Rep. Brian Mast: Coronavirus — Speaker Pelosi, Americans risking it all on the job, Congress should work too

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My life was spent as a soldier who volunteered to disarm bombs. I chose that profession because I knew I would have a real chance to save the lives of my friends, even if it would put my own life at risk to do it.

In many ways, my job was to be the tip of the spear in the War on Terror. I serve in Congress today for the same reason: to defend my country and help protect the people in my community.

The United States is currently faced with a different kind of war against an invisible enemy, and Congress must be the tip of the spear in this battle.

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However, in this moment where our country needs strong leadership the most, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has instead made Congress AWOL. She has wrongly assessed that the personal risk to members of Congress is too great for us to go to work. The truth is, for true defenders of America, there can be no such thing as a risk too great.

Congress has been out of session — not even debating new ways to help Americans — for weeks. The message to citizens of the United States is clear: our country’s leaders will not make the same kind of personal sacrifices to keep our country running that grocery workers, food service staff, truckers, delivery drivers, bankers, doctors, nurses, first responders and our military are willing to make.

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Passing the CARES Act to address the effects of the coronavirus crisis was a good start, but it was just that: a start. When I was serving in the Army, quite often after capturing terrorists, their immediate interrogation would lead to follow-on missions that had not been originally planned. We did not take a month off and pat ourselves on the back.  Instead, we kept up the fight.

Congress should now be conducting follow-on missions to the CARES Act. Americans watched with justified disgust during the negotiations leading to the CARES Act as some in Congress prioritized their pet projects, such as funding the Kennedy Center, which in turn laid off its employees anyway. We should be taking these misspent dollars and using them to support hospitals, provide additional relief for families and ensure a stronger lifeline for small businesses. We should also be addressing problems that were not fully understood when the bill was first passed.

None of this is happening right now. In fact, in my few years in Congress, I have yet to see everyone put their differences aside and pull together for the American people. If not now, then when? The House and the Senate — Republicans and Democrats — need to be in one place: sleeves pulled up, whiteboards out, working each issue as it arises in real time — not days or weeks later on compartmentalized conference calls.

The bottom line is that Congress needs to work with a level of urgency that matches the unprecedented crisis our communities are facing.

I understand that there are risks associated with Congress being in session, but Congress cannot do its job if members don’t show up for fear of getting hurt.

My job in the military was to disarm bombs in the dark of night in a country littered with improvised explosive devices all while hunting the kind of murderous terrorists that believed in a divine calling to kill Americans. Inherently, this was unsafe, but we still did our job because we had a mission to accomplish. What mattered most was ensuring that our fellow citizens were kept safe. That’s why, night after night, we continued to load onto CH-47 Chinook helicopters knowing someone was going to try to kill us when we landed.

The bottom line is that Congress needs to work with a level of urgency that matches the unprecedented crisis our communities are facing. Never before has America asked Americans to not go to work. As a result, one extra day without an assistance check can mean the worker who is laid off cannot get groceries. Another 36 hours without a loan for some small business owners who spent decades building the American dream may mean they never open their doors again.

For our health care workers who are reusing masks, waiting 48 hours more without a resupply of protective equipment can mean infected hospital staff. Many students who were sent home from university cannot find work but will also not receive the $1,200 assistance most others will get.  Support has been jeopardized for individuals who made a mistake in their past and have served their time, coming out stronger on the other end.

Americans who want nothing more than the purpose and wages of their work are having their livelihoods stripped from them through no fault of their own.

Here’s my call to action: Congress must get back to work.

If Speaker Pelosi needs to borrow my mothballed protective gear and gas mask to gavel the House into order, so be it. There is work to do and a mission to accomplish. The fearful arm’s-length approach that she is currently using dishonors the sacrifice of all Americans on the front lines of this pandemic.

I am not suggesting that the risks associated with keeping Congress in session can be eliminated, but I do know it is worth the risk.

An improvised explosive device detonated beneath my feet on Sept. 19, 2010. When that bomb went off, I lost both my legs, and I nearly lost my left arm. Pelosi may read my story and decide that the lesson is that the risk was too high — the mission that night wasn’t worth it. But the mission was absolutely worth it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

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The scars on my body from that night are my daily reminders that we all still have a job to do. Personally, I would rather succumb to the ails of COVID-19 than fail to serve when I asked and was chosen to do so. 

Speaker Pelosi, this is no time for cowardice. Congress needs to set an example for our country about what it means to be the tip of the spear. Let’s accomplish this together to show that America can get back to work with the risks mitigated as best as they can, but no matter what, the job for all of us will continue to get done.

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