RNC scales back
In a little more than one month, the Republican National Convention (RNC) is scheduled to begin in Jacksonville. As the number of infected Floridians and those losing their lives continues to rapidly rise, the number of those questioning the wisdom of holding the event grows as well.
While not on the same level as Miami-Dade or Broward County, Duval County is seeing a corresponding uptick as well. Acknowledging the contention of experts who say the virus is more easily transmitted indoors, party organizers now speak of outdoor events, including TIAA Bank Field, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The mere thought of going forward with an assembled delegation, whether inside or outside, makes no sense to former RNC Chair Michael Steele, who was involved in the early planning of the 2012 Republican convention in Tampa before he was defeated by Reince Priebus.
“This sounds like a good, sweating time,” Steele deadpanned on MSNBC. “Seriously, the way the President has whipsawed this national committee into doing the most asinine and craziest thing … it is just amazing to me.”
Six Republican U.S. Senators have already indicated they would not be attending. To no one’s surprise, Utah’s Mitt Romney is one of them, but he is joined by Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine, Charles Grassley of Iowa, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Pat Roberts of Kansas.
Rep. Matt Gaetz was among those not expressing concern about the gathering.
“I’m concerned about parking. There’s not a lot of places to park downtown,” he quipped. When asked for reaction to the six Senators staying home, Gaetz said “They’re old.”
When President Donald Trump and the RNC announced the switch from Charlotte to Jacksonville, North Florida Republicans expressed their support for the move. Rep. John Rutherford called it “a huge win for Northeast Florida and the Republican Party,” while Panama City Republican Dr. Neal Dunn said he was “ready to be going back to having conventions and just be smart.”
Democratic Rep. Al Lawson, who represents portions of Jacksonville, said at the time “public safety is more important than any of these conventions.”
When the move to Jacksonville was announced, Florida had only recently begun to see an uptick in the number of positive test results. One month later, the dynamic has so dramatically changed, the pressure on the RNC has steadily grown.
On July 16, GOP officials made the decision to “scale back” the events. It will be “delegates only” for the first three nights of Aug. 24-26. Trump’s acceptance speech will welcome an audience among delegates, alternate delegates and guests, which makes sense to a delegation Republican who helped bring the event to Jacksonville.
“If we have to get testing in place; if we have to get protective measures in place; and if we are going to adjust the size of the crowd to be flexible with this virus, then I think that’s appropriate and responsible,” said St. Augustine Republican Michael Waltz, who is on the host committee along with Rutherford and several others.
Now that the scope of the convention is settled, everyone remembers the end of August is a prime period on the calendar for hurricanes, right?
Rubio: what sanctions?
Just days after China sanctioned Sen. Marco Rubio for his incessant criticism and activism against the interests of the Communist regime, the second-term Republican was again speaking out, blasting the stifling of dissent in Hong Kong. In an op-ed for Real Clear Politics, Rubio, who is now barred from entering China, warned the U.S. must act quickly in the name of national security.
Among the concerns is the possibility that sensitive U.S. technology will be diverted to the Chinese military or foreign ministry. He praised actions already taken to treat Hong Kong as if it was already a part of China, while offering a hand to Hong Kongers seeking to flee.
“My bipartisan Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act provides a blueprint for how to welcome Hong Kongers to the U.S.,” he wrote. “The looming crackdown, however, could outpace the legislative process. The administration should prepare a profile of Hong Kong activists vulnerable to persecution to help the U.S. consulate identify those who should be eligible to come to the United States under existing programs.”
Rubio also took note of recent aggressive actions by the United States to contest Chinese claims to dominion over most of the South China Sea. The Trump administration has now deemed the Chinese claim “illegal” and has staged a Navy presence in recent months.
“The People’s Republic of China (PRC) cannot be allowed to illegally assert control over maritime territory in the region and the United States rightly rejected all of Beijing’s spurious claims,” Rubio said in a statement.
“China’s unlawful actions will not be tolerated and I urge my colleagues in Congress to swiftly pass my bipartisan South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act (S. 1634) to impose costs on Chinese individuals and entities for their flagrant violations of international law.”
