SCOTUS war imminent
Much to the disgust of Democrats, President Donald Trump will appoint a replacement for the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this weekend. The rumor mill has Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett the front-runner with 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Barbara Lagoa running second.
Coney Barrett was said to have been the runner-up to Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and a favorite of evangelicals. Lagoa, the daughter of Cuban exiles and raised in Hialeah, has had a meteoric rise in just the past two years and has high-powered Floridians in her corner.
“I spoke to him (Wednesday),” Sen. Marco Rubio, referring to Trump. “I think she would be great and I’m a big fan of Judge Barrett, too. I have a preference, I suppose, for Lagoa because she’s from South Florida, because her life story is emblematic of everything we hope for our children in our community.”
Sen. Rick Scott said “I think they’re probably both great candidates but I know Barbara and she would be great for Florida. I don’t know Amy at all but everything I’ve read has been positive. I talked to Trump about it and told him about the positives of Barbara.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s closer confidants, was quoted in POLITICO saying, “If the President picks Barbara Lagoa, they will be dancing salsa with joy in Hialeah well past November.”
Trump met with Coney Barrett in the White House and was reportedly ready to meet with Lagoa when he visited Miami this week. The White House later said no such meeting was on the schedule.
Both are conservatives, but Coney Barrett’s strong Catholic faith brought concern from California Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein and others during the confirmation hearing for her current seat on the court of appeals. She was ultimately confirmed by a 55-43 vote while Lagoa sailed through hers, 80-15.
Coney Barrett has a longer resume, which could play to her advantage. Two years ago, Lagoa was a judge on the 3rd District Court of Appeal in South Florida before Gov. Ron DeSantis tapped her for the Florida Supreme Court on January 9, 2019. Ten months later, Trump appointed Lagoa to her current position.
The decision not to schedule a meeting points toward the President already deciding on Coney Barrett. While experience may have played a role, perhaps her position in a recent high-profile case before the 11th circuit may be another factor.
On Sept. 11, the court ruled by a 6-4 margin that former felons in Florida must pay fines, fees and restitution before they can vote. That ruling reversed a lower court based in Tallahassee and held that the Florida legislature’s enacting bill implementing Amendment 4 met constitutional muster.
“Florida’s felon re-enfranchisement scheme is constitutional,” Lagoa wrote in a concurring opinion. “It falls to the citizens of the State of Florida and their elected state legislators, not to federal judges, to make any additional changes to it.”
This week, billionaire Michael Bloomberg spearheaded a drive to raise millions to pay the costs for thousands of former felons, which prompted an investigation and possible legal action (see “Gaetz challenges Bloomberg $$$” below).
If winning Florida hinges on a few thousand votes and legal challenges to these individuals voting or being prevented from voting emerge, Lagoa could perhaps become a focal point if she were on the high court. If she is Trump’s pick, it would most certainly be part of any grilling from Democratic Senators.
It may be a coincidence, but Lagoa was expected to meet with Trump this week until the controversy surrounding Bloomberg emerged. For those wagering on who the President might choose, Coney Barrett now looks like a good bet.
Then, the real fireworks begin.
Early into the economic lockdown due to COVID-19, Sen.Scott said that the government can provide economic relief to troubled industries such as the airlines all they want, but passengers will not resume flying until they feel safe. To that end, Scott has joined with Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell to introduce legislation that might help.
The Fly Safe and Health Act would require the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to establish temperature screenings at airport checkpoints with the goal of promoting safe air travel during the pandemic. The bill will charge the TSA with deploying a temperature check program across the United States by first testing technology in various scenarios before the final rollout.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been calling for temperature checks for passengers of mass transit as a common-sense way to help keep Americans safe and healthy,” Scott said in a joint release. “This legislation will enable a temperature check pilot program while also ensuring airlines are flexible with customers who get sick following the purchase of a flight.”
According to data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), more than 140 countries and territories, but not the U.S., have implemented temperature screenings. International regulators have also included thermal screening as part of the combination of measures that can be implemented to manage the risk of COVID-19 in air travel.
“Americans deserve all the available tools to fight COVID-19. For workers and the traveling public, a temperature check program provides important data,” said Cantwell, the bill’s primary sponsor. “The legislation I introduced would require TSA to use innovative temperature screening technology to better protect passenger and worker health, and build public trust in the aviation system.”
