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Proxy voting on hold
This week, the House briefly returned long enough to approve the plan by a vote of 388-5, which replenishes the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and also provides funding for hospitals and increasing coronavirus testing. President Donald Trump praised the bill’s final passage, which was sent to him for a final signature.
Nearly two weeks after the simple proposal from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to add $250 billion to PPP, the funds can now flow. Republicans blasted Democrats for the delay, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi said McConnell was to blame.
More than $2.7 trillion has been appropriated since members returned to their districts, and McConnell said another one would not go forward unless members of Congress returned to Washington. Palm City Republican Brian Mast has been among the most vocal about lawmakers returning to their jobs.
The virus-inspired absence of Congress prompted discussion on a new concept that would allow votes on legislation or spending bills while still remaining in their home districts. House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced a resolution to allow such a groundbreaking procedure.
Though many Republicans probably liked the idea of not getting on airplanes and intermingling with colleagues (Rep. Matt Gaetz once wore a gas mask on the House floor), Mast began calling on Pelosi to reconvene the House more than a week ago.
“We should all be here to act as soon as the Senate does,” Mast said from the Capitol earlier this week after driving from South Florida. “We cannot afford to let this go on for another day.”
Sarasota Republican Greg Steube was not totally against the idea of proxy voting but said several hurdles make such a groundbreaking change problematic. While he said he would “be happy to look at” suggestions, questions would arise on how to “ensure votes are being counted accurately.”
The problems were too difficult to overcome in such a short window. Within hours after putting the resolution forward, the idea was scrapped for now. Instead, a bipartisan group will discuss ways to implement the concept as the coronavirus continues to require social distancing.
A solution may be required sooner rather than later. McConnell indicated the Senate would “hit the brakes” on passing “phase four” spending that is expected to include hundreds of billions allotted for state and local government relief and infrastructure spending.
“Let’s weigh this very carefully because the future of our country in terms of the amount of debt that we’re adding up is a matter of genuine concern,” the Kentucky Republican said.
Congress is not due to return until May 4, causing funding in certain areas to possibly run low in the meantime. If McConnell is true to his word, state and local governments, the principal beneficiaries of phase four, will not be seeing further assistance anytime soon.
When the CARES Act was near passage, Sen. Rick Scott and three GOP colleagues noticed a provision in the unemployment section of the bill, which provided $600 per week for up to four months, without capping benefits at what the individual was earning before the COVID-19 shutdown. That, said Scott, provided a disincentive not to return to work.
Before the CARES Act passage, he joined with Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and South Carolina Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham to propose an amendment to fix the discrepancy, which was defeated. Scott is raising the issue again in an op-ed for FoxNews.com.
“Surely no responsible adult or elected official would favor such a government program creating a perverse disincentive to return to work when it’s safe to do so, and we start reopening our economy,” the first-term Republican wrote. “Whether your local economy starts opening up next week, next month, or three months from now, we should not have ANY policies in place that harm or slow our economic recovery.”
He pointed to a comment from Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who said: “If we err on the side of giving a hardworking family an extra thousand dollars or two thousand dollars because of our approach, so be it.”
Scott critics, and those struggling to obtain benefits, point to the Florida unemployment system he left behind after serving eight years as Governor. Floridians receive only $275 per week, supplemented by the $600 from the CARES Act, one of the lowest in the nation, and continue to fight through an infrastructure that has endured multiple problems.
Beyond unemployment, Scott further pointed out the CARES Act had other areas where funds were not distributed in the way they were intended.
“While much of the funding in the CARES Act was necessary and will help those struggling during this crisis, unfortunately, many programs are riddled with waste, inefficiency and potential fraud,” Scott countered.
“These federal programs are ‘erring’ a lot, and many of the beneficiaries aren’t hardworking families. It’s big businesses, well-connected industries, wealthy property owners and, in some cases, dead people.”
Those who think no one is paying attention, Scott says, are falling for “the government lie.”
In the closing weeks of the administration of former President Barack Obama, the agencies making up the intelligence community put together a report known as the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA). The ICA concluded Russia interfered in the 2016 election and attempted to help Trump win the election.
This week, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report agreeing with that assessment. Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said: “The committee found no reason to dispute the intelligence community’s conclusion.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the committee, issued a statement that did not agree or disagree with the final conclusion, but instead maintained that bad actors such as Russia bear watching in future elections.
