COVID-19 Federal Update 4-10-2020
Total U.S. coronavirus deaths reported each morning this week: Monday, 9,648; Tuesday, 10,993; Wednesday 12,911; Thursday, 14,808.
CARES Act Amendment
Democrats are holding firm to their demand that a $250 billion economic stimulus for small businesses must include more funds for hospitals, states and localities struggling with the coronavirus pandemic, leaving congressional leaders at a standoff for now. There were no immediate plans for negotiations among Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other top leaders after Democrats yesterday rejected McConnell’s bid to pass only the funds for the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin requested approval of the $250 billion by week’s end, but Democratic leaders in both chambers insisted on supplementing those funds with $100 billion for hospitals and $150 billion for state and local governments. Hospitals and localities “are hemorrhaging money and paying for the coronavirus costs,” Pelosi said on CNBC’s “Mad Money” program. She said there’s “plenty of room for negotiation.” The dispute raised questions about when Congress would be able to act. Senate rules require unanimous consent to pass anything quickly, giving any one senator the ability to gum up the works.
If leaders find a path forward, Monday may be the next chance to quickly approve more aid in the Senate without objection. Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to Washington until the week of April 20. Read more from Laura Litvan and Billy House.
Fiscal 2021 Spending Bills Move Forward Despite Virus Disruption
Top House appropriators have received preliminary top-line spending figures for their fiscal 2021 bills and are remotely drafting legislation to fund the government past Sept. 30, even as the coronavirus complicates their work. Several key lawmakers have suggested amending last year’s two-year budget caps agreement to exempt certain programs from spending limits, which could allow for a boost to biomedical programs without triggering cuts elsewhere.
For now, though, House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) has assigned subcommittee leaders top-line allocations, and the committee plans to hold markups “when Congress returns to Washington,” Evan Hollander, Lowey’s spokesman, said in a statement Thursday. The distribution of top-line numbers to the 12 Appropriations subcommittees, known as 302(b) allocations, allows members to start drafting legislation to fund the government. Appropriators held hearings with most, but not all, major administration officials on the president’s fiscal 2021 budget request in February and March. The subcommittee leaders were essentially finished with the process of collecting funding requests from other members before they left town in March, Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), chairman of the Transportation-HUD Subcommittee, said in a phone interview Thursday.
Appropriators Question Budget Caps
A bipartisan group of appropriators have raised the possibility of allowing for more spending in fiscal 2021 by exempting some key programs from the limits agreed to in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 (Public Law 116-37). The law allows for only about a 0.5% increase in discretionary spending levels from fiscal 2020 to 2021, setting spending caps at $671.5 billion for defense and $626.5 billion for nondefense.
Without a change to those caps, any substantial increase in funding for programs such as vaccine development would have to be mostly offset by cuts to other initiatives. Lowey “strongly supports budget cap exemptions for programs that relate to coronavirus response,” Hollander said in a statement Thursday. “Sadly, this pandemic has laid bare how budget caps restrict resources for important federal efforts like public health. It is critical that we don’t allow such shortsighted limitations to continue this year.”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee, also said he supports cap exemptions in fiscal 2021. Transportation-HUD Subcommittee Chairman David Price (D-N.C.) said exemptions “certainly should be part of the conversation.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, National Strategic Stockpile, and Infectious Disease Rapid Response Fund will all likely need significant funding increases on a regular basis, Cole said. Cole has frequently supported steady increases for biomedical programs, but said the coronavirus should cause lawmakers to reevaluate their approach. “As good as we’ve done, we’re going to have to do a lot more in the areas of CDC, NIH, Strategic Stockpile, and it can’t be a one-and-done supplemental, in my view,” Cole said in a phone interview Thursday. “We have to really look at adjusting the baseline.” With budget caps nearly flat in fiscal 2021, exempting key health programs from the spending limits “makes exceptional sense,” Cole said. “We can keep the budget caps in for most everything else,” Cole said. “But in this particular area, for me, you’re either going to raise the budget caps or you’re going to have to move some money from other places that we would not have anticipated moving, absent this pandemic.”