Rubio’s bill has 16 bipartisan co-sponsors including Sen. Rick Scott.
Made in China?
Anti-China sentiment has heightened in the U.S. with the onslaught of the coronavirus that originated there. That sentiment has also grown in India to the point of getting online retailers to provide the country of origin on products sold in that manner.
With the growing animosity toward the Chinese government, Scott believes the same practice should be followed in the United States, thereby allowing Americans to make a conscious choice on the products they buy. In letters to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon and National Retail Federation CEO Matthew Shay, Scott asked the retail giants to follow India’s lead, but also said legislation may be on the way.
“Now is the time for Amazon to lead the charge on this effort and initiate this same requirement here,” the letter to Bezos reads. “In the U.S. Senate, I introduced the Promoting Responsibility in Markets and E-Retailers (PRIME) Act to require online retailers to list the country of origin for each product they sell …”
Scott added he has “joined (Wisconsin Democratic) Sen. Tammy Baldwin in introducing the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) Online Act, which would give the Federal Trade Commission the authority over such laws. I am urging all of my colleagues to quickly pass these bills to provide more transparency in online shopping.”
India acted not long after a border clash with Chinese forces left 20 Indian soldiers dead. The U.S. is rapidly becoming more confrontational with China in the Pacific (see “Rubio” above), as well as acting to root out Chinese efforts to infiltrate American research efforts.
Foreign COVID aid
Several Senate Republicans are huddling together to come up with their version of the next round of coronavirus aid. There is now bipartisan consensus that more is needed to offset the damages to public health, as well as federal, state and local economies.
An emerging issue is the impact COVID-19 has had on countries around the world, especially those without the resources to fully combat the effects. While there is no consensus on how large the financial package should be, there is growing agreement that aiding foreign countries is a good idea.
The Florida delegation is playing a leading role in advocating for foreign aid in both houses of Congress. Last week, Rubio and Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland led 32 Senators in a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer calling for aid that is “robust, coordinated and sufficiently resources.”
“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70% of the world remains underprepared to prevent, detect, and respond to a public health emergency,” the Senators wrote. “With more than 12 million cases in more than 180 countries, it is clear that no matter how successful we are at fighting COVID-19 here at home, we will never stop its spread — or prevent it from rebounding back to our shores — if we are not also fighting it around the world.”
Earlier this month, West Palm Beach Democrat Lois Frankel and Naples Republican Francis Rooney led 123 House colleagues in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy calling for the foreign assistance.
“To protect American jobs and help ensure a swift economic recovery, we need to confront the dire economic and humanitarian consequences of this disease in emerging and developing markets,” they wrote. “As we continue to compete with countries like China for global influence, we cannot risk sitting on the sidelines.”
Some estimates say the need approaches $31 billion to be shared among developed countries. Out of $10 billion targeted by United Nations-related funds, only $2.5 billion has been raised.
McConnell said the coronavirus relief package “will dominate our time … starting next week.”
Targeting active shooter drills
What are the long-term effects of school shooter drills?
That’s the question being asked by Rep. Stephanie Murphy, who earned a victory in conjunction with fellow Democrat Ed Perlmutter from Colorado Wednesday.
Murphy and Perlmutter won a $1 million approval from the House Appropriations Committee for independent experts to publish a study on the potential effects of active shooter drills in schools around the country. Last year, a commission recommended fewer shooting drills in Florida.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine are set to use the congressional funding to examine the possible emotional and behavioral effects of active shooter drills, lockdown drills and other firearm violence prevention activities for grades K-12.
Once those studies are done, the report will be used to identify best practices going forward.
“As a mom with two young children, I’ve had to talk with them about the traumatic experience of an active shooter drill at their school and answer many heartbreaking questions, including why a drill was even needed in the first place,” said Murphy. “The Parkland shooting in Florida tragically reminded us of the importance of student and staff preparedness.
“As states put in place plans to ensure students can safely return to the classroom once this pandemic subsides, we must also give school administrators the tools they need to most effectively conduct active shooter drills. This expert study will help us protect students from the physical threat of school shootings without causing lasting psychological trauma in the process.”
