When I reached Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by phone on Thursday afternoon, the news from around the country was even more bleak than usual. The U.S. death toll for coronavirus had topped 76,000, and a new jobs report had come out bringing the number of recent unemployment claims to 33.5 million.
The freshman New York lawmaker was frustrated that, instead of passing legislation to provide the economic relief the most vulnerable Americans need, Democratic leaders have conceded to a multibillion-dollar corporate bailout with almost no progressive opposition. She spoke candidly about the need for progressives to act like other caucuses and condition their votes on specific demands — and the “sad state of affairs” that congresspeople are pressured to vote for mediocre bills.
Ocasio-Cortez has been the only Democrat in Congress to come out against the coronavirus relief packages; she said she “couldn’t stomach” voting for the previous bill knowing she would have to go back to her community “having to fundraise for diapers and fundraise for food myself because the federal government has chosen not to.”
While other representatives were focused on pouring money into the economy, her office felt more like first responders, she said. Ocasio-Cortez’s district includes Corona and North Corona, the two New York City neighborhoods that have more coronavirus cases than any other ZIP code in the country. Her constituents, most of whom are immigrants and people of color, and many of whom are essential workers, have also been disproportionately impacted.
For the last few weeks, the congresswoman has been redirecting her reelection campaign’s money to food pantries and other aid groups in New York City, and personally delivering food and groceries to residents in the district. As negotiations for the next federal relief package, CARES 2, continue, Ocasio-Cortez says she’s been “reduced to” trying to “get our families burial funds because people are losing their spouse and their child” due to the pandemic. It’s not Medicare for All, she noted, but burial funding is “so desperately needed in our community.”
The transcript below has been slightly edited for clarity.
It’s a pretty stressful time. How’s your family doing? Are you guys all safe?
Thankfully, so far my family is OK. I have really vulnerable family in Puerto Rico. My grandmother especially has a lot of acute respiratory issues but thank God no one in my family has been impacted. We have a lot of people in the community who very sadly have passed away but my very immediate family is safe so far, so we’re really thankful.
That’s good to hear. So … just to get into it. I wanna start with the lack of congressional hearings because of the pandemic. I know some committees and the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) are holding their own Zoom hearings. But ultimately the House has no rules for remote voting or plans for official hearings in place. Do you feel restrained or alienated from your congressional duties? How is this impacting the ability to legislate and get some progressive accountability of the Trump administration?
It’s really hard to understate how devastating this has been, in terms of our legislative and oversight abilities, for an average member of Congress to do their job. Even our ability to just write and submit legislation has been completely decimated because a lot of our institutions … whether it’s the Office of Legislative Counsel, which is in charge of actually formalizing the text for our bills, whether it’s being able to have hearings in person … We’re not able to do our job legislatively. At all.
“In terms of our ability to actually advance legislation [remotely] … we are at a complete loss.”
Now, we are able to do a lot of work in terms of our districts. That is something this has allowed me to do — I’m able to do a lot more in the community and do a lot more kind of casework. But in terms of our ability to actually advance legislation, be a part of writing legislation and conducting oversight of the Trump administration’s very flagrant corruption — we are at a complete loss. And I think that abdication of our ability — I think that’s not only abdication but that kind of challenge and those very hard limitations in our legislative responsibilities in D.C. — have had enormous impact on the response.
In a lot of ways you’ve almost been acting like a first responder, going out into the community and physically handing out groceries and supplies. You’ve been seeing the suffering with your own two eyes. Is it disorienting to go out and give people food and supplies in your community, then going to work and seeing Congress bail out corporations? Just the gap between you representing a district that’s taking this particularly hard and then, honestly, most members of Congress?
It’s devastating. I kind of went off on an Instagram story last week because I feel like I’m the cleaning crew for Congress’s neglect and mess. When we go to D.C., we’re with all of these members that are from a lot of communities that are very distant; they’re one, two degrees away from this crisis. And almost everyone is impacted one way or another from the closing of our economy. But that’s very different from having the bodies pile up in our backyard. And for me to have to go out every Friday and feed people who are hungry and try to get people help and health care who are dying — it is directly because of Congress and the federal government’s failure and inability to really acknowledge this crisis not just in scale but in time. So in terms of there being disorientation, for me, on one hand it gives you whiplash, but on the other hand it also gives you an immense amount of clarity.
I could not stomach voting for that last relief bill, knowing that I had to go straight back to my community and go right back to having to fundraise for diapers and fundraise for food myself because the federal government has chosen not to.
