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Loans expected to flow again
Refueling a program that provides small business loans of which billions will be forgiven, appeared to be a simple exercise. Reauthorizing the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which ran out of money nearly a week ago, is still days away at the earliest.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attempted to run through a simple bill that would have added $250 billion more to keep the money flowing, but Democrats blocked the call for “unanimous consent” approval. Unless one side is willing to take a mammoth political risk, a final agreement is expected to be enacted this week.
Whatever President Donald Trump eventually signs, Democrats may need to show, or attempt to show, tangible results for the delay. Those who obtained loans before the funds dried up were above the fray, but for those small-business owners and their employees waiting for the lifeline to maintain an income, they will need to hear the case why the delay was worth it.
Democrats sought more funds for hospitals and local governments in the PPP reauthorization but faced questions on the timing. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Willie Geist questioned Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer why Democrats did not let the money go through and do a separate bill to increase funding for hospitals and local governments.
Schumer told Geist it would be foolish to let a program with problems go through without fixing them. In addition, Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi were adamant and pledged to “not budge” from their demands for more than adding replenishing the PPP.
No one can argue the program suffered through some glitches in its brief first run. Sen. Marco Rubio, who co-authored components of the program, admitted as much and sought more guidance for lenders and applicants while the impasse continued.
“It is unfortunate that partisanship by congressional Democrats is holding up new funds for PPP, putting the livelihoods of millions of Americans at risk,” Rubio wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza. “During this unintended ‘pause’ in the PPP program, I ask that you establish clear procedures and guidance.”
Sen. Rick Scott said there are other unintended consequences. He claimed millions of dollars are being wasted on businesses that do not need the money but have received millions anyway, pointing to the highly publicized cases of national chains such as Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Potbelly’s receiving a combined $30 million.
“Right now, companies that are not being harmed at all by the Coronavirus crisis have the ability to receive taxpayer-funded loans that can be forgiven,” Scott said in a news release. “That’s wrong, and it takes money out of the hands of those Americans who really need it.”
He suggested Congress clarify who can receive the loans and make clear to banks they cannot set more hurdles for borrowers that are not in the law that established the PPP.
Trump has remained relatively quiet, by his standards, simply urging both sides to come to an agreement, with an occasional Twitter poke at Pelosi. When it is time to vote on the final agreement, he might have more to say if one of his least-favorite Republicans reappears.
Kentucky Republican Rep. Thomas Massie has pledged to again object to a unanimous consent strategy and pledge to force a quorum to be present in Washington. Slightly more than half the House membership trekked back to Washington to vote in favor of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, prompting Trump to call for throwing him out of the party.
Congress is a few days away from that story.
Scott unveils recovery plan
Talk — and debate — continues to increase about getting the economy moving again. While some would rather wait for the development of a COVID-19 vaccine before resuming normal activity, others are comfortable with the fundamentals of Trump’s “Opening Up America” plan, which slowly resumes economic activity.
Scott released what he described as his own 60-day “Let’s Get Back to Work” plan. The plan envisions parallel roles for both federal and state governments, the private sector and “Florida Families.”
“We can and we will come back better and stronger than before,” Scott said in a news release announcing the plan. “America has faced many challenges in our 244-year history and we’ve always overcome them.
“It will not be easy — it will take strategic foresight, determination and diligence, and most importantly a commitment from everyone, but I know that after we heal the sick, we can also heal our broken economy and get back to work.”
At the top of the federal list is to fund, in whatever amount possible, research and expedited development of a vaccine. Funding to expedite an increase in testing is also prominent on the list.
States must play a significant role in increasing testing, as well as build their own stockpiles of personal protective equipment. The plan also calls for states to focus on nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
While Floridians are encouraged to ensure they are up-to-date on current situations and available aid to them, Scott also urged residents to look beyond the immediate crisis. The plan implores Floridians to buy from local merchants and to buy American instead of relying on products from China.
