Campaigns officially underway
The political conventions are over; Labor Day is almost here. That means the campaigns at all levels are about to get real, or as real as they can get during a pandemic.
Both parties described the other’s convention as “dark.” Through those chosen to speak at the conventions, both made pitches to voters traditionally casting ballots for the opposing party.
Democrats got their message across by preaching “unity” and blasting President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus, while Republicans spoke of law and order while using personal stories as ways to seek more votes from African Americans and suburban women.
“This is a life-changing election that will determine America’s future for a very long time,” Biden said in his acceptance speech delivered last week near his home in Wilmington, Delaware. “Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot.”
Republicans had the advantage of going second. While Democrats settled for streamed or recorded messages with some trappings, Republican speakers mostly delivered live remarks in front of a microphone from an empty Mellon Auditorium. The biggest names took full advantage of incumbency; some say illegally.
Vice President Mike Pence delivered his acceptance speech at Fort McHenry in front of a small, but cheering audience. The GOP also used the trappings of the White House for events, which enraged Democrats.
A recorded naturalization ceremony held inside for five immigrants and conducted by Trump and Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, sickened Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.
“As an immigrant who proudly took the oath of citizenship as a young adult, I am sick to my stomach watching @realDonalTrump hijack this sacred ceremony,” she tweeted. “This is wrong. It’s dangerous.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave remarks from Jerusalem, while First Lady Melania Trump’s address came from the White House Rose Garden, where she also spoke before a live audience.
Democrats are investigating whether Wolf’s involvement in the naturalization ceremony or Pompeo’s speech from Israel, violated the Hatch Act, which forbids certain political activity by federal officials. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said that everything done was within the law and added “Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares.”
Trump used the White House South Lawn to deliver a 70-minute speech before an audience estimated at 2,000 that took credit for trade deals, killing terrorist leaders, and a booming economy before COVID-19, while defending his administration’s response to the pandemic and painting a dark picture of what is to come if Biden wins.
“Make no mistake, if you give power to Joe Biden, the radical left will defund police departments all across America,” he said. “They will pass federal legislation to reduce law enforcement nationwide. They will make every city look like Democrat-run Portland, Oregon. No one will be safe in Biden’s America.”
The fall campaign is on and the first of three presidential debates is set for September 29 in Cleveland. A growing number of Democrats, that now include Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are urging the former vice president to skip them. Biden says he will be there.
It will be a campaign for the ages, for better or for worse.
Calling out atrocities
A bipartisan group of Senators is raising attention to minority oppression in Southeast Asia involving a group of predominantly Muslim people. In this case, it is not China rounding up Uyghurs, but the Senators are urging U.S. State Department action on behalf of the Rohingya population in Myanmar, who were victims of mass murder three years ago.
In a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo, Sen. Marco Rubio and seven colleagues urged the Trump administration to raise greater awareness of the atrocities committed in the country formerly known as Burma, to which they still refer. August 25 was the three-year anniversary of violence against Rohingya when hundreds of thousands fled massacres.
“Since August 25, 2017, close to 800,000 Rohingya have fled violence in Burma by escaping into neighboring Bangladesh,” the Senators wrote. “Most of them are living in refugee camps in horrific conditions, joining hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya forced to flee from Burma due to decades of government-sanctioned violence.”
They accuse the military of murdering thousands, committing acts of sexual violence, throwing victims into fires, and using mass graves to cover up their acts. The group also urged the acts be officially described as genocide.
“We urge you and President Trump to speak out forcefully and publicly about these atrocities, acknowledging the gravity of the crimes with a determination of crimes against humanity and genocide,” they continued. “The Rohingya people continue to face real and imminent risk, and the United States should act today to demonstrate global leadership and stand boldly against these genocidal tactics that have no place in civilized society.”
The letter, led by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley and Rubio, was also signed by Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Ben Cardin of Maryland, and Ron Wyden of Oregon, along with Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Todd Young of Indiana.
