Distrust & antitrust
As the week and the month of July draws to a close, those who pay attention to what is going on in Washington would have a difficult time recalling a time where more rancor and hostility existed. Two hearings involving the House Judiciary Committee provided a spectacle for viewers to see.
On July 28, Attorney General William Barr was grilled for hours by committee Democrats questioning him for his role in dropping the Michael Flynn case, lowering the recommended sentence for Roger Stone, removing federal prosecutors, the ongoing civil unrest, and COVID-19 response.
Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch focused on the Stone matter, questioning whether Stone received special treatment from Barr by recommending a lighter sentence before the final sentence was commuted by Trump. Orlando Democrat Val Demings focused on the removal of three U.S. attorneys around the country, the latest being Geoffrey Berman from New York.
While Deutch and Demings asked pointed questions without raised voices, Miami Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell’s fiery exchanges with Barr generated attention outside of Washington (see “Memorable five minutes” below).
Committee Republicans had a different agenda. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach led Barr to agree the unrest would spread to cities beyond Portland if not stopped, while Rep. Greg Steube of Sarasota focused on the Department of Justice Inspector General’s December report involving the FBI’s conduct while investigating Trump.
On July 29, the judiciary subcommittee overseeing antitrust issues hosted four CEOs of tech giants. The partisanship of the Barr hearing was substantially replaced by the bipartisan distrust of Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon, who are subjects of an ongoing subcommittee investigation into anti-competitive activities.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos faced pointed questions, especially from Democrats, on whether they were stifling competition through their business activities. Republicans were also focused on what they called the selective muting of conservative views, mainly by Google and Facebook.
Many eyes were on Gaetz following his earlier criminal referral calling for action against Zuckerberg for what Gaetz called false testimony to Congress a few months ago. After questioning Pichai and Google earlier, he returned to the source of the referral in a third-round; the allegation the social media giant suppresses conservative content, which Zuckerberg denied.
Steube wondered why his campaign emails (using Google’s Gmail) are now suddenly sent to SPAM folders while Demings zeroed in on Google’s questionable handling of private data from users. In a later round, she questioned the other executives on their company’s possible anti-competitive behavior.
To the dismay of Republicans, Twitter, the prime recipient of conservative ire for “shadow banning” or policing content, was not called to be part of the panel. Judiciary Committee members Deutch and Mucarsel-Powell are not members of the subcommittee and were therefore not involved in this hearing
On several occasions, the witnesses said they would get back to the subcommittee members with some of their answers to specific questions. After Barr was often cut off during responses to members of the full committee, the attorney general gave no such pledge.
Relief in limbo
Reaching an agreement on the latest coronavirus relief bill looks to be days or weeks away. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not only negotiating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, he is also battling a number of unhappy Republicans as well.
Those divisions are visible among Florida’s two GOP Senators, at least in their public statements. Rick Scott is among those unwilling to give states and communities significant financial relief, while Marco Rubio says another $1 trillion will rack up debt but is necessary.
“I’m very concerned about the amount of money we’re talking about,” Scott said. “What I don’t want to do is bail out the states. That’s wrong.”
Rubio would clearly vote for almost any final bill that would contain language for the latest round of Paycheck Protection Program funding that he wrote with Maine Republican Susan Collins. While he appears to share Scott’s concern about a high price tag, conditions leave little choice.
“Another $1 trillion in debt is bad. But the damage if we don’t act boldly would be far worse,” he tweeted. “Millions of Americans who lost their jobs are struggling to make ends meet now & won’t have a job to return to later. And the damage to our economy will take a decade to recover from.”
This is not a revolt among a handful of the most conservative Republicans. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said “I think if Mitch can get half (of Republicans), that’d be quite an accomplishment.” In a recent interview, McConnell spoke of “about 20” GOP skeptics.
With an agreement likely weeks away, the next step might be a temporary extension to the $600 unemployment bonus expiring July 31. As Republicans will have to eventually go along with higher spending, Pelosi will be forced to go back on her earlier rejection of the temporary carry-over of unemployment relief.
Democrats rejected that short-term extension on the eve of the benefit’s expiration.
