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Window On Washington - March 16, 2020, Vol. 4, Issue 11

Mar 16, 2020

Outlook for This Week in the Nation’s Capital

House and Senate Are In Session. Both the House and Senate cancelled their planned recess this week and are instead staying in Washington to continue working on Congress’ response to the coronavirus. Today, the House is expected to address some technical corrections related to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201, summary is available here) which was passed early Saturday morning. The Senate will take up the bill after it completes action on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which the House passed last week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that though the Senate will need to look at the coronavirus response bill, he expects that the majority of Senators will support it. On Friday, President Trump expressed support for the bill on Twitter, and he is expected to sign it into law shortly after its anticipated passage.

Next Coronavirus Package. Both Democrats and Republicans have stated that the next package will need to focus on economic aid for certain industries. Many have mentioned aid for the travel industry, with a focus on airlines and cruises, the hospitality industry and potentially the energy sector, given the impact of the recent oil price crash. Unlike the current package being completed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said that this package would not be as rushed and will come together through a process closer to regular order.

Administration Response. The Administration continues to update its guidance as the situation evolves. The CDC on Sunday recommended that Americans cancel or postpone gatherings of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks. Vice President Pence said that new guidance would be released today regarding whether restaurants and bars should shut down. The Office of Management and Budget is asking all federal departments in the D.C. region to offer the maximum flexibility possible for teleworking. CDC guidance on COVID-19 for schools, workplaces, and communities is available here.   

Uncertain Next Few Weeks. At this time, it is unclear how Congress plans to respond to the coronavirus. Some Committees have started canceling hearings, and there have been large purchases of laptops to allow staffers to work remotely. The entire Capitol complex is closed to visitors until April 1. However, some Members have been adamant that their work will continue, particularly in regard to handling the crisis. Coronavirus is also impacting the 2020 presidential election cycle, with Louisiana and Georgia delaying their upcoming primary elections. Other states are looking at this option, as well as switching the entire primary process to mail-in voting. The Democratic Party requires that all primary elections be completed by June 9. For more analysis on coronavirus impacts, see Axios’ recently released, thoughtful piece, available here.  

Last Week in the Nation’s Capital

CONGRESS

Budget & Appropriations

House Passes Sweeping Coronavirus Response Package: The House passed sweeping legislation this past Saturday to respond to the coronavirus outbreak battering the nation to expand access to free testing, provide $1 billion in food aid and extend sick leave benefits to vulnerable Americans. The House vote on H.R. 6201 was overwhelmingly bipartisan: 363-40. All of the "no" votes came from Republicans, while Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI) – voted "present.” (Politico)

Busy Week of Hearings for House Appropriations Committee: Last week, the House Appropriations Committee held hearings on multiple agencies’ budgets. Witnesses included Secretaries Ross (Commerce), Perdue (Agriculture), Mnuchin (Treasury), Pompeo (State) as well as representatives from other agencies. (House Appropriations)

Health

Democratic Senators Introduce Bill to Provide Free Coronavirus Testing: Several Senate Democrats introduced a bill last Thursday that would expand free tests to confirm the COVID-19 infections regardless of health care coverage. The bill, dubbed the Free COVID-19 Testing Act, is led by Sens. Tina Smith (D-MN), Gary Peters (D-MI), Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), along with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY). (The Hill)

Defense

House Passes Iran War Powers Resolution Opposed by Trump: The House of Representatives approved a War Powers resolution Wednesday, aiming to rein in presidential authority to use military action against Iran without congressional approval. (CNN)

Cyber

House Passes Bill Preserving FBI Surveillance Powers: Tech industry organizations, civil liberties groups and individual companies all warned that a bill introduced Thursday poses a big threat to encryption. The Senate legislation, the EARN IT Act, would create a federal agency-heavy commission to craft “best practices” against child sexual abuse material that tech platforms would have to adhere to in order to preserve their liability shield over third-party content under Section 230. The widespread fear among critics, who may get a say at a hearing next week, is that those best practices would force companies to weaken security. (New York Times)