During a press briefing this week, Trump was asked if he would commit to a peaceful transition of power in January. Not willing to offer any concession he could lose, the President answered “We’re going to have to see what happens” adding his concern about mail ballot fraud. He added that if the election is fair, “there won’t be a transfer.”
Outrage at Trump’s refusal to answer the question came from Democrats, leading California Democrat Adam Schiff to call on Trump administration officials to resign. Democratic nominee Joe Biden asked, “What country are we in?”
Numerous Republicans, from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham and Rubio, the Acting Senate Intelligence Committee chairman. all pledged to accept the results.
“As we have done for over two centuries, we will have a legitimate & fair election,” Rubio tweeted. “It may take longer than usual to know the outcome, but it will be a valid one. And at noon on Jan. 20, 2021 we will peacefully swear in the President.”
Despite his confidence in a legitimate and fair election, Rubio is still steaming at tactics used by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to effectively cancel an election security briefing from the Department of Homeland Security. Rubio asked for “unanimous consent” on the Senate floor to have the briefing, but Schumer objected, citing the majority’s process for selecting a Supreme Court Justice, proving they “have no respect for the institution.”
“Sen. Schumer had a temper tantrum over the Supreme Court and used a procedural move to cancel the committee’s briefing,” Rubio said.
Three weeks ago, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin agreed on a spending plan that would avoid a government shutdown. A last-minute hiccup developed when the Democratic proposal known as a continuing resolution (CR) failed to include billions for farmers, a top priority for Trump and Congressional Republicans.
“I find this despicable,” tweeted Panama City Republican Neal Dunn. “Our farmers deserve better. When will @SpeakerPelosi stop with the partisan games?”
The funding was restored, along with an increase in funding for school food programs at the insistence of Pelosi, ultimately leading to passage of the bill by a vote of 359-57. Moderate Democrats in competitive districts reportedly pressed leadership to agree to the farm funding.
“Putting government spending on autopilot is not ideal, but this continuing resolution is necessary to prevent another shutdown and keep the government open and working for the people,” said St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist in a statement.
The “no” votes, all of which came from Republicans, included Gaetz, Brian Mast, Ross Spano, Greg Steube, Michael Waltz and Ted Yoho. Despite this, Democrats said more funding is still needed to help those significantly impacted by the pandemic.
“We need to keep the government open but we also need additional COVID relief for the American people,” said Weston Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
The Senate is expected to pass the funding bill before funds run out at the end of the month.
Gaetz challenges Bloomberg $$$
As the week began, around 32,000 former Florida felons were on track to win back the right to vote following a fundraising effort led by former New York Mayor Bloomberg. The total raised was reportedly in the vicinity of $20 million and was designed to pay off fines, costs and restitution owed by these individuals, thus enabling them to vote.
Despite a constitutional amendment granting felons who served their time the right to cast a ballot, the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court in Tallahassee that earlier ruled the state could not force felons to pay fines, costs and restitution before allowing them to vote (see “SCOTUS war imminent” above). This prompted Bloomberg and others to act.
One day after the Bloomberg announcement, Gaetz posited the multibillionaire may be guilty of bribery, a felony under Florida law. The Fort Walton Beach Republican called for an immediate investigation.
“Under Florida law, it’s a third-degree felony for someone to either directly or indirectly provide something of value to impact whether or not someone votes,” Gaetz explained. “So, the question is whether or not paying off someone’s fines and legal obligations counts as something of value, and it clearly does.”
Florida has approximately 775,000 residents with a felony conviction. The 32,000 targeted by Bloomberg were categorized in a memo obtained by The Washington Post as those likely to help Biden. Gaetz said the payments amounted to influencing their vote.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has called for a criminal inquiry.
Enhanced cancer treatment
This week, the House unanimously passed legislation aimed at improving treatment and research for veterans suffering from prostate cancer. The bill, introduced by Dunn in March, was approved on a voice vote.
The Veterans Prostate Cancer Treatment and Research Act will direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a national clinical pathway for prostate cancer and a standardized system of care. Prostate cancer is the No. 1 cancer diagnosed in the Veterans Health Administration.
“The last thing any veteran should face is yet another enemy — prostate cancer,” Dunn said upon the bill’s passage. “I’m pleased to see my bill pass today. The key to overcoming prostate cancer is early detection.”
