Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

By: Sid Salter

Most Mississippians are aware of the heroic role that the late Republican Mississippi U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran played in 2005 in literally saving Mississippi and the rest of Gulf Coast by wrestling a $29 billion Hurricane Katrina relief package from his reluctant Capitol Hill colleagues.

Cochran had assumed the powerful chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee just eight months prior to the arrival of the storm known as “the greatest natural disaster in American history. The quiet, courtly Cochran used that position to get federal assistance that the Gulf South – and particularly Mississippi – desperately needed.

But fewer Mississippians are yet aware of the pivotal role that Republican Mississippi U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Tupelo played in getting the historic $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed last week. Wicker succeeded Cochran as Mississippi’s senior U.S. senator upon Cochran’s retirement in 2018.

As Cochran’s chairmanship put him in a key position of help Mississippians and the rest of Gulf South after Katrina, Wicker was named chairman of the influential Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in January 2019. The committee has jurisdiction over key components of the U.S. economy including transportation by land, sea and air; telecommunications and the internet; and other endeavors touched by the Constitution’s “commerce clause.”

As Senate Commerce chairman and as a key player in the overall Senate leadership, Wicker chaired a GOP task force assigned the thorny task of negotiating and writing a responsible relief package for the U.S. airline industry as part of the broader CARES Act  – that package ultimately provided $50 billion to assist the airlines and another $8 billion for the air cargo industry.

“The global coronavirus pandemic requires strong and decisive action from the federal government,” Wicker said. “During this time of unprecedented economic uncertainty, it is critical that air carriers and other impacted industries have the resources they need to continue operations. This recovery package would support the hard-hit workers and businesses who bear no responsibility for this crisis.”

Unlike Cochran’s efforts after Katrina, there were no Mississippi-specific earmarks or set-asides. Mississippians get the same benefits as citizens in Maine or California. But the CARES Act addressed specific and virtually comprehensive sectors of both the U.S. and Mississippi economies, including  agriculture, hospitals, clinics, telehealth, colleges and universities, elementary and secondary education, state and local governments, manufacturing, transportation, small businesses, people on unemployment insurance, medical devices, drugs, and testing.

Wicker expressed pride in the way Congress is extending aid to the airlines: “One of our best accomplishments was making sure the taxpayers would be paid back once the economy is back on track. Airlines and other major companies will eventually be on a sound financial footing. The loans will be secured and repaid. “

Earlier in March, Congress and the White House provided $8 billion to assist medical workers, develop COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, and to expand and expedite testing. Mississippi has already received a $5.8 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for use in the virus battle.

Then on March 18, the Senate passed legislation requiring paid leave for workers who have contracted the coronavirus and for parents who are forced to miss work to care for their children. The bill also provides free coronavirus testing for all Americans.

Mississippians will receive checks of up to $1,200 for low and middle-income individuals and up to $2,400 for married couples and joint filers who meet certain salary requirements, with an additional $500 for each child in direct financial assistance. In the poorest state in the union, that will represent a significant amount of infusion into the state’s economy.

It is significant that when the largest economic relief package in U.S. history was written, Mississippi had a seat at the relatively small negotiating table in the form of Roger Wicker.