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Window On Washington - April 20, 2020, Vol. 4, Issue 16

Apr 20, 2020

Outlook for This Week in the Nation’s Capital

Stimulus Negotiations. Congress continued its work through the weekend on the next stimulus package and is reportedly close to a deal. The emerging deal could include $350 billion for SBA loans, $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion for coronavirus testing. While Democrats continue to call for additional funding for state and local governments and an increase to the maximum monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has remained adamant that these items not be included in this package. Some Senators have already begun discussions on the inclusion of state and local government funding in the next package. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told his Members that a vote on the package could come as early as Wednesday.

Country Reopening. The President announced that he would like the country to begin reopening by May 1, and released a guide with three phases to assist states with the process. However, there is a need for robust testing and contact tracing before a state can enter into the first phase, and multiple governors from both parties have said that they do not have enough tests. The President announced last night that he would invoke the Defense Production Act to begin increased production of the swabs and reagents needed for the tests. Governors have said they need more of both supplies in order increase testing capacity.

Last Week in the Nation’s Capital

CONGRESS

Budget & Appropriations

Treasury Secretary, Democratic Leaders ‘Hopeful’ for Agreement on Coronavirus Package: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Democratic congressional leaders say they're hopeful a deal on funding for the popular Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses will be reached and a bill will pass in the coming days. (The Hill)

Massive Coronavirus Aid Bill to Cost A Little Less Than Sticker Price: The CARES Act, which offered business loans, cash to families, an expanded social safety net and more, will cost $1.8 trillion over the coming decade, the CBO said in a preliminary cost estimate. Lawmakers and independent analysts had previously pegged the price tag at about $2.3 trillion. (Roll Call)

Top House Republican Backs Adding Hospital Funding to Small-Business Package: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said he would support adding money for hospitals to funding for a popular small-business aid program, pointing the way to a potential breakthrough in stalled talks with Democrats on the current round of stimulus spending. (Wall Street Journal)

Health

Senate Democrats Unveil Plan to Ramp Up Coronavirus Testing that Includes $30 Billion in Emergency Funding: Senate Democratic leadership rolled out a proposal last Wednesday to ramp up nationwide coronavirus testing, which public health officials have said will be key to lifting social distancing measures. (The Hill)

GOP Chairman Warns: Without More Coronavirus Testing, Hard to Go Back to Work, School: Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) warned last Wednesday that without an increase in coronavirus testing it would be difficult to start reopening the country, something President Trump has signaled he hopes happens soon. (The Hill)

Defense

Lawmakers Blast White House for Blocking Oversight of Coronavirus Equipment Shortages at VA Hospitals: Democratic members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday accused administration officials of trying to stonewall their efforts to monitor shortages in personal protective equipment and other key supplies at VA hospitals during the coronavirus crisis. (Military Times)

Thornberry Wants $6 billion this Year to Launch Counter-China Fund: The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee will release a proposal Thursday to formally create a new fund to counter Chinese actions in the Pacific. (Defense News)

Labor & Workforce

Unions, Employers Want Pension Relief Included in Coronavirus Aid Talks: A rescue plan for union pension plans nearing insolvency, exacerbated by plunging stock markets and skyrocketing unemployment, didn’t make it into last month’s massive COVID-19 aid package. But together with high-level Democratic support, and an alliance of sorts with large employers that have their own pension problems, the issue is back on the table as the White House and lawmakers start discussions on another pandemic relief plan. (Roll Call)

Banking & Housing

Key Democrats Urge Mnuchin, Powell to Rescue Mortgage Servicers: Key Democrats in the US House and Senate are calling on Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to provide a lifeline to mortgage-servicing firms that are bracing for a wave of missed payments. (Bloomberg)

GOP Senator Asks Treasury, Fed for Virus-Aid Details: Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), chairman of the banking committee, in a letter released last Thursday said he plans to hold a confirmation hearing for Brian Miller, the White House lawyer who President Trump has nominated as Treasury’s special inspector general for pandemic recovery, or SIGPR, “as soon as can be safely done.” (American Banker)

Senate Misses Deadline but Talks on Loans Go On: Senate negotiators haven’t given up on reaching a deal to add funds to a small-business lending program set up to help firms weather the coronavirus crisis, despite an impasse last Thursday that coincided with the program running out of money. (The Hill)

Agriculture

Lawmakers Prod USDA to Aid Local Food Growers Hit by Pandemic: More than 30 senators from both parties called on the Agriculture Department to provide robust aid for small growers and meat producers who are the backbone of the farm-to-table movement. (Roll Call)

Justice

House Judiciary: McGahn Case Could Stop Congressional Oversight ‘As We Know It’: The House Judiciary Committee warned a federal appeals court Thursday that the wrong decision in a separation-of-powers showdown with the Trump administration over the enforcement of subpoenas could “effectively eliminate Congressional oversight as we know it.” (Roll Call)

