Over the course of his first term, U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, D-Downers Grove, said he has spent a lot of time thinking about three things: fighting climate change, ensuring equal access to affordable health care and, more recently, restoring the economy post-COVID-19.
In Casten's mind, these three issues are connected in many ways.
Casten said his past 17 months as a freshman have been an unprecedented time to serve in Congress, beginning with the longest government shutdown in U.S. history in January 2019.
"Here we are getting to the end of the first term and what I wouldn't give for the longest government shutdown in history as the most newsworthy event of our first term," he said in a video interview with the Northwest Herald.
Sustaining and restoring the health of the U.S. economy amid a global pandemic is an issue that has been on the minds of many, Casten said. He believes the first step will be to get another iteration of the HEROES Act passed through the Senate to prepare for a second wave of COVID-19 infections and the corresponding economic fallout.
"We are about to fall off an economic cliff as the unemployment insurance runs out, as the stimulus programs run out, as states are forced to cut spending, as we think about how we make sure that we can have a safe and secure election," Casten said. "We need the Senate to take [that] up."
Casten said that the burden to continue providing support to Americans who are unemployed or are otherwise affected economically by COVID-19 must fall primarily on the federal government as it is “the one entity in the whole economy right now who has the capability of deficit spending.”
Congress has expanded the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides grants to employers to help them keep staff on their payroll. That program now has roughly $100 billion allocated for the fall, which Casten said he hopes will be enough to meet the need.
Casten recently co-sponsored the Paycheck Guarantee Act, which he said follows “the European model” of employment assistance where, rather than providing unemployment checks to citizens after they lose their jobs, the program would cover the cost of payroll for employers until unemployment levels return to normal.
This way, employees maintain their benefits packages and continue contributing to the economy through employment, he said.
“These things shouldn’t be partisan because we’re playing with people’s lives,” Casten said.
As many areas of the country see resurgences in COVID-19 cases as a result of reopening their economies and decreasing social distancing, Casten said that prioritizing public health and protecting the national economy in this next phase are actually one and the same.
"There is no path to an economy that looks like our economy did a year ago that still has people nervous about 'if I leave the house, I might get sick and die,'" he said.
Getting to a place where people feel comfortable returning to business as usual will require all of the infection mitigation practices currently advocated for by local and national health agencies as well as careful planning around how vaccines and therapeutics will be distributed once they are available, Casten said.
Alongside getting people back to work lies the issue of ensuring equal access to affordable health care, Casten said.
"COVID has made manifest all of the problems in our health care system," he said. "We absolutely have to get to universal health care."
Casten recently voted in favor of legislation which seeks to expand the Affordable Care Act. There still are many people who fall through the cracks of our health care system as it stands today and those inequities are made more dire by COVID-19, he said.
"The ACA's not perfect, but we need to get about 23 million on health insurance that weren't previously on health insurance and those people are at risk right now if the Trump lawsuit against the ACA succeeds," Casten said.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Enhancement Act would expand tax credits in order to limit out-of-pocket expenses for people on the ACA's silver plan to a maximum of 8.5% of their income, according to a summary of the bill.
The bill also would give Medicare the ability to negotiate with pharmaceutical manufacturers in order to lower prescription drug prices, which would then lower the program's burden on taxpayers, Casten said.
The legislation would expand the Children's Health Insurance Program, incentivize more primary care physicians to accept Medicaid and strengthen protections for people with preexisting conditions.
Casten referenced recent findings published by Healthline Media, Science News and John Hopkins Medicine which suggest that COVID-19 could have long-term effects on the lungs. Casten said that this means that COVID-19 should be covered as a preexisting condition.
Casten said that addressing climate change is another one of his priorities because he sees it as an issue that simply cannot be put off any longer.
"There's a direct analogue between [the economic side of] COVID-19 and climate change in the sense that it was cheaper to solve this problem yesterday than it is today and it will never be cheaper to solve it than it is today," he said.
From earning a master's degree in biochemical engineering to working on a variety of projects as a clean energy consultant, Casten said that he was exposed to a number of effective, proven clean energy technologies that were being massively under-utilized.
"I basically came to the conclusion that if we kept focusing on this as a technology problem, all we were really doing was putting new technologies at the back of a line that wasn't moving," he said. "This wasn't a technology problem, it was a business problem."
It was around this time that Casten decided to co-found a company called Recycled Energy Development, which recycled wasted energy from industrial facilities and helped them smoothly transition to using clean energy.
In his first term, Casten has applied his background in science and engineering to his work in the U.S. House of Representatives by serving on the Select Climate Crisis Committee as well as the New Dems Climate Change Task Force and the Science, Space and Technology Committee.
Casten, who will face off against Republican Jeanne Ives in November's election, said he feels uniquely qualified to tackle the issue of climate change mitigation because he has experience in climate science as well as energy policy, allowing him to see both the scientific and business sides of the problem.
"I've basically spent my entire life trying to do something about climate change," he said.
On June 30, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released "Solving the Climate Crisis" – an ambitious, comprehensive plan to move the country towards a more sustainable future, which Casten said is the culmination of 18 months of hard work.
The plan provides a set of policy recommendations which seek to reduce carbon emissions with a goal of net zero emissions by 2050, build an equitable clean energy economy and protect the communities that are hit the hardest by climate change, according to the committee's website.
Casten described the plan as a "roadmap of what we need to do in order to make sure that we hand off a sustainable and an affordable world to our kids because cheap energy and clean energy are synonymous."
While switching to clean energy sources will require capital investment, it will ultimately drive down the cost of energy for the average consumer, he said.
"We have for 20 years talked about climate change as a trade-off between a moral obligation to the environment and an economic obligation to our wallets as if those two are in competition with each other," Casten said.
Investment in the clean energy sector also will create high-paying jobs, which Casten said connects his work on climate change to his work on revitalizing the economy in the era of COVID-19 when, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17.8 million people nationwide are out of work.
"We have an opportunity to get it right, but the window is closing," Casten said. "We do not have time to wait until it's politically easy."