THIS WEEK IN CONGRESS - January 08, 2021

Jan 11, 2021

In this issue:

·     117th US Congress begins

·     Terrorists hit Capitol

·     DC statehood cosponsorship

·     Defense Act with NMI bills now law 

·     More money for vets cemeteries

·     PPP reopens

·     Medicare handbook now available

·     Nate Snodgrass is new intern

·     2020 Year in Review

·     Opportunities

·     Legislative highlights

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Terrorists hit Capitol

Our Constitution guarantees us all the right of free speech and peaceful protest. But no one has the right to destroy our federal buildings or impede the work of Congress. Yet that is what happened Wednesday in what can only be called terrorism by a mob, instigated by President Trump to go to the U.S. Capitol to stop the certification of the election results. 

I walked through the crowd outside to go home for lunch, while both chambers debated the Arizona objection, never imagining what would happen minutes later. The Trump supporters turned ugly, defied the police, smashed windows, broke into offices, and crashed through to the House and Senate chambers, even stealing documents and furnishings as souvenirs of their insurrection. Four of the rioters sadly died; and several U.S. Capitol Police officers were injured in the assault, including Officer Brian Sicknick, who sadly passed away the next day.

No sooner did I get to my apartment, when the building was evacuated because a pipe bomb was discovered in the alleyway outside. I waited out on the street in the cold for four hours until the bomb was “disrupted,” as the bomb squad said. The Capitol Police offered to take me to a safe location, but I declined.

By that night the rioters, having no real purpose, drifted away or were pushed out of the Capitol and off the grounds by the police. And Congress completed the work of certifying that Joe Biden won the Presidential election.

I want to thank everyone who got in touch to ask if I was safe. I am so very grateful for your concern. The Marianas congressional office staff are safe, as am I and all the other Members of Congress. I think I can speak for all, when I say we will not be bullied or intimidated. We swore an oath on Sunday to defend the Constitution from all enemies—foreign and domestic—and to work for our people. With God’s help, that is what we will continue to do.

DC statehood cosponsorship

Our Constitution, also, guarantees equal treatment under law, a promise that remains incompletely fulfilled. On Monday, I became an original cosponsor of the D.C. statehood bill, one way we can give the people living in Washington, D.C. more equal treatment. In the last Congress, the House passed H.R. 51, providing statehood, but the Republican-led Senate took no action. With a record-breaking 202 original cosponsors, when the bill was introduced in this Congress, I look forward to quick action in the House. And with a Democratic Senate after Tuesday’s elections in Georgia, I am hopeful the U.S. citizens of Washington, D.C. may finally gain their full political rights.

Defense Act with NMI bills now law

Legislation to help Marianas small business, increase student STEM participation and opportunities for military spouses, and make the AMBER Alert program effective in the U.S. insular areas all became law on Saturday. I authored the four bills, H.R. 6021, H.R. 6786, H.R. 7712, H.R. 4614, and then included them in the National Defense Authorization Act, when the House passed it in July. Although the President vetoed the Act, both the House and the Senate overrode his veto; and the NDAA is now law. As a result, the Marianas is eligible for funding to establish a Lead Small Business Development Center. Marianas small businesses will have access to federal seed funding. Our islands are included in the STARBASE program, which aims to improve students’ skills in science, technology, engineering, and math. Military spouses will get more financial aid to get the training they may need to re-license in their profession or finish their college degrees. And the Marianas is included in the national AMBER Alert program to find missing children. Read more on my new laws here.

More money for vets cemeteries 

Legislation I introduced, increasing federal maintenance funds available for the veterans cemetery in Marpi and nationwide, was signed into law by the President Tuesday. My bill, the Veterans Cemetery Grants Improvement Act, H.R. 5487, doubles the current limit of $5 million for cemetery maintenance grants. I added it to H.R. 7105, an omnibus package of programs and benefits for homeless veterans during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Increased funding for the Marpi cemetery should help the Commonwealth government keep our Marianas veterans’ final resting place clean and beautiful.

PPP reopens

A new round of Paycheck Protection Program funding provided by Congress will be available beginning January 11, 2021 according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. In its announcement Friday, SBA said initially only community and minority financial institutions, such as the Bank of Guam, will be able to make First Draw PPP Loans on Monday, January 11, Second Draw PPP Loans on Wednesday, January 13 and then open to all participating lenders afterward. Congress made a number of updates to the program including allowing certain existing PPP borrowers to apply for a second PPP loan, extending eligibility to more non-profit organizations, greater flexibility for seasonal employees, and authorizing funds to cover additional expenses. Read more on the changes in SBA’s guidance here

2020 The Year in Review

We had no idea when 2020 began that it would become so historically significant. From the pandemic, which swept our nation, to the denial of a second term for the President, 2020 will live in memory. In our traditional year in review, we look at the congressional highlights of each month for our readers:

