Dueling police bills
On June 19, much of the nation commemorated Juneteenth, the 155th anniversary of the day slavery officially ended. It served as a backdrop for both the current racial unrest and the steps Congress and President Donald Trump are taking to address the role of the police and their interactions with African Americans.
Just two weeks after George Floyd was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police, House Democrats introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The bill would, among other things, ban the use of chokeholds, ban no-knock search warrants in drug cases and create a national registry to track police conduct designed to prevent fired officers from merely moving to another city or state.
The legislation, co-sponsored by all 13 delegation Democrats and 230 in all, also lowers legal standards to pursue criminal or civil penalties for police conduct, otherwise known as “qualified immunity.” Addressing this issue will be vital in getting a bipartisan bill, which will be necessary to clear the Senate.
Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch said during a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing that the bill could end the “culture without consequences.” At the same time, Democratic colleague Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Miami pointed to the need for “strong civilian oversight.”
At that same hearing, Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz praised the “constellation of ideas” contained in the bill, but a need to “fine-tune” some elements exists. Sarasota Republican Greg Steube, cited his opposition to removing qualified immunity.
One week after Democrats introduced their bill, Trump issued an executive order in the White House Rose Garden while flanked by a handful of law enforcement professionals. The order requires the Justice Department to develop and implement the officer registry database, creates incentives for officers and departments to meet higher standards, and encourages banning the use of chokeholds “unless an officer’s life is at risk.”
Trump’s action drew criticism for “not going far enough,” or the order “lacks teeth.” Presidential executive orders cannot force action by state and local governments, prompting administration spokespeople to point out the order can withhold grant funds destined to states and communities that do not follow the prescribed items.
“We’re joined today by law enforcement professionals and community leaders,” Trump said. “Though we may all come from different places and different backgrounds, we’re united by our desire to ensure peace and dignity and equality for all Americans.”
Last week, Senate Republicans released the Justice Act, sponsored by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and co-sponsored by 46 colleagues. Scott’s bill incentivizes ending the use of chokeholds, requires detailed reporting on the use of deadly force and no-knock warrants, enhances training, and provides funding for increased use of police body cameras.
It maintains qualified immunity, the elimination of which Scott describes as a “poison pill” among Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged to quickly push forward with the bill, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi derided as “the so-called Justice Act.”
Finally, House Republicans introduced the companion bill to Scott’s Senate version. The House bill, like the bill in the Senate, also includes adding the Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys Act, championed by Miami Gardens Democrat Frederica Wilson in the House and Marco Rubio in the Senate.
The GOP bill is unlikely to receive a hearing as House Democrats seek to pass their bill as similar legislation resides in the Senate. McConnell has pledged to ignore the House Democrats’ bill due to the immunity issue, while Senate Democrats appear poised to block Scott’s bill from moving forward.
The Senate is expected to try to move their bill forward by midweek, while the House plans to pass the Democratic bill later in the week.
Paying college athletes
After Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill giving college athletes the right to earn money from their name and likeness, Rubio took it a step further. With Florida becoming one of the first states to enact legislation, he introduced a bill to give student-athletes around the country the same right.
The Fairness in College Athletics Act (FCAA) would require the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to implement rules that will allow student-athletes to be compensated for their name, image, and likeness (NIL) by third parties. The bill would require those rules to be in place by June 30, 2021.
“As an avid collegiate athletics fan, and a former football player, this is an issue that is important to me,” Rubio said. “As states continue to pass laws determining how college athletes can be compensated for their name, image, and likeness, it is clear that a patchwork of 50 state laws would be devastating to college sports. The Fairness in Collegiate Athletics Act is an effort to ensure the NCAA implements policies for NIL and even the playing field.”
Multiple college presidents, including John Thrasher of Florida State and Kent Fuchs of the University of Florida, revealed their support of the legislation. The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Southeastern Conference (SEC) and the Big 12 all support the concept and the bill.
