Congress going postal
As President Donald Trump’s term began, he and his campaign were accused of colluding with the Russians. As the end of that term nears, he and his administration stand accused of sabotaging the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to suppress the vote and pave the way to victory.
The $3 trillion House coronavirus relief bill known as the HEROES Act includes Democrats’ call for $25 billion for the postal service, while the Senate proposal has nothing. The White House has offered $10 billion, which White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said was rejected, but Trump said he would agree to $25 billion if Democrats give him some things he wants.
Two months ago, Trump appointed North Carolina business owner (and Trump donor) Louis Dejoy as Postmaster General with a stated mission of bringing efficiency to the USPS. Critics claim the new postmaster, at the behest of the President, is intentionally slowing down the mail that will not only affect the election but keep Americans from receiving important medications.
Winter Park Democrat Stephanie Murphy recounted constituents reporting “specific actions by the administration to erode @USPS for ideological and political reasons. It must stop.” West Palm Beach Democrat Lois Frankel pointed out how the postal service connects to everyday life, adding that House Democrats “will do everything in our power to protect the #PostalService and our democracy from (Trump)” with the hashtag #DontMessWithUSPS
Democrats latched on to reports that sorting machines were being discarded, postal drop boxes removed in certain areas and workers’ hours cut. After an uproar, the USPS said they would cease removing the boxes until after the election.
Kissimmee Democrat Darren Soto sought a briefing from local postal workers’ unions, who reported no drastic steps taken in Central Florida so far, but added: “We will fight this!” Miami Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell created a 60-second video that carried the message, “The post office is under attack.”
Longboat Key Republican Vern Buchanan was one of the few Republicans to weigh in on the controversy, touting the services provided by the USPS, adding “We also need to know that absentee ballots for upcoming elections will be sent and delivered on time. Funding should not be withheld from the Postal Service.”
Trump has repeatedly proclaimed his disdain for widespread use of mail-in ballots, but has often muddled the message of the difference between absentee or mail-in ballots in comparison to statewide universal mail balloting. States like Oregon and Washington have successfully carried out elections by mail for years, but the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee (RNC) recently sued Nevada for recently voting to go all-mail in 2020.
Dejoy will appear before the House Oversight Committee on August 24 to explain his actions. A likely subtopic to be pushed by Republicans centers around committee chair Carolyn Maloney of New York, whose primary win was recently confirmed after six weeks of controversy over mail-in ballots.
The hearing, to be conducted on the first day of the Republican National Convention, has the potential to be as ugly as the recent Judiciary Committee grilling of Attorney General William Barr. While Barr appeared by himself, Dejoy will be joined by Robert Duncan, chairman of the USPS Board of Governors, who happens to be a former chairman of the RNC.
No matter what happens at the hearing, the President will continue to forcefully maintain that people can safely vote in person. He and other Republicans are jumping on a recent response to a question by Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said “there is no reason why in-person voting wouldn’t be safe” if guidelines are followed.
China influence growing
Through a foreign policy initiative known as “Belt and Road,” China has established a presence in underdeveloped countries around the world through financial infrastructure “investments” that leave those countries vulnerable to Chinese pressure. The government under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now making inroads into the Western Hemisphere.
A bipartisan group of Senators, including Marco Rubio, have joined a bill introduced by New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez that would take steps to counter China’s growing influence in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Advancing Competitiveness, Transparency, and Security in the Americas Act would strengthen economic competitiveness, expand safeguards for physical and digital infrastructure, and address human rights abuses from digital surveillance technologies in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“The Chinese Communist Party’s ultimate goal is to use economic power to displace the U.S. and the role our nation plays,” Rubio said in a news release. “I’m proud to join Sen. Menendez in introducing this bipartisan legislation, which seeks to strengthen our economic competitiveness and counter Beijing’s growing malign influence in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
The bill is the first comprehensive effort to improve U.S. economic engagement and diplomatic presence and address the government of China’s economic, political, security, and intelligence activities in the region. For example, China recently built a port in the Bahamas that is drawing increased concern.
Also signing on as co-sponsors are Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Tim Kaine of Virginia, along with Texas Republican Ted Cruz. Rubio is the chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee overseeing the Western Hemisphere as well as co-chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
Scott: no bailouts
In the ongoing battle to agree on a coronavirus relief bill, the struggle for funding federal unemployment compensation has been replaced by the controversy surrounding the USPS (see “Congress going postal” above).
Sen. Rick Scott recently reminded Trump and anyone else listening that he is part of a group that will not agree to a bailout of states for debts not directly related to COVID-19. He wrote to Trump urging him not to agree to “bailouts” for states in debt before the virus struck.
