Chewing lots of gum
It would be difficult to recall a time when so many things affecting the interests of the U.S. would coincide.
As attention continues to focus on the impeachment inquiry, dramatic events unfolding both domestically and around the globe are either festering or growing worse.
The situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated in just a matter of days, with police becoming more aggressive with protesters. As China weighs whether to overwhelm the protesters and end the standoff, some in Congress are ramping up efforts to protect protesters.
Both Florida Senators are urging passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, legislation that has already cleared the House of Representatives. Sen. Marco Rubio is the sponsor of the Senate version, and he joined with Idaho Republican Jim Risch, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to urge quick passage of the measure.
“The world witnesses the people of Hong Kong standing up every day to defend their long-cherished freedoms against an increasingly aggressive Beijing and Hong Kong government,” he said in a joint release. “Their cries have been met with violence, and young Hong Kong lives have tragically been lost,” Rubio said.
Sen. Rick Scott is one of 42 bipartisan co-sponsors of Rubio’s bill. After Senate leadership went along with fast-tracking the bill, a signature on final legislation by President Donald Trump was reported to be uncertain.
Reportedly, the concern that strong action could scuttle a trade deal with China is driving Trump’s thinking, but Scott urged the President to consider with whom he is dealing.
China “is not going to do anything that is good for us, and they are never going to open up their markets,” he said on CNBC’s Squawk Box program.
Venezuela has drifted from the minds of most Americans. Still, Juan Guaidó, the U.S.-recognized leader of the country, led a rally with thousands taking to the streets of Caracas in a peaceful protest calling for Nicolas Maduro to resign.
The pressure on Maduro long sought by several members of the Florida delegation intensified. Bolivia, after expelling former leftist President Evo Morales, expelled Venezuelan and Cuban diplomats.
Unrest in Iran is growing following the imposition of 50% hikes in gas prices. Protesters from around the country, called “thugs” by the Islamic Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, have inflicted significant property damage in several locations.
An issue on the backburner was the latest budget “crisis.” The government was due to run out of money Friday, but an agreement to do yet another temporary spending bill was all but a done deal early in the week. The next target is Dec. 20.
Republicans continue to maintain that the impeachment inquiry is preventing Congress from focusing on important issues, while Democrats claim Capitol Hill can “walk and chew gum” at the same time.
With so much going on, owning stock in a gum manufacturer could be a profitable venture.
Rubio joins climate caucus
Last month, the Senate followed the lead of the House by establishing the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus. Taking the lead was Delaware Democrat Chris Coons and Indiana Republican Mike Braun.
Membership is gradually growing among members of both parties, with Rubio now signing on. He joins other Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Rubio has not been among those ringing the alarm bell on climate change but has consistently recognized its existence. He has differed from those who believe humans have played a significant role in climate change.
“People can have a debate about what we can do about climate change and the causes, but the bottom line is that the rising of sea levels is immeasurable in Florida,” he recently told the Washington Examiner. “So, if you represent South Florida or live in South Florida, it’s really not something you can ignore.”
The membership also grew on the Democratic and Independent side. New members include Independent Angus King of Maine and Democrats Mike Bennet of Colorado and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
Rubio’s nuanced stance on climate change will likely bring out his critics, but some activists are glad he’s in.
“It’s fantastic to see Sen. Rubio jump on the climate caucus and engaging on these issues in a state where climate change is impacting everything from small business to local economies,” said Andres Jimenez, senior director of government affairs at the Citizens Climate Lobby. “When we see he is listening to his constituents and grassroots organizations, it shows we are moving members in the right direction.”
Senators blast investment board
Despite calls from Scott and others on Capitol Hill to stop the shift of retirement assets into a fund containing Chinese companies, the move will go forward. The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (FRTIB) set aside the complaints and decided to invest billions into the fund.
Scott was a co-sponsor of a Senate bill introduced by Rubio and Shaheen. The bill, which has a House companion, would prevent the FRTIB from steering federal retirement savings to China.
“I’m extremely disappointed in the FRTIB for ignoring requests from Congress to reverse this decision,” Scott said in a news release. “Choosing to invest in Communist China threatens our national security and jeopardizes the retirement savings of hardworking Americans.
“There is no reason U.S. taxpayer dollars should be used to prop up companies under the control of Communist China, which continues to steal our technology, abuse human rights, and build up its military to compete with us.”
Only one FRTIB member voted to delay the shift. He requested a 12-18 month moratorium but was significantly outvoted.
“America’s investors should never be a source of wealth funding Beijing’s rise at the expense of our nation’s future prosperity, and the TSP Board should not force U.S. service members and federal employees to unwittingly undermine the American national security interests that they work hard every day to protect,” Rubio said upon launching his bill.
