Hurricane Irma: We’re all in this together
This publication typically deals with the political and policy issues involving the federal government and how our delegation plays a role. This week, those we elected to represent us in Washington had one issue front and center. We did not need a poll to tell us that Hurricane Irma was at the top of the list among Floridians.
In last week’s edition, we discussed the many problems facing this Congress needing resolution by Sept. 30. We are one week further down the road, and none of them have been solved, but as Hillary Clinton so famously said, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
For example, how many knew the federal debt exceeded $20 trillion this week? It will grow a bit faster shortly, and even conservative Republicans won’t mind too much because a good chunk of the borrowed money will help their constituents, whose lives and property was damaged by Irma.
Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, Caucasians, people of color, agnostics and God-fearing Floridians were all affected. It’s not a South Florida versus North Florida rivalry, either. Nearly EVERY member of the delegation represents Floridians with serious issues, whether it is flooding, or wind damage or both.
The tragedy at the Hollywood nursing home should affect anyone reading the story. It generates bipartisan disbelief mixed with outrage.
What is happening now in Florida is somewhat reminiscent of the unity we displayed following the terror attacks of 9/11. It is a sad irony that Irma chose the 16th anniversary of that dark day to darken the lives of so many.
But the good news is our delegation is working together on behalf of our residents. Examples include both Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Bill Nelson flying together to inspect hurricane damage. Nelson appeared with Scott, a potential 2018 opponent, at pre-landfall briefings.
Nelson, a three three-term Democrat and Florida’s lone remaining statewide elected official from his party, also praised the focus on the mission.
“There is the cooperation between the federal level, the state and the locals,” Nelson said on the CBS Face the Nation program. “That has been seamless cooperation, unlike 25 years ago in Hurricane Andrew, when you did not have that cooperation, unlike even Katrina when you did not have the cooperation and communications between the Louisiana National Guard and the U.S. military. That has been taken care of now.
Scott is receiving high marks for his administration’s handling of the Irma response and for basically browbeating residents in dangerous areas to evacuate. President Donald Trump and his FEMA operation are also earning a good grade.
Jeb Bush, who knows a thing or two about hurricane responses, said the federal response has been “very good.” Bush offered this bit of wisdom to Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto:
“Imagine if the government worked with this kind of compassion and efficiency in a regular order day,” he mused.
Trump will be in Florida Thursday to get a firsthand look at the damage.
Meanwhile, here are some other insights from a tumultuous week.
Rubio amendment seeks hurricane damage assessment to military bases
The second-term Republican is looking to determine the damage hurricanes did to military installations in 2017. Rubio introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 requiring the Secretary of Defense to submit a report to Congress detailing the damages caused by the storms.
“Hurricane Irma has inflicted significant damage to Florida’s communities and military installations alike,” Rubio said in a release. “This bipartisan amendment will provide Congress with information it needs to ensure our national security assets and capabilities are fully repaired in the wake of these storms.”
Nelson is an original co-sponsor of the measure along with Texas Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.
The 1,330-page bill passed the House July 14 by a 344-81 majority. Every member of the Florida delegation voted for passage.
On Monday, the Senate voted to invoke cloture and proceed toward a vote by an 89-3 margin. The only nays were Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul.
Both Rubio and Nelson were among the eight not voting since the vote came on the day Hurricane Irma was making landfall in Florida.
Delegation remembers 2001 terror attacks as Irma attacks Florida
While most of Florida was trying to get up from, or still taking, a meteorological haymaker from Hurricane Irma Monday, a solemn anniversary remained in the minds of many Floridians. With current hardships facing their constituents on their minds, several delegation members paused to remember the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“As we all remember that tragic day in our nation’s history, Florida is facing the ravages of a strong hurricane,” said Panama City Republican Neal Dunn in a statement. “Let us all say a prayer for our first responders, who today, like 16 years ago, ran into the danger to save their fellow Americans. Ours is an amazing and resilient country.”
