Progressives in revolt
At week’s end, Congress was leaving town and not scheduled to return until April 29. It was a tumultuous week and will tee up several high-profile events when they return.
Attorney General William Barr set Washington and the national media on its head by saying “spying” took place against the Donald Trump campaign in 2016. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was before Congress answering questions about whether the President’s tax returns would be turned over.
These issues are riddled with 2020 election politics, but another one simmering under the radar could play an equally important role in Democrats keeping their House majority. As they sought to celebrate 100 days in power this weekend, Democrats find themselves divided just as badly in 2019, if not worse, than Republicans were in 2017-2018.
As House leadership was set to pass legislation setting federal spending, progressives banded together and forced leadership to pull the bill. They came out against an increase in military spending that left domestic spending with an unequal allocation.
The incident clearly illustrates that nothing in the House can move forward without the support of the 98-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, the antithesis of the Republican’s Freedom Caucus. Progressives were pleased with their accomplishment.
“We now have an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and draft an agreement that can receive the enthusiastic support of the entire Democratic Caucus,” the group said in a statement. “Progressives will continue to seek equality in outlays between excessive Pentagon spending and critical domestic priorities, and end decades of harmful austerity imposed on our communities.”
Among the caucus members are Reps. Darren Soto of Kissimmee, Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Miami.
While not actively working to kill the bill, the moderate Blue Dog Coalition had its own problems because of the high level of spending.
“The system is broken, and somebody has to be the adult in the room and try to get us back on track,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park, a co-chair of the Blue Dogs.
On the same day, the spending bill was yanked, the Blue Dogs announced their support for a balanced-budget amendment put forward by Utah Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams. According to the Blue Dogs, the McAdams amendment, usually a Republican staple, would amend the U.S. Constitution to prohibit the federal government from spending more than it receives in any given fiscal year, except in the cases of war or recession.
The resolution was co-sponsored by Murphy and St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist, the only other Floridian member.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi now fully understands what former Rep. Paul Ryan, went through herding Republican cats. Republican division led to few accomplishments and a loss of the majority.
Can Democrats get on the same page by next year? Progressive voters will be watching.
The actions of Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan has drawn increasing concern in U.S. diplomatic circles, but the supposed NATO ally’s jailing of U.S. consulate employee, as well as U.S. citizens, has raised the stakes. In response, Rubio and a bipartisan group of five other Senators have filed legislation to hold Turkey accountable for wrongful detentions.
Rubio and his colleagues filed the Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act to bring pressure on the Turkish government. The bill was inspired by the detention of U.S. citizen and NASA scientist Serkan Gölge, American pastor Andrew Brunson and three Turkish employees at consulates.
“Erdogan’s government continues to undermine the rule of law in Turkey, including by targeting American citizens and locally-employed U.S. diplomatic staff,” Rubio said in a joint release. I’m proud to join this bipartisan effort to hold senior Turkish officials who are knowingly responsible for the wrongful detention of or politically-motivated false charges against American citizens and U.S. local employees at our diplomatic posts accountable.”
The bill would require the U.S. administration to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for the wrongful detentions of U.S. citizens and staff, including barring the officials from travel to the United States and freezing any U.S. assets.
It further calls on Trump to urge Turkey to restore due process guarantees and respect for the fundamental freedoms of all its people, thousands of whom are victims of the same politically-motivated prosecution and indefinite detention.
Joining Rubio as co-sponsors are Republicans Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, along with Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois and Maryland Democrats Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen.
FBI accountability sought
Multiple failures led the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Valentine’s Day 2018. Among those identified was the failure of the FBI to pass along tips on the shooter which might have prevented the attacks.
More than a year later, no reports of discipline or policy changes have surfaced, and Sen. Rick Scott wants to know why. He wrote to FBI Director Christopher Wray seeking answers.
“I am sure that you agree these failures are inexcusable, and so I request an update on the steps you have taken to hold accountable those responsible for these grave lapses in your agency’s core investigative function,” Scott wrote.
Under criticism from families who lost loved ones, the FBI issued an apology shortly after the tragedy. According to the agency, one of the FBI employees involved “no longer works for the agency” while the supervisor who did not forward the tip was “severely disciplined.”
Scott and others seek more specific information on what “severely disciplined” means. His letter also asks for details on any changes made since the shootings.
While serving as Governor, Scott called on Wray to resign when the botched tips were revealed.
Barr rocks D.C
Barr testified before both the House and Senate Appropriations Committee this week. The official reason was to answer questions on the Department of Justice budget request, but precious little attention was focused on that.
