Sen. Chuck Grassley speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on corporate liability during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Screen shot from C-SPAN livestream of hearing)
By ROBIN BRAVENDER, Correspondent | Iowa Capital Dispatch
WASHINGTON — Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley signaled Tuesday that he backs a push from Senate GOP leadership to shield business owners from lawsuits related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Grassley, a senior member of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned business leaders at a hearing on Capitol Hill as lawmakers debated whether Congress should prioritize protecting companies from lawsuits.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has made the issue a top priority and said last month that it would be a “red line” for him in the next round of COVID-19 relief legislation. “We can’t pass another bill unless we have liability protection,” McConnell said during an interview on Fox News.
Democrats, worker advocates and others have slammed McConnell’s statements that shielding companies from liability would be a condition to an aid package that many hope will channel funding to ailing state and local governments. U.S. House Democrats on Tuesday unveiled their proposal for the next round of aid, which would spend a total of $3 trillion, including $1 trillion for state, local and tribal governments.
Grassley’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening about whether the Iowa senator believes liability protection is a necessary component of the next relief bill. Still, his questions at the hearing suggest that he supports the idea of increased legal certainty for businesses.
Grassley asked witnesses to explain “how the mere threat of lawsuits impact business owners’ decision-making in the midst of this pandemic.” He also asked whether they “agree that predictability in the legal system directly relates to our economic recovery from the pandemic.”
Kevin Smartt, the CEO of the Texas-based convenience store chain Kwik Chek, told Grassley that he would welcome increased legal protections.
“Anytime you’re looking at potential cost and or threat, businesses are wary and would look hesitantly at investment or any kind of future endeavor without certainty. … I’m thinking about this as a very temporary protection just to give us some assurance,” Smartt said.
Democrats on the panel, meanwhile, painted the issue of legal liability as a distraction.
“We’re here because Senator McConnell announced that this was a red-line issue,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. But Durbin disputed the characterization of COVID-19 lawsuits as an “epidemic.”
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., echoed those comments. “There is no wave of litigation here.”
California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris urged lawmakers to “speak truth about who’s bearing a disproportionate share of the risk during this pandemic.”
She noted that the workers “who are disproportionately workers of color are doing essential jobs — some would even argue that they are doing the jobs that others may decide are sacrificial jobs — to make sure that people are safe and protected during this pandemic.”
The issue is certain to be a sticking point as lawmakers attempt to find common ground on yet another massive aid bill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has also shown little willingness to budge.
“At the time of this coronavirus challenge, especially now, we have every reason to protect our workers and our patients in all of this,” she told reporters last month. “So we would not be inclined to be supporting any immunity from liability.”
Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, who also serves on the Judiciary Committee, attended the hearing Tuesday, “but did not have an opportunity to ask questions, so she will be submitting them for the record,” according to her spokesman Brendan Conley.
“Small and local businesses across Iowa, which are facing unprecedented challenges amid this pandemic, are absolutely essential for the communities they serve and the workers they employ and Senator Ernst believes it’s critical that they remain viable,” Conley said. “That’s why Senator Ernst is continuing to look at how liability issues will impact them as Iowa and America begin to safely reopen.”