Pandemic driven changes
It was not that long ago when campaigns centered around the first Tuesday in November as everyone voted at once. Before Election Day, the closing stages meant making a case before an entire electorate, a scenario now made obsolete with mail ballots and early voting.
Over the last 60 years, debates left the opportunity for a major gaffe to potentially cost a candidate an election since voters cast no ballots. Thanks to changes undertaken to cope with COVID-19, going into this week’s final debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, more than 45 million Americans had already cast ballots, nearly 40 million more than the same time in 2016.
In Florida, 4.26 million had already voted by the time Trump and Biden took the stage. With so few undecideds, how much will issues involving Biden family financial deals (covered mostly by conservative media), Trump’s coronavirus response, immigration, or both candidates’ stances on oil drilling help win or lose a state?
The threat of being muted seemed to work on the candidates, who were both allowed to make their points uninterrupted. Each candidate had partisan support during the debate.
“Trump ripped 545 children from their parents’ arms and now has no ability to reunite them,” tweeted Kissimmee Democrat Darren Soto, referring to reports that the parents of those children cannot be located. “@JoeBiden knows this is not who we are as a nation.”
Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz focused on a news conference held before the debate by Tony Bobulinski, a former business partner of Hunter Biden.
“Joe Biden is beholden to Wall Street at home and anyone who pays his family abroad,” Gaetz tweeted. “President Trump is owning the populist mantle.”
During the question on the children separated from parents, those hoping Trump would offer empathy toward them were disappointed as he veered into asking Biden, “who built the cages, Joe?”
Biden repeated his insistence that he would not ban fracking and dared Trump to put words contrary to his campaign website. Shortly after the debate, Trump readily obliged with clips featuring Biden saying he would phase out or end the practice.
Now that the debates are over, the candidates will be pushing to win each of the remaining days until the voting stops. With so few undecideds, it is clearly a base election.
Trump will crisscross the country holding multiple rallies in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin over the coming days. His Friday events in Florida include The Villages and an evening rally in Pensacola, while Vice President Mike Pence has stops in Tallahassee and Jacksonville on Saturday.
Biden is scheduled to deliver a speech in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware on Friday and visit Pennsylvania on Saturday. His campaign pledges to “campaign aggressively” in the closing days.
Some are estimating that a record 150 million will cast ballots this year. Who would have thought such a staggering total would come in the year of a pandemic?
The old way of doing things may genuinely be obsolete.
Before most Americans had even heard of Amy Coney Barrett, Sen. Marco Rubio introduced an amendment to the Constitution, limiting the number of Supreme Court justices to nine. While Republicans currently demand Biden to commit to leaving the court as it is, Democrats began talking about adding justices earlier in the year.
In March, Rubio joined with 10 other Republicans to unveil the amendment that would enshrine the current number that has stood since 1869. He described any attempt at “court-packing” is a “shortsighted effort to undermine America’s confidence in our institutions and our democracy.”
With Republicans in danger of losing the majority in the Senate and Biden winning the White House, the issue took on greater urgency this week. Rubio and several Senate co-sponsors that included several endangered Senators, held a media briefing highlighting the urgency of approving Rubio’s legislation and getting Biden and other Democrats to go on the record.
“Multiple candidates refuse to take a position on this issue,” Rubio said. “It cannot be that we decide to change the number of people on the court every time the outcome that you’re getting from the courts does not favor your particular policy preference,” he added.
Also attending were bill co-sponsors Graham, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Steve Daines of Montana, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Martha McSally of Arizona, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Graham, Ernst, McSally, Daines and Tillis are all in difficult reelection campaigns.
In an interview for the CBS program 60 Minutes to be aired on Sunday, Biden said that if elected, he would appoint a commission to report back to him with recommendations within 180 days.
Barrett moves forward
Barrett is one step closer to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court following a partisan vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. All 12 committee Republicans voted to forward the nomination to the full Senate, while the 10 committee Democrats chose to boycott the Thursday morning proceedings.
“That was their choice,” said committee chair Lindsey Graham. “It will be my choice to vote the nominee out of committee. We’re not going to allow them to take over the committee.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged a vote to confirm Barrett on October 26, just eight days before Election Day. Democrats are pointing to that fact as the foundation of their argument not to go forward.
“We are in the middle of the election. The Senate should not be trying to ram through a Supreme Court Justice with few days left to vote,” tweeted Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, a member of the House Judiciary Committee.
Among the missing Democrats was California Sen. Diane Feinstein, the ranking member. She has received an avalanche of Democratic criticism for her kind words to Graham for how he conducted the confirmation hearings. It prompted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to say he had a “serious talk” with the 87-year-old Senator.
Feinstein came under the most fire for a gesture to which Rep. Charlie Crist can relate. Outraged Democrats slammed Feinstein and called for her removal from the committee for giving Graham a hug after the hearings.
