Dems claim war on IGs
President Donald Trump has made personnel moves or had harsh words involving three federal inspectors general in the past 10 days prompting outrage and concern among Democrats both within and outside of government.
Several House committee chairs shared those concerns in a letter to the Department of Justice Inspector General (IG) Michael Horowitz, who chairs the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. The letter, which includes Rep. Kathy Castor, who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, has 23 signers.
The letter mentions Glenn Fine, acting IG for the Department of Defense (DOD), who lost his role as chairman of a group of watchdogs overseeing coronavirus spending. At the same time, Trump terminated intelligence community IG Michael Atkinson. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Chief Inspector General Christi Grimm came under attack from the President for a snapshot survey of hospitals claiming severe supply shortages at hospitals
“Unlike any President in modern history, President Donald Trump has engaged in offensive and unjustified attacks against Inspectors General, criticizing them for following the law, and retaliating against them for telling the truth,” the letter reads.
“We are seeking input directly from the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency on legislative and other proposals to increase your independence and protect you from retaliation, including but not limited to allowing for the removal of top Inspector General officials only for good cause.”
Castor weighed in separately saying, ‘We depend on inspectors general to prevent waste/fraud + ensure help reaches vulnerable Americans. The President is wrong to undermine oversight, fire IG’s + keep info from taxpayers.”
The firing of Atkinson garnered the most attention. Still, it drew some high profile support when Attorney General William Barr said Trump “did the right thing,” by terminating the man who set in motion events that led to Trump’s impeachment. Barr told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that Atkinson’s authority rested in investigating actions of the intelligence community and that he was obliged to send his report to the executive branch before sending it to Congress.
“(Atkinson) was told this in a letter to the Department of Justice, and he is obliged to follow the interpretation of the Department of Justice, and he ignored it,” Barr said.
As the acting inspector general for DOD, Fine automatically lost his place with the watchdog group when Trump announced his intention to appoint Jason Abend as the inspector general at the Pentagon. HHS’s Grimm had several step forward as character witnesses for her, while Trump called the document she oversaw as a “fake dossier,” and the President’s defenders noted the information contained in the report was 10 days old upon its release.
On a related matter, a requirement in the CARES Act calls for appointing a Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery, which Trump followed with his appointment of Brian Miller, a White House lawyer and former IG for the General Services Administration (GSA).
The House committee chairs were seemingly unimpressed. They pointed to Miller’s public criticism of a 2018 report from the inspector general of the GSA released by his successor detailing the ultimate decision not to relocate the FBI headquarters near the Trump National Hotel in Washington.
Scott urges careful spending
Along with the devastating toll on public health, the COVID-19 virus has bludgeoned the federal budget along with those of all 50 states and territories. The CARES Act provides help to individuals, businesses both small and large, as well as aid to state and local governments totaling more than $330 billion.
Sen. Rick Scott is calling on the Trump administration to ensure the funds are spent correctly at the state and local level. In a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Scott calls on federal officials to ensure the states and local communities spend their allotted funds only on coronavirus-related expenditures, and not used to fill in gaps in respective budgets.
While praising state and local governments that “are working tirelessly to protect our communities,” Scott is “hearing reports that some states and localities would like to use those dollars as a piggy bank for unrelated expenses, or that they may attempt to double-dip by requesting funds for the same expense from multiple federal sources.”
No one argues the impact on state budgets. On several occasions, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has criticized the CARES Act — and his own state’s delegation — for the state’s share of proceeds. Florida will have problems of its own, but hard-hit states such as New York, Illinois and California will need to fill gaping budget holes somehow.
‘Federal dollars should not be used to backfill lost revenue or plug holes in poorly designed state budgets,” Scott added. “Americans expect that their tax dollars will be used for Coronavirus response, not to backfill decades of bad fiscal policy in certain states.”
Senators seek expedited grants
While Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland are on opposite sides on how to replenish the Paycheck Protection Program, they have come together again on an important issue involving specific small businesses. They are asking the Small Business Administration (SBA) to facilitate specific grants that would help process other grants intended for small businesses.
In a letter to SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza, Rubio and Cardin, the committee chairman and ranking member, respectively, asked the agency to expeditiously fulfill the grant requirements for SBA Small Business Development Center and Women’s Business Center Associations. These grants would help establish a much needed centralized online platform that consolidates available federal resources for small businesses.
“Considering the immense impact that small businesses have on the United States economy, it is the position of the Committee that delays in administering these grants would result in significant economic injury and damage,” the Senators wrote. “We ask that you take immediate steps to allow for the expeditious administration of these grants and the resources they establish.”