The funding allocation for the Transportation-HUD bill is larger than Price initially expected, though it will force appropriators to “make some pretty painful choices,” Price said. “We are happy with it, not ecstatic, but happy,” Price said of the allocation for Transportation-HUD spending. Members are not allowed to share their allocations yet, and the figures typically aren’t made public until sometime around the first markup of the year. The House’s first fiscal 2020 subcommittee markup was held April 30 last year. For some bills, a slight increase in spending may equate to an effective decrease. Rising rental costs for public housing, for example, can take up a substantial portion of the year-to-year increase in an allocation for the Transportation-HUD bill, Price said.
Interplay With Emergency Funds
Congress’ next moves on the coronavirus response will have a significant effect on Price’s bill, he said. President Donald Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have both called for a bill providing hundreds of billions, or even trillions, of dollars for public infrastructure as part of a long-term economic rebuilding effort. More immediately, upcoming emergency bills may need to provide more funds to aid the homeless and for public housing, Price said. Emergency legislation on those measures will affect how he writes the fiscal 2021 Transportation-HUD funding bill, Price said.
“Public housing, homeless needs, these are not accounts where there’s a whole lot of slack,” Price said. “They pretty much need to be supplemented. We knew that before the crisis came.” Appropriators will also face procedural challenges in the near future, as lawmakers wait to determine whether it’s safe to return to Washington as scheduled on April 20. For now, appropriators are working on their bills from home as if things are somewhat normal, though they’re aware of the strange circumstances they’ll eventually have to navigate, Price said.
Congressional leaders have yet to signal any change to the usual process of moving forward with the appropriations bills. Hollander said the Appropriations Committee plans to hold markups. Pelosi has resisted a change to remote voting, and told reporters on Thursday that holding remote committee meetings is “not necessarily allowed either.” “The rules are what they are,” Pelosi said. “Now, if the rules have to be changed, that should be done carefully.”
Some Senate committees have held “paper hearings,” posting witness testimony on the panel’s website followed by lawmaker questions and then responses from the participants. Price said he thinks remote voting and a “virtual markup” for his bill are likely, even as Pelosi and Lowey stick to the usual plan. “We’re proceeding now to do the chairman’s mark and the preliminaries to do a markup,” Price said. “Then the uncertainty in my mind, procedurally, is how they would go at that point. What does a markup look like? Or how much can you do without being physically present?”
Farmer Cornoavirus Aid Package
Trump Vows to ‘Expedite Help’ for Beleaguered U.S. Farmers: President Donald Trump said he has asked his agriculture secretary to “use all of the funds and authorities at his disposal,” to aid U.S. farmers, whose financial peril has worsened in the coronavirus pandemic. The administration plans to announce an aid package next week, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Trump in a Twitter post on Thursday night said he wanted to “to expedite help to our farmers, especially to the smaller farmers who are hurting right now.” His tweets did not provide specifics, but the coronavirus relief bill Congress passed last month includes $23.5 billion in aid for farmers. So far, it hasn’t been clear how all of those funds will get doled out.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a conference call Wednesday he would like to distribute aid “sooner rather than later.” Farmers, who have already suffered through the U.S.-China trade war and years of grain gluts, have been dealt a further blow by the virus which has damped the outlook for commodity demand. In some areas, fruit and vegetable growers have let produce rot in the fields as demand plummeted after restaurants shut. At the same time, some dairy farmers have resorted to dumping milk because the market for cheese and butter collapsed.
Farmers and rural communities are a critical part of Trump’s political base as he seeks re-election this year, and the administration bolstered agriculture during the trade war with a $28 billion bailout. USDA press representatives didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the timing of the aid plan. The congressional legislation gives the USDA broad discretion on how to distribute the aid, though it directs the department to include dairy and livestock producers and growers of specialty crops, such as fruits and vegetables.
The American Farm Bureau Federation sent the USDA a six-page letter detailing requests sector by sector. Produce growers are seeking $5 billion. Dairy farmers have asked the government to pay producers to cut milk output and buy up cheese, butter and other dairy products for food banks. Biofuel makers also want aid after ethanol prices plunged.