Many Floridians remember when Crist, while serving as the Republican Governor, embraced President Barack Obama at an event. That began Crist’s fall into disfavor among partisan Republicans, helped elevate challenger Marco Rubio in the 2010 Senate race, and led to his eventual departure from the party.
Reigning in ‘censorship’
Republicans in Congress are furious at Twitter, Facebook and social media platforms they allege are silencing Republicans and conservatives. A group of House Republicans introduced legislation that would strip away certain liability protections from social media platforms.
Another bill would allow Americans to file lawsuits against “Big Tech” for “censoring political speech” and “suppressing content.” North Carolina Republican Ted Budd with St. Augustine Republican Michael Waltz among the six co-sponsors brought forth The Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans.
“As we’ve seen (last) week, Big Tech’s unlimited power and lopsided content policies are biased and unfairly stifling conservative voices,” Waltz said in a news release. “It’s time for Congress to take a look at Section 230 and clarify the statute to ensure these companies are acting in good faith — and if they’re not, they should be held accountable.”’
The bill also prohibits Big Tech companies from receiving Section 230 immunity unless they update their service terms to operate under a clear good faith standard. If companies violate those terms, they would be subject to $5,000 fines, damages and attorney fees.
Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley introduced the companion bill in that chamber. Rubio is among this bill’s four co-sponsors.
Postponing IRA distribution
Recently, Rep. Stephanie Murphy and House and Ways Committee colleague Ron Estes, a Kansas Republican, introduced bipartisan legislation to improve the required minimum distribution (RMD) rules that apply to retired workers. Currently, a retiree must begin making withdrawals from their tax-deferred retirement accounts when they turn 72, with a penalty for failure to do so.
The Required Minimum Distribution Modernization Act of 2020 looks to raise the age from 72 to 75 while exempting individuals with account balances below $100,000. These retirees could begin withdrawing funds at any age without penalty.
“Because Americans are living longer, raising the age at which they must begin withdrawing funds from their retirement account from 72 to 75 will help ensure that retired workers are not forced to pull money from their accounts before they need it,” the Winter Park Democrat said in a news release.
The legislation applies to defined contribution accounts like 401(k)s, 403(b)s and governmental 457(b) accounts. Also included are Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA) and Designated Roth IRAs.
“It is also true that most Americans don’t have large retirement accounts,” Murphy added. “Exempting retired workers with smaller accounts from the mandatory withdrawal rules removes an unnecessary obstacle that prevents them from having greater control over their financial planning and allows their accounts to continue to grow during retirement.”
Space Force Caucus
Congress has several internal caucuses advocating policy in several areas. This week another one joined the list with the formation of the Space Force Caucus launched by a bipartisan group of House members.
The members will help promote the mission of the U.S. Space Force, the newest branch of the armed forces officially launched 10 months ago. Waltz and St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist are among the inaugural members and co-chairs.
“Space affects so much of our everyday life, from our internet to our banking, GPS & our military,” Waltz said on Twitter. “Proud to join the House Space Force Caucus to support the advancement of this new military branch to protect our security both today & in the future.”
The caucus looks to serve as the chief advocate for the new service and will work closely with the Department of the Air Force and Space Force to provide opportunities for members and staff to learn about the Space Force’s role in remaining a space power.
The other co-chairs include Republican Reps. Doug Lamborn of Colorado and Brian Babin of Texas along with Democratic Reps. Jason Crow of Colorado and Kendra Horn of Oklahoma.
“Maintaining superiority in space is essential to protecting our national security and U.S. interests around the world,” Horn said. “I look forward to working with the Air Force and Space Force leadership and my co-chairs to advocate for the importance of space priorities and the needs of our Space Force professionals.”
The standup of the House Space Force Caucus follows the creation of the Senate caucus last month by Republican Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota.
988 line enacted
Earlier this week, Trump signed into law the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020, which creates a three-digit number for mental health emergencies. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had already designated 988 as the hotline number and plans to have it up and running by July 2022.
The new law requires the FCC to designate a national suicide and mental health crisis hotline number. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must jointly report how to make the new operation effective across the country.
“Glad to see this lifesaving program finally become law,” tweeted Palm Harbor Republican Gus Bilirakis, one of 10 bipartisan co-sponsors of the House version of the bill. “We need to end the stigma that surrounds mental illness, and this is a great step in the right direction. #988”
The new law will provide funding and resources to boost local crisis centers’ capacity to handle call volumes, which are expected to rise once the hotline runs in 2022. According to Vibrant Emotional Health, call volumes to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline have increased during the coronavirus pandemic, peaking at an increase of 6% in July, compared with the same period a year ago.
“We are thrilled because this is a game-changer,” says Robert Gebbia, CEO of the America Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
He and other mental health advocates agree that this will make mental health care more accessible to Americans.