The letter reminds Carranza that she is authorized to waive competitive bidding, if necessary, to complete the platform and keep the grant money flowing to small businesses in need. Speaking on behalf of the committee, Rubio and Cardin said: “Delays in administering these grants would result in significant economic injury and damage.”
“Given the President’s March 2020 declaration of a National Emergency due to the COVID-19 outbreak and emergent need for these services, it is our position that a noncompetitive procurement process is justified,” they continued. “We ask that you take immediate steps to allow for the expeditious administration of these grants and the resources they establish.”
Mail voting, USPS funds linked
Last week Trump made it clear he is no fan of voting by mail, despite many successes by Republicans in several states, including Florida. To facilitate enhanced mail voting within the context of the coronavirus, Democrats are seeking billions in new funding for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), something Trump also opposes.
The President is said to favor privatizing the Postal Service, which loses billions each year and reportedly threatened to veto the CARES Act over $25 billion Democrats inserted into the agreement for the USPS. He finally agreed to supply $10 billion, but Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings is urging more robust funding for postal operations and enhanced mail voting. Reports claim the USPS could run out of funds by June.
In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Hastings referenced last week’s election fiasco in Wisconsin, where partisan haggling resulted in Wisconsin voters being forced to vote in precincts on Election Day. He said Congress and voters must adapt to “the new reality” of the coronavirus.
“As we continue to adapt to this new reality, Americans must not be forced to choose between the voting box and their health,” the Delray Beach Democrat wrote. “Therefore, we must take appropriate steps now to ensure all Americans wishing to exercise their franchise are able to do so through primary season and the general election in November in a way that protects their health and their ballot.”
Hastings added Congress “should move quickly to provide USPS funding” to help Americans in a way that “protects their health and their ballot.”
Florida’s high-profile orphan
As the old saying goes: “Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan.” The misfortunes of the Florida unemployment system may be a perfect illustration.
The collapse of an already-struggling system under the weight of tens of thousands of claims brought recriminations and some critical editorials. While Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson accepted responsibility for the problems, blame was first directed toward Gov. Ron DeSantis, prompting some in his administration to point the finger at Scott, who in turn looped in the administration of former Gov. Charlie Crist.
“It’s a sh** sandwich, and it was designed that way by Scott,” said an unnamed DeSantis adviser in an interview with POLITICO. It is not the first time the DeSantis and Scott camps have butted heads before, dating back to inauguration day.
The Miami Herald ripped Scott in an editorial, blaming him for most of the problems, including choosing the vendor because it was represented by lobbyist Brian Ballard, who is close to both Scott and Trump. The editorial was laced with disdain and accepted the contention Scott intentionally designed a product that did nothing for the unemployed.
Scott responded to the editorial, calling it “wildly off the mark.” He said, “every unemployment system in the country is being overwhelmed,” and the comment from the DeSantis adviser came from someone “with an ax to grind, who made a claim that is obviously false.”
The first-term Republican Senator also said, “the system was mandated by legislation passed before I became governor,” while the vendor (Deloitte) “was chosen by the previous administration” led by Crist.
The Florida unemployment system is the story of a sad orphan.
Waltz laments China’s influence
China’s role in the current pandemic is on the minds of victims around the world, but many believe they pose a threat for multiple reasons. Rep. Michael Waltz recently offered his views on the world’s most populous nation, their influence within the World Health Organization (WHO), and their practice of “debt diplomacy.”
During an interview on Newsmax, Waltz expressed concern over China’s influence over the WHO as a danger to global health and coronavirus recovery. Several are calling for Dr. Tedros Adhanom, the WHO Director-General, to resign.
Waltz particularly pointed to the WHO’s discouragement of global travel restrictions in February and delaying a pandemic declaration in March, “all of which have contributed to the spread of coronavirus around the world.”
Before assuming his current role, Tedros served as an Ethiopian foreign minister and earlier as a health minister, when China made significant investments in infrastructure. Waltz believes that could explain the deference China seems to receive from the current leadership of the WHO.
“Ethiopia is hugely indebted to China because many of their infrastructure programs — roads, bridges, ports — that China is [putting up] in Ethiopia and frankly, all over Africa right now, where they do what we called ‘debt diplomacy,'” the St. Augustine Republican said. “I call [China] the ‘payday lender’ of the world, except they don’t take your TV or your radio — they take your infrastructure.”
Analysts in the U.S. and other countries believe the virus was launched in an open market that sells fresh meat, fish and produce, otherwise known as “wet markets.” China is reportedly reopening those markets in Wuhan, the reported origination of COVID-19.
“If the WHO was truly neutral and objective and looking out for global health, then they would be putting tremendous public pressure on China to keep these markets closed, yet China has already reopened them…,” Waltz said.