The relief package was broken down into $9.5 billion in emergency funding and $14 billion provided to the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp., a Depression-era entity the Trump administration has used for its farm-bailout programs in the past two years. Perdue said Wednesday the department could move quickly to distribute the first set of funds, but that the agency would have to wait until early summer to use the latter.
Pence, CDC Head Lay Out Virus Criteria to Reopen U.S.: Vice President Mike Pence and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said reopening the country’s economy hinges on the government seeing major communities at the end of their coronavirus outbreaks and developing treatments for the disease, among other hurdles. The country also should have widespread testing available, therapeutics for Americans who contract the disease, and guidance from the CDC on how large and small businesses can operate safely, Pence said last night at a White House briefing.
Redford later in an interview on CNN said officials need to understand the spread of the virus, strengthen public health infrastructure, prepare hospitals and other medical facilities, and foster a belief among Americans that it’s the right time to do this. Read more from Mario Parker and Josh Wingrove.
Meanwhile, The White House is considering whether to create a working group focused on reviving the U.S. economy after the coronavirus pandemic eases, and whether the panel should include private-sector representatives. The new group would be separate from the coronavirus task force led by Pence, even though it may include some of the same members. The discussions are in their early stages, according to three people familiar with the matter. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has also asked Trump’s daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump to join the group, one person said. All of the people spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are ongoing. Read more from Jennifer Jacobs and Jordan Fabian.
Defense Contractors Keep Most Plants Running: The Pentagon’s contractors have largely avoided widespread closings or “major impacts” so far from the coronavirus pandemic, according to a running tally compiled by its contracts management office. Of 10,509 locations tracked or monitored by the Defense Contract Management Agency, 135 had closed at some point as of Wednesday. Forty-nine of those reopened after an average of about 10 days.
“These closures have generally been short-term in order to clean facilities” or to “reduce the potential exposure of employees,” agency spokesman Matthew Montgomery said in a statement. The agency doesn’t track how many workers are affected, he said. And the numbers on closings don’t reflect defense contractors that have cut back their operations — or the outsized impact of Boeing’s shutdowns. Read more from Tony Capaccio.
Growing Number of Pilots Grounded: Hundreds of pilots and flight attendants at major U.S. airlines have tested positive for coronavirus infection, according to unions representing the workers. They’re part of an increasing number of in-flight workers who are being sidelined by the coronavirus. Airline flight crews should be considered first responders with priority for protective equipment, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association said. Airlines also need to beef up health screenings for crews and passengers, including prior ity testing for crew members, said the spokesman, whose union represents about 15,000 pilots at American Airlines. Read more from Louis C. LaBrecque.
Trump said he may unveil a bailout proposal for the beleaguered U.S. airline industry this weekend. The president said at a White House briefing that he met with Mnuchin and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to work on details of the proposal. Airlines have been frustrated by delays in U.S. aid after being virtually shutdown by the coronavirus. Some of those carriers are depending on federal funds to meet payroll obligations next week and face the prospect of furloughing workers. Read more from Mario Parker.
Economists See Flaws in Plan to Gut Pollution Rule: By proposing to obliterate the legal justification for restricting toxic mercury pollution from power plants, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has flouted bedrock practices that have driven federal policymaking for decades, according to a group of resource economists writing in the journal Science. Read more from Eric Roston.
Research Efforts, Testing and Treatments
Fauci Cuts Death Projections, Raising Hope: One of President Donald Trump’s top medical advisers slashed projections for U.S. coronavirus deaths yesterday, saying that about 60,000 people could die—almost half as many as the White House estimated a week ago. The falling projection, the result of aggressive social distancing behaviors that Americans have adopted to curb the spread of the coronavirus, may accelerate Trump’s efforts to develop a plan to urge Americans to leave their homes and return to work next month.
