Delegation for 5.1.20: Bailouts — Chinese citrus — media PPP — pandemic deportations — VA shortages

capitol u.s. green 9.30.19
Next up: Bailing out states.

State bailouts up next

Despite spending or committing nearly $2.7 trillion to prop up the U.S. economy and provide lifelines to individuals and families, more is needed soon. Both the House and Senate are focusing on what is known as “phase four” that will feature assistance to state and local governments.

The need to help states and communities for their expenditures toward health and safety is about all the two parties agree upon at this point. How much and for what purpose will guide the debates once Congress returns.

The Senate resumes next week, while the House postponed their next session indefinitely. Whether in person or by Skype or Zoom, a $500 billion package for state governments, even more for local governments, and a massive infrastructure package is up for discussion. Later in the week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the figure for states could grow to $1 trillion.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi believes the next bailouts to the state could top $1 trillion. Image via AP.

Some, including Sen. Rick Scott, want to correct problems in previous coronavirus spending bills, take China out of the supply chain during an emergency and fundamentally define what a bailout of state governments will mean.

“As Congress begins discussions on the next phase of Coronavirus relief, I have two main priorities: First, we must hold China accountable for hiding information and lying about the Coronavirus that originated in its country,” he said in a statement.

“Second, we have to ensure we are protecting the poorest families in our country by stopping any fraud, waste and abuse of taxpayer funding in previous Coronavirus response packages.”

The term often used for assistance to state governments is “bailout.” That term means different things to different people.

Scott and many of his colleagues make it clear that any assistance going to states will be to help or reimburse them for coronavirus expenditures. They insist that bailing out states with substantial unfunded pension liabilities will not happen.

States like Illinois, for example, have a pension liability of $137 billion, while some others, are only slightly better off. Republicans pledge not to accept any spending bill that would allow relief funds to go toward easing the pension burden.

“Americans expect that their tax dollars will be used for Coronavirus response, not to backfill decades of bad fiscal policy in certain states,” Scott said.

During one of his daily briefings, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed back hard against Scott, saying Florida receives more in federal dollars than they put it. He added: “New York state bails them out every year.”

Another huge issue that could create lengthy delays is protection from liability for businesses and employees once states reopen. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to add that to the funding bill for states and communities, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said: “it makes no sense.”

One facet that now appears unlikely to be part of phase four is infrastructure. Both Trump and Pelosi have agreed that substantial funding needed to go into this area to rebuild roads and bridges, but McConnell says it will not happen, adding “we need to keep the White House in the box.”

Challenging citrus imports

The Florida agriculture industry is suffering much like farmers in other states. Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio are questioning a recent decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that could make things worse.

In a joint letter to Secretary Sonny Perdue, the Senators ask for a reversal of a decision that gave the green light to import five varieties of citrus fruit into the U.S. from China. In addition to the obvious competition, Rubio and Scott warn of the introduction of pests into the state.

Sonny Perdue USDA (Photo Credit: AP)
Florida’s Senators say a decision by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue could be devastating to Florida farming.

“In recent years, Florida’s citrus growers have suffered the impacts of hurricanes, unfairly priced imports and from citrus greening, a disease which originated in China and spread to the U.S. from imported citrus,” the senators wrote. “Risking the introduction of invasive species and diseases into the U.S. is irresponsible, especially given our knowledge of how citrus greening previously entered our country by imported citrus and is spread by an invasive pest species.”

They cite the Pest Risk Assessment (PRA), which highlights the concerns of importing these citrus products from China. The PRA identifies 15 pest species of mites, fruit flies, and moths and two pathogens, which could “cause unacceptable impacts” if they enter the U.S. via imports of these Chinese citrus products.

“The federal government and the state of Florida have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to research citrus greening and to slow its spread and find a cure,” they added. “Allowing new imports from China further harms Florida’s citrus growers and risks undermining the progress that has been made through these investments.”

The letter concludes by urging Perdue to reconsider.

PPP OK for media

A great deal of discussion has evolved over who should be eligible for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. Two weeks ago, Sarasota Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan said local media outlets should be eligible, something with which Sen. Marco Rubio agreed this week.

