United coronavirus approach elusive
When President Donald Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office, he called for the country to come together and take politics out of the coronavirus response. He announced a travel ban to the U.S. from Europe and sought $50 billion worth of loans to small businesses.
“The virus is already here. Travel bans and xenophobia are not the answer,” tweeted Democratic Rep. Val Demings in response. “Testing and emergency care is. Where is the plan to protect the American people? Where are the tests? And will the President support the @HouseDemocrats’ plan to help working people get through this?”
Investors were unimpressed as the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) was down by another 1,000 points at the opening bell the following morning, with losses topping 2,000 points by midmorning. The Federal Reserve responded to Wall Street complaints that the government was not doing enough by infusing more than $1 trillion into the banking system, leading to a buying surge.
The emergence of a House plan focusing on providing emergency paid sick days, access to nutritious foods for pregnant women, and funds to help local food banks might have earned some of the credit for the bounce.
The night before, Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park introduced a bill explicitly calling for the emergency paid sick days. Her proposal calls for benefits to last for up to three months, with a maximum monthly benefit of $4,000.
Around noon Thursday, the word was out that Senate Republicans did not like the House package, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell describing it as wandering “into various areas of policy that are barely related, if at all, to the issue before us.” As Trump agreed with McConnell’s assessment, the DJIA, perhaps coincidentally, quickly slid back toward the morning loss levels.
Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg praised the efforts of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. In a letter addressed to both of them, he saluted their “steadfast leadership” while suggesting further action that would lead to expanding Medicaid, additional help with utility bills for those working from home, and paid sick leave for tipped employees at a rate of $15 per hour.
Republicans further questioned the House package, pointing out that the President signed $8.3 billion in funding to combat the virus earlier in the week, something that Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell highlighted in a tweet before Trump spoke.
Democrats were not alone in wondering when the availability of test kits would equal the demand. Sen. Marco Rubio called it “inexplicable and inexcusable” that the U.S. did not have more test kits. He later added that most of the testing materials are made outside of the U.S., and “those countries are not going to be in the business of shipping out materials that they need themselves.”
During a Thursday hearing on Capitol Hill, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a vital member of the President’s coronavirus task force, responded to a question from Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz about the lack of sufficient test kits. Fauci responded that the current situation “is a failing,” adding later in the day that a significant number of kits would be available “in a week or so.”
As of Friday morning, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and House Democrats were working on a compromise bill to provide relief to affected workers and businesses that could obtain a majority and be palatable to the Senate as well as Trump.
Break from China urged
With few immediate positives to take away from the coronavirus crisis, which is now an official global pandemic, Rubio found some good news for the long term. He seized on comments from the Trump administration that the reliance on China for much of the pharmaceuticals used in the U.S. may be dramatically curtailed soon.
“The coronavirus outbreak has been a wake-up call that we must combat America’s supply chain vulnerabilities and dependence on China in critical sectors of our economy,” the two-term Republican said in a news release.
“The Trump Administration’s forthcoming Executive Order is a very strong first step toward increasing domestic production by enforcing Buy American requirements for pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, as well as fast-tracking FDA approval of critical products impacted by the coronavirus outbreak’s strain on the supply chain.”
Trump’s Oval Office address outlining the administration’s next steps and proposals included a call for up to $50 billion to help small businesses. That was among the topics of a hearing in the Senate Small Business Committee, which Rubio chairs, the following day.
As one of the Senate’s China hawks, Rubio had previously urged the U.S. to break dependence on China for pharmaceuticals and to instead return to producing and buying from domestic providers.
An ominous threat came this week via Xinhua News Agency, China’s state-run media agency. An article said China could impose export controls on pharmaceuticals plunging the U.S. into “the mighty sea of coronavirus.”
Scott bill splits deductibles
Health care costs continue to be a concern for most Americans. Sen. Rick Scott and Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are seeking to help patients meet their insurance deductibles with new legislation.
They introduced the Lower Health Insurance Deductibles Act to provide more flexibility for patients. The bill would give insurance companies the ability to split the deductible of a Health Savings Account (HSA) eligible High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP) between drug benefits and medical benefits.
“With the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs, we should be doing everything we can to increase affordability for American families,” Scott said in a joint news release. “Allowing flexibility in how health plans split deductibles is one easy way we can lower health care costs and give families more value when it comes to their health plans.”
Currently, HSA eligible HDHPs must have a minimum deductible of $1,400. However, most individuals will not reach this deductible because they seek limited medical services a year, and are stuck paying out-of-pocket for their prescriptions.
Under the Lower Health Insurance Deductibles Act, the HDHP could split the total deductible to, for example, a $1,100 medical deductible with a $300 drug deductible. This would give consumers with chronic conditions more flexibility to meet their deductible.
