Floridians helping fuel Capitol Hill’s biggest controversies
As Congress tries to get out of town for the Christmas recess, two major items — both with plenty of intrigue — remain. Floridians are in the middle of both.
With the news that House and Senate negotiators had reached an agreement in principle on a tax reform bill, optimism reigned that a bill could reach President Donald Trump’s desk before Congress leaves for the holidays. On Thursday, GOP Sen. Marco Rubio threatened to blow up the agreement — and the bill — unless his issue of increasing the Child Tax Credit is addressed.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election was accused of bias by Republicans. House Judiciary Committee Republicans Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra, Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach, and John Rutherford of Jacksonville, as well as Democrat Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, are playing prominent roles in the controversy.
Within 24 hours of the tax reform tentative agreement, problems arose. Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, after voting for the first bill earlier this month, now says he cannot support adding more to the deficit.
With the status of fellow Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who are both ailing, things appear more dire. But it was Rubio who sent shock waves through the Capitol by announcing he would not be voting for the bill unless the Child Tax Credit for lower-income Americans is made more generous.
Rubio was unhappy that the corporate tax rate was set at 21 percent, something he proposed earlier, instead of 20. His idea was to have the extra percentage point designed to pay for the CTC benefits, but the agreement uses the funds to lower the top tax rate by two percent.
“Sen. Rubio has consistently communicated to the Senate tax negotiators that his vote on final passage would depend on whether the refundability of the Child Tax Credit was increased in a meaningful way,” said a spokesperson.
In the end, Trump believes Rubio will vote in favor of the bill.
Tennessee Republican Bob Corker is already a “no,” which means the horse trading is far from over if the bill has any chance of passing. If it is delayed past Christmas, the GOP will have one less Senator as Senator-elect Doug Jones, the Alabama Democrat, will be sworn into office.
Meanwhile, as the Russia probe led by Mueller enters a crucial phase, an explosive oversight hearing in the House Judiciary Committee focused as much on investigators as those under investigation. DeSantis grilled Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about text messages from FBI agent Peter Strzok, which gave “the appearance” of bias.
According to Politico, while traveling on Friday to Pensacola on Air Force One, Gaetz told Trump directly that Mueller’s team was “infected with bias” and the country was at risk of a figurative “coup d’etat.” Rutherford questioned Rosenstein about some of the more sensational text messages from Strzok.
On the other side, Deutch has regularly warned his committee colleagues of the consequences should Trump take the drastic step of firing Mueller. With each release of Strzok’s text message by the Department of Justice, Deutch and the Democrats are being forced to work harder to carry the message of an impartial investigation.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Deutch took the opportunity to ask Rosenstein about the “coup d’etat” comment and led him to respond that Mueller is accountable and has Rosenstein’s confidence.
Although only 16 days remain in 2017, plenty of opportunities exist for yuletide fireworks. Such as, the latest deadline for the government running out of money arrives next Friday.
Nelson warns of Trump plans to increase offshore drilling
The prospect of drilling for oil and natural gas off Florida’s East Coast or in the Gulf of Mexico is again a possibility and elected officials from both parties are concerned. The three-term Democrat is speaking loudly against reports President Trump will open the door to energy exploration in the mid and South Atlantic by 2019.
That is three years earlier than the law currently allows. In April, Trump issued an executive order called the America First Offshore Energy Strategy, which laid the groundwork for the change in policy.
“Why is the Department of Interior in such a rush,” Nelson said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “The answer is because the oil industry wants to start drilling in these areas now, and the Trump Administration is going to let them do it.”
The new plan would replace the plan created by former President Barack Obama that provides protection through 2022. New sales of leases for offshore exploration would run from 2019 through 2024.
“It’s not only a threat to the environment, but it’s a threat to the multibillion-dollar, tourism-driven economy,” Nelson said. “The stakes are exceptionally high. We simply can’t risk it.”
