Trillions more debated
Not that long ago, a trillion dollars was a lot of money. In the age of COVID-19, bills containing 12 zeros now seem routine. This week, two bills totaling $2.2 trillion are in the news covering infrastructure and funding the military.
The House passed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill known as the Moving Forward Act (formerly the INVEST in America Act), which contains funding for roads and bridges, but also focuses on several measures to address climate change. The magnitude of such a bill would have been unthinkable four months ago.
“If we don’t act quickly, many of our communities will become unrecognizable as sea level rises, including in FL,” tweeted Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch. “It’s not too late to #ProtectOurCoast. “Among other key provisions, the #MovingForward Act will invest in clean energy initiatives & restore our coastal ecosystems.”
Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor, who earlier in the week released a voluminous Climate Change Action Plan (see “Climate plan announced” below) was thrilled with the bill’s passage.
“Floridians understand transportation gridlock and crumbling infrastructure and know that we can create millions of jobs when we invest,” she said in a statement. “Today, I was proud to vote on the most forward-leaning, climate-resilient plan our country has seen to create more good-paying American jobs, unleash a 21st-century infrastructure and fix many of our infrastructure problems.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the bill was “going nowhere.” In response to its passage, the Kentucky Republican said it “would siphon billions in funding from actual infrastructure to funnel into climate change policies.”
The White House said it was “full of wasteful Green New Deal Initiatives.”
While the Moving Forward Act is a “won’t pass,” another expensive bill that funds the military is described as a “must pass.” While Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on a $740 billion package known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), President Donald Trump is holding a one-man protest.
This week the House Armed Services Committee voted 56-0 to send the bill to the full House. Along with funding personnel, equipment, systems, bases and other items, it also includes a Senate provision to rename bases named after Confederate generals, something Trump signaled would prompt a veto.
With the strong bipartisan support of the bill in both chambers, McConnell said he hopes “the President will reconsider vetoing the entire defense bill.”
Added to the bill was a measure proposed by Sen. Rick Scott calling for steps to ensure foreign military students are vetted, unlike the Saudi pilot who killed three military personnel at Pensacola Naval Air Station in December.
“(This week) I spoke on the floor about the importance of the #NDAA to continue defending our national security & supporting our military,” Scott said in a tweet. “Glad my Secure US Bases Act is among the bills included in the package. It ensures that we FULLY vet any foreign students training on US bases.”
While the massive spending over the last four months was necessary to keep the economy afloat, the U.S. has committed more than $6 trillion toward economic stabilization when including fortifications from the federal reserve. While the two bills in question would be part of the next fiscal year, the budget deficit for the current year is $3.7 trillion.
Hong Kong refugees
Hong Kong was back in the news this week, but for all of the wrong reasons. A new security law forbidding most protests against China went into effect with multiple arrests on the law’s first day on the books.
Sen. Marco Rubio and a bipartisan group of colleagues have filed legislation seeking to facilitate an increase in the number of opportunities for Hong Kongers to emigrate to the U.S. The Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act would provide those Hong Kongers who peacefully protested Beijing’s corrupt justice system and have a well-founded fear of persecution, to be eligible for Priority 2 Refugee status.
The bill is also in response to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) actions to implement its Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Many Hong Kongers are already currently living outside the territory for fear of arrest and repression following their participation in last year’s pro-democracy protests.
“Following (this week’s) implementation of Beijing’s National Security Law, the U.S. must help Hong Kongers preserve their society at home and find refuge for those who face persecution for exercising the rights once guaranteed under the Joint Declaration,” Rubio said in a news release. “Through the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, our nation would offer a safe-haven to many Hong Kongers who have tirelessly fought against tyranny.”
Rubio, the co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, is the legislation’s sponsor with Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, along with Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, serving as co-sponsors.
A bipartisan group of House members filed a companion bill. Among that bill’s co-sponsors is Gainesville Republican Ted Yoho (see “Democracy Dies” below)
With COVID-19 surging in Florida and elsewhere, Vice President Mike Pence and the White House Coronavirus Task Force came to Tampa for an on-the-road briefing. With Gov. Ron DeSantis sitting nearby, Pence assured Floridians, “we’re going to make sure you have what you need, when you need it and then some.”
Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar urged social distancing, while Dr. Deborah Birx touted a new strategy of testing large groups of people. While the country seeks greater assurance, Stephen Hahn, Director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is “cautiously optimistic” about having a vaccine in the near future.
