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Defund or reform?
Since the peaceful protests and riots began shortly after the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police, job approval ratings for President Donald Trump have taken a hit according to nearly all polls. Most surveys show him in the red by double digits with the Real Clear Politics average of polls indicating an 11-point gap.
As he runs for reelection in November, a smooth-running economy is in the rearview mirror. As for the response to the coronavirus, the perception his administration was slow to respond also shows up in polls.
One month ago, COVID-19 was expected to be the defining issue of the campaign, as well as impeachment and the competence and likability of both the President and the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. Those issues could be front and center, but the role of law enforcement is also dramatically growing in importance in both policy and politics.
A movement to defund police, an unthinkable thought three weeks ago, now has a major city on record pledging to do that. A supermajority of the Minneapolis City Council announced its support for replacing the police department with a “community-based public safety model.”
As activists, which include some members of Congress, continue the rhetoric, Republicans are trying to make it a campaign issue. Trump is trying to tie the issue to Biden.
“Sleepy Joe Biden and the Radical Left Democrats want to ‘DEFUND THE POLICE,’” he said in a tweet. “I want great and well-paid LAW ENFORCEMENT. I want LAW & ORDER!”
Biden, through a spokesperson, said he “does not believe that police should be defunded.” The spokesman also said Biden “supports the urgent need for reform” within police departments.
So do the vast majority of Democrats, who are rallying around a bill launched this week called the Justice in Policing Act. It would, among other things, ban the use of chokeholds, prohibit “no-knock” search warrants in drug cases, facilitate investigations of police misconduct and lessen protection from liability for law enforcement officers.
After praising the “overwhelming number” of law enforcement officers, Orlando Democrat Val Demings and former chief of police said: “We desperately need additional changes to hold bad cops accountable.”
“This legislation combines decades of work by the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Judiciary Committee to give America’s police departments the guidance, support, and accountability needed to protect and serve every American equally, regardless of their race,” she added.
“We can & must reform policing in our country so that those meant to protect us from harm can’t abuse their power w/o accountability,” tweeted Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch.
The bill reportedly has 200 co-sponsors, nearly the entire Democratic caucus. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House intends to release the bill text and quickly and begin marking it up.
Trump and Republicans are reportedly working on a package, but have yet to reveal their goals for reform.
Rubio touts PPP
The May monthly jobs report brought a surprising result of 2.5 million jobs created and the unemployment rate dipping from 14.7% to 13.3%. That sent the stock market into a strong climb heading into the weekend that continued through Monday.
This appeared to provide evidence the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) had done what was intended by keeping small businesses afloat until states began to reopen and bring employees back. That was certainly the view of Sen. Marco Rubio, the co-creator of the PPP.
“While far too many Americans remain out of work, it is clear the economic situation for tens of millions of workers and millions of small businesses would be far worse without the Paycheck Protection Program,” Rubio said in a statement. “Today’s jobs report makes clear millions of Americans were brought back on payroll last month.
“The PPP helped small-business owners rehire workers and prevented a second wave of layoffs, even as most of the economy remained locked down. I am proud that my colleagues were able to come together, multiple times, to unanimously approve and expand a historically successful economic rescue plan.”
According to Rubio, as of May 30, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has approved 4,475,599 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans for more than $510 billion, the majority of which are loans valued at less than $50,000, representing 64.6% of total PPP funds.
Bewildered journalists and analysts looked deep into the reports seeking an explanation for job gains that were expected to be multimillion job losses and a falling unemployment rate that was projected to reach near 20%.
The answer came in footnotes to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report that noted a miscalculation over the previous two months that failed to account for an additional 4.9 million unemployed. If corrected, the April unemployment figure would be more than 19% (as opposed to 14.7) and a May rate of 16.3% instead of the reported 13.3%.
For those subscribing to the “glass-half-full” point of view, even the revised figures show an improvement in May over April. The BLS noted they do not immediately correct figures or assumptions to prevent accusations of manipulating the data for political purposes, something for which they are often accused no matter the administration.
China sabotaging vaccine?