“I feel like I’m the cleaning crew for Congress’s neglect and mess.”
We’re having trillions of dollars in federal response being hacked out by three to five people in a backroom. And then they bring it back to over 500 members of Congress and the only option that you get is yes or no. And I’m personally boggled as to why these bills are passing almost unanimously with almost no dissent. This is pretty unprecedented in the history of Congress. And a lot of times that dissent and coalition building is healthy; it shows diversity of thought. And I want to be very clear that a lot of the time the pressures to support these bills are not about us talking about the merits of taking one approach or another, it’s just about these bills showing up and saying like, “Are you going to vote no on $2 for a hospital?” And doing that means that you’re going to have to allow unprecedented corporate expansion of power in the United States, and the idea that it is almost unacceptable to reject that choice is … it’s a sad state of affairs that we’re in right now frankly.
You’ve been the only vote against these past couple relief packages. Even many of your progressive colleagues, they’ll rail against it but ultimately be put in a position where they feel like they can’t “use the suffering as leverage” — at least that’s what some people believe. Do you think with CARES 2, since it’s going to be the only big relief package for a while, that the progressive wing of the caucus should whip votes against it, if it doesn’t include everything you guys want?
“The question is what are we willing to negotiate for and what are we willing to not take no for an answer on.”
When we talk about everything, what does that mean? I’m not going to say if this doesn’t have everything under the sun we should reject it. But I do think we should set very clear standards about what we will allow to be in and have very clear standards for what we will not accept. I think even the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has had conversations about this in terms of providing relief to immigrants and mixed-status families. There are caucuses — whether it’s the Blue Dogs or the New Dems — they say all the time, “If this taxes the health insurance industry, we’re out.” They draw those hard bargains all the time and they threaten to sink bills all the time and certainly don’t think that it’s controversial or wrong to do that, just in general.
The question is what are we willing to negotiate for and what are we willing to not take no for an answer on. And I think you’ll probably get a lot of different answers from different progressives on it. But I think having those standards going in and communicating them is always very important in making sure we have some actual wins in this bill.
Do you think members are going to start acting like a bloc in the next phase of coronavirus relief? It kind of sounds, at least from the outside, that the dynamic for CARES 2 so far has been that members individually try to talk to Pelosi and leadership about what they’d like to see in it. It doesn’t really sound like there’s a lot of collective organizing on the inside.
I would say that’s probably an accurate assessment. I think a lot of members are trying to squeeze in one-on-one conversations here or having their priority known there. When I think about who’s operating as a bloc, I think the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has the potential to operate as a strong bloc because I believe they have coalesced around protections for mixed-status families and immigrants so I’m seeing some movement of organizing as a bloc on that end.
So there’s potential here, but also we don’t know what kinda bill this is going to be, right? Is this a messaging bill that just intends on putting a bunch of things through and leaving it on [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell’s desk and having him say no to it? Or is this a serious bill where we’re going to commit to making sure that we get some key priorities? It’s hard to tell and it’s hard to predict because we already have a mold and we already have a pattern for how these negotiations have gone forward in the last one, two, three, four, different relief bills. The pattern has been: Well, the Senate won’t accept it, so there’s nothing we can do, so at least accept this. And it at least feels like it’s coming from a very powerless place. And maybe that’s how folks feel, I don’t know.
But if that’s how we’ve been negotiating all of these bills — what prevents us from being in that exact same place for CARES 2? As much as we want to talk about these progressive priorities, you know, what prevents the same thing where members are consistently told and promised that their priority is going to be put into the next bill? And if it’s not going to be in this one, it’ll be in the next one, and the next one comes and it can’t be in this one, it’ll be in the next one.
At a certain point, I am most comfortable with honesty and being very clear about our limits and the field that we’re operating with. But I don’t think it is healthy for us to be told, and basically tell people that we’ve been told, that all of these things are going to be in the bill and we don’t know which ones people are serious about and which ones they aren’t. And if they aren’t serious about it, I would just rather us be told that. It makes it all very hazy and my constituents — who are on the brink of eviction, who are choosing between exposing themselves to the health risks of coronavirus by going out to work or exposing themselves to the health risks of starvation by not going to work — they’re asking me for clarity on what to expect, and it’s very difficult as a member of Congress to not be able to give them a straight answer because I’m not … we don’t get a straight answer until the bill text is finalized.
I understand that you guys don’t know what the bill’s going to look like quite yet, but there has been reporting that leadership is pretty down with the idea of changing PPP eligibility to include lobbyists, basically amounting to a taxpayer bailout of corporate lobbyists. So what do you make of that, and have you been hearing of any other ideas you’re concerned about making it into the bill?
That one, that one, I think, is one of the most dangerous ones that I’ve heard. That one probably takes the cake. The fact that we are going to bail out lobbyists before we bail out black businesses, small businesses, in some of the most impacted ZIP codes in the country is appalling. And I don’t understand why we would ever be supportive of that. Truly do not. And I know people may say, “Oh there’s a good lobbyist firm here or there,” [laughs] but let’s look at the industry overall, this is not possible. Lobbyists have enough power in this entire process, thank you very much.
In terms of other red flags, I had heard things about a bailout of health insurance companies without actually materially expanding health care coverage, or pairing that with an expansion of Medicare or Medicaid, and that to me is extremely concerning. It’s extremely concerning to me that we would entertain such a thing, I don’t know how seriously it’s being taken but it is certainly one of the proposals that we have seen and observed and heard about in this process. And the idea that we would bail out the very industries who contributed to, and the very structure, the very broken structure that has led to this crisis, without doing anything to fix them is so wrong. And I think it’s in the same smash-and-grab expansion of corporate power that we are seeing in a lot of other aspects of this bailout and of these relief packages.”
One last question. You mentioned members here and there have been squeezing in one-on-one conversations with leadership. Have you been able to talk to leadership and if so, what have been your asks for what you’d like to see in CARES 2?
“If you show up to a person who needs CPR two minutes late, it’s too late. That’s the situation that we’re in right now.”
There are so many things that need to be advocated for. What I have kinda been voicing has a lot to do, frankly, with the first response needs of our community. And some of them I don’t think are controversial — I think what we’re trying to get done is not some big bold progressive statement, I’m trying to get our families burial funds because people are losing their spouse and their child due to coronavirus in my district. Now, all of a sudden, you have a family that’s making $40,000 a year that has, you know, $35,000 of funeral expenses. And when all of that is concentrated in the blackest and brownest communities in this country, what we’re talking about is a generational exacerbation of the racial wealth gap. Burial funds may not seem like a lot, it’s not Medicare for All per se, but it is something that is so desperately needed in our community. And that’s essentially what we’ve been reduced to, right? I think it’s a huge part of the emotional toll for people who are representing heavily hit communities, that we are reduced to begging the federal government to allow families to bury their loved ones.
But on top of that, we’re also begging for city and state funding, direct funding, local funding, because we’re also talking about mass layoffs for municipal governments. OK, the state of New York, in some ways, has been certainly more progressive than the Trump administration. They will do, in the state of California and other states, what Trump will not. And we are now at the point where we are talking about cities and municipalities that may be on the brink of laying off huge portions of their municipal workers and their frontline workers and first responders. And I don’t think people understand how dire of a situation this is. I have heard from the city that we’ve got certainty through the end of this month. And if we get to June and there’s no real funding for New York City, and it’s not just New York City it could be across the country, we’re going to have to start making very real, material decisions between which kind of life support systems to cut. We’re going to be in a dangerous place socially, economically, and in terms of public health, and we cannot allow that to happen.
And that is why one of my big concerns has been with this approach of, “We’ll get to it next time, we’ll get to it next time” — it’s not just about when you get to it, it’s about if you can get to it in time. If you show up to a person who needs CPR two minutes late, it’s too late. That’s the situation that we’re in right now. So we’re kind of fighting to see if we’re going to do enough and if we’re going to do enough in time.
Right. OK. Oof. That’s depressing. Well, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. But wait, I lied. I have one more question. Just to end on a lighter note. Have you played Animal Crossing?
Oh! I just got a [Nintendo] Switch.
Yes, and I set up my island like two days ago. I’m really excited about it, but I also feel like a slacker because I have like 10 bells in two days and I just upgraded my tent. But that’s OK. It’s been quite good actually, for my mental health.
It’s literally the only reason I’ve been staying sane because I can’t really pay attention to books or movies, but I completely lose myself in my island.
Yes, yes, I feel the same way. I think it’s because it’s a little more interactive than just passively watching a movie.
And I think there’s something satisfying about like, you work and you actually make money and can pay off your debt, instantly.
[Laughs] Animal Crossing is the only reality where millennials will own a house.