Biden condemns violence
For weeks, Republicans have pounded away about “violent protesters” who have caused severe economic damage in multiple cities around the country following the death of George Floyd. Democrats have argued the protests were mostly peaceful and the violence was isolated and exaggerated by Trump, Republicans, and conservative media.
Rubio appeared on Fox and Friends the week to condemn the violence and accused Democrats of failing to criticize it because they agree with some of it.
“I don’t have an answer to it,” Rubio said, “except to say they think or suspect the ideology of some of those people who are out there doing this aligns with theirs. They don’t want to be seen as taking them on.”
Rubio appeared on the morning following a night of violence in Kenosha, Wisc. where two people were shot and killed (see “Law and order” below) and businesses destroyed after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an African-American. After urging everyone to wait for all the facts regarding the Blake shooting, Rubio called on Democrats to join with Republicans to put forward a unified effort to halt the destruction.
“I think it should be a consensus position in this country that burning things down, attacking courthouses, shooting at police officers, rioting, arson, vandalism, none of these are appropriate responses to whatever complaint you have about our society,” Rubio said.
Sen. Rick Scott joined in, specifically calling out presidential nominee Biden.
“The Democrat Party, and Biden is the leader, is a puppet for the radical left,” Scott said on the Guy Benson radio show. “They cannot take a chance that the radical left won’t show up to vote for them.” “They’re not going to call them out for burning police precincts. They’re not going to call them out for violence.”
The following day, Biden issued a statement on video that addressed the shooting of Blake and pledging “justice will be done,” but then became the most prominent Democrat to directly comment on the violence around the country.
“Protesting such brutality is right and necessary,” the former vice president said. “It’s an utterly American response. But burning down communities and needless destruction is not. The violence that endangers lives is not. Violence that guts and shutters businesses that serve the community is not.”
To watch Biden’s statement, click on the image below:
Foreign policy critique
Critics routinely criticize Trump for his seeming reluctance to sharply criticize opponents of the United States. He is known to have pulled punches when it came to Russian President Vladimir Putin and called China’s Xi Xinping a “friend.”
Another is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who Trump praised during a convention video aired this week featuring released prisoners. Sen. Rick Scott is among those who would like to see a tougher stance from the President.
“Would I like him to be more aggressive in talking about these leaders? Yes, I would like him to be more aggressive,” Scott told radio host Guy Benson, extending his frame of reference to the leaders of Cuba and Venezuela. “I’ve put a lot of effort into explaining to him why we have to hold the Castro regime accountable, (Nicolas) Maduro accountable,” Scott said.
He also discussed North Korea and dictator Kim Jong Un. After originally referring to Kim as “Rocket Man,” Trump held two mostly fruitless summits with him but later described Kim as one who was interested in peace. Scott considered it all a waste of time.
“So, I know that he’s trying,” Scott continued. “He tried to sit down with North Korea. Did it work? No. It doesn’t work. It’s never worked. It never works to appease.”
While a Republican senator describing a Republican president’s effort as appeasement may indicate they are on different paths, Scott gave Trump an overall passing grade on foreign policy.
“His policies have been right. His actions have been right,” he said.
Law and order
While a police-related shooting stirred new debate about the difference in how law enforcement treats Black and White protesters, two Florida Republicans made remarks on social media criticizing violent demonstrations.
The more controversial statement came courtesy of Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz, who frequently stokes emotions on both sides of the aisle. On Aug. 26, he tweeted “The mob wants to destroy America. We need PATRIOTS who will defend her.”
But critics immediately tied that statement to the murder of two protesters in Kenosha, Wisc. Police in the shooter’s hometown of Antioch, Illinois arrested Kyle Rittenhouse, a White 17-year-old, on charges of first-degree murder. Cellphone footage has shown the teen walking around protests with an AR-15, at one point saying he was there to help police and that “we don’t have nonlethal” ways of helping quell the situation. Other footage showed police rushing past Rittenhouse as he held his hands up before he fled the scene.
It’s all spurred further discussion about how police treat White demonstrators, especially since the protests themselves elevated after police shot Blake seven times in the back on Aug. 24. Police say the shooting occurred after an altercation in which Blake was tased and then went to his vehicle and leaned forward. Only one officer on the scene fired his weapon.