GOP Sen. Rubio tweeted “Today we honor the memories of those we lost 16 years ago. America has and will continue to triumph over evil.” Democrat Nelson, during an interview regarding Irma on CNN, said “Americans showed the strength of this country,” 16 years ago as Floridians have through Irma.
Orlando Republican Daniel Webster’s memory was “Every American made the grief of total strangers their own” while St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist said “Today, we remember the lives lost on 9/11 and the heroism of our first responders and every day Americans who stood steadfast in the face of evil that fateful Day 16 years ago.”
Tallahassee Democrat Al Lawson said “Considering this tragic day in our nation’s history, we recognize the importance of coming together as a country in the face of terrorism and hatred. As we grapple with many challenges including racism and terrorism, reflecting on the attacks of 9/11 help us to remember the importance of unifying as a nation to help our neighbors in times of need.”
Miami Republican Mario-Diaz Balart said in a tweet that “Americans are resilient. Americans look out for each other. Americans have, and always will, overcome hardship.”
Putnam thanks Agriculture Secretary for helping low-income families cope with Irma
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam thanked U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for modifying rules involving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The modifications helped Floridians and others affected by Hurricane Irma have access to food as the storm approached and during the recovery period.
Perdue’s actions included allowing Floridians to purchase hot meals and ready-to-eat foods with their EBT cards (formerly known as food stamps), through Sept. 30. He also moved up the times Floridians could access their benefits to Sept. 7.
Residents of Puerto Rico could obtain their benefits as early as Sept. 5 as Irma prepared to hit the Commonwealth.
“I thank Secretary Perdue for his leadership and taking action in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma to assist Floridians,” Putnam said in a statement.
Perdue is the former Governor of Georgia.
Overworked weather service employees still performed during Irma
The National Weather Service is an understaffed and overworked agency, according to a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. And that was even before they had to work even more overtime to issue critical forecasts as Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma approached Texas and Florida, respectively.
“Many forecast offices are struggling to fill essential emergency shifts with the burden placed on the backs of dedicated employees,” the report said. With Harvey and Irma coming back-to-back, employees had little downtime in between.
The most recent available figures reveal that 11 percent of NWS positions remain unfilled. That includes the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the National Weather Service.
St. Petersburg Democrat Crist reminded Trump of that fact before hurricane season began.
“In light of the recent Government Accountability Office report showing that NWS meteorologist vacancies are growing and ’employees are fatigued and morale is low,’ it is my hope that the next NOAA Administrator will take a hard look at this issue and move in an appropriate director to correct it,” Crist wrote. “Fatigued employees mean less accurate predictions.”
The personnel loss is not a recent phenomenon. Vacant positions increased by 57 percent between 2014 and 2016. Weather service personnel may be tired, but according to NOAA spokesman Christopher Vaccaro, employees at the NWS and National Hurricane Center are doing their job.
“As evident during Harvey and Irma, NOAA will always provide the critical forecasts and services to the public, emergency managers and other partners need to make informed decisions and remain safe,” Vaccaro told CBS.
South Florida delegation members: NOAA Fisheries staying put
NOAA had another issue during the week that did not involve Irma or National Weather Service. The headquarters of NOAA Fisheries, which is responsible for stewardship of the nation’s ocean resources, was possibly moving from their location on Virginia Key in South Florida.
Several delegation members from the region worked together to ensure that would not occur. Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch led the effort to offer an amendment, passed unanimously, that would deny any funds toward moving the facility. It was provided as part of the appropriations bills for Commerce, Justice and Science and related agencies.
“Here in South Florida, with our extensive network of lakes, rivers, marshes and bays, water is part of our identity,” said Deutch in a statement. “For more than 70 years, NOAA has collaborated with South Florida universities and business councils on important research projects, like discovering new and better ways to restore the Everglades and protect the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary.”