“This pandemic has exposed the need to vastly reduce consumer reliance on products made in Communist China,” the plan reads. “Every family needs to understand that when they purchase products made in China, they are supporting the Chinese Communist Party and their efforts to control the world and destroy freedom.”
Rubio blasts Hong Kong arrests
With the coronavirus capturing the attention of the world, perhaps Hong Kong and China thought it was a good time to arrest democracy advocates. Among those arrested was 81-year-old former lawmaker Martin Lee.
The action brought reactions of outrage in the U.S. and by many of its allies. In the Senate, Rubio joined with a bipartisan group of colleagues to condemn the move.
“At the urging of Beijing amid a global pandemic, the Hong Kong government has opted to arbitrarily arrest 15 pro-democracy activists,” Rubio said in a statement. “If Chief Executive Carrie Lam would like us to believe that Hong Kong remains deserving of its special status, then she must lead in a different direction.
Joining Rubio were Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, along with Republican Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho and Cory Gardner of Colorado. All are members of the Foreign Relations Committee, while Rubio is also co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the actions are “inconsistent with commitments made under the Sino-British Joint Declaration” that turned Hong Kong over to Chinese oversight in 1997. Attorney General William Barr said the actions “demonstrate once again that the Chinese Communist Party cannot be trusted.”
The Office of the Commissioner of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong said police were enforcing the law against those suspected of organizing and participating in unauthorized assemblies, and foreign countries have no right to interfere, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported.
“The true test of Hong Kong’s autonomy is what happens when Beijing demands absurd arrests, intimidates judges and LegCo members, or claims the Basic Law no longer limits their interference,” Rubio said. “I will work with my colleagues and the administration to ensure that the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act is fully implemented.”
Gaetz defends lease arrangement
For weeks, Rep. Matt Gaetz has hammered away at his fellow Republican, Sen. Richard Burr, for selling stock shortly after receiving a detailed briefing on the dangers posed by the coronavirus. When POLITICO was recently asking questions for an article about Gaetz’s district office lease arrangement with a friend, the second-term Republican from Fort Walton Beach suspected someone was taking Burr’s side.
“POLITICO shills for Burr,” Gaetz tweeted. “Busts me: (1) having a friend (2) maybe getting a bargain 4 taxpayers (3) allowing donations of gift certificates to art students and (4) introducing legislation to help every restaurant in my district, equally. Over $500k returned to taxpayers!”
The story presents the case that Gaetz was flouting House rules, which prohibit arrangements with those with whom the member has a professional relationship and that taxpayers are entitled to an agreement that is “at market value,” which Gaetz and the landlord maintain is the case.
Gaetz, who has relentlessly called out Burr for the stock trades, backed up his claim of saving taxpayers $500,000 by noting he has returned that much to the federal treasury by not spending all funds provided to run his Washington and district offices.
Gaetz claims to have received approval for the arrangement from the House on two occasions. When asked, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he was unaware of the arrangement, but asked for the chance to “let me check the rules.”
Meanwhile, Burr said he made his stock sales using information that was available to the public, but the Justice Department is looking into the matter. Gaetz will not be the only one commenting on the matter as it moves along, while he should expect more incoming as well.
Yoho backs China resolution
Rep. Ted Yoho, who serves as the top Republican on the House Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee, is one of the most prominent supporters of a resolution targeting actions by China over the coronavirus.
Yoho is co-sponsoring the resolution which calls for China and other countries to close live wildlife markets and further demands the “Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to cease spreading disinformation regarding the origins of coronavirus (COVID-19).”
The Gainesville Republican is one of six co-sponsors of the resolution that was drafted by Ohio Republican Rep. Steve Chabot, who also serves on the Foreign Relations Committee with Yoho. It is designed to call attention to the threats posed by live wildlife markets and animal-to-human disease transmission.
“As a large animal veterinarian for over 30 years, it is not uncommon for diseases to originate in animals and make the jump to humans,” Yoho said. “In fact, six-to-seven out of 10 zoonotic diseases humans contract originate in the animal world. It is important that we not only remain vigilant in monitoring new diseases, but we take every precaution to stop zoonotic outbreaks.”