“Policymakers rely on unbiased intelligence assessments to make sound decisions, and the work of our nation’s Intelligence Community remains an irreplaceable component of our national defense,” he said. “This report is yet another stark reminder of the threat foreign adversaries pose to our elections and the need to remain vigilant as we approach election season this November.”
It was an “Aha!” moment for Democrats, who believe that despite no indication Russian interference directly changed any votes, it was enough to poison the water against Hillary Clinton to the benefit of Trump. Many Republicans, led by House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes, are not convinced Russia’s motive was to elect Trump, but rather to sew discord.
The report is the fourth coming from the committee’s investigation into events surrounding the 2016 election.
China lab cash?
As China continues to fight back on reports the coronavirus may have originated in a Wuhan lab, a bipartisan group on Capitol Hill is expressing dismay that the U.S. was funding one of those Chinese labs. Rep. Gaetz, who has already expressed outrage with the funding of a potentially dangerous Wuhan laboratory last week, has now teamed up with Republican Arizona Sen. Martha McSally to ensure no stimulus funds go to the laboratory.
The two led a bicameral letter to Senate and House Leadership and signed by 52 members, called for an end to taxpayer funding of China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). In the letter, the members express their concerns over the past federal funding of the WIV lab.
“We’re sure you agree that taxpayers’ money should not be sent to a dangerous Chinese state-run bio-agent laboratory that lacks any meaningful oversight from U.S. authorities and is run by adversaries with a history of lab leaks, including SARS, and deception about the causes and extent of deadly disease outbreaks, including COVID-19,” the members wrote.
“Although President Donald Trump has stated that his administration ‘will end that grant quickly,’ we hope to ensure that WIV will not receive federal funds in any future spending packages.”
Gaetz and McSally sent a similar letter to the National Institute of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins.
Gaetz previously expressed his concerns with the WIV undertaking coronavirus experiments on mammals more than 10,000 miles away funded by a $3.7 million grant from American taxpayers. He finds it no coincidence that the WIV advertised that they needed coronavirus researchers and the coronavirus surfacing in Wuhan shortly after.
Joining the list of signatures on the letter are Florida Republican Reps. Steube, Vern Buchanan, Ted Yoho, Bill Posey, Francis Rooney and Michael Waltz.
While the federal government goes trillions of dollars deeper in debt to fight COVID-19, states face daunting budget holes as well. Rep. John Rutherford of Jacksonville and several House colleagues believe one way to help states is for the federal government to pick up all of the costs from FEMA assistance.
Rutherford and New Jersey Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell wrote to Trump, asking him to waive the 25% state cost share of FEMA reimbursements triggered by declarations of national emergencies. They said waiving the state costs would provide states with even greater ability to fight the pandemic.
“Our nation now leads the world in confirmed COVID-19 cases. We worry the worst has yet to come,” they wrote. “It is vital the federal government leverage the full weight of its resources to allow state, local, tribal and territorial governments to dedicate their limited resources to outbreak response efforts in their fight against the spread of COVID-19.”
They point to recent precedents for adjusting the cost-share following disasters. Similar action was undertaken during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the devastating flooding in Louisiana in 2016, Hurricane Irma in 2017, and Hurricane Michael in 2018.
“Increasing the federal cost-share of FEMA public assistance provides much-needed relief in additional federal assistance for state, local, tribal and territorial governments,” they wrote.
Also signing the letter were 175 bipartisan House colleagues, including Democratic Reps. Val Demings, Ted Deutch, Charlie Crist, Kathy Castor, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Stephanie Murphy, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson, Alcee Hastings, Donna Shalala and Darren Soto.
The letter has the support of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, International Association of Fire Fighters, International City/County Management Association, National Association of Counties, National Governors Association, National League of Cities, National Volunteer Fire Council and U.S. Conference of Mayors.
When viewing the COVID-19 pandemic as a global event, its effect on different states and communities varies. While the availability of resources is different between Miami or Tarpon Springs, residents need to know where to go to protect themselves and their families.
To help communities better respond to the health crisis, Rep. Gus Bilirakis and California Democrat Rep. T.J. Cox, have introduced bipartisan legislation to fulfill that mission. The bill would fund CDC grants to entities throughout the country to raise public awareness about health resources available at local community health centers, including information about testing sites and criteria.
