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Masked Senators return
For the first time since March 26, at least one chamber of Congress is back in session. The Senate returned to deal with the health and economic crisis confronting the country, as well as carry on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s unblinking focus of confirming federal judges and executive agency appointees of President Donald Trump.
The return to Capitol Hill was scheduled to be bicameral, but the House abruptly changed course, with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announcing they were taking the advice of the Capitol’s attending physician.
McConnell indicated the Senate would “take whatever safeguards the Capitol physician recommends that we engage in, and we believe we can do that safely.” Borrowing from the title of a popular Fox network show, this week marked the return of The Masked Senators.
While it will be at least another week before the House returns, Rep. Brian Mast thought the House should have returned two weeks ago, while the painfully slow reauthorization of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) continued. He drove to Washington then and questioned why the rest of the House was not returning.
“We were there to show that we were ready to conduct the business of the House,” the Palm City Republican said. “It is embarrassing that Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi has not called us into session to debate the PPP.”
While each chamber will deal with the business at hand in their own way, another funding crisis is before them. Some states have indicated they are about to run out of money for necessities such as first responders with New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy saying the state’s coffers could run dry within a week.
Earlier, McConnell suggested some states would be better off declaring bankruptcy instead of massive bailouts, something which ignited Democrats.
“We are going to dig deep and fund our cops, firefighters, nurses, teachers and other heroes, not let states go #bankrupt,” Kissimmee Democrat Darren Soto said on social media. “Our first responders and the public they serve [sic] deserve better!”
Even if the sides can come together on a dollar figure, McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said any assistance bill must have protection from liability lawsuits. McConnell described a “second pandemic — which is going to be lawsuits against doctors, nurses, hospitals, and brave business people opening up.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer countered: “If it’s going to help big CEOs, but not the workers or hurt the workers, that’s not going to happen.” Pelosi described the demand as “disgraceful.”
As Senators, but limited staff, work from the Capitol, House members spread around the country are set to begin yet another engagement highlighted by millions of dollars in public funds and campaign donations. Trial lawyers overwhelmingly support Democrats in political campaigns.
“What I’m saying is we have a red line on liability,” McConnell told Fox News. “It won’t pass the Senate without it.”
World Press Freedom Day was celebrated May 3 in many parts of the world, but in several countries — such as China — the concept is an afterthought. Journalists in China are either harassed or imprisoned, prompting Sen. Marco Rubio and Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern to write to Trump, urging him to seek their release.
“We write to express our concern about the Chinese government’s increasingly draconian restrictions on press freedom and the freedom of expression,” they wrote. “On this World Press Freedom Day, we ask you to advocate for the release of unjustly imprisoned journalists, bloggers, and free speech advocates and publicly call on the Chinese government and Communist Party to end controls and permit the free flow of uncensored news and information.”
McGovern is the chair and Rubio the vice-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC).
They also urged Trump to “employ all available diplomatic options” to facilitate a return of expelled American journalists. Earlier this year, reporters from The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal were ordered out of China as reporting on the COVID-19 virus intensified.
China is ranked 177th out of 180 countries for press freedoms as evaluated by the group Reporters Without Borders. They claim “more than 100 journalists and bloggers are currently detained in conditions that pose a threat to their lives.”
Despite a strong First Amendment, the United States ranks 45th, which the organization claims is due in large part to Trump and his administration. The “current hostility” often expressed by the President indicates the U.S. is “no longer a champion of press freedom at home or abroad.”
During a two-hour virtual town hall broadcast May 3 on Fox News, Trump said he faces a hostile press and “If I was kind to them, I’d be walked off the stage.”
By any definition, the airline industry has suffered greatly with the onset of COVID-19; airline bookings are down by 90% in many areas.
Sen. Rick Scott said earlier in April that the government can issue all of the guidelines and regulations they want, but the determining factor is the people. The airlines will only recover, he said, when people feel safe to travel on them again.
As Florida inches forward on reopening the state this week, Scott looked further ahead and called on the airlines to provide clear guidance on their plans to keep American travelers safe. He noted steps taken by a handful of the major carriers.
“I’m calling on all U.S. airlines to clearly lay out how they are going to continue to keep passengers safe as we return to our ‘new normal,’” he said in a news release. “I applaud the airlines that are already taking important steps, like mandating face masks, to protect health and safety. I encourage every airline to follow suit and provide specific guidance moving forward so Americans can feel safe traveling.”