Sen. Rick Scott has undoubtedly been a vocal critic of China, but his latest comment quickly grabbed the attention of the Chinese government. During a BBC interview, Scott was speaking of the push to get a vaccine for COVID-19, but added: “We have evidence that communist China is trying to sabotage us or slow it down.”
The first-term Republican said he was unable to publicly reveal the evidence he had to back up his claim, but said the information had come through “our intelligence community.” Scott serves on both the Armed Services Committee and Homeland Security Committee.
The Chinese foreign ministry was quick to reply, demanding he provide evidence to back up his claim.
“Since this lawmaker said he has evidence that China is trying to sabotage Western countries in their vaccine development, then please let him present the evidence,” said foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying at a daily media briefing. There’s no need to be shy.”
“Shy” is not a word commonly used when referring to Scott, but he maintained the West must develop the vaccine first.
“This vaccine is really important to all of us getting our economy going again,” Scott said during the interview. “What I really believe is whether England does it first or we do it first, we are going to share. Communist China, they are not going to share.”
GOP backs lawsuit
With Pelosi reluctant to call the House back into session due to COVID-19 concerns, House Democrats recently voted unanimously to authorize proxy voting on the House floor while Republicans unanimously voted against it.
The change gives Democratic leadership the ability to conduct remote committee and subcommittee hearings, general business, quorum calls, and voting by proxy vote with one member capable of having the proxy of 10 colleagues.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Republican leadership, 18 other Republicans and four constituents were outraged enough to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of proxy voting. Among the outraged Florida Republicans speaking out were Reps. Neal Dunn and Daniel Webster.
“This concept is not only preposterous, it’s unconstitutional,” Dunn, a Panama City Republican, said in a news release. “In over 231 years, through any number of hardships, the House of Representatives has never permitted a member to vote by proxy. It is our constitutional duty to DO OUR JOB and represent ALL Americans by casting one vote to represent our constituents.”
The plaintiffs contend that giving a member’s vote to another person is a non-delegable power not envisioned in the Constitution. Democrats counter that over 100 years ago, the Supreme Court empowered each chamber of Congress to set its own procedural rules, thereby authorizing them to take this action in the name of safety for members as well as staff.
“Representational government, where individually elected members cast a vote in D.C. on behalf of their constituents, is the process envisioned by our Founding Fathers and outlined in the U.S. Constitution,” Webster said in a separate news release. “Proxy-voting is the antithesis of a principle-based, member-driven process and endangers the legality of policy passed under this system.”
Webster, a Clermont Republican, pointed out that Congress continued to work through the Yellow Fever of 1793, the Civil War, the Capitol burning in the War of 1812, the Spanish Flu of 1918, and the September 11th attacks. Dunn added that essential workers throughout the country continued to work during the pandemic.
Environmental order panned
Late last week, Trump signed an executive order that asks agencies to waive several requirements guided by environmental laws to help expedite federal approval times for new projects. Among those are mines, highways and pipelines, among others, during the declared national state of emergency.
Declaring an economic emergency allows the President to invoke a section of federal law to take “action with significant environmental impact” without observing normal requirements by laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). These laws require agencies to retrieve public input on proposed projects and analyze how federal decisions could harm the environment.
Rep. Darren Soto, who sits on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, spoke for most Democrats and environmentalists when he quickly weighed in.
“#NEPA gives communities of color a voice against environmental injustices that can harm our public health, economic livelihoods & the environment,” the Kissimmee Democrat said on social media. “Yesterday, Trump signed an executive order waiving #NEPA rules under the cover of #Coronavirus.”
It is unclear how the directive will affect individual projects since developers are often cautious of legal challenges they might elicit from environmental or public interest groups. However, the energy industry has argued that these steps will provide critical aid to businesses during the economic downturn.
The order will also accelerate civil works projects overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and allow the Interior, Agriculture, and Defense departments to expedite projects on federal land. The proposed changes are under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and could be finalized within weeks.
Activists have used the current laws to delay or block infrastructure, mining, logging, and drilling projects since NEPA’s signing in 1970 by President Richard Nixon.