Tuesday will see appearances before the House Intelligence Committee by Jennifer Williams, a foreign service aide assigned to Vice President Mike Pence, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a top Ukraine specialist on the National Security Council. Both have offered accounts not favorable to the President.
Also appearing Tuesday is former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and former National Security aide Tim Morrison. Republicans asked for both to be part of the inquiry.
Wednesday features Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, deputy assistant defense secretary Laura Cooper and undersecretary of state David Hale. Republicans asked for Hale.
On Thursday, Fiona Hill, the former top Russia specialist with the National Security Council, and Kyiv-based State Department official David Holmes will close out the week. Hill raised concerns with her superiors at the “parallel efforts” of Trump counsel Rudy Giuliani, while Holmes overhead a telephone conversation between Sondland and Trump discussing investigations.
Unless something new arises, this is expected to be the final week of public hearings before the committee prepares a report for the House Judiciary Committee, who will determine whether to move forward with articles of impeachment.
As this phase appears to be winding down, word came the House is secretly investigating whether Trump lied to Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his written responses to Mueller’s questions involving the Russia investigations. The investigation was revealed in court as Democrats seek an expedited release of secret grand jury information withheld or redacted by the Justice Department.
Gaetz attacker sentenced
During a campaign event in June, Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz had a drink thrown on him by a protester. Gaetz strongly urged the perpetrator, Amanda Kondrat’yev, to receive jail time.
After she pleaded guilty to assaulting a U.S. Congressman, U.S. Magistrate Judge Hope Cannon sentenced Kondrat’yev to 15 days in jail. Sentencing guidelines call for eight months, but Cannon said the “limited duration” of the crime and the fact Kondrat’yev had no previous criminal record called for a less harsh sentence. She will also pay a $500 fine.
Gaetz did not argue the sentence. Instead, he said any jail time sent the right message.
“Physical assault has no place in our political discourse, and if individuals choose to engage in such activities at our events, they will be prosecuted,” Gaetz said in a statement. “I am grateful law enforcement, and our judicial system recognized this principle today, and I remain committed to maintaining a safe environment for my constituents at future events.”
Kondrat’yev begins her sentence December 2.
Lawson bill advances
Democratic Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee has reason to celebrate with the passage of his bill designed to protect small businesses from aggressive debt collectors. The Small Business Fair Debt Collection Protection Act was sent to the House floor after a 31-23 vote in the House Financial Services Committee.
Small business loan borrowers currently do not have the same protections as individual consumers have under federal law. Owners often place their personal finances and credit as capital to start and expand their businesses.
This can lead to intimidating calls from debt collectors, placing a small-business owner’s personal finances and livelihood at risk.
“This bill encourages entrepreneurism, and allows small-business owners to have similar protections as consumers when having to deal with debt collectors,” Lawson said in a news release. “Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, employing 58.9 million workers, and most are doing well. But in those instances, when they fall behind on meeting their obligations, they should be shown the same respect and dignity as consumers.”
Lawson reasons that by expanding the protections that currently exist for consumers to small-business owners, these businesses are more likely to succeed. His office said protections are especially important to women and minority small-business owners who are particularly vulnerable to predatory practices.
The Main Street Alliance supports the bill, a national network of small businesses; the Responsible Business Lending Coalition, a network of nonprofit and for-profit lenders, brokers and small business advocates; and the Small Business Majority, a small business advocacy organization.
Demings, Soto announce grant
Two Central Florida Democrats celebrated the pending arrival of a 21st-century facility designed to promote good health. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando and Darren Soto of Kissimmee were pleased to announce a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to Lake Nona “for state-of-the-art performance, wellness and medically integrated fitness center” featuring walking and bike paths, streetscapes and autonomous vehicle infrastructure.
Lake Nona, a 17-square-mile community within the city limits of Orlando, strives to be committed to building an innovative community focused on sustainable design, healthy living, and groundbreaking gigabit fiber optic technology.
Soto lauded “Lake Nona’s progression of creating a healthy, sustainable, and vibrant community in Central Florida while adapting to the technological advances and global trends of the future.” He had earlier written to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao touting Lake Nona’s application.
Demings pointed out Lake Nona’s designation as “best applicant” for the project, and the site is “a welcome addition to our community and an important expansion of the available amenities around the growing Orlando International Airport.”
The center will include a wellness plaza, a Zen garden, outdoor training turf, an outdoor classroom, indoor and outdoor pools, an indoor climbing wall, an indoor/outdoor demonstration kitchen, a daylight public concourse, child care facilities, and a sports performance area.
The grant is part of a combined $62 million in transportation awards to three Florida cities. Orange County was among just a handful out of more than 600 applicants across the country to receive funding.