The House was far more interested in the Mueller report and what would or would not be released and when. Despite an approved, though not yet issued, subpoena from the House Judiciary Committee and Chairman Jerry Nadler for everything Mueller provided, Barr said he would not be providing the “full, unredacted report.”
Barr’s appearance before the Senate committee will be thoroughly discussed for weeks and months. When he said he believed the Trump campaign was spied upon and he was looking into it, Democrats questioned Barr’s judgment if not his sanity.
“Let me just say how very, very dismaying and disappointing that the chief law enforcement officer on our country is going off the rails yesterday and today,” Pelosi said during a news conference. “He is the attorney general of the United States, not the attorney general of Donald Trump.”
Barr is scheduled to release the redacted Mueller report next week and will testify before Nadler’s committee during the first week of May to discuss it.
With some propping up by countries like China, Russia, Iran and Cuba, Nicolás Maduro is still clinging to power in Venezuela. Despite all of the sanctions, demonstrations and international support for Maduro’s main opposition, he remains defiant.
Three Floridians are making another attempt to make things difficult for the dictator by filing bicameral legislation that will restrict new federal contracts with Venezuela. The Venezuelan Contracting Restriction Act would disallow new federal contracts with companies that contract with current Venezuelan leadership.
The Senate bill is sponsored by Scott and Rubio, while Republican Rep. Michael Waltz is the House sponsor.
“Now that more than 50 nations recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate Interim President, the United States must do all it can to support the Venezuelan people’s efforts to restore democracy, the rule of law, and human dignity,” Rubio said.
Waltz said: “Our taxpayer dollars will not trickle down to Maduro, and that we expect accountability with those that do business with the United States.”
Scott took things further in remarks before the American Enterprise Institute. In addition to promoting the bill, he also said it “is becoming clear that we will have to consider the use of American military assets to deliver aid. Maduro and his thugs have left us no choice.”
His latter comment is among the most definitive statement yet by any federal elected official.
Despite pleas from both sides, Congress left for the Easter recess without passing a desperately-needed bill for disaster relief funding. The impasse involves Puerto Rico with Senate Republicans seeking to provide $600 million to Puerto Rico while Democrats insist on higher numbers allocated in a House bill.
“The House of Representatives already approved a $14 billion disaster relief package several months ago,” all 13 delegation Democrats said in a statement. “It is time for the Senate Republicans to prioritize Americans struggling to recover and act to provide disaster assistance that meets the needs of all disaster survivors without further delay.”
On the other side, Senate Republicans believe Democrats are holding up the relief as a form of payback. Several Republicans, including Rubio, voted “no” on an aid package for northeastern states following Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson said Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy sent him a vote breakdown from 2012.
Isakson said, “It’s Sandy payback.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who said he “remembers” the Sandy vote, said he is not seeking payback, but provided a reasonable counter offer to Republicans. The GOP said they were reasonable too.
Meanwhile, while fights continue over “how much,” recovery efforts in Florida, the Midwest and Puerto Rico are getting nothing.
No returns for you
The deadline for production of six years of Trump’s tax returns has passed without compliance. If or when House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal of Massachusetts gets to see them is still undetermined.
Mnuchin responded by letter April 10, the day the IRS was asked to provide the returns. He told Neal they would not be able to meet the deadline and added: “The Department respects Congressional oversight, and we intend to review your request carefully.”
Appearing before the House Financial Services Committee, Mnuchin said he would “comply with the law” but did not tell whether that meant the IRS would provide the returns. Trump continues to maintain his refusal to produce his tax returns due to an audit.
Democrats are not focusing much energy on the issue, instead looking more toward the release of the Mueller report. Murphy, the only Florida Democrat on the committee, has not been outspoken, nor has Republican member Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key rushed out to defend Trump’s stance.
Neal said he would “consult with counsel” before determining the next step.
Congressional fundraising reports for the first quarter will soon be officially reported but Waltz, a first-term Republican from St. Augustine, has announced his re-election campaign took in more than $300,000 between January and March 31.
The full report is not yet available, but it is an impressive haul for a freshman, especially in a non-election year. The former Green Beret is also raising money as part of the House minority.
“I’m proud of the overwhelming response we are receiving for the work we are doing to secure our borders, support our veterans and gold star families and keep our economy going strong,” Waltz said. “I’ve served my country my entire adult life, and it is truly an honor to now serve the hardworking people of my district as their voice in Washington.”
Waltz was severely outspent in 2018 by Nancy Soderberg, who benefited from more than $2 million invested in her campaign by billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Waltz defeated Soderberg with 56 percent of the vote.
He is hoping big early fundraising totals will discourage outside groups from jumping in.