The incident sparked days of protests in Kenosha, which have included violent riots. But Naples Republican Francis Rooney made clear he thinks that violence has been downplayed significantly. The Congressman called out a CNN headline and shared a screenshot of a reporter doing a stand-up in front of fires in the streets with a chyron reading “Fiery but mostly peaceful protests after police shooting.”
“CNN, you are better than this,” Rooney tweeted. “What part of burning buildings, rioting and shooting is peaceful? Now more than ever, we need fair and honest journalism — and we need a return to law and order.”
Jobs and health
Veterans often face challenges in finding employment once they leave the military, but their service sometimes takes a heavy toll on their mental health. Rep. Neal Dunn has joined to introduce bipartisan legislation that addresses these issues made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Panama City Republican joined with Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb to launch the Supporting Education Recognition for Veterans During Emergencies (SERVE) Act. The bill seeks to ensure that the medical qualifications and expertise veterans gained during their service are utilized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and also civilian medical facilities to meet the adversity posed by the pandemic.
“As a veteran myself, I can attest to the incredible amount of detailed training and experience veterans receive while serving in our military. It is a waste to all of our industries and communities to not allow them to utilize their talents and skill sets upon return to civilian life,” Dunn said in a news release.
“During the current pandemic, these individuals could make significant contributions to our communities given their extensive medical skills. It’s high time we formally recognize their special training and give them the opportunity to further serve our nation.”
Dunn served as a surgeon in the U.S. Army before becoming a medical doctor, while Lamb, the bill’s lead sponsor, is a Marine Corps veteran. Palm Harbor Republican Gus Bilirakis is one of the four co-sponsors.
Dunn also joined New Jersey Democrat Rep. Tom Malinowski to introduce the VA Serious Mental Illness Act. The legislation would support a veteran’s psychological and mental health by improving treatment protocols and expanding treatment options at VA medical facilities.
“Suicide is on the rise, especially among veterans. These brave men and women have sacrificed for our country and now they need our help,” Dunn said. “It is an honor to join my colleagues in leading this bill. Streamlined clinical practice guidelines for mental health treatment will empower VA providers to better serve our nation’s veterans.
“We still have a lot of work to do. However, by increasing the resources our veterans need, we are taking a big step in combating veteran suicide.”
The proposals and many others that will improve the mental health of veterans are included in the Senate bill named the Commander Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act. That legislation, strongly supported by Dunn, passed the Senate by voice vote earlier in the month.
Murphy, Scott honored
Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy and Republican Sen. Scott were recently named “Fiscal Heroes in Congress” by The Campaign to Fix the Debt, a nonpartisan federal budget watchdog group. They were the only Florida lawmakers selected.
Scott was one of eight Republicans and six Democrats in the U.S. Senate to be selected while Murphy was among 15 Democrats, 12 Republicans and one Libertarian in the House.
“I’m incredibly grateful to receive this Fiscal Hero award,” Murphy said. “Since coming to Congress, and now as leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, I have made fiscal responsibility one of my top priorities, introducing a balanced-budget amendment, fighting to protect pay-as-you-go rules, and voting against fiscally irresponsible policies in times of economic expansion.”
Fix the Debt is a project of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan group of politicians and economists. Its co-chairs are former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny of Minnesota. The group’s directors include David Stockman, who was budget director under President Ronald Reagan, and former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen.
“These members are being recognized for going the extra mile to develop and endorse solutions to the nation’s budget crisis,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and head of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, in a news release.
“They have distinguished themselves by casting fiscally responsible votes, drafting and pursuing legislative solutions, pushing their party leaders to make addressing the debt a priority, and engaging and educating their constituents.”
Puerto Rico’s future
There are multiple schools of thought when it comes to determining the future status of Puerto Rico, whether that be as the 51st state, a territory, or any status other than a U.S. commonwealth. Two House Democrats of Puerto Rican descent have different ideas on how Puerto Ricans should determine their future.