Pence was asked by reporters about the Republican National Convention, slated for August in Jacksonville, where positive infections are also surging. Despite calls to scrap the idea, he said the party is committed.
“We’re excited about coming to Jacksonville,” he said. “I was in a meeting when I heard of very sophisticated plans to make sure it’s a safe and healthy environment,” adding the goal was to ensure “the people of Florida can rest easy.”
In a prequel to Pence’s visit, a group of leading Democrats held an event blasting Trump and his administration for the coronavirus response and took shots at DeSantis. Coral Gables Democrat Donna Shalala hammered away at Trump and DeSantis.
“Why are we in this situation? Because we didn’t do the right thing at the beginning and now we’re trying to play catch up,” said Shalala, who has previously said the Governor’s decision not to order a statewide lockdown cost people their lives.
“Only 50% of this state closed down. We needed at the beginning to hit this virus with a hammer, to starve it all the way down. … (DeSantis has) been consulting with the President and the President is literally endangering the health of every Floridian.”
For more than a year, unrest in Hong Kong that started with legislation to allow extradition to mainland China has festered. Though that legislation was withdrawn, protests continued to the point where China has now imposed national security legislation that appears to be the end of the territory’s autonomy.
This week the new law went into effect which criminalizes certain demonstrations that would again allow for suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial. It didn’t take long to start enforcing this new law as arrests were made July 1, the law’s first day of enforcement.
“Democracy in #HongKong is officially dead,” tweeted Yoho. “While the U.S. will continue to stand w/ the people of Hong Kong, we strongly condemn their leaders who either actively pushed for, or passively allowed, the destruction of Hong Kong’s autonomous status.”
The Gainesville Republican is the ranking member of the House Subcommittee overseeing Asia and the Pacific. This week he joined with a bipartisan group to co-sponsor a bill that would expedite the granting of refugee status to Hong Kongers.
“It is our country’s moral obligation to provide a safe haven for these people, and I am honored to stand with my colleagues in Congress in supporting the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act to provide that pathway,” Yoho said in a statement. “They will be welcomed to join and assimilate into America as so many successful ethnic groups have.”
The House bill is a companion to the Senate bill by the same name sponsored by Rubio.
Orlando area Reps. Stephanie Murphy, Val Demings, and Darren Soto announced this week that Orlando will receive $3.5 million in anti-terrorism funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This is the most funding the city has received under the program since 2011 and an increase from the $3.25 million last year.
“The safety and security of our community is my top responsibility in Congress, and I am excited to announce that Orlando will be receiving the maximum possible security grant available to us,” Demings, an Orlando Democrat, said in a news release.
“As a member of the Homeland Security Committee, Orlando’s re-inclusion in the UASI program has been a highlight of my work in Congress and we will continue to advocate for this critical funding.”
Law enforcement agencies in 32 cities around the country will receive $615 million in the DHS Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) funding this year. This includes Tampa, and Miami, as well as Orlando.
The law enforcement agencies can use this funding to buy homeland security equipment, conduct training exercises, train and pay first responders, and improve security for high profile protection locations including stadiums, public transit, and theme parks.
“The Orlando-area is a growing region and a popular tourist destination, making it a potential target for terrorist activity,” Murphy, a Winter Park Democrat, said. “I’m proud that this year we’ve once again increased this funding and we will keep working to ensure Central Florida law enforcement agencies and nonprofits have the support they need to fight terrorism.”
In addition, because Orlando is receiving this UASI funding, nonprofit organizations in the city are eligible for Nonprofit Security Grants from DHS of which five nonprofits in Orlando have previously applied for and received $480,000.
“As our community continues to grow, we are extremely grateful to receive this increased funding that will aid us in enhancing our law enforcement’s preparedness and prevention methods,” said Soto, a Kissimmee Democrat. “The people of Orlando have felt firsthand the impact of extreme tragedies perpetrated by those seeking to create panic and fear, and we are certain this funding will help eliminate such instances wherever possible.”
Revising contempt rules
As the House held impeachment hearings against the President last year, House Democrats railed against members of the Trump administration for failing to appear or produce subpoenaed documents. This week, Demings and five other members of the U.S. House Judiciary committee joined to introduce legislation designed to prevent a future occurrence.
The Congressional Inherent Contempt Resolution, sponsored by California Democrat Ted Lieu and co-sponsored by Demings and four colleagues, looks to enforce subpoenas and increase Congressional power to punish executive branch officials who refuse to honor requests.
