Safety versus economy
This week brought two examples of the stark realities facing Florida and the entire country with the continuing struggle to find the appropriate balance between health and a crashing economy. The loss of life, coupled with the fear of much more, is on the same stage as the staggering loss of millions of jobs announced Friday.
“Don’t open too soon” is face-to-face with “hurry up” before a recession or depression sets in. The hurry-up line was personified this week by the Texas beauty salon owner, Shelley Luther, who defied guidelines and a judge who ordered her to apologize for “being selfish” by violating the stay home edict and apologize for ignoring a court order.
Luther noted that “feeding my kids” wasn’t selfish as she respectfully refused to comply, landing her in jail and making her a national figure. With the recognition that individuals cannot decide what laws to obey came further recognition that putting her in jail while other jurisdictions released others due specifically to coronavirus concerns made for poor optics.
The Texas Supreme Court ordered Luther released one day before salons could legally open. A Go Fund Me page on her behalf had reached $500,000 before her release.
President Donald Trump caused a stir when he said this week the coronavirus task force would be “winding down” with emphasis shifting toward reopening the economy. After a public outcry and no doubt some pushback internally, the President reversed course within 24 hours.
Last month, Trump appointed the Opening Up America Again Congressional Group. To gain multiple perspectives on achieving the elusive balance. Florida is represented by Democratic Reps. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park and Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach, along with Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio.
With Luther likely setting an example for others to soon follow and protests becoming more dangerous, a plan is quickly needed to soothe those in fear for public health and those who fear losing everything they own. How many of those urging continued lockdowns are out of a job, especially in Florida, where the state’s spit and duct tape system of getting relief to the unemployed is an ongoing tragedy?
Deutch has submitted detailed suggestions to the White House in the form of a slick, 34-page report titled Opening Up America Again Congressional Group: Next Steps. The report focuses on seven key areas beginning with prioritizing public health.
It continues with reopening the economy in the face of challenges and specifically “Bringing our Businesses Back from the Brink.” It continues with sections on ensuring everyone can contribute, helping students and young Americans, asserting global leadership, and concluding with ensuring safe and secure elections.
“Now is the time to seriously consider where we stand as a country and what national priorities we’ve been ignoring,” Deutch said in a statement following the report’s release. “Our immediate attention is to the health and safety of our nation. But we can’t simply focus on how to get our economy back to where it was.”
He characterized the report as offering the opportunity to look ahead, exemplified by his suggestions on pursuing infrastructure spending, reengaging with the World Health Organization (WHO), and other global health security measures, as well as looking at the likelihood of telework becoming more widely used in businesses going forward.
“If we don’t use this pause now to think about what needs to change and do something different, we will be playing catch-up to the rest of the world and leaving future generations woefully underprepared,” he said.
Despite reports of big businesses obtaining forgivable loans designed for small businesses under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the problem seems to be minimal. In remarks on the Senate floor, Rubio said the focus on the few publicly traded businesses who gamed the system is a microscopic amount of those who were awarded funding.
“They have taken 0.35% of the funds that were approved. Not 35%, not 3.5% — 0.35% of the money that’s been lent,” Rubio said. “So it’s not like they took half the money, which is the perception that’s been created out there in some of the coverage.
“Meanwhile, that means the rest of it went to somebody who is not publicly traded, so that’s an extraordinary achievement nonetheless, and I’m glad that’s being looked at. “
For those small businesses that have received part of the nearly $700 billion appropriated, Rubio and some of his Senate colleagues are already looking toward next year, especially when it is time to pay taxes. He joined with Republican Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and John Cornyn of Texas, along with Democratic Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Tom Carper of Delaware to introduce the Small Business Expense Protection Act.
The bill, sponsored by Cornyn, would clarify the program so small businesses can deduct expenses paid with a forgiven PPP loan from their taxes. The need for the legislation came last week when the IRS issued a notice saying small businesses cannot deduct these business expenses.