“The real data are telling us it is highly likely we are having a definite positive effect by the mitigation things that we’re doing, this physical separation,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in an interview with NBC. “I believe we are going to see a downturn in that, and it looks more like the 60,000, than the 100,000 to 200,000” projected fatalities, he said. “But having said that, we better be careful that we don’t say: ‘OK, we’re doing so well we could pull back.’”
Deborah Birx, the State Department immunologist advising the White House’s coronavirus task force, projected March 31 that as many as 240,000 Americans could die as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, even with another 30 days of stringent public health restrictions. That analysis caused Trump to retreat from ambitions to get Americans back to work by Easter. But with the outbreak is now appearing to plateau in New York, the U.S. epicenter, Trump’s aides have begun initial planning to urge a re-opening in May.
At a White House news conference on Wednesday, Birx said that two prominent models for U.S. mortality from the Covid-19 pandemic—Covid Act Now and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington—had both lowered their fatality projections based on widespread social distancing. Read more from Kathleen Miller and Jennifer Jacobs.
Medical Supplies Free-for-All Has States Lashing Out at FEMA: The fierce competition for crucial medical supplies is fueling confusion and suspicions between the states and federal government over conflicting priorities and drawing allegations of political favoritism by the Trump administration. n Colorado, the tension boiled over when the state tried to secure ventilators for an expected spike in critically ill patients.
Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, had made a direct plea to Vice President Mike Pence late last month for help in securing 10,000 ventilators and millions of masks and other protective equipment. When that request went unfulfilled, the state bought 500 ventilators from a private contractor. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency also needed the ventilators. The agency used its authority to jump to the front of the line, according to Colorado officials, and purchased the equipment.
“Before the ventilators could get shipped, FEMA superseded Colorado,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat representing the Denver area. “They took those 500 ventilators and said they were putting them in the national stockpile.” It’s a situation being played out around the country as governors complain of shortages, delays and confusing demands as they try to supply hospitals beset by critically ill patients. Read more from Daniel Flatley, Polly Mosendz and Vincent Del Giudice.
Governors Plan to Skip Feds for Equipment: The nation’s governors say they can’t count on Washington to supply the medical equipment needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic, so they are making plans to band together and procure supplies themselves. The idea comes as a result of a depleted Strategic National Stockpile and a Federal Emergency Management Agency that’s repeatedly failed to get states what they need. Such a consortium has already been created in the Midwest, bringing together the combined buying power of Michigan, Wisconsin , and Minnesota.
Gov. Cuomo said such an expanded, nationwide group is necessary if the issues with aid continue. “If the federal government is not going to do it, then the states have to do it,” he said at a press conference yesterday. Read more from Polly Mosendz.
Overseas Drugmakers Get Free Pass: U.S. regulators are allowing overseas pharmaceutical facilities with checkered safety and quality records to make prescription drugs for Americans in an effort to fill supply gaps caused by the pandemic. Drugs needed to care for the sickest virus patients are becoming more scarce at the same time that a surge in U.S. infections is forcing hospitals to stretch staff, beds and supplies of protective equipment. In an attempt to bolster the drug supply, companies in India are stepping in despite American inspectors having flagged their facilities for poor sanitation, manipulation of quality-control data and other infractions. Higher-than-normal demand for a range of medications is straining a supply chain that was never built to seamlessly handle a historic public-health shock. Read more from Anna Edney.
Shortage Prompts New N95 Guidance: Coronavirus-induced shortages of N95 respirators have led federal workplace safety regulators to temporarily set aside a rule for annual respirator fit testing. As long as employers make a “good faith effort” to comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s rule on respiratory protections and adhere to agency guidance, the agency won’t cite employers for violations of the annual respirator fit testing mandate, the agency announced. The exception expires once the public health crisis ends, OSHA said, Bruce Rolfsen reports.
Powered Respirator Rules Eased for Virus: The HHS trimmed rules yesterday allowing health-care workers to use air-purifying respirators to shield themselves from the coronavirus. The CDC issued the interim final rule updating standards around battery-powered air-purifying respirators and gas and vapor respirators. This move tailors the testing and approval requirements to health care and is intended to help manufacturers address the shortage of masks caused by Covid-19. Read more from Ayanna Alexander.