Democrats Request Probe of Barr's Remarks on Firing of Intelligence Community IG: Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) are calling on Justice Department watchdogs to investigate Attorney General William Barr's comments about the firing of intelligence community Inspector General Michael Atkinson. (The Hill)

Homeland Security

Senate Dems to DHS: Why is Border Wall Construction Continuing Amid Pandemic? Senate Democrats pressed the Department of Homeland Security last Friday to explain why the wall on the southern border is still being built during the coronavirus pandemic and amid strict national social distancing guidance. (Politico)

Leading Tech Groups Push Congress to Provide Funds for IT, Cybersecurity During Pandemic: Leading tech industry groups last Thursday urged Congress to support efforts to modernize information technology and ward off cybersecurity threats during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Americans move online and networks are put under increasing stress. (The Hill)

Education

The Higher Education Act and the Pandemic: Top Republican Senate aide says lawmakers were close to a deal to update the nation's main higher education law. Then the pandemic put everything on hold. (Inside Higher Ed)

Space/NASA & NOAA

New Crew Arrives at ISS as House Committee Begins Review of ISS Research and CASIS: In its response to a recent critical Independent Review Team report NASA agreed that a “new operating model” is required and listed six actions it and CASIS will take. However House SS&T Chairwoman Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) announced that she will also closely review the IRT’s report, but its “findings suggest we have more work to do” to ensure the ISSNL is effectively utilized. (Space Policy Online)

Transportation

Democratic Senators: Airlines Sitting on $10 Billion in ‘Customer Cash’: Leading domestic airlines are sitting on an estimated $10 billion in customer cash amid unprecedented flight cancellations as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to an investigation by Democratic senators. (The Hill)

EXECUTIVE BRANCH

Budget & Appropriations

Trump Halts Funding to World Health Organization: President Trump announced last Tuesday night that he is halting funding to the World Health Organization while his administration reviews the group’s handling of the coronavirus, accusing it of bungling the response and failing to communicate the disease’s threat. (Politico)

Health/HHS/NIH

Trump Names Caputo to HHS Top Communications Role: Michael Caputo has been named to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) top communications position, the one-time Trump campaign aide confirmed. (The Hill)

NIH to Launch Public-Private Partnership to Speed COVID-19 Vaccine and Treatment Options: The National Institutes of Health and the Foundation for the NIH (FNIH) are bringing together more than a dozen leading government and industry partners to develop an international strategy for a coordinated research response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (NIH Press Release)

Stephen Miller’s Hard-Line Policies on Refugee Families Make a Comeback at HHS: The health department’s refugee office is now seeking to delay placing migrant children in shelters operated by the health department, which would instead leave those children in the custody of the Border Patrol for an extended length of time, according to an internal email sent last week and reviewed by Politico. (Politico)

Defense/DOD

Trump to Use Defense Production Act to Increase Swab Production Amid Coronavirus Testing Shortage: President Trump announced on Sunday that he plans to use the Defense Production Act to increase the nation’s swab production by at least 20 million per month for coronavirus tests. (CNBC)

How an Outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt Became a Defining Moment for the US Military: The crisis has become a defining story for the US military during the coronavirus pandemic. It also has underscored thorny challenges for the Navy, including a lack of clarity about how to respond to President Trump’s concerns, disagreements about transparency and questions about whether officers who flag problems should face retribution. (Washington Post)

Army Corps of Engineers to Convert DC Convention Center into Makeshift Hospital: The Corps will transform the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington into a 500- to 1,500-bed hospital, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the head of the Corps, told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday. (The Hill)

DOJ

Trump Threatens to Adjourn Both Chambers of Congress: President Trump last Wednesday threatened to use his executive power to force both chambers of Congress to adjourn if the Senate did not confirm his nominees for vacancies across the administration. (The Hill)

 Labor and Workforce

Weekly Jobless Claims Hit 5.245 Million, Raising Monthly Loss to 22 million Due to Coronavirus: Protection measures against the coronavirus continued to tear through the employment ranks, with 5.245 million more Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment insurance last week, the Labor Department reported last Thursday. (CNBC)

Labor Officials See Uneven Progress on Jobless Benefits: Labor Department officials reported progress by state agencies in paying newly authorized unemployment benefits at a press call last Wednesday, but they also acknowledged wide gaps in state implementation that have delayed payments. (Roll Call)

Department of Energy

US Weighs Paying Drillers to Leave Oil in Ground Amid Glut: The Trump administration is considering paying US oil producers to leave crude in the ground to help alleviate a glut that has caused prices to plummet and pushed some drillers into bankruptcy. (Bloomberg)

DOE Negotiating with Oil Companies to Store Excess Supplies: The Energy Department is negotiating contracts with nine companies to lease space at federal petroleum stockpiles to store their excess crude as weak global demand partly blamed on the coronavirus pandemic exacerbates oil market troubles. (Roll Call)

Environment/EPA/DOI

Oil-state Governors Seek Renewable Fuel Waiver for Refiners: Oil-state governors want the EPA to waive refineries’ obligations to comply with the nation’s biofuels policy, arguing that the coronavirus pandemic is causing the industry economic hardship. (Roll Call)