“Ultimately, the goal of this program is not to bail out any company; it’s to pay your workers, to keep Americans, no matter what you do for a living, to keep American workers from filing unemployment claims and having their financial lives ruined,” he said in a video posted online.

“That is the purpose of PPP, and that is a noble purpose, no matter what profession you’ve chosen and no matter what your views are, or what you’re going to write about me or anybody else for that matter.”

While these two prominent Republicans, including the Senator who co-created the program, are comfortable with the arrangement, one of Trump’s biggest supporters is not. When learning of Buchanan’s support last month, Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach was opposed to “media knuckleheads” getting federal dollars and said,” Like hell they deserve bailouts from taxpayers who are tuning out their bullsh**.”

Media organizations around the country are taking advantage of the opportunity. Among those is the Tampa Bay Times, who received $8.5 million in funding during the first round of the PPP.

Deportations during pandemic urged

Immigration is already a polarizing topic, but it is now part of the discussion of the COVID-19 virus. This week, Gaetz introduced legislation that, to help prevent the spread of a communicable disease, the government should deport all illegal immigrants held in the U.S. when a national emergency is declared.

The PANDEMIC (Protect American Nationals During Emergencies by Mitigating the Immigration Crisis) Act is the latest call for stricter border and immigration restrictions during the crisis. The bill was introduced in response to a bill recently introduced by Washington Democrat Rep. Pramila Jayapal and New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker¸ which would release illegal immigrants and halt immigration enforcement against those that are not considered a health risk.

Matt Gaetz accuses Sen. Cory Booker of trying to ‘engineer our country.’

“It is unconscionable that at a time when we should be working together as Americans, Democrats are working to socially engineer our country and advance their legislative priorities,” Gaetz said in a statement. “The PANDEMIC Act puts Americans first by requiring that all illegal aliens be deported during a pandemic, ensuring our resources are used to benefit and protect American citizens.”

Gaetz is accusing the Democrats of wanting “COVID catch and release on the border” and noted that Mexico was conducting similar deportations.

“I think we should love our country at least as much as Mexico loves theirs,” he said.

The bill is sure to fail in the Democratic-controlled House. Still, it is intended to supplement previous actions that include the travel restrictions instituted by Trump, shutting down most of the visa processing servers, and holds on issuing new green cards, which was upheld by a federal judge this week.

Displaced worker grant

As the country deals with the current pandemic, some regions are still recovering from previous disasters. The Florida Panhandle is among those regions.

Rep. Neal Dunn, whose District 2 lies in the epicenter of where Hurricane Michael landed, saw a project he has prioritized since disaster struck finally realized. Dunn was deeply appreciative when the United States Department of Labor announced a $3.33 million Disaster Recovery National Dislocated Worker Grant.

During the current pandemic, Neal Dunn is looking to help take care of the previous disaster. Image via Getty.

“I am thrilled that the Department of Labor has released these funds. Our district has been through so much between recovering from Hurricane Michael and facing stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 outbreak, and this will be a much-needed boost to continue our recovery efforts,” the Panama City Republican said in a news release. “As we continue to rebuild, I remain committed to keeping my constituents employed and our economy stable.”

The grant is awarded to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO). It will expand the service capacity of dislocated worker training and employment programs at both the state and local levels by providing financial assistance to the unexpected economic events that cause significant job losses.

This grant marks the most significant funding received by counties recovering from Hurricane Michael since the Hurricane Michael State Recovery Grant Program administered by the Florida Department of Emergency Management (FDEM) awarded $20 million in December 2019.

That came just after timber producers were awarded a much larger $380 million grant in November from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the devastation the storm caused.

U.S. investing in China?

Almost every day, calls come from Capitol Hill to reevaluate the U.S. relationship with China, especially since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. On yet another issue, Rep. Michael Waltz says Americans are about ready to dump billions of dollars into the Chinese economy without their knowledge.

According to the St. Augustine Republican, military and government workers contributing to a 401(k)-style retirement plan, will soon see their contributions and the federal matching contributions, “funneled into Beijing’s stock exchange.” In an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, Waltz makes the case why changes authorized by the Thrift Savings Plan’s board of directors is a bad idea.