Joining Deutch in pushing the amendment was Democrat Alcee Hastings of Miramar, Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Weston. Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami and Carlos Curbelo of Kendall – whose district hosts the facility – were also part of the effort.
“I appreciate the support from my South Florida colleagues on this amendment, and I’m proud that it passed without opposition,” said Deutch.
No reports of significant damage from Irma to the NOAA facility or Virginia Key were available.
Gaetz, Yoho vote “no” on debt ceiling/hurricane aid package
As Hurricane Irma zipped through the Caribbean on its way to Florida, the U.S. Congress knew that additional assistance was needed to help the state cope with the impending devastation. The $15 billion approved for FEMA came through President Trump’s agreement with Democratic leaders that tied the relief funding to raising the debt ceiling.
Combining the two did not sit well with two Florida Republicans. When the measure came to the House for a vote, Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach and Yoho of Gainesville, both voted against the package. Gaetz, who said he wanted the relief to be a stand-alone item, called the entire process “generational theft.”
“Only Congress can find a way to turn a natural disaster into a trillion new dollars in spending authority,” Gaetz said. “If conservatives don’t start voting no against debt-limit increases, all the FEMA in the world won’t save us from our most unfortunate destiny.”
The debt-ceiling increase and FEMA funds passed the House by a 316-90 majority. Yoho and Gaetz were the only two among the Florida delegation to vote “no,” while eight voted yes. As the storm approached, 17 members were already back in their districts and did not vote.
Both Gaetz and Yoho previously voted for a $7.5 billion stand-alone FEMA authorization Sept. 6.
Dunn, GOP colleagues seek procurement rules waivers for clean up
The first-term Republican from Panama City led a group of GOP representatives asking Trump to help speed up recovery efforts from Hurricane Irma by cutting through red tape. In a letter, Dunn and nine other members asked Trump to waive certain federal procurement rules prohibiting “local preference” to engage local contractors more rapidly.
“While municipalities tirelessly work to rebuild infrastructure and restore critical services, the risks to public health and safety do not permit delays resulting from federal red tape,” they wrote. “Given your experience as a builder, you understand that these contracting strategies may, in exigent circumstances, save taxpayer dollars and valuable recovery time.”
Dunn and his colleagues maintain the Trump administration maintains proper authority to waive current rules under the present circumstances. The group points to precedents of waiving regulations following the state’s historic hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005.
“Clearing debris, repairing damaged infrastructure, and resuming essential public services in a timely manner is critical to public health and policy,” the letter said.
Also signing on were fellow Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart, Francis Rooney, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Carlos Curbelo, Daniel Webster, John Rutherford, Tom Rooney, Ted Yoho and Dennis Ross.
Soto appointed to jobs task force
The first term Democrat from the 9th Congressional District has been named one of four co-chairs of a new jobs task force created by the Democratic Caucus in the House of Representatives.
Soto, an Orlando freshman, joins U.S. Reps. Susan DelBene of Washington, Debbie Dingell of Michigan, and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois as co-chairs of the newly-formed New Economy Task Force, Soto’s office announced Wednesday.
“In developing legislation to strengthen our economy, we need to think long term – beyond the next election cycle and beyond the present,” Soto stated in a news release. “Our priority must be on preparing the American workforce for the jobs of the 21st century.”
The Democratic Caucus charged the New Economy Task force with, “looking at rapidly advancing technology, artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, and ensuring workers are trained for the jobs of tomorrow.”
Castor wants feds to pick up all costs for debris removal
The Tampa Democrat is advocating a larger federal share in covering cleanup costs from Hurricane Irma. She is pushing for the federal government to pick up 100 percent of the expenses under FEMA’s Public Assistance Category A, which governs debris removal.
Castor cites the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Assistance Act, which cover catastrophic storms. The federal share is currently 75 percent.
“As our neighbors return to their homes and survey the damage, we begin to understand the severity of the damage inflicted upon homes, businesses and schools,” Castor said in a release. “The increased federal cost share will be critical to hiring local contractors and bolstering local government debris removal.”