The bill would direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), acting through the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to carry out a national awareness campaign, especially in the vital area of testing. The campaign would be multilingual and culturally competent based on scientific evidence to enhance knowledge about COVID-19 to every American community.
“Our country’s leading medical professionals have told us that a key component of getting America safely back to work is an expansion of testing and tracing of COVID-19 positive individuals,” the Palm Harbor Republican said in a news release. “Our legislation will help Americans throughout the country gain a better understanding of the testing services available nearest them and link those in need with vital resources in the community.”
During a recent Coronavirus Task Force briefing, Vice President Mike Pence said there is sufficient testing available for those states and local communities preparing to go into Phase One of the Opening Up America Again plan. If enacted, the awareness plan would guide Americans through this process that varies depending on the region.
“Community health centers offer an innovative approach to accessing affordable, quality health care and are an underutilized resource in communities across our nation,” Bilirakis added. “Our legislation is critical to utilizing this resource in a way that helps to provide accurate and updated public health education to Americans during this difficult time.”
The nation recently marked the 10th anniversary since the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill that killed 11 while also triggering an environmental disaster. That isn’t stopping drilling into deeper waters where the payouts are great and the risk potentially even greater.
Environmentalists, industry leaders, and government officials claim they’re determined to prevent a repeat of the event. Among those government officials is Crist, who served as Governor when the catastrophe happened.
With that experience serving as a background, Crist sent similar letters to the heads of the Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, and to the administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. He is calling on them to do everything within their power to mandate safe storage of oil and gas surpluses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are reports that storage tanks are filling up quickly, leaving few options for storing excess crude,” the St. Petersburg Democrat wrote. “I fear that the industry may be forced to turn to less safe, nontraditional storages options such as tankers and pipelines — a risky endeavor, particularly as we approach hurricane season.”
Specifically, Crist requests information on the plans to maintain strict oversight of safety requirements for the storage of crude oil. He further asks whether federal regulators will set limits on leasing, extraction, and production of oil during the plummeting demand caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
“Let me be clear,” Crist said in a news release. “Pipelines and tankers were not designed to store excess oil supply, and the American people are counting on federal regulators to hold oil companies accountable by enforcing the highest possible safety standards.”
People over polluters
This week the U.S. marked the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Though the celebration was muted and primarily confined to virtual tributes, it still provided a reminder that preserving the environment should be the job of all Americans.
“It was the first Earth Day when the power of people from all walks of life combined with scientific know-how and the American ‘can do’ spirit, led to landmark environmental safeguards and progress,” wrote Rep. Kathy Castor in an op-ed. “We created the Environmental Protection Agency. We passed the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act.”
The Tampa Democrat, who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, also recognized: “We can’t take to the streets like we did 50 years ago,” but there was still plenty to accomplish. She added, “now is the time to come together and “value people over polluters.”
Castor noted that more than 100,000 clean energy workers lost their jobs during March due to the COVID-19 virus, prompting a call to action from Congress to prevent that number from dramatically rising.
“Clean energy workers, young climate activists, and health care professionals are urging us forward,” she wrote. “Today, as we celebrate Earth Day 2020, I see the future — with a clear vision: a healthier, innovative, morally courageous and more equitable America.”
Safe from scams
It is safe to say that scammers have little or no conscience as they prey upon the unsuspecting, especially the elderly. Even during a global pandemic, schemes targeting those with Alzheimer’s or dementia are particularly vulnerable, prompting Deutch and Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Guy Reschenthaler to propose Congress address the issue in the next round of stimulus.
“Scammers are taking advantage of fear and confusion during this public health crisis to trick people into giving up sensitive information,” the Boca Raton Democrat said in a news release. “For the 5 million seniors living with Alzheimer’s and dementia who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, the risks are even greater.”
The lawmakers point to scammers who often target vulnerable seniors to intentionally confuse them into giving up sensitive information like bank accounts and Social Security numbers. Those seniors living with Alzheimer’s and dementia are at higher risk of falling prey to these cleverly disguised fraud schemes.
“That’s why Congressman Reschenthaler and I are urging Congressional leaders to include important fraud protections for our loved ones living with Alzheimer’s and dementia in the next stimulus plan.”
This bipartisan proposal is supported by the Alzheimer’s Association and the Elder Justice Coalition.
