OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS INFORMER – 2/12/21
What We Are Watching:
COVID RELIEF PROGRESSING THROUGH HOUSE COMMITTEES: Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House hopes to pass its coronavirus relief bill by the end of the month and see it signed into law before March 14, when unemployment programs expire. The proposed legislation would send a stimulus payment of $1,400 to eligible individuals, would provide billions for COVID-19 vaccinations, and expand the child tax credit.
IMPEACHMENT PART II: Former President Trump’s second impeachment trial began on Tuesday and on Thursday Democratic managers concluded their case for convicting the former president. Trump’s legal team mounted his defense on Friday. If the House managers decline to seek witness testimony, the trial could conclude with a vote as early as this weekend.
MINIMUM WAGE HIKE PROPOSALS: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said he is pushing for the $15 minimum wage increase to be included in the COVID relief package. However, Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) says she is opposed to a minimum wage hike being included with COVID relief, further raising the bar for Senate passage of the minimum wage provision.
The House and Senate don’t have votes scheduled next week. Nevertheless, the House Financial Service Committee has a hearing: “Game Stopped? Who Wins and Loses When Short Sellers, Social Media, and Retail Investors Collide” on Thursday, February 18 at 12:00 p.m.
Looking ahead another week, the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled a confirmation hearing to consider nominee Judge Merrick Garland as the next U.S. Attorney General for February 22 and 23, setting Judge Garland up for a Committee vote on March 1.
The divide is growing within the Republican party between Trump supporters and his detractors. The week after the House GOP conference fracas between Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Matt Gaetz of Florida, we saw in the Senate Bill Cassidy (R-LA) changing his position on impeachment, and speculation about the possibility of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell voting to convict.
What We Are Watching:
NOM NOM NOM: Most of President Joe Biden’s nominees have passed the Senate with flying colors (see: Michael Regan for EPA), but before even having a hearing Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), the president’s pick to lead the Interior Department, is taking heat from Republican senators over her “radical views” on energy policy and opposition to issuing more oil and gas leases on federal land and waters.
MORE CLIMATE EO’S INCOMING: Biden is likely to issue more executive orders on global warming, said White House climate advisor Gina McCarthy in an interview. McCarthy was circumspect about when those orders might come or what they might entail but she hinted that Biden isn’t done – even after his raft of climate-related orders and actions.
ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE AT FERC: This week FERC Chair Rich Glick announced that he would seek to address past criticism the agency has faced over its failure to consider the impact the projects they approve would have on the communities in which they are built. The move will likely stem the growth in anti-FERC protests, now that those communities will have an official channel to make their voices heard.
FINANCIAL SERVICES SECTOR
What We Are Watching:
EXPANDED POWER: The SEC will give more power to its staff to launch investigations, indicating that it will play a more assertive role under the Biden Administration. This move will permit senior officials to subpoena companies and individuals for records or testimony.
CFPB PROBE: The CFPB began a probe into the way Venmo, which is operated by PayPal, treats customers who the company says owe it money for transactions that went awry.
CLIMATE HUB AT TREASURY: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is considering picking Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former Federal Reserve Board member, to lead a “hub” at Treasury to oversee its climate change financial policies.
The House Financial Services Committee will convene for a virtual hearing called, “Game Stopped? Who Wins and Loses When Short Sellers, Social Media, and Retail Investors Collide” to discuss the market volatility driven by the trading of GameStop on Reddit.
Brookings is hosting an event to discuss ways to improve any new rounds of COVID relief direct payments entitled, “Economic impact payments: Uses, payment methods, and costs to recipients”.
Wall Street continues to be under the government’s microscope as the Biden Administration expands investigative powers of the SEC, while the House gears up to take on Robinhood, and Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) continue to announce ways to enhance financial regulations.
What We Are Watching:
SENATORS URGE SEC TO REFORM INSIDER TRADING RULE, CITE HEALTH CARE INDUSTRY: On Friday, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Members of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, sent a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requesting that the agency reform policies regarding 10b5-1 plans, which are designed to prevent insider trading, following new evidence suggesting corporate executives may be abusing 10b5-1 plans to increase their own profits. The letter notes that Pfizer executives used 10b5-1 plans to sell off shares following the announcement of positive COVID-19 vaccine trial results. Reportedly, CEO Albert Bourla sold more than 60% of his personal shares in the company under the plan, valued at about $5.6 million.
SENATE DEMS URGE LAWMAKERS TO IMPROVE DATA REPORTING REQUIREMENTS FOR CARE FACILITIES: On Wednesday, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), House Committee on Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), and Congresswoman Katie Porter (D-CA) sent a letter to Senate and House Democratic leadership asking them to prioritize the improvement of data reporting requirements for assisted living facilities, residential behavioral health facilities, and other congregate care settings as part of future COVID-19 relief efforts. Notably, the lawmakers asked that provisions from the Assisted Living Facility Coronavirus Reporting Act, introduced to the 116th Congress to address gaps in COVID-19 data reporting at assisted living facilities, be included in a future legislative package.
SELECT SUBCOMMITTEE ON THE CORONAVIRUS REUPS REQUEST FOR EVIDENCE THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION POLITICALLY INTERFERED WITH THE NATION’S COVID-19 RESPONSE: On Monday, Chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis Jim Clyburn (D-SC-6) sent letters to White House Chief of Staff Ronald Klain and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Acting Secretary Norris Cochran, renewing the Select Subcommittee’s investigation into political interference by the Trump Administration in the federal response to COVID-19. The letters point to evidence recently obtained by the Select Subcommittee that notes the Trump Administration refused to cooperate with the Select Subcommittee’s inquiries, as the White House and other federal agencies blocked the release of documents and the availability of witnesses related to the review of the potential politicization of public health information, testing and supply shortages, vaccine development and distribution, and other critical aspects of government’s COVID-19 response.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ-6) and House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairwoman Diana DeGette (D-CO-1) announced that the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee has invited officials from five health care manufacturers engaged in producing and developing COVID-19 vaccines to testify at a hearing on Tuesday, February 23. Officials from AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Novavax