Nelson is one of 23 Democratic Senators to co-sponsor a bill offered by Ed Markey of Massachusetts in April that would prevent drilling near the Atlantic coast. It has yet to receive a hearing.
The concern among Floridians is bipartisan. Republican Congressman Francis Rooney of Naples also sounded the alarm in a recent op-ed.
“Lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf would be a bad deal for the people and ecosystems of Florida and a bad deal for the United States military,” Rooney said. “I will continue to fight on behalf my constituents to keep the moratorium.”
Rubio promotes greater cooperation between U.S. and Asian nations
Whether or not China can be helpful in reining in North Korea, Florida’s junior senator believes the U.S. should still be wary of the Asian superpower. He says we should work together with key allies to keep the Chinese from establishing dominance not only in Asia, but other continents as well.
In an op-ed published on CNN.com, Rubio describes China’s efforts to gain the upper hand by investing in infrastructure projects in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. They also established a naval base to establish a presence in the Indian Oceans.
Military expansion is also part of China’s strategy.
“Under President Xi Jinping, China is attempting to author its own version of the Indo-Pacific region’s history,” Rubio wrote. “The People’s Liberation Army is expanding and modernizing its military conventional and unconventional capabilities, including its vast arsenal of ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. It is also forcefully asserting Beijing’s claims in territorial disputes with neighbors, including in the South China Sea and in the Doklam plateau at the Indo-Chinese border.”
The U.S. strategy should be to work more closely than ever with allies such as India and Japan. Both of those nations are cooperating on common goals.
“To ensure the Indo-Pacific remains free and open, the U.S. and regional democracies will have to increase communication,” he added. “What’s becoming clear is how much they can accomplish for the common good when they work together.”
Rubio is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Rubio, Nelson team up on Disaster Assistance Simplification Act
Florida’s senators teamed up on a bill Thursday that could ensure that Florida and other hurricane-hit areas get their fair share from the federal government by cleaning up a process that Rubio describes as “unsynchronized and burdensome.”
The Disaster Assistance Simplification Act, also sponsored by Texas Republican John Cornyn, would stop the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development from penalizing natural disaster victims who ultimately decline Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans.
Those who apply for but decline SBA disaster loans — as part of a consideration of recovery options — are penalized when applying for Community Development Block Grant disaster grants; each dollar awarded as a loan is zeroed-out of potential CDBG grants.
“The current disaster assistance process is unsynchronized and burdensome for victims of natural disasters. By penalizing victims who don’t take assistance, “Rubio said, “our laws discourage victims from applying for SBA disaster loans.”
Rubio added that “removing bureaucratic hurdles is imperative to ensuring that no victim is penalized for weighing their hurricane recovery option.”
“When people are struggling to recover in the wake of a massive storm, time is of the essence,” said Nelson. “This bill will make it easier for people to get the help they need, when they need it — without having to worry about government red tape.”
Inaction squeezing Florida’s citrus industry
Things are getting worse for Florida’s citrus industry and agriculture in general. The damage caused by Hurricane Irma was devastating and to this point, the proposed relief package from the Trump Administration is insufficient to cover what is needed in not only Florida, but Texas, California and Puerto Rico as well.
If Congress does not come through, the state has a big problem on its hands.
“There is no plan B,” said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. “While I know the legislature is very interested in attempting to find some type of state-based help, that’s just not an option on the same scale as what is being discussed in Washington.”
The Florida delegation is working to attach funding to a $44 billion disaster relief package proposed by the administration.
“Citrus growers are facing their lowest production since Franklin Roosevelt was president,” said Sarasota Republican and delegation co-chairman Vern Buchanan. “Congress needs to act quickly and pass significant disaster relief for growers battered by Hurricane Irma and citrus greening.”
The Florida Department of Agriculture has estimated Irma was responsible for $2.5 billion in damages to state agriculture, including $761 million to the citrus industry.
On Wednesday, several members of the Florida and Texas delegations wrote to the leadership of the appropriations committees of both chambers urging more assistance.