“The conditions in them are horrific, hugely unsanitary, and that’s how we see this animal-to-animal transmission [and] sometimes animal-to-human transmission.”
Crist offers Phase IV suggestions
In response to the coronavirus outbreak, the federal government has already enacted three measures designed to keep the economy afloat, provide direct payments and unemployment assistance to individuals, ensure access to testing, support state and local governments, and assist the health care system. The fourth one is in the planning stages, along with a disputed effort to fortify small business assistance.
One of the headlines coming out of the discussions on “Phase IV” funding was the apparent agreement between Pelosi and Trump of the need for a robust infrastructure package. Crist has a few ideas he would like to see discussed and offered those suggestions in a letter to Pelosi, House leadership, and seven key committee chairs.
“The People’s House has responded with a boldness and seriousness the pandemic deserves,” the St. Petersburg Democrat wrote. “Upcoming legislation is an opportunity to assess where help is still needed and recommit the federal government to doing whatever is necessary to support the American people and American businesses during this crisis.”
In his 19-item list of issues, Crist suggests two additional direct stimulus payments to the public, increased funding for overwhelmed or broken state unemployment systems, expanding small business assistance while extending the period of loan forgiveness, among others.
He also proposed issues not related to COVID-19 recovery, including an infrastructure package and a hurricane preparedness plan from FEMA. Others include telehealth options for opioid addiction treatment and recovery and new tools to give non-COVID, nonemergency seniors alternatives to hospitals.
“Thank you again for your leadership and consideration of these suggestions,” the letter concluded. “I believe they will enrich and supplement your existing, outstanding efforts.”
Members say Florida shortchanged
New York’s ascension to become one of the world’s hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks prompted a prioritization of supplies, personnel and equipment. As the new cases begin to level off, a re-prioritization becomes necessary
Several members of the Florida delegation are making the case that several locations in Florida are starting to fit the criteria of a hot spot. Still, the formula that determines the distribution of resources is flawed.
In a letter led by Hastings and Castor to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma, the members claim the current system shortchanges states such as Florida.
“(The current formula) does not consider the current and immense burden some hospitals and other providers are currently experiencing and means that not all health care providers will be compensated proportionally, including some children’s hospitals,” they wrote. “We urge you to prioritize health care systems, like those in Florida, that are overwhelmed and seeing costs skyrocket due to COVID-19 cases for all future funding.”
Like those representing other states, the members reaffirmed the goal of protecting health care workers, which requires sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). But they later repeated the main reason for the letter.
“For all future funding, we strongly urge you to respond to the urgency felt by our communities and health providers, including hospitals, by prioritizing (emergency funding) for Florida and other states most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” they concluded.
Also signing the letter were Democratic Reps. Crist, Stephanie Murphy, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Donna Shalala, Ted Deutch, Darren Soto, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Lois Frankel, Frederica Wilson and Al Lawson. Republicans Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Francis Rooney also signed.
Delegation fights for farmers
With small businesses so profoundly impacted by the near shutdown of the American economy, Carranza, administrator of the Small Business Administration, is hearing from several members of Congress, including Floridians (see “Senators seek” above.) The plight of farmers is an ongoing concern, prompting 17 bipartisan members of the Florida delegation to write to Carranza seeking answers as to why farmers are excluded from SBA Emergency Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL).
The letter, led by Hastings, points out that Florida’s 47,000 farms play a major role in the nation’s food supply, and the current crisis has dramatically decreased demand, putting them at risk. Currently, farmers, most of which are small businesses, are ineligible to apply for these loans due to their categorization.
“Specifically, we ask that you remove ‘agriculture enterprise’ as an ineligible entity on the EIDL application, so that farms that meet the guidelines of a small business may receive the relief that will allow them to stock our grocery produce sections and continue to cultivate and harvest their crops,” the members wrote. “It is incumbent on the federal government to provide stability to those most in need, during a time of health and economic crisis.”
Also joining the letter were Democratic Reps. Castor, Crist, Deutch, Frankel, Lawson, Mucarsel-Powell, Murphy, Soto, Shalala and Val Demings, Republicans included Reps. Diaz-Balart, Neal Dunn, Bill Posey, John Rutherford, Greg Steube and Ted Yoho.
“Farmers create stability for the nation’s food supply, so it is incumbent on our nation to ensure economic stability for them,” Hastings said.
Cuba accused of ‘doctor trafficking’
Cuba has developed a reputation for its medical system, and in times of trouble, other countries call upon them for their help. That has occurred during the coronavirus crisis, but even during these dire circumstances, the government benefits from the work of their doctors, which three South Florida representatives describe as “doctor trafficking.”