The bill also guarantees athletes will maintain their amateur status despite receiving any payments, allows them to hire an agent to deal with the business of their NIH, and prevents nefarious “boosters” from recruiting or training students, among other provisions.
Most college athletes will not have the drawing power to attract the interest of apparel or souvenir manufacturers, but this is clearly an issue whose time has come. Providing stipends for all athletes is a debate for another day, but perhaps expanding the sports card industry into college athletics could be a way to at least provide something for all.
NIH scientists fired
Earlier this month, Sen. Rick Scott accused China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of trying to “sabotage” the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. He offered no direct evidence, but said the information “came to our intelligence community.”
Whether or not U.S. authorities are convinced Scott’s specific allegations are true, there is concern that China may be up to something. In a development that could be related to his concerns, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has fired 54 scientists, 52 of which was for failing to disclose funding from Chinese institutions.
Both countries are described as frantically trying to become the first to develop a successful vaccine. The FBI is investigating multiple scientists and institutions for possible medical espionage.
“To be clear, this is not about the Chinese people as a whole, and it sure as heck isn’t about Chinese Americans as a group,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said earlier this year. “But it is about the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party.”
Two weeks before Scott made his startling claim, he introduced the COVID-19 Vaccine Protection Act along with seven co-sponsors. The bill requires a thorough national security evaluation and clearance by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the FBI of all Chinese student visa holders taking part in activities related to COVID-19 vaccine research.
“We cannot let Communist China off the hook for this, and we absolutely cannot allow Communist China to steal or sabotage any American research efforts related to the coronavirus vaccine,” he said in a news release announcing the bill. “The COVID-19 Vaccine Protection Act protects American efforts to create a vaccine as we work to end this pandemic.”
COVID and SCOTUS
In addition to the competing policing bills under discussion in Congress, two other topics generated significant attention last week. It began Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruled in a surprising 6-3 decision that LGBTQ individuals have the same protections against discrimination as those protected due to their race or gender.
Delegation Democrats, including Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, called the ruling “a historic day for the LGBTQ+ community and our country as a whole.” At the same time, Al Lawson of Tallahassee thanked the court for being “wise and fair.”
As the week drew to a close, the court threw out a challenge from the Trump administration to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on procedural grounds. Mucarsel-Powell said, “the country breathes a collective sigh of relief” as she called for the Senate to approve citizenship for “Dreamers,” while GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart was pleased those who “benefit from DACA are still protected” while adding both parties have “played politics for far too long.”
COVID-19 is a significant issue on any day, but as the number of positive tests for COVID-19 steadily rose in Florida and elsewhere, no one could deny that a surge was underway. The first explanation was an increase in testing, but Scott was among those saying, “it’s clearly not all tied to testing.”
Federal legislation required each state to provide an action plan on testing more than two weeks ago, something for which Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa tweaked Gov. Ron DeSantis for the lack of a published strategy. Not long after, Mucarsel-Powell expounded upon the call with a demand for a plan.
DeSantis used a rare weekend news conference to provide statistics showing the surge in cases predominantly involving younger people. He urged Floridians to observe recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which many are clearly not doing.
DeSantis and delegation Republicans such as Brian Mast of Palm City expressed no interest in returning to economic shutdowns. Still, Mast urged Floridians to “make wise decisions for themselves based upon their own personal risk.” Scott echoed the personal responsibility message because “we haven’t beat it yet.”
Protecting natural wetlands
During a pandemic, environmental protection has been on the back burner for most Americans. Some good news has emerged for North Florida as federal funds to preserve natural wetlands, and the habitats of numerous species are on their way.
Rep. Neal Dunn announced that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will send almost $175,000 to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to protect Florida’s wetlands and to help Florida’s Natural Area Inventory (FNAI).
“I’m grateful to work with EPA and Florida DEP to continue to support Florida’s Natural Area Inventory,” Dunn said. “The grant will assist us in preserving Florida’s wetlands and building on the progress made at Florida State University’s FNAI.”