Improved voting access proposed
With successful hacking into two Florida county voting systems in 2016, ways to combat future breaches through technology have been a common occurrence. At the same time, Rep. Charlie Crist is joining those who seek to make it easier to vote, especially those that are visually impaired.
The St. Petersburg Democrat has successfully attached an amendment to the Election Technology Research Act to accomplish that goal. The bill, sponsored by New Jersey Democrat Mikie Sherrill, was forwarded by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee after unanimously adding Crist’s amendment.
“For the visually impaired, access to the voting booth is not yet equal,” Crist said. “At too many polling locations, the check-in process has inadequate accommodations for the blind. This amendment would level the playing field, protect people’s privacy, and give the sight-impaired greater trust in the electoral process.”
The bill seeks to direct the National Science Foundation to carry out research and other activities to promote the security and modernization of voting systems. Crist’s amendment specifically requires the use of Braille documents or computer systems with privacy controls designed for the sight-impaired.
A constituent reached out to Crist describing a process where visually-impaired voters currently must verbalize sensitive information to poll workers to vote.
Bilirakis GI bill passes
As part of the transition to civilian life, the GI Bill has helped many veterans receive an education of their choosing. Rep. Gus Bilirakis believes there is still room for improvement in the program that has helped a significant multitude of veterans through the years.
Bilirakis, a former vice chairman of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee and a current member, introduced the Student Veteran Empowerment Act in July. The purpose is to help students on the GI Bill who are directly impacted when places of higher education close unexpectedly, such as ITT Tech.
Last month, the Bilirakis bill was rolled into the Protect the GI Bill Act sponsored by California Democrat Mike Levin. The House recently passed Levin’s bill on a voice vote.
“This bill is about doing the right thing for our nation’s heroes. They sacrifice a great deal in order to earn the GI Bill, and I want to ensure that those benefits aren’t squandered by those seeking to exploit students for financial gain,” Bilirakis said. “I urge my colleagues in the Senate to join me in expediting passage of this common-sense legislation.”
According to his office, the amendment requires full restoration of GI benefits if a school closes midsemester without the ability to transfer credits to another institution. It further provides safeguards to prevent school closures.
The bill would enhance coordination between the Department of Education (ED), VA, and the State Approving Agencies (SAAs) to require coordination efforts so that if one of these agencies takes an enforcement action against a school, or if they are placed on ED’s heightened cash monitoring list, SAAs are required to complete a risk-based performance review of this school.
Spano, Hastings investigations/legislation
Last week was not a particularly good one for two Floridians. Dover Republican Ross Spano and Delray Beach Democrat Alcee Hastings are both under investigation by the House Ethics Committee, while Spano is also the subject of a campaign finance criminal investigation by the Department of Justice.
The Florida Democratic Party has called on Spano to resign. He reacted by stating he already admitted to violations, but they were not intentional and further blasted Democrats for “the timing and motive behind this inquiry” is a reflection of “how far the left will go to destroy their opponents.”
The committee, chaired by Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch, is looking into a complaint involving Hastings’ long-term relationship with staffer Patricia Williams. House rules changed in 2018 forbidding such relationships unless the two were married, which Hastings and Williams are not.
“I have cooperated with the Committee since May 14, 2019,” Hastings said in a statement. “As they continue to conduct their work, I stand ready to fully cooperate with their inquiry.”
With so much in common, the two lawmakers teamed up to file the HOPE for Victims of Human Trafficking Act. The bill, sponsored by Spano with Hastings serving as original co-sponsor, would more fairly support survivors of human trafficking during and after the judicial process.
Spano said the bill would “provide hope to those who need it most by helping make sure crimes related to being a victim of trafficking don’t follow them throughout their lives.” Hastings added that while challenges in combating crime must continue, attention must focus on the “unique challenges that survivors face in the legal system as they try to recover from the trauma of this form of modern-day slavery.”
Also joining as original co-sponsors were Deutch and Republicans Mike Waltz of St. Augustine and Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami.
Shalala seeks increased vaccinations
Scientific advancement has led to the eradication of some diseases, and the ability to control or prevent others through vaccinations. While many are not vaccinated for a variety of reasons, Coral Gables Democrat Donna Shalala is sponsoring a bill with bipartisan colleagues to focus on ensuring seniors are adequately protected.
The Senior Immunization Act of 2019 is designed to provide information on vaccinations and make them more affordable. The bill calls for eliminating out-of-pocket costs for vaccines covered under Medicare Part D and improve vaccine awareness and education for beneficiaries.
“The importance of immunizations in managing preventable disease and improving general public health cannot be overstated,” said Shalala, a former Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton.
“Too often, seniors wanting to be vaccinated can’t find the information they need or have trouble affording these essential, lifesaving treatments. This is a common-sense bill that will help lower obstacles by expanding access to information and making vaccines more affordable for seniors.”