January

HUD agrees CDBG-DR assistance

Following up on my request to Secretary Ben Carson and meeting with the Housing and Urban Development officials in charge of the CDBG-DR program last month, the Department has outlined their plans to help the Commonwealth meet requirements for the $244 million Congress made available for Marianas disaster recovery. I asked that HUD provide technical assistance so the money is put to work quickly and with firm financial and procurement controls. HUD will make two on-site visits to the Marianas within 90 days of the Federal Register notice of allocation to help with financial certification and action plan preparations. Training on the CDBG-DR Grant Reporting system and financial management requirements will be held within 120 days of the notice. And, in addition to assistance from agency staff, HUD will also cover costs for a technical assistance consultant. The $244 million CDBG-DR Grant award is the largest federal grant to the Marianas.

February

More funds to secure NMI elections

The Commonwealth is receiving $600,000 from the Election Assistance Commission under the Help America Vote Act. We included the money in the Consolidated Appropriations Act enacted on December 20. No local match is required. The new funds are intended to improve security, so voters can have confidence in the integrity of elections. The Commonwealth Election Commission plans to upgrade voting equipment, conduct election auditing activities, enhance the voter registration system and management, strengthen cyber-security, and better track campaign financing.

March

Paid leave, more Medicaid, food aid

Workers in the Marianas will get paid sick leave for themselves or to care for a family member, including children at home because of school closures. The Commonwealth will receive more Medicaid money to treat the ill. And more food aid will be available to help Marianas households that lose income due to lay-offs or hours reduction. These benefits are all included in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act signed by the President on Wednesday. The Families First Act also makes coronavirus testing free for anyone, with or without insurance.

April

Marianas gets CARES Act aid

The $2.2 trillion CARES Act and the two preceding coronavirus relief laws are providing a vast range of benefits to the Marianas. Having worked to make sure the Marianas is eligible, now we want to make sure you know what those benefits are -- and how to get them:

·     $1,200 tax rebates, $500 per child

·     $945 weekly unemployment 

·     $22.4 million for PSS

·     $4.7 million for Northern Marianas College

·     Grants, loans to business to keep paying workers

·     Cash for NMC students

·     $36.3 million for the CNMI government

·     $3.3 million to provide child care

·     $470,000 to Joeten-Kiyu library

·     $243,000 to thee Humanities Council

·     $22.76 million for airports

·     United gets help, must keep flying

·     $1.5 million for dislocated workers

May

Asylum bar regs updated

The U.S. Workforce Act , my legislation extending the CW program for ten years and increasing protections and training for U.S. workers, also extended the bar on claims of asylum in the Marianas. On April 30, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a final rule to amend its regulations to reflect the asylum extension through 2030. The bar on claims of asylum was an original part of the Consolidated Natural Resources Act, Public Law 110-229, that transitioned immigration from the Commonwealth to the federal government. The bar allowed the federal government to open the Marianas to tourists from China, who, before the coronavirus crisis, had grown to 40 percent of our tourism economy. So, the ten-year extension was a key goal in negotiation, when we wrote the U.S. Workforce Act.

June

PPP Flexibility Act now law

Small businesses in the Marianas will have greater flexibility in the use of their CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds under legislation passed by Congress and signed into law Friday. H.R. 7010 , the PPP Flexibility Act, allows forgiveness of expenses beyond the original 8-week period to 24 weeks while extending loan terms from two to five years. The bill also increases the current limitation on non-payroll expenses (such as rent, utility payments and mortgage interest) for loan forgiveness from 25 to 40 percent. Borrowers will have until the end of this year to rehire employees while also having full access to payroll tax deferment.

July

Oversight: FEMA’s typhoon response

As Vice Chair for Insular Affairs, I led the Committee on Natural Resources virtual forum Wednesday on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to Pacific Natural Disasters in 2018. Democratic Representatives Ed Case of Hawaii, Michael San Nicolas of Guam, Darren Soto of Florida, and I questioned Christopher Currie of the Government Accountability Office on GAO’s preliminary findings on the federal response to Super Typhoons Yutu and Mangkhut, which struck the Northern Marianas and Guam, and Hurricane Lane and the Mount Kilauea eruptions in Hawai’i. We required the review by GAO in the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act, 2019 to ensure federal funds were spent effectively and are fully accounted for. FEMA obligated about $788 million in disaster assistance, as of May 2020, to the Marianas, Guam, and Hawaii for response and recovery efforts following the 2018 disasters, of which $593 million went to the Marianas. The forum can be viewed on YouTube here .

August

Conservation, park funds now law

The annual Land and Water Conservation Fund grant to the Marianas is now permanently increased. President Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act into law on Tuesday setting aside $900 million in offshore oil and gas revenues each year to Fund. That will mean about $1.6 million for the Marianas each year to safeguard natural areas or plan, develop, and maintain public outdoor recreation projects. Our annual grant increased from $75,000, on average, to $1,634,057 million this year with passage of the John J. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act. The Dingell Act gives each of the five insular areas a full state-share of LWCF funding. 

