State, Local Leaders Should Restart Economies ‘as Soon as Possible,’ J.C. Watts Says

Rep. J.C. Watts, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma and a member of The Heritage Foundation’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, joins The Daily Signal Podcast to discuss how the nation can begin to reopen safely amid the coronavirus, why COVID-19 may be affecting the African-American community more than other demographic groups, and the news channel he founded, BNC. Read the lightly edited transcript below or listen to the podcast:

We also cover these stories:

  • Attorney General Bill Barr said that governors of some states are violating Americans’ rights by policies they have put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Governors across the South are beginning to reopen their state economies and lift coronavirus restrictions.
  • President Donald Trump says he will work to save oil companies as oil prices continue to collapse.

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Virginia Allen: I’m joined by J.C. Watts, former congressman of Oklahoma, founder and Chairman of J.C. Watts Companies, and a member of The Heritage Foundation’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission. Representative Watts, thank you so much for being here today.

Rep. J.C. Watts: Virginia, thank you for having me on. Looking forward to sharing and visiting with you.

Allen: Yeah, absolutely. Well, you are one of 17 members on Heritage’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, and you all have just laid out a five-phase plan for how America can recover economically from COVID-19, and ultimately save both lives and livelihoods.

Can you just tell us a little bit about the commission and your role?

Watts: Well, Virginia, and I think you’ve summed it up by saying the commission was established to save lives and livelihoods. I think that statement in and of itself kind of wraps up and tells why Kay James, the president of The Heritage Foundation, thought it was important to do.

People who have lost a loved one, a mother, or father, or a son, or a daughter, or a relative, a close friend due to COVID-19, I understand that they would think that opening up the economy in the next month or two months or three months, I would totally understand if they feel like it’s too soon.

However, the flip side of the coin, a small-business owner who is on the brink of bankruptcy and even some large-business owners who are on the brink of a bankruptcy, but someone who’s put their blood, sweat, and tears, and the children’s education fund into starting a business or sustaining a business, boy, 30 days of downtime, many of them it leaves them one foot in bankruptcy and one foot out.

They probably think you can’t open the economy up soon enough. And so again, when the commission said we want to save lives and livelihoods, we tried to take both of those perspectives into consideration as we made recommendations or will be making recommendations to the administration, to members of Congress, to local and state governments that we didn’t take one or the other into consideration, we took both lives and livelihoods into consideration.

Allen: Yeah. Well, and on Monday you all put out … a much more, even more detailed plan that was 47 detailed steps for how we can achieve the first two phases of that five-phase plan. What are some of the critical aspects or steps in that list of recommendations?

Watts: Well, I think one of the things is that you start by saying governors and local leaders should take the lead in restarting the economy, and should do so as soon as possible. The federal government, Congress, the administration should aid in the recovery by considering flexibility in regulatory leads, funding, which they’ve done, providing equipment and providing information. But, we think it’s critically important that governors and local leaders, that they take charge.

I think we made the recommendation in saying that the social distancing, that should be relaxed, in some cases. Reopening schools and businesses, returning hospitals to normal should be linked to data about where the disease is prevalent. Counties that have low incident rates should open in a way that would be consistent with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] plans.

And a lot of communities, and I’m from rural Oklahoma, grew up in rural Oklahoma, rural America, a lot of rural communities, they don’t have access to CDC plans, but you can work with your county and your state health officials who tune in to those CDC recommendations and pay attention to what the surgeon general is saying and work with them to make sure that you have a plan in place that would be protective of the most vulnerable, of the least of these.

And so, I think those things, making sure if we start with allowing the governors and local leaders to take the lead in restarting the economy, hopefully, they will do it as soon as possible, but also be mindful of doing it not just expeditiously, but doing that safely. And that’s where the CDC, I think, comes into play. … Johns Hopkins, they’d been right in the middle of this and providing data, but use the federal government to support state and local leaders. And I do think that it could be done in a way that’s healthy, and that’s safe, and that would consider lives and livelihoods, which is how you opened our discussion today.

Allen: Well, you bring such a unique perspective, really, to this conversation, because you do have this background in government, but you also run your own consulting business called J.C. Watts Companies, and you work with large and small businesses to do development and communications and public affairs strategies, and kind of implement those best practices.

So, as someone that does have that background, both in government and in the business world, what are your thoughts on to what extent the government really just kind of needs to get out of the way right now and let individuals and private businesses and nonprofits navigate the situation on their own, versus the state and federal government stepping in to offer assistance?

Watts: Well, I think the government can play a role, and I think the government should play a role. And I think you have to understand in whatever role the government chooses to play, you have to understand the value of teamwork. And it’s not about the federal government, it’s not about the president, it’s not about a member of Congress, it’s not about a governor, it’s not about a mayor. It’s about all of us working together for the common good. And I think government can play a role, but they need to understand what their role should be.