Gaetz ally appointed COS
Last week Trump named North Carolina Congressman Mark Meadows as his fourth chief of staff. With the ascension of the former chair of the conservative Freedom Caucus, another caucus stalwart will assume a more dominant role in the Republican Party as he emerges from a self-imposed quarantine after testing negative for the coronavirus.
The ties between Rep. Matt Gaetz and Trump are well-known, but he is also tightly aligned with the man who will soon sit just outside the Oval Office. Along with Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, Meadows and Gaetz regularly appear together on Fox News programs railing against the Mueller investigation, FISA court abuse, impeachment, and other pro-Trump positions.
Perhaps their close relationship borders on a bromance. When news emerged of Meadows’ appointment, Gaetz simply tweeted three hearts.
He was temporarily sidelined recently after voting with Democrats to limit the President’s authority in dealing with Iran. In a sign the second-term Republican from Fort Walton Beach is fully back in Trump’s inner circle came with the news he recently rode again on Air Force One.
It was that ride after attending CPAC, where an attendee tested positive for coronavirus that prompted him to self-quarantine and be tested. As he awaited test results, Gaetz slept in a Walmart parking lot.
Gaetz was mocked for recently wearing a gas mask on the House floor, as a called Congress “a human petri dish.” He insisted he was not “making light” of the virus and added, “I only wish I had worn the gas mask at CPAC.”
Yoho proposes labor bill
Rep. Ted Yoho has introduced legislation that focuses on improving the process for securing temporary farm labor. The Labor Certainty for Food Security Act looks to “bring relief to America’s farmers and ranchers who are struggling to find steady, reliable labor” by keeping immigration affairs separate from guest workers.
Under the proposed legislation, agriculture visa authority would be transferred from the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture. Worker caps and wage requirements would also be dropped.
In describing the bill’s effect on workers, the Gainesville Republican said, “It doesn’t prevent them from becoming a citizen,” but also stated “it’s not a pathway to citizenship. It allows them to become legal in this country. From that point, they can apply for citizenship,” Yoho said.
Yoho further indicated the workers would be automatically enrolled in the E-Verify system before entering the country.
One month ago, Republican Rep. Greg Steube introduced a bill that also would transfer authority over agriculture-related worker visas (known as H-2As) to the Department of Agriculture
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he is looking forward to working with leaders in Congress to address this critical issue.
“One of the other issues we have to deal with is a stable, reliable Ag labor workforce, in order to maintain the best and most competitive agricultural sector in the world,” Perdue said.
Previously passed in the House was the “Farm Workforce Modernization Act,” which makes other changes to the H-2A visa program. California Democrat Zoe Lofgren sponsored that bill with Democratic Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee and Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami among the 62 co-sponsors.
Among Yoho’s 10 co-sponsors is Panama City Republican Rep. Neal Dunn.
Sports caucus holds first meeting
While college basketball’s March Madness is scheduled to be played in empty arenas, or perhaps canceled altogether, a lingering issue was the topic of discussion of a panel discussion in Washington this week. The Congressional Collegiate Sports Caucus recently co-founded by Lawson took on the matter of college athletes benefiting financially from their name, image or likenesses.
Lawson, a former college and professional basketball player, joined with fellow Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee and Republican Reps. Mark Walker of North Carolina and Rodney Davis of Illinois to form the caucus. This week’s discussion was the group’s first meeting.
The group heard from former star men’s and women’s athletes on the issue of changing the current prohibition of college athletes receiving any financial compensation from the use of their personal identities.
“The landscape of college athletics is changing like never before,” said Lawson. “Our goal with the Collegiate Sports Caucus is to bring clarity to the important policy issues facing student-athletes and amateur sports, such as name, image and likeness.
“It is vital that we have these conversations at the national level as we advocate for responsible and comprehensive legislation.”
Panelists included former Ohio State star football player and author Maurice Clarett, former University of Virginia All-American track & field athlete Tomika Ferguson, Ph.D., and former NFL player and author Robert Turner II, Ph.D.
Walker captured the tone of the conversation, saying, “Access to your own name, image and likeness is a basic civil right.”
Lawson has been active in college sports-related activities during his time in Congress. Last year he introduced the NCAA Act of 2019, which would end college basketball’s practice of “one and done” where players enroll for one year before heading into professional basketball.
Women’s peace, security caucus launched
As the U.S. recognizes Women’s History Month, two Floridians have launched the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Caucus in the House of Representatives. Republican Rep. Michael Waltz and Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel seek to focus on the implementation of the WPS agenda and the importance of women’s inclusion in the security efforts to maintain world peace.