Soto has historically been an outspoken proponent of environmental protection. Earlier this year, he joined with Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to introduce a national fracking ban, and also joined with Rubio to revive the Coral Reef Conservation Act which expired 20 years ago.
Addressing pandemic homelessness
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), veteran homeless has shown a nearly 50% decrease over the past decade. While the Point-in-Time count, which is an annual effort led by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to estimate American homelessness, has revealed progress, those veterans still homeless require help, especially while still amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis and California Democratic Rep. Mike Levin have introduced bipartisan, bicameral legislation called the Homeless Veterans Coronavirus Response Act of 2020, to expand and fortify the VA services for homeless veterans during the crisis.
“During this pandemic, we want to provide a safety net for our most vulnerable populations- especially those who have honorably served our nation,” the Palm Harbor Republican said in a news release. “This bipartisan bill provides much-needed emergency relief as part of our larger initiative to end Veteran homelessness.”
The COVID-19 crisis has affected tens of thousands of homeless veterans due to the closing of shelters and the financial saturation for vital services. The bill will allow the VA to use existing funds for a broader scope of services and authorizes the VA to collaborate with outside organizations to facilitate shelters.
In addition, it loosens restrictions on grant and per diem payments and requires the VA to ensure veterans participating in programs have access to VA telehealth services.
Bilirakis, the original co-sponsor of the bill sponsored by Levin, is the ranking member on the House Committee of Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, which Levin chairs. The bipartisan Senate companion bill is sponsored by Alaska Republican Don Sullivan with Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema joining as original co-sponsor.
Repeated testing urged
Among the more than 2,700 Floridians who have lost their lives due to the COVID-19 virus, nearly half have occurred among those living or working in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Rep. Charlie Crist is calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to present a detailed plan to consistently test that entire sector of the population for the virus.
In a letter to DeSantis, Crist called for “an efficient, effective and continued widespread testing plan” dedicated to those most vulnerable to infection. He cited his home county of Pinellas, which has shown death tolls that are among the highest in the state while also noting the goal of testing residents and employees over the next two weeks.
“While I wish wide-scale testing had taken place before we lost so many vulnerable Floridians, I applaud the goal of 100% testing of nursing home and assisted living residents and staff,” the St. Petersburg Democrat wrote. “We must continue these measures every week, until all Americans have confidence that their loved ones in Florida nursing homes are safe.”
In supporting Crist’s efforts, Jeff Johnson, AARP’s Florida state director, said the elderly population amounts to one-fiftieth of the community but is suffering four-fifths of the deaths. Johnson said, “Only widespread, repeated testing will work.”
“As your administration goes about the vital task of testing our most vulnerable, I ask that you please keep the public informed on the specific plan of action and the progress toward this critical testing goal,” the letter concludes. “Publishing specific timelines, metrics, and results would go a long way in shoring up public confidence.”
Pay withholding proposed
Notwithstanding the ongoing lawsuit regarding proxy voting (see “GOP backs lawsuit” above), a group of Republicans introduced a show bill that would deny proxy voters their salary. The No Pay for Proxy Voting Act was introduced by North Carolina Republican Ted Budd that would withhold pay from members of Congress who vote by proxy as opposed to casting votes in-person.
Among the 10 GOP co-sponsors of the bill were Reps. Ross Spano of Dover and Bill Posey of Rockledge. Spano took the opportunity to chide House Democratic leadership for being out of session since March.
“Asking the American people to safely return to work, while some members of Congress stay home and collect a paycheck is hypocritical. This may sit well with Speaker Pelosi, but not with me,” Spano said in a news release. “Speaker Pelosi is taking the voice and vote of millions of Americans and putting it in the hands of just a dozen Members — It’s plain wrong, and I’m sure it will be found unconstitutional.”
The bill proposes to withhold one day’s worth of pay for members of Congress for every day that member uses a designated proxy to cast a vote. To comply with the 27th Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits any law that changes the salary of members of Congress during the current term, the salaries withheld under this law would be placed in an escrow account until the last day of the term.
The bill is destined to go nowhere in a Democratic-controlled House.
Gun violence awareness
On June 5, millions of Americans recognized Gun Violence Awareness Day around the country. Supporters were able to “Wear Orange” but only virtually instead of at public events and also combined their message with that of combating racism and the violence surrounding it with several Floridians in support.