You and I have already discussed or I mentioned in … my opening comments that the federal government should allow governors and local leaders to take the lead.

And the federal government and Congress should, the administration should aid in the flexibility … of regulatory relief. They can be helpful there.

They can play a role in funding, and funding equipment, and providing information. We heard from a couple of, we had some testimony, we had a meeting yesterday, Virginia, and we heard from some people that have pretty good pulse of the economy.

We heard from Steve Forbes, we heard from Art Laffer, and they made suggestions. And they made suggestions. We heard from the National Association of Manufacturers, and we heard from a lady that was with Merck. These people who are in the private sector, who operate in the private sector, they gave recommendations, they gave comments and thoughts that I thought were pretty good.

One of them was to suspend the payroll tax, reducing capital gains. I mean, you think, well, what capital gains … why make taxes an argument in times like these? Well, you’ve got people out there that, they’re invested in the stock market, and if they liquidate stock right now, the stocks might be down, but if they liquidate those stocks, you’ve got to worry about a capital-gains tax.

Well, eliminating the capital-gains tax in a time like this would allow people to keep more of their money to do what they need to do with it. And so there’s a lot of different things that … and in terms of trying to flatten the curve … underneath that curve there’s fear, there’s unemployment, there’s the small-business failures, there’s deaths.

So, you’ve got to figure out ways, how can we not just get money or get money into the hands of people by sending them a stimulus check, but there’s resources that people have available to them now that eliminating the capital gains [tax] or reducing the capital gains, whatever the case might be, kind of letting up or softening some of the regulatory burdens and trying to get vaccines into the marketplace.

And I just think there’s ways we can do that. And we’ve heard suggestions of ways that could be executed, ways that could be done that it would be helpful and getting resources into the hands of the people that really need it. So, therefore, again, I make the argument that government can play a role, but government needs to be a part of the team, not the team.

Allen: Well, and as you said, some people are … they’re getting really antsy, and they want to get back to work. They need that money. They rely on the income of their small business or working at a restaurant. And we have seen in areas across the country and even in your home state of Oklahoma, that there have been organized kind of rallies or protests in Oklahoma.

There’s one organized groups called “OK Back 2 Work,” which they’d been organizing rallies in cars. So, keeping that safe distance with everyone kind of going along in their cars, but they are really asking for the state of Oklahoma to reopen on May 1st. What are your views of these kind of rallies and protests, and how should state leaders respond to these calls to reopen businesses?

Watts: Well, Virginia, the wonderful thing about living in the United States of America, we can have rallies, and we can have protests, and people can even, as I learned when I was a member of Congress, people can come in front of my office, and they can protest a decision that I’ve made or both that I’ve made, or something that I said, or something that I did, and they don’t get shot, they don’t get limbs cut off, or they don’t get thrown in a furnace, a fiery furnace to burn.

I mean that’s what America’s all about and … I am a small-business owner. I know how that is. And right now, I’ve got one business, I just launched an African-American news channel on February 10th. So a month and a half after launch, we’re having to deal with the coronavirus. I wished the virus, if it was going to show up, my preference would have been that, you show up a year and a half after we launch, not a month and a half after we launch, but it is what it is.

And in my business, actually, I don’t get any help. I’ve got 60-plus employees, and I don’t get any help through the CARES Act, the small-business loans, or the [Paycheck] Protection Act. I don’t get any help there. So, I understand how small businesses understand. Again, I think we can have rallies, and we can protest, and I think we can get the economy going again and also look out for the most vulnerable and not be insensitive to those who have lost loved ones who, I said at the outset, those who’ve lost loved ones, who’s lost a husband or wife or spouse or a child, a close friend. I totally understand, they think that opening up by May 1st, the first week of May, that, that would be too soon.

I totally understand that, but I totally understand that small-business owner–because I am a small-business owner–that says, “Hey, our livelihoods are on the line,” and … I think we can do this in a way that takes both of those perspectives into consideration … . [W]e need to start thinking of ways that we can open up the economy because we at the end of the day, we’ve already seen the serious impact on our future economic-, social-, and foreign-policy challenges.

And the consequences could get even worse soon, due to the poverty problems. People having rent and mortgage payments, utility bills, many businesses are seasonal, and they create their revenue stream that will last them, that they rely on lasting them all year. Their revenue stream is created from about the first to the middle of March until about the middle of September. So, they create a revenue stream in five or six months that has to last them for 12 months.

So we need the government to plan its role to do what they can in order to get us back into a rhythm, into our economy as soon as possible. And again, I continue to highlight that we can, I think we can save lives and be considerate of people’s livelihoods. And again, the recommendations that we’ve made kind of speaks to both of those … both sides of that equation.

Allen: Well, I’m really glad that you brought up your news channel, because my goodness, you’re so right, what a wild time to found a news channel, a Black News Channel, or BNC, is the name of it. What inspired you to start that channel, and how have you all navigated covering COVID-19?

Watts: Virginia, for 10 years we–probably longer than that–about 14, 15 years, we’ve been trying to get this network off the ground, and one of the arguments that I made, that I was making, and that I created is saying that the African-American community is … we create content that is culturally specific to the African-American community. And one of the things I talk about, I would talk about health and wellness.

And it’s just a reality. It’s not politics, it’s not liberal or conservative. It’s not Republican or Democrat, it’s just a reality that in growing up, I ate different foods than you ate. We might’ve eaten some of the same things, but culturally, your culture, but for instance, Thanksgiving dinner by and large, most people in the white community eat pumpkin pie for dessert, by and large, Thanksgiving dinner, most people in the black community eat sweet potato pie.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I can’t eat pumpkin pie, that you can’t eat sweet potato pie, but culturally, there is a cultural difference, in terms of our wellness and diseases. There’s things that the white community or the Native American community, the Asian community, that they have to deal with or the Hispanic community, that the black community doesn’t. And vice versa, with any one of those cultures.

Well, one of the things that I’m pretty active with, sickle cell [anemia] here in the state of Oklahoma, and we do things to create awareness for sickle cell. Sickle cell is a disease that most people, about 95% to 97% of the people that have sickle cell, they’re black, they’re African-American.

And so, as I was talking about this network over the last 12, 14 years, I was saying, we will be talking about things that other networks don’t talk about in wellness. Sickle cell, diabetes, culturally, how you deal with diabetes. All communities have diabetes, and I believe a lot of it is, you can control, 80% of diabetics can control their diabetes through diet and exercise, what you eat, and how active you are.

And so, giving those statistics and that data from an African-American perspective is what our network was designed to do with sickle cell, I mean, with coronavirus, COVID-19. We’ve got a doctor [Corey Hebert] that has a show … called “Doctor for the People.” He was just asked about 10 days or so ago to lead the effort in Louisiana. He was asked by the governor to lead the effort, to the task force concerning African-Americans and COVID-19.

And so, just having a source of information somewhere on a dial with 277 channels, it seems like, somewhere the African-American community to go get and education and information that is culturally specific to them, that’s important, I think.

Women have different health challenges than men. I think it makes sense to have somewhere that women can go and get information concerning health and the same thing with men.

So, hopefully, that gives you a little bit of flavor on why the channel is relevant. And over the last six weeks, the White House has asked us to get involved with the ad council, and the administration created a task force to do PSAs. They reached out to us and said, “Hey, you guys are talking to a lot of people in the black community. We want them to know and be informed about how to be safe during times like these.”

So, we made it an issue throughout our platforms, “Ladies First,” our 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. news hour, our 7 at night to 10 at night, Kelly Wright has a show on our network. Kelly, he’s played an integral role in interviewing the surgeon general, different people in the administration, talking about coronavirus, and African-American communities.

So, yeah, we’ve been pretty active, and we’ve been on the front line and trying to inform our audience that this is real, and these are the ways that you protect yourself and protect your family.

Allen: And we have seen, percentage-wise, that the black community has been more affected by COVID-19 than other groups in the United States, and we don’t really know why. Do you have any thoughts on what factors could be contributing to this and if the country or states should really be taking measures to help?

Watts: … One of recommendations or suggestions that I made on the [National Coronavirus Recovery Commission] was that I don’t think that we will ever get out of the doldrums of a sick health care system until we make health a part of that.

And one of the things that I think is important, I think any time we find ourselves in a crisis, or like COVID-19, or we find ourselves in a crisis in our personal lives, in our business, in our churches. It doesn’t matter what our association is. We’re going to have crisis. And if you’ve not had a crisis in your personal life, just keep living, as my dad used to say, just keep living. You’ll get there.

I have a little different perspective about crisis. I don’t think crises always comes to tell us what we are. They come to tell us what we are not, so that we know what we need to do to become what we want to be. And that’s a principle in athletics. I learned a whole lot more in my athletic career when I lost the game than when I won a game, because when you lose a game, you’re forced to take a step back, take a deep breath and say, “OK, how do I correct this to where we’ll do it better?” and we put ourselves in a better chance to win.

Well, I think the revelation from this crisis is that we do have a health care system that that is broken, that we can do better. I think we do have, we’ve seen from this crisis that we’ve gotten away from the little things. Wash your hands, cover your cough, cover your sneeze. Virginia, those are things that we learned to do in kindergarten.