Castor spoke with FEMA Director Brock Long earlier this week urging reimbursement to local partners such as Hillsborough County Public Schools, as quickly as possible.
“I intend to be a proactive partner to our local Tampa and Hillsborough County communities to speed recoveries,” she said. “That is why I have joined with others in the Florida congressional delegation to call for an increase in the federal share of public assistance, swift reimbursement for local partners and prompt review and approval of individual requests for assistance.”
F. Rooney, delegation thank Trump for quick action
The first-term Republican from Naples led the effort on behalf of the delegation to thank Trump for his prompt action in helping Florida cope with final preparations and recovery efforts with Hurricane Irma. Both senators and all 27 House members signed a letter of thanks.
“(Monday) I led a letter to President Trump to thank him for his quick response in assisting the victims of Hurricane Irma, as requested by the state of Florida,” Rooney said in a release. “His quick approval of Governor Rick Scott’s request is imperative to beginning recovery and assistance efforts for all Floridians.”
The letter, signed by all 29 members of the delegation, specifically mentioned the president’s rapid approval of Scott’s request for a declaration of a federal emergency. It also singled out the adoption of Public Assistance for all 67 counties in Florida and Individual Assistance for many.
The aid comes from FEMA.
Deutch “safe room” becomes new district office
Per David Cohen of POLITICO: Throughout the day Sunday, the Democratic congressman was forced to shelter from the ferocious effects of Hurricane Irma, even as he attempted to keep atop of the situation, or, as he put it, “trying to stay abreast while running back and forth to the safe room during tornado warnings.”
That safe room was, in fact, a walk-in closet in his in-laws’ residence in Boca Raton, on Florida’s Southeast side. A string of tornado warnings complicated his efforts to remain in consultation with FEMA and other government officials, including those in neighboring states where many Floridians have fled.
Deutch said he and his family — his wife, his in-laws and his dog — had remained safe and gotten a bit more accustomed to the emergency drill as the day went along.
“It was easier to find humor in it at 4 o’clock in the afternoon than 4 o’clock in the morning,” he said.
Wilson calls $15B hurricane funding a “drop in the bucket”
Not long after Congress passed a $15 billion aid package for Florida victims of Hurricane Irma, the Miami Gardens Democrat already started the call for more. With the substantial wind and flooding damage, she is likely correct.
Calling the initial funding “a first step,” Wilson said in a release the “$15 billion is a mere drop in the bucket. (Hurricane) Harvey is expected to cost about $180 billion and Irma somewhere in the neighborhood of $120 billion. Clearly, Congress will have to do much, much more and I am committed to fighting for additional funding.”
Wilson offered her assessment before Irma struck Florida. With local and state officials in the early stages of touring severely damaged areas, the extent of the devastation is still unknown.
FEMA Director Brock Long was in Florida Wednesday with President Trump set to visit Thursday.
“The many more billions of dollars that will likely be required for recovery efforts sounds like a lot of money, but it is important to remember that the aid the hurricane victims receive will also be just a first drop in the bucket toward making their lives whole again,” Wilson added.
RNC announces state director for Florida, 16 other states
The Republican National Committee (RNC) announced several new state director hires for 17 key states. One of those announced was Andrew Brey, who is now state director for Florida.
Brey, who has been on the job since August, just completed a successful 2016 election cycle as political director for Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who won an upset re-election victory. Brey spent part of the previous election cycle on the field team for Rubio’s presidential bid.
He also spent time at the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) as field director for Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s campaign and also worked on Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election in 2014.
Other state appointments have some Florida history as well. Alex Melendez, the new Arizona State Director, worked on several Florida congressional campaigns and was regional field director for Scott’s first campaign for governor in 2010.
Last cycle’s Deputy State Director for the RPOF, Dan Coats, is now Nevada State Director for the RNC. He is not related to the former Indiana Senator and current Director of National Intelligence with the same name.
“These hires represent the long-planned evolution of the RNC’s permanent data-driven field program that has been on the ground virtually uninterrupted since 2013,” said RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel in a release announcing the hires. “As our candidates emerge from their primary races, they will inherit an RNC field program years in the making to help push them to victory.”
Social media helps beached manatees return to habitat
President Trump is well-known for his use of social media to offer his opinion on policy or punch back at opponents. This week we discovered Facebook or Twitter can also be used to help save animals in need.
After Hurricane Irma helped suck the water from the bay near Sarasota-Bradenton airport, Michael Sechler came upon two beached manatees.
“Went out to the bay and saw two objects out where the water receded, so we took off our shoes and walked out through the shells to find two beached manatees,” Sechler wrote. “One wasn’t moving, and the other was breathing and had water in its eyes.”
Sechler and his companion were unable to lift the heavy creatures, so he posted a photograph on social media. According to the Bradenton Herald, two Manatee County deputies, with the help of tarps, assisted in moving the manatees to deeper water.
Paulson’s Principles: Dreams and nightmares
Congress considered the Dream Act in 2010 which would have provided the children of illegal immigrants to the United States with work permits and a pathway to citizenship. Supporters of the bill argued that children should not be punished for the actions of their parents. They also argued that it would be cruel to deport these children who knew no home other than America.
The Dream Act passed the House but failed to get the 60 votes needed to stop a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Many Republicans argued that America is a nation of laws and no one is above the law.
In 2012, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that permitted the children of illegal immigrants to obtain renewable two-year work permits. Some 800,000 are now enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program. Supporters of DACA praised Obama for the executive order, while critics said the president had no authority to unilaterally change the immigration laws. Such change required congressional action.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump promised to end DACA on “Day One.” Eight months later, President Trump reversed Obama’s executive order but gave Congress six months to come up with an immigration reform plan.
Florida has 30,000 of America’s 800,000 Dreamers. According to the libertarian Cato Institute, Florida would lose $6 billion in tax revenues over the next decade if DACA is terminated. Studies have shown that 91 percent of the Dreamers have jobs and one-third are in school seeking bachelor’s degrees.
The initial response to Trump’s action was overwhelmingly negative. Critics called Trump’s move cruel and not in the nation’s best interest. Polls indicated strong public support for DACA, and even a plurality of Republicans supported the policy.
However, polling also showed that immigration was a far more important issue to Republicans than it was to Democrats. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 31 points by those who said immigration was the most important problem facing the nation.
In the 2016 Republican presidential primaries and caucuses, Trump did best among voters who said immigration was their top issue. This was true in every primary and caucus. In Florida, 43 percent of those who said the economy and jobs were the top issues supported Trump. 48 percent of those who thought terrorism was the top issue backed Trump, compared to 43 percent who believed government spending was the primary issue. Among those who viewed immigration as the top issue, Trump won 60 percent of their vote.
Democrats in the Florida congressional delegation uniformly criticized Trump’s reversal of DACA, while most Republicans in the delegation supported the president.
Republican Matt Gaetz said America “must be a nation of laws.” Republican Ted Yoho wrote that “For decades Washington has failed to address our broken immigration system.” Republican congressman Dan Webster called DACA “a new extreme overreach by the executive branch” and “a flagrant abuse of the United States Constitution.”
The greatest opposition in the Florida Republican delegation came from Florida’s three Republican Hispanic members of Congress. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a frequent critic of the president, called Trump’s reversal “heartless.”
Republican Mario Diaz-Balart said DACA “serves children and young adults who came to the United States at the choice of a parent or guardian.”
Republican Carlos Curbelo, representing a district dominated by Democrats, argued that America’s children “should not have to live in constant fear of being deported to their parent’s homeland … ” Curbelo introduced the Recognizing America’s Children Act which would codify DACA and create a pathway to citizenship after 10 years.
Will Obama’s dream become Trump’s nightmare?