Trump’s strategic move
The battle to enact the next package of coronavirus relief has now devolved into tactical warfare with the unemployed playing the role of pawns. President Donald Trump’s executive actions August 8 came more than a week after the enhanced federal unemployment benefits expired and accelerated the verbal warfare on multiple fronts.
For more than two weeks, Republicans have advocated a temporary extension of just the federal unemployment benefit (at less than $600 per week), but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer refused to go along, demanding instead a comprehensive relief package. Democrats have held fast to the $600 figure despite House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer saying it was negotiable.
The President’s order calls for a $400 federal payment to the unemployed, $200 less than what Democrats were insisting upon, with states responsible for 25%. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell was among those blasting the President’s move.
“This order cuts unemployment, abandons our local community and leaves behind everyday people,” said the Miami Democrat. “Why can’t my Republican colleagues just do their job and work with us to help our constituents??”
Another front involves the source of the funding. The order calls for $44 billion to come from federal disaster funds and allows the fund to dip no lower than $25 billion.
“Just days after 2020 was declared an ‘extremely active’ hurricane season, Trump is cutting disaster relief for his unconstitutional order,” said Orlando Democrat Val Demings.”
Still another battle involves Trump following through on a pledge to suspend the payroll tax through the end of the year, thereby boosting the paychecks of those working by 7%. For those who Republicans say are not returning to work due to overly generous unemployment benefits, the payroll tax suspension is designed to bring wages in line with those benefits.
The payroll tax funds entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, but Trump said the tax suspension will have “zero impact.” Coral Gables Democrat Donna Shalala had a far different view.
“If Trump follows through on making the payroll tax cut permanent, it will be the end of Social Security as we know it,” tweeted Shalala, a former Secretary of Health and Human Services.
While Republicans were either supportive or silent, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse gave Democrats some ammunition by referring to the order as “unconstitutional slop.” Sasse said he was being consistent with his criticism of former President Barack Obama’s use of the executive order to create DACA, something Rep. Matt Gaetz used in his support of Trump.
“Democrats are crying alligator tears about executive orders and the ‘misuse of the executive branch,’” Gaetz said. “Democrats had no problem with executive orders when Obama was using them to create amnesty for illegal aliens.”
Longboat Key Republican Vern Buchanan touted the order for all that it contained, including student loan relief and the federal moratorium on evictions. Winter Park Democrat Stephanie Murphy also took a softer line, saying executive orders “won’t cut it” but “neither will partisan bickering. Let’s get it done.”
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Fox News Sunday that Democrats would “have a lot of explaining to do” to those helped by the order if they take Trump to court. He also intimated negotiators may be open to a smaller bill that meets immediate needs.
Trump’s action may have given him the upper hand, at least for now. How long will Democrats let the President be the one to help the unemployed, deliver a pay raise, reduce student loan debt and keep people in their homes?
Prediction: not long. They would rather talk about COVID-19 response.
In an expected move, Trump issued an executive order placing severe sanctions on the China-owned social media platforms TikTok and WeChat. The order would effectively ban advertising by American companies and they could be removed from Apple and Google’s app stores.
Trump delayed implementation of the order by 45 days to allow TikTok and WeChat to sell to an American company. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is said to have access to the data of Americans through both apps, dubbing Trump to say “(t)hese risks are real” in the message announcing the orders.
“The danger posed by Chinese-owned applications like TikTok and WeChat is that the Chinese Communist Party can force these companies to turn over Americans’ user data the company collects and manipulate what users see or don’t see,” Sen. Marco Rubio said.
There are bipartisan concerns surrounding the apps, according to Rubio.
“There was little concern when I warned of the danger posed by TikTok last October,” he said. “Now, more companies and organizations, including the federal government, Democratic National Committee and Biden campaign, are asking employees to delete TikTok.”
TikTok has responded with a pledge to file a lawsuit against the order.
Rubio added he plans to introduce legislation creating a framework of standards for foreign-based apps that are allowed to operate in the U.S.
Scott sounds off
Federal legislators are still wrestling over the proper way to extend the coronavirus relief package and Sen. Rick Scott took a crack at easing the logjam last week.
Scott proposed several amendments to the legislation including provisions to enhance the stockpile of personal protective equipment available to first responders and to close an insurance loophole that will enable Americans to access affordable testing.
