This week’s Shift Newsmaker Interview is with third-term 4th District U.S. Representative Dan Newhouse. The Sunnyside farmer and former Director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture describes the federal response to the Coronavirus pandemic and disparities in Governor Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. He shares his thoughts on prioritizing the health and safety of all Washingtonians while also doing everything possible to ensure the resiliency of the state’s economic future.
How would you describe your priorities – and the federal response – in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic?
First and foremost, the health and safety of every single one of our citizens is my absolute top priority – and it’s the top priority of every Member of Washington’s congressional delegation, as well as that of Governor Inslee’s and the Trump Administration’s. The federal government is working to ensure that states and local communities have the support and resources they need to respond to the Coronavirus outbreak as swiftly and efficiently as possible.
I believe delivering this aid, along with critical equipment and resources for our healthcare providers and first responders on the front lines, is crucial during these unprecedented times. By also empowering states to bolster economic aid for small businesses and families, we can ensure that our economy remains resilient through this pandemic and into the future.
How do you think Governor Inslee has handled Washington’s response?
Just over a month ago now, in the early days of this pandemic, I was encouraged to see Vice President Pence come to Washington and stand with the Governor and Congressional delegation in solidarity to work in unison for the health and safety of all Washingtonians.
In the weeks since, I am proud to report that we have continued to work together on a constant basis and in a bipartisan fashion to ensure our state is equipped with the necessary federal support and aid to get through this crisis; it really has been encouraging to see us not working as a westside or an eastside of the state, but as one delegation.
The governor, as chief executive, has been tasked with the difficult responsibility of guiding our state, with the first reported cases of the virus in the country, through a pandemic unlike anything we have experienced before. Governor Inslee and I rarely see eye to eye on many issues, and it isn’t often that I find myself sending praise his way, but over the past several weeks I have been vocal in my support of many aspects of his leadership.
That said, I do believe there are some areas where we are falling short, stemming from components of the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order – most notably, Governor Inslee’s exclusion of residential construction from the list of “essential” activities.
Why do you think residential construction should be considered “essential”?
As a proud farmer representing one of the most abundant agricultural regions in the country, I regularly point out that Washington’s farmers and agriculture industry – which has been deemed “essential” – are crucial to keeping food on our tables. Along the same vein, our construction workers and homebuilders are fundamental to keeping roofs over our heads.
For years, Washington state has experienced an affordable housing and homelessness crisis. In many of the rural communities I represent, housing options are just simply not available. Whether it is due to issues of affordability, a lack of enough homes built for growing populations, or homes being damaged or destroyed in a wildfire or other natural disaster, the lack of access to housing and the need for additional construction affects people from all walks of life.
We must do everything in our power to not exacerbate this crisis during the Coronavirus pandemic and beyond. Unfortunately, I fear the Governor’s order will do exactly that.
As the Central Washington Home Builders Association recently stated, “The existing housing shortage in Central Washington, coupled with the complete construction delay throughout the state, will continue to drive housing prices to unprecedented levels, making attainable housing that much more difficult for the average family.”
How are you advocating for a change in the Governor’s order?
Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers and I recently sent a letter to Governor Inslee pointing out that 26 governors of states with statewide “Stay-at-Home” orders have all designated construction as “essential.” This includes our neighboring states of Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, in addition to California – which has experienced a similar influx of cases of Coronavirus as our state. If it’s essential for those states, it should be for ours. This puts us at a regional competitive disadvantage.
If our state health experts deem that construction cannot function in a manner that is safe for our construction workers, then the order should apply to all construction sectors. Unfortunately, Governor Inslee’s order doesn’t. It allows public sector construction to continue while private industry work has been halted. This virus doesn’t discriminate between publicly-funded builders and private sector workers, and neither should Governor Inslee’s list of “essential” activities.
Governor Inslee’s order picks winners and losers unfairly. Why should work be allowed to continue on the new NHL arena in Seattle but not on a housing development in Othello? I want every worker in our state to operate in a safe environment; if it’s safe for public housing construction workers to continue their work, then it should also be safe for the workers building new apartment buildings, townhouses, and homes. The disparity here just does not make sense.
Are there concerns this disparity could bleed into other economic sectors and industries?
Absolutely. Even industries deemed essential under the Governor’s order – like paper mills – are being impacted by the ban on construction. The Northwest Pulp & Paper Association and its members are warning of the potential shutdown of production operations across our state. The production of 2×4’s used for residential housing projects are crucial to providing the sawdust and wood chips needed to make paper products like toilet paper, food packaging, and medical supply containers. In fact, a major paper processor with operations in Southwest Washington actually produces the cardboard used to package the Coronavirus test kits. This same company has informed us they are days away from entirely shutting down their work in our state. The ban could also affect the availability of wood pellets that some use to heat their homes. The vertical supply chain for the industry truly has impacts far and wide.
Even the “bastion of conservatism” – the Seattle Times Editorial Board! – agrees. As they stated recently, “Adjustments are inevitable as more is learned about the intended and unintended consequences of public-safety orders.” The more we learn of the repercussions of this residential construction ban, the more we must recognize the necessity for a revision.
Do you think Governor Inslee will change his mind and update the order to allow residential construction?
I’ve been urging the Governor regularly over these past several weeks to do so, but unfortunately everything he has shared with me and with representatives of the industry points to him not changing his mind. That said, I am using my platform to gather stories about how this order negatively affects Washington families and the construction industry throughout our state. Our efforts serve as an example for local leaders and homebuilders in several other states who are facing these same disparities in “essential” designations. Voices like the Home Builders Association of Tri-Cities – who just this week wrote a letter to Governor Inslee requesting the change and explaining how safety measures are their highest priority – are so important in this effort. By sharing personal accounts of desperately-needed housing projects in rural communities or of homebuilders struggling to provide for their families due to a lack of employment, I believe we may be able to make an impact. That is why I invite everyone to join me in using the hashtag #HousingIsEssential to gather these important stories.
Regardless of what the Governor decides, I do truly believe construction workers and homebuilders will help lead our nation’s industries – with safety at the forefront of their minds – back into economic greatness as we recover from this pandemic.