Soto favors a vote by Puerto Ricans to make the determination, while Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York thinks Congress should play a role. Ocasio-Cortez is co-sponsoring a bill with Puerto Rican native and fellow New York Rep. Nydia Velazquez for Puerto Rico to choose its sovereign status through a convention, rather than direct voting preferred by many advocates of statehood.
Specifically, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2020 would create a “status convention” made up of delegates that Puerto Ricans would elect. They would then come up with a long-term solution for their territorial status whether that be statehood, independence, a free association or any other option that differs current status.
Soto, the first person of Puerto Rican descent elected to Congress from Florida, strongly favors statehood and believes Congress should respect the results of an upcoming November referendum. Velasquez and Ocasio-Cortez maintain “there isn’t overwhelming support for statehood in Puerto Rico.”
“We have a plebiscite on the Island coming up this November. If the people of #PuertoRico choose statehood, then the next steps for Congress are pretty clear. We vote to admit them to the union. In such a scenario, there would be no need for this bill,” Soto tweeted.
The last plebiscite took place in 2017 with 97 percent of those voting preferring statehood. However, opposition parties boycotted the vote which resulted in a record low turnout of 23 percent.
In March of last year, Soto introduced the Puerto Rico Admission Act, which gained some bipartisan support. Among the bill’s 21 co-sponsors are Democratic Reps. Alcee Hastings, Charlie Crist and Donna Shalala, along with Republican Rep. Michael Waltz.
Murphy joins with Soto in backing the referendum, as well as statehood.
Social Security threatened?
The recent executive order from the President suspending the collection of payroll taxes from workers’ checks might mean higher take-home pay for workers, but it left Trump open to a familiar line of attack about the solvency of Social Security if his long-term plan is enacted by Congress. Payroll taxes are the prime source of funding for regular Social Security and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
A group of Senate Democrats, including Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, asked hypothetically what would happen if Trump’s pledge to make the payroll taxes permanent came about. They posed that question to Social Security Administration’s Chief Actuary Stephen Goss, who wrote in response that regular Social Security benefits could no longer be issued beyond mid-2023 if legislation passed Congress to that effect. That caught Crist’s attention.
“The nonpartisan Chief Actuary of Social Security confirms our worst fears about the President’s plan to defund Social Security,” said Crist in a news release. “Every Pinellas resident who benefits or will benefit from Social Security — that’s everyone, God willing — should read the report. Under the Trump plan, Social Security Disability would run out of money in the middle of next year, while the retiree portion would be completely gone by mid-2023.”
Goss wrote that without any new funding source, “We estimate that OASI (Old Age and Survivors Insurance) Trust Fund reserves would become permanently depleted by the middle of the calendar year 2023, with no ability to pay OASI benefits thereafter.”
He compared the scenario to similar payroll tax reductions made during the administration of President Barack Obama, but funding for Social Security was replaced by the treasury’s general fund.
“Social Security is a lifeline for millions and millions of Americans. People worked hard to pay into the system, and it must be there for them when they retire,” Crist added. “The President needs to reflect on the real people who would lose everything under this reckless plan, and reconsider his actions.”
The controversy over reopening schools continues around the country, especially in Florida, where new events occur on an almost daily basis. One of those events came when 10 delegation Democrats wrote to Gov. Ron DeSantis blasting a recent directive given to county health directors not to provide advice to school boards on whether to reopen.
The DeSantis administration has ordered that schools could not refuse to reopen without advice from local health officials. Democrats, led by Hastings and Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens, decried the move.
“Florida became a global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in July,” they wrote. “We strongly believe that now is not the time to silence experts or to place political considerations above health concerns, especially when the safety of our children is at stake, and that it is critical that health directors can freely and fully advise school boards during this unprecedented crisis.”
Several county health directors told similar stories. They were not forbidden from providing any advice but were limited to advising how to reopen schools safely. They were prohibited from advising whether the risks of reopening were too great.
Hastings described the purpose of the letter as seeking “to stop the harmful politicization of critical public health decisions, rescind any directives that have been issued to health directors to censor themselves, and make it clear that health directors may issue informed advice without fear of reprisal.”
