WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans alike somberly approached the podium in the U.S. House chamber on Thursday to declare their support for hundreds of billions of dollars in additional federal COVID-19 pandemic aid.
But not Andy Biggs.
In a fiery speech, the Republican congressman from Gilbert questioned “how much longer the American people will acquiesce to unconstitutional and crushing government action.” And he declared: “We need to open up America now.”
Even as most Republicans — including fiscal hawks loath to increase the deficit — have backed nearly $3 trillion in coronavirus aid spending, Biggs is helping to lead the congressional resistance.
He is one of a few lawmakers who has publicly opposed all four coronavirus relief packages passed over the last two months.
In speeches and op-eds over the past month, Biggs has ripped into the federal and state government’s response to COVID-19 — including stay-at-home orders that are backed by President Donald Trump, like the one issued by Gov. Doug Ducey. On the House floor Thursday, Biggs called on U.S. governors “to free their citizens immediately.”
Public opinion polls have shown that most Americans believe the restrictions are important: An April 16 Pew Research Center survey found that 66% of Americans say they are more concerned that these restrictions will be lifted too quickly, while only 32% say they are more concerned they won’t be lifted quickly enough.
The plea goes against Trump’s comments Thursday that he may extend national social distancing guidelines through the summer or beyond.
But Trump doesn’t seem to mind: He named Biggs last week to a congressional task force charged with advising the administration on how and when to reopen the economy.
Biggs said Thursday that “the cure is proving worse than the disease” — a message he will likely continue to make on the task force and in newspaper op-ed pages, on conservative news programs and on social media as the pandemic wears on.
Biggs’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Biggs is not the only Arizona Republican who has made contentious comments in recent weeks. Rep. Paul Gosar, a dentist from Flagstaff, has repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” on Twitter. Arizona GOP Rep. Debbie Lesko cast an early vote against one of four coronavirus relief bills, calling it a “complete rush job.”
But Biggs stands out for his sharp rhetoric and continued opposition to aid packages that have passed with widespread support.
He’s been more vocal than others in his delegation in speaking out against “big government,” said Gina Woodall, a political science lecturer at Arizona State University.
Biggs was urging Americans to “get back to work” weeks ago — and sparing few in his media missives. Recent targets have included fellow lawmakers, governors, public health experts, media and technology industries and the “nutty Left.”
In an April 3 op-ed, he charged politicians with “trampling on constitutionally recognized rights and preventing people from making their own economic choices.”
A week later, he wrote that Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, two members of the administration’s coronavirus task force and leading experts in infectious diseases, “should no longer be the primary voices at the table” because they “do not consider the greater needs of this country.”
In Congress, he has taken one of the most far-right stances in response to the virus.
On Thursday, he was one of five lawmakers who voted against a $484 billion relief bill, the bulk of which is aimed at buoying small businesses after loan funding dried up.
“It is reckless and dangerous for America’s leaders to not only sanction abuse of the rights of Americans, but to borrow money to fund these violations,” he explained in a statement.
Gosar, Lesko and David Schweikert — the other Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation — all backed the bill.
Last month, he slammed a $2.2 trillion economic package to aid workers, frontline health care providers and businesses because it added to the national debt. Gosar, Lesko and Schweikert made statements in support of the bill on their websites and on social media.
He was also one of 40 Republicans who voted against a bill granting free access to COVID-19 tests and temporary paid sick leave, strengthening unemployment benefits and food aid and helping states meet expenses for Medicaid, the government insurance program for the poor.
Lesko also opposed it, but Schweikert backed it. Gosar, who was under quarantine at the time, did not vote.
And Biggs was one of only two House lawmakers to oppose Congress’ first coronavirus bill, an $8.3 billion package funding research, treatment, vaccines and personal protective equipment for health care workers.
“Throwing money at a potentially serious issue does not alleviate the American people’s concerns,” he said in a statement.
Lesko, Schweikert and Gosar voted for that bill.
COVID-19 cases, deaths climbing still in Arizona
Biggs’s opposition to coronavirus relief comes as COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Arizona.
The Arizona Department of Health Services reported more than 6,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 276 deaths as of Friday, and predicted cases would not reach their peak in Arizona until between late May and mid-June.
On April 22, Ducey allowed hospitals to resume elective surgeries but left the state’s stay-at-home order otherwise in place. The Trump administration continues to urge Americans to stay home and avoid restaurants and bars, shopping trips and social visits.
Woodall said Biggs’s rhetoric became more heated last fall, after he took the helm of the House Freedom Caucus, a band of ultraconservatives.
The two-term lawmaker emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the House impeachment investigation and mounted an ardent defense of the president as a member of the Judiciary Committee. Biggs also stormed other impeachment hearings and tried unsuccessfully to censure California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Democrats say his iconoclasm could cost him this fall.
“He’s out of touch with the situation and appears more interested in risking Arizonans’ lives than improving them,” Arizona Democratic Party spokesman Matt Grodsky said in a statement. “Voters will remember in November.”
Rick Herrera, a political science professor at Arizona State University, said Biggs should be safe in his dark red East Valley district. He handily won his first two terms, and Trump carried the district in 2016 by a wide margin. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district almost 2-to-1.
But his hard-right stance could tarnish the GOP brand in other races, Herrera said, especially if the state reopens its economy soon and infections rise as a result.
Once reliably conservative, the Grand Canyon State is now competitive, thanks in part to an influx of younger, more progressive voters and a burgeoning Latino electorate.
Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema won election in 2018, and Democrats that year also captured three other statewide offices. And the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter, rates the state a tossup in the 2020 presidential election. Democrats hold a majority of Arizona’s House seats and believe they have a shot at ousting Schweikert, who is under an ethics investigation and hemorrhaging campaign cash on legal fees..
“Depending on how it shakes out, it could definitely hurt the Republican Party overall,” Woodall said of Biggs’s political stances.
Herrera agreed, pointing to possible effects for Schweikert and other Republicans in the state Legislature, where Democrats are seeking control for the first time in more than 50 years: “I think there is a danger there.”