The bill would reconcile Medicare Part D’s coverage of vaccines in terms of deductibles, coinsurance, coverage limits and annual out-of-pocket spending thresholds with those of Medicare Part B. It would also update the vaccine information in the “Medicare and You” Handbook as well as authorize a study to determine ways to increase adult vaccine rates.
Delegation talks tourism
As the U.S. and Florida economy are on a positive trend, the delegation met last week to talk about tourism, Florida’s leading economic driver. They discussed the many positives around tourism and also the potential negative impacts of traffic congestion and damage from red tide and harmful algal blooms.
“Tourism drives a significant portion of Florida’s strong economy and provides extensive employment opportunities,” said Longboat Key Republican Vern Buchanan, the delegation co-chair. “With Florida’s visitor count continuing at a record pace, our bipartisan delegation needs to ensure that the Sunshine State remains the best place to live, work and visit.”
Among those sharing their expertise with the delegation included Visit Florida President Dana Young, Themed Entertainment Association Vice-President Brian Sands, American Hotel and Lodging Association Vice-President Kalyn Stephens, and Cruise Lines International Association Vice-President Michael McGarry.
Presiding with Buchanan over the meeting was delegation co-chair Hastings and members Bilirakis, Demings, Frankel, Shalala, Wasserman Schultz, Soto, John Rutherford and Ted Yoho.
This was the third delegation meeting this year.
Bipartisan rankings announced
Among the 435 members of the House of Representatives, the Florida delegation had two among the top 10 of those designated as most bipartisan, according to a survey, but neither are still in Congress. Former Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami ranked first, and former GOP Rep. Carlos Curbello of Kendall came in ninth.
The survey, conducted by the Lugar Center in conjunction with the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, analyzed members of the 115th Congress that ended in January. Rankings were based on a formula that considers working with the opposite party on bills colleagues sponsor and attracting cosponsorship on bills the member files.
Ros-Lehtinen retired in January after 30 years in the House, while Curbello was defeated by Debbie Mucarsel-Powell one year ago. The highest among those still in the House was Palm City Republican Brian Mast, who came in 31st, followed by Buchanan at No. 43 and Bilirakis at No. 45.
The highest-ranking Democrat was Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park, who was ranked 75th. Rounding out the Floridians in the top 100 was former Republican Rep Tom Rooney of Okeechobee (53), Yoho of Gainesville (69), and Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach (82).
The lowest rated among the delegation was Miami Gardens Democrat Frederica Wilson, who was ranked 431st. Former Rep. Ron DeSantis was the lowest-ranked Republican, who earned a rank of 238th.
In the Senate, Rubio was 10th, while former Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson was 41st among his colleagues.
Humane Society scorecard released
Many Capitol Hill advocate organizations often put out “scorecards” grading the members of Congress on their performance on issues close to them. The Humane Society Legislative Fund (HSLF) is no exception.
In the Senate, Rubio earned a 17 score by co-sponsoring legislation addressing wildlife trafficking while Scott had a 33 for co-sponsoring that bill and one on animal cruelty.
In the House, three members earned scores of 100, plus extra recognition for leadership. Buchanan, Deutch and Crist of St. Petersburg earned that distinction.
Others earning scores of 100 included Democrats Demings, Frankel, Hastings, Mucarsel-Powell, Shalala, Soto, Wasserman Schultz, Kathy Castor of Tampa and Murphy.
Outside of Buchanan, the highest Republican score was an 82 earned by Gaetz.
Scores are based on, among other things, a member’s vote, sponsoring or co-sponsoring, or writing letters on behalf of a selected bill. Extra credit is given for leadership in advancing a bill.
Buchanan sponsored three animal-related bills, while Deutch and Crist had one each. Deutch and Buchanan joined to successfully enact legislation that makes animal abuse a federal crime, while Crist sponsored legislation covering puppy mills.
On this day
Nov. 19, 1985 — With opening words of goodwill, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met for the first time in Geneva, Switzerland. The two gave statements of optimism for improved relations between the two superpowers.
The two leaders surprised their delegations with private one-on-one meetings that lasted two hours. In another surprise, Gorbachev held a televised meeting at the Soviet mission in Geneva with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and a U.S. pronuclear freeze group.
Nov. 19, 1969 — Four months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first two men to walk on the moon, Alan Bean and Pete Conrad became the third and fourth. The Apollo 12 astronauts expressed amazement at some of the natural wonders they had seen, with Conrad giggling, singing and humming as the two men encountered large moon rocks.
While the two continued to marvel at their low gravity surroundings, Mission Control tried to get them back into the lunar module slowly. “That was a hell of a show,” a voice from Houston said.