Reps. Brian Mast and Bill Posey introduced the Pedestrian Safety Study Act Thursday in order to help protect people who live along the high-speed rail corridor on Florida’s East Coast.
Residents and local businesses have expressed safety concerns about the project, and there have been 74 deaths along the rail corridor over the last three years. Forty of those deaths were directly related to the new high-speed train, and an analysis by The Associated Press in 2019 concluded that the project had “the worst per-mile death rate of the nation’s 821 railroads.”
“The deaths our communities have already witnessed along this corridor clearly indicate there are safety issues, and Brightline has a long history of straight-up lying to the people of Florida, so at this point I don’t believe they’ve earned the trust to decide for themselves whether their trains are safe,” said Mast, a Palm City Republican. “This study is much needed to expose these issues before more lives are lost.”
The Pedestrian Safety Study Act will direct the Federal Railroad Association and the Federal Highway Administration to conduct a safety study along the Virgin/Brightline high-speed corridor, and it will place a special emphasis on schools in the vicinity of the tracks.
“These trains will travel at fast speeds through existing town centers and residential areas with little separating the tracks from the surrounding communities,” said Posey, a Rockledge Republican. The introduction of high- speed rail will undoubtedly present safety challenges for many, including our schools, and that needs to be properly addressed.
“I thank my colleague Rep. Brian Mast for his strong leadership and for partnering with me to ensure the safety of our Florida constituents.”
Bring manufacturing back
On multiple occasions, the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the U.S. dependency on China and other foreign nations for vital supplies and consumer goods. Posey has proposed legislation to assist companies that want to bring manufacturing facilities back to the United States.
Specifically, the Reshoring American Manufacturing Act of 2020 (RAM ACT) would provide tax credits to U.S. companies that bring their manufacturing equipment back from overseas. Within those companies wishing to take that step are some faced with financial hurdles such as high costs associated with transporting the equipment.
“Over the last three years, we have made great progress in rebuilding America’s manufacturing capability, adding 500,000 good-paying manufacturing jobs,” Posey said in a news release. “This legislation will build on that success by further breaking our dependence on China, restoring American manufacturing jobs, and rebuilding American industries and supply chains that are vital to our national security by bringing them home.”
Also included in the legislation is a “clawback” provision, which would prevent companies from moving the same equipment back overseas should they take advantage of the tax credit.
In February, Posey Introduced another bill involving dependency on China. He joined with Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan to launch the Safe Medicine Act, a law that would cut down on the nearly 80% of pharmaceutical ingredients that come from China and other foreign sources.
In addition to leaving the U.S. open to coercion in times of crisis, some of those ingredients from China were subject to recall for safety concerns. Posey and Ryan said it was time the U.S. “take a hard look” at producing lifesaving medication domestically.
At the end of June, Amtrak announced a reduction in trains from Florida to New York with more cuts on the way. On July 6, the Amtrak Silver Star and Silver Meteor began running three and four days a week instead of every day, something that drew the attention of Rep. Darren Soto.
Soto sent a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration inquiring about the cuts. He expressed concern that the reduction in routes could potentially impact tourism in Central Florida, which would make economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic increasingly difficult.
“According to the most recent state statistics, Florida had a 9.7% drop in domestic travel from January to March 2020; a drop likely to increase once the figures for the second quarter of 2020 are published,” the Kissimmee Democrat wrote. “With a local economy based in tourism and hospitality, my district currently faces a 30% unemployment rate.”
In early March, Soto hosted a roundtable with Rep. Pete DeFazio, the chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The conversation centered around the Invest In America Act (which became the Moving Forward Act), of which seven delegation Democrats are co-sponsors.
The legislation, which passed the House on July 1, would triple the current funding to Amtrak by $29 million for the next five years. With the Senate unlikely to take up the bill, the funding is in limbo unless another mechanism to increase Amtrak’s government assistance is found.
Soto also noted the success of local commuter rail, which is preparing for imminent expansion.
“Our commuter rail, SunRail, has completed four years of service and will soon open a new 17.2-mile expansion. I hope that these proposed service reductions are temporary, and Amtrak service will further boost our economic recovery by providing transportation choices for the millions of visitors coming to Central Florida each year,” Soto concluded.