Also signing the letter were fellow Democrats Crist, Deutch, Mucarsel-Powell, Kathy Castor, Val Demings, Lois Frankel, Al Lawson, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Policy reversal urged
Carbon dioxide is frequently cited as a leading contributor to the greenhouse gas effect, leading to global warming and ultimately exacerbating climate change. A group of Democratic legislators point to new rules that will allow more methane, which they claim is 80 times more potent in contributing to global warming than carbon dioxide.
Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette led a letter signed by 87 members to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler urging him to withdraw changes to the allowable release of methane by the oil and gas industry. Deutch was among those signing the letter.
“(Wheeler’s) gutting of methane pollution standards will increase harmful oil & gas pollution that fuels climate change & risks public health,” Deutch tweeted. “I joined @RepDianaDeGette & 80+ of my colleagues calling on @EPA to reverse course.”
The letter states the U.S. will fall behind most of the world in controlling methane if the rule goes forward.
“The most recent amendments the EPA has finalized will reverse the United States’ progress on this issue — taking us from being a global leader to returning to the back of the pack. This final rule ignores both the public interest and benefits to industry,” the letter reads.
“The EPA is moving forward with 2 standards that could allow emissions of over 340,000 metric tons of methane, over 9,000 tons of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and 270 metric tons of hazardous air pollutants in the first five years alone.”
In addition to Deutch, among those signing the letter were delegation Democrats Castor, Hastings, Wasserman Schultz, and Wilson along with Rooney, a Naples Republican.
DeGette is also the sponsor for the Methane Waste Prevention Act, which passed the Energy and Commerce Committee in January and is still waiting for floor action. Hastings is among the bill’s 63 co-sponsors.
Bring in CDC
With local health agencies prohibited from advising school boards on whether they should reopen schools (see “Advice needed” above), Mucarsel-Powell is proposing a federal role in the process. She is introducing the Safe Considerations of the Health Of Our Learning Students (SCHOOLS) Act that would provide public health guidance, among other things.
The bill calls for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct a study on COVID-19’s impact on children and issue updated guidance on the issues involving public attendance, such as classroom spacing, mask use, transportation, meals and physical recreation.
“In Florida and across the country, our nation’s coronavirus response has left parents and educators scrambling,” the Miami Democrat said in a release announcing the bill.
“I’m looking at our nation’s response to the pandemic, watching as the White House tampers with CDC guidance to safely reopen schools, and am seeing our state’s governor and education commissioner fight over the best path forward and am left wondering — how are parents and educators supposed to have any confidence in this process?”
In addition, the bill would appropriate $300 billion to be distributed by the U.S. Department of Education to ensure adequate school staff, supplies and training are available. She feels if enacted, parents, teachers and students could feel more comfortable returning to class.
“We cannot allow this uncertainty to continue,” she said. “I understand the value of having our children in school, but I also know we must keep them safe.”
The bill is endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers.
On this day
August 28, 1963 — A massive crowd of more than 200,000 civil rights activists came together in Washington in a rally that called for equal rights “now.” Several speakers addressed the throng, but remarks by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. captured and intensified the passion among those in attendance.
King proclaimed “I have a dream” of a colorblind society and called on the nation to “let freedom ring” for all. President John F. Kennedy welcomed march leaders to the White House and said the country had seen “tens of thousands — both Negroes and whites — exercising the right to assemble peacefully and to direct the widest possible attention to a great national issue.”
August 28, 2008 — In a speech like no other in the annals of political conventions, Sen. Obama accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party before an audience of 80,000 people at Denver’s Mile High Stadium. Along with linking his opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, to the “failed presidency of George W. Bush,” Obama spoke of hope and change.
The reaction to the speech among delegates was overwhelming. State Sen. Frederica Wilson said: “The best part of the speech was when he said ‘this election isn’t about me, it’s about you,’ because it’s about everybody who understands we have to change.” Obama pledged to cut taxes for 95% of Americans.