Waiting for the money train

Rep. Jerry Nadler talked to City & State on why Congress shouldn't be in session and Trump's latest task force.
Rep. Jerry Nadler talked to City & State on why Congress shouldn't be in session and Trump's latest task force.
Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Rep. Jerry Nadler talked to City & State on why Congress shouldn't be in session and Trump's latest task force.

Waiting for the money train

Rep. Jerry Nadler on the next federal stimulus bill, funding the MTA and Trump’s ‘nonsense’ task force.
April 20, 2020

For years, Rep. Jerry Nadler was New York’s man in Washington when it came to transportation, thanks to his position on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He gave up that seat when he was named chairman of the Judiciary Committee in 2019, but he’s still closely attuned to issues affecting the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that moves so many of his constituents in Manhattan and Brooklyn. As the MTA faces a massive fiscal crisis as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, City & State talked to Nadler about a federal bailout, why Congress shouldn’t be in session and how President Donald Trump’s latest task force is “nonsense.”

The MTA already received $3.8 billion from a federal stimulus bill, now they’re asking for another $3.9 billion. Are you actually going to be able to secure that much?

When they asked for $4 billion in the first bill, I said at that point that they were asking for too little. They should be asking for double that. They got $3.9 (billion). And now it turns out they need another $4 (billion)! It comes to the same thing. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get the $4 billion in the next bill. I mean, we have to get the next $4 billion, because they need it to operate.

In the documents I saw, the additional $4 billion was actually the low-end estimate of what the MTA will lose this year. It could be as much as $8 billion more. Are they still lowballing the estimate?

I don’t know if they’re lowballing numbers. I think it’s, at this point, based on the current ridership. Current ridership is about 700,000 a day, which is way down but still very important as a lifeblood of the city and the region, obviously. 700,000 people a day go to work on the MTA and back, despite the social distancing. And the region couldn’t survive without that. So we’ve got to enable the MTA to continue.

What’s the latest on the timing of the next stimulus bill?

Well, we don’t know. There is somewhat of a dispute between the Democratic and Republican leadership, that is to say the Senate leadership, (Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell and the House leadership headed by (Speaker) Nancy Pelosi. The Senate wants to do just a $250 billion bill for small businesses. And the House position is we should put a lot of other things into that bill that we’re going to need. I don’t think the Senate denies that we’re going to need other things, but they want to do the first thing right away, and I don’t know when they want to do all the rest. Hopefully sometime in the next few weeks, we’ll be able to do a bill that’ll accomplish most of what we need to do, not just the small businesses.

Should Congress be in session right now? Or is it better to be in your districts?

I don’t think we have a choice! All the social distancing says we should not be in Washington together. Not only because it’s dangerous to the senators and the Congress members and the staff, but also because we’re all disease vectors. You don’t want people from New York coming to Washington and transmitting the disease to people who go home all over the place and vice versa. But we have to function. And that’s why I’ve urged for quite a while that we ought to be able to vote remotely. I don’t think there’s a good technological reason why we can’t function from our homes. It’s awkward, it’s more difficult, but we’re going to have to learn to do it. I don’t care what the president says, it’s really unlikely that we’ll be able to do away with these social distancing requirements until we get a vaccine, which is probably a year off.

When you’re talking to Pelosi and Schumer, what’s your top priority for the next stimulus bill?

There’s a whole list of priorities in order to allow society to function. For example, the small business money ran out. Unemployment is going to run out. They can’t even process the applications because it’s so way beyond what we expected. We’ve got to fund unemployment insurance, and we’ve got to fund it so that people can get it quickly. We’ve got to fund small businesses, we’ve got to fund transit agencies. We’re going to have to spend a huge amount of money. I don’t even have a figure for it, because we’re going to have to borrow it! And we’re going to have to put people to work. We’re going to have to be paying companies to keep paying their people, even when they’re not getting revenue in. We’ll worry about how to pay for that later.

Given that, do you think the MTA has a strong case for getting its requested funding? 

Absolutely! It has an airtight case. Without this funding, it can’t continue to work. And without it working, the region collapses.

You’ve raised the alarm before about supply chains and the need for a cross-harbor rail tunnel

Yes. We need that too, but that is not an emergency. We’ve got the Tier II environmental impact statement started, that has to proceed. But we’re not going to start construction on the tunnel until we have a vaccine.

A big part of the argument for the tunnel is decreasing the New York City region’s reliance on trucks to move goods.

In the United States as a whole, 43% of intercity freight goes by rail. A lot more efficient than truck freight. A lot more energy efficient. A lot more efficient in terms of air pollution, in terms of wear and tear on highways, you name it. In the New York region, the figure is under 1%. Everything goes by truck. And that can’t continue!

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio shut down his open streets pilot, now the City Council is moving to have 75 miles of open streets during New York’s stay-at-home order. Do you think this is a good idea?

I think that we need a better balance between people and cars and bikes and things like that. What the figure is for mileage, I don’t know.

Do you think the coronavirus pandemic will change the way New Yorkers move and commute in the long term?

It has to. I’m not sure how, but when you have this kind of shock to the system? When this is over – and it’s not going to be over in one day, it’s going to end gradually – people are not going to do exactly what they did before. The economy is going to change somewhat. Some number of people are going to get used to working from home and will continue, I presume. Things will change.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump announced a long list of members of Congress from both parties to serve on the Opening Up America Again Congressional Group, but there’s only one member from New York City or the Hudson Valley, and that’s Rep. Thomas Suozzi, who only represents a sliver of the city. Should there be someone else on there from the hardest-hit city in the country?

I think the task force is nonsense. I don’t think it’s going to do anything. I don’t think it’s going to have any role. It’s window dressing for the president. And it’s not up to the president to decide reopening the economy anyway. That’s up to local governments and governors. The president claims he has the authority to do it, (that) he’s the king, which is constitutionally wrong. He’s not going to guide the governors. They’re not going to listen to him. And this advisory committee is window dressing and won’t have anything to do. And they’ll advise the president if he seeks their advice, which he probably won’t, because he doesn’t take anybody’s advice. And he won’t listen to them anyway.

But I do not think that you’re really going to reopen the country till you have a vaccine. If someone is foolish enough to get rid of the social distancing restrictions before you have a vaccine, the virus will come back, and you’ll get another surge. Once that happens in one place, no one else will make that mistake.

A lot of committee work is on hold now, but do you have any plans for the Judiciary Committee for the rest of 2020? Is there anything you’ve seen with the coronavirus response that’s worth digging into?

There are a lot of things you have to dig into. We were supposed to have (U.S. Attorney General William) Barr come in on the 31st of March. That’ll happen as soon as we can. I don’t know when that is. Depending on when we get to voting remotely, we’ll be able to function more or less. There are a lot of issues we’re supposed to have hearings on – antitrust, detention facilities, a follow-up on the First Step Act, intellectual property and the patent system. There’s a huge amount of work, some of which will get done and some of which we won’t be able to do until we start functioning normally again.

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.