No winner declared
Supreme Court watchers knew the final day of the court’s 2020 session was set for July 9 and eagerly anticipated rulings on two cases involving the tax returns of President Donald Trump. When the rulings were released, neither those seeking the records nor Trump got all of what they wanted.
In a 7-2 ruling, the justices held that New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance had a valid subpoena, disallowing Trump’s claim of total immunity. At the same time, they said the President and his lawyers could challenge the subpoenas on other grounds in the lower courts.
The other case, decided by another 7-2 ruling, reversed lower court verdicts and blocked three House committees from receiving the records, saying the lower courts did not give separation of powers between the branches of government proper deference. The House is free to re-litigate, but the chance of having the tax records before November is next to zero.
Any ruling that would have allowed the tax records to be released would have dominated a news cycle, but the lack of public responses from within the delegation showed neither side gained a clear advantage. Democratic leaders said “no one is above the law,” but little else.
The chance of New York prosecutors eventually getting the records is now enhanced, but with Trump’s team of lawyers able to make new arguments, they may be able to run out the clock through his term. Despite this, the President was furious, launching into a stream of tweets.
“Courts in the past have given ‘broad deference.’ BUT NOT ME!” was one of them. Another made a comparison, speaking of “PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT” carried out against him and “SPYING on my campaign … and NOTHING HAPPENS.”
Perhaps one of the factors enraging the President was seeing his two appointees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, siding with Chief Justice John Roberts and the four liberal justices that included Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“In our judicial system, ‘the public has a right to every man’s evidence.’ Since the earliest days of the Republic, ‘every man’ has included the President of the United States,” Roberts wrote in the New York case.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito were the two dissenters, but for other reasons. Even they did not buy into the absolute immunity claim.
In the Congressional committee case, Roberts wrote that there are avenues for Congress to seek such records, but they are not automatically entitled to them just because they want them.
“Without limits on its subpoena powers, Congress could ‘exert an imperious control’ over the Executive Branch and aggrandize itself at the President’s expense, just as the Framers feared,” Roberts wrote. “And a limitless subpoena power would transform the ‘established practice’ of the political branches.”
With the term now ended, speculation on retirements now picks up. Rumors have swirled around Thomas or maybe Alito leaving the bench. The health of Ginsberg, who recently turned 87, is a constant concern.
If there is a vacancy, the process of Trump nominating a successor and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even considering holding confirmation hearings would be a political war for the ages, even dwarfing the confirmation circus surrounding Kavanagh. That name, and the name of Merrick Garland, would again rock Capitol Hill as the November elections approached.
Republicans often rally around efforts to reduce government regulations and this week provided another opportunity. Sen. Rick Scott joined with seven GOP colleagues to introduce the Unnecessary Agency Regulations Reduction Act to “reduce burdensome regulations and create more efficiency.”
“Throughout my time as Governor of Florida, we cut more than 5,200 burdensome regulations to get government out of the way so businesses could succeed,” Scott said in a news release announcing the bill. “Our focus on reducing taxes and cutting regulations meant more than 1.7 million new jobs were created in our state. The Unnecessary Regulations Reduction Act helps bring Florida’s success to Washington by creating more efficiency in the federal government.”
The legislation creates a process to eliminate multiple regulations and requires the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to submit a list of outdated, duplicative or burdensome agency regulations to modify, consolidate or repeal on an annual basis.
The list of recommendations would be included in the President’s Unified Agenda. The list will then be transmitted to the relevant congressional committees to review and the final list of recommendations will be introduced as a joint resolution, which is eligible for expedited consideration in Congress.
“We have to do everything we can to protect taxpayer dollars and rein in wasteful spending, and eliminating unnecessary regulations is an easy way to do that,” Scott added.
The bill’s co-sponsors are Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Steve Daines of Montana, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue of Georgia, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
PPP loans scrutinized
A few weeks ago, Sen. Marco Rubio foretold the day when the Small Business Administration (SBA) would release data on who received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. That day came this week as the agency provided information on recipients receiving over $150,000 that include what businesses received and the number of jobs saved.
