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WASHINGTON WATCH: September 21, 2021


THE LONG GAME: 4th Anniversary of Hurricane Maria, House acts to prevent default, shutdown; Defense authorization

Four years ago this week, a category 4 storm ravaged Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria represented, perhaps, the most horrific chapter in the modern history of the Island. More than 3,000 people lost their lives, and the impact of the hurricane persists to this day. It also demonstrated the fierce resilience of the people of Puerto Rico, who lived under the longest blackout in U.S. history. Fuentes Strategies, LLC is committed to helping Puerto Rico and we are proud to be working with Puerto Rican stakeholders, both on the mainland and on the Island, to assist the Island's full recovery.

This week Congress must act quickly on two fronts, as a pair of urgent deadlines is fast approaching-- the new fiscal year begins in just over a week, while the U.S. risks defaulting on its debt if nothing is done by mid-October. The House Rules Committee was scheduled to meet Monday to set the terms of debate for the stopgap spending bill, which is likely to keep the government open through early December. The package would include billions in emergency funding for flood and hurricane relief. Meanwhile, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that the House will consider a bill to suspend the cap on how much money the government can borrow. This differs from previous attempts to prevent a default, where members of Congress had to vote on whether to increase the debt limit. In the Senate, all but four GOP members had opposed raising the debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urged lawmakers to address the issue before a “drop dead” date in mid-October at which time the government would default for the first time and would be unable to make payments to Social Security, the military and interest on its $28 trillion in debt.

The House will take up the National Defense Authorization Act this week and, as usual, lawmakers are taking the opportunity to make statements on policies that extend far beyond the Pentagon. Among the 700-plus amendments that have been filed are proposals from GOP members to prevent the military from mandating Covid-19 vaccines or from contracting with companies that require employees to be vaccinated. Other Republican-led efforts would prohibit diversity training at the DoD, bar the Pentagon from creating offices to promote diversity, and reinstate the Trump-era ban on transgender people serving in the military. As drafted, the bill calls for about $778 billion in spending, $25 billion more than what was sought by the White House and an increase of $37 billion over FY21.

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


Spotlight on Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico coronavirus statistics for September 20

According to the Puerto Rico Health Department, 316,559 people are believed to have been infected with COVID-19, an increase of 2,209 since September 13. This points to a slight decrease in the rate of new cases, as the increase between September 6 and September 13 was of 2,698. The death toll is currently 3,076, with 73 of those registered since September 13. Comparatively, 80 people died from the virus between September 6, when the death toll was 2,923, and September 13, when it was 3,003.

On July 23, 2021, the Health Department once again changed the way it recorded cases. On its new COVID information dashboard, the Department no longer displays suspicious cases (as determined by serological, non-diagnostic testing) which at last count accounted for 137,262 of all recorded COVID cases in Puerto Rico. There are currently 257 people hospitalized due to COVID, a decrease of 97 since September 13.

According to the Puerto Rico Health Department and its Puerto Rico Electric Immunization System (PREIS), a total of 2,164,290 people on the Island have been fully vaccinated, while 2,435,314 have received at least one dose. This week, Puerto Rico overtook Vermont to become the 2nd-most vaccinated U.S. jurisdiction, after the Republic of Palau.

In order to regain lost ground, the Puerto Rican government continues to enact measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including measures pertaining to mass gatherings. Currently, mass gatherings may only maintain a 100% occupancy rate if vaccination mandates are enforced for that event. Venues that do not wish to enforce a mandate may only maintain a 50% occupancy rate and are still mandated to require attendees show that they have tested negative for COVID after taking a test 72 hours prior to the event.

Puerto Rico feels the heat from climate change

While Puerto Rico is no stranger to droughts, hurricanes, and other damaging weather and climate patterns, all of these are certain to increase in frequency and severity because of a warming planet, experts say. The Island is already experiencing significant effects from climate change, such as the destruction of Puerto Rico’s coral reefs, which are impacted by increasing acidity and erosion.

“We need to stop talking about the polar bear,” said climatologist Rafael Méndez Tejeda, a member of Puerto Rico’s statutory Expert and Advisors Committee on Climate Change, citing erosion, droughts and heatwaves experienced on the Island. “These are all problems we already have—effects of climate change that are already here, and we need to deal with them.” The Committee, formed two years ago, has been tasked by Governor Pedro Pierluisi with providing recommendations by October to correct, mitigate, and prevent the effects of climate change on the coastal areas.

A report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the effects of climate change are “widespread, rapid, and intensifying.” Regarding the Caribbean, the IPCC concluded that the trend of decreased rain during the months of June, July and August will accelerate over the next decades, with heat expected to rise by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit or more.

Puerto Rico at risk of losing millions in federal rent and utility aid funds

Despite significant need, the Puerto Rican government is at risk of losing more than 75% of the $325 million assigned as part of the federal government’s Rent Assistance Program, warns Alejandro Salgado, Puerto Rico’s Public Housing Administrator. If 65% of the assigned funds are not distributed by September, they may be redistributed elsewhere.

When the rent assistance program was announced last June, it was estimated that some 55,000 people would be eligible for rent assistance. So far, however, only 18,162 applications have been submitted, and only $5.7 million—1.8% of the assigned funds—has been distributed. Among those who can be helped by the program are the parties involved in 1,126 eviction cases, who are now being directed by the Court Administration Office (OAT, in Spanish) on how to apply for these funds.

Puerto Rico researchers publish study on potential Alzheimer’s therapy

Researchers at the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao have developed a potential new tool to help mitigate the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Although the group’s work is still in its first stage, the results so far “provide a great opportunity to redirect research on neurodegenerative diseases,” according to Kyabeth M. Torres Rodríguez, one of the research students. “Our study opens many doors for our lab and for other researchers to be able to continue and expand what we know and understand about the benefits of nanoparticles.” According to the Puerto Rico Department of Health, Alzheimer’s is the fourth greatest cause of death on the Island.


View From The White House

  • Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is embarking on a five-day bus tour through the Midwest to visit with parents, educators and students from preschool through college age to showcase schools safe return to in-person teaching.

  • Fueled by misgivings from independent voters, President Biden’s approval rating dipped below 50 percent in a poll by Quinnipiac University, the first time since taking office that his approval rating had registered in negative territory in the poll.

  • The Biden Administration began flights Sunday to deport Haitians who are among the estimated 10,000 migrants who have gathered at the border near Del Rio, Texas.

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