After month layoff, only limited time remains to solve multiple problems
Congress is back in session this week. Despite a daunting September agenda in front of them, they still spent the entire month of August away from the capital doing things other than completing the tasks at hand.
They may have another item to add. Depending on the damage Hurricane Irma might do to Florida, an emergency appropriation for storm victims could be necessary right away.
Unless Irma somehow turns away from Florida, it is possible that a bipartisan chunk of the Florida delegation and both senators will be back home again next week to assess damage and help constituents receive necessary aid. Hurricanes do not observe Republican and Democratic political boundaries.
Their first order of business this week was to quickly approve help for victims of Hurricane Harvey. No glitches were apparent in the House, but some in the Senate desired to link the relief to raising the debt limit. The government was slated to run out of money Sept. 29.
Some conservatives were critical of that approach. They were undercut by the Wednesday deal between President Trump and Democratic leadership, that extended government funding until December while providing initial financial aid for Harvey victims.
The list is still formidable. Also set to expire on the last day of this month is the authorization for the National Flood Insurance Program. The program is approaching its borrowing limit of $30 million, before claims from Harvey or perhaps even Irma are even processed.
The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) also runs out of money Sept. 30. Re-upping the program is normally noncontroversial but could become newsworthy if GOP members seek to insert Obamacare-related provisions contained in the failed repeal and replace attempt.
Another program needed reauthorization by the end of the month is the Federal Aviation Administration. The House plan is closer to President Donald Trump’s vision, which calls for privatizing the FAA. The Senate version keeps the FAA as a government agency.
Can Congress meet its deadlines? The House is scheduled to be in session for 12 days in September, while the Senate is slated for 18.
That is not much time to accomplish what must be done. By stopping for the August recess, 24 potential working days were lost.
On top of that, Trump is kicking off the push for tax reform, another issue Republicans promised their voters for the past few election cycles. While reform, or at least tax reductions, need not be done by the end of September, Republicans will have some explaining to do if it goes down in flames in the same manner as the health care fiasco.
Is it any wonder the Real Clear Politics average shows approval of Congress hovering at 15 percent? With those kinds of numbers, they put Trump’s average of 40 percent in the stratosphere by comparison.
How will the numbers look after September?
Meanwhile, here are this week’s insights from the Beltway to the Sunshine State.
Trump’s DACA action draws strong reaction
As expected, President Trump officially ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The order, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, gives Congress six months to come up with legislation that could allow most of the “DREAMers” to stay.
It did not take long for delegation members to weigh in. Republican Rubio told the Miami Herald “Congress has to act, but on this matter, the White House and the president will have to lead.”
In a statement, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said it’s time to “acknowledge the many contributions DREAMers have made to our great country instead of trying to kick them out of the only country they’ve ever known.”
Several House Democrats were outraged. Several shared their thoughts.
“We cannot let President Trump’s heartless actions ruin lives, tear apart families, and shatter futures,” said Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg said: “ending DACA will make our country weaker, not stronger, and is not reflective of our values.”
Kathy Castor of Tampa added, “President Trump’s decision will have significant economic consequences for communities across the country as well.” In an op-ed published in the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday, Darren Soto of Orlando wrote: “It is up to us, the people and those of us who represent the people, to stand with our Dreamers and #DefendDACA.”
In making the Trump Administration’s case, Sessions noted that former President Barack Obama’s executive action in creating DACA was “unconstitutional” and inconsistent with the Constitution’s … separation of powers.”
Ponte Vedra Republican Ron DeSantis said on Facebook “DACA is unconstitutional and the president is duty-bound to rescind it.” Other Republicans offered dissenting opinions.
“I proudly stand with DREAMERS and strongly disagree with the decision to end a program that has greatly benefited thousands of young people who are an integral part of our country,” said Mario Diaz-Balart from the 25th District in Miami.
Carlos Curbelo of Kendall told CNN he introduced legislation that would allow DREAMers to stay, saying they “are young people who went to school with our own children.” Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called Trump’s action “heartbreaking, reckless and wrong.”
When Congress does begin debate on legislation, the greatest hitch is likely to come when the legal status of DREAMers is debated. Most Democrats weighing in speak of a “pathway to citizenship.” Republicans, including Curbelo, mention “pathway to legal status.”
It is obviously a big difference.
Former Florida LG under consideration for top U.S. DOE post
Frank Brogan, who has served at every level of public education administration, is reportedly under consideration for a top post with the U.S. Department of Education. He is currently being vetted, along with other candidates, for the position of assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education.
Brogan began his career as a teacher before later becoming a principal. He was Martin County School District Superintendent before being elected Florida’s Commissioner of Education in 1994. Brogan was Jeb Bush’s running mate in 1998 when they were elected Governor and Lt. Gov. of Florida.
