Madison Cawthorn admits that his first few weeks in Washington have been “tumultuous.” Three days after being sworn in, Western North Carolina’s congressional representative rallied a crowd supporting former President Donald Trump that subsequently sacked the Capitol; after those riots, the Republican voted twice against certifying the election of Trump’s successor, Democratic President Joe Biden.
Now, Cawthorn told the Council of Independent Business Owners at a Jan. 29 virtual breakfast, he’s shifting his priorities as he thinks through the powers and limitations of his new job. The meeting marked one of his first addresses to a local audience since taking office.
With Democrats in control of the House, Senate and presidency, the country is poised to usher in an era of big government, Cawthorn asserted to the Asheville-based trade group. As a self-described “constitutional conservative,” the representative said his new goal is to divert as much federal spending to the region as possible to get residents back to work.
“It’s no secret to all of you that so many businesses were attacked and destroyed, by no fault of your own, because of government-mandated shutdowns,” Cawthorn said regarding emergency measures meant to control the spread of COVID-19. “I think that’s tragic. And so I think it’s absolutely appropriate that the federal government has created stimulus programs to help.”
Cawthorn voiced his support for federal Paycheck Protection Program loans available to help small businesses keep employees working during the pandemic. But the accounting and banking costs required to parse through complicated loan forgiveness requirements are too high, he said. Instead, he’s pushing for automatic loan forgiveness for all businesses that have borrowed $150,000 or less.
Individual stimulus checks should only go to people who are currently unemployed, Cawthorn told CIBO members. He also opposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and increasing collective bargaining power for employees, claiming without citing evidence that the moves would cause most of Asheville’s service jobs to disappear.
The only way to keep businesses open in the face of the pandemic, he continued, is to reach a “critical mass” of immunity through COVID-19 vaccination programs. Health officials say herd immunity may be achieved when 70%-90% of the population is vaccinated; according to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services data from Jan. 29, only 7.5% of North Carolina residents had gotten their first dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine.
On Jan. 25, Cawthorn co-sponsored a bill that would prohibit the use of federal funds to establish, implement or enforce any requirement that an individual wear a face covering or be vaccinated. Asked by Xpress what economic and health benefits this bill would have for the people of Western North Carolina, Cawthorn responded that a free capitalist society would create consumer confidence.
“I don’t think [the vaccine] should be required and I think it was rushed,” he said, adding that an economic lens was too narrow a scope to assess the legislation. “I believe it will be very healthy and that [federal vaccine development program] Operation Warp Speed did a great job, but I personally will not be getting a vaccine because of my 98% survival rate. If we start forcing people to get vaccines, we start walking a very dangerous road in the future.”
When the House reconvenes in early February, Cawthorn said, he hopes to use his role on the Committee of Education and Labor to expand wireless broadband access across the region. He also wants to prevent election fraud by establishing a federal voter identification requirement, eliminating mail-in ballots for anyone not in the military or hospitalized with severe injuries and splitting municipal races onto a separate ballot from state and federal contests. (At least 60 lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign in 2020 failed to prove a single case of voter fraud benefitting Biden.)
Cawthorn said his support among WNC’s Republican Party leadership had “skyrocketed” since the election; at the same time, he noted, his unfavorability among Democrats had also reached a new high. He did not address his recent censures by multiple important local Republicans, including state Sen. Chuck Edwards and former Henderson County Sheriff George Erwin Jr.
The representative’s rhetoric will likely change in the coming weeks, Cawthorn told meeting attendees, as he works to bridge the partisan divide. “Whether you’re Republcan or Democrat, whether you’re an independent and you didn’t vote for me or don’t support the actions I’ve taken in Congress so far, that doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m here to serve you, no matter what.”