“The congressional intent of the PPP program was to keep workers connected to their jobs and to ease the financial burden on small businesses so they could weather this pandemic,” Rubio, chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, said.
“Borrowers should not be penalized by new taxes because they sought help during this unprecedented crisis. I appreciate my colleagues Sen. Cornyn and Chairman Grassley, as well as Sen. Carper and Ranking Member Wyden for introducing this bill to rectify IRS’s ruling.”
The massive sums the U.S. is spending — or borrowing — to protect individuals, workers, hospitals and health care workers, businesses and governments are staggering. While few argue that something drastic had to happen, some Republicans, including Scott, are now sounding the alarm on skyrocketing debt.
In an op-ed for Fox Business, the first-term Republican pointed out that the U.S. government was already running one trillion-dollar deficit even during what Trump and the GOP have touted as the “greatest economy ever.”
“In Washington, fiscal conservatism goes out the window during a crisis. As we work to solve the coronavirus crisis, make no mistake — Congress has significantly exacerbated and sped up our looming fiscal crisis,” he wrote. “Even during the economic boom we were experiencing, our federal government was set to spend approximately $4.6 trillion while collecting only $3.6 trillion in taxes and fees.
“Now, with the downturn in the economy and the new stimulus bill, the federal government this year will spend more than $7 trillion and collect much less than anticipated.”
Scott remains on message against bailing out states hard hit by the virus, especially those with budget deficits and lingering debt before the COVID-19 outbreak. This week he joined a virtual town hall organized by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.
“There’s no free money here,” he told those online. “I’m very concerned about where we’re heading, and about the size of the Federal Reserve balance sheet.” Scott continued. “We’ve got to figure this stuff out.”
His takeaway message to those states was “live within your means. Do as we did in Florida.”
Whether on land or water, Invasive species continue to threaten ecosystems around the state. An area of particular concern is in the Everglades, where invasive plants, animals, or reptiles can hamper restoration efforts.
A prime example is the Burmese Python, which is swallowing up countless animals in the area. Sens. Rubio and Scott have introduced legislation to authorize local authorities to take necessary action to remove the ecosystem disrupters.
The Suppressing Looming Invasive Threats Harming Everglades Restoration (SLITHER) Act authorizes and directs the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force to develop technologies and approaches to identify, target, and eliminate invasive animal and plant species that threaten Everglades restoration.
“The SLITHER Act will allow the federal, state, tribal, and local partners on the Task Force to collaborate and innovate in new ways, as we identify and eliminate invasive species that threaten the effective restoration of South Florida’s ecosystem,” Rubio said in a joint news release. “This will not only promote ecological health, but it will also make it easier to measure the progress of state and federal investment in Everglades restoration.”
The Senators are describing the bill as a positive step forward in combating harmful invasive species that pose risks to the ecological communities, native species, and habitats within the South Florida ecosystem, which can make it challenging to measure progress in Everglades restoration.
“We’ve successfully fought to fund projects that preserve and protect our Everglades, including repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike and the EAA Reservoir, but this incredible progress is threatened by invasive species,” Scott said. “I’m proud to join Sen. Rubio in introducing this legislation to combat this threat to our environment, and protect Florida’s natural resources for future generations.”
China’s Trojan horse?
Relations between China and the United States have always been an interesting dynamic, but they have taken a turn for the worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many believe the world’s most populous country has ulterior motives for many things they do, sell, or even donate.
Among the skeptics is Rep. Gaetz, who, in a letter to U.S. Attorney General, William Barr, urges the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to stop the use of Chinese-made drones by state and local governments. He went further, telling Fox News’ Tucker Carlson that “they may be giving hostile forces important law enforcement information.”
“China is massively expanding a Trojan horse spying operation in our country, and your local police department may be unknowingly helping them,” Gaetz said.
He continued by stating that the United States Army and the Department of Interior have banned their use of Da Jiang Innovations (DJI) drones and cited vulnerability and potential value for other countries. The drones are sold to American agencies at cut-rate prices or even donated.