“I know we share the same goal to help individuals that lost their jobs due to the coronavirus, as well as support struggling small businesses across the nation,” Scott wrote. “My focus is on how we get the help to families and businesses that have been directly impacted, instead of laundering taxpayer money intended for coronavirus relief through inefficient federal agencies, state governments or bloated bureaucracies.”
The HEROES Act would direct about $1 trillion toward federal agencies, as well as state, local and tribal governments. The Senate bill, known as the Heals Act, has nothing for those governments.
Trump’s recent executive order provided funds for unemployment, extended deadlines on evictions, suspended the payroll tax, and extended deadlines on student loan debt. With Democrats going all-in on the Postal Service drama, bridging the gaps between the HEROES Act and the Senate HEALS Act may take longer, as would an agreement on what to provide to states and tribes.
“State and local governments have only spent about 25% of what they received in the CARES Act,” Scott added. “Yet Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are holding up funding for Americans in need because they want to give their poorly-run states $1 trillion more to spend on liberal programs unrelated to the coronavirus.”
Timing on the next round of negotiations has not been revealed.
Landmark peace deal
A once-in-a-generation geopolitical event occurred last week when the United Arab Emirates (UAE) became the third Arab country in the Middle East to recognize the state of Israel. Egypt and Jordan are the other two.
The deal, brokered by the Trump administration with son-in-law Jared Kushner playing a leading role, came after more than three years of talks. One of the key points that led to an agreement was Israel putting on hold, at least for now, plans to annex the West Bank.
Support within the delegation was bipartisan, with the role played by Kushner and Trump praised or minimized, depending on Party. Former Vice President Joe Biden said the agreement “builds on the efforts of multiple administrations to foster a broader Arab-Israeli opening, including the efforts of the Obama-Biden administration to build on the Arab Peace Initiative”
Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch, who chairs the House subcommittee overseeing the Middle East, said “Normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world has been a long-standing bipartisan goal, and today’s announcement reflects the importance of many years of bipartisan diplomacy.”
Republicans were more effusive in their praise for the President.
In a tweet, Hialeah Republican Mario Diaz-Balart said “Under @realDonaldTrump’s leadership, the U.S. has guided another achievement toward peace & security in the Middle East.” Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz spread the credit around by tweeting, “I commend the bold diplomacy of President @realDonaldTrump, Prime Minister @netanyahu, and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed.”
Winter Park Democrat Stephanie Murphy offered “Congratulations to all involved in this historic agreement to normalize relations between Israel & the UAE.” Her Democratic colleague from St. Petersburg, Charlie Crist, spoke of “finding common ground” and concluding with “Mazel tov.”
Israel and Egypt agreed to make peace in 1978 with a deal brokered by President Jimmy Carter. Jordan and Israel came to terms in a 1994 White House ceremony with President Bill Clinton.
DNC’s virtual reality
The parties’ conventions held every four years have changed significantly, but nothing like this year. From choosing candidates in the past within proverbial smoke-filled rooms, in 2020 there are precious few in the rooms of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Milwaukee.
But the show is going on in cyberspace as speakers stream their praise of Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris while ripping Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in prime time. Unlike in 2016, Florida is in the background.
Without thousands roaring their approval of nearly every word of every speaker, those watching Monday’s prime time schedule got the substance without the excitement. Sen. Bernie Sanders said his ideas are now mainstream and Biden will be progressive, while former First Lady Michelle Obama said Trump is “in over his head.”
According to the schedule provided by the DNC, Tuesday features Schumer, former President Bill Clinton and Dr. Jill Biden, with New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slated for a brief appearance. Wednesday features Pelosi, 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton, Harris, and former President Barack Obama.
Those watching on Thursday will hope to hear strong remarks from Biden with his strategy of not taking questions from the media under growing scrutiny. He faces the challenge of generating excitement speaking from a controlled setting, something Trump and Republicans will face next week.
Like four years ago, Democrats are seeking unity between the Biden forces and those still fiercely loyal to Sanders. That division exploded in 2016 when emails surfaced indicating the Democratic National Committee had favored Hillary Clinton at the expense of Sanders’ candidacy, leading to the resignation of then-chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Four years later, no Florida Democrat has a prominent role at the convention. While the party is showing broad diversity with its nighttime speaker lineup, excluding a state they desperately want to win — and could knock out Trump with a victory — will likely be noticed at home.
Rep. Val Demings, a finalist to be Biden’s running mate and who brought the impeachment case against Trump, would have been a good choice. So, too, would have been Rep. Stephanie Murphy.
But, the cyber show goes on.
Military day care
For the second time in less than a month, St. Augustine Republican Michael Waltz has joined with New Mexico Democrat Deb Haaland to propose action in support of military families. They recently led a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, urging the DoD to close child care gaps for military families.
The lawmakers point toward 1.2 million dependent children under the age of 13 who require child care, access to which the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted. They ask the Department of Defense (DOD) to work with state and local governments, community leaders, and veteran service organizations to develop creative solutions.