The first amendment — the American-Made Protection for Healthcare Workers and First Responders Act — authorizes the Department of Homeland Security to keep its own stockpile and prohibits federal agencies from procuring PPE from foreign suppliers.
Scott also proposed an amendment ensuring that no taxpayer money appropriated by Congress to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic will go to any entities or controlled by the government of China.
“The best way to help people right now is to get the economy reopened, support businesses by cutting taxes and regulations, protect Americans from the threat of Communist China, and ensure there is ample testing and personal protective equipment across the country,” Scott said. “That’s my focus and that should be the focus of everyone in Congress right now.”
The raft of amendments also included motions to suspend the payroll tax through the end of the year, which Trump did August 7, and to expand on the small business investment exclusion from capital gains tax.
Gaetz backs Franklin
With the primary one week away, the race for the Republican nomination for the Congressional District 15 House seat held by Rep. Ross Spano gained more attention when a GOP colleague endorsed Spano’s opponent. Gaetz announced he was throwing his support to Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin.
Gaetz traveled to Lakeland to publicly announce he was backing Franklin, a move the second-term Republican acknowledged was unusual. He said the 2020 election is too important to stay neutral and earlier cited the Department of Justice investigation into Spano’s campaign finances as a reason to get involved.
“It’s not usual for a sitting member of Congress to endorse a challenger against an incumbent but the principal obligation of leadership is to tell the truth. The truth is that if Ross Spano is the Republican nominee for this district, the Republican Party will be weaker and the President’s campaign will be weaker,” Gaetz said. “Ross Spano is not a credible messenger for the Trump agenda.”
Gaetz joined another prominent Franklin backer, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, in supporting Spano’s challenger. Spano sought to minimize the effect of the Gaetz intercession, pointing out that he has also backed Trump and his agenda. Spano defeated former state Rep. Neil Combee in the 2018 GOP primary.
On the other side, Spano said he is “pleased to have the support” of Sen. Marco Rubio and delegation Republicans Michael Waltz, Daniel Webster, Mario Diaz-Balart, Vern Buchanan, Greg Steube and Gus Bilirakis.
The winner will face the winner of the Democratic primary between television journalist Alan Cohn, state Rep. Adam Hattersley and attorney Jesse Philippe.
Rep. Neal Dunn has a simple message for his constituents.
If you receive a mysterious package of seeds in the mail, don’t plant them.
The Panama City Republican warned people that if they have received random shipments containing seeds, they are best served to contact the Florida Department of Agriculture.
“If you are one of the many individuals who received an unsolicited package of seeds, please hold on to the seeds and packaging, including the mailing label. Do NOT open the seed packet or plant the seeds. In addition, do not throw the seeds in your trash,” said an advisory issued by Dunn.
“At this time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not have evidence indicating that this is more than a brushing scam; however, with the assistance of the states, they are taking the proper precautions and testing the package contents to see if they contain anything that could be of concern to U.S. agriculture or the environment.”
A federal agency said earlier this month that it can identify 14 different plants that have been mailed as part of the random shipments of seeds that appear to have been sent from China.
Dunn warned his constituents that if they receive a similar package, they should contact either the FDACS Division of Plant Industry at 1-888-397-1517 or [email protected] or the USDA APHIS Anti-Smuggling Hotline at 1-800-877-3835 or [email protected].
As the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on, pressure increased to obtain medical supplies and equipment, much of it produced or sourced abroad. Late last week, Trump signed an executive order that would direct federal agencies to prioritize specific medical materials and drugs when they are made in the United States.
The “Buy American” executive order’s specific scope is still unclear, but it will direct the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to produce a list of “essential medicines, medical countermeasures and critical input” which will be covered by the new requirements. Dunn praised the order that aims to guard against shortages of critical medical supplies and prescription drugs due to breakdowns in the global supply chain.
“I applaud President Donald Trump and his administration for taking the initiative to make our nation more independent as we fight the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dunn said in a news release. “For far too long, we’ve relied on suppliers outside of the United States and our allies for medical supplies and essential prescription drugs.
“This puts us in a vulnerable position. Americans should not have to fear shortages of critical medicines or other supplies. This executive order puts us one step closer to renewing, restoring and rebuilding our nation.”
This is not the first action Trump has taken regarding pharmaceuticals. Late last month, he introduced four executive orders aimed at bringing down prescription drug prices, which Dunn also praised as ”an opportunity to lower drug prices without harming innovation” while noting he is “not in favor or government price controls, it is clear this issue needs immediate action.”
