WASHINGTON WATCH: January 18, 2022
THE LONG GAME: Sinema spurns Biden on filibuster; McCarthy spurns Jan. 6th panel
The push for voting rights legislation underwent a tumultuous 48-hour period last week and it's hardly over. It began with a speech by President Biden in Atlanta on Tuesday, in which he called for getting rid of the filibuster in the case of voting rights, though not eliminating it overall. On Thursday morning, the House merged the John Lewis Voting Rights Act with the Freedom to Vote Act and attached the new bill into legislation dealing with NASA’s ability to lease its facilities; doing so, would enable the Senate to bring the bill directly to the floor. Democrats’ hopes for passing the bill were short-lived, however. Later on Thursday, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) took to the Senate floor to announce that—although she supported the voting rights measure-- she would not support a carve-out of the filibuster to pass the legislation. Meanwhile, despite the long odds, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is still expected to bring up a vote to end debate on the House-passed package on Wednesday, followed by a vote to change rules regarding the filibuster.
In what might be the most significant development yet in the efforts of Trump allies to undermine the work of the select panel looking into the January 6th insurrection, the House's top Republican said he would refuse to be interviewed by the committee. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) called the committee “illegitimate” and said it was trying to hurt Republicans. The committee wants to speak with McCarthy-- who spoke with Trump as the riot was unfolding and, in a speech later that day, said that the president bore responsibility for the attack—to learn more about Trump’s mindset on that day. According to multiple Republican lawmakers, Trump told McCarthy "Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are." Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), one of two GOP members of the committee, responded to McCarthy’s refusal by saying: “I wish that he were a brave and honorable man. He's clearly trying to cover up what happened.”
Washington Watch is published weekly when Congress is in session. Published monthly during extended recess or adjournment.
Spotlight on Puerto Rico
Devastating new COVID wave
The new COVID wave that began in December continued to ravage Puerto Rico this week, with 57,313 new cases recorded during the seven-day period between Sunday, January 9 and Sunday, January 16. The positivity rate, as of Sunday the 16th, was 35.34%. Deaths continue to increase, with 138 people dying during the week ending January 16, more than twice the number of deaths in the previous week. The cumulative death toll is 3,511. The week also featured the new single-day record for COVID deaths, with 23 people dying on Sunday, January 9. The hospitalization record of 750 reported last week has also been shattered; as of Sunday, 930 people were hospitalized due to COVID.
Governor Pedro Pierluisi announced last week that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring that President Joe Biden did not have the authority to enforce his vaccination mandates would not affect similar mandates put into place in Puerto Rico via the governor’s executive orders. The governor this week also issued a new executive order placing new restrictions on people and businesses, mandating students 12 years or older who had been fully vaccinated to also be boosted before being allowed to take classes in person, and adding a new 75% capacity restriction for businesses. These are in addition to existing mandates, such as one ordering food service personnel to have obtained a booster vaccine by January 31. He also announced a $600 incentive for part- and full-time medical personnel, including people working COVID testing sites.
Increase in Social Security payouts fail to keep up with increasing cost of living
More than 800,000 Puerto Rican recipients of Social Security are obtaining an increased monthly payment beginning this month—5.9% more, based on inflation. Some critics complain, however, that while helpful it is insufficient when viewed against the backdrop of increasing costs in power, food, healthcare, and other necessities. “That 5.9% increase is helpful—it’s an acknowledgment of the economic problem—but at the net level it’s a drop in the bucket,” José Acarón, AARP Director for Puerto Rico, told El Nuevo Día.
Meanwhile, the cost of water increased 2.5% last year; power rose 7.6% and will rise by 16.8% this quarter. Similarly, according to the most recent report by the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources, transportation costs rose 10.3% between November 2020 and 2021, food costs increased by 6%, entertainment 2.15%, and housing 1%.
Treasury Department reports 2022 FY revenue increase
The recorded net revenue of the General Fund for November 2021 was $758.1 million, a 15.6% increase over the previous year, the Puerto Rico Treasury Department reports. Similarly, income for the current fiscal year so far is 14.2% greater than the last fiscal year, indicating a degree of economic recovery. “We are experiencing signs of a rebound, close to the revenue levels for the fiscal year 2020, before the contraction seen at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Treasury Secretary Francisco Parés Alicea. “However, we must be on the alert for the appearance of the omicron variant, and the impact it may have,” he added.
In total, the Treasury has collected $3.27 billion during the first four months the fiscal year 2022, surpassing projections set in Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Plan by $531.9 million. Most of November’s increase was attributed to the collection of income taxes, which surpassed the revenue collected the same month last fiscal year by $29.5 million. Also increasing were payroll tax revenue (13.3%) as well as revenue from taxes on services rendered (17.4%), with increases consistent with the recovery of some 45,000 jobs that month, compared to 2020. However, even if Puerto Rico is able to make up the ground lost due to the COVID pandemic and other crises of the past two years, that still leaves the Island in the recession that has lasted for more than a decade.
Environmental committee decries lack of action by Governor
Members of the Committee of Experts and Advisors on Climate Change, which in October had submitted a report to Governor Pedro Pierluisi outlining 103 courses of action his administration could take in order to mitigate the effects of climate change on the Island’s coasts, have publicly lamented the lack of action taken by the governor in the three months since.
The governor’s office, however, denies claims of inaction, responding that Governor Pierluisi has been evaluating the Committee’s recommendations. “We’re talking about 103 recommendations, and most of them—more than 85—have his approval.” said Sheila Angleró, Governor Pierluisi’s press secretary.
The 103 recommendations made by the Committee in response to the governor’s request include modifying the definition of “coastal zone” to incorporate land vulnerable to increases in the sea level: the relocation of critical infrastructure and public housing at risk of flooding and—perhaps the most attention-grabbing—setting a three-year moratorium on new construction on vulnerable lands, pending the passage of a Coasts Act.
View From The White House
According to a new Quinnipiac poll, President Biden is polling at the lowest level of his presidency, with just 33 percent of voters approving of the job he is doing.
The White House announced that, beginning January 19, Americans will be able to request free at-home Covid-19 tests, part of the administration’s effort to ship 500 million tests.
The Treasury Department warned Arizona in a letter on Friday that it would claw back $170 million in stimulus funds after the state used the funds to discourage school districts from following mask mandates.
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