In 2000, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1325, which linked gender equality to the maintenance of international peace and security. During the 115th Congress, the U.S. became the first country to put the U.N. Resolution priorities into law by passing the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Act of 2017.
“In societies where women thrive, governments, economies and communities are stronger,” Waltz said in a joint news release. “As a Green Beret, I’ve seen the importance of women in peace processes all around the world. Peace agreements last longer when women are included in negotiations — and our world is ultimately a safer place because of gender equality.”
As directed through the WPS Act, the White House released the National Strategy for achieving the policing goals set for in the act in June 2019. This includes an increase in women’s participation in political, civic, and security endeavors to prevent and resolve conflicts and create long-term worldwide peace conditions.
“Social and political marginalization of women strongly correlates with the likelihood a country will experience conflict. When girls and women are healthy, educated and financially secure, their communities are more prosperous and peaceful,” Frankel said. “As mothers, wives, women are uniquely situated to detect early signs of radicalization in youth.”
The bipartisan caucus is open to all members of Congress dedicated to fully implementing the Women, Peace and Security Act and the White House’s National Strategy on Women, Peace and Security.
Bilirakis: Close Greek border
Security and humanitarian problems from open borders have been an area of concern in the U.S. over the recent past. Rep. Gus Bilirakis is calling attention to a problem in Europe involving Greece’s border with Turkey.
Tensions continue to rise after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened his country’s border with Greece and encouraged thousands of Syrian refugees and migrants to travel freely through his country into Greece. The United Nations’ migration organization estimates the number to be around 13,000 and growing.
“Turkey’s actions to open its borders and allow the unmitigated flow of refugees to Greece in disproportionate numbers is creating an untenable situation and must be immediately stopped,” the Palm Harbor Republican said.
Bilirakis, who has Greek ancestry, reiterated the point that Erdogan is using migrants and refugees against Greece and the European Union (EU). He shares the concern that an improving but at-risk Greek economy is not equipped to handle such a jolt as well as a fear of terrorists infiltrating the country.
“Greeks, known for their ‘filoxenia,’ have shown incredible compassion and humanity for refugees throughout history and more recently with those fleeing war and tyranny,” Bilirakis said. “However, when Greece’s very own security is threatened, it has no choice but to say enough is enough!”
Bilirakis also called for more support from the EU, which has already committed 700 million euros in emergency funds for Greece.
“The EU must provide immediate border security to stop the influx of refugees and an infrastructure to immediately process refugees currently languishing in camps within Greece,” he added. “For the stability of the region and with respect to fundamental principles of fairness, these refugees must be fairly managed. I know the Trump Administration will stand with Greece and help restore order to ensure Greece’s sovereignty.”
Agriculture secretary talks strawberries
Strawberries and the impact of the U.S., Mexico, Canada (USMCA) trade agreement on Florida growers were among the topics of a roundtable hosted by Dover Republican Ross Spano. Also participating in the roundtable was Secretary Perdue of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Indiana Republican Rep. Greg Pence.
Concern about Mexican growers dumping cheaper fruits and vegetables has long been a concern of Florida growers. Strawberries are a significant part of the agricultural output of Spano’s district in Polk and eastern Hillsborough County.
“I want to thank Secretary Perdue for traveling to Plant City to speak to local growers,” Spano said. “The Trump administration is clearly standing behind growers and farmers across America.”
Part of the concern for growers was the final version of the USMCA did not include the anti-dumping provision they, and many in the Florida delegation, sought. The Commerce Department will hold a hearing in Plant City on April 7 and Valdosta, Georgia, on April 9 to hear concerns on the agreement.
The group also visited the annual Strawberry Festival.
“Today’s session was very productive in making sure we are putting America first and continue the fight against illegal market dumping that hurts our agricultural trade and small businesses,” Spano added.
Long-term solution for CHIP
A bill that would permanently reauthorize the Children’s Health Program (CHIP) was introduced in the House this week. Rep. Vern Buchanan joined with Iowa Democrat Abby Finkenauer to launch the CARING for Kids Act that would remove CHIP from the ritual of seeking authorization.
Under current law, the CHIP program needs to be reauthorized every few years, which places its funding in jeopardy and makes it a bargaining chip in legislative negotiations. The Buchanan-Finkenauer bill would permanently extend funding for CHIP to ensure eligible kids will continue to receive the health care they need and ensures the program doesn’t lapse in the future.
“This important program provides peace of mind to families that if their children get sick, they will get the medical attention they need,” said the Longboat Key Republican. “Nearly 380,000 children in Florida depend on the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). That’s why I’m pleased to introduce this legislation with Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer permanently reauthorizing this vital program.’’
He noted that 9.6 million children are enrolled nationwide in CHIP, including nearly 380,000 children in Florida. More than 20,000 children are enrolled in the program within the three counties in Buchanan’s district.