Late last week, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft died at the age of 95. He served in that role under President Gerald Ford and President George H.W. Bush.
Scowcroft gained the respect of those who worked with him or under him. Among those was Murphy, who previously served as a national security specialist at the Pentagon.
“Heartbroken at the passing of Brent Scowcroft, a patriot & a warm, wonderful man who made America stronger & the world better,” the Winter Park Democrat tweeted. “Humbled to be among the public servants he inspired and mentored. I will miss him dearly.”
In a diary entry during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Bush described Scowcroft as “the best.” He added: “This thoughtful, quiet, unselfish man is a source of tremendous strength to me.”
Incoming transportation dollars
Communities around the state have become the beneficiaries of federal funds to support or enhance public transportation. Three Central Florida Democrats are touting the latest transportation disbursement.
Reps. Murphy, Demings and Darren Soto announced the awarding of a competitive federal grant of $2.84 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation to the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority (LYNX). LYNX will use federal funding to rehabilitate and replace aging buses, vans, and facilities.
“Reliable bus service has always been critical in a growing region like Central Florida, but it is now crucially important during this pandemic,” said Murphy, a Winter Park Democrat, in a joint release. “Throughout this crisis, Lynx helps Central Floridians get to work, visit their doctor, or go to the grocery store.”
LYNX is planning to use the grant funding to purchase electric buses to operate on its lines which circulate in downtown Orlando. They lawmakers tout the investment into electric buses that not only eliminate emissions, they also offer less vibration and noise and lower operating costs.
“I’m proud to announce this critical federal funding for new LYNX buses to serve Central Florida. Clean, reliable public transportation is an important part of the Orlando experience for visitors to downtown Orlando and our world class attractions, and it is essential for the thousands of residents who count on LYNX to safely get to work and home again,” said Demings, a Democrat from Orlando.
LYNX serves Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties. It covers an area of approximately 2,500 square miles and serves a resident population of more than 1.8 million people. The fleet includes more than 310 air-conditioned coaches and before the COVID-19 pandemic, provided 79,000 rides each weekday and over 25 million passenger trips in 2019.
“Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Floridians deserve to be safe at home, at work and everywhere in between,” said Soto, a Kissimmee Democrat. “I look forward to seeing our community adapt to this new normal and continue to make bus travel clean, safe and environmentally sustainable.”
Retired Army Captain Ryan Kules came to Rep. Gus Bilirakis with an obstacle he needed help clearing. And Bilirakis turned it into a law to help pave the way for future soldiers like Kules.
The law, named for Kules, will improve and expand the Specially Adaptive Housing program that currently aids severely disabled veterans in buying, building or remodeling homes to better fit their lives.
Trump signed it into law last week, and Kules was proud to be its namesake.
“This law will reduce financial stress for families like mine who use or need the Specially Adapted Housing benefit,” said Kules, who now serves as the Wounded Warrior Project’s director of combat stress recovery.
“It will provide more peace of mind, freedom and comfort in their homes.”
The law will give prioritization to veterans with serious illnesses such as ALS, and it will increase the number of times a veteran can use a SAH grant from three to six instances. It will also increase the dollar cap amount on additional SAH funding by 15% over the current rate in an effort to aid veterans who live in high-cost areas.
And perhaps most importantly, it will authorize Veterans Affairs to provide additional funding to veterans whose homes no longer meet their needs a decade after they had used up the funding for their first grant.
That will apply to veterans who have moved or whose disability has grown worse over time.
“When I heard of the challenges Ryan faced when he wanted to buy a new home to accommodate his growing family, because he could not use the SAH benefit a second time due to program limitations, I knew something needed to be done,” said Bilirakis.
“Many of these young and severely wounded warriors are returning home in their early 20s. As they mature and their circumstances change through marriage, the birth of additional children, etc. they need a benefit that changes with them so that they can fully enjoy their lives.”
Veterans may soon get a better crack at justice thanks to new legislation passed by Rep. Charlie Crist.
The bill, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump over the weekend, will create a Veteran Treatment Court in order to give vets facing the justice system a chance at alleviating their problems without jail time. The law calls for the Department of Justice — in conjunction with Veterans Affairs — to establish a program that will provide grants, training and technical assistance to help develop and maintain the veterans’ treatment courts.