FEMA Deadline for State Testing Transition Too Short, Pallone Says: House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) blasted FEMA for issuing an advisory yesterday requiring states to petition the federal government to continue supporting certain testing sites by the end of the day. Pallone asked the Trump administration to give states more time to decide if they want to take over managing Community-Based Testing Sites that the federal government has so far run and used to test nearly 80,000 Americans. Read the statement here.
Health Systems to Get Additional $17 Billion: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has approved a total of $51 billion in advance payments to health-care providers, an increase of $17 billion over what it initially planned, the agency announced yesterday. The CMS has approved 21,000 of the 32,000 requests for advance payments it has so far received under the policy created during the coronavirus outbreak. Providers can apply to receive three months of their Medicare payments in advance, and some can receive up to six months. Read more from Shira Stein.
Clearance for Virus Screening Steps: Hospitals don’t have to clear mandatory Covid-19 screening procedures with a research ethics board before sharing the results with a public health department or research subjects, an HHS research regulator clarified. The Office for Human Research Protection released a new guidance document yesterday on how human research regulations, known as the Common Rule, apply during the current outbreak. The guidance highlights flexibilities in the rule allowing scientists to make changes to protect research volunteers without having to clear them first with an institutional review board. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.
NIH Malaria Drug Trial: An NIH-funded study to test hydroxychloroquine as a potential therapy for patients hospitalized with the coronavirus began enrolling patients, the NIH announced yesterday. Trump has repeatedly touted the drug, used to treat malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, as a “game changer” for combating the virus. But scientists, including former FDA commissioners, have cautioned against promoting a treatment before it’s been shown to work. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.
Privacy Violations at Test Sites: Health-care providers and business associates operating coronavirus testing sites in communities won’t be penalized for some privacy rule violations, HHS said yesterday. It loosened regulations under health privacy laws to expand the number of local testing sites available. These sites include mobile, drive-through, or walk-up sites that collect Covid-19 specimens or provide testing services to the public, according to the guidance. Read more from Ayanna Alexander.
Democrats Press FDA on Test Accuracy: House Democrats want information from the FDA on the precautions the agency has taken to ensure the accuracy of Covid-19 tests, as well as manufacturers’ data provided to the agency on false negatives and positives. Chairman of the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) and Chairwoman of the Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Subcommittee Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) wrote to the FDA yesterday about their concerns in light of the CDC’s history of faulty coronavirus tests. Read the letter here.
CMS Relaxes Rural Telemedicine Rules: Rural hospitals can have doctors offer patient care remotely, even if they normally practice medicine in another state, CMS said late yesterday. The measure is part of a number of rules the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services temporarily suspended to address a workforce shortage during the Covid-19 pandemic, reports Jeannie Baumann.
Pentagon Sends First Body Bags: The Pentagon has delivered 37,000 body bags over the last week to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is seeking 100,000 to help address the pandemic. The Defense Logistics Agency provided what the military calls “human remain pouches” from a combination of its stockpile and expedited shipments from its current provider. In addition, the agency placed orders for 63,000 more of the bags to fulfill the remainder of FEMA’s request, Patrick Mackin, a DLA spokesman, said yesterday in an email. Read more from Tony Capaccio.
Week Long Wait for Airline Payroll Aid: Financially struggling U.S. airlines are now being told they’ll have to wait at least another week for federal aid to help cover payrolls, as the U.S. Treasury Department makes its way through applications, people familiar with the matter said. Treasury officials told at least some of the carriers yesterday that it won’t provide funds until negotiations over conditions for the grants are complete and there will be no advance payments, said the people, who asked not to be named because the talks are private. The agency thinks it should complete some applications by the end of next week, they said. The delay builds on the frustration of airlines that initially expected to receive funds earlier this week but instead were asked by federal officials for additional, detailed information on finances and operations. Some of those carriers are depending on federal funds to meet payroll obligations next week and face the prospect of furloughing workers. That action would render them ineligible for a grant, Mary Schlangenstein and Saleha Mohsin report.