“As we protest the evils of police brutality and systematic racism, be mindful that gun violence takes a disproportionate toll on communities of color,” said Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor on social media. “It’s vital that we recommit to #endgunviolence and pass common-sense gun reforms in Congress.”
This year’s event marked the 6th Annual Wear Orange campaign. Orange is the color that Hadiya Pendleton’s friends wore in her honor when she was shot and killed in Chicago at the age of 15 — just one week after performing at President Barack Obama’s second inaugural parade in 2013.
“According to research, Black Americans are 10x more likely than White Americans to die from gun violence & 14x more likely to be injured,” tweeted Democratic Deutch, who represents Parkland, site of the tragic school shootings in 2018. “As our country is speaking up against systemic injustice, we must recognize that gun violence is also part of that dialogue. #WearOrange”
In addition to individuals participating, they were joined by elected officials, athletes and the entertainment world.
Better military training
In November, Army Specialist Nicholas Panipinto of Bradenton was killed in South Korea when a Bradley Fighting Vehicle he was driving overturned during a road test. Rep. Vern Buchanan recently called for better training and procedures going forward.
Buchanan pointed to sworn testimony from Panipinto’s unit master driver, who’s responsible for training troops on vehicles and administering licenses, their unit’s driver training program was “nonexistent.” The unnamed individual testified that before he took over, soldiers would receive licenses to drive vehicles like the Bradley without sufficient instruction.
In a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Buchanan pointed to the lack of proper training, as well as malfunctioning equipment and insufficient emergency response as factors leading to Panipinto’s death.
“According to (Panipinto’s mother), SPC Panipinto did not have a license, had only six hours of hands-on driver training, and zero classroom instruction when he was ordered to road-test an M2A3 (Bradley vehicle),” the Longboat Key Republican wrote. “Also, not all of the CVC headsets in the four M2A3s that day were properly functioning.
“As a result, all crew members could not communicate with each other. Furthermore, the safety pin in the driver’s hatch of SPC Panipinto’s M2A3 failed.”
A series of errors led to an emergency response time of 80 minutes before Panipinto could be evacuated to a hospital, where he died later the same day. Along with better training, Buchanan urged Esper to look into a better response procedure.
“The highest tribute that can be paid to the life of SPC Panipinto is that the Defense Department will make sure that future military personnel who are injured during training exercises can quickly receive high-quality medical treatment that might help save their lives,” he wrote.
In a separate letter to the bipartisan leadership of the Armed Services Committee of both chambers, Buchanan asked for a series of reforms “so that future military personnel don’t needlessly suffer the same fate.”
Among the suggested reforms are strengthening training requirements, adding simulator training for vehicles, strengthening regulations to ensure equipment is properly functioning, and ensure proper medical facilities and equipment are nearby and functioning.
Special prosecutor urged
Last week Trump and an entourage of security and top staffers that included Attorney General William Barr, walked from the White House to the St. John’s Church that had been damaged by a fire set by vandals. Shortly before, protesters were moved from the area shortly before curfew on the orders of Barr, “regardless of any plans of the President.”
This prompted 80 Democratic House members, including seven from Florida, to call for a special prosecutor to investigate Barr’s actions. Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island led a letter to Barr questioning the “aggressive tactics” and seeking the special prosecutor to “investigate your actions and the actions of all executive branch officials involved in this action.”
“Yesterday, AG Barr claimed there was ‘no correlation’ between his order to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park & Trump’s photo op,” Deutch said on social media. “Let’s get an independent investigation to find out if that’s the truth.”
Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, another signer of the letter, said, “Law Enforcement & Military Personnel should protect Americans, not attack them.”
Others calling for the special prosecutor were Reps. Alcee Hastings, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Donna Shalala, Castor and Stephanie Murphy.
Federal grants awarded
Federal funds are heading to Southwest Florida to cover police training and pandemic response. Buchanan and Naples Republican Francis Rooney announced $850,000 in federal grants have either arrived or would soon be coming to their districts.