“Today, the administration has provided much-needed transparency to the American people on the Paycheck Protection Program,” said Rubio, who chairs the Small Business Committee. “We know PPP has been a historic lifeline for more than 4.8 million small businesses. It is clear that financial damage from the pandemic will continue to impact small businesses even as the economy reopens.”
Numerous stories dotted the media about businesses owned by prominent individuals lawfully receiving loans, with other recipients drawing questions. Those recipients came from both parties.
Car dealerships owned by Sarasota Republican Vern Buchanan received $7 million, while the senior home care company co-owned by Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz received between $350,000 and 1 million. The accounting firm employing the Republican Party of Florida Chair Joe Gruters received between $150,000 and $300,000.
Each met the primary requirement of being a small business and keeping employees on the payroll. Other recipients are drawing questions.
The Florida Democratic Party Building Fund received between $350,000 and $1 million to secure the jobs of 100 employees, but Republicans are looking into a challenge because party-building funds are supposedly ineligible.
At the same time, the Black Republican Caucus of Florida received a loan between $150,000 to $350,000 despite not reporting any contributions or expenditures in 2020.
Some are touting the impact the loans had on their districts. For example, Palm City Republican Brian Mast pointed to 65,726 jobs saved, 16,500+ loans received totaling $542 million in economic support for Florida’s 18th Congressional District. He said it is “making a real difference in our community.”
Grilling ‘Big Tech’
Subcommittee meetings are normally routine affairs that do not generate a lot of news. That is not likely to be the case when the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee holds a hearing July 27 with the CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google
Tim Cook from Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Sundar Pichai of Google will testify as part of an ongoing investigation into compliance with antitrust laws by digital platforms. Rep. Matt Gaetz cannot wait.
Gaetz, a member of the subcommittee, believes these companies and others are harming American entrepreneurs and enriching themselves by their tactics.
“There are circumstances and experiences that we have uncovered in our investigation where people submit their products and then Amazon finds a way to steal the IP, replicate the tech, and then provide the product at a lower cost, harming the innovator who is often American and benefiting a manufacturer willing to cheat, often in China,” Gaetz said this week on his podcast.
Another issue Gaetz seeks to address is “the extent to which entities like Google and Facebook, in particular, curate the information that they want and enhance it, and then suppress the information that is not consistent with their political beliefs.”
He is focused on politics and antitrust, noting the bipartisan investigation is seeking to determine how much partisan politics plays among the activities of the major platforms.
“(T)he laws that we have do give us tools to go in and modify conduct and modify the consumer experience,” he said. “The question will be whether or not we have the bipartisan will to execute on those existing laws. It will be a historic hearing in the Congress. I’ll be there and I can’t wait to fight for consumers and to fight for freedom online.”
Also questioning the witnesses will be the delegation’s other members of the subcommittee, Sarasota Republican Greg Steube and Orlando Democrat Val Demings.
As Hong Kong steadily slips under the total domain of China, there is little the U.S. can do to change that dynamic. Congress has used its limited influence by approving new Hong Kong- related sanctions.
The Hong Kong Autonomy Act, of which Rep. Ted Yoho is an original co-sponsor, was passed unanimously in both the House and Senate. It is now on the President’s desk waiting to be signed into law. Yoho basically told Trump to hurry up.
The legislation would impose sanctions on banks that do business with Chinese officials involved in the crackdown of pro-democracy protesters in Hong-Kong. The President would be authorized to impose property-blocking sanctions on identified individuals or entities, as well as visa-blocking sanctions on a named individual.
“The Hong Kong we see today is unrecognizable from before, where ‘One Country, Two Systems’ has been forcibly molded into ‘One Country, One System,’ Yoho tweeted upon the bill’s passage.
Cuba, speaking on behalf of 53 countries at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, defended China’s new law against the citizens of Hong Kong, saying “every country has the right to safeguard its national security through legislation, and commend relevant steps taken for this purpose.”