Mnuchin to Provide Draft Details on Loans, Grants: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin yesterday said the agency would provide preliminary details to airlines on how to access the grants and an additional pool of government loans starting today and over the weekend. Mnuchin yesterday said the government will not bail out airlines. He said the government wants to make sure airlines “have the liquidity to keep their workers in place.” The preliminary data that Treasury will provide will be for passenger and cargo carriers and will focus on the payroll support grants, according to a person familiar with the matter. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she has been speaking to Mnuchin and she believes progress is being made. “To your question, I think we are in good shape in terms of the airlines,” Pelosi said during yesterday’s telephone press conference.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump at a press conference last night said he may unveil a bailout proposal for the beleaguered U.S. airline industry this weekend. The president said he met met with Mnuchin and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to work on details of the proposal. Trump said he expected to offer “a very acceptable package” and may hold talks with the carriers. Read more from Mario Parker.
Airlines to Hold Onto Slots: Airlines who typically fly out of John F. Kennedy International, New York LaGuardia, and Ronald Reagan Washington National won’t lose their slots if they cancel flights due to coronavirus through Oct. 24, the FAA said in a statement. Under normal circumstances, airlines who don’t use slots at congested airports at least 80% of the time lose them. The FAA previously said it would suspend those rules through May because of coronavirus cancellations.
Pausing Flight Attendant Demos: Flight attendants don’t have to demonstrate how to use life preservers and oxygen masks on flights through the end of June, the FAA said late Wednesday night. The agency is trying to protect flight attendants from contracting the coronavirus. Officials also said that attendants can sit far apart from each other, instead of in their typical seats, so they can socially distance from each other.
Air Traffic Controller Shifts: Air traffic controllers will start working in the same groups on each shift, limiting cross-contamination of employees, the FAA said in a statement. If one group member is infected by coronavirus, the only people exposed would be the other teammates. The goal is to protect the country’s air traffic control system.
TSA Food Pantry & Toy Station: TSA agents at Washington Dulles International Airport have built a food pantry and children’s toy station for airport contractors making fewer dollars due to the coronavirus. The agents are repaying the favor to contractors who bought meals for them during the 2019 federal government shutdown. Anyone can donate, even if they don’t work at the airport, the agency said in a statement.
Coronavirus Grounding Pilots, Attendants: Hundreds of pilots and flight attendants at major U.S. airlines have tested positive for coronavirus infection, according to unions representing the workers. Airline flight crews should be considered first responders with priority for protective equipment, said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association. Airlines also need to beef up health screenings for flight crews and passengers, including priority testing for crew members, said Tajer, whose union represents about 15,000 pi lots at American Airlines. Read more from Louis C. LaBrecque.
Free Flights for Medical Workers to New York: Delta, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, and United are all offering free travel to New York for Covid-19 medical workers, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said in a statement.
CDC Extends ‘No Sail Order’ for Cruise Ships: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended its “No Sail Order” for all cruise ships by at least 100 days—or until Covid-19 is no longer considered a public health emergency. The CDC said there are 100 cruise ships at sea off U.S. coasts, with 80,000 crew members on board. Twenty ships at port or anchorage in the U.S. have known or suspected Covid-19 among crew, according to the agency’s statement yesterday. Read more from Jonathan Levin.
Trucking Industry Debates Hours of Service Waiver: The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees the nation’s professional drivers, extended an exemption from certain rules thru May 15 to contend with the nationwide coronavirus emergency. Included among the rules is a safety law aimed at making sure drivers stay alert on the roads. The agency said it will waive laws that limit drivers’ working hours if they are moving goods “in support of emergency relief efforts related to the COVID-19 outbreaks.” But, since drivers and carriers don’t always know if everything they’re carrying is included on the federal government’s emergency list, the waiver should apply regardless of what they’re hauling , said Lewie Pugh, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. Pugh’s association wants all items to be added to the emergency supply list, so that drivers don’t have to worry about the rules of what they’re carrying and can keep driving. “There’s a lot of questions and gray area in what exactly is emergency supplies,” Pugh said, Courtney Rozen reports.