Michael Waltz is warning about American investments in China.

“Chinese companies directly benefiting from this change include Hikvision, a tech company blacklisted by the U.S. government for its role in the surveillance of the Muslim Uighurs, an ethnic minority group being persecuted and forcefully indoctrinated in barbed-wire concentration camps by the Chinese Communist Party,” Waltz wrote. He listed other companies, such as telecommunications giant ZTE, as a threat to the U.S.

Waltz further claims the board would not consider investing in a Russian company, so why are they investing with China. He adds that the government prohibits individuals from “investing in the economies of our adversaries.”

In October, Rubio, Scott and a bipartisan group of Senators wrote to Michael Kennedy, Chairman of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, urging him and the board to reverse their decision, but to no avail.

Waltz is calling on the President to either issue an executive order stopping the change — or replace current board members advocating for the policy. He called on members to support the TSP Act, legislation he recently filed to prevent future occurrences.

Joining as co-sponsors of the legislation are Republican Reps. Gaetz, Dunn, Bill Posey, Ross Spano and Brian Mast.

“Every dollar we contribute directly or indirectly to the mainland Chinese regime puts American security and the fabric of our society at risk. I know our military members standing guard around the world would agree,” the letter concludes.

Foreclosure protection

Over the past six weeks, good economic news has been hard to find. Among the many problems facing Americans has been the threat of foreclosures on their homes.

Looking back on the Great Recession and the tragic number of foreclosures during that period, Rep. Darren Soto introduced the Save Our Homes Act. The bill would amend the CARES Act and provide a six-month reprieve from foreclosure and protection from unaffordable balloon payments once the six months expires.

Darren Soto looks to help ‘Save Our Homes.’

“The effects of the coronavirus are hard-hitting and being felt across all sectors of American life,” the Kissimmee Democrat said in a news release announcing the bill. “Due to COVID-19 illnesses, layoffs and mass unemployment, millions of homeowners need a simple national plan for real relief. The Save Our Homes Act gives Central Floridians and all Americans a real chance to save their homes and recover from this crisis.”

Under the CARES Act, a borrower with a federally-related mortgage loan experiencing hardship due to the coronavirus crisis may request forbearance to the borrower’s servicer for up to 180 days. While helpful, many borrowers have expressed concerns that servicers are offering a balloon payment option that would require the entire amount owed for the forbearance period to be paid at once.

The bill has a fraud-prevention mechanism, requiring applicants to show a COVID-19 financial hardship, directly or indirectly, from a partial or total loss of income. Stimulus checks are not included in the income calculation. To qualify for forbearance, a borrower would have to have a mortgage-backed by any financial institution using RESPA accounts, which will qualify most Americans’ mortgages.

Among the bill’s co-sponsors are Democratic Reps. Frederica Wilson and Kathy Castor.

Blockchain relief

Soto has been a leader in Congress on the issue of blockchain technology, normally used for the transmission of digital currency. The Kissimmee Democrat sees a way to use blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) to distribute funds more effectively via the CARES Act.

A bipartisan group of 10 colleagues joined Soto in writing to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, urging him to deploy such technology to help get necessary relief to its intended recipients much more quickly.

Darren Soto is calling on Steven Mnuchin to employ blockchain to help distribute CARES Act funds.

“We thus strongly encourage the Treasury Department to utilize private sector innovations such as blockchain and DLT to support the necessary functions of government to distribute and track relief programs and direct that all guidance support the use of technology to facilitate the delivery of CARES Act benefits,” the letter reads.

“Such steps will ensure both that America retains its technological advantage and that relief is delivered quickly to the small businesses and individuals who need it most.”

Soto is a co-chair of the Congressional Blockchain Caucus. He believes the technology is probably the most secure tool currently available.

“It works so well in hand with artificial intelligence, and it’s not subject to hacking or changes once you have that fixed ledger down,” Soto told Coindesk. “We could see greater speed and efficiency right now,” he said of the proposed system.

Among the six Republicans and five Democrats signing the letter was Posey, a Rockledge Republican.