A 2017 report from a Los Angeles U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office revealed DJI was targeting law enforcement and critical infrastructure companies to collect and exploit data. It also suggested that it could be forwarding that data to the Chinese Communist Party.
Despite being banned by the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, drones from DJI have gone to 43 law enforcement agencies in 22 states to help ensure social distancing guidelines are being followed. DJI, however, has pushed back on claims that its drones are used to spy on Americans and said that users could prevent their devices from transmitting data.
“The information that’s being collected makes our nation more vulnerable,” the Fort Walton Beach Republican said. “And I believe the attorney general, under the existing authorities he has, under these cybersecurity laws, should immediately ground the entire fleet of DJI drones used by U.S. law enforcement.
“We should not be spied on by our own government and giving the information then to a foreign government that’s hostile.”
While Americans from all walks of life have many challenges getting through the COVID-19 crisis, those in public housing face other hurdles. Among those are paying everyday bills even if the lockdowns have not taken away many of their jobs.
Democratic Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee was able to provide good news to many of his constituents living in public housing when he announced almost $2.3 million was on the way through two grants created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will be sending $1,821,514 to the Jacksonville Housing Authority and $453,355 to the Tallahassee Housing Authority. The grants include funds for medical travel and child care.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Floridians hard, and this crucial funding will help our most vulnerable citizens during this difficult time,” Lawson said in a statement. “Many public housing residents are among our most essential workers whose jobs place them on the front lines in hospitals, grocery stores, security guards and other areas. It is critical that we provide them with support and stability during this public health crisis.”
Within the $2.2 trillion appropriated by Congress through the CARES Act, HUD received $685 million in relief funds.
Lawson’s office noted the funds would also allow public housing systems to prevent, prepare and respond to potential COVID-19 issues in public housing, including resident support services, management and operations, including staff, routine and preventive maintenance, safety and security; transportation and other costs.
As the country starts to see the opening of individual businesses in an attempt to return to normal, many are still concerned due to the virus’ communicable nature. This is especially true for the poor and uninsured should they need critical health care.
Seeking to help the medical facilities that primarily assist these people, Rep. Gus Bilirakis and New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster led a bipartisan letter to House and Senate leadership urging them to make the long-term authorization and infrastructure funding for community health centers (CHC’s) a priority in any subsequent COVID-19 response legislation.
“The pandemic has had a dramatic economic impact on our health centers, many of which have been forced to implement safeguarding measures to ensure the financial stability of their organization for the long term,” they wrote.
“This includes some having made difficult personnel decisions, including a temporary reduction in staffing during this global health crisis. Given the health center’s vital role in protecting vulnerable populations, both in rural and urban areas, more needs to be done to ensure their long-term financial viability..”
While the recent CARES Act extended funding for CHC’s, these facilities operate on thin financial margins already stretched because of the coronavirus efforts. The letter also notes the critical role of CHC’s in protecting vulnerable populations and calls on leadership to consider legislation that would reauthorize CHC’s for five years.
“It is also critical that future legislation takes into account the urgent infrastructure needs of CHCs,” the letter continues. “We have been encouraged by the House adoption of $10 billion in program and capital improvement funds for CHCs as part of H.R. 3, the Elijah Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act.”
“Now more than ever, infrastructure funding is essential to both support ongoing projects to address unmet primary care needs that have been suspended due to COVID-19, as well as support the implementation of various new infrastructure needs to provide ongoing and necessary care during the pandemic.”
Included among the letter’s 43 co-signers were Democratic Reps. Kathy Castor, Darren Soto and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Having regained the majority in the House and seeking to gain the majority in the Senate, a group is trying to develop a new generation of progressives to serve as a foundation for years to come. With the help of Florida Democrats Soto, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Frederica Wilson, Next Steps Florida seeks to aid trainers charged with nurturing future leaders.
NSF will offer a Volunteer Academy, an Operative Academy, an African Diaspora Campaign School and a Hispanic Campaign School. Organizers hope the effort is similar to GOP steps taken in the 90s as a new generation of leaders, described then as a “farm team” or “bench,” matured and has helped lead to Republican dominance throughout the state for more than 20 years.