Yoho, the ranking member of the subcommittee overseeing Asia and the Pacific, was also an original co-sponsor of the Human Rights and Democracy Act that was signed into law last year. The bill supported the protesters in Hong Kong.
China exploiting COVID
House moderates have introduced legislation designed to protect the U.S. from actual or potential manipulation of the coronavirus by China. The legislation, with Rep. Stephanie Murphy serving as one of two original co-sponsors, requires the U.S. government to identify, analyze, and combat efforts by the Chinese government to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Bipartisan concerns in Congress about Chinese government policies have only increased once COVID-19 emerged in China and spread to virtually every country in the world, Murphy said in a news release. “Since the start of this pandemic, we have witnessed a pattern of alarming behavior from the Chinese government in a range of areas.”
The bill requires the Director of National Intelligence — in coordination with the Secretaries of Defense, State and Homeland Security — to prepare an assessment within 90 days of enactment of the different ways in which the Chinese government has exploited or could exploit the pandemic.
Murphy and her colleagues note COVID-19 originated in China and seek intelligence on how the Chinese sought to take advantage of the situation to advance China’s interests and to undermine the interests of the United States, its allies, and the rules-based international order.
The bill is sponsored by Oklahoma Democrat Kendra Horn with New York Democrat Max Rose joining Murphy as prime co-sponsor. All are members of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, which has endorsed the bill.
“This bill would provide U.S. policymakers with an intelligence community assessment of the different ways the Chinese government may be seeking to exploit the pandemic,” Murphy, a Blue Dog Coalition co-chair, added. “Armed with this information, we can hold the Chinese government accountable and protect American interests.”
Also co-sponsoring the legislation is the delegation’s other Blue Dog member, Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg.
This week, Crist led delegation Democrats in penning a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar underlining the urgency of the COVID-19 epidemic.
The letter said that hospitalizations in Florida are “trending precariously higher” and noted that the Florida Department of Health has informed pharmacies that it has temporarily exhausted its supply of remdesivir, a drug used by hospitals to shorten the duration of COVID-19.
“According to health professionals we are hearing from, people will die without replenished stock of treatment,” the letter reads. “Recently, the State of Florida requested additional, emergency supplies of remdesivir from HHS, and we strongly urge you to expedite consideration of this request.”
The letter also said that Florida is implementing a new distribution model for the drug that will go into effect July 13, and it called for Azar to provide specific details so Floridians can be confident that they will have access to treatment.
“A clear and transparent process is in the best interest of patients,” it said. “With time of the essence, we appreciate your immediate consideration of these urgent matters.”
The following day, a new supply of remdesivir arrived, prompting a word of thanks.
“Grateful to @CDCDirector Redfield, @SeemaCMS, and Dr. Deborah Birx for swiftly answering FL Democratic delegation’s call for an emergency distribution of lifesaving COVID-19 treatment remdesivir,” Crist tweeted.
Doubling down on hope
Rep. Kathy Castor is bringing federal aid to people who sorely need it. Castor announced Thursday that a Tampa-based organization — the Tampa Bay Academy of Hope — will receive a $4 million federal grant through the Department of Labor’s Pathway Home program.
The grant is meant to assist in the transition of justice-oriented adults back to the workplace, and the Tampa Bay Academy of Hope was one of 20 recipients nationwide.
“We are a community that says we are here to help you do better on your pathway ahead,” Castor said. “The Tampa Bay Academy of Hope continues to expand and establish a track record of success thanks to our partnership and federal support that this year will provide a big boost in investment for its job skills development and support services offered for returning citizens.”
The Academy has received similar grants of $1.5 million over the course of the last five years, but it hopes to use the increased funding to more than double its footprint.
The Tampa Bay Academy of Hope currently serves 188 citizens in Hillsborough County, and it believes it can reach 563 people if it moves into neighboring Pasco County.
The Academy has worked directly with youth in schools or young adults in prisons, but during the pandemic, it has moved to online jobs training and live coaching to maintain its level of services.
“We offer support to grow all the way around, but sustainable employment is the ultimate goal,” said Titania Lamb, executive director of Tampa Bay Academy of Hope.