Lowering drug prices
Last week, the President signed a series of executive orders designed to lower prescription drug prices. These involve permitting more drugs to be imported from Canada and changing the process for price negotiations between middlemen, but an order requiring prices offered to U.S. patients be similar to those in other countries is generating concern within the industry.
The latter order, delayed by 30 days, deals with a reality that Americans are charged higher prices for pharmaceuticals than Europe and other places around the world. The Trump administration is seeking to level the playing field and invited negotiations with the industry, prompting praise from those supporting the move and industry leaders condemning it, especially its timing.
“I support President Donald Trump’s efforts to protect Americans from crippling prescription drug prices and I believe the one-month delay implementing an international pricing index is an opportunity to lower drug prices without harming innovation,” said Dr. Neal Dunn, a Panama City Republican. “While I am not in favor of government price controls, it is clear this issue needs immediate action.”
While announcing a clinical trial for a COVID-19 vaccine had entered a late-stage, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla criticized Trump’s action.
“Overall, I’m disappointed with this executive order,” Bourla said during a conference call discussing the company’s second quarter earnings. “They pose enormous (distraction) in a time when the industry needs to be completely focused on developing a potential Covid-19 vaccine or treatment.”
Trump said the order covering the pricing index would not go into effect if the companies would make a deal. Dunn predicted greater interest in Congress for addressing the price inequities and pointed to legislation co-sponsored by 146 Republicans.
Scott also weighed in support of Trump’s executive orders and also called on Congress to pass his Transparent Drug Pricing Act of 2019, which contains an equal drug pricing plan.
“Drug companies should not charge American consumers more for prescription drugs than they charge consumers in other industrialized nations, like Great Britain, Canada or Germany,” he said in a news release. That’s what my America First Drug Pricing Plan would change, and I’m glad to see the President leading this charge. It’s common sense.”
Preventing more foreclosures
The economic fallout from the COVID-19 state of emergency has slammed individuals and businesses alike, including the real estate market, which is a vital component of a healthy economy. Democratic Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee has jointly introduced bipartisan legislation to provide economic support to that sector of the economy.
The Helping Open Properties Endeavor (HOPE) Act looks to provide financial aid to the commercial real estate market, especially for businesses with commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) debt, and the millions of Americans they employ. The goal is making it easier to meet monthly obligations despite the intense revenue declines and cash flow shortages.
“COVID-19 is causing many of our industries to experience major financial hits, and commercial real estate is no exception,” Lawson said in a joint release. “The Helping Open Properties Endeavor Act establishes a lending facility to help the industry stay afloat — allowing borrowers to seek relief without violating their loan agreements. Without immediate action, we may see unrecoverable losses to these businesses.”
The legislation would provide financial assistance through the HOPE Preferred Equity lending facility to borrowers of commercial mortgages affected the most by the pandemic. It would be guaranteed by the Department of the Treasury and financial institutions will originate preferred equity instruments to borrowers.
According to Trepp, a provider of commercial mortgage data, the pandemic has caused the CMBS market to accelerate toward delinquency at a rate faster than that of the 2008 housing crisis. As of June 2020, the overall CMBS delinquency rate was at 10.3%, up by more than 3% over May’s rate.
The bill is sponsored by Texas Republican Van Taylor, with Lawson and Kentucky Republican Andy Barr joining as original co-sponsors.
Ready to bargain?
The amount of aid to cities and states is one point of division between the two parties, as well as among Senate Republicans, in the necessary drive to pass a new coronavirus relief package. Winter Park Democrat Stephanie Murphy has often zinged Republicans for the length of time it took to finally make their proposal.
The Senate Republicans’ Heals Act’s offer of $1 trillion in relief came two months after the Democrats’ HEROES Act proposed $3 trillion in benefits and other spending.
“Why the delay?” Murphy asked in an op-ed published in the Orlando Sentinel. “Too many in the GOP believed the virus would magically disappear, businesses and schools would safely reopen, and economic life would return to normal — with millions of unemployed Americans heading back to their old jobs.”