The grant is known as a Wetland Program Development Grant (WPDG), and its purpose is to assist state, tribal, and local government agencies and interstate or intertribal entities in developing or refining programs that protect, manage, and restore wetlands.
According to Dunn’s office, funded projects must have relevance to one or more of the four core program elements that EPA has deemed critical for establishing comprehensive state and tribal wetland programs, including. Those include monitoring and assessment, voluntary restoration and protection, Clean Water Act 401 certification, and wetland-specific water quality standards.
New bank proposed
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically affected the lives and livelihoods of individuals and businesses around the world. Federal relief plans have sent lifelines to individuals and companies of all sizes, while current discussions involve spending on badly-needed infrastructure improvements.
A group of four GOP House members, including Dan Webster of Clermont, are seeking to inject capital into the effort to jump-start infrastructure projects. They are proposing a new bank designed to fund these types of projects around the country.
Webster is sponsoring the Bank for America Act of 2020 to support wholesale lending for infrastructure projects through state and local governments, state infrastructure banks, and private entities. Joining as co-sponsors are Reps. Dan Mueser of Pennsylvania, Tom Reed of New York, and Doug LaMalfa of California.
“America’s infrastructure is long overdue for critical repairs and needed advancements,” Webster said in a news release. “This bank will work with state and local partners to facilitate private infrastructure investment, creating a needed mechanism for states and municipalities to access necessary funding.”
As a Government-sponsored Enterprise (GSE), the Infrastructure Bank for America (IBA) would have access to lower cost of funds; a benefit passed to state and municipal borrowers, used to support all infrastructure projects including a minimum of 7% for necessary rural project investment.
“While federal infrastructure investment is critical, the current level of resources from the federal government will not address America’s current infrastructure needs on its own,” Webster added. “The Infrastructure Bank for America will work with state and local governments to identify priority projects and infuse private capital to address our critical infrastructure needs.”
According to Webster, The bank will support industries and projects critical to the structure, growth, and resurgence of the U.S. economy. IBA investments are not limited and can help finance surface transportation projects, electric grid security, broadband connectivity, the revitalization of Main Street USA, and more.
In May, Scott introduced the Agency Sunset Act in the Senate, which is designed to review the necessity and effectiveness of federal boards, agencies, or commissions and to recommend abolishing, or sunsetting, those deemed unnecessary. Dover Republican Ross Spano recently introduced the companion bill dubbed the Agency Accountability Act.
Spano’s bill would create a Federal Agency Sunset Commission tasked with rooting out inefficiencies in the federal government and recommending legislation in the form of joint resolutions to affect their recommendations. The commission would be composed of 13 members consisting of six from the House, six from the Senate, and the final member chosen by the President.
“The federal government is riddled with inefficient processes and redundant agencies that only cost taxpayers money,” Spano said in a news release announcing the bill. “We need to make our government leaner and to serve the American public more efficiently.
“Our national debt has skyrocketed out of control, and I believe if we do not make serious reforms, it will be our largest national security threat, crippling us from within.”
The legislation creates a “fast track” process for joint resolutions drafted by the commission, requiring them to be introduced in the Senate and House within 60 days of being proposed to Congress. They must be brought to the floor no later than 90 days after the introduction.
The commission would sunset 12 years after the date of enactment.
Rep. Vern Buchanan is often cited for his work on behalf of animals. Among those recognizing his efforts is the Humane Society of the United States, who awarded him with their Legislator of the Year Award, the first member of Congress to be so honored twice.
“Preventing animal cruelty and protecting threatened wildlife are bipartisan issues that we can all get behind,” Buchanan said in a news release. “I’m humbled to have been able to help pass important legislation that will protect animals across the country from abuse.”
The RAWR Act (Rescuing Animals With Rewards), also sponsored by Buchanan, was passed by the House last year. The bill allows the State Department to offer rewards for information leading to the arrest or conviction of wildlife traffickers around the globe.