“Investing in affordable health care coverage for our nation’s children saves money in the long run — and it’s the right thing to do,” Buchanan said.
Pushing for permanent DST
Some are still adjusting to daylight saving time, but some Florida Republicans are still trying to push the effort to make the change permanent over the goal line. The Florida Legislature passed the bill to “lock the clock” in 2018, but it requires approval from Congress.
In a tweet, Steube said, “now it’s time for the federal government to make it happen.”
Scott is the original co-sponsor of the Rubio bill, and now a bipartisan group of 13 co-sponsors has joined the effort. The Buchanan bill has 20 co-sponsors, including a bipartisan group of 10 Floridians.
Steube recounted a conversation with his barber, who questioned the wisdom of turning clocks back and forth, leading Steube to pursue the legislation in Tallahassee while he was still part of the Florida legislature.
“Obviously it’s not the biggest issue facing the country, but it’s an issue that more and more people want us to address and I feel pretty optimistic that at some point here soon we will,” Rubio said.
Medicaid expansion urged
Since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, several governors took the step of accepting new federal dollars to expand Medicaid in their states. While he was Florida’s chief executive, Scott and the legislature led one of 14 states resisting calls to take that step, citing the costs that would fall onto the state.
With the coronavirus spreading around the U.S. and the world, Democratic Reps. Murphy, Kathy Castor and Donna Shalala believe now is the time to revisit the issue. In a letter addressed to Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida House Speaker José Oliva and Senate President Bill Galvano, the members urged state leaders to reverse course and ensure more low-income Floridians can have access to treatment.
“Florida residents without health insurance may be less inclined to visit a doctor or hospital if they have symptoms or other risk factors, because they worry — not unreasonably — that both the initial test and any subsequent treatment will leave them with a medical bill they cannot afford,” they wrote. “This poses a serious risk to their own health and the safety of our communities.”
It is a point of focus for the three, who each serve on committees that share jurisdiction over health. They, along with Rep. Darren Soto of Kissimmee, mentioned a Jan. 13 letter from delegation Democrats calling for Medicaid expansion and joined to file a bill promoting expansion.
According to Murphy, about 840,000 Floridians would be eligible for Medicaid benefits. In Florida, the federal government picks up approximately 62% of every dollar spent through Medicaid, while the state is responsible for about 38%.
Deutch tackles ‘trial penalty’
Americans have often wondered how a criminal defendant can receive what is perceived to be a lenient sentence, or have other charges dropped, while another defendant receives a lengthy prison sentence for a similar crime. Plea bargains that result in pleading guilty to reduced charges is the answer.
When it is time for clemency, Rep. Ted Deutch believes those who did not waive their right to a trial and received a longer sentence should have any plea offered before trial considered. In a letter to Department of Justice (DOJ) Acting Pardon Attorney Rosalind Sargent-Burns, Deutch and 47 other signees urged her office to consider the full circumstances of those sentenced under what is described as the “trial penalty.”
Deutch led the letter to Sargent-Burns along with Republican Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota and Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas. The letter points out 97% accept plea deals instead of exercising their Sixth Amendment right.
“These criminal defendants may have valid claims or a defense that could be raised at a trial,” they wrote. “However, these defendants are made aware of or are advised that taking the chance to go to trial could lead to unduly harsh penalties.”
The members are asking Sargent-Burns and her colleagues to check the record of what was proffered to those who chose to go to trial and consider that offer when considering clemency. They urged the review of facts surrounding “the sentence that the criminal defendant received to determine if they received a “trial penalty.”
An ideologically-diverse group of members signed the letter, including Florida Democrats Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Alcee Hastings and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. Also signing were Florida Republicans Yoho, Steube and Brian Mast of Palm City.
On this day
March 13, 2015 — President Barack Obama has a new secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), but accountability for past wrongdoing at the department is still elusive. Robert McDonald, who replaced former secretary Eric Shinseki, was recently forced to backtrack from a statement claiming 60 employees had been fired for altering wait time records at the VA.
Some of those involved have been on paid leave for more than a year. Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, claims to have a similar lack of patience as many of the victims of the scandal. The Pensacola Republican said, “Not a single VA senior executive has been fired for wait-time manipulations.”
March 13, 2018 — Trump has fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after recent reports of sharp disagreements on the conduct U.S. foreign policy played out in the media. Trump indicated he planned to nominate current CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson.
While not issuing a statement on Tillerson’s firing, Sen. Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was looking forward to working with Pompeo. He called Pompeo “an excellent choice” whose experience “gives him unique qualifications to lead the State Department at this critical juncture.”
Belated greetings (March 12) to Rep. Val Demings.