Dunn, a medical doctor who also served in that role in the Army, said “Veterans deserve a system that streamlines the pathway from early detection to successful treatment. I’m grateful that my colleagues recognized the importance of my bill and have joined me in defeating this deadly adversary.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would be required to establish a comprehensive prostate cancer program and a plan that provides for continued funding for funding and research through the VA Office of Research and Development. Additionally, it requires establishing a real-time, actionable, national prostate cancer registry that is accessible to clinicians and researchers.
According to Dunn, veterans who have been in contact with toxins, such as Agent Orange, are at higher risk for prostate cancer. Establishing a clinical pathway will standardize treatment options and result in improved outcomes for these patients. Additionally, this bill will create a real-time registry to track patient progress and will allow patients greater access to cutting edge clinical trials.”
Honoring a hero
On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill from Florida Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Michael Waltz, along with Texas Republican Dan Crenshaw, to authorize the President to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to the late U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Alwyn Cashe for heroic actions taken in Iraq on October 17, 2005.
The bill would make a technical change to the federal law that currently requires the Medal of Honor be awarded within five years of the actions forming the basis for the award. This requirement is often waived by Congress.
“With unanimous passage of our bill by the House today, we are one step closer to ensuring that Alwyn Cashe receives the Medal of Honor he earned,” said Murphy, the bill’s original sponsor. “I am grateful that so many Americans are learning of and being inspired by SFC Cashe’s heroic actions, which are so extraordinary that they nearly defy description.”
Last month, the lawmakers sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper asking to have Cashe’s silver star upgraded to a Medal of Honor. Esper responded by agreeing that “Cashe’s actions merit awarding of the Medal of Honor” and was prepared to recommend to the President that he be awarded the medal should Congress change federal law.
“It’s not every day you read an extraordinary story like Alwyn Cashe’s,” Waltz said. “His bravery in the face of danger has inspired so many already — and this is a significant step forward to properly recognize him for his heroism. I’m incredibly proud to see the House of Representatives come together in favor of this legislation to award him the Medal of Honor.”
In addition to introducing this legislation, Murphy, Waltz and Crenshaw are working closely with the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to include a waiver for Cashe within the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act currently pending in Congress.
“Now our fight to properly honor this soldier turns to the United States Senate, where I know we will have many allies and we will not stop working until we get this across the finish line,” Murphy added.”
Toxic exposure addressed
Last November, Rep. Gus Bilirakis joined with Texas Democrat Joaquin Castro to co-sponsor the Veterans Right to Breathe Act sponsored by California Democrat Paul Ruiz. The bill aimed to provide disability compensation for veterans exposed to burn pits while serving overseas.
“Many of our heroes are sick and some are even dying from illnesses linked to their exposure to burn pit toxins,” the Palm Harbor Republican said in a joint news release upon the bill’s introduction. “There is an urgent need to remove the bureaucratic red tape that is keeping them from getting the care and benefits they deserve.”
The topic is again making headway in Congress with the introduction of an additional bill that aims to create sweeping mandates. The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, also sponsored by Ruiz, seeks to switch the burden of proof of service-related harm from the veteran to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
It would require the VA to provide benefits to veterans exposed to hazards during service who have one or more of the diseases included in the bill’s scope.
“My goodness, they came in healthy and they’re leaving sick,” Bilirakis said. “They need to be treated by the VA … These people don’t have time and their families are suffering for it as well.”
Under the current policy, veterans who become ill after being exposed to toxic hazards during service must prove that their illnesses were caused by those exposures unless the VA considers the illness a “presumptive.” Adding illnesses to the VA’s “presumed” list is complex and costly.
Nearly 80% of burn pit claims filed are denied as the VA only recognizes temporary health effects related to burn pits such as respiratory, skin, eye and gastrointestinal tract irritation. Members of Congress want assurances from the VA that the more than 40 years taken to provide many Vietnam veterans related to Agent Orange exposure would not be repeated.
Comedian Jon Stewart, who successfully advocated for a similar measure to provide compensation to 9/11 emergency responders, has joined the cause. He believes those who served are being shortchanged.
“The truth is that this is not about science. This is about money,” Stewart said. “We always have money for war, but not for the warfighter. We support the troops, but not when the troops need support … Delaying care and waiting for veterans to die is not a mantle worthy of our country.”
Vaccines for seniors
While several laboratories are working on a vaccine that will inoculate Americans against the COVID-19 virus, several questions remain. When will it be available? Who will receive it first? How much will it cost?