Buchanan said Manatee County, which has suffered among the highest numbers of deaths, has received $350,000 for coronavirus response. The grants were awarded to the government of Manatee County and the Manatee County Sheriff’s office to provide personal protective equipment and other critical supplies.
“This funding will go a long way to help combat the spread of COVID-19 in Manatee County,” Buchanan tweeted.
Rooney announced a $500,000 grant is coming to Cape Coral in the 19th District. The Department of Justice awarded the funding for additional hiring and training of police officers.
“Our way of life would not be possible if not for the bravery and courage of American law enforcement,” Rooney said. “Southwest Florida’s police officers work tirelessly to ensure the safety of our families and citizens. I am thankful for all that they do for us.”
Lower returns on their products still plague cattle farmers and ranchers since the beginning of COVID-19. Rep. Greg Steube is among the members of Congress asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to include these small-business owners in receiving increased financial assistance for their plight.
Steube joined with 50 colleagues in sending a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue urging USDA to allow producers who sold cattle after April 15, 2020, to be eligible for sales payment through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP).
“The details included in the May 19 announcement of CFAP create significant disparities for many cattle producers, particularly those who sold their animals after April 15,” the letter reads. “For producers who have marketed cattle since April 15, USDA’s choice of that particular date is potentially devastating to their operations.”
The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) provides vital financial assistance to producers of agricultural commodities who have suffered a 5% or more significant price decline, or who had losses due to market supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19 and face additional significant market costs.
“My district is home to some of the largest cattle ranches in the nation, and they have been suffering from price declines since mid-March,” Steube said in a news release. “With prices still not recovering, the USDA should expand the cutoff for CFAP coverage to promote the agricultural industry and protect our farmers.”
Rep. Dunn was among others adding his name to the letter.
More mail voting
As Trump and some members of the Republican caucus battle with Democrats over mail voting, Rep. Frederica Wilson introduced legislation to make it easier for Americans to cast their votes without going to the polls. The Vote from Home America Act calls for states to send every registered voter an absentee ballot with a stamped return mail envelope.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has upended nearly every aspect of American life in the past few months,” the Miami Gardens Democrat said in a news release. “We have no idea how long it will endure or its long-term repercussions.”
Wilson points out 33 states, plus the District of Columbia, already permit no-excuse absentee voting. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah conduct all elections entirely by mail. According to a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll, 65% of Americans support voting from home, and that number is likely to grow as the public health crisis continues to stoke fears.
Wilson’s office said the Vote from Home America Act would provide federal funding, as needed, to shore up absentee balloting infrastructures and for all related costs, such as postage, high-speed ballot scanners and automated mail sorting systems. It also contemplates increased election staff to process mail ballots and ballot applications, online voter registration systems, public education campaigns and mail ballot tracking software.
To receive federal funds, states must contribute, at a minimum, the average of its total election expenditures from the last three regularly scheduled elections to be repurposed for absentee voting.
“This year, voters are poised to cast ballots in what may be the most transformative election of their lifetimes,” Wilson added. “They should not have to put their lives on the line to exercise this precious right.”
The bill’s co-sponsors are Cicilline and California Democrat Mark Takano.
On this day
June 9, 1954 — The hearings into alleged communists within the U.S. Army reached a dramatic moment when Army counsel Joseph Welch accused Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin of recklessness, cruelty and a lack of decency. The hearings, conducted by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, was into its third month and reached a dramatic point when McCarthy accused Welch’s associate of “having a communist front record.”
“Until this moment, senator,” Welch countered, “I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Have you no sense of decency?” Those in the hearing room burst into applause, leading to a sense a seminal point in the hearings may have been reached.
June 9, 2015 — In a stunning scene playing out in a Chicago federal courtroom, former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert pleaded “not guilty” to charges he arranged hush money to keep decades-old stories of sexual impropriety from becoming public.
Hastert was released on bond, but surrendered his passport and was required to remain in the continental U.S. and have no contact with anyone who might be a witness or accuser in the case. Accusations recently surfaced, stating that Hastert, a former high school wrestling coach, had sexually abused a male student, something Hastert sought to cover up by paying the former student.