Washington, D.C – Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi joined Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett and fellow House Democrats for a press conference to discuss their Congressional Delegation visit to St. Thomas and St. John and the ongoing hurricane recovery effort. Below are the Leader’s remarks:
Leader Pelosi. Good afternoon everyone. What an honor it is to be here with so many Members of the House of Representatives. We have come in to the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico yesterday, at the invitation of [Congresswoman] Nydia Velázquez and Representative [Stacey] Plaskett. Behind me are Members of Congress from very important committees of jurisdiction that affect the distribution of funds for FEMA. Secondly, many of them have large Caribbean populations in their districts. Where is my friend Gregory? Right here, his wife is from the Virgin Islands. [Congressman] Gregory Meeks of New York.
Of course we are here with Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez who was born in Puerto Rico so the whole idea of what needs to be done, the knowledge of the issue, commitment from the communities we represent and, frankly, many of us have had natural disasters in our districts so we come here with some knowledge, with some judgement of how we can be helpful but what we needed to hear was how to be helpful from the community.
We were at Guy Benjamin, the firehouse, at the Community Center earlier as the Governor mentioned, health care providers briefed us on the needs, we talked and listened to water and power about how to go forward and the rest. But the question is – Stacey worked very hard, even though the bill had many poison pills, to make sure there were enough votes so that bill would pass. Her standing, her knowledge, the respect she commands in the Congress made that possible. Now, we have to make sure the administration spends the money in a much more accelerated way, in a much more accelerated way, because the needs do not stretch out, they just intensify. Of course we are concerned about what could happen next.
I always see everything as an opportunity. These hurricanes were an opportunity to leap-frog over the past ways of doing things to make the future so much better. I saw a sign that said, ‘The Virgin Islands: America’s Paradise.’ That’s the case, paradise has its rewards. We want to make sure that the fulfillment for the people of these islands comes at a time that is faster than the pace that is going on now. With respect to FEMA and all the volunteers and workers at FEMA for the job they do, but as Stacey said – we are all on a first-name-basis in our own districts – as Congresswoman Plaskett said, ‘There were many challenges before hurricanes. It took the hurricanes to put the spotlight on what some of the needs were.’
Let us use this as an opportunity to make the future better, to leap-frog over old ways of doing things, become more dependent on renewables instead of fossil fuels which only speed up hurricanes. Again, have judgments made with communities involved in them.
I just want to say what an honor it is to be here at the University of the Virgin Islands and I thank Mitchell Reeves.
The Vice President. Thank you for the hospitality. It’s great to hear about marine science and the things you are doing here.
So, again, these Members, they don’t come here to have a conversation. They come here to have a meeting so that we go back and make informed decisions, springing from the voices of the people we heard from, how they were personally affected. Hearing from health care professionals – Mr. Smalls, he slept at the hospital for like thirty days, at least, following. The commitment – the commitment of the people of the Virgin Islands is something that Stacey [Plaskett] has put forward in a very, very strong way and I want you all to appreciate the difference she is making.
And Governor, thank you for your leadership as well and thank you for being available today to explain from the perspective of the Virgin Islands, how we can be more helpful in terms of the interpretation. This is how it goes: Congress passes a bill with all the aspirations and enthusiasm, then the implementation goes to the executive branch but there is some risk aversion there, ‘Well, maybe they didn’t mean for us to go this far and this fast and the rest of that.’ Right?
So what we have to do is make the case. With everything, it’s about time, use of resources, money and the rest so understand so we came here determined to go back informed. We didn’t come here to say, ‘This is how we would do it.’ We came here to hear how you want it done.
Thank you Governor for making that very clear to us. Thank you Congresswoman Plaskett for your ongoing commitment in the Congress of the United States and, if I had my way, she’d have a vote in the Congress.
Q: What exactly can you do when you go back to Congress. The majority is the Republicans –
Congresswoman Plaskett. Many of the Members here are from specific committees. Nydia Velázquez is the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee for Small Business. Several Members here come from Financial Services which Treasury and HUD report to, we have Members who sit on Transportation and Infrastructure. Ways and Means.
Leader Pelosi. Appropriations.
Congresswoman Plaskett. More specifically, the appropriation of the funds is handled in the Interior Subcommittee – the Ranking Member Betty McCollum is here as well so hearing from us what our needs are, where the challenges may be. We can have hearings, phone calls, we can pressure those individuals and ask them for additional support. It can really go a tremendous way. Congresswoman Velázquez was telling that Puerto Rico is having an issue with their disaster allowance. She made a phone call. The Secretary would rather answer a phone call than be pulled into a hearing, and that was resolved at that point. So those are the kinds of things we can do. Brian – oh that’s what you look like, I read your articles all the time.
Q: Did you make any attempts to bring any Republican Members of Congress with you?
Congresswoman Plaskett. Yes, we did and we actually had a Republican Member with us. Leader Pelosi?
Leader Pelosi. Yes, we did and they had good intentions but this is the start of the August break so some of them had to be with family. As you know, schools start earlier and earlier, so they had the interest and four of them looked into coming. Yesterday, we were with Congresswoman González-Colón in Puerto Rico, she couldn’t come over today.
May I just say one thing about what we can do? We want to be sure – whether it is the executive branch or policy making or regulation – that they understand, clearly, the intent of Congress when we passed legislation and not in, shall we say, curbing their enthusiasm in enforcing it. So, we you want to know, clearly, firsthand, what we are talking about, but more importantly than that, what the priorities are of the Governor and the people of the island. Congresswoman Plaskett.