Last month, Scott sent a letter to the President and CEO of Airlines for America and the President of the National Air Carrier Association requesting information on how the airlines plan to protect workers. Over the past week, several carriers were stepping forward with safety measures designed to increase the comfort level of passengers.
On the spot
Just a few days after presidential candidate Joe Biden emphatically denied he sexually assaulted former staffer Tara Reade in 1993, many Democrats were still in an awkward position.
For the most part, Republicans are not attacking Biden for any real or imagined transgression. Instead, they are calling out those elected officials or those in the media who either remain silent, or continue to publicly back Biden, as hypocritical.
They point to the firestorm surrounding Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing that was rocked by allegations of sexual assault when he was in college.
“I believe Deborah Ramirez. I believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. I believe survivors,” tweeted Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston.
Kavanaugh’s denial of Blasey-Ford’s accusation against him was more emphatic than Biden’s, prompting Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor to remark it was “difficult to watch a sexual assault victim be marginalized….” Then-candidate Debbie Mucarsel-Powell expressed her admiration of Blasey Ford, while Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach said she stood with Kavanaugh’s accuser.
There has not been a rush to describe Reade as “courageous” for coming forward. Biden’s denial has not brought out broad outpourings of public support either. Still, Wasserman Schultz tweeted afterward that as President, Biden will “bring empathy, support for equality and a woman VP #GoJoe.”
Democrats point to Trump’s treatment of women, which is fair game. Contained in his long history of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) are those involving encounters with women. Much of this was known before the 2016 election.
No one can say with any certainty whether Reade or Blasey Ford was telling the truth. Incredibly, The New York Times editorial page urged the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to look into the allegations against Biden.
Right after the Republican National Committee looks into Trump’s NDAs.
The process of providing millions of Americans with a coronavirus stimulus payment is still underway, but there may be more where that came from. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress expect at least another round of payments will go into the next round of relief.
Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz predicts the next big spending bill will have at least one more round of individual stimulus payments, while St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist believes two more payments are necessary. Both agree the situation surrounding Florida unemployment makes additional cash payments a necessity.
Gaetz used the example of restaurants and the likelihood of reopening in the future at 50% capacity, meaning half the employees would still be without a job. The business could perhaps get up to 100% eventually, but would not last for very long with half its normal revenue.
“It wouldn’t be an economically sustainable model,” Gaetz said.
Crist did not specify how large the checks should be, which means they could spread out the previous amount or result in a net doubling of the original funding. During the first phase, recipients were provided $1,200 each, depending on income level, with $500 each for up to two dependents.
“People across our country are struggling through no fault of their own,” Crist said. “These stimulus checks are a lifeline, particularly in Florida, whose failing unemployment system is also limiting the flow of federal unemployment relief currently going out in every other state in our nation.”
Negotiations on the next round, known as CARES 2, are set to get underway this week.
Rep. Ted Yoho¸ who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, recently sent a letter to Trump imploring him to halt the importing of food from Mexico, Central America and South America. The Gainesville Republican wrote on behalf of farmers and ranchers who are facing catastrophic economic damage due to the major decline resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Additionally, he suggests that at this critical juncture, “extraordinary” measures are necessary to preserve the livelihoods of America’s food producers. Yoho notes that while large amounts of produce are destroyed during this state of emergency, allowing foreign products makes the situation even direr.
“At this critical juncture in American agriculture, extraordinary measures should be taken to help preserve America’s food producers,” the letter reads. “When we already have a glut of products within our borders, and our farmers are having to plow up their harvest-ready crops because of a market collapse and factors outside of their control, foreign agricultural products should not continue to be imported.”
Yoho is calling on the White House to “invoke a ‘force majeure’ motion to stop the importation of foreign products. He argues that it is not just about economics, but fairness.
“Our farmers are having to plow up their harvest-ready crops because of a market collapse and factors outside of their control. Foreign agricultural products should not continue to be imported. This is not sound economic or agricultural policy.”
China investments stopped
Recently, St. Augustine Republican Rep. Michael Waltz introduced legislation seeking to reverse a decision by the five board members of a federal employee and military retirement plan to expand investments in Chinese companies. Waltz also joined with both Florida Senators, who have also urged Trump for months to use his authority to stop the move.
Their efforts appear to have paid off because Trump is reportedly taking action to halt further investments by the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) into Chinese companies. The President was described as “incredulous” that it was even under consideration.
