects. She said “flexibility” among state and local governments—something President Trump is championing—is the key.

“A part of our conservative philosophy is the government that governs best is the government that’s closest to the people,” James said. “Also, our particular form of federalism—the way our governments are organized—is particularly useful at a time like this. It always is, but there are some things that happen and decisions that need to be made at the local level even we believe down to the zip code level. You could have a state where, if you take my home state Virginia where you have one set of issues in an urban area like Richmond but an entirely different set of issues in southwest Virginia where people are more spread out and where social distancing just happens naturally. Even within a state there may be different needs that a community has. We think that governors should be able to make the decisions for their states based on their needs. So there’s no universal date where this is the date where everything needs to happen all across the country, or even across a state. We’ve got to allow that kind of flexibility. There are some communities that could open up today and be totally fine. There are other communities that need to put some mitigation factors in place and once that’s done they can open up and be fine. Then there are some hotspots we need to keep our eye on and we may need to use more stringent mitigation methods for a while until we see the curve flatten and the disease comes under control. So I think maximum flexibility with guardrails and parameters is the way to get this done. The president has recognized that and said as much. The federal government has a role in terms of supply chains and working with the private sector and corporations and producing the things we need. The governors have a role, the mayors have a role, and I think one of the differences about our Commission is at Heritage we recognize the importance of the role that civil society plays—those non-governmental entities that are so crucial to any society and culture. So we’re looking at churches and non-governmental organizations and community groups, and what are the roles that they should play? Why does family matter at a time like this and what can families be doing to help mitigate? So it is a far more comprehensive look and it is a perspective that says we are all together—federal, state, and local levels of government as well as non-governmental institutions. And I think with that understanding and all of those entities working together and allowing each other—sometimes I want to throw shoes at the television when I hear politicians blaming each other, making it into a political issue, but this disease knows no political boundaries nor geographic boundaries or any kind of demographics. We’ve got to allow the local governments to do what they think is best in their community, and sometimes that means working together in regions, and sometimes that means working together in states—but maximal flexibility to get people the tools they need to fight this thing. Of course we need testing, of course we need contact tracing, of course we need social distancing, and in some very small areas of the country where things are really difficult of course we need stay-at-home orders. But just because you need it one place doesn’t mean you need it everywhere.”

Several states—South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Arkansas, and Iowa—never issued stay-at-home orders or full statewide closures of businesses. Several more states—among them, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Colorado—have begun the process of reopening. Several others where initial virus hotspots were—like New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Louisiana—remain tightly locked down. But many others, like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Virginia, among others, have instituted tightly controlled and highly controversial lockdown policies that have come under scrutiny. Even some state and local policies in some of the places locked down that are and were hotspots like Michigan or New York City have come under scrutiny. James hopes that the commission can educate federal, state, and local officials about what authorities they do actually have—and what authorities they do not have.

“There are still a few troublesome areas and I think it is a great opportunity and I am thinking of doing some writing about it myself along the lines of educating some of our politicians about government—what is a state authority, what is federal authority, local authority?” James said. “We have governors that are acting as legislators where they are making up laws and rules and penalties and eroding people’s civil liberties and religious freedom, and we just need to take a step back from all of that and maybe do a little processing and educating about our government and how it could and should work. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity to do some educating about government and how it should work and how it shouldn’t work and where the authorities lie. It may even take a few lawsuits along the way for some of those issues to get resolved, but it’s going to take the educating of some of our governors about what some of their authorities are and are not. But you cannot trample people’s civil liberties, their religious liberties, and their freedoms at a time like this. There are things you can do, and there are things you cannot.”

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