Funding bill passes
The Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill for the fiscal year 2020 passed full committee Tuesday with provisions secured by Rep. Charlie Crist to increase environmental and veteran funding.
Crist, who represents Florida’s 13th Congressional District, secured $14 million to address harmful algae blooms like red tide and $30 million for Veteran Treatment Courts to provide veterans access to treatment instead of jail time.
The $14 million allocated to the harmful algae blooms is a 40% increase from last year and the $30 million for VTC is a $7 million increase from last year.
The bill also includes policing and racial justice reforms, including $400 million in grants for reform initiatives, $77.5 million for community relations, $8 million for hate crime prevention and $5 million for a national task force to oversee law enforcement. It also requires states and counties to ban the use of excessive force, chokeholds, “no-knock” warrants in drug cases and other standards in order to receive federal policing funds.
“This year’s Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill also includes major wins for Tampa Bay and our nation, including funding for policing reforms, increasing protections for seniors made vulnerable by bad actors in the guardianship system, more funding to protect our coastal areas, and restrictions on federal intrusion into states like Florida that have legalized medical marijuana,” Crist said in a news release.
The St. Petersburg Democrat also successfully added language directing the FBI to increase its efforts to combat elder abuse and guardianship fraud and to establish a guardianship fraud hotline.
The bill, expected on the House floor in the coming weeks, also includes language to stop the federal government from interfering with states with medical marijuana laws on the books.
Clearing the air
Rep Kathy Castor, the chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, took aim at Trump’s plans to gut the National Environmental Policy Act on Wednesday. The act, which was signed into law on New Year’s Day of 1970, requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of proposed actions before making decisions.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that Trump intends to limit public review of federal infrastructure projects in order to expedite permitting and construction.
Castor responded to those reports pointedly in a public statement.
“Shame on this President for continuing to turn his back on the health of American families. For decades, the National Environmental Policy Act has given vulnerable communities a means to protect their health and make their voices heard when polluters want to set up shop in their neighborhoods,” the Tampa Democrat said. “The president gives polluters carte blanche to do what they want and he asks families to pay the price.
“Today’s move especially will sideline communities of color, who have historically carried the burden of environmental injustice, and leave them even more vulnerable to the expensive health risks of pollution, including cancer and respiratory disease.”
Castor also criticized the President for “ignoring science and shunning experts” in the interest of moving permitting and construction projects forward with little regard to the environment.
“One thing is clear: President Donald Trump could not care less about clean air, clean water or the climate,” said Castor. “In fact, his move today proves that he’s willing to risk the health of our children and the well-being of our communities so polluters can turn a profit.”
Advisory panel proposed
Assuming Democrats retain control of the House of Representatives, the Appropriations Committee will choose a new chair to succeed the retiring Rep. Nita Lowey of New York. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is one of three competing for the post and this week provided a glimpse of what she would do if elected.
In a letter to fellow committee members, the Weston Democrat pledged to create a new spending advisory panel on equity, justice, and diversity. She said the current backdrop of demonstrations presents the perfect opportunity to make such a change in the way budget decisions are made.
“The panel would comprehensively review federal programs and the President’s budget requests to identify ongoing inequities in communities of color and historically marginalized communities,” her letter read.
Wasserman Schultz currently serves the chair of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing spending on military construction, Veterans Affairs and related agencies. She is competing with Democratic Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio for the committee’s top spot.
Huge grant awarded
The CARES Act was a $2.2 trillion package that provided relief to individuals, small businesses and larger employers to keep employees on the payroll. This week, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell announced a huge infusion of federal dollars designed to help accomplish that goal.
She announced $326 million in Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grants from the CARES Act going toward the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) and Miami-Dade Department of Transportation and Public Works (DTPW) for transit systems, including bus and rail.
“As we face one of the worst economic crises since the Great Depression, I’m proud to have fought for and won this funding in the CARES Act to protect the jobs of our invaluable transit workers and keep transit systems running so essential workers can continue their life-saving work,” the Miami Democrat said in a news release.
