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COVID-19 Update | Monday, May 18 (PM)

May 18, 2020

Congress

  • Leadership is still asserting that the Capitol complex will remain closed to the public at least through June 8, which aligns with the extension of the District of Columbia’s stay at home order. There is no timeline for a re-opening to the public, but discussions have begun as to how and when that might happen. 
  • The House has already left for Memorial Day recess and is expected back May 27-28 for several votes. The Senate begins the Memorial Day break this coming Friday. 
  • Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-DE) and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) are set to introduce the Securing America’s Clean Fuels Infrastructure Act, which would improve and expand the existing Alternative Fuel Vehicle Refueling Property Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which is known as “30C.” The press release can be found here.
    • The legislation increases the cap on business investments, expands the use case of the credit to each item of refueling property instead of per location, and extends the tax credit for eight more years.
  • Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) plan to introduce a revised version of the State and Municipal Assistance for Recovery and Transition (SMART) Act. The bill will provide $500B in additional aid to state and local governments as they work to address budget shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Susan Collins (R-ME), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) were added as new co-sponsors. A press release on the updated legislation can be found here.
    • One of the major changes to the bill is the removal of a population requirement to receive aid. Originally, the policy was eligible for populations exceeding 500,000 people, but was lowered to 50,000, and now has been completely removed.
    • Senate Democrats will highlight cuts to state and local services tomorrow in their effort to push for more funding for state and local governments.
  • Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce Committee, sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao asking her to issue guidance for airlines to ensure they are following social distancing procedures. Specifically, Sen. Cantwell asks that airlines either leave middle or adjacent seats open and to limit capacity on flights, so customers feel safe.
    • This letter follows a previous letter Sen. Cantwell sent last Friday to Vice President Mike Pence, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield and National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci on creating clear guidelines on social distancing, contact tracing, and the use of masks.
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) selected Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) to serve as the acting Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Sen. Rubio will be filling the post temporarily, replacing Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) who stepped down amid an investigation into stock trading.
  • The Congressional Oversight Commission, which is tasked with overseeing emergency spending by the Treasury and Federal Reserve, released its first report today. The report presented a plan for how the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department can measure the success of CARES Act programs. The commission is due to report on the progress of these programs every 30 days.
    • The report describes the lending facilities the Treasury Department has created to operate through the Federal Reserve and outlines that only the Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility, set up to purchase corporate debt, has received funding thus far totaling $37.5B.
    • The $500B Economic Stabilization Fund in the CARES Act also set aside $46B to make loans and loan guarantees to aviation companies important to national security. None of that money has been disbursed, according to the report.
    • The commission currently includes Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL) and Rep. French Hill (D-AR), along with Bharat Ramamurti, a former aide to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Speaker Pelosi and Leader McConnell have yet to agree on a chairperson for the commission.
  • Sarah Feinberg, interim President of the New York City Transit Authority, and Chris Koos, Mayor of Normal, IL have been nominated to the Amtrak Board of Directors.
    • The Senate Commerce Committee is holding a markup this week and is expected to favorably vote on both nominations.
  • As Elevate has reported, there is a House proposal to expand the employee retention tax credit included in the CARES Act. That proposal, entitled the Jumpstarting Our Businesses’ Success (JOBS) Credit Act of 2020, was introduced by Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), John Katko (R-NY), Suzan DelBene (D-WA), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and Chris Pappas (D-NH) and would increase the availability, scope and amount of the credits (the JOBS Credit Act would also permit an employer that receives a Paycheck Protection Program loan to receive the employee retention tax credit as well). Reports indicate that expanding this tax credit to prevent layoffs and pay businesses to retain workers continues to be a potential area of agreement between Republicans and Democrats.
    • House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX) when asked about expanding the tax credit indicated he would be open to it.
  • Originally scheduled for Tuesday, May 19, the House Appropriations Military Construction-VA Subcommittee hearing on the Department of Veteran’s Affairs response to COVID-19 has been postponed to a later date.

Administration

  • To attempt to remedy food supply issues, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) began the $3B “Famers to Families Food Box” program to buy excess farm goods on Friday, which was created under the USDA’s Coronavirus Farm Assistance program. Ivanka Trump, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan appeared together at a produce distributor in Maryland to announce the launch of the program.
    • The program aims to alleviate supply chain disruptions by buying up excess produce and delivering it to food banks and nonprofits.
    • The program includes over 200 companies providing products from around the country.
  • United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) may run out of operating funds before the end of the summer. With in-person offices closed, USCIS has struggled to process applications. To bolster funds, USCIS plans to increase application fees on citizenship applications and request $1.2B more from Congress.
  • President Trump has announced that he is taking hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug he’s touted as a potential treatment for COVID-19. 
  • As we have shared, Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Jerome Powell, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, are testifying before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday at 10:00am on the aforementioned CARES Act report. Both of their written testimonies are publicly available here.
  • The Federal Reserve purchased nearly $180B in mortgage-backed securities during the week of May 6. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, this is more than any other week in history, including during the housing crisis.
  • Over the weekend, the Navy confirmed that 13 sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the aircraft carrier that saw a large number of COVID-19 cases in April, had retested positive for COVID-19. Navy spokesperson Commander Myers Vasquez commented that “a small number of TR Sailors who previously tested COVID positive and met rigorous recovery criteria have retested positive.”
  • The FBI announced today that Mohammed Alshamrani, the Saudi Air Force trainee who killed three US sailors and wounded several others in an attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola in December 2019, was working together with Al-Qaeda operatives as far back as 2015.
    • Attorney General William Barr commented that the link was detected after the Justice Department was able to break the encryption on Alshamrani’s iPhones. As a reminder, Apple denied the government’s request to unlock the phones which Barr argues delayed the investigation by months.

Other News

  • The Supreme Court has rejected a lawsuit claiming Facebook provided “material support” to terrorists by hosting their content by declining to hear Force v. Facebook, a case brought by the families of five Americans who were hurt or killed by Palestinian attacks in Israel. The 2016 Force v. Facebook lawsuit argued that Facebook knowingly hosted accounts belonging to Hamas, which the US classifies as a terrorist organization.
    • Websites generally cannot be sued for user-created content under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, but the complaint contended Facebook’s algorithm promoted terrorist content to people who liked similar pages or posts, saying that should reduce its immunity. The case was one of the first instances for the court to rule on the breadth of Section 230 immunity for tech platforms.
  • The California Air Resources Board (CARB) filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) against Trump Administration agencies that sought to revoke the state’s special waiver to set and enforce vehicle emissions standards. The CARB lawsuit, filed in US District Court for the District of Columbia this past Friday May 15, is requesting that a judge order the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to turn over documents related to the state’s Clean Air Act waiver.
    • CARB had filed a FOIA request in December but neither agency has released any documents to date, prompting the lawsuit.
  • International Monetary Fund (IMF) Chairwoman Kristalina Georgieva predicted that it will take until 2023 for the economy to return to pre COVID-19 levels.
    • The IMF Chairwoman is urging countries to spend as much money as they can on their citizens and medical professionals and for governments to utilize funding to keep jobs in place.
  • Auto manufacturers across the United States began to resume production on Monday. However, it is unclear if consumer demand can keep the industry afloat, or whether the industry will need a bailout. So far, the auto industry has not asked the government for any COVID-19 relief.
    • A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), warned Congress in a letter, which we have reported on, that the auto industry will need to be included in the next stimulus package.
    • The letter notes the nearly 10M jobs, representing five percent of private American employment, that are driven by the automotive sector and that the vast automotive network in our country has been hit hard and will need upcoming relief.
  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state would support any professional sports teams wanting to reopen without fans. As a reminder, we reported this morning that a proposal for National Football League (NFL) teams to reopen facilities starting Tuesday included a provision that the teams would need sign off from state and local jurisdictions. California Governor Gavin Newsome indicated professional sports without fans might be able to resume in June.
  • As the US continues its piecemeal reopening, Apple has announced plans to reopen dozens of stores across the country, with plans in place for spacing. Additionally, Disney World is having a phased reopening this week.
  • Pharmaceutical company Moderna announced that their first phase of trials for a COVID-19 vaccine showed encouraging results. In the eight patients they followed who had the vaccine, all of them showed virus-fighting antibodies similar to those who have recovered from the virus.
    • This announcement comes on the heels of one of Moderna’s directors leaving the company to become the Chief Scientist for Operation Warp Speed, the White House’s operation to speed up the development of a vaccine.
  • President Xi Jinping of China announced that a Chinese-made vaccine would be treated as a global public good. China has some of the leading contenders for a vaccine, with multiple already in human trials.
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