Congresswoman Plaskett. I want to acknowledge the Senate President Myron Jackson. Thank you so much for joining us.
Q: What is your understanding of the major priorities that can receive Congressional assistance?
Leader Pelosi. One of the things – we just came from [inaudible] public housing that we would like to take down.
Congresswoman Plaskett. Another one is related to health issues that we have here. We had a discussion with them. Their Members are really concerned about the reimbursement rate and Medicaid cliff that we’re going to experience in 2 years. As you know Congress gave us relief prior to the storms. The Virgin Islands have been paying an exorbitant percentage of Medicaid costs, unlike anywhere else in the United States. We have an arbitrary number; it is not based on population. If it had been based on population and with demographics we would only be paying less than 20 percent. We pay more than 40 percent of Medicaid costs. So Congress for a two-year period had a disaster bill that said they’re going to pay 100 percent to the federal government, but after that date they’re going to hit a cliff.
So these Members are very concerned about working on that because that is a huge chunk of the money that goes into that. I know Michelle Lujan-Grisham had a lively discussion on the issue of mental health and how to support mental health here in the territory. As well as our education needs and the needs of schools and federal procurement, to make sure that the money that is being spent is being spent here in the territory and that our local contractors are getting a large percent of the jobs as well as contracts to do the work.
Leader Pelosi. And then of course the moving away from fossil fuels and more to renewables to lower the costs of energy to businesses and families in the Virgin Islands. It’s stunning, the cost that hurts entrepreneurism, it hurts the family budget and we want to reduce that cost.
If I just may say, when I say Kendrick, Kendrick [Meeks] was a Congressman from Florida and he said every time you want to talk about Greg [Meeks] talk about me, because [Congressman] Greg Meeks has such a great reputation.
Q: Good afternoon, nice to see you all here instead of HVC Studio A so it’s nice to see you all here. Curious on your thoughts – as I’ll be here for the month seeing this for the first time – curious on your thoughts on what you’re taking in from this visit? As well as how you’re going to expedite this process with this administration Leader Pelosi?
Leader Pelosi. Do you want to speak to that Nydia?
Congresswoman Velázquez. So I went to Puerto Rico ten days after the terrible Hurricane Maria in the island, and in between I’ve been quite a few more time and now yesterday. I can tell you that almost a year later, nine months into this painful experience, what kills me is how ill prepared the response from the administration was. And this was not something I want to criticize, but we need, as Americans – a natural disaster is not a Republican or Democratic issue.
As a nation, climate change is here. We need to be ready and prepared to help those victims come home.
Leader Pelosi. That is really a statement – the basis of that statement was made by – July 12th I think it was – a report put out by FEMA, that they said that they were serious underfunded. The supplies just weren’t that and that as it turned out it was a bigger challenge. And that’s not really how it’s supposed to be, and God bless them for having the honesty to put that out. Not that it was their fault that they were underfunded but that they recognize in that report on July 12th that the director of FEMA put out, so I refer that to you because they were at a severe disadvantage.
Let me make a further point, because of some of the issues that the Governor mentioned, thank you Governor, and Congresswoman Plaskett mentioned about situations that existed years before. And because FEMA is saying, we just simply were not ready, and I wish you would read the report on the report. That’s all the more reason to accelerate the pace of remedying some of these situations and that’s the opportunity that’s there with some of these situations.
So when Bill says to us, ‘I know that Congress intended this, but it isn’t being implemented as fast as I would like’ – is that an accurate representation? Then we have to make sure that we expedite all of that and take a longer view of some of things that we’ve learned from people here. But the sixty pages – is it fifty pages? – because our Appropriator here read the report. I just read the report on the report. But it’s sad.
Congresswoman Velázquez. So we need to get all the resources that we need, in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, because we cannot afford and the people on Puerto Rico cannot afford another situation like Maria.
Congresswoman Plaskett. We saw the vulnerability in the Virgin Islands, the amount people that are still compromised at this time, we’ve got to speed up the process and we’ve got to get FEMA and the tools to do that. We know that the good people who are here want to do what’s right and want to move things along, and it’s our job as Members of Congress to hear those stories so we can think about how to execute from headquarters to come back down for us.
Congresswoman Plaskett. So we want what is right to us. I gave them this story. We are the United States; we asked to be part of the draft, because we wanted the responsibility to be part of its privileges. And they know it’s my fight, as Leader Pelosi said, for Virgin Islanders to receive the full benefits of American citizenship. That not just includes funding, but the right to vote, the right to be a part of the American experience in all of its pains and it’s glories.
So thank you all for being here. My colleagues have a plane that they have to catch and I want to thank you all for the time that you’ve taken. Again, I want to thank the staff that have made this a very successful trip.
Thank you so much Leader for taking the time and making this a priority on your schedule. We know that you’re crisscrossing the country from now until November, with the hopes that some of us have. But I know that you really have this on your heart and that means that you feel for us.
Leader Pelosi. Well since you mentioned heart, I’ll mention that my husband and I came here on our honeymoon.
Bluebeard’s Castle and Coral Bay, we were there to see note just the impact on the soil, but the impact on jobs and a better future so yeah, I can’t wait to tell my husband, it’s time for us to back.
I’ve been here many, many times and I know how committed the veteran’s community is to the Virgin Islands to the security of our country. So thank you, thank you very much.