According to Mucarsel-Powell, who sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, $103 million of the grant funds will go toward operating assistance and preventive maintenance costs to maintain Tri-Rail service throughout the SFRTA’s 18 stations and 72-mile corridor, rail fleet, and Operations Center.
DTPW will use $223 million for bus and rail system salary expenses, paratransit operations, vanpool program expenses, and security-enhancing lighting and door replacement projects.
What’s in the water?
Florida legislators earned a win Wednesday when the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2020, and Audubon Florida lauded Mast and Mucarsel-Powell for their steadfast devotion to the Everglades.
Mast enumerated several key fixes made by the bill including the reduction of toxic discharges from Lake Okeechobee and expediting construction of the EAA Southern Storage Reservoir.
The bill will also require the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct research to determine the causes of harmful algal blooms in Lake Okeechobee and to implement measures to eliminate them.
Last year, Mast worked with the Environmental Protection Agency to set a new public health standard for microcystin (eight parts per billion.)
“For decades, our community has been on the receiving end of toxic discharges over 60 times more toxic than the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for human contact, putting our public health at risk,” said Mast. “These discharges — which the Army Corps of Engineers has acknowledged to be toxic — absolutely must come to an end.
“Demanding that the Army Corps must seek to reduce discharges to our estuaries is a huge victory, and now our fight continues to build on this momentum, continue the fight for zero discharges and send the water south.”
U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster lauded the passage of the Water Resources Development Act, and he said it will authorize funding for critical ports, inland waterways, flood protection, ecosystem restoration and a host of other infrastructure upgrades integral to Florida’s future.
“I am particularly glad, this bill was passed today without language that would put Florida communities, the Everglades and our vital agriculture industry at great risk of water shortages during our dry seasons,” said Webster. “Thanks to hard work with committee leadership and stakeholders across Florida, we have an agreement that helps tackle the algae blooms while also ensuring water access for everyone and the Everglades are protected.”
With Florida now known as the country’s “epicenter” for the COVID-19 virus, Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to be besieged with calls for a statewide order to wear masks. In addition to not issuing such an order, he has insisted that he will not go back to an economic shutdown and is moving ahead with a plan to reopen Florida schools.
While the state has slowed the reopening process, that is far from sufficient, according to Rep. Donna Shalala. She is calling for a two-week total lockdown, describing that step as the only way to bring the virus under control.
“COVID is now out of control. And there are no little nuances that you can do, there is no substitute for closing down,” the Coral Gables Democrat told Miami’s WLRN radio. “I said four months ago the worst thing we can do for our community is if we have to close down again. We didn’t do it right the first time, we have to do it right this time.”
Shalala offered her views as California went into a near-lockdown this week. She said failures at the national and state level makes such a step necessary in Florida.
“I don’t know why people run for office if they’re not willing to make tough decisions,” she said. “And the idea of not following science is just, it’s dangerous as we have seen. And this is about life and death, we’re not talking about some political ideology.”
On this day
July 17, 1962 — The Senate voted down a bill that would provide government-backed health care to the nation’s elderly population. The Medicare proposal failed by a vote of 52-48 with both Florida Senators, Democrats Spessard Holland and George Smathers, voting to kill the bill. Smathers said the legislation did not go far enough and had no chance to pass the House.
He also predicted that in two years Congress will pass an “effective, long-range program of care for those elderly people, regardless of whether they are under Social Security, who need it and seek it.” President John F. Kennedy, who strongly backed the bill, was asked if he would decline to endorse his good friend Smathers for reelection due to his vote, but the President demurred.
July 17, 2018 — The fallout from Trump’s Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin continues with Trump “clarifying” a statement he made indicating there was “no reason to believe” Russia interfered in the 2016 election. That drew a bipartisan rebuke, forcing the President to say there was no reason why he “wouldn’t” believe there was interference.
Trump further added he accepted the intelligence community’s view that Russia meddled in the election, but despite an ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, the President maintained “There was no collusion at all.”
Nonpolitical: With baseball set to resume next week, it is worthy to note that Joe DiMaggio’s record 56-game hitting streak ended on this day in 1941. DiMaggio went hitless in four plate appearances in a 4-3 Yankee victory in Cleveland.