Morgan Christian, Manager, Public Policy & Advocacy
The Dallas Regional Chamber (DRC) hosted four members of the North Texas congressional delegation at its annual Congressional Forum on Friday, Sept. 10, making the event the largest gathering of local members of Congress outside of Washington, D.C. since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Dallas), U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth), U.S. Rep. Colin Allred (D-Dallas), and U. S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R-Irving) all participated in a panel moderated by Jason Whitely of WFAA-TV. The conversation covered everything from President Joe Biden’s new COVID-19 vaccine mandate rules to the infrastructure package making its way through negotiations in the U.S. House.
President Biden’s executive order, announced the previous day, led the discussion. The Department of Labor will soon release new rules in accordance with the order requiring private employers with 100 or more workers to mandate that their employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine, or else undergo weekly testing. Companies must provide paid time off for vaccinations, and they may face fines of up to $14,000 per violation.
“I don’t think the President wanted to do this,” U.S. Rep. Allred said. “I don’t think it’s something he was excited about doing, I don’t think it’s something he planned on doing. I think it’s something that was forced upon him, that we are now at a point that it’s not sustainable for us, and it’s not sustainable here in Texas as well.”
U.S. Rep. Veasey echoed the sentiment.
“We need for our business community to work hand in hand with our local governmental entities, whether it’s ISDs or our city councils, to take this seriously,” U.S. Rep. Veasey said. “Companies now – so many more of their employees have a conscience about where they want to live, where they want to work, and we need to make sure that we are setting the example.”
U.S. Rep. Van Duyne questioned the timing of the President’s order, given increasing vaccination rates and economic uncertainty.
“To add additional taxes and regulations right now at a time when you are really struggling to hire people and to keep your doors open, I think, is the exact opposite direction we need to go,” U.S. Rep. Van Duyne said.
On the topic of infrastructure, the lawmakers found greater agreement. The $1 trillion package passed by the U.S. Senate in August calls for $550 billion in new spending, including $110 billion for roads and bridges, $73 billion for power infrastructure, and $65 billion for broadband. The bill could bring close to $30 billion to Texas, including $26.9 billion for highways, $3.3 billion for public transit, and $100 million for broadband.
U.S. Rep. Allred, who serves on the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he expects passage in the House later this month.
“We desperately need this,” U.S. Rep. Allred said. “We’re going to add one million people just to Dallas in the next decade. We are already among the top ten congested cities in the country, and it’s just going to get worse if we don’t invest in our infrastructure.”
Chairwoman Johnson, the highest-ranking Texan on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was slightly less optimistic in her outlook on whether the House could meet its September deadline.
“I’m not going to sit here and count the votes for you,” Chairwoman Johnson said. “I know that we’re going to get there, I just don’t know if it’s going to be on time.”
Upcoming DART projects are a prime target for proposed federal infrastructure dollars. The Silverline Project would serve Tarrant, Dallas, and Collin counties via a 26-mile rail service, and the D2 Subway project would add a second light rail line through downtown Dallas from Victory Park to Deep Ellum. Additionally, between 2016 and 2018, 81 economic development projects were completed within a quarter mile of DART stations, for a total economic impact of $10.27 billion.
U.S. Rep. Van Duyne, who also serves on the committee, made clear her hesitations on the bill but emphasized its importance to the state.
“There are definitely things in that bill that I could vote for without a doubt, but the problem is that there are so many things in there that are damaging, the multitrillion dollars of debt that we’re going to get into, that I wish were not in the bill,” U.S. Rep. Van Duyne said. “I am confident that if we get together as a North Texas delegation, as a Texas delegation, there’s a lot that we can work on and make sure that we push forward, so I’m looking forward to being able to do that.”
Finally, during the audience Q&A portion of the event, Chairwoman Johnson, the first nurse elected to Congress, circled back to the question of how to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates.
“It’s a matter of public health,” Chairwoman Johnson said. “And it’s nobody else’s responsibility any more strongly than it is yours. So, when people say, ‘Why don’t y’all [take action]?’ well, I’m saying, ‘Why don’t you help us to educate people?’ You have people that trust you just like I have people that trust me. Work with them. It’s going to be a matter of education and trust, and how far we go with that will depend on how successful we are at saving lives.”
Here in the Dallas Region, the DRC recently reached its “Take Care of Business” campaign goal of more than 600,000 new COVID-19 vaccinations this summer. Employers are encouraged to learn more about hosting a pop-up vaccination clinic and utilizing our vaccination campaign toolkit.
The 2021 Congressional Forum was presented by Amazon.