Stopping pandemic pill-popping
A spike in opioid deaths has Sarasota Republican Vern Buchanan pursuing new federal funding to face the issue. He sounded alarms when the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office reported 29 fatalities over the first six months of 2020; there were 13 over the same time span 2019. In Manatee, once Florida’s epicenter for opioid deaths, fatalities also climbed from 46 in the first half of 2019 to 49 this year.
“The spike in drug overdoses in our region during the coronavirus pandemic is tragic and alarming,” Buchanan said. “We have to get treatment to those in need both in Southwest Florida and across the country. As we continue to combat the coronavirus we need to make sure we are addressing other health impacts exacerbated by this pandemic.”
Buchanan’s office said there seems to be a direct line to isolation and depression around COVID-19 isolation and a spike in drug abuse. Lockdowns have also resulted in many treatment centers in the region closing down or scaling back.
As Congress debates another coronavirus relief bill, Buchanan said mental health funding must be part of the mix. Nationwide, overdoses have climbed each month of the pandemic — 18% in March, 29% in April and 42% in May — according to the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program.
“The opioid crisis has destroyed too many families and lives,” he said. “We cannot forget about this crisis even during the coronavirus pandemic.“
So long, WHO?
This week, Trump followed through on a promise when he announced he was beginning the process to withdraw the U.S. from the World Health Organization (WHO). While the President has some support within his party, others disagreed with the move.
The WHO has faced criticism for failing to provide clear and consistent advice and been accused of “siding with China.” Sarasota Republican Greg Steube is among those supporting Trump’s action for those reasons.
“The WHO prioritized the Communist Chinese government and failed to protect the world from this pandemic,” he tweeted earlier this week. “It is right for President Donald Trump to stop sending billions of American taxpayer dollars to this corrupt organization.”
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander from Tennessee, Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said Trump is making a mistake.
“Certainly there needs to be a good, hard look at mistakes the World Health Organization might have made in connection with coronavirus, but the time to do that is after the crisis has been dealt with, not in the middle of it,” Alexander said in a statement.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden pledged to reverse Trump’s action if he wins in November.
Skirting SCOTUS ruling
Besides the Trump tax return cases, other highly-anticipated decisions emerged this week. In one case, the ruled religious-based employers objecting to providing contraceptive health coverage through the Affordable Care Act, are now not required to do so.
The 7-2 ruling in the case where the original plaintiffs were the Little Sisters of the Poor, upheld expansions by the Trump administration that added exemptions for other employers using “moral beliefs.” The administration’s rules brought about the suit that finally ended this week, much to the delight of most Republicans and the pro-life movement.
Many Democrats in Congress were upset with the ruling, including some that seek to thwart Trump and skirt the court’s ruling. Rep. Lois Frankel joined three of her colleagues to file the Protect Access to Birth Control Act within minutes of the court decision. The legislation seeks the repeal of the Trump administration rules before they can take effect.
“We aren’t going to sit back and allow this court, or this administration, to put the health and well-being of millions of Americans at risk,” the lawmakers said. “We are going to continue to fight against these dangerous rules in any way we can.”
Alito wrote the opinion for the majority, which included the conservative bloc of four justices plus Roberts. Also concurring with the opinion were liberal justices Breyer and Kagan.
Panama City Republican Neal Dunn was among those praising the ruling, calling it “not just a win for religious liberty, but also for life.”
Weston Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Democratic Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee strongly disagreed. Lawson said “SCOTUS got it wrong,” while Wasserman Schultz had harsh words for the ruling and the plaintiffs.
“Allowing employers to opt-out of the ACA birth control mandate is not an expression of religious liberty, but an act of discrimination,” she tweeted. “Reproductive health is health care.”
Withholding building funds
The effort to force changes of military bases named after prominent confederates continues; this time through the use of financial disincentives. The latest effort calls for withholding military construction funds from those installations that have failed to have at least begun a renaming process.
Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the subcommittee overseeing military construction funding, said the proposed 2021 appropriations for construction, veterans affairs and related items include the demand for name changes as well as other key provisions.
