When Democrat Jaime Harrison first launched his bid to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2019, the economy in South Carolina and around the country was relatively strong, with formidable employment figures and steady growth.
Now, the coronavirus pandemic has taken nothing short of a sledgehammer to that rosy picture, forcing thousands of South Carolinians into unemployment and erasing many of the gains that had been made in recent years.
Meanwhile, Congress' efforts to mitigate the economic damage of the pandemic have blown another hole in the already gigantic national debt, exacerbating a long-term concern that could imperil future generations to come.
Whichever candidate wins South Carolina's high-profile U.S. Senate race in November will be tasked with confronting both these problems, as well as broader economic dilemmas that existed long before the pandemic, like rising inequality and the affordable housing crunch.
This is the second installment of an eight-part series in The Post and Courier over the coming months leading up to the election that will lay out the policy views of Graham and Harrison on the issues that matter most to South Carolina voters.
The responses to this candidate questionnaire have been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
The American government is $26 trillion in debt. Do you believe this is a problem? If so, what would you do about it? Would you focus on cutting spending, boosting revenue or both? How?
Graham: "Doing nothing is not a choice. Doing nothing results in reduced benefits and higher taxes. The sooner we engage in bipartisan dialogue to reform entitlements and reshape federal spending, the better. I have long advocated for bipartisan budget reform. The best way to deal with this problem is to put together a Simpson-Bowles-like commission to make recommendations to Congress on ways to reform entitlements and save Social Security and Medicare from collapse. We can do this while ensuring that those who rely on the program now are protected and those impacted by any changes have time to plan."
Harrison: "Our nation’s debt has to be a concern for us all. It is not sustainable long-term. I will start by righting the wrongs in the 2017 tax bill, like closing corporate loopholes and making sure we have a fairer tax code that allows us to expand the middle class. Sen. Graham is only concerned about austerity when funds are helping families in need. The 2017 tax law will cost us more than $2 trillion in the first decade, making it harder to make investments in health care, broadband and education that grow the economy for all. Over 80 percent of its savings will go to the top 1 percent. Large companies now use loopholes to avoid federal taxes — the same corporations that drive on our roads, use our waterways and employ workers trained in our schools. Every American, and every corporation, should pay their fair share to build the American dream."
What do you believe are the most important steps the federal government should take to mitigate the economic harm of the coronavirus pandemic?
Graham: "A good first step would be to pass the US MADE Act and start bringing our medical supply chain back from China so we can avoid shortages of PPE and critical medical supplies during future public health emergencies. Importantly, however, we need to provide funding to hospitals as they are seeing an increased workload and surge in cases. The best way to ensure personal safety and economic recovery is to have a health care system that people can rely on. We need increased funding for schools to make the necessary precautions to keep teachers and students safe. We also need an unemployment system which helps the unemployed, but does not pay them to make more on unemployment than they did by working."
Harrison: "Controlling the virus is the first step towards growth. But it is now running rampant here, with little in place to limit the spread. A healthy economy is impossible with a sick workforce. The unemployment relief from the CARES Act must continue, especially as businesses face new uncertainties. But Sen. Graham says that 'over our dead bodies' will he allow its extension. This relief has infused $120 million per week into South Carolina’s economy. We must boost testing, add hospital capacity and ensure our health care workers have adequate equipment. I have called for a statewide mask requirement in public spaces. We must fix the Paycheck Protection Program, which has locked out too many mom-and-pop businesses. Outrageously, South Carolina is 50th in PPP funds per worker. We also need to look at how we can better support childcare programs and provide much needed assistance to local governments and schools."
The wealth gap between upper-income and lower- and middle-income families has grown sharply over the past few decades. Do you believe this is a problem? If so, what would you do about it? If not, why not?
Graham: "My goal as senator has always been to improve opportunities for all Americans. The best thing that can happen to any American is to get a good paying job that will help them build a better life over time. One great example of ways we can achieve this is by passing more legislation like Sen. Tim Scott’s Opportunity Zones and successfully bring new businesses to struggling neighborhoods."
Harrison: "Inequality is one of the largest problems facing South Carolina, and the gaps are even wider between White and Black families. It is getting harder for poor families to make it into the middle class. We need to fix the tax law that delivers over 80 percent of benefits to the top 1 percent and makes it more difficult to make investments that lift everyone up. We should continue the Earned Income Tax Credit from the Reagan Administration, which lifts up the working poor. I broke the cycle of poverty thanks to education. I was born to a single mother and often struggled to find my next meal. With the right opportunities from public education and mentors, I achieved the American dream. I am running so every child has these same opportunities. We must adequately resource, rebuild and revitalize our schools — particularly in rural, impoverished communities."
Should the federal hourly minimum wage rise from the current $7.25?
Graham: "I support raising the minimum wage over time beyond $7.25, but I do not believe in a $15 immediate minimum wage increase which has been pushed by many liberals in Washington."
Harrison: "The minimum wage should be a living wage, and right now it is nowhere close. While Members of Congress like Lindsey Graham have enjoyed pay increases, hard working Americans haven’t experienced a wage increase in over a decade. The minimum wage needs to be increased. A full-time worker making minimum wage earns just over $15,000 a year in South Carolina. That barely allows you to buy enough food for a year, much less provide housing for your family."
The rising cost of housing has forced an increasing number of Americans to spend more than the recommended 30 percent of their income on a mortgage or rent. Should the federal government do more to ease the affordable housing crunch? If so, what?
Graham: "One of the great dreams for all Americans is to own their own home. I support government programs that help low-income Americans purchase homes with preferential mortgage rates and loan agreements. I support extending the eviction moratorium. Rent subsidies may make sense in certain high-cost areas. However, our ultimate goal should be to have a support network — a reformed Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other programs — to help veterans, moderate- and low-income Americans get into the housing market."
Harrison: "The principal driver of this crisis is an undersupply of high-quality accessible housing. In order to increase the housing stock, I will fight to bolster affordable housing development and incentivize states and localities to abandon exclusionary zoning laws. Congress should also raise the minimum wage and expand the childcare and Earned Income Tax Credit, putting more money in the pockets of South Carolina families. Congress also needs to extend the CARES Act eviction protections for renters in homes with federally backed mortgages. Nobody should be evicted during an economic crisis like this, especially in a state that already has the highest eviction rate in the country."