Glades project begins
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) has announced work is beginning on a highly-anticipated project in South Florida. They have approved a federal permit allowing construction to move forward on the stormwater treatment area (STA) of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir project.
According to Rep. Rooney, this is the final federal permit required to begin work. Several members of the delegation have been calling for the reservoir, which they said is desperately needed to combat pollution created by runoffs from Lake Okeechobee.
“The EAA Reservoir will enable water storage south of Lake Okeechobee and reduce discharges to the Caloosahatchee River,” the Naples Republican said in a news release. “The beginning of this project is great news for anyone concerned about our water quality, as the effects of improving the reservoir will cut down on the harmful algal blooms we currently experience.”
The STA is aimed to be completed by 2023, while the overall reservoir has a target completion date in 2028. The EAA reservoir is designed to store water, which can then serve agricultural and urban areas in need.
“I am thrilled to see the EAA reservoir project moving forward!” said Steube on social media. “This is a big step in cleaning up our waters and preventing toxic algae blooms. With many Floridians needing jobs now more than ever, this construction project is welcome news.”
Immigration halt panned
This week Trump signed an executive order halting legal immigration for at least 60 days. The ban stops the issuance of green cards and applies to those seeking to enter the U.S. permanently without visas.
“In order to protect our great American workers, I’ve just signed an executive order temporarily suspending immigration into the United States,” Trump said. “This will ensure that unemployed Americans of all backgrounds will be first in line for jobs as our economy reopens.”
After the policy announcement, the Trump administration made it clear the policy did not apply to those coming into the country with work visas. The plan had detractors, mostly on the Democratic side.
“(Trump) never fails to scapegoat immigrants. Now he’s using them to distract from his disastrous #coronavirus response,” the Weston Democrat said via social media. “It will not heal our economy either. Ramping up testing & protecting health care workers will truly keep Americans safe.”
The suspension of immigration also follows Trump’s January 31 travel restrictions from China and the March restrictions on travel from Europe.
Add another member of the Florida delegation among those facing some possible sanctions. This week Shalala revealed she sold shares of stock in 2019 while serving in Congress, but failed to disclose those sales as required by law.
Shalala told the Miami Herald she is in the process of setting up a blind trust where future decisions on her holdings will be made without her knowledge. Her representatives said the actions were a mistake made during the process of selling the holdings to avoid conflicts of interest.
“She had a misunderstanding about the periodic transaction report process and her need to report the sale of these stocks while preparing a blind trust,” Shalala spokesperson Carlos Condarco said. “As a new member with a broker and attorney who were not familiar with the congressional disclosure rules, there was a misunderstanding.”
The sales came to light shortly after Shalala was appointed by Pelosi to a commission overseeing $500 billion in spending by the Department of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve to mitigate economic damage from the coronavirus.
The issue comes on the heels of the controversy involving recent accusations of insider trading by Burr and, to a lesser extent, a handful of Senate colleagues.
In Florida, Republican Rep. Ross Spano is, like Burr, under Justice Department scrutiny for alleged illegal loans to his 2018 campaign for the District 15 House seat.
On this day
April 24, 2000 — Two days after the raid by federal law enforcement that took 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez at gunpoint, the outrage in Little Havana has not subsided. House Republicans have called for an investigation into the raid, visualized by a terrified Elian as the drama unfolded. Businesses in the community were closing in protest.
Attorney General Janet Reno, who ordered the action after reaching an impasse with Elian’s Miami relatives, said she had “no regrets whatsoever” about ordering the action. At the same time, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder said Reno was deeply upset and wept after issuing the order.
April 24, 2018 — A rumor rolling through the political world has former Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy entering the Democratic primary for Governor and, if nominated, would choose former Republican Rep. David Jolly as his running mate. Murphy’s apparent interest comes as none of the current announced Democratic candidates, Rep. Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum, Phillip Levine or Chris King, have stood out.
Graham was gracious upon hearing of the idea saying, “Patrick and David are both committed public servants and good friends.” Jolly said what is needed is a common approach, and a Murphy/Jolly ticket would provide “the ability to work together in a bipartisan way. Murphy was defeated by Rubio in the 2016 U.S. Senate Race, while Jolly was defeated for reelection by Crist.
Birthday greetings to Rep. Daniel Webster of Clermont (April 27).