No to Turkey
Congress and the Trump administration believe Erdogan is playing a game of trying to have it both ways when it comes to military capabilities and national defense. Turkey is set to receive U.S. F-35 fighters, but at the same time, they made separate arrangements also to receive the Russian S-400 defense system.
In a New York Times op-ed, Democratic Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, along with Republican Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Jim Risch from Idaho offered a simple message:
“They won’t have both,” they wrote. “Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 would be incompatible with its commitments to NATO and reduce its interoperability with allies. Purchasing the S-400 would create an unacceptable risk because its radar system could enable the Russian military to figure out how the F-35 operates.”
Rep. Gus Bilirakis is in full agreement. The Palm Harbor Republican joined with his Energy and Commerce Committee colleague John Sarbanes of Maryland to write to the leadership of the House Appropriations Committee expressing concern.
The lawmakers, joined by eight bipartisan colleagues including GOP Rep. Ted Yoho of Gainesville, as Appropriations Committee chair Nita Lowey and ranking member Harold Rogers to include language in any appropriations bill forbidding expenditures that would go toward transferring F-35s to Turkey if the Russian system is put into place.
“This is why I have led in the fight to restrict F35 transfers to Turkey,” tweeted Bilirakis. “Giving Ankara our top fighter when it goes forward with Russian S400s endangers America’s national security.”
Rep. Charlie Crist took on spam earlier in the session with a bill called the Spam Calls Task Force Act of 2019. If enacted, the legislation would call upon the Attorney General and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to form a task force that would look into several factors that allow Spam calls to flourish.
This week, Crist announced that one of five FCC Commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel, was backing his bill. She joins 25 co-sponsors and 18 health and technology organizations that include the Moffitt Cancer Center.
“The number of robocalls has exploded. Bad actors are finding new ways to dial and disturb us every day. So every new idea to combat robocalls is worth exploring, especially when they feature creative incentives to reduce them across the board,” said Rosenworcel. “Kudos to Rep. Crist for his innovative effort to put an end to these nuisance calls.”
According to Crist’s office, Moffitt and other health and technology organizations have been dealing with scammers using spam calls that mimic the health organization’s phone number (known as “spoofing”) to steal unsuspecting patients’ personal and financial information.
“Spam calls may have started as an annoyance, but they’ve become a full-blown nuisance and are being used to deceive and take advantage of millions of Americans every day,” Crist said in a news release. “This scourge is an invasion of privacy, and it’s time for the federal government to bring the full weight and force of its authority down on these bad actors.”
Among the bill’s co-sponsors: Democrats Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens and Murphy along with Republicans Brian Mast of Palm City and Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key.
Drug price transparency
One thing both parties on Capitol Hill agree upon is the desire to lower prescription drug prices. The goal is one step closer following action this week in the House Ways and Means Committee.
The Reporting Accurate Drug Prices Act, sponsored by Buchanan and California Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett, was part of a more massive bill that was approved and sent to the House floor. Buchanan’s proposal was included in the Prescription Drug STAR Act, which is designed to increase drug pricing transparency.
Buchanan and Doggett focused on requiring all drug manufacturers to submit information to the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) on the average sales price of drugs administered under Medicare Part B, which covers drugs that usually are not self-administered.
“Medicare spends billions of taxpayer dollars based on incomplete information,” said the Longboat Key Republican. “Requiring full and accurate disclosure of pricing is common sense reform. Our bipartisan legislation would promote accountability and ensure that payments for Medicare Part B drugs are set using all the relevant and necessary data.”
Existing law requires that most — but not all — manufacturers for drugs covered under Medicare Part B report the average sales price to HHS. Only manufacturers with Medicaid rebate agreements are compelled to report.
Physicians, medical facilities, and various health care providers have the responsibility for purchasing these drugs, and are after that reimbursed by Medicare based on the average sales price.
Stopping scams against seniors
Seniors a prime target for scammers. Phone-based or email scams occur every day, but the elderly are at risk of losing their life savings.
Buchanan and Deutch have joined Vermont Democrat Peter Welch to file the Seniors Fraud Prevention Act. According to the bill sponsors, the legislation is designed to help protect seniors and their families by creating an office within the Federal Trade Commission charged with tracking fraud schemes targeting seniors and distributing the information to the public.”
“Scams set up specifically to go after American seniors and their hard-earned money are particularly despicable,” Deutch said.
“For the millions of American seniors, many of whom live on fixed incomes, they should not have to worry about losing everything in their bank accounts because of extremely deceptive scams. They should be able to depend on their government and law enforcement to protect their financial security from fraud and scams.”