Background on Hours of Service Rule: The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said Wednesday that truckers carrying emergency supplies such as masks, gloves, and food can ignore the agency’s rules on how many hours they can drive until May 15. The agency previously suspended the regulations through mid-April. The regulations are in place to prevent driver fatigue. Truck drivers are twice as likely to crash if they’ve been behind the wheel more than eight hours, the Insurance Industry for Highway Safety found.
Bathrooms, Meals Scarce for Truckers: However, the drivers helping to restock coronavirus-barren store shelves, are running up against two of the most basic human needs: food and bathrooms. Courtney Rozen relates the conditions that are straining driver health.
Drug, Alcohol Testing: The Department of Transportation relaxed drug and alcohol testing requirements for truckers because employers may not be able to conduct the tests as easily as before, John Dunbar reports.
Worker Hours: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed plants dealing with staffing problems to require workers to put in more hours, which has alarmed some watchdogs and people who live near the plants.
Restricting Food Truck Placement: Even as truck drivers say there are limited food options available to them because of coronavirus restrictions, the commercial truck stop industry is pushing back against DOT’s effort to place food trucks at public and private truck stops. Groups representing convenience stores, commercial truck stops, and franchise restaurants are asking the Federal Highway Administration to only allow food trucks at places that aren’t close to commercial truck stops and travel plazas because the trucks could hurt business for their vending machines and restaurants, according to a letter they sent to the Federal Highway Administration. The Federal Highway Administration said earlier this week that it would temporarily waive the ban on food trucks at federally-funded highway rest stops to better feed truckers. Truck drivers have said they’re often unable to find hot meals outside of truck stops, as most restaurants are limited by coronavirus restrictions. The agency usually doesn’t allow food trucks at truck stops, but loosened the restriction to help feed drivers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Brokers Try Again for Security Bond Waiver: The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration wants the public to weigh in on the Small Business in Transportation Coalition’s petition to exempt small-business brokers and freight forwarders from a $75,000 bond requirement for five years. FMCSA denied a similar petition in August 2013 from the Association of Independent Property Brokers and Agents, which merged with SBTC in 2016.
Railing Against Demands for Oil Storage in Rail Cars: Despite expectations that most U.S. onshore oil storage capacity will be filled by May, railroads — including Union Pacific and Warren Buffett’s BNSF — are telling oil shippers that they do not want them to move loaded crude trains to private rail car storage facilities on their tracks due to safety concerns, Reuters reports.
Biden’s Overtures to Sanders: A day after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) dropped out of the presidential race, former Vice President Joe Biden signaled support for two new progressive policies as he seeks to unite the Democratic Party around him. Biden said he supported lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60 from 65 and forgiving student debt for low-income and middle-class individuals who have attended public colleges and universities.
“Senator Sanders and his supporters can take pride in their work in laying the groundwork for these ideas, and I’m proud to adopt them as part of my campaign at this critical moment in responding to the coronavirus crisis,” Biden said in a statement. Read more from Tyler Pager.
N.H. Judge Strikes Down Registration Law: A controversial New Hampshire voter registration law backed by Gov. Chris Sununu (R) was struck down yesterday as unconstitutional. Superior Court Judge David Anderson ruled that the 2017 law placed an unreasonable burden on the right to vote and violated equal protection under the state’s constitution. People who wanted to register to vote within 30 days of an election had to provide residency documents under the law that otherwise wouldn’t be required. Read more from Adrianne Appel.
Other News Stories
Trump Touts Tentative Russia-Saudi Pact: Trump said a tentative agreement between Riyadh and Moscow to cut global oil production is a “very acceptable agreement.” The two nations are “getting close to a deal,” Trump said yesterday. Trump held a conference call with with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman just before the remarks. “It was a very good call.” Russia and Saudi Arabia agreed in principle to slash oil production, a move that could help U.S. producers that were devastated by the two countries’ month-long price war. Read more from Jordan Fabian and Mario Parker.