“I’m looking for an executive order,” Waltz told Sinclair Broadcasting’s James Rosen last week. “I’ll leave it to the White House to work through the exact tactics, but they understand the urgency … It needs to happen in the coming weeks.”
Paperwork for expanding TSP into “emerging markets” in China is already underway, but a White House official acknowledged Trump had asked them to look at options for halting the move.
“It’s outrageous that five unelected bureaucrats appointed by the previous administration have ignored bipartisan calls from Congress to reverse this shortsighted decision, and I applaud President Donald Trump for directing his Administration to take swift action preventing this from going forward,” Rubio said in a statement.
The board’s chairman, Michael Kennedy, said in a statement that TSP account holders did not enjoy “a level playing field” compared to private plans that include investments in China. He said they were “legally obligated” to maintain the best-funded plan on behalf of their clients.
The terms of all five board members have lapsed, but they are allowed to stay on until new members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Trump has yet to nominate any replacement board members.
Protecting TSA workers
As the nation makes its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many on the front lines, such as first responders and health care workers, who are at constant risk of infection. This also includes the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) ’s 49,000 Transportation Security Officers, Federal Air Marshals and canine handlers.
As of May 1, 509 TSA employees have tested positive, with five succumbing to their illness. Rep. Val Demings and other members of the Committee on Homeland Security introduced new legislation to address the impact the virus has had on TSA’s front lines.
The Coronavirus Workers’ Compensation for TSA Employees Act looks to provide a presumption of workplace causation for TSA employees that contract the virus and apply for workers’ compensation benefits.
“TSA employees are required to interact daily with the public, increasing their risk of exposure to COVID-19,” the Orlando Democrat said. “This necessary legislation would provide a presumption of workplace causation. They are there for us every day. If they get sick, we need to give them the help they deserve.”
The bill would also call on the Secretary of Labor to approve “any claim of reasonable legal or other services furnished concerning a case, claim or award” for any TSA employees under its purview. Among the bill’s 14 co-sponsors is Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach.
Two other bills look to provide TSA and other federal employees with added protection. Those include The Healthcare Opportunities for Transportation Security Administration Employees Act, sponsored by California Democrat Rep. Luis Correa and co-sponsored by Demings, along with The Hazardous Duty Pay for Frontline Federal Workers Act, sponsored by New Jersey Democratic Rep. Donald Payne, Jr.
Fly me to the moon
In 2024, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans to send astronauts back to the moon for the first time since the Apollo era (Project Artemis). To make this a long-term endeavor and maintain a presence, infrastructure is required to make it a “sustainable program.”
To help construct and maintain that infrastructure, NASA chose SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics to develop Human Landing Systems needed for the multiple missions. The companies were selected to design and build the human landing systems through awards granted under the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2), allotting $967 million for a 10-month base period through Feb. 2021.
“NASA’s lunar lander announcement is a critical step in carrying the first woman and next man to the surface of the moon by 2024,” Crist said in a news release. “Some of our most innovative American companies will compete to provide this critical service.
An early step leading up to the return to the lunar surface is the scheduled launch of astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken from Cape Canaveral on May 27 to the International Space Station and back.
“It’s exciting and Florida, as America’s leader in space and home to the Kennedy Space Center where these missions will be launched, will be leading the way to the moon, Mars and beyond!” Crist, a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee,” Crist added.
During this time, the contractors will have an opportunity to perform initial demonstration missions once their concepts are realized, and NASA will consider which company to contract with to provide commercial space transportation vehicles.
SpaceX, led by entrepreneur Elon Musk, will develop the Starship, a fully integrated lander that will use the SpaceX Super Heavy rocket. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon CEO and Washington Post publisher Jeff Bezos, along with Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Draper, will develop the Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV) — a three-stage lander to be launched on its own New Glenn Rocket System and ULA Vulcan launch system.
Dynetics will develop the Dynetics Human Landing System (DHLS) — a single structure providing the ascent and descent capabilities that will launch on the ULA Vulcan launch system.
Over the years, reports surface that campaigns either hire family members, or use vendors affiliated with family members. Rep. Greg Steube has introduced legislation forbidding the practice.
The Sarasota Republican introduced the Obstructing Monetary Allocations to Relatives (OMAR) Act. The legislation would prohibit a candidate for election to a federal office from using campaign funds to pay any vendor controlled by an immediate family member.