EPA action urged
Earlier this summer, a sewage spill dumped millions of gallons of sewage into Sarasota Bay near Longboat Key, the residence of Rep. Vern Buchanan. The seven-term Republican is now warning of a potential disaster from a different source.
He is calling attention to a former fertilizer plant in Manatee County that has been dormant since 2001. The Piney Point site now holds naturally-created toxic waste from the phosphogypsum stack left behind, prompting Buchanan to write to the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional director asking the agency to enforce rules governing storage and cleanup of hazardous materials.
“My congressional district faces a potential environmental nightmare that requires immediate federal attention,” Buchanan said in his letter to Regional Administrator Kathy Walker. “Contaminated water from a long-abandoned phosphate processing plant is threatening to leak into our region’s water supply. Federal oversight is urgently needed to ensure the safe management and disposal of the contaminated water and prevent an environmental disaster.”
Buchanan said toxic water is stored at Piney Point in ponds that are now approaching maximum capacity. Additional rainfall contributes to the contaminated water in the stacks and increases the risk of a spill. A study issued in 2019 found that Piney Point may be only two years away from reaching capacity.
“Clean water and protecting our environment are critical to our quality of life in Southwest Florida,” Buchanan continued. “I urge the EPA to step in and help protect public health and the environment by providing technical and scientific support to safely manage and drain the phosphogypsum stacks.”
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) is responsible for environmental oversight of the property currently owned by HRK Holdings. Manatee County has requested that FDEP prioritize the proper and safe disposal of water present in the phosphogypsum stacks and complete the stacks’ closure following Florida statutes.
Federal ocean plan
Earlier this month, Palm City Republican Brian Mast highlighted the House passage of the Save Our Seas Act, a bill he co-sponsored, and Congress’ approval of America’s Conservation Enhancement Act. He expressed the hope that the bills will advance “cleaning up our oceans and preserving our wetlands for generations to come.”
This week, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler joined Mast and Department of Energy Deputy Secretary Mark Menezes in Boca Raton to announce a comprehensive strategy for combating marine litter throughout the world. The Save Our Seas Act targets explicitly the “staggering amount of plastic in the ocean,” but the EPA plan goes beyond eradicating plastic.
“Different agencies have done different things in this space over the years, but we have never addressed it in a comprehensive manner,” Wheeler said. “Instead of having a one-off, piecemeal approach, we are now all agreeing we will work together to solve the problem.”
Mast also pointed to a cooperative effort to address the situation.
“This is a problem that is only going to get worse until we come together to do something about it,” the two-term Republican said. “Together with the help of the EPA and other agencies, I’m confident that we can get serious about removing pollution from our environment and preventing it from getting there in the first place. The health of our waterways depends on it.”
Animal testing alternatives
Throughout their service in Congress, the Florida delegation’s co-chairs have proved to be advocates for animals. This week, Buchanan and Delray Beach Democrat Alcee Hastings collaborated to find alternatives to using animals for medical experiments.
The Humane Research and Testing Act would establish the National Center for Alternatives to Animals in Research and Testing (Center) under the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The center will be dedicated to increasing transparency and understanding regarding the use of animals in medical research and testing to ultimately reduce the number of animals utilized in such practices.
“We are finding methods that can better predict human results without the needless suffering of animals,” said Hastings, the bill’s original sponsor. “This legislation will not just reduce animal testing and research but will ultimately improve medical treatments for humans as they are developed from beginning to end primarily with test subjects that replicate human biology and physiology.”
The bill would allow the NIH to develop, fund, and execute a plan to record an accurate account of animals used in testing and research and incentivize non-animal methods by educating and training scientists to utilize alternative “human-relevant” methods.
Additionally, this bill mandates federally funded researchers to report to the Center how many animals they use to ensure this vital data is collected and compiled, thereby enabling the NIH to outline a plan for reducing those numbers annually.
“We need to create better, quicker and less expensive treatments for people that don’t rely on inhumane testing procedures,” said Buchanan, an original co-sponsor. “Establishing a National Center for Alternatives to Animals in Research and Testing will help advance these goals while also avoiding subjecting animals to cruel and unnecessary experiments.”
Democratic Reps. Sanford Bishop of Georgia and Mikie Sherill of New Jersey are the other original co-sponsors.
DWS promises earmarks
A process that directs funds not specifically appropriated known as earmarking is returning as an issue. Republicans stopped the process a few years ago, but it is now resurfacing after Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz pledged to reinstate it if she is successful in becoming the new chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
“Members best understand the needs of our communities,” Wasserman Schultz wrote to House colleagues. “The earmark ban ceded the power of the purse to unelected bureaucrats who are currently beholden to an erratic, lawless president.”