Buchanan was one of only 34 legislators to earn a perfect score of 100 from the Human Society. He is co-chair of the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus, whose membership includes 15 bipartisan members from the Florida delegation.
“Whether it’s protecting endangered species like Florida’s beloved manatees from extinction, banning the torture of pets or ending the cruel and inhumane treatment of horses, I’m honored to fight in Congress on these important issues,” Buchanan said.
Rural road funding
Addressing dire infrastructure needs is a stated goal of both Trump and Pelosi, but agreeing will be difficult in the current climate. A possible area of agreement could be expanding the Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBG) program, which provides funding for road projects that include federal, state, and local roads.
Hastings seeks to expand the scope of grant funding to include rural roads that are part of the agricultural products supply chain. He introduced the Farm-to-Market Road Repair Act that will expand eligibility for the STBG program to include rural roads that serve to transport products from farms or ranches to the marketplace.
“American agricultural communities play a pivotal role in the economy within my district and across America. These farms and ranches provide the communities they serve with fresh products daily, ensuring consumers have an adequate and healthy food supply. Unfortunately, many of the roads are deteriorating,” the Delray Beach Democrat said in a news release.
“As Congress debates how to move forward with a bold plan to address infrastructure, we need to ensure road-repair projects like these do not fall by the wayside as we seek to address other larger infrastructure projects.”
The program has provided approximately $12 billion in funding during the current fiscal year. Information provided by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) describes the program as providing “flexible funding to best address State and local transportation needs.” Hastings seeks greater flexibility.
“Today, I proudly introduced legislation to ensure that these vital rural road projects are eligible for the same federal assistance available to other worthy projects,” Hastings added. “I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure the passage of this important legislation.”
Israel annexation challenged
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated he will soon begin developing a process for annexing the territory known as the West Bank. The early process is expected to involve areas of the West Bank where Israeli settlements currently exist.
Talk of annexation is creating outrage in the region, as well as a concern within the halls of Congress, who many believe will jeopardize prospects of a negotiated two-state coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians.
In a letter to be transmitted soon and led by Democrats Deutch, Jan Schakowsky and Brad Schneider from Illinois, along with David Price of North Carolina, Israel is asked to reconsider current annexation plans, which if carried out, “will push the parties further from negotiations and the possibility of a final, negotiated agreement.” The letter is addressed to Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.
Deutch is the chair of the House subcommittee overseeing the Middle East and terrorism. Along with Schakowsky, they are seeking co-signers on the letter before sending it to Israeli leaders.
“As committed partners in supporting and protecting the special U.S.-Israel relationship, we express our deep concern with the stated intention to move ahead with any unilateral annexation of West Bank territory, and we urge your government to reconsider plans to do so,” the letter concludes.
Netanyahu stunned the world in April when he pledged to annex the West Bank if elected to another term as Prime Minister. He did not win the election outright and is instead in a power-sharing agreement with Gantz with each serving 18-month mini terms over the coming three years.
As the son of former Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube, Rep. Steube worked in recent weeks to make sure the voice of law enforcement doesn’t get lost as a nation focuses on police reform. And ahead of the Judiciary Committee’s markup of the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, he rounded up Sheriffs from Charlotte, Desoto, Glades, Highlands, Okeechobee counties, along with representatives of the Lee and Sarasota Sheriff’s Offices.
He said the session served as a valuable check on liberal efforts and leftist policies that scapegoat police.
“House Democrats’ radical approach on public safety reforms would have dangerous real-life consequences for our communities and law enforcement officers across the United States,” Steube said. “Nobody hates bad cops more than good cops, and the input of our dedicated public servants is essential for any meaningful legislation.”
He said essential topics coming out of the meeting included law enforcement personnel recruitment and retention, qualified immunity, no-knock warrants in drug cases, chokehold bans and deadly force issues.