“With this new law, thousands more veterans across the country facing the criminal justice system will have an alternative to jail time ensuring they get the treatment they need,” said Crist. “Our local Tampa Bay Veteran’s Courts have been a lifeline for so many and were the model for this legislation. The funding and resources being made available under this law will go toward standing up many new veterans programs and expanding current ones.”
Crist was able to secure $30 million in funding for the program in the Commerce, Justice, Science funding bill that passed the House last week.
His office also said the appropriations bill contained language that will prevent the federal government from interfering with states like Florida that have legalized medical marijuana.
A bipartisan bill that would permanently extend Medicare’s telehealth coverage beyond the current COVID-19 crisis was recently introduced by California Democrat Mike Thompson. The Protecting Access to Post-COVID-19 Telehealth Act would expand telephone and online virtual visits with doctors by removing restrictions for Medicare patients.
Telehealth services allow patients to speak directly with their doctors via phone, video chat and online patient portals, referred to as “virtual check-ins.” Longboat Key Republican Vern Buchanan was the first member from Florida to sign on as a co-sponsor.
“Extending telehealth services will allow seniors continued access to critical health care, including emergency medical attention and mental health services,” Buchanan said in a news release. “Telehealth has been essential to seniors who are extremely vulnerable to coronavirus.”
The bill would legislate permanent access to telehealth coverage and go beyond an executive order signed by Trump last week. That order would be subject to a lengthy regulatory process and could be reversed in the future without the passage of federal legislation.
In March, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) temporarily waived certain legal restrictions on telehealth services nationwide amid the burgeoning health care crisis. Specifically, this bill would permanently eliminate the geographic restrictions that prevent seniors from outside rural areas from receiving telehealth services and repeals restrictions mandating that services are provided at medical facilities like hospitals and health clinics.
Buchanan’s office said the number of seniors accessing telehealth services skyrocketed from 13,000 a week in March to more than 10 million a week in July. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80% of deaths associated with COVID-19 were among adults 65 and older, with the highest fatality rates involving persons 85 and older.
Incentivizing stronger structures
With natural disasters seemingly striking on a regular basis, the costs to rebuild are in the billions. A bipartisan group of lawmakers that includes Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart introduced legislation to help individuals and businesses better prepare for events such as earthquakes, tornadoes and floods.
The Disaster Savings and Resilient Construction Act provides a $3,000 tax credit for individuals and a $25,000 tax credit for businesses to help owners rebuild after disasters. Diaz-Balart is an original co-sponsor of the bill introduced by New Jersey Democrat Bill Pascrell.
“I am proud to be an original co-sponsor of this legislation that incentivizes homeowners and building owners who use resilient construction methods in federally-declared disaster areas,” the Hialeah Republican said in a joint news release.
Diaz-Balart points out that in 2019 alone, the United States experienced 14 separate billion-dollar natural disasters. Every federal disaster declaration results in billions of dollars of unfunded disaster relief. Further compounding the problem, damaged structures are often rebuilt to their original standard, leaving them vulnerable to future disasters.
“The threat of a hurricane and other natural disasters is something we should never overlook,” Diaz-Balart added. “Having robust, resilient infrastructure is the first step in not only saving taxpayer dollars and minimizing property damage, but also reducing the risk of fatalities.”
Also joining as original co-sponsors are New York Republican Tom Reed and Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio.
On this day
August 11, 1984 — In the spirit of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, a flippant remark from President Ronald Reagan caused an international furor. As Reagan prepared for his weekly radio broadcast, he tested the microphone by saying he had “signed legislation outlawing Russia forever. The bombing starts in five minutes.”
TASS, the official Soviet news agency, solemnly declared “the USSR condemns this unprecedented and hostile attack by the U.S. President.” Among other things, Reagan’s detractors called him a “reckless nuclear cowboy” intent on provoking conflict with the Soviet Union.
August 11, 2012 — Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. The move, which comes two weeks before Republicans are set to convene in Tampa, was met with support from Republicans who favor efforts to bring deficit spending under control and panned by Democrats who disagree with Ryan’s previous plans on making changes to social entitlement programs.
Weston Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Floridians “want no part of a Romney-Ryan economic scheme that puts millionaires ahead of Medicare.” Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who urged Romney to pick Rubio, said Ryan “will prove invaluable as Gov. Romney fights to reform government, accelerate job growth and rein in out-of-control spending.”