Lawmakers Introduce Measure to Freeze Out Huawei from Financial System: Lawmakers in the House and Senate last Thursday introduced legislation to effectively freeze out Chinese telecom group Huawei from the US financial system. (The Hill)

Justice

Progressives Urge Democrats to Hear from Federal Judge Deeply Critical of Roberts, Conservatives: A progressive group is urging House Democrats to call a sitting federal judge to testify about the Supreme Court after he published a widely read law review article excoriating Chief Justice John Roberts and the rest of the conservative majority for “undermining American democracy.” (The Hill)

FISA Tools to Expire Before Senate Takes up Renewal: Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) was resigned to the fact that no short-term extension would be coming for the three provisions. (Roll Call)

Labor & Workforce

Pelosi Appoints Kemba Hendrix to Lead House Diversity Office: Kemba Hendrix will lead the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, a new office established this Congress and charged with improving diversity among the chamber’s workforce. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced the appointment in a statement last Tuesday. (Roll Call)

Banking & Housing

Senator Urges Banks to Stop Stock Buybacks During Coronavirus Outbreak: Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, is calling on banks to suspend stock buybacks in light of the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on the economy. As US stocks continue to plummet as a result of the coronavirus, Sen. Brown said on the Senate floor last Thursday that banks should suspend stock buybacks and invest in their communities. (American Banker)

Environment/Interior

Senate Democrats Unveil $20B Bill to Battle 'Forever Chemical' Contamination: A new bill from Senate Democrats would roll out $20 billion in funding to remove cancer-linked “forever chemicals” from water as it contaminates supplies across the country. (The Hill)

Senators Press Trump Deputy EPA pick at Confirmation Hearing: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pressed President Trump’s pick for the No. 2 position at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on a range of issues during an at times contentious Senate hearing last Wednesday. (The Hill)

Energy

Senate Energy Bill Falls Apart Amid Dispute Over Coolants: The energy legislation was widely supported in both parties but stalled last week amid a dispute over a proposed amendment to impose a 15-year phase down of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, that are used as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners. HFCs are considered a major driver of global warming and are being phased out worldwide. (AP)

Senate Confirms Trump Pick for Energy Commission Seat: The Senate last Thursday voted to confirm James Danly as a commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). (The Hill)

Education

GOP-Led Senate Joins House in Rebuking DeVos on Loan Forgiveness: Congress is formally opposing US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s controversial borrower-defense rule, assailed by critics as making it more difficult for borrowers to have their student loans forgiven if they’ve been defrauded by for-profit colleges and universities. (Inside Higher Ed)

Trade

House Passes Sweeping Coronavirus Response Package: The Senate is expected to pass the package early this week, and President Trump has already stated his support. (Politico)

Homeland Security/Immigration

Democrats Get Assurances from Cuccinelli on Immigrants, Coronavirus Care: Democratic critics of President Trump's strict immigration policies say they won assurances last Thursday from a top administration official that no one seeking coronavirus-related medical care will suffer legal consequences. (The Hill)

Agriculture

Perdue Seeks New ‘Tools’ On Beef Prices: Speaking during a Senate Appropriations Agriculture-FDA Subcommittee hearing, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he’s concerned about wide disparity in beef prices fetched by livestock producers compared with meatpackers. Sen. Tester (D-MT) said beef producers are “getting gouged” by lower prices, while consumers aren’t necessarily seeing any benefit. (Politico)

Bipartisan Senate Bill Would Remove Cover Crop Barriers: Sens. John Thune (R-SD) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, last Thursday introduced legislation that would eliminate a requirement in the federal crop insurance program discouraging farmers from planting cover crops. (Politico)

Coronavirus-Relief Bill Aims to Expand Free School Lunch Program: With coronavirus-related school closures looming, federal lawmakers have proposed a bill that includes help for families that are struggling to feed their kids while at home. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, presented to the House last Wednesday, includes a provision for expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that provides money for low-income families to purchase healthy food. (ABC News)