Rooney and Diaz-Balart, along with Mucarsel-Powell, spoke out on the situation, issuing a joint statement condemning Cuba’s actions. They described the socialist regime’s efforts as a way to engage in a disinformation campaign.
“The Cuban regime has shamelessly exploited this COVID-19 pandemic to engage in a misleading medical diplomacy campaign by trafficking doctors from whom they pocket as much as 80% of their salaries, confiscate their passports and impose strict monitoring,” they said. “The regime is also spreading dangerous disinformation about the virus worldwide with the aim of dividing the international community.”
The trio further added Cuba could not be counted to be a reliable partner, instead hoping to gain financially.
“Health care workers combating COVID-19 around the world are heroes who risk their lives daily,” they added. “We must stand united in condemning the Cuban regime’s efforts to exploit these heroes for political and financial gain during this unprecedented global health crisis.”
Shalala blasts DeSantis school suggestion
As some states and school districts have already declared the school year ended, DeSantis held out the possibility that some Florida schools could open again sometime in May. In justifying that possibility, the Governor mistakenly stated no one under the age of 25 has died of COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that five people ranging from infant to 25 are among the nearly 25,000 who have lost their lives in the U.S. For Shalala, a former Secretary of Health and Human Services, the thought of opening the schools is a bad idea and is about more than those who have died.
“(Gov. DeSantis) is talking about reopening schools because ‘if you’re younger, [COVID-19] just hasn’t had an impact,'” the Coral Gables Democrat said via social media. “Last time I checked Governor, at least 1,500 Floridians under 24 have tested positive for this disease. What are you thinking?!”
The President of United Teachers of Dade, Karla Hernandez-Mats, strongly agreed with Shalala in condemning DeSantis’s statement, arguing that it would be dangerous to reopen until “the safety of our community is secured.”
As he floated the possibility, DeSantis said that if schools would reopen, it would likely be in two-week increments, but only in areas least affected by the virus.
Soto pushes for overtime for first responders
Democratic Rep. Darren Soto sent a letter Monday to the Department of Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and the Small Business Administration Administrator Carranza, urging them to consider allowing local governments to use resources from the state stabilization fund to cover the overtime and hazard pay of first responders.
“First responders are at the front-line of the COVID-19 pandemic response. They are responding to historically high 911 call volume, often without the necessary personal protective equipment. They are in routine physical contact with potentially infected persons and are directly exposed to the danger of the crisis,” Soto wrote. “This has resulted in widespread staff shortages and an increasing pressure for first responders to work extended hours.”
Departments routinely turn to overtime pay, usually governed by union contracts. Short of being able to provide the overtime pay, the departments often can find it challenging to provide staffing. Soto also argued that the first responders deserve the extra pay.
“Protecting first responders’ ability to work is critical to public health and safety. This is why I urge your full and fair consideration to allow local governments to use resources from the state stabilization fund to cover the overtime and hazard pay of first responders,” continued Soto. “First responders put their lives on the line day after day to ensure the health and safety of others. They must also be protected and covered to ensure that they can continue doing their essential jobs.”
On this day
April 14, 1971 — In a dramatic announcement, President Richard Nixon said the United States was relaxing the trade embargo with China that had lasted for 21 years. The announcement came just a few hours after China Premier Chou En-lai proclaimed in Peking (Beijing) a “new page in relations” with the U.S.
The resumption of trading would end an embargo begun through the Export Control Act of 1950. The U.S. took action in response to the Chinese revolution of 1949, which saw nationalist Chinese flee to Formosa (Taiwan) to set up a government in exile. The nationalist Chinese were briefed on the U.S. action.
April 14, 1981 — A new era in space passed its first test when the Space Shuttle Columbia touched down at Edwards Air Force Base, the first spacecraft to land anywhere other than in the ocean. After lifting off from Cape Canaveral, astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen stayed in space for two days and 36 orbits around the earth.
“You can’t believe what a flying machine this is. It’s really something special.” Young exclaimed. As he left the spacecraft, Young looked over the spacecraft’s lifesaver thermal tiles, punching the air with gusto.
Wilson brightens Easter for some
This year, Christians celebrated Easter mostly at home instead of churches. While some had Easter meals with family, others did not have the financial means to do the same.
Rep. Frederica Wilson and her 5,000 Role Models of Excellence project jumped in to make the day brighter for some. She organized contributions of $100 gift cards from Publix to help some families in need.
“We’re all concerned right now, about all of the children that are shut-in, all of the families that are struggling, all of the families that can’t put food on the table,” the Miami Gardens Democrat said.
Kids were not left out. Wilson and the organization gave out 50 Easter baskets filled with chocolate goodies.
Belated greetings go out to Rep. Ted Yoho of Gainesville (April 13).