Those with insurance plans are not expected to pay out of pocket, but the uninsured will need to find a way to purchase the vaccine. After hearing seniors may be required to pay a premium for the vaccine, Rep. Vern Buchanan wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar calling on him to ensure that all seniors enrolled in Medicare receive it free of charge.
“Although Medicare does not typically cover drugs approved under emergency-use designation (which would include a COVID-19 vaccine), I urge your administration to intervene and provide such coverage,” the Longboat Key Republican wrote. “With more than 225,000 seniors in my district, this issue is critical to the community I represent and countless others across the nation.
Buchanan pointed out that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 80% of deaths associated with COVID-19 have been adults 65 and older, with the highest fatality rates involving persons 85 and older. Seniors enrolled in Medicare are currently eligible for a free influenza vaccine each year. More than 44 million Americans rely on Medicare for health care coverage including 4.3 million in Florida.
“Seniors are especially vulnerable to coronavirus and should not be delayed access to a potentially lifesaving vaccine based on bureaucratic red tape,” Buchanan said in a news release. “The cost of the vaccine cannot be a barrier to proper preventive treatment for our nation’s seniors.”
Freed from fees
Veterans events at national parks could soon be permitted free of charge, thanks to legislation sponsored by Sarasota Republican Steube. The Free Veterans From Fees Act of 2019 (HR 1702) just passed in the House and now awaits a Senate vote. The legislation would waive special use permit fees for any veterans’ demonstrations and special events at war memorials managed by the National Park Service.
“It doesn’t make sense that our veterans have to pay fees for visiting memorials that were built in their honor,” Steube said. “It’s an honor to see my bipartisan legislation pass through the House of Representatives. Freeing our veterans from these fees is a small way to repay them for their service to our nation. We owe it to our veterans to find common ground in Congress, honor their service, and make their lives easier where we can.”
The hope is to relieve burdensome administrative fees from the shoulders of Gold Star Families and other veteran groups, who often have to turn for help to national organizations to arrange happenings. American Veterans, a national group representing 250,000 members nationwide, supported the legislation.
It now heads to the Senate for consideration by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Stop sexual harassment
Victims of sexual harassment are not limited to adults. Recently introduced legislation seeks to address instances of perpetrators victimizing minors as they attend schools.
Rep. Lois Frankel has joined with two Democratic colleagues to introduce the Stop Sexual Harassment in K-12 Act. The bill seeks to address sexual harassment and assault occurring in our nation’s K-12 schools by creating clear standards and related funding streams for schools to uphold their students’ Title IX rights.
“Schools should be a place for every student to chase their dreams, free from sexual misconduct,” the West Palm Beach Democrat said in a joint news release. “This bill will ensure K-12 schools protect students from sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other forms of sex discrimination, as well as ensure equal access to education.”
The bill sets standards for a school’s Title IX coordinator, allows confidential reporting of sexual assault, trains students and teachers on what action to take when witnessing harassment, and provides funding to schools to meet the bill’s standards.
Rep. Sean Casten of Illinois is the bill’s prime sponsor with Frankel and Michigan Democrat Brenda Lawrence serving as original co-sponsors. Frankel and Lawrence are chairs of the Democratic Women’s Caucus.
COVID and prisoners
Among the COVID-19 hotspots around the country have been local jails, state prisons and federal detention facilities. A group of lawmakers, including Rep. Ted Deutch, are seeking information on steps being taken to prevent the spreading of the virus among federal detainees.
Deutch and Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have written to both the United States Marshall’s Service (USMS) and the private prisoner transport firm Prisoner Transportation Services (PTS), seeking answers to some probing questions.
The lawmakers are requesting information about the steps USMS and PTS are taking to manage coronavirus spread among individuals in their custody, staff, and the general public. They urge them to immediately implement COVID-19 diagnostic testing of detained individuals before transfers between facilities.
“Because USMS holds individuals in federal custody and transports individuals who are sentenced to and from various facilities-which risks spreading the virus to facilities and communities all around the country-the agency has a unique responsibility to take every possible precaution to prevent the further spread of COVID-19,” the lawmakers wrote.
The USMS has up to 61,000 individuals in its custody before they are either acquitted, released or transported to prison. Until that time, the letter said, they must be monitored while in their custody to prevent a further spread when prisoners reach their ultimate destination.
“We urge PTS to immediately take concrete steps to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among individuals in its custody and the facilities with which it contracts, including providing face masks and implementing universal diagnostic testing of every individual that enters into its custody prior to transporting them,” the letter reads.