“At this time in American history, it’s imperative that we have leaders in place who reflect their communities, who embody progressive values and are committed to social and economic justice as the cornerstones of equitable and transformative legislation,” NSF Co-Founder and Executive Director Millie Raphael said.
In addition to the three members of Congress, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and presidential candidate Julian Casto will lend his expertise.
“Florida must lead America’s transformation, and empowering Florida’s citizens is our mission. That is why we have dedicated our time and resources to ensuring this vision for our future,” Raphael added.
Stimulus versus lawsuits
With the House assembling a new coronavirus aid package, the politics have already begun. While Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her members are putting together a bill that would obviously contain Democratic priorities, Republicans in the House and Senate are following the lead of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is calling for an assessment of funds already appropriated, which he described as pushing the “pause” button.
McConnell repeated his insistence on lawsuit liability for governments, doctors and hospitals, private businesses and others susceptible to lawsuits from workers or customers infected after the economy begins to reopen. The latter is clearly not a priority of Democrats.
“No. I don’t see the House — it’s not even under discussion among the House Democrats,” Rep. Kathy Castor said in a radio interview. We had a conference call (earlier this week), a long conference call that reviewed some of the options and needs for our local communities, and that was not even a topic of discussion.”
If and when the liability is worked out, there seems to be a growing consensus that at least one additional stimulus payment to individuals and families is necessary. There is less agreement on helping state and local governments.
“We didn’t invest nearly $3 trillion into workers, businesses & hospitals so municipal services that protect & run our communities can go belly up,” Democratic Rep. Wasserman Schultz of Weston said on social media. “State & local governments need help. This Republican Admin, GOP Congress must stop blocking local relief.”
While there is no bill to block as of yet, the Senate is likely to get something to consider shortly. If it does not contain lawsuit protection, “blocking” will be a term used frequently by both sides.
Bringing manufacturing home
As the COVID-19 crisis deepened and China became a central focus, calls increased to end dependency on an adversary for everyday items, but especially ingredients for potentially lifesaving drugs. Bills seeking to change the way the U.S. does business were previously filed, but Rep. Vern Buchanan is proposing a significant change.
This week, he introduced the Securing America’s Medicine Cabinet Act, which would create a federal office for stockpiling adequate supplies of critical medicines and encourage a major increase in American production. Buchanan claims 80% of the raw ingredients used to manufacture many medications and antibiotics are produced overseas, primarily in China.
“As we confront the coronavirus, it has become clear how dangerously reliant we are on China and the global supply chain for pharmaceutical products,” the Longboat Key Republican said in a news release. “We must act swiftly to ensure that America is never again forced to rely on other countries for critical drug components and lifesaving drugs.”
Buchanan added that Chinese pharmaceutical companies supply between 80 and 90% of U.S. antibiotics, 70% of acetaminophen, and about 40% of heparin (blood clot medication).
“Every day, we are learning more about China’s malicious intentions, from lying about the origins of the coronavirus to threatening to cut off drug supplies to American citizens during a pandemic,” Buchanan said. “It’s clear we must take immediate steps to make our country more independent when it comes to producing lifesaving medicines.”
As Florida’s Senators are taking action to remove obstacles affecting Everglades restoration (see “invasive species” above), some South Florida lawmakers are focusing on specific projects that make up the more significant effort. Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach, joined by Wasserman Schultz and Hialeah Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, wrote to the bipartisan leadership of the House committee and subcommittee with oversight of restoration efforts.
Specifically, they are asking for projects authorized as far back as two decades be considered as “ongoing activities.” Taking such a step, they said, would speed up restoration efforts and “eliminate the need for a separate congressional authorization for each project …”
“Additionally, this would eliminate the need for conditionally approved projects from competing with other (Army Corps of Engineers) projects for funding and congressional authorization,” they wrote. “In the case of South Florida, each project authorized as part of the CERP provides greater ecosystem and water supply benefits, undoubtedly ensuring South Florida’s economic and ecosystem health.”