“We have spent considerable time assessing the staggering losses that have been incurred and listening to farm and ranch families to tell us what exactly they need to get back on their feet,” they wrote. “We are offering carefully thought out solutions in a direct response to needs on the ground, and we are doing so in a fiscally responsible manner.”
They concluded the letter by expressing the need “to address these critical needs before Congress breaks for Christmas.”
Both Florida senators and 23 representatives signed the letter.
Murphy provisions added to military spending bill
The first-term Democrat from Winter Park was pleased to tout provisions she inserted into the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.
Trump signed the measure into law this week.
The FY2018 NDAA includes a Murphy-authored amendment to help small businesses obtain federal contracts and grants to engage in research and development that is in the national interest and that has the potential to be commercialized. It also contains the text of a bill Murphy introduced with Virginia Republican Dave Brat to help ensure that small businesses receive their fair and legally-required share of federal government contracts.
Additionally, the bill includes several provisions written by Murphy to support Florida’s $5 billion modeling, simulation, and training industry, which employs around 30,000 Floridians.
“Our nation faces an unprecedented number of global threats, and the National Defense Authorization Act will provide our military with the resources it needs to take on those challenges and succeed in its vital mission,” said Murphy. “I’m proud that two of my provisions to help central Florida and the country were signed into law by the President today. I will continue supporting our military and the brave service members who keep our nation safe.”
Murphy is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Demings bill seeks overtime pay for FEMA responders
The first-term Democrat from Orlando is seeking to restore overtime pay for FEMA personnel working on the national disasters confronting the country. This week she introduced the Disaster Response Workforce Flexibility Act of 2017 to address the issue.
Demings mentioned the multitude of Hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters that occurred this year and in the recent past. Despite the many hours spent helping their fellow Americans recover, FEMA is legally restricted from paying overtime wages.
“Unpaid overtime is unacceptable in any job, but doubly-so for the men and women who are helping communities recover in the wake of disaster,” Demings said in a release. “Congress has a responsibility to ensure that FEMA personnel are able to stay to finish the job. The Disaster Response Workforce Flexibility Act of 2017 is a key component to rebuilding devastated communities and I am proud to sponsor this much-needed legislation.”
If enacted, Demings’ legislation would lift the annual cap for disaster response employees, allowing FEMA to better compensate emergency response personnel for their work on this year’s disasters.
Crist launches National Civility Caucus
The first-term Democrat from St. Petersburg and Louisiana Republican Mike Johnson have established a new bipartisan Honor and Civility Caucus to uphold and promote the ideals of civility and statesmanship and to restore trust and confidence in America’s political institutions. The caucus will work to foster more productive dialogue in Congress and to advance specific initiatives to improve the tone of the nation’s politics and public discourse.
Crist and Johnson sent an official caucus membership invitation this week, and many leaders on both sides of the aisle have already expressed an interest in joining. Earlier this year, more than 120 members signed on to the “Commitment to Civility,” which was authored by Johnson and has been attributed to making a significant impact on Capitol Hill.
“As the nation’s leaders, members of Congress should aspire to the highest standards and set an example of personal integrity, decency and mutual respect for the generations of Americans that will follow,” they said in a release. “We can be stalwarts of our respective policy positions without tearing one another down. Although the members of this caucus will represent both political parties and a wide range of individual views across the political spectrum, our belief is that we can disagree in an agreeable manner and maintain collegiality and the honor of our office.”
The 7th annual report on Civility in America was released earlier this year, finding that incivility has reached “crisis levels” in our country. Nine out of 10 Americans agree that incivility leads to intimidation, threats, harassment, discrimination, violence and cyberbullying.
A majority of Americans believe that incivility in our politics encourages general incivility in society and deters citizens from engaging in public service.
Diaz-Balart praises House vote on exposing wealth of Iranian leadership
The Republican from Miami gave kudos to the House for taking action to expose the vast wealth held by Iran’s religious and political leadership. The committee passed the Iranian Leadership Asset Transparency Act this week by a 289-135 vote.