Steube suggested the no-knock warrants were significant in drug cases, but the method became controversial following the Kentucky death of Breonna Taylor. Taylor was shot and killed by police who charged into her home with a warrant for suspected drug activity. Still, her boyfriend thought a home invasion was occurring and began firing his registered gun, resulting in a hail of bullets in response.
Policing bill introduced
The role of law enforcement is front and center in communities around the country with discussions ranging from actual attempts at reform to, in some cases, total disbanding of the police force. Count Democratic Reps. Hastings of Delray Beach and Debbie Wasserman Schultz among those talking reform as they introduced legislation seeking to improve relations between communities and the police.
The Police Accountability and Community Engagement (PACE Act), sponsored by Wasserman Schultz and co-sponsored by Hastings, seeks to address both the police and the communities they have sworn to protect and serve.
According to a news release announcing the bill, funds would be directed toward “nonprofits, institutions of higher education, community groups, and faith-based organizations, to facilitate organized dialogues that bring together community members and police officers for discussions designed to build trust, increase accountability and reduce tension in police/community relationships.
“All communities deserve respectful, accountable police, and without an honest, open and ongoing dialogue between them, that can never happen,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Rather than sidestep issues of race, these discussions must engage issues such as racial profiling and criminal justice system disparities. By providing the framework for these conversations, we can disrupt the cycle of disconnection and brutality that is now a fact of life for communities of color.”
The two lawmakers helped begin a similar organization in South Florida in 2014. The group brought officers, residents and local leaders together to discuss the underlying tension surrounding policing. It is possible that this newest legislation from the two could be added to a larger legislative package.
“The recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor — in addition to the many others we have not forgotten, including Corey Jones, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice — have strengthened the nationwide calls for reform in the culture of policing,” Hastings said in a statement coinciding with the bill’s announcement.
“For communities of color and the black community who have experienced a painful and ongoing pattern of disproportionate harm during interactions with law enforcement, the need for improved police-community relations is an urgent, life-or-death matter.”
“Every day that goes by means lives are at stake, so we have a responsibility now to begin the difficult process of rebuilding the lost trust between police and all of the communities they are meant to serve.”
On this day
June 23, 2010 — President Barack Obama has shaken up top military leadership in Afghanistan following unflattering news stories of a lack of discipline and instances of “disrespect toward civilian leadership.” The President accepted the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top general in Afghanistan and replaced him with Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the U.S. Central Command headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base.
Some likened the firing to President Harry Truman relieving Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War nearly 60 years before. Petraeus is taking a step down to take the role, which is to execute the Kandahar offensive into the heart of the Taliban.
June 23, 2017 — According to a CIA internal report, Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed members of his regime to become directly involved in the 2016 U.S. elections. The report was delivered directly to President Barack Obama with an “eyes only,” instruction, The Washington Post reported.
Due to its sensitive nature, CIA Director John Brennan ordered that the information not be included in the President’s daily security briefing. The report further stated Putin’s intent was to “defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.” The report also reported that no meltdowns in state election structures occurred.
Spirits need help
The lockdowns due to the COVID-19 virus have saved the health care system from being overrun but has also negatively impacted businesses of all types and sizes. If Americans began drinking more as a result, it has not helped the craft distillers, who are asking for federal help to help the industry survive.
In letters to the Florida delegation, the presidents of the Florida Craft Distillers Guild and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) noted that Florida’s distilled spirits industry had been thriving before COVID-19, supporting over 82,000 Florida jobs and $7.7 billion in economic activity in 2018. They painted a dire picture for their industry as well as others who depend upon their products.
“As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, many distilleries in Florida have been forced to furlough or lay off employees,” wrote DISCUS President and CEO Chris Swonger and Florida Craft Distillers Guild President Phillip McDaniel.
“Absent additional relief, some distilleries will be faced with the tough decision to permanently close their doors, thus affecting their farmer suppliers and others throughout the hospitality and tourism industries.”
The urged quick action on behalf of the distillers, pointing to an internal industry survey the reported two-thirds of respondents do not believe they will be able to sustain their businesses for more than six months.