The Heals Act calls for a $200 weekly unemployment bonus benefit or a broad formula providing 75% of a worker’s former wage, while the HEROES Act sticks with the current $600. Murphy describes the Republican contention that workers are not returning to the job because they make more on unemployment as “breathtakingly cynical” and “doesn’t comport with my experience.”
While no one believes the final amount agreed upon will be $200, Democrats are sending clear signals there is room to bargain. Pelosi’s top lieutenant seemed to toss an olive branch.
“Look, it’s not $600 or bust,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told CNN’s John Berman. “To say that it’s $600 or nothing, no, that’s not where we are. We’re prepared to discuss this.”
“Democrats are not coming at this as if it’s our way or the highway,” she told WPTV television news. “We cannot afford to do that for the sake of the people for this country, because people are hurting, and so both sides will have to compromise,” Frankel said.
Enhancing supply chain
The COVID-19 state of emergency has revealed on more than one occasion the nation’s dependence on foreign entities for food, pharmaceuticals, and other essential medical equipment and supplies. One of the focal points for new legislation calls for strengthening America’s supply chain toward and a path for self-sufficiency.
Last week, an amendment introduced by Rep. Darren Soto to increase the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) funding in order to enhance the security and reliability of U.S. supply chains passed the House. The legislation was included in the funding bill for the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.
“Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has inevitably shown us the importance of protecting Florida’s food supply and our precious crops,” the Kissimmee Democrat said in a news release. “Our amendment helps put safe, nutritious food on Americans’ tables and increases investments to enhance the security and reliability of our supply stockpiles through blockchain technology.”
The amendment calls for adjusting funds to enhance collaboration between the Office of Regulatory Affairs and other FDA offices to provide further resources and further implementation of the Food and Veterinary Medicine Program Strategic Plan.
Additionally, this builds on efforts by the House Appropriations Committee to support the FDA’s food safety modernization and food traceability efforts and blockchain programs already piloted. Furthermore, the additional funding is meant to enhance the “distributed trust” benefits of blockchain technology so the FDA may utilize the increased transparency to rapidly address threats.
The political arm for the Humane Society endorsed Sarasota Vern Buchanan for reelection in Florida’s 16th Congressional District.
“Vern Buchanan has already championed the successful passage of two consequential animal protection laws to crack down on animal cruelty and wildlife trafficking in the 116th Congress,” said Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund. “We urge voters in Florida’s 16th District to join us in enthusiastically supporting his reelection.”
The endorsement wasn’t a huge shock, considering Buchanan this year became the first House member to become a two-time Legislator of the Year for the U.S. Humane Society. He has long made animal protection a prominent plank of his personal platform, from pushing against the import of elephant and lion trophy hunting prizes to getting a federal animal cruelty law on the books. The organization gave Buchanan a coveted 100+ grade on its legislative scorecard this year.
He still has animal-related items on his priority list for coming years, including strengthening prohibitions on shark finning sales, scrutinizing the doping of racehorses, and beefing up oversight for dog breeding facilities.
Buchanan this year faces a challenge from state lawmaker and Sarasota Democrat Margaret Good.
Preventing veteran suicides
The increasing numbers of military veterans’ suicide continue to be a problem of great concern among some members of Congress. Rep. Brian Mast recently introduced legislation to help address the problem.
Mast, a Palm City Republican, joined with Illinois Democrat Robin Kelly to introduce the Solid Start Reporting Act that focuses on a veteran’s first year after separating from the military. The legislation establishes oversight baselines for a newly-created program to support veteran mental health during the first 12 months as a civilian.
“For those who put on the uniform, the transition to civilian life is too often one of the most difficult parts of serving their country,” said Mast in a news release. “Proactively reaching out to veterans in their first year out of the service is a great way to make sure none of my brothers and sisters struggling with the invisible tolls of war fall through the cracks.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently established the Solid Start Program to proactively contact veterans several times during the first year of their transition to civilian life. The program is based on research indicating that the first year out of service is a high-risk period for mental health challenges for all veterans, regardless of demographics.