Authorization for Everglades restoration and multiple projects came through the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2000, signed by President Bill Clinton on December 11, 2000. The House is working on WRDA 2020, into which Hastings, Diaz-Balart and Wasserman Schultz seek to insert language.
Deutch backs whistleblower
After spending the summer flushing out the claims of an individual claiming Trump acted improperly toward Ukraine, a whistleblower from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is set to testify that he is the victim of retaliation.
Dr. Rick Bright, the former director of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, alleges he was reassigned to a lesser role because he resisted political pressure to allow widespread use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug touted by the President. Bright is tentatively scheduled to testify next week before a House subcommittee overseeing health commerce.
“This admin. does not get to act with impunity. Silencing the voices of public health experts is entirely unacceptable. We should be putting the nation’s health first,” Deutch said on social media. “We don’t want Trump-filtered facts. We just want the facts.”
Bright maintains much more could have been done to prevent the infections and loss of life in the U.S. and blames the Trump administration. He claims far too much attention was directed toward hydroxychloroquine and for his resistance, he was removed.
“As the death toll mounted exponentially each day, Dr. Bright concluded that he had a moral obligation to the American public, including those vulnerable as a result of illness from COVID-19, to protect it from drugs which he believed constituted a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety,” the complaint says.
What would typically be an obscure subcommittee hearing is likely to dominate the news cycle when Bright appears.
Among the most vulnerable to catching and succumbing to the COVID-19 virus are those aged 65 and older. That age group is also those covered by regular Medicare and Medicare Advantage Plans.
With exorbitant health costs confronting those contracting COVID-19, Mucarsel-Powell has introduced the Medicare Advantage COVID Treatment Act that would cover the cost of COVID-19 treatment for all Medicare Advantage enrollees. The bill, co-sponsored by Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Ron Kind, requires Medicare Advantage plans to cover specified treatment services relating to COVID-19 without any cost-sharing from the plan holder.
“During this public health crisis, the last thing people need to be worried about is how they will afford treatment if they get sick,” the Miami Democrat said. “This bill would help one-third of all Medicare beneficiaries — 22 million people — across the country, including nearly 2 million Medicare Advantage enrollees in Florida.”
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2019, one-third (34%) of all Medicare beneficiaries — 22 million people — are enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans. Enrollees have tripled since 2000, a good reason. Mucarsel-Powell is pushing to get the bill included in the next round of coronavirus funding.
“I thank House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone for supporting this bill,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “As a matter of safety and as a matter of equity, this legislation must pass quickly through Congress in CARES 2.0 to get much-needed help to our communities.”
On this day
May 8, 2002 — According to the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Department of Justice and the CIA are not being fully cooperative with the Congressional investigation into how those who carried out the 9/11 attacks escaped detection. Chairman Bob Graham said some documents are not being turned over and interviews of potential witnesses are taking place in intimidating circumstances.
Graham said: “We thought we had from those highest levels the kind of assurances we would get cooperation.” Both Attorney General John Ashcroft and CIA Director George Tenet disputed Graham’s allegation, but Florida’s senior Senator vowed to issue subpoenas if necessary.
May 8, 2018 — Trump withdrew the United States from the landmark nuclear accord with Iran, abruptly restoring harsh sanctions in the most consequential foreign policy action of his presidency. A longtime critic of the pact, Trump described it as “defective at its core” during an address from the White House.
Trump said: “If we do nothing, we know what will happen,” offering his belief Iran would continue to pursue nuclear weapons even with the agreement in place. In a statement, Sen. Rubio said: “I’m glad that President Donald Trump decided today to withdraw from the flawed Iran nuclear deal and imposing crippling economic and financial sanctions against the Iranian regime.”
May 8, 1945 — The war in Europe ended with Germany’s surrender.
Best wishes to Rep. Buchanan (May 8).