Allen: Yeah.

Watts: So, let’s go back to the basics. So, I remember when I was in grade school, I had a health class when I was the third or fourth grade. And so, I said all that to say, we will never solve our health care issues until we make health a part of that equation.

And I don’t care if it’s the black community, white community, red, yellow, or brown community, if it’s man or woman, boy or girl, what we eat, what we put on our body, the fact that we don’t exercise or we don’t exercise enough, we don’t move enough, all of those things I suspect we could look to, to say, or we should be looking to, to say “How much of our lack of exercise, how much of our not moving around, being more sedated, watching more TV, being on Facebook, being on the internet, how much of that is contributing to the weakening of our immune system?” I think that’s a fair question.

So, maybe what we’re dealing with here will make us more conscious, and [the late former Rep.] Jack Kemp, I loved talking to Jack, and Jack was way ahead of most Republicans when it came to opportunity, and creating opportunity for everybody, and targeting underserved communities, or poor neighborhoods for growth and opportunity. And I remember Jack used to say, “We pay people in America to not be healthy.” We say, “Grow old, and grow older and unhealthy, and when you get to 65, we’ll pay for you to … have heart surgeries, and cover all your costs for your stroke, and your diabetes and everything else.”

So, if we, if we take care of people for being unhealthy, why wouldn’t we incentivize people to be healthy? And Jack used to say, I would have conversations with him to say, why not give people a $500 a year, or $300 a year, a $700 a year, whatever the figure was, if you keep your cholesterol under a certain number, if you … watch your PSA numbers or, I mean, I’m just throwing some things out, but we put a man on the moon, so surely, we can design some type of initiative that the federal government or the state governments could play a role to say, “Let’s do some things to encourage people to be healthy,” as opposed to encouraging them to not be healthy.

Allen: Well, I want to end on a little bit of a lighter question. As someone who played football and played football professionally, what do you think we have on the horizon this fall? Are we going to see an NFL and college football season? What are your thoughts on that?

Watts: Well, I think there’s a serious discussion underway now, that I think we could possibly be into … or we could possibly have an infrastructure or a process in place to resume football season and basketball season. Football season starts in, guess they report to camp in July, early July, start preseason games toward the end of July, 1st of August, and then the regular season starts toward the end of August, or that’s some modicum of their schedule, but I think the regular season usually starts about the end of August.

Hopefully, we would have assembled a plan to get us back into a rhythm. If not, Virginia, let me tell you, if we’ve not done it by then, it’s going to be really, really ugly, and none of us are going to like it.

But I think we will, and even when we do, normal isn’t going to be, and my guess, and this is just my personal opinion, normal isn’t going to be 85,000 people at Memorial Stadium at the University of Oklahoma on a Saturday afternoon for Saturday afternoon football game. And I don’t care if the University of Oklahoma, they’re the No. 1 team in the country, we’re playing the No. 2 team in the country. That’s not going to be normal.

We may get back to that, but I think people are going to ease their way back into stadiums and crowds, and quite frankly, I would encourage them to do that.

But I think the decisions that we make today and why the commission, why The Heritage Foundation led by Kay James, why they put this commission together, was to say, “We can’t wait until August to start thinking about this. We’ve got to start doing things today that will save lives and people’s livelihoods, to get us back into a rhythm in our economy, in our social lives.”

Put ourselves in a rhythm and a model, a process, if you will, that will get us back to normal as quickly as possible. Rubber bands, I understand once a rubber band is stretched, it never goes back to its original form, I’m not so sure we will. We’re not going to get back to our original form overnight in the stretching that we’re experiencing here. But I still think we live in a great nation, and there’s a reason that whether we’re the country that created the light bulb and the streetlights and the internet and the GPS system. We have more Nobel Prize winners than anybody in the world.

And so, the same country that gave us those things is the same country that’ll navigate through this if we all understand we have a role to play. And that the government can play a role, and maybe I’m different than most on my side of the aisle, but I think the government can play a role; that they understand they are a part of the team, they are not the team.

And it’s state, local, federal government, county governments, playing a role. Civil society has a role to play, corporate America has a role to play. The faith community has a role to play. And if we all will chip in for the good of the order, and not concern ourselves with who gets the credit, but just going out there and blocking and tackling and doing our part, Virginia, again, every storm runs out of rain, and this one will as well.

And hopefully we can get us back, get back as close to normal as possible, but no one knows what the normal is going to be after we get in that rhythm that I mentioned.

Allen: Representative Watts, we just so appreciate your time today and all the work that you’re doing on the commission. Thank you so much for being here.

Watts: Well, I’m delighted to be with you, and thank you for having me on.

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