“Our elections should be held to the highest ethical standards and this loophole only serves to invite corruption into the process,” Steube said. “We should be serving the people as elected officials, not lining our own pockets. This legislation will add more protections for American campaign dollars and prevent candidates from violating the trust of the public.”
Steube named his bill by focusing on the report indicating the reelection campaign of Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar has paid her husband’s firm nearly $800,000 in consulting fees during the 2020 campaign cycle. With the practice being legal, politicians of both parties have engaged in the practice.
Steube has kept up a steady pace of filing legislation, The OMAR Act is the 10th bill he filed in the first four months of 2020.
Late last week, Trump announced he was nominating Jason Weida as the new Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services. While that would not normally generate much media interest, in this case Weida, if confirmed, would replace acting Inspector General Christi Grimm.
Grimm came on the radar by issuing a report on April 7 that told of testing delays and equipment shortages at 323 hospitals during the period between March 23-27. Trump blasted the report at the time, calling it “just plain wrong.”
Rep. Ted Deutch was among those singing Grimm’s praises. He credited her with inspiring legislation he filed last month.
“Christi Grimm’s report echoed concerns I’ve heard from hospitals & health workers facing PPE shortages in the COVID-19 crisis,” the Boca Raton Democrat said on social media. “Her work is one reason I introduced the Emergency Supply Chain Transparency Act. Now President Donald Trump is replacing her.”
Deutch’s bill would require semiweekly reports noting the location of emergency supplies to facilitate getting them to locations and facilities most in need.
Last month, House committee chairs wrote to Michael Horowitz, Inspector General at the Department of Justice and Chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. The signees, which included Castor, were seeking greater protections for inspectors general from Trump.
It is not known whether Grimm, a longtime HHS staffer before stepping into the interim role, will remain at the agency.
Backfilling defense $$$
When the President first moved defense funds toward building the southern border wall, House Democrats pledged they would not appropriate funds to “backfill” what had been taken. Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee overseeing military construction, called the diversion “unconscionable” at the time.
The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently ruled Trump’s move met constitutional muster. One year later, the Trump administration is backfilling some of those diverted military funds, not by asking Congress, but by diverting some funds from the European Defense Initiative (EDI), raising the ire of Wasserman Schultz and others concerned with containing Russia.
“President Donald Trump’s theft of billions of dollars in military construction funding last year to build his wasteful border wall led to the cancellation of 128 military construction projects across the country and around the world,” the Weston Democrat said in a joint statement with Appropriations Committee chair Nita Lowey of New York.
“On a bipartisan and bicameral basis, Congress refused to bless that theft and rejected the Trump Administration’s request to backfill these canceled projects.”
The EDI was funded at $6.5 billion in the current budget, but the Pentagon’s recent budget request calls for $4.5 billion. Funding for the program, established to counter Russian aggression in Crimea and Ukraine, has grown incrementally from $1 billion in 2016.
Wasserman Schultz and Lowey say Trump is up to his old tricks by playing a shell game.
“Once again, the Trump administration is putting domestic political considerations ahead of national security, and Trump is trampling on Congress’ power of the purse in the process,” they said. “The American people deserve better, but they will only get it when Congressional Republicans join us and stand up to this out-of-control President.”
On this day
May 5, 1987 — After months of whispers and accusations, hearings into the alleged sales of arms to the Nicaraguan Contras via Iran began on Capitol Hill. The Senate Committee chaired by Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye began by questioning retired Gen. Richard Secord, boss of the scheme’s alleged mastermind, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North.
A similar committee in the House, chaired by Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, is also looking into the matter. The committee vice-chair is Democratic Rep. Dante Fascell of Miami, who also serves as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Rep. Bill McCollum of Orlando is one of six committee Republicans.
May 5, 2006 — After a rather brief, but tumultuous stint as Director of the CIA, Porter Goss submitted his resignation, which President George W. Bush accepted. Bush said Goss “led ably,” while the former Florida Congressman told the President his team “improved dramatically your goals for our nation’s intelligence capabilities.”
Several career personnel grumbled at Goss’ management style and his decision to bring former House aides onto the staff at CIA. Sen. Bill Nelson described Goss as “a friend of mine” and was surprised by his departure. At the same time, Rep. Bill Young of St. Petersburg said he was not surprised by the resignation of the former CIA officer and Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee because it took him some time “to get his arms” around the job.
Greetings (May 7) to Democratic Rep. Deutch of Boca Raton and Republican Rep. Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach.