Sen. Kelly Loeffler discusses federal coronavirus response with GPB political reporter Stephen Fowler.
Sen. Kelly Loeffler discusses federal coronavirus response with GPB political reporter Stephen Fowler.

Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler says Congress needs to provide more funding to help small business owners stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic and says more robust testing is a precursor to reopening the economy in the coming weeks.

Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue were named to President Trump’s congressional task force that will advise him on how and when to ease social distancing restrictions.

Loeffler sat down for an interview via Skype Friday to discuss the task force, Georgia’s economy and more.

This interview transcript is lightly edited for clarity.

Stephen Fowler: President Trump named you to his bipartisan, bicameral committee to help figure out how to reopen America. What are you bringing to the table, especially considering Georgia is a couple of weeks behind other states that may be ready to open?

Sen. Kelly Loeffler: Well, Stephen, that's a great place to start. Look, I came into this Senate just three-and-a-half months ago from the private sector. So I'm really honored that the president recognized that I bring nearly three decades of business experience in solving problems to this task force.

I'm really honored to be on it to serve the needs of Georgia and make sure Georgians are represented in this work.

I mean, you're right. We are slightly behind the curve that other cities have seen with this outbreak. Hopefully, we're flattening it and we don't see the peak of that beyond what we're seeing today.

But the good news is we're already talking about reopening and how to do that safely. Those go hand in hand.

We know that Georgians don't want to go out and about until they can do it safely. So this task force really focuses our vision on what's needed to do that, whether it's testing, whether it's topping up that Paycheck Protection Program under the Small Business Administration.

There's a lot of work to do here. And it's really great that he's focused this in a bipartisan, bicameral way and also working with the private sector.

Fowler: Speaking of the PPP, the program ran out of funding in less than two weeks. There are small business owners across the country and across the state of Georgia that are relying on those funds to stay afloat. What do you have to say to small business owners in Georgia that were looking for that money and that are still trying to figure out how to survive while still under stay-home orders and a lot of people are out of work?

Loeffler: The Paycheck Protection Program – it’s critical that we top it up. Thirty thousand businesses were served in Georgia. There's thousands more that need this relief.

And I talked to a small business owner this morning who had just gotten approved this week for a loan. And I asked her, what did you do with the with the funds that you received?

She said “The first thing I did was pay my rent.”

I mean, this is the situation we're in.

We need to address that call by more business owners to save their businesses, their employees, so that when we start to take these steps to reopen those amazing businesses that we all rely on in our everyday lives, they are there to serve us.

And if those employees are protected from having to be laid off… I mean, look at what was announced yesterday. We're now 22 million Americans applying for jobless claims. I mean, this is more than twice the levels we faced in the 2008-2009 recession.

And in Georgia, almost a million jobless claims. This is overwhelming. And we need to focus on how do we stand the economy back up again as soon as it's safe to do so.

Fowler: Georgia's unemployment claims: in the last four weeks, more than 860,000 claims have been processed. Those claims take time to come through, even with the additional $600 a week that is going to be provided by the CARES Act.

But the labor commissioner says that the system is not meant for this many people asking for help. Same with hospital systems across the country and across the state.

A lot of our institutions are buckling under this immense pressure and this unprecedented level of need. What is Congress' position and role in trying to help states lift the pressure off of these systems that are overloaded?

Loeffler: So a lot there. First of all, Labor Commissioner [Mark] Butler has said that in the first couple of weeks of the challenges we saw with coronaviruses and the unemployment claims, our state unemployment agency had already processed twice what was done in all of 2019.

Absolutely, the scale of this crisis has not yet been seen. Same with hospitals.

The challenge with hospitals, however, is a slightly different one and that elective surgeries have been put on the backburner. And so while hospitals have capacity, they're not able to bring in those additional surgeries and services that shore up the revenues and give them the stability to keep their employees in place.

And so what we want to head off is a crisis within hospital funding.

The CARES Act was designed to do that. There may be more work to do.

I'm staying in touch, and have been in touch for the last six weeks with hospital leaders across Georgia – rural hospitals, urban hospitals, critical access hospitals, making sure that I hear firsthand.

Then I can complement what is in the legislation with what's needed on the ground.

There's a lot of scale issues we're looking at. There was funding for the [Small Business Administration] in the CARES Act, and the SBA has also processed many times the loans it processed in recent history and any number of years.

The scaling up of these agencies is needed, but we also need to make sure that we don't permanently expand the size of government, the cost of government that then just adds to the burdens on our taxpayers, our citizens, and that we address this crisis and start to rebuild so that the private sector can take hold again.

Fowler: Another piece of scale that's especially relevant in Georgia is testing. As of today [Friday, April 17], there are still fewer than 70,000  tests that have been performed for COVID-19. You have private labs that have stepped up. You've got the National Guard being deployed to help with testing sites. CVS offered a drive-thru testing site in Atlanta.

What should people in Georgia know about the efforts to ramp up testing and to get to the point where these conversations about reopening the economy and having people attempt to go back to normal are safe to do?

Loeffler: Georgians need to know that testing is at the forefront of any plan to reopen the economy. And I really commend the president for putting this at the top of the list in terms of being able to test people. And this administration is really focused on making sure that China is sending over those tests. They've been holding them up.

We need to get those tests onshore here in America so that we can get them distributed to the places where we need them.

I commend the work of Georgia Tech and CVS to get that rapid testing going.

The hospitals have been investing in more equipment, but this has been a huge effort to stand up, all the equipment and the supplies needed around the testing and then the protocols itself.

So this is this is number one on the list: get the testing to make sure people can be safe when they go back to work, but then also understand in future issues like this, how do we learn from this and get that rapid response testing out?

And I know that we're learning a lot as this virus starts to get understood.

Fowler: How would you explain the competing interests of making sure that everyone is safe and healthy and the virus is contained while also making sure that our economy stays safe and healthy?

Loeffler: Well, this is the delicate balance that we absolutely have to get right.

In fact, we have to make sure that testing our underserved communities gets addressed right away. I spoke with Fulton County Chairman Rob Pitts on this very issue. I know he's addressing it. I know hospitals are looking into how to respond to this. And we also have to make sure that our rural hospitals have access to these testing capabilities as well.

We've seen some of our rural communities hard hit in south Georgia, so being able to respond, being able to identify the solution [is key.]

And that's really where the data-driven return to opening up the economy again is going to be really important. Understanding what the numbers are, where things are developing and if need be, ramp up the testing there. I think this is a smart, prudent way to begin, centered around data, testing and monitoring.

Fowler: This week, a lot of people will be receiving stimulus checks from the government to help in this unprecedented time. As we continue to progress and different parts of the country weigh their reopening strategies, what is next on the congressional level to help different industries and individuals and the country move forward and kind of regain a sense of normalcy in life?

Loeffler: I think the first step that we need to take is we need to add $250 billion to the SBA program.

I mean, we've got restaurants, hotels, small businesses, shops, barbers. They need to know that the funding's there so that they can pay the rent, that they can keep their employees on staff as we start to have the reopening discussions.

So to me, that's job one that should have been done last week. I hope we can get it done early next week, because the signal that we're sending to small businesses right now who employ over half of our workforce is not a good one.

But, you know, there remains a tremendous amount of funding in the CARES Act, a nearly $2 trillion package of stimulus and stability to be rolled out.

The hospitals got their first round of funding last week. We're looking at how the rest of that goes out in the form of enhanced Medicare reimbursements and additional support for testing.

But on the other side of the balance sheet, you have our major employers and the access to what's called the Main Street Lending Program. These are some of the country's largest employers that need that to make sure that they can cover the cost of their employees at a time when, you know, credit availability is uncertain.

These companies may be trying unsuccessfully to tap the bond market and they need to know that the cash flow will be there. That liquidity provides for solvency and gives employees stability. So this is all aimed at making sure employees stay on the payroll as much as possible, regardless of the size of the business.

Fowler: Moving a little bit to kind of your first couple of months in office…

Looking ahead to the November ballot, you're facing a lot of challengers from both parties and a lot of scrutiny over your life pre-Senate. You wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed about your decision to liquidate stocks and move into mutual funds and address the controversy around your stocks.

In layman's terms, can you explain your decision?

Loeffler: I've been very direct in this, dealing with these political attacks from day one.

First of all, I have no involvement in our investment portfolio. My husband and I worked in financial services for years. And from a perspective of having access to inside information, we decided that we would not get involved in stock trades. We haven't touched it for years. But in light of the fact that the transparency I was providing as to the activities of the investment advisors that we use was used as a political weapon against me, I took the really extraordinary step of saying we're just going to close those accounts, we're going to liquidate individual stocks, move into mutual funds.

We've done that. I've taken that off the table.

Look, I knew I was going to be attacked for my success. I just didn't know how.

And it reinforces why I'm in Washington. I'm in Washington to fight for every American's ability and right to achieve the American dream and to achieve success. So anyone who attacks me for my success is attacking those who are trying to achieve that same success in life, that opportunity, that ladder up that I climbed.

From working in the cornfields, the soybean fields with my family growing up all the way from waitressing through high school and college and now climbing the ladder in the business world, and now with the honor of serving Georgia in the Senate.

So, look, I think I'm there fighting for exactly this issue. The fact that capitalism will always prevail over socialism. And I am just focused on serving Georgians. And that's my number one priority right now.

Fowler: Are you worried that being the wealthiest member of Congress, and in having a lot of knowledge of the economy and the markets and all of that in this fraught time that the appearance is always going to follow you, that maybe that you’re out of touch with Georgians or that the financial decisions you made benefit you instead of the work that you're trying to do? Are you worried that that's always going to follow you?

Loeffler: My work ethic and my integrity have defined my career, not my success.

I am working hard for Georgians because that's what I want to do, to give back out of my gratitude for my success in life. And I know that's going to define me. It's defined my first three months in the Senate. The work I've been able to get done as the 100th senator in the U.S. Senate, being able to accomplish what I've done in three months.

I think Georgians around our state –farmers, doctors and nurses, students – people can see that I'm here working for them. I wanted to do this to give back and make sure others can pursue the American dream. And I know that's what's going to define me.

Fowler: There's a lot of fear and uncertainty from people who've been sheltered in their homes for almost a month, for people that have lost their jobs, for people that have been hospitalized with illness or lost loved ones to this virus. What message do you have to address that fear and uncertainty about our future?

Loeffler: Well, first of all, thank you for the sacrifice that each of you are making. I mean, this has been an uncertain time. Our goal is to help provide the visibility on the light at the end of the tunnel for this and how we're gonna get there, because everyone has made sacrifices in this fight.

And I want to thank Georgians for what they've done in terms of the sacrifice, and let them know that we hear them. We see them. I am bringing that message to Washington, that we have to make sure that we address this quickly, that we continue to provide information about what's going on and how to stay safe, but also how to resume normal life, because people are hurting out there.

I see this every day, and that's what drives me to help solve it and then get us on the other side and start to rebuild our economy, our lives, get back to school and church.