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WASHINGTON WATCH: May 16, 2023



 



THE LONG GAME: Biden renews gun control push; Senate panel reviews cannabis bill

On the first anniversary of a racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo that claimed the lives of ten people, President Biden authored an op-ed in USA Today calling on Congress to take action on gun safety measures. He wrote that lawmakers should ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, require gun owners to securely store their firearms, impose background checks for all gun sales, and repeal gun manufacturers' immunity from liability. The president added that, even though most Americans want "commonsense action" to prevent gun violence, "too many congressional Republicans are doing the bidding of gun manufacturers instead of their constituents." Meanwhile, Biden will bring together governors and state legislators at the White House to urge them to pass state-level measures to strengthen gun background checks on buyers younger than 21 years old. He also announced that the Departments of Health and Human Service and Education will develop new resources to help communities impacted by gun violence.

The Senate Banking Committee held its first-ever hearing last week on a proposal to allow the cannabis industry to access traditional banking services. The panel reviewed bipartisan legislation—the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act-- introduced by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT). During the hearing, Merkley testified that the bill would ensure that legitimate cannabis businesses, operating in compliance with state cannabis laws, would have access to the same financial services as every other business. The legislation now has 38 co-sponsors in the Senate and eight more in the House, where it is co-sponsored by Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also supports the bill and has said that he hopes to bring it to the floor along with other reforms, including the expungement of records for low-level crimes related to cannabis. 


Washington Watch is published weekly when Congress is in session. Published monthly during extended recess or adjournment.






Spotlight on Puerto Rico



 

Supreme Court rules FOMB has sovereign immunity 

In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) for Puerto Rico has “sovereign immunity” and, as a result, does not have to provide certain documents requested by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI). Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenting vote. The decision overturns an appeals court ruling in favor of CPI, which has reported extensively on Puerto Rico’s debt since the passage of the 2016 PROMESA law. Documents requested by CPI included communications between the board members and U.S. and Puerto Rico government officials. The FOMB contended that it was part of the government of Puerto Rico and thus was protected by the same laws shielding them from federal lawsuits. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, wrote that nothing in the PROMESA law strips the FOMB of sovereign immunity or explicitly authorizes claims against the board. The case is now remanded back to the lower courts. Meanwhile, CPI is strategizing next steps to obtain the approximately 20,000 documents they requested. 

Bipartisan group introduces bill for permanent rum tax reimbursement for Puerto Rico 

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, who is a member of the PNP but caucuses with Republicans, introduced legislation last week to make permanent the increase in federal excise reimbursement for rum produced in Puerto Rico. The U.S. government imposes a tax of $13.50 per gallon of rum produced in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and under the law since 2022 reimburses $10.50 per gallon. However, for two decades, the reimbursement was set at $13.25 a gallon. The island receives more than $330 million for the full reimbursement. Republican Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Democratic Delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands Stacey Plaskett are also co-sponsoring the measure. Under this bill, the Conservation Trust would also receive at least one-sixth of the $2.75 increase, guaranteeing 45.8 cents for environmental preservation from every gallon imported from Puerto Rico to the mainland. 

Department of Justice announces Environmental Crimes Task Force in Puerto Rico 

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced last week that it is launching an Environmental Crimes Task Force in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The task force will investigate and prosecute violations of federal law harming the environment, public health and wildlife in the Caribbean territories, and associated incidents of fraud, waste, and abuse. The creation of the task force comes on the heels of the DOJ announcing its “Comprehensive Environmental Justice Enforcement Strategy” and the formation of the Office of Environment Justice (OEJ) in the Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) of the DOJ. The task force will work with local counterparts, including the Puerto Rican Departments of Natural Resources and of Justice. It will also include law enforcement personnel from federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 




 

View From The White House



  • Biden is expected to travel this week to Hiroshima, Japan—the site of the first atomic bombing in 1945—for the Group of Seven economic summit, before heading to Australia for talks with members of the Quad partnership, which also includes New Zealand and India.

  • The Department of Education announced last week that, since October 2021, it had approved $42 billion in student loan forgiveness through updates to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. 

  • According to Politico, administration officials-- including White House chief of staff Jeff Zients, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm—have been reaching out to moderate Democratic Senators to promote the nomination of Julie Su to become secretary of Labor.


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