NOAA grant

Even as the COVID-19 state of emergency continues to overshadow almost every significant event, the damage caused by the 2018 red tide outbreak will not soon be forgotten. Rep. Charlie Crist has announced a $227,122 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the University of South Florida (USF) in conjunction with the University of Central Florida (UCF) to help combat future red tide occurrences.

According to the National Ocean Service, red tide is a colloquial term for harmful algal blooms (HAB) that occur when colonies of algae produce toxic or harmful effects on people and marine wildlife. As the name suggests, the bloom often turns the water red.

Charlie Crist is making sure red tide doesn’t get lost in the shuffle during the current pandemic.

“Developing new approaches to mitigate and adapt to red tide outbreaks is critical to protecting our coastal communities, economy and way of life,” the St. Petersburg Democrat said in a news release. “NOAA’s award to USF will fund important research and response efforts right here in our own backyard, where some of our very best and brightest are working to combat red tide.”

The grant is titled “From Bloom to Bust: Estimating Economic Losses and Impacts of Florida Red Tide (Karenia brevis),” and will fund a two-year project to allow USF and UCF to analyze the economic effects of red tide ranging across 80 economic sectors. The study will identify specific interactions and experiences that influence behavior in humans, which subsequently intensify the economic impact of HAB’s.

HAB’s have been reported in every U.S. coastal state, but Florida experiences it nearly every summer. While not all algal blooms are harmful, they can have devastating impacts on local environments and fish.

Comeback plans

As parts of the nation, including Florida, begin preparations to reopen the economy gradually, ideas on the best way to do that will soon come. This week, Rep. Ross Spano, a Dover Republican, introduced his Great American Comeback economic plan.

“This economic recovery plan is intended to take a look at where we currently are, what we can do to move forward, and how to best use resources available to accomplish our end goal,” Spano says in the introduction. “It is not intended to be a final or comprehensive document by any means but, instead, a framework of legislative priorities for FL-15.”

Ross Spano is pushing the ‘Great American Comeback.’

His plan includes four main pillars that can be tackled from both the legislative and administrative side and which could be implemented in a timely fashion. These include: “eliminating burdensome government regulations,” ending the U.S. reliance on China for several products, and reducing the national debt.

Spano points to his role on the House Small Business Committee, where he serves as the ranking member of the oversight subcommittee, as the fourth pillar. He is the lone Floridian on the full committee.

“As America debates what comes next, we must consider this time as an opportunity to define where we want to see our country in 10, 20, or even 50 years from now,” Spano said in a news release announcing the plan. “Having a clear road map will not only restore our economy but bolster our national security.”

County relief

Congress is far from finished in providing federal assistance to get through the current economic crisis. Next up is aiding state and local governments (see “State bailouts” above), who have lost untold billions as their expenses have risen and revenues have plunged.

A separate argument on state assistance is underway, but Longboat Key Republican Vern Buchanan believes desperate local communities will not receive the support they need unless rule changes are made. He is urging congressional leaders to lower the population eligibility threshold for counties from 500,000 to 400,000 to receive coronavirus assistance in any future legislation passed by Congress.

State bailouts won’t happen unless rule changes get local communities involved, says Vern Buchanan.

“This arbitrary threshold disadvantages many local governments, including two of the three counties I represent,” Buchanan wrote to Pelosi and McConnell. “Both Manatee and Sarasota counties are straining to cope with growing COVID-19 caseloads, rising costs and significant revenue losses. They deserve assistance just as much as any city or county that has 500,000 people.”

The criteria were established within the CARES Act passed by Congress last month. Sarasota County has 433,000 residents, while Manatee County has 403,000.

Buchanan further pointed to a survey that predicted the Manatee-Sarasota economy faces the possibility of a $2.3 billion economic slump over the next 90 days.

“I look forward to working with the leaders in both parties to make sure that relief funds are helping as many local governments as possible. Adopting this modest change to the Coronavirus Relief Fund would enable us to achieve this essential mission,” the letter concludes.

Chinese hero

Few can argue that China tried to keep the serious nature of the coronavirus bottled up. The perfect illustration comes from the case of Dr. Li Wenliang, who tried to blow the whistle, but was silenced by Chinese authorities and subsequently died from the disease.