Green Groups Sue after EPA Suspends Enforcement of Pollution Monitoring Due to Coronavirus: The EPA has argued the controversial memo was necessary as employees would otherwise be overwhelmed by case-by-case requests to halt pollution monitoring, but critics have called it a license to pollute. (The Hill)

 Agriculture/USDA

USDA to Buy $2B in Ag Goods as Part of Coronavirus Aid: The Agriculture Department is planning to spend nearly $2 billion to purchase agricultural commodities to help get surpluses to food banks, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said last Thursday. (Politico)

DHS and USDA Move to Protect American Farmers and Ensure Continued Flow of America’s Food Supply: The DHS, with the support of the USDA, has announced a temporary final rule to change certain H-2A requirements to help US agricultural employers avoid disruptions in lawful agricultural-related employment, protect the nation’s food supply chain, and lessen impacts from the coronavirus public health emergency. (USDA Press Release)

Agriculture Secretary Stresses Safety, Resiliency of Food Supply Amid Processing Drop: USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue stressed early last Thursday that the nation's food supply chain is safe and resilient, adding, however, that processing has dropped amid the coronavirus pandemic. (The Hill)

Space/NASA & NOAA

How COVID-19 Could Ruin Weather Forecasts and Some Climate Records: As more and more scientists are sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic, they can only watch from afar as precious field data disappear and instruments degrade because they are unable to make the trips necessary to maintain them and gather the data. The scientific pause could imperil weather forecasts in the near term, and threaten long-standing climate studies. (Nature)

Space Industry Consortium Concerned About Financial Health of Small Businesses: The Space Enterprise Consortium — an organization created in 2017 to attract space companies to work on military contracts — is canvassing firms to gauge the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on businesses and is urging the US Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center to consider ways to shore up small business suppliers during the covid-19 crisis. (Space News)

Tax Reform/IRS

In Unprecedented Move, Treasury Orders Trump’s Name Printed on Stimulus Checks: The Treasury Department has ordered President Trump’s name printed on stimulus checks the Internal Revenue Service is rushing to send to tens of millions of Americans, a process that could slow their delivery by a few days, senior IRS officials said. (Washington Post)

Can States Close Budget Deficits with Excise Tax Hikes? The pandemic-induced economic crisis will affect almost every meaningful source of state revenue. Historically, income taxes are more volatile than sales and excise taxes and fall more sharply during a recession, but this crisis is unique inasmuch as social distancing and shelter-in-place orders, along with mandatory closures of many nonessential businesses, have led to a sharp contraction of consumer spending. Moreover, the goods and services seeing spikes in demand, like groceries and digital entertainment, are less likely to be subject to state sales tax. (Tax Foundation)

Millions Wait for Virus Relief Checks in Major Test for IRS: The IRS has started to issue coronavirus rebates to tens of millions of people but faces challenges in getting the payments to everyone. (The Hill)

Cyber

ACLU Sees Stronger Privacy Safeguards in COVID-19 Tracking Apps: The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday said several mobile phone apps that are being developed to track and trace those who test positive for COVID-19 are incorporating stronger privacy features and those efforts are likely to encourage broader use. (Roll Call)

NJ Overview of Zoom: National Journal provides a look at the teleconferencing platform Zoom, which has expanded its daily user base from 10 million in December to 200 million in March as the Coronavirus epidemic has moved work and social interactions online. The presentation recent privacy concerns from US Representatives and other key players in regulation. (National Journal)

Banking & Housing/HUD

HUD’S Carson Says He Wants Money for Hard Hit Mortgage Servicers: US Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said money should be set aside to help mortgage-servicing companies that are at risk of failing as millions of borrowers miss loan payments. (Bloomberg)

Trump’s Call with Wall Street Didn’t Go as Planned: The White House held a call last Wednesday morning with top Wall Street titans and other senior bankers and financiers to talk about how to reopen the economy. However, many of the bankers said they knew nothing about the call until late Tuesday night, and several had quarterly earnings calls that morning that directly conflicted with the timing of the White House summons. (Politico)

Transportation/DOT

10 Airlines Agree to Terms for Federal Grants to Save Jobs: Ten major US airlines have reached agreement with the Treasury Department on federal grants aimed at keeping airline workers on the job through Sept. 30, officials announced last Tuesday. (Roll Call)

Highway Fund’s Shortfall Deepened by Plunge in Gas Tax Revenue: While Congress has focused much of its coronavirus relief legislation on helping struggling airlines, state highway officials are worried about another crisis on the horizon: plummeting gas tax revenues as most Americans stay at home. (Roll Call)

Airlines Face a Long, Slow Climb Despite Federal Coronavirus Rescue: Congress' $50 billion rescue package for U.S. airlines will help keep the carriers alive — and their employees on the payroll amid the coronavirus crisis — until the end of September. After that, the outlook is grim. (Axios)