“Many of these families have reached out to us asking for support in navigating this complex problem,” they wrote. “Single military parents and dual-military couples with children face added challenges given their essential roles at work and no additional help at home. Military-civilian couples fear the civilian spouse may be forced to quit their job to take care of their children, jeopardizing the financial stability of those families.”
They added this issue can impact military member retention rates and America’s national security and is a factor in military members missing duty and leaving the service.
Their effort is backed by numerous military service groups including the National Military Family Association, the Military Family Advisory Network, Blue Star Families, and the Servicewomen’s Action Network, among many others. Those signing the letter included 33 colleagues.
Last month, Haaland and Waltz introduced the Rent the Camo: Access to Maternity Wear Act, a bill designed to facilitate low-cost access to maternity wear for military mothers. Waltz is a former Army Green Beret officer while Haaland is the daughter of parents who served in the armed forces.
CMS reversal sought
In a disagreement on policy, three Florida lawmakers are expressing concern to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) over a recent decision. They also expressed what they believe should take precedence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Democratic Reps. Darren Soto, and Kathy Castor, along with Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis, sent a letter to CMS stating their unease about the decision to move forward with the Review Choice Demonstration Program (RCD).
The program established a process for preventing fraud during the delivery of home health services while protecting beneficiaries and limiting unnecessary provider burden, but expansion was delayed into Florida due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The recent decision to move forward in Florida despite the pandemic prompted the legislators to write to CMS Administrator Seema Verna.
“Following the reinstatement announcement, numerous home health providers in Florida shared their concerns of being able to meet the RCD administrative requirements while simultaneously handling the many challenges of the coronavirus,” they wrote.
“These challenges include increased time securing vital personal protective equipment necessary to care for their patients, increased time in performing advanced infection prevention techniques, and limited ordering physician availability to provide necessary signatures.”
They also expressed concern at the little time provided to the home health agencies (HHA) to prepare, citing “steep learning curves” for those agencies in other states. The number of agency employees working remotely was cited as another concern.
“We urge CMS to resume the position it took in March to pause the RCD until the (COVID emergency) has been resolved. We look forward to your action on this important issue,” the letter concludes.
Stop the discharges
South Florida residents living in the region near Lake Okeechobee are often faced with discharges of toxic water from the lake, a step taken as a precaution against overflow. Among those routinely criticizing the Army Corps of Engineers (COE) for this practice has been Palm City Republican Brian Mast, who is now seeking to change the law to stop it.
Mast introduced legislation that would make it illegal for the Army Corps of Engineers to discharge water containing algal blooms with a level of toxicity above the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) human health standard of eight parts per billion microcystin. It would specifically prohibit discharges into the St. Lucie Estuary and the Indian River Lagoon.
Mast said recent discharges have tested more than 60 times more toxic than the EPA considers safe for human contact. He pointed to joint efforts with the EPA to set new public health standards, Despite this, Mast pointed to a hearing where the COE admitted to knowingly discharging toxic water from the lake as they “continued to poison Americans.”
“The Army Corps has proved that if left to their own devices, they will continue to poison our communities with toxic discharges from Lake Okeechobee that they have acknowledged to be toxic,” Mast said in a news release announcing the legislation. “No Floridian should tolerate being poisoned by their government.”
The COE maintains smaller releases are necessary to prevent larger releases when the lake’s level rises through heavy rains or tropical storms and hurricanes. They seek to maintain the lake’s level between a range of 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet.
“The EPA has told us exactly what level of microcystin is too toxic for human contact, and now we must tell the Corps to stop these discharges that are destroying our waterways and putting our health at risk!” Mast added.
Transportation grants flowing
One of the Republican arguments against going along with the House-passed HEROES Act is a reluctance to commit to another $3 trillion in spending while billions from the CARES Act remains unallocated. That is now changing with grants now being awarded around the country, especially those involving public transportation.
Rep. Lois Frankel recently announced the recent awarding of more than $50 million from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The grant is going to Palm Tran to support operational costs as well as ensure the safety and well-being of employees.
“Palm Tran is a vital public transportation service here in Palm Beach County,” the West Palm Beach Democrat said in a news release. “This critical funding will be used to make sure that Palm Tran is able to continue to operate safely for the commuters who have come to rely on this service and for the essential workers who operate it.”
The funding will help Palm Tran support operating costs to maintain service, including the purchase of personal protective equipment and paying the administrative leave of operations personnel due to reductions in service, in order to respond to and recover from COVID-19.
FTA has allocated $25 billion in CARES funds to recipients of the urbanized area and rural area formula funds, with $22.7 billion going to large and small urban areas and $2.2 billion to rural areas.
Funding is provided at a 100-percent federal share, with no local match required. It will be available to support capital, operating, and other expenses generally eligible under those programs to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19.