Rep. Greg Steube has joined an effort in the House to award the Congressional Gold Medal to him. The Dr. Li Wenliang Congressional Gold Medal Act is sponsored by Texas Republican Rep. Chip Roy and co-sponsored by seven others that include Steube and Gainesville Republican Ted Yoho.

Chinese whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang is being recognized in the Congressional Gold Medal Act.

“Dr. Li Wenliang bravely risked his safety to warn the public about COVID-19 despite the punishment he faced from the Communist Chinese government for speaking up.” the Sarasota Republican said in a news release. “We should honor Dr. Wenliang with the Congressional Gold Medal to recognize his bravery and global service.”

The doctor began trying to warn the public in December about the COVID-19 outbreak. He also attempted to warn fellow Wuhan doctors about the potential epidemic of what he called a “SARS-like” virus.

Chinese authorities quickly censored him, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic later sweeping the globe. Dr. Li contracted COVID-19 in January 2020 at a Wuhan hospital and died after breathing complications in early February as he was under investigation for “spreading rumors.”

Make China pay?

With indications continuing to show China is receiving much of the blame around the world for the coronavirus pandemic, increasing calls for accountability are coming forward. One of the latest comes from Rep. Brian Mast, who wants to hit the Chinese in the wallet.

Mast has introduced a resolution that calls for the U.S. to withhold debt payments to China equivalent to costs incurred by the U.S. to deal with COVID-19. This would amount to trillions appropriated to help individuals, businesses, hospitals and governments.

Brian Mast wants to make China pay.

“China’s total lack of transparency and mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak has cost tens of thousands of lives, millions of jobs and left untold economic destruction,” the Palm City Republican said in a news release announcing the resolution. “Congress must hold China accountable for their cover-up and force them to pay back the taxpayer dollars that have been spent as a result.”

Estimates indicate China owns about $1.1 trillion of the current U.S. debt. This and other punitive measures are under discussion within the Trump White House.

When asked during a White House news conference, Trump seemed hesitant, indicating added tariffs might be a better tool.

VA PPE shortage

As several states were approaching their peak number of coronavirus cases, the calls for additional personal protection equipment (PPE) were a common occurrence. Trump implemented the Defense Production Act (DPA) to compel the production of equipment on occasion, but just as often said, other companies stepped forward voluntarily.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said this week that Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital facilities are still facing shortages and Trump is to blame due to his failure to implement the DPA more broadly.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz addresses the PPE shortage at the VA.

“We write to express profound concern over your failure to fully implement the Defense Production Act to meet the growing demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) across the nation’s public health systems, as well as the largest integrated health system, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA),” reads a letter to the President from Wasserman Schultz and Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz.

“An increasing number of media reports and our direct conversations with VA personnel indicate that VA health care facilities are struggling to guarantee the availability of necessary PPE for its health care providers and staff who are still working in hospitals to support veteran care.”

After initially denying shortages, the VA finally admitted gaps in adequately protecting VA hospital employees, but blamed the shortfall on FEMA, who they say had promised 5 million masks. According to an internal memo, more shortages are expected in the coming weeks.

“It is tragic that due to your Administration’s disorganized response and failure to use its full powers under the Defense Production Act, VA, states, other federal agencies, and public hospitals simply are not equipped with the PPE that they need to treat the impacted population,” the letter continued. “Fully invoking the Defense Production Act could prevent this moving forward.”

On this day

May 1, 1986 — U.S. officials, as well as those in Eastern Europe, are trying to assess the damage from a likely nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Western Soviet Union. A radioactive cloud of radiation was emitted over Europe, moving at the whim of the wind.

Soviet officials denied they were withholding facts about the accident but were providing few details. Early death reports indicated 2,000 people had been killed, but Secretary of State George Schultz is convinced the figure is much higher “by a good measure.”

May 1, 2003 — President George W. Bush landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to congratulate troops on a job well done in Iraq. Bush’s remarks saluted American armed forces as they fought “for the cause of liberty and for the peace of the world.”

The speech was shown on live television in the U.S. as Bush was flanked by many of the 5,000 sailors stationed on the ship. Behind the President was a sign positioned below the bridge that said: “Mission Accomplished.”

Staff Reports


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