The legislation, sponsored by Kelly with Mast serving as the original co-sponsor, requires an annual report on the program’s effectiveness, including the number of veterans contacted; response rates; data on referrals for benefits; compensation and pensions examinations; and enrollments; and usage of the Veterans Crisis Line.
“It’s my hope that this bill can make a real difference in easing this transition and help get veterans back on their feet,” Mast added.
Animal shelter funding
Nearly 4.5 million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19 with more than 150,000 losing their lives. While the virus has affected so many in this country and around the world, the lives of animals, and those who care for them, have been affected as well by the economic impact it has caused.
Rep. Alcee Hastings and Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitizpatrick, both of whom are members of the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus, led more than 80 members of Congress in sending a bipartisan letter to House leadership urging support for animal shelters and rescue organizations in upcoming aid packages. The letter praises the efforts of those working on behalf of animals, but points out supply and funding shortages.
“.@RepBrianFitz (R-Penn) & I led 83 Members in urging support for #animalshelters & rescues,” Hastings tweeted. “Even as these organizations struggle to stay afloat, they continue to provide emergency services benefiting #animalwelfare & public health, keeping pets w their families & strays off the streets.”
“There are an estimated 3,500 brick and mortar animal shelters and 10,000 rescue groups in the United States providing services for pets in our communities,” the letter reads. “In addition, agencies and private authorities with animal control contracts spend approximately $800 million to $1 billion annually to pickup, treat, and promote the adoption of stray animals.”
“This too is an important public health service and should have funding as such for the benefit of millions of Americans, their pets, and their communities.”
The 2017-2018 American Veterinary Medical Association Sourcebook states that 74.4 million American households have at least one pet and some 80% of those households consider pets to be members of their families. Additionally, a large percentage of them have acquired their pets from animal shelters and rescue groups.
Other members of the Florida delegation signing the letter include Murphy, Soto, Democratic Reps. Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, and Donna Shalala, along with Republican Rep. Bill Posey.
Rep. Deutch is trying to calm one of the world’s most volatile hotspots.
Deutch and the Foreign Affairs Committee passed a bipartisan bill this week designed to clarify American policy and support a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the conflict in Libya.
Deutch introduced the legislation — named The Libya Stabilization Act — along with South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson, California Democrat Ted Lieu and New Jersey Democrat Tom Malinowski. The bill unanimously passed the Foreign Affairs Committee and calls for sanctions on any entity that deploys mercenaries, supports militias, violates the United Nations Arms Embargo or commits human rights violations in Libya.
It also calls on the United States to take a more active role in resolving the conflict. The strife in Libya has destabilized the region and undermined NATO solidarity, said Deutch’s office in a news release, and it’s exacerbated a humanitarian and migrant crisis.
“The Libya Stabilization Act demonstrates Congressional interest in de-escalating the conflict, reviving diplomacy, and ending foreign intervention in Libya,” said Deutch. “It makes the threat of sanctions more credible and signals bipartisan support for their implementation against any unhelpful actors in Libya.
“[The] unanimous vote in the Foreign Affairs Committee demonstrates the bipartisan commitment to block others who challenge our interests and to work with the UN, our European allies, regional states, and Libyans to end the war and rebuild Libya.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is crying foul on a few elements of the proposed $1 trillion relief bill brought forward by Senate Republicans this week.
The bill would fund ships, aircraft and weaponry previously defunded, and Wasserman-Schultz said this week she wasn’t sure how the disparate allocations worked in favor of a pandemic-fearing population.
“The GOP’s new COVID proposal includes backdoor funding for Trump’s racist wall,” she tweeted. “I’m not sure what weapons systems that were raided by Trump for the wall have to do with COVID. How about we focus on testing, contact tracing & helping our front-line workers?”
Roll Call reported that the measure would restore $260 million in funding to the Navy’s Expeditionary Fast Transport Vessel and $686 million for the production of the F-35A fighter jet.
Wasserman-Schultz commented last September that Trump was attempting to “steal” money for his proposed wall and that Congress would not allow it to happen.
“To pay for his xenophobic border wall boondoggle, President Donald Trump is about to weaken our national security by stealing billions of dollars from our military, including training and intelligence funds from our soldiers and poaching from critical projects our service members and their families need, including schools,” she said at the time.