“The Department of Justice prosecutes cases of contempt of Congress, but what happens when the person in contempt is the head of the Justice Department?” Demings, one of the House impeachment managers, asked in a news release. “The Trump administration’s refusal to cooperate with Congress is a threat to Congress’ position as a coequal branch of government.”
Demings and her colleagues said Congress has had inherent contempt power for decades, but it has been seldom used since before World War II. The resolution also looks to allow those under subpoena, as well as those possessing documents, to register objections, whereupon Congress would hold public hearings to consider those objections.
Under the resolution, the President would still be able to assert executive privilege where appropriate both in writing and directly. Penalties levied would start at no more than $25,000 with a cap of $100,000 for noncompliance.
“It is clear that if America is going to survive as a nation of laws, Congress must renew its legal authority to unilaterally hold government officials in inherent contempt,” Demings added. “I’m glad to join Rep. Lieu and other colleagues to help restore the fundamental principle of checks and balances to our government.”
Also joining Demings as co-sponsors are Democratic Reps. David Ciclline of Rhode Island, Jaime Raskin of Maryland, Madeline Dean of Pennsylvania and Joe Neguse of Colorado.
Climate plan announced
This week, members of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released a comprehensive action plan they said would benefit both the climate and the economy. The plan sets a goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as well as other actionable climate solutions that Congress should enact.
“We have a plan — and it comes at a critical time,” said Castor, the committee’s chair, in a news release announcing the plan. “Our plan will put people back to work and rebuild in a way that benefits all of us. That means environmental justice and our vulnerable communities are at the center of the solutions we propose.”
The plan calls on Congress to grow the economy and enhance clean energy jobs and protect the health of families. In addition, it seeks to ensure communities and farmers can withstand the impacts of climate change and calls for protecting the country’s land and waters for the next generation.
It does not call for the far more ambitious Green New deal championed by the most progressive members of Congress, prompting criticism that it does not go far enough. The plan does call for a tax on carbon emissions but does not seek to end nuclear power as a way to reach the 2050 emissions goal.
The plan rolled in existing bills into the larger effort, including the Sunshine Forever Act and the Regional Ocean Partnership Act, both sponsored by Rep. Charlie Crist. The bills, respectively, add another 10 years to the Solar Investment Tax Credit and foster partnerships between local, state and federal governments to support ocean and coastal health.
“I am especially grateful to Chair Castor for her tireless work preparing this report, and for highlighting why we should keep the sun shining on solar energy and boost the health and well-being of our oceans and coasts,” Crist said.
Spano backs chamber
Two weeks ago, Rep. Ross Spano introduced a companion bill to Scott’s legislation designed to reevaluate federal boards, commissions and agencies. This week, the Dover Republican filed the House version of a bill introduced by Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.
The bill tweaks the Paycheck Protection Program to allow chambers of commerce and destination marketing organizations to receive loans through the program. Currently, only certain small businesses, nonprofits and sole proprietorships are eligible.
“Chambers of commerce are essential in bringing our small business community together, and the pro-business climate they facilitate will be vital for our economic recovery from COVID-19 closures,” Spano. “I have fought for PPP which has successfully saved American jobs and now it is time to provide relief to the organizations who serve our small businesses, our local chambers of commerce.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCOC), as well as state and local chambers, have shown appreciation of Spano’s previous efforts. Last month he was among a small group of Representatives and Senators to receive the USCOC’s initial Abraham Lincoln Leadership for America Award for advocating policies that demonstrate bipartisanship and leadership.
Spano and Scott were the only two Floridians selected.
Following the bill’s introduction, Spano wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy advocating for the inclusion of chambers of commerce in the PPP.
PPE tax credits
Several states, including Florida and California, have seen a spike in positive test results for the coronavirus. Concern from critics that those states might have opened too soon are countered by those who say businesses must reopen and can do it safely.
Rep. Brian Mast has joined with California Democrat Harley Rouda and introduced legislation designed to facilitate the safe return of American businesses. The Helping Businesses Safely Reopen Act would provide a tax credit to small businesses, nonprofits and local governments to help them purchase tools needed to protect customers and employees.
“As businesses begin the phased reopening process, we must do more to help them do so in a way that is safe for everyone without creating an additional financial burden,” Mast, a Palm City Republican, said in a news release. “This legislation will go a long way in helping small businesses reopen their doors and protect our public health in the process.”
Specifically, the bill would provide tax credits of up to $25,000 annually to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies that are critical in mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
“Small-business owners should not be financially penalized for providing safe and clean service,” Rouda, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in a separate news release.