EXECUTIVE BRANCH

Budget & Appropriations

New GAO Report Calls Government's Fiscal Path “Unsustainable”: The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) published its fourth annual report last week on the nation’s fiscal health, offering a frank assessment of the federal government’s current fiscal condition and longer-term fiscal outlook. (GAO)

Health/HHS/NIH

NIH Uses Urgent Award Vehicle for the First Time to Address Coronavirus Outbreak: The agency is tapping a never-before-used emergency award vehicle to acquire predictive models for how the COVID-19 will spread. (Next Gov)

Trump Declares National Emergency Over Coronavirus: President Trump last Friday declared a national emergency over the coronavirus, freeing up additional resources and funding as federal, state and local governments attempt to combat the rapidly spreading disease. The move allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to tap into billions of dollars and mobilize personnel more quickly to help state and local agencies and leaders respond. (The Hill)

FDA Grants Emergency Approval for Faster Coronavirus Test: The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted diagnostics giant Roche Holding AG an emergency approval for an automated coronavirus test on two of its systems, which the company said could increase testing tenfold. The 8800 system can test up to 4,128 patients a day, and the 6800 system can test as many as 1,440 a day. This is the first commercially available test granted emergency approval by the FDA. (The Hill)

FY21 Budget Request: National Institutes of Health: The National Institutes of Health’s budget would fall 7% to $39 billion under the Trump administration’s proposal for fiscal year 2021. Congress will likely reject the request, having provided NIH with multibillion-dollar budget increases for five years in a row. (American Institute of Physics)

Defense/DOD

DOD Directs Stop Movement in response to COVID-19: The Department of Defense issued a stop movement of all personnel to, from or through locations designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as Level 3 COVID-19 areas effective March 13 and for the next 60 days. (US Air Force)

DOD Asks Judge to Let it Reconsider Decision to Give Microsoft $10 Billion Contract Over Amazon: Lawyers for the federal government asked that a court to allow the Department of Defense to reconsider its decision to award a $10 billion cloud services contract to Microsoft that sparked a legal challenge from Amazon Web Services. (CNBC)

US General says US Strikes Destroy Weapons Depots, More Remain: The US retaliatory airstrikes against militants in Iraq destroyed five weapons depots, but the top US commander for the Middle East acknowledged Friday that there are many similar sites that the US has so far not hit because of potential civilian casualties and political sensitivities with the Iraqi government. (AP)

DOJ

Waters Asks DOJ to Probe Former Wells Fargo Chief: Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) last Tuesday asked the Justice Department to investigate whether former Wells Fargo chief executive Timothy Sloan violated federal law and lied to Congress while testifying before the committee she chairs. (The Hill)

DOJ Issues New Price-fixing Warning as Coronavirus Outbreak Fuels Demand for Masks, Health Products: The US Department of Justice came out swinging against "bad actors" who may attempt to take advantage of the novel coronavirus outbreak for personal gain by price fixing and more. (ABC News)

Labor and Workforce

Department of Labor Issues New COVID-19 Guidance Related to the FLSA and FMLA: The US Department of Labor announced in a press release on March 9, 2020, that the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) is “providing guidance and information on common issues employers and employees face when responding to COVID-19.” The WHD provided two question-and-answer documents related to COVID-19. One of the documents deals with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and the other deals with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). (JD Supra)

Energy/DOE

Trump Says Government Will Buy Crude Oil to Help Industry: President Trump said Friday that the US would purchase "large quantities" of crude oil in order to help the industry, which has been hit by sinking prices this week. (The Hill)

Dept. of Ed

Trump Gives People with Student Loans a Break Amid Coronavirus: President Trump said on Friday he would waive the interest on all federal student loans amid the coronavirus outbreak, meaning borrowers could pause their payments without any penalties. (CNBC)

Trade

The Trade War Could Weaken US Coronavirus Response: As the Trump administration mulls its plan to battle the impact of COVID-19 on the US economy, scant attention has been given to a major source of potential stimulus: reining in its tariffs on China. (Axios)