Trump recently signed legislation championed by Floridians in both houses of Congress. The President enacted the Commission on the Social Status of Black men and Boys Act that establishes a commission within the Commission on Civil Rights and calls for a systematic study of the conditions affecting Black men and boys.
Rubio introduced the Senate bill on July 18, 2019, with Democratic Sens. Harris and Cory Booker joining as original co-sponsors. Miami Gardens Rep. Frederica Wilson introduced the House version of the bill on March 7, 2019, with the Rubio bill ultimately passing Congress.
“America is more successful when its citizens have equal access to economic opportunity and prosperity, and this is particularly relevant for young Black men,” Rubio said in a news release. “For too long, our nation has ignored this challenge. I am grateful for Rep. Frederica Wilson, and her decadeslong partnership on these critical issues, and I applaud the President for signing our bill into law.”
The bill is in line with the Florida Council on the Social Status of Black men and Boys established in 2006, when both he and Wilson were serving in the Florida House of Representatives.
“This landmark legislation, which passed Congress in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, is the most consequential civil rights legislation since the Voting Rights Act and has the potential to impact the lives of millions,” Wilson said in a series of tweets.
“It establishes a new permanent commission, within the United States Commission on Civil Rights, to solely address issues affecting Black men and boys. This has been a long-standing legislative priority of mine and I have filed this bill in Congress year after year.”
Testing underserved communities
As coronavirus testing continues to increase, several underserved communities still lack the ability to easily access testing resources. That prompted Miami Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell to join with House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina to introduce legislation seeking to bring more testing to those communities.
Mucarsel-Powell is the lead sponsor of the MOTION Act, which would authorize $400 million to bring coronavirus testing to communities that are medically underserved. The MOTION Act prioritizes communities that remain inaccessible to traditional testing locations, such as those in rural areas and communities which may face transportation barriers.
“This bill expands coronavirus testing in hard-to-reach communities and is critical for those that lack access to medical facilities for testing, or those that don’t have access to vehicles or have difficulty accessing traditional walk-up or drive-through testing locations,” she said in a news release. “I’m eager to see this pass through the House and I urge the Senate and President to support this much-needed service.”
Mucarsel-Powell said the bill would provide the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with essential funding to partner with local organizations, including community health centers, to provide the resources needed to conduct mobile testing.
“The Trump Administration refuses to lead the nation out of this first wave of COVID-19 with a unified national plan,” Clyburn said. “Therefore, we must do everything we can to ensure all Americans have the resources they need to prevent the spread of this virus.”
Clyburn is the chair of the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, while Mucarsel-Powell is a member of the Congressional Coronavirus Task Force. Among the bill’s 12 co-sponsors are Democratic Reps. Soto, Castor, Deutch, and Wasserman Schultz.
Abortion “tax breaks”
One of the fundamental differences between those describing themselves as “pro-choice” and those claiming to be “pro-life” is use of the term “health care.” Pro-choice advocates describe abortions as women’s health care, while those pro-life views say that description does not describe the practice.
A group of Republican Senators that included Rubio, joined by members of the House, recently wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin calling for a change in tax policy that would deny tax deductions on insurance premiums for coverage that includes abortions.
The letter points out that abortion was illegal when the deductions were first included in the tax code and changes should be made by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to exclude the practice they say rewards a “willful killing.”
“We write to urge you to take swift actions to issue new regulations to protect innocent human life by ending tax breaks for abortion (except when the mother’s life is physically endangered) to be medical care,” the letter reads. “Similarly, the IRS should not treat premiums for health insurance that covers such abortions as medical care, unless in compliance with the law’s separate accounting requirements for coverage of nonmedical care.”
Among those joining Rubio in signing the letter were Republican Reps. Gaetz, Waltz, Mast, Bilirakis, Neal Dunn, Ted Yoho, Ross Spano, Greg Steube, and John Rutherford.
On this day
August 18, 1920 — After a narrow vote in the Tennessee House of Representatives, the Volunteer State became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. The United States Constitution requires three-quarters of the 48 states to vote in favor of amendments proposed by Congress.
Six southern states, plus Delaware have voted against the amendment. Florida was one of only three states, Vermont and Connecticut being the other two, to have taken no action. Adoption of the amendment comes just barely one year after ratification of the 18th Amendment that banned the sale of alcohol.
August 18, 1988 — Vice President George Bush accepted the Republican nomination for President at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. Bush pledged to carry on the legacy of outgoing President Ronald Reagan, but also spoke as a moderate, extolling the virtues of public service.
Bush, who is trailing Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in the polls, left New Orleans with questions surrounding his surprising pick for a running mate. Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle is being accused of using his family’s influence to avoid service in Vietnam by joining the National Guard. Some pundits and media members are predicting Quayle will be forced to leave the ticket.
Greetings to Rep. Castor (August 20)