Republicans boot Rooney
Many House Republicans have criticized the proxy voting system the Democratic majority instituted while they work mostly from their districts. The only Republican accepting the system is retiring Rep. Francis Rooney from Naples, who has not cast a vote in Washington since February 13.
Rooney sought to use a proxy recently, but ultimately went as “not voting” on recent legislation and amendments under consideration. That prompted a group of Republicans to remove Rooney from the Republican House Steering Committee, which works to set policy and strategy.
“Issues relating to the steering committee are supposed to be confidential, which is why I have no comment,” Rooney said in a statement.
House Republicans are suing Democrats in federal court over the proxy issue. They claim proxy voting is unconstitutional and is a power that cannot be delegated.
Pelosi has said the practice will continue at least through mid-August.
In addition to the attack on public health, COVID-19 has cost millions of Americans their jobs in a wide range of industries. The fishing industry and businesses relying on the thousands of miles of coastline are impacted as well.
This week, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell introduced legislation to help those ocean-based industries affected by the economic shutdown. The Shovel-Ready Restoration Grants for Coastlines and Fisheries Act of 2020 authorizes $3 billion for shovel-ready resilience projects that Mucarsel-Powell says can help bring back jobs lost by COVID-19 and boost the climate resilience of our coastlines.
“As we work to mend the damage to our economy done by this pandemic, we must start with shovel-ready projects that strengthen our fishing industry and coastal economy in South Florida,” the Miami Democrat said in a news release.
“This bill will invest in our fragile coastal ecosystems, help mitigate the effects of sea-level rise, create thousands of good-paying jobs that span a wide range of skill levels and trades, support our fishermen, and strengthen our local economies.”
According to Mucarsel-Powell, during the last economic downturn, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided $167 million through NOAA for coastal resilience projects that created jobs. At the time, however, NOAA received more than $3 billion in proposals for eligible projects.
She said ARRA grants made significant strides in coastal and marine restoration and stimulating the economy. The program created 17 jobs for every million dollars spent and generated $15 in net economic benefits for every dollar invested.
“Congress must pass this legislation to strengthen our coastal resiliency and help countless Floridians who are out of work through no fault of their own.”
The legislation, which expands and mirrors the 2009 law, is co-sponsored by Alaska Republican Don Young.
It is well known once their legislative careers end, former members of the House and Senate join prominent lobbying or public affairs firms to exert some influence upon their former colleagues. Both Republicans and Democrats represent companies and causes from the United States, but some are paid to carry the water for foreign governments, including former members from Florida.
NBC Lx recently completed a nine-month investigation tracking former members representing foreign countries before Congress, with some hauling in hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for their efforts. Others do not command those kinds of sums, but still roam the halls of the Capitol seeking favorable legislation or policy for their foreign clients.
All of this is perfectly legal, providing they register as foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The investigation said the activity gets into a gray area in the field of campaign contributions when the American lobbyist provides campaign donations to current members while on the payroll of the foreign entity.
Several former members of the Florida delegation currently serve as lobbyists for foreign governments. They include former Republican Reps. Porter Goss, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Connie Mack IV, and Jeff Miller, along with former Democratic Reps. Jim Bacchus and Robert Wexler.
On this day
July 3, 2001 — One of the most damaging spy cases in U.S. history is nearing its end as former FBI agent Robert Hanssen pleads guilty to spying for the Russians. During his 15-year cloak-and-dagger operation, Hanssen received more than $1.4 million and unmasked two Soviet “moles,” leading to their execution.
As part of the plea deal, Hanssen will spend the rest of his life in prison and forfeit the money paid to him by the Russians. He will be debriefed by the FBI over the coming months. As part of the arrangement, his wife, who had no knowledge of Hanssen’s activities, will be allowed to keep a portion of his government pension to help raise their six children.
July 3, 2014 — When President Barack Obama visits Texas soon, a stop on the southern border, which is plagued by an escalating border crisis that has left thousands of unaccompanied children in shelters, is not on the agenda. Obama is trying to beat back the influx of illegal Central American migrants while trying to accelerate his stalled immigration agenda.
The Republican-led House Judiciary Committee visited the border, saying the President was not doing enough to deter asylum-seekers from making the long journey to the U.S. Republicans are calling for fast-track deportations of those caught entering the country illegally and step up deportations from inside the country.
Happy Independence Day
Best wishes from everyone at Florida Politics. Celebrate America!