Transportation/DOT

‘This is Not a Bailout’: Mnuchin Defends Trump Plan to Rescue Firms Affected by Coronavirus: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin last Wednesday defended the Trump administration’s plan to provide targeted emergency assistance for specific industries hurt by the coronavirus fallout, denying that White House proposals amount to a “bailout” despite mounting scrutiny about whether powerful firms are being singled out for assistance. (Washington Post)

White House adds UK, Ireland to Travel Ban, Hints at Airline Aid: The White House is expanding its travel ban to passengers from the United Kingdom and Ireland in an attempt to stem the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S., a further expansion of restrictions on air travel that haven’t been seen since Sept. 11, 2001.

DHS/Immigration

ACLU Sues Homeland Security over Airport Facial Recognition Records: The ACLU is requesting records on the use of face surveillance at airports and borders, as well as the agencies' plans for future use. (Engadget)

Trump Ratchets up Coronavirus Battle with European Travel Ban: President Trump last Wednesday announced a 30-day ban on foreign visitors from most of Europe in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus — ratcheting up his administration’s response after battling criticism for previously downplaying the crisis. (Politico)

Trump says UK and Ireland Now Included in European Travel Restrictions: The Trump administration on Saturday expanded travel restrictions from Europe to include the United Kingdom and Ireland as it works to slow the spread of coronavirus. (CNN)

Environment/EPA/DOI

Department Dusts off Decade-old Pandemic Plan: Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said officials have "pulled out" a pandemic influenza plan first prepared in 2007, as the department of about 70,000 employees adapts to the rapidly unfolding coronavirus crisis. (E&E News)

Agriculture/USDA

Questions Remain About What the Federal Response will be — if any — for Farm Losses Due to the Virus: The National Pork Producers Council pointed out that the outbreak could exacerbate the ongoing labor shortage and asked the Trump administration to develop support plans if hog farmers are affected by bottlenecks in the supply chain. (Politico)

Space/NASA & NOAA

Space in the Time of the Coronavirus: With the recently announcement that the 36th Space Symposium, which regularly attracts several thousand registrants and hundreds of exhibitors from around the world to the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado, will not be held March 30 through April 2, many in the space industry begin to wonder what other impacts will be felt on the commercial and civil sides. (Space News)

Elon Musk Now Claims SpaceX's Starlink Satellites Will Have 'Zero' Impact on Astronomy, But New Research Contradicts Him: During a satellite conference last week in Washington DC, Elon Musk again tried to downplay concerns from astronomers that his plans for launching a constellation of up to 42,000 satellites into orbit could damage astronomical research. However a new paper from researchers the European Southern Observatory suggest that some major observatories could be “severely affected” by these planned constellations. (Yahoo!)

NOAA Sharing Code to Forecast Models: Just weeks after unveiling significant performance upgrades to the systems that handle American computer forecast guidance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) last Friday released the first version of user-friendly code for medium-range computerized weather prediction to the public, as part of a new approach of collaborating across the weather enterprise to engage the community to improve NOAA models using the Unified Forecast System (UFS). (Weatherboy)

Tax Reform/IRS

Trump Administration to Delay April 15 Tax Deadline for Most Individuals: The Trump administration plans to delay the April 15 tax deadline for most individual taxpayers as well as small businesses as part of an effort to mitigate the effects of the spread of the novel coronavirus, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said last Wednesday. (Wall Street Journal)

Trump Oversold a Google Site to Fight Coronavirus: After Jared Kushner liked the idea, President Trump inflated the concept. The disconnect is the latest example of the president exaggerating or making wholly inaccurate statements about his administration’s response. (New York Times)

Baking & Housing/HUD

Fed to Pump in More than $1 Trillion in Dramatic Ramping up of Market Intervention Amid Coronavirus Meltdown: The Federal Reserve stepped into financial markets last Thursday for the second day in a row and the third time last week, this time dramatically ramping up asset purchases amid the turmoil created by the coronavirus. The new moves pump in up to $1.5 trillion into the financial system in an effort to combat potential freezes brought on by the coronavirus. (CNBC)