“Our brave service members should not have to live and train on bases named for traitors to the cause of creating a more perfect union,” the Weston Democrat said. “Betraying the United States is not an act that should be honored, and it’s beyond time for change at those military bases that do that with their namesake.
The bill also provides $250.9 billion in both discretionary and mandatory funding, an increase of $15.2 billion above the fiscal year 2020 enacted level.
Funding for veterans programs includes $10.3 billion in mental health care services, including $313 million in suicide prevention outreach; $1.9 billion for homeless assistance programs; $661 million for gender-specific care for women; and $504 million for opioid abuse prevention.
Wasserman Schultz and her committee are in agreement with the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has also called for the bases to be renamed.
“Along with other Democrats and Republicans who favor these changes, I will use all the tools in our legislative toolbox to rectify these misguided historical monikers,” she added.
Trump has pledged a veto of any legislation requiring base name changes.
Wilson antagonist sentenced
One year ago, a federal defense contractor threatened the life through a telephone message of Miami Gardens Democrat Frederica Wilson over her sponsorship for a bill calling for vaccinating school children. This week, the perpetrator learned his fate.
Darryl Albert Varnum admitted to U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett that he was intoxicated when he phoned in the death threat last year and says that he is ashamed of the impulsive act. He described his actions to Bennett as “the worst mistake of my life.”
Bennett sentenced Varnum to six months of home detention and an additional two months of court supervision. The sentencing guidelines called for a maximum of six months in prison.
“It was just so vile and so scary,” Wilson said. “I was petrified.”
Varnum also apologized to Wilson during the sentencing, but she was not on the video conference to hear it. Wilson said she was unaware of the hearing until a reporter called her asking for comment.
“I’m just wondering why,” she said. “That’s a law that I am supposed to be notified.”
This is not the first time that Wilson has had a run-in with menacing calls and social media messages. In 2017, there was a disagreement with Trump after Wilson blasted him for what she described as an insensitive phone call to the widow of a soldier killed in Niger. That prompted numerous calls and correspondence to Wilson from angry Trump supporters.
“That was a very scary time for me also,” she said.
ICE changes rules
Another controversy involving Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) involving foreign students is now raging. A new rule tells nonimmigrant foreign students at institutions conducting classes exclusively online in the fall that they will need to transfer or leave the country.
The Student Exchange Visa Program (SEVP), run by ICE, has granted exemptions due to the COVID-19 virus. The program announced this week that with only limited exceptions, those exemptions will not be renewed and nonimmigrant foreign students must transfer to institutions conducting at least some classes on campus.
“This policy is xenophobic and outrageous,” tweeted Coral Gables Democrat Donna Shalala. ‘This policy will have a dire effect across the entire U.S. higher education system and all students — regardless of their immigration status — will suffer.”
Those deciding to stay in contravention of the new rule could face serious consequences. In the order, SEVP said students could face “immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”
On this day
July 10, 2013 — House Republicans are bucking Senate moderates and President George W. Bush over the Senate’s immigration reform bill. President George W. Bush and Sen. Rubio, who co-sponsored the bill are on opposite sides of the GOP conservatives, who oppose “amnesty” for those here illegally.
Republicans say they do not trust President Barack Obama to secure the southern border should they agree to other measures dealing with legal and illegal immigration. Rubio has come under intraparty criticism for his role in developing the legislation.
July 10, 2018 — One day after Trump nominated D.C. Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, both sides were gearing up for what is expected to be an intense confirmation battle in the Senate. Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy, a member of the Judiciary Committee who will hold the confirmation hearing, predicted a “rough, tough, down-in-the-dirt, ear-pulling, nose-biting fight.”
Kavanaugh is replacing the retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s so-called swing vote. Before his career on the bench, Kavanaugh served as a lawyer; among his clients were the family of Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez, who was eventually taken from those relatives by federal forces with guns drawn April 22, 2000, and returned to his father in Cuba.
Greetings to Rep. Brian Mast (July 10)