The resolution also “affirms the unanimous consensus of the medical community that the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China, and spread through the nexus of the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in that city.”
The resolution also affirms that “animals are subject to inhumane treatment in unsanitary conditions at live wildlife markets as well as through the exotic pet trade and other wildlife trafficking, including in the United States.”
“Closing live animal markets is a vital common-sense step in preventing future pandemics. These markets operate without any kind of USDA type of inspections that check for disease(s) before the meat reaches the consumer,” Yoho added. “By taking away these markets, and raising safety standards, we will drastically curtail a disease’s ability to jump from animals to humans,” Yoho concluded.
Soto seeks worker rewards
Although most of the country has been shut down by stay-at-home orders, there are still essential workers risking their safety working on the front lines to ensure Americans are still receiving health care, essential supplies and services. Rep. Darren Soto of Kissimmee and a few delegation colleagues believe these workers deserve added benefits for their vital service.
Soto, joined by his colleagues, wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Small Business Administrator Jovita Carranza seeking overtime and hazard pay for those who work in fields covering essential services.
“Countless public sector employees are putting themselves at risk to perform essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the members wrote “This includes our first responders (fire, police, EMS), 9-1-1 operators, postal workers, teachers and school administrators, transportation and utility services, and countless others. These people are required to continue their service on behalf of the public and are directly exposed to the danger of the crisis.”
According to the Labor Department, last week Americans filed 5.2 million unemployment claims, bringing the total over the last four weeks to more than 22 million. The letter points to putting added economic weight on essential workers who in many cases have become, or are becoming, the sole source of income in their household and adds to a higher risk of contracting the virus.
“Without surprise, postal workers and transportation service employees have some of the highest numbers of those who have contracted COVID-19,” the members continued. “We must protect these public employees’ ability to work. They have been deemed essential for a reason.
“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 local essential service public sector employees,” the letter concludes.”
Joining Soto in signing the letter were Democratic Reps. Alcee Hastings, Frederica Wilson, Kathy Castor and Al Lawson.
Bilirakis joins kids cancer bill
When pharmaceutical companies break the law and are ordered to pay penalties, courts are able to direct funds toward injured parties or entities. Rep. Gus Bilirakis is co-sponsoring legislation in which awards would be channeled directly to critical medical research on behalf of children.
The Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act 2.0 looks to replace original authorization to use proceeds for research that is due to expire within the next three years. It would replace the 2014 Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, which has provided $75 million to childhood cancer and disease research, and essentially established a 10-year Pediatric Initiative Fund.
The law requires allocated funds be appropriated to national research institutes and national centers for making grants for pediatric research.
“Pediatric cancer remains the No. 1 disease that leads to the death of American children. While survival rates have improved for some types of pediatric cancers, thousands of children are lost to cancer each year and many more encounter life-threatening complications related to harsh chemotherapies,” Bilirakis said.
Ellyn Miller, founder and president of the Smashing Walnuts Foundation, said, “My daughter, Gabriella, called upon our elected officials to ‘stop talking and start doing’ two weeks before she died of brain cancer at the age of 10. My heartfelt thanks to all the members of Congress who have joined together to support the search for better treatments and cures for our children.”
The penalties redirected by this legislation are toward the Kids First Pediatric Research Program at the National Institutes of Health from the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Large civil sanctions, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars from six violations, were levied against pharmaceutical companies since 2013.
“Kids First funds much-needed research on rare childhood cancer, birth defects and other rare pediatric diseases,” Bilirakis said. “Currently, only 4% of the National Cancer Institute’s $4.9 billion budget goes toward the development of cures and treatments for childhood cancer and other rare diseases — a historic low in the U.S.”
The bill’s original sponsor is Virginia Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton. Joining Bilirakis in co-sponsoring are Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole, and Vermont Democratic Rep. Peter Welch, who co-sponsored the original version of this bill.