“I reminded his administration today that I will not support this theft from our military and that down the road, the House of Representatives will not backfill any projects he steals from today. Trump can pander to his nativist base, but the House will fight his every attempt to make our military families or national security suffer as a result.”
Memorable five minutes
There are plenty of disagreements on politics and policy among members of the Florida delegation, but public criticisms have been rare to nonexistent. That changed somewhat this week when Hialeah Republican Mario Diaz-Balart took exception to a comparison by Mucarsel-Powell of the federal response to violent Portland protesters with the actions of police carrying out the wishes of Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro.
The comparison came as Mucarsel-Powell questioned Attorney General William Barr during an oversight hearing on July 28 (see “Distrust and antitrust” above).
“Mr. Barr, how do you restore the confidence of my constituents in the values of this country when every night on television they see these images of violence against peaceful protesters?” she asked.
Following the video showing images from Portland and Venezuela, Diaz-Balart sent out a series of three tweets, blasting her for making the comparison.
“Mucarsel-Powell should apologize immediately for her disgraceful insults to those who risk their lives to secure the rights and freedoms that we cherish, and who serve to protect the lives and property of Americans,” he said.
Instead of an apology, Mucarsel-Powell pointed to ranking Republican Jim Jordan’s question to chairman Jerry Nadler whether a scene was taken from Venezuela or Portland. Her response concluded with a backhanded slap at Diaz-Balart.
Mucarsel-Powell made other news during her five-minutes of questioning. As time wound down, she asked what she would tell constituents “that President Donald Trump and the attorney general, working together, are not following health guidelines and are letting Americans die needlessly because of political reasons, and that is what I will tell them.”
Quite a memorable five minutes.
To watch the video (Mucarsel-Powell comes in around the 5:07 mark), click on the image below:
SPACECOM belongs here
Last year the search for a permanent headquarters for the new Space Command (SPACECOM) appeared near its end. Sites in Alabama, California and Colorado were named as semifinalists, while Florida was told thanks, but no thanks.
Many in the Florida delegation publicly lamented the disrespect shown to a state with a strong military presence, as well as history, capabilities, and an experienced workforce for space operations. Good news came when the process was reopened after Barbara Barrett succeeded Heather Wilson as Secretary of the Air Force. Florida jumped at the chance to reapply.
In a letter to Air Force Assistant Secretary John Henderson led by Rubio and signed by every member of the delegation, the lawmakers backed the nominations by Gov. Ron DeSantis of eight possible locations to house the command’s headquarters.
“Florida has a long and proud history of supporting both military installations as well as space operations,” the letter reads. “Our commitment to the military and its missions makes the great state of Florida uniquely positioned to host this much-needed combatant command.”
The nominated sites are Jacksonville, Pensacola, the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County, Brevard County, Seminole County, Pinellas County, Orange County, and Miami-Dade County.
“We appreciate your consideration, and look forward to discussing more about what Florida, the gateway to the stars, has to offer,” the letter concludes.
On this day
July 31, 1972 — A little more than two weeks after the Democratic ticket of Sens. George McGovern and Thomas Eagleton left Miami to begin campaigning, Eagleton withdrew following revelations he had previously sought care for mental illness. Realizing the issue would overshadow discussions on issues and the record of President Richard Nixon, McGovern asked his running mate to step aside.
Eagleton reportedly lobbied the nominee hard to stay on the ticket, but ultimately accepted the inevitable. With only three months remaining before Election Day, McGovern was immediately searching for the right person to help take on Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew.
July 31, 2015 — The National Urban League invited five presidential candidates to address attendees in Fort Lauderdale. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a Republican, was included as was former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Gov. Jeb Bush were the clear focus.
In her remarks, Clinton mocked Bush’s “right to rise” political action committee and Bush’s conservative positions on repealing Obamacare saying, “people can’t rise if they can’t afford health care.” Bush pointed to his education record that includes opening a charter school and supporting school vouchers while mentioning his action in taking down the Confederate battle flag in 2001 while Governor, a move he told attendees was “an easy call.”