More Cuban sanctions
This week, Trump announced new sanctions on the regime of Cuban President Raúl Castro which ban the purchase of Cuban cigars and rum, as well as blocking stays at Cuban government-owned hotels. The President made the announcement during a White House ceremony honoring surviving members of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
Among those attending the ceremony was Hialeah Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who praised the administration’s action.
“President Trump has taken an unprecedented stand in solidarity with the Cuban people,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement. “In addition to today’s sanctions, he has ended transactions with the Cuban military, imposed robust sanctions on the regime’s chief benefactor in Venezuela, ended cruises and most flights, and allowed victims of trafficking in stolen property to pursue their claims in court.”
The sanctions add to the dramatic turnaround in relations with Cuba during Trump’s nearly four years in office. Trump has reversed steps taken by former President Barack Obama to normalize relations with the island nation only 90 miles from Key West.
“The Trump Administration continues to deliver on its promise of reversing the Obama Administration’s disastrous one-sided Cuba policy, which provided a lifeline to the repressive regime of Raúl Castro,” Rubio said in a statement. “We must continue to close loopholes that permit corrupt members of the Cuban dictatorship and military to enrich their pockets at the expense of the Cuban people, who are still subjected to an oppressive puppet-tyrant.”
The Cuban military and intelligence services are said to control most of the country’s tourism industry. Diaz-Balart believes Trump’s actions are having an impact.
“Four years ago, President Trump promised solidarity with the Cuban people and robust sanctions against the Cuban regime. He has kept that promise — and more,” he added. “I look forward to continuing this important work with President Trump and my colleagues until the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people are finally realized.”
Whether active duty or nearing retirement, one thing is certain in military life — relocation.
To make the military moving process more efficient for service members and their families, the federal government has contracted to create a new single point of accountability.
As Lee Hinkle, director of the nonprofit Florida Alliance for Consumers and Taxpayers, notes in a recent op-ed, this consolidation of services “is vital to America’s security — to efficiently relocate 400,000 military families annually is key to our military’s readiness. It also maintains a nimble, well-functioning defense posture.”
As it stands, the military manages moves through a patchwork of 40 government offices, employing hundreds of contractors. It is a system that the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) called ‘fundamentally flawed.’
“But TRANSCOM boldly decided to consolidate the management of household goods relocations to create a unified system and improve service and accountability,” Hinkle notes. “A lengthy, methodical, and highly competitive process resulted in the award of the contract to a consortium called Team ARC.”
The bidding process, like many others, leaves winners and losers; and the losers are striking back with accusations against ARC, including an unsubstantiated claim that its parent company had “pled guilty in the U.S. to price-fixing allegations.”
“TRANSCOM’s rigorous, fair, and lengthy bidding process determined that the winning proposal provided ‘the best service for the best value,’” Hinkle writes. “The exhaustive level of analysis TRANSCOM brought to this complex contract appears to be unmatched and should not be undermined by politics.”
“Members of Congress should let the process continue,” she says, “without political interference.”
On this day
September 25, 1986 — The House of Representatives approved a massive tax overhaul that will change the way Americans pay their taxes and shifts a larger burden toward corporations. President Ronald Reagan said it will simplify tax returns and spur economic growth.
The bill passed on a bipartisan vote of 292-136 with Democrats Earl Bennett, Dante Fascell, Don Fuqua, Sam Gibbons, William Lehman, Buddy MacKay, Bill Nelson, Claude Pepper and Lawrence Smith joining Republicans Gus Bilirakis, Andy Ireland, Connie Mack, Bill McCollum, Clay Shaw and Bill Young voting in the majority. Among the provisions is the eventual lowering of the top tax rate from 50% to 28%.
September 25, 2015 — After months of infighting and recriminations, House Speaker John Boehner resigned. In a news conference, Boehner said “my first job is to protect the institution,” adding his decision was made that same day after he could not corral the dueling forces of moderates and conservatives in his party, let alone Democrats. The move comes one day after Pope Francis delivered a historic address before a joint session of Congress.
With an apparent jab at the more conservative members, Rep. David Jolly of St. Petersburg said “The honor of John Boehner this morning stands in stark contrast to the idiocy of those members who seek to divide us.” Clermont Republican Daniel Webster said he intends to run for Speaker, while Lakeland Republican Dennis Ross said he will seek the post of Majority Whip.
Greetings to Rep. Diaz-Balart (September 25) and Rep. Wasserman Schultz (September 27).