That stance has earned Wasserman Schultz a derisive title bestowed on a member by a budget watchdog group. Citizens Against Government Waste chose the Weston Democrat as the Porker of the Month, referring to pork-barrel spending.
“At this scary time for the financial future of the country, Rep. Wasserman Schultz fails to see the hideous hazards of earmarks,” said CAGW President Tom Schatz in a news release. “Bringing back one of the most corrupt, costly, and inequitable practices in history is wickedly cruel to taxpayers who are dealing with mounting personal debt and struggling during the pandemic.”
While the return of earmarks would be controversial, not all Democrats support it and not all Republicans are against it. Former GOP Congressman Tom Rooney from Okeechobee was a proponent of earmarks, earning him the CAGW’s Porker of the Month citation for May 2017.
Reviving Paris accords
One year ago, the United States began the process of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. Under the terms, the U.S. would be required to cut greenhouse gas emotions by 25% from those recorded in 2005.
The accords also said that if a future administration wished to reenter, it could do so. Democratic Reps. Deutch, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Miami, and Kathy Castor of Tampa are making plans for a Biden victory with the hope that would happen. Still, even if the U.S. does not rejoin the other countries, they urge Americans to meet the goals agreed upon within the agreement.
This week, they released a climate report from the House Oversight Committee, touting Floridians’ health benefits if the U.S. meets the Paris accords’ goals. The report claims that as many as 100,000 deaths could be prevented, $750 billion in health costs could be saved over the next 50 years.
“As the world gets hotter, the risk of heat-related or pollutant-related illnesses and deaths increases substantially — and communities of color are at even higher risk,” said Mucarsel-Powell in a joint news release. “At all income levels, Hispanic and African American families are significantly more likely than white families to have high rates of exposure to air pollution, water pollution and toxic chemicals, and to suffer the resulting health effects.”
The report also predicts 40,000 emergency room visits and hospitalizations for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases could be prevented over the next half-century. It would also lead to the state avoiding more than 23 million lost workdays.
“Climate action can prevent over 100,000 deaths in Florida in the coming decades,” said Castor. “It can keep people out of the E.R. and clean up the air for workers and families. And it can make communities across Florida more resilient to extreme heat and flooding, as we create jobs in clean energy.”
The members also urged passage of the Climate Action Now Act, a measure that passed the House on May 2 on a partisan vote. Castor, the chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, was the bill sponsor. It boasted 224 co-sponsors.
“Particularly in the midst of this pandemic, which has more severely impacted people with respiratory health issues, we should be doing all we can to make us healthier and better prepared,” said Deutch.
Mucarsel-Powell serves as the vice-chair of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment, while Deutch is a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
On this day
October 23, 1962 — The U.S. and the Soviet Union appear to be on the verge of war as President John F. Kennedy is set to enforce a blockade of Soviet arms shipments to Cuba. U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson asked for quick action to demand the Soviets halt aggressive actions.
Democratic Sen. George Smathers, who is receiving briefings from the Kennedy administration’s highest levels, is apprehensive about what comes next. He said, “war is not certain,” but predicted, “some shooting someplace.”
October 23, 1998 — After more than a week of tortuous negotiations, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a deal that gives the Palestinians more land along the West Bank of the Jordan River and pledge from them to combat terrorism by Islamic militants. The agreement signed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also calls for the Palestinians to abolish provisions in their charter calling for the destruction of Israel.
President Bill Clinton, who brokered the talks, said, “people around the world should be heartened” by the event. The peace process, which Arafat pledged to never leave and “will never go back to violence,” will proceed using the agreement as a foundation for future cooperation. The deal comes just 11 days before the midterm elections.
For the second time within one month, the Tampa Bay area has a team competing for a major sports championship. The Tampa Bay Lightning brought home hockey’s Stanley Cup, but now the Tampa Bay Rays are battling the Los Angeles Dodgers in baseball’s World Series.
Before the series began, lawmakers agreed to a wager. Tampa Bay-area representatives Crist and Castor are betting on a Rays’ victory with Los Angeles-area Democrats Adam Schiff, Jimmy Gomez and Loretta Sanchez.
“We are turning Tampa Bay into CHAMPA BAY in 2020,” said Castor. “The Tampa Bay Rays are synonymous with grit, determination and fun. We will win this series with toughness, resilience and probably a little bit of creativity!”
The stakes are not high but fit into the reality of playing such an event during a pandemic. The losing side will wear face masks adorned with the winning team’s logos on the House floor. Los Angeles had the best record in baseball this season and favorites to defeat Tampa Bay, who had baseball’s second-best record.
“The Rays may be underdogs, but they’ve been surprising everyone all season long,” Crist said. “Tampa Bay is having a sports year for the record books and bringing home the World Series will be the icing on the cake. Rays Up!”
The World Series is tied 1-1 after the Rays’ 6-4 victory on Wednesday. Game three is Friday night.