Virus Disinformation by Russia, China: The Justice Department is tracking disinformation campaigns worldwide by Russia and China aimed at sowing divisions over the coronavirus crisis, according to John Demers, head of the department’s national security division. The disinformation operations could fuel confusion and division in the U.S. and other Western countries, Demers said yesterday. The Russian government’s objective appears to be aimed at weakening the EU and NATO, in ways parallel to the Kremlin’s effort to interfere in the 20 16 U.S. election, he said. Read more from Chris Strohm.
UN Chief Urges Pandemic Action: United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged members of the Security Council to come together to fight the global coronavirus outbreak, marking the first time the divided 15-nation body discussed the pandemic. “The engagement of the Security Council will be critical to mitigate the peace and security implications of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Guterres in a closed-door video conference. “A signal of unity and resolve from the Council would count for a lot at this anxious time,” he sa id in a text released by his office. Read more from David Wainer.
Worries That Coronavirus-Prompted Rule Changes Go Too Far: State and federal governments are using the ongoing global pandemic to pursue deregulation and political priorities, a trend that has prompted protests. Some of the rule changes are based on common sense—like allowing hand sanitizers of up to 12 ounces on airplanes—while others are seen as threats to public health and safety. And most contain elements of both, raising hard questions about how far the government should go when it comes to fighting a deadly virus.
There are instances where it makes sense to roll back or ease regulations, said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen. But there is a limit, particularly when it comes to the environment. “On the EPA side, we’re seeing the oil and gas industry pushing for basically short-term extensions across the board on pollution regulations,” he said. Read more from John Dunbar.
SCOTUS Urged to Ditch ACA Exemptions: Trump administration rules allowing certain employers to offer health plans that exclude coverage for birth control should be struck, lawmakers, civil rights groups, and medical organizations told the Supreme Court yesterday. The groups filed amicus briefs this week backing Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as they push back against an attempt to undo a Third Circuit verdict that blocked the government from enforcing religious and moral exemptions to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate. Read more from Mary Anne Pazanowski.
Texas Abortion Ban Narrowed: Some abortions in Texas will be permitted to resume under an Austin judge’s ruling narrowing the scope of a temporary ban enacted by the state to conserve medical resources during the pandemic. The court order lets clinics perform medication abortions that don’t require masks and gloves as well as surgical abortions for women whose pregnancies will be too advanced by the time the governor’s ban expires. The clinics said they have had to turn away hundreds of patients since Texas clamped down.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel’s latest order risks drawing a second rebuke from the New Orleans-based federal appeals court, which on April 7 blasted him for siding with the clinics in their challenge to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) directive March 22 to preserve hospital beds and personal protective gear for treating Covid-19 patients. Yeakel said his order expires on April 19 unless he extends it. Read more from Laurel Brubaker Calkins.
Border Patrol’s Texas Tent Facility: A temporary Customs and Border Patrol tent facility in Texas was over-staffed, underutilized and cost the federal government millions in unneeded food services during a five-month period, according to a government watchdog report. “CBP paid approximately $66 million in total for the facility services and leveraged significant federal personnel resources,” despite “holding an average of 30 detainees per day—about 1 percent of the facility’s capacity,” the Government Accountability Office said in a report released yesterday, Shaun Courtney reports.
Democrats Want Child Migrant Deportations Halted: House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Border Security Subcommittee Chairwoman Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security said the department cannot deport unaccompanied child migrants without legal due process despite border restrictions implemented during the pandemic. A policy change the department informed the committee of April 2 to deport more migrant children who arrived without parents or legal guardians is also illegal, the Democrats said. Read the letter here.
Today on the Hill
- 10:00 am – In-House Pool Call Time
- 12:00 pm – Trump participates in an Easter Blessing with Bishop Harry Jackson
- 1:00 pm – Members of the Coronavirus Task Force hold a press briefing
- On recess and scheduled to return April 20th
- On recess
- The House will meet for a pro forma session at 9:00 am