Veterans bill becomes law

Veterans and their eligible family members will now be able to use their GI Bill educational benefits to cover the cost of preparatory courses for license and certification exams. The legislation I introduced as H.R. 2934, which was added to the Ryan Kules and Paul Benne Special Adaptive Housing Improvement Act of 2019, was signed into law by the President on Saturday. H.R. 2934 allows the Veterans Administration to pay the fees for courses that prepare students for license and certification tests. Northern Marianas College, for instance, has offered a $400 course to help prepare for the NCLEX nurse licensing exam. Latte Training Academy offers CompTIA certification exam courses for those entering IT professions. The new law allows the GI bill to cover those costs. Before, only the test fees themselves were covered by the GI Bill. Making more benefits available to returning service members and their families has been a key goal in my service on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Up to 30 percent of Marianas high school graduates enter the military each year, according to the Public School System.

September

$17.5m for water/sewer

Marianas water and sewer infrastructure gets another $17,519,000, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday. $10,400,000 is the specific set-aside for the Marianas I included in last year’s disaster relief act, U.S. Public Law 116-20. The balance of $7,191,000 is the set aside for the Marianas and other territories in the EPA appropriation for fiscal year 2020, U.S. Public Law 116-94. The money is more welcome than ever with so much of our attention on the need to raise standards for public health and maintain a clean environment for residents and to reassure prospective tourists that the Marianas is safe to visit. We increased water and sewer funding every year since 2010 by changing a formula in annual appropriations bills. Together with one-time funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act total funding has now reached $97.6 million. In July, I successfully offered a floor amendment to H.R. 2, the Moving Forward Act, making a permanent formula change. The House passed the bill, 233-188, but the Republican-led Senate has refused to take action.

October

$12-16M for Marianas food aid

The Marianas will have an additional $12 to $16 million in food aid for families with school-age children thanks to legislation enacted this week. The continuing resolution with the new Pandemic EBT funding was signed into law on Thursday. Democratic leadership extended Pandemic EBT to the Marianas after the U.S. Food and Nutrition Services informed me on September 14—and I informed Speaker Nancy Pelosi—that the Marianas Nutrition Assistance Program would run out of money sometime next year.

November

More Medicaid lowered referrals

$120 million in Marianas-specific funding in U.S. Public Law 116-94 and another $36 million in USPL 116-20 has enabled the Commonwealth to provide Medicaid insurance to more residents and significantly lowered the need for off-island referrals for specialty treatment. According to the Commonwealth Medicaid Agency’s 2020 report to Congress, issued last week, the increased Congressional funding for Medicaid has enabled the Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation to hire an orthopedic surgeon and otolaryngologist and establish an oncology center. Patients previously had to travel off-island for treatment in these specialties, which is expensive and burdensome for the patient. Now, off-island referrals for these specialties are down 80 percent, 90 percent, and 95 percent respectively. Continuing these elevated levels of Medicaid funding will be an important goal in the coming, 117th Congress, beginning in January.

December

Marianas benefits in COVID relief

Individuals, businesses, schools, and healthcare in the Marianas will all benefit from the $908 billion COVID relief legislation Congress passed Monday, if President Trump signs the bill. COVID relief was attached to an omnibus appropriation for fiscal year 2021, which also has important funding for the Marianas. This was the third time the House has passed COVID relief to continue programs begun by the CARES Act in March. The House passed its relief plan, the HEROES Act, in May and again in October; but the Republican-led Senate was unwilling to act. This attitude changed after the presidential election and as coronavirus deaths rose. Negotiations quickened last week. Multiple virtual Democratic Caucus meetings to discuss those negotiations gave me the opportunity to press Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey to include the Marianas in all national programs and also make special provisions for the Marianas. Some of the important elements of the 5,593 page Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 include:

·     $14m in Marianas food aid;

·     $90m Community Disaster Loan allowed;

·     Unemployment extended; CWs qualify;

·     $284 billion for first and second forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans;

·     Marianas public kindergarten through high schools will receive about $68.7 million, keeping teachers and staff paid; 

·     Pell grants for college students increase to a maximum of $5,435; and

·     My Simple FAFSA Act was incorporated in the relief bill making it easier for students to apply for federal aid.

OPPORTUNITIES

Public Comments

·     Independent Living Services Report info

·     2022 Economic Census

·     Estimated cost of the assistance change

·     Overdose Data to Action program evaluation

·     Social Services Block Grant Report info

·     Project Agreement information

·     Adult Protective Services Practice Survey

LEGISLATIVE HIGHLIGHTS

THIS WEEK

·     H.R. 21 - FedRAMP Authorization Act (passed by voice vote)

·     H.R. 22 - Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act of 2021 (passed, 412-2)

NEXT WEEK

The House is in recess for the District Work Period.