The law requires the U.S. Department of Treasury to provide an extensive report disclosing the assets of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, along with legal, government and military leaders. The figures are to be placed on the Treasury website in ways the people of Iran and those of other nations can understand them.
“Businesses around the world have been unknowingly fueling Iran’s regime of terror and aggression through deals that benefit the mullahs,” said Diaz-Balart in a statement. “The United States has made it clear it will not support acts of violence and terrorism. This bill provides transparency to help ensure American dollars are not propping up the regime and its illicit activities.”
Nearly the entire Florida delegation voted in favor of the bill. Democrats Kathy Castor of Tampa, Val Demings of Orlando and Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens were the only “no” votes.
Trump wants to relaunch U.S. space program
The Kennedy Space Center will likely never be as busy as it was when launches were almost routine four decades ago. If President Trump has his way, things will be picking up in the coming years.
This week he signed a directive to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to resume sending American astronauts to the moon and beyond. His order, Space Policy Directive-1, intends to restore U.S. leadership in space exploration.
The long-term goal is not only a return to the moon, but an eventual landing on Mars.
“This is very exciting and important for our country,” Trump said at a signing ceremony. “It also happens to mean jobs.”
That would certainly include Florida’s space coast.
The last landing on the moon came 45 years ago — to the day — of Monday’s announcement. The last human on the moon, Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, attended the signing ceremony along with former Astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who flew on the shuttle Columbia in 1986, also attended.
The first crew flight is targeted for 2023.
“It marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972 for long-term exploration and use,” Trump said. “We’re dreaming big.”
Brogan tapped for top Education post; joins other Bush vets
Former Florida Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan was appointed by Trump as the new Assistant Secretary of Education for Elementary and Secondary Education. He will be Secretary Betsy DeVos’ top adviser on K-12 policy.
After serving as a teacher, principal and superintendent in Martin County, Brogan was elected as Florida’s Commissioner of Education in 1994. He was Jeb Bush’s Lt. Gov. until 2003 and would later serve as President of Florida Atlantic University and then as Chancellor of Florida’s university system.
He was picked to serve in the Trump Administration after a stint as head of Pennsylvania’s university system. Brogan will be reunited with two other Floridians with ties to Bush.
Former Deputy General Counsel (and former Deputy Attorney General) Carlos Muñiz, was nominated as DeVos’ general counsel, while Chief of Staff Josh Venable is a veteran of Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future.
Survey says: big majorities want ex-Congressmen to wait longer before lobbying
Republicans and Democrats may disagree on most issues, but there is one where they come down on the same side. If the public had its way, elected Members of Congress, the Senate and staff would be required to wait longer than current law provides before they begin lucrative lobbying careers.
In a study by the University of Maryland, the one-year wait by House members is not sufficient, according to respondents, nor is the two-year ban on the Senate. Staff in both chambers must wait only one year.
The study found that nearly 80 percent favor extending the cooling off period to at least five years. Around 30 percent feel former members should never be permitted to lobby their former colleagues.
Even the current rules are fudged. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, former members or staff are hired as a “strategic adviser” to get around requirements.
Several pieces of legislation are introduced to address this concern expressed by the public. For example, on July 27, Republican Congressman Bill Posey of Rockledge introduced a bill that would mandate a five-year waiting period.
Neither Posey’s, nor any other, has received a hearing.
Survey respondents also are against lobbying for a foreign government. An overwhelming 81 percent of Republicans support that ban and 70 percent of Democrats.
Despite these numbers, making changes will be difficult.
“Is public pressure alone going to do it? No,” said Steve Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation. “But there is an active effort in numerous bills in Congress. Clearly, members of Congress know that this is the kind of thing that the public is very unhappy about and they would get some credit. At the same time, it does have a pretty significant impact on their future earning potential, so they probably feel ambivalent about it.”