Co-chairs seek better regulation
Most seem to agree that the coronavirus either began or embarked on its deadly spread from a Wuhan, China wet market. Whatever the role these markets played, the leadership of the Florida delegation is troubled these markets have reopened and have asked Trump to use whatever influence he may have to put them under greater scrutiny.
Delegation co-chairs Alcee Hastings, a Delray Beach Democrat, and Vern Buchanan, a Longboat Key Republican, wrote to Trump asking him to call on China’s President Xi Jinping to aggressively expand regulation and enforcement of live animal markets, or to force the closure of noncompliant markets. They contend there are multiple reasons to take such action.
“Certain live animal markets keep a variety of domesticated animals and wildlife, including common and endangered species, in unsanitary and inhumane conditions where they are purchased and then slaughtered for human consumption in the same contaminated areas,” they wrote.
“It is clear that the contaminated and inhumane conditions in which these animals are kept and killed present a danger to the health of humans, as proven by the global and devastating spread of the COVID-19 disease and other zoonotic diseases.”
In a separate statement, Hastings said, “we have a responsibility to sound the alarm now on the urgent need for expanded regulation, elevated enforcement, or closure of these markets to avoid future deadly outbreaks.” Buchanan added, “These markets are unsanitary and inhumane and have led to the deaths of countless animals and humans” and “should be shut down immediately.”
In addition to playing prominent roles in dealing with COVID-19 in their districts, the two lawmakers are among the leading animal welfare activists on Capitol Hill.
Supply chain accountability sought
Reports of emergency equipment shortages, especially personal protective equipment (PPE), surface while supplies are reportedly coming in via Project Airbridge and through the efforts of private industries who retooled their operations to manufacture PPE. Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton and a few of his House colleagues are seeking better tracking of these supplies.
Deutch joined with three Democratic colleagues to introduce the Emergency Supply Chain Transparency Act, which would require the President to report to Congress with detailed information about the transport, distribution, and possession of emergency resources by federal agencies and their private partners every 14 days.
“We’ve all seen the pictures of nurses wearing trash bags, reusing disposable masks, and improvising their own protective gear to protect themselves from COVID-19,” Deutch said in a news release.
“If Project Airbridge is to effectively address the national shortage of PPE, we must be certain we don’t lose any of the lifesaving equipment to a broken supply chain. We are demanding confirmation that the masks, gowns, and other equipment nurses and doctors need make to the hospital loading dock, not a profiteer’s warehouse.”
Problems develop when half the supplies entering the U.S. via Project Airbridge are turned over to private medical supply companies for distribution through the traditional supply chain. That provides a strong potential for hoarding, price gouging or having states and hospitals bidding against each other.
Deutch previously wrote to FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor requesting information about the agency’s accountability and oversight efforts to track PPE through private vendors responsible for the distribution of Project Airbridge supplies. He followed up one week later seeking additional clarity about FEMA’s efforts to ensure Project Airbridge supplies reach front-line health workers and first responders and is awaiting a response.
Joining Deutch as bill co-sponsors are Democratic Reps. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, Brad Schneider of Illinois and Angie Craig of Minnesota.
Members seek drilling ban
April 20 was the 10th anniversary of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that took the lives of 11 workers and injured 17 others. What is best remembered is the 87-day ordeal that dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico that led to significant environmental and economic damage to the Gulf Coast, including the Panhandle.
Despite the history, Trump has expressed pride in the fact the United States is now energy independent and seeks to keep it that way with designs to possibly increase energy production, which could include production in waters near the Florida coast. Democratic Rep. Castor of Tampa and Republican Rep. Francis Rooney of Naples, as well as Buchanan, pledged to remain vigilant to prevent new drilling.
“There is no depth safe,” Castor said. “What is so frustrating is that we can chart a stronger course.”
The entire Florida delegation is on record supporting a ban on offshore oil drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. Rooney hopes such a ban can be approved before he leaves office at the end of the year.