Some seniors may have trouble remembering the details of a scam, making a report less effective. And those who don’t suffer from any memory deterioration may nevertheless decline to report the crime, for fear that relatives would see them as unable to handle their finances.
“I’m pleased to be working with Congressmen Deutch and Welch on this important bipartisan measure to protect America’s seniors from fraud,” Buchanan said. “We must do everything we can to safeguard the savings and dignity of Americans as they enter their golden years against those who try to target them.”
Clean water bill passes
A bill that nearly triples grant funding for clean water projects has passed the House of Representatives. The Local Water Protection Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Brian Mast of Palm City, cleared the House by a vote of 329-56.
The 319 Grant Program funds local projects that target pollution such as farm runoff, leaky septic tanks, and other “non-point” pollution sources. The bill increases program funding from $70 million to $200 million.
“These water issues exemplify why it’s absolutely critical that we work together to strengthen conservation programs, promote public health, defend our environment and protect our waterways,” Mast said in a statement, “and passing this bill goes to show how working together we can make a real difference for our waterways.”
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Chain migration targeted
More immigration bills emerged this week with one targeting an end to chain migration and increasing opportunities for would-be migrants with skills sought by American employers. Rep. Francis Rooney of Naples introduced the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act (RAISE Act), which would also eliminate the Diversity Visa program.
Chain migration is the phenomenon through which extended relatives of legally admitted immigrants are automatically accepted, regardless of background. Rooney’s office described the Diversity Visa Lottery program as one that randomly grants green cards from a variety of underrepresented countries to diversify the immigrant population moving into the United States, without consideration of merit.
“The United States immigration system is broken,” Rooney said in a news release. “Only one in every 15 immigrants to our country are granted visas because of their skills, and we do not prioritize the ultra-high-skilled immigrants who spur innovation, create jobs and make America more competitive.
The RAISE Act limits refugees offered permanent residency to 50,000 per year, in line with a 13-year average, and would reduce overall immigration by half.
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas introduced the companion bill in that chamber.
Rooney has also introduced the Asylum Protection Act to reduce the deadline for asylum applications and require applicants to begin the asylum process at the time of their arrival at a legal port of entry and co-sponsored the Legal Workforce Act to mandate the use of the E-Verify system by employers.
Two weeks ago, Sarasota Republican Rep. Greg Steube introduced the Break the Chain Act, which would limit family-based immigration visas to spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.
Hearing harassment victims
New legislation designed to combat harassment in the workplace, including sexual harassment, came forward this week. The BE HEARD Act takes on, among other things, ending the tipped minimum wage and giving workers more time to report harassment.
The acronym stands for Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination in the Workplace. Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is an original co-sponsor.
“The BE HEARD Act strengthens worker’s rights across America by expanding anti-workplace harassment laws to include employers with more than 15 employees, tipped workers, contractors, volunteers and interns,” said Mucarsel-Powell. “Additionally, it prevents LGBTQ+ workplace discrimination and ensures workers aren’t forced to give up their right to file harassment claims.
“It shouldn’t matter what you look like, whom you love, your seniority in the workplace, whether you are salaried or a tipped employee, every American must have the right to dignified employment.”
The bill is the latest coming forward out of the #MeToo movement. Last month, legislation designed to establish a confidential tip line at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and for corporate transparency on settlements and judgments where the company may be the subject was also filed.
On this day
April 12, 1991 — Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney announced 31 U.S. military bases would be closed while another 28 would see reductions in operations. The Naval Training Center (NTC) in Orlando is targeted for closure, while MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa will see the transfer of all aircraft.
Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young of Seminole predicted a “political outcry” over the MacDill reductions. Rep. Bill McCollum of Altamonte Springs vowed to press his case for the NTC to the commission responsible for making closure recommendations.
April 12, 1999 — President Bill Clinton was held in contempt for lying under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright also ordered the President to pay court costs and the legal fees for Paula Jones, who brought the original action against him.
“It is simply not acceptable to employ deceptions and falsehoods in an attempt to obstruct the judicial process,” Wright wrote. “There simply is no escaping the fact that the president deliberately violated this court’s discovery orders and thereby undermined the integrity of the judicial system.”
April 12, 2015 — Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it official by announcing she was running for President of the United States. This will mark Clinton’s second campaign after a disappointing loss in 2008 to President Barack Obama.
Clinton said she was “hitting the road to earn your vote.” As she enters the race, polls indicate she has higher favorability ratings than Jeb Bush, the nominal GOP front-runner.
Happy birthday (April 13) to Republican Rep. Ted Yoho from Gainesville.