He has spent the last 15 years as a college president and also overseeing the state university systems in both Florida and Pennsylvania. After leaving his position in Pennsylvania, Brogan is now available and seemingly a good match to oversee federal efforts in the K-12 area.
Brogan is known as a strong advocate for school choice. If selected, he would be working under Secretary Betsy DeVos, also a dedicated proponent of charter schools and voucher schools. DeVos served on the board of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.
In a sure sign that Brogan is a serious contender, he was not returning media calls asking for comment, nor was DOE offering any when contacted.
Congress authorizes 7 new VA medical facilities for Florida
Florida veterans in need of medical care now have 7 more facilities from which to choose. Thanks to the Senate unanimously passing legislation authorizing the facilities this week, the lines for veterans to receive care may be a bit shorter.
The legislation greenlighting the facilities was contained within the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017. The bill contained language originally sponsored by Florida Democratic Sen. Nelson that permits the General Services Administration to execute 28 new leases for major VA medical facilities. Florida receives 25 percent of those new facilities.
“We have a duty to care for the brave men and women who have served in our nation’s military,” said Nelson. “Getting these seven new VA clinics opened here in Florida will make it easier for some of veterans to access the care they need.”
The clinics required Congressional authorization if Veterans Affairs seeks to enter into any lease where the rental payment exceeds $1 million per year. These will be the first new medical facility leases authorized since 2014.
Gainesville receives two new facilities with the others to be located in Daytona Beach, Jacksonville, Ocala, Tampa, and Lakeland.
Millions in EPA grants now go through former Lt. Gov. COS
It is often said that a Lieutenant Governor has little to do and that person’s chief of staff has even less clout in a sitting governor’s inner circle. Nowadays, the former top aide to the Florida Lt. Gov. has the final say on tens of millions of federal grant dollars coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
John Konkus, the former Chief of Staff for Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, is now the Deputy Associate Administrator for the EPA, a political appointee, working out of the Office of Public Affairs. According to The Washington Post, Konkus “reviews every (grant) award the agency gives out, along with every grant solicitation before it is issued.”
The Post reports Konkus has “told staff he is on the lookout for the ‘double C-word’ — climate change — and repeatedly has instructed grant officers to eliminate references to the subject in solicitations.” Trump is a known man-made climate change skeptic.
This may sound familiar to Floridians as Gov. Scott was accused of banning the use of climate change at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Konkus was the Leon County Chairman for the Trump presidential campaign. He is married to Mary Thomas of Tallahassee, who ran against Neal Dunn in a sometimes bitter 2016 Republican primary for Congressional District 2.
Florida’s U.S. Senators go to bat for emergency declaration
Gov. Rick Scott was doing his job mobilizing the state’s emergency management resources as Hurricane Irma approached Florida. He received some help from Florida’s senators when Scott asked Trump to issue a pre-landfall federal declaration of emergency.
Both Democratic Sen. Nelson and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio wrote to President Trump to grant Scott’s request for the declaration.
“We strongly urge you to consider all of the circumstances referenced in Governor Scott’s request and approve this pre-landfall emergency declaration that will provide the resources necessary to ensure the safety of Floridians,” they wrote.
Shortly afterward, Trump did issue the declaration of emergency.
Nelson, Rubio want more FEMA cash in aid bill
The two senators sent a joint letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer Wednesday asking for money for Florida to be added to the Hurricane Harvey aid package passed by the U.S. House earlier in the day.
“Hurricane Irma is now one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and is currently on track to make landfall in South Florida as early as Sunday,” they wrote. “This massive category-5 storm has the potential to cause catastrophic destruction throughout the state, and we are deeply concerned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will not have the resources it needs to respond if Congress doesn’t act soon.”
The senators noted that FEMA is set to run out of money by Sept. 8, just before Irma is expected to hit the state.
“As Floridians are preparing for one of the worst storms on record, they need to know that the federal government is both ready and willing to direct the necessary resources needed to help them in the recovery process. As such, we strongly urge you to include additional funding in the Hurricane Harvey aid package to account for the additional costs FEMA will likely incur responding to Hurricane Irma,” they wrote.
The package that passed the House includes $7.9 billion in aid specifically for Hurricane Harvey recovery and could not be shifted to Florida responders without leaving the victims of that storm out to dry.
Nelson, Rubio not happy with Trump’s pick to run NASA
A weekend executive appointment by Trump has both Florida senators voicing disapproval. On Friday night, the White House indicated Trump would nominate Oklahoma Republican Congressman Jim Bridenstine to head up the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Both Republican Rubio and Democrat Nelson agree that a “politician” should not lead the nation’s space program.
“The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician,” Nelson told POLITICO.
Rubio concurred telling POLITICO that it “would be devastating for the space program.” He added that as a Floridian, Rubio is “very sensitive to anything that slows up NASA and its mission.”
Bridenstine had less than kind words for Rubio during the 2016 presidential campaign, but Rubio said he does not hold that against the congressman.
The politics of climate change will weigh heavily into the debate on this appointment. The nominee is a known critic of climate change science.
Bridenstine’s confirmation will come before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Nelson is the committee’s ranking Democrat and is chaired by South Dakota Republican John Thune.
Delegation seeks better deal for agriculture under new NAFTA
The Florida delegation is weighing in on the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) currently underway. Broad bipartisan support exists for protecting Florida agriculture.
Last Thursday, Nelson and Rubio wrote to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer urging him to propose a remedy to what they call “dumping” foreign products into Florida and other states.
“It is critically important that NAFTA provide a fair and equitable market for U.S. fruit and vegetable growers,” they wrote. “To this end, we are hopeful the administration will use all means available to prevent Mexico from targeting regional growers in an effort to monopolize the U.S. market during certain seasons.”
On the same day, Panama City Republican Neal Dunn led a delegation letter signed by 20 members also advocating for Florida farmers.
“Mexico’s exponential growth in fresh fruit and vegetable exports to the United States under NAFTA has had a profoundly negative impact on Florida and other regions of the country, resulting in estimated losses of agricultural cash receipts of between $1 to $3 billion a year in Florida alone,” they wrote.
In addition to Dunn, those signing the letter were Republicans Tom Rooney, Vern Buchanan, Carlos Curbelo, Gus Bilirakis, Ted Yoho, John Rutherford, Ron DeSantis, Daniel Webster, Dennis Ross, Francis Rooney, Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Bill Posey and Brian Mast. Democrats signing on included Alcee Hastings, Stephanie Murphy, Darren Soto, Al Lawson and Charlie Crist.
Gaetz seeks to protect medical marijuana research
The Fort Walton Beach Republican is quickly becoming the face of federal efforts involving medical marijuana. Well-known for his commitment to reschedule marijuana to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act, Gaetz recently proposed an amendment designed to protect medical marijuana researchers.
His amendment would preclude the Department of Justice from blocking research that involves marijuana, currently a Schedule I (illegal) drug. Earlier this year, Gaetz and Orlando Democrat Soto introduced legislation that would reclassify marijuana to a Schedule III drug similar to Tylenol.
“No one should be afraid to do research on medical cannabis,” Gaetz told the Cannabist. “I don’t think anybody’s waving pom-poms for cannabis research over at Justice.”
The Gaetz amendment will be considered in the House Rules Committee as early as this week. A favorable vote from the committee is needed to send it to the House floor.
Demings, Soto and Murphy push for additional anti-terrorism funding
The three Central Florida Democrats, like their predecessors, believe Florida is shortchanged when it comes to funding designed to fight terrorism. To close the gap, they have joined to introduce an amendment to the spending bill currently in the House Rules Committee.
If adopted, cities such as Orlando would receive an additional $20 million on top of what is provided through the Department of Homeland Security. The funds would go toward federal Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grants to sustain training and equipment obtained through previous federal funds.
“This funding would help Orlando and other cities avoid losing ground on preparedness,” said Demings, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. “I believe we have no greater obligation than to keep the people we represent safe from harm.”
“We have seen too many recent international and national tragedies, including in our beloved Orlando,” said Soto.
Murphy added, “an increase in UASI funding will give law enforcement and first responders the training and tools they need to keep our families safe.”
Last year their predecessors, U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, Alan Grayson and John Mica also implored the Department of Homeland Security to re-evaluate its ranking system. Orlando had gotten anti-terrorism money in previous years but failed to qualify in 2015 and 2016. Demings’ husband, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings and Orlando Police Chief John Mina testified before Congress on the need for such grants to Orlando.
Bilirakis helps open first center for male human trafficking victims
The Republican from District 12 attended the ceremonial opening of a new center designed to help victims exploited in human trafficking networks. What is different about this one is that it represents the first center in Florida for boys.
While girls comprise 85 to 90 percent of the victims, not one bed was previously available in Florida for boys rescued from human trafficking. Bilirakis is known for his efforts on this issue.
“We have to help them out of this vicious life of exploitation,” Bilirakis said at the center’s ribbon cutting.
He took the opportunity to lobby for a bill to be debated this month in Congress that would provide $2 billion for investigative programs targeting human trafficking.
A stay at the home will normally last as long as seven months. The goal is to have found a permanent home for them by that time.
“At seven months, if they can’t move into a new environment with new friends they get stir crazy and can run,” said Geoff Rogers, the CEO of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, a nonprofit group based in Tampa.
The ribbon cutting took place in a convenient location in Tampa, not the actual site of the center. This is to protect the victims from their traffickers.
“We will continue to work toward the goal of ending human trafficking throughout our country and helping the victims heal,” Bilirakis said in a message to constituents.
Buchanan seeks protection for animals, fish and wildlife
The Sarasota Republican and co-chair of the Florida delegation is proposing three amendments to the massive appropriations bill under construction in the House. He is targeting areas involving horses, endangered species, and fish and wildlife.
His “horse slaughter amendment” would prevent the reopening of horse slaughter facilities by denying federal funding for requirements necessary for the facilities to operate. Buchanan is also asking for $8 million to combat red tide.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would see $3.4 million restored to the agency budget for new species listings under the Endangered Species Act.
“Banning the slaughter of horses, curbing harmful red tide and funding the Endangered Species Act are important issues to the people in my district and the rest of Florida,” Buchanan said in a release. “It’s time for Congress to end partisan gridlock and pass common-sense policies.”
Hastings unloads on omnibus spending process
The Miramar Democrat is not happy with the current appropriations process in the U.S. Congress. In an email message to his constituents, Hastings blasts the massive omnibus spending bill currently under construction in the House Rules Committee.
“The appropriations package cobbled together by House Republicans combines eight bills traditionally considered individually into a 1,305-page omnibus,” Hastings wrote. “More than 1,000 amendments have already been submitted to the Rules Committee for consideration.”
Hastings will get almost zero argument from conservative Republicans, especially the Freedom Caucus. Conservatives have also railed against the progress, while the American Conservation Union (ACU) traditionally lowers the conservative rating for any member of Congress that votes for an omnibus spending bill.
On only one occasion since 2009 has Congress passed a budget. Republicans have controlled the House since 2007, while Democrats led the Senate until 2015; the only year in the last 8 a budget was passed.
“Patching together so many measures into one bill is a recipe for failure,” Hastings said. “The House majority knows it, but is doing it anyway.”
Hastings, who is one of four Democratic members of the Rules Committee, then sets the stage for the end of the month when the debt ceiling must be raised.
“With only a month left before the government runs out of funding and we are forced into another Republican shutdown, it is clear that the Majority intends to push through this partisan bill and buck the job of governing to the Senate,” he added.
Paulson’s Principles: Florida Congressional Republicans better run scared
One of the maxims for incumbent congressional candidates is to “run unopposed or run scared.” We know that most Florida congressional incumbents will face opposition, so they would be wise to run scared.
Florida Republicans running for Congress will face at least six major obstacles in 2018. First, Republicans hold 16 of the 27 congressional seats, so they have more seats to defend. A flip of only three seats will give the Democrats a 14-13 advantage and control of the Florida congressional delegation for the first time in over two decades.
Second, midterm elections are notoriously bad news for the party controlling the White House. Since the Civil War, the president’s party has lost seats in 36 of the 39 midterm elections. The average loss is 33 seats.
Third, congressional election outcomes are directly linked to the president’s popularity or lack thereof. Democrats picked up 31 seats in the 2006 midterm election when President George W. Bush’s popularity was -16 (39 percent approve, 55 percent disapprove). Republicans picked up 63 seats in the 2010 midterms, even though President Obama’s was only -3 (46 approve, 49 disapprove). The Republicans gained 13 more seats in the 2014 midterms when Obama’s popularity was -11 (42 approve, 53 disapprove).
With Trump’s popularity at a record low for a president in his first six months at a -18 (36 approve, 54 disapprove), the stage is set for losses of a staggering proportion.
Fourth, to win elections you need candidates. In particular, you need quality candidates. Republicans captured political control of both the Florida legislature and the congressional delegation when they recruited top-tier candidates who challenged a field of mediocre Democrats.
Since 2010, there have been slightly more Republicans who filed to run for congress. So far for the 2018 election, 209 Democrats have filed to run compared to only 28 Republicans. Democrats are enthused; Republicans are bemused.
Fifth, the best predictor of a congressional election outcome is the generic vote numbers. Democrats currently have a 7-point advantage in the generic vote, 44 to 37, putting them in a stronger position than in any midterm since 1942.
Sixth, the Republicans appeared fractured, while the Democrats appear united. It is hard to win if your team has no major legislative victories and lacks a united front.
Finally, there is little doubt that there are more Republican seats in jeopardy than Democratic ones. Retiring Ileana Ros-Lehtinen represents the most Democratic district in the country held by a Republican. If Democrats can win this seat, they can’t win anywhere.
Republican Carlos Curbelo, in neighboring District 26, represents a district that is +6 Democrat, but Curbelo won it by 12 percent in 2016. Curbelo has over $1 million I guess in his campaign account.
Curbelo, along with Republicans Ron DeSantis and Brian Mast, have all been targeted by Emily’s List “due to their anti-women and anti-family positions.” DeSantis won by 17 percent and Mast by 10 percent in 2016.
There are also several other Republican seats where Democrats have a reasonable chance to flip if the find quality candidates and if the Republicans continue to fracture and fall apart.
If I were a Florida Republican running for Congress, I would be “running scared.”