Buchanan cited The Protecting and Securing Florida’s Coastline Act, sponsored by Rooney and co-sponsored by Buchanan, Castor and 10 others from the delegation. The bill passed the House in 2019 and awaits action in the Senate.
Both Rubio and Scott have openly stated their support of a ban. Castor, who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, encouraged both to do more to craft policy on the issue.
With the collapse of the per-barrel price of oil this week, Florida should be safe for the foreseeable future.
Frankel touts education funds
The COVID-19 virus has affected the health and economic viability of communities around the nation. Education has taken a big hit as well with online instruction and home schooling replacing the classroom.
Part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act included provisions for colleges and universities to help them continue their missions from locations other than the campus. Rep. Lois Frankel was one of many members of Congress who celebrated the designation of emergency education funds and touted awards for Palm Beach State College and Florida Atlantic University, who received $41 million combined.
“The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically interrupted the education of our children,” the West Palm Beach Democrat said in a news release. “This critical funding will be used to help students, families, and educators cope with the impact.”
Colleges and universities were designated to receive $6.25 billion from CARES Act funds. Those schools are detailed in an 85-page list provided by the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE).
Frankel also pointed to nearly $174 million received by Florida from the Governor’s Fund established by the USDOE. Those funds may be used to cover expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus (including eligible expenses under a student’s cost of attendance, such as food, housing, course materials, technology, health care and child care.
This fund covers costs to be administered by the states as a block grant, for students of all ages, which includes postsecondary schools and K-12 schools as well as public, charter and nonpublic schools.
Shalala appointed to oversight panel
The $2.2 trillion CARES Act called for a five-person commission to oversee the disbursement of $500 billion by the Department of the Treasury to industries in dire need of assistance to stay in business. Late last week, Pelosi appointed Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala of Coral Gables as her appointee.
“Congresswoman Donna Shalala is a deeply respected and highly accomplished leader in the Congress and country, who has for decades led the fight to defend the health and economic security of the American people at the highest levels of government,” Pelosi said in a news release announcing the appointment.
“Her leadership as Secretary of Health and Human Services will serve the American people extremely well, as she works to ensure that this historic coronavirus relief package is being used wisely and efficiently to protect the lives and livelihoods of the American people, and not be exploited by profiteers and price-gougers.
Shalala offered a brief statement upon her selection.
“I am honored by the Speaker’s confidence in me,” she said. “It is an incredible challenge to ensure that this extraordinary relief bill does what it was intended to do — save lives and livelihoods and our country’s future.”
On the same day, Senate Majority Leader McConnell tapped Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey as his choice. Shalala sits on the House Education and Labor Committee, while Toomey is a member of the Senate Banking, Budget and Financial Services Committees.
Senate Minority Leader Schumer of New York named Bharat Ramamurti, a former aide to Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy of California named Arkansas Republican Rep. French Hill.
Yet to be named is the committee chair. The legislation calls for McConnell and Pelosi to jointly make that appointment.
On this day
April 22, 2000 — President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were interviewed under oath by Justice Department investigators looking into alleged campaign finance abuses during their 1996 reelection campaign. Each was questioned separately, with the White House saying neither are targets of the investigation.
Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee for President, said: “I volunteered to cooperate fully, as I have from the beginning.” The investigation, conducted under the authority of Attorney General Janet Reno, has led to 13 guilty pleas by Democratic fundraisers, including former Commerce Department official John Huang.
April 21, 2016 — Rep. Gwen Graham revealed she is considering a run for Governor in 2018 after announcing she would not seek reelection to her seat in Florida’s 2nd Congressional District. The first-term Democrat said, “state government is dysfunctional and this causes me to rethink how I can best serve the people of North Florida and our state.”
The decision to give up her seat, which she won by defeating former Republican Rep. Steve Southerland, was not a total surprise after redistricting made the conservative Panhandle district even more Republican-friendly. On the Republican side of a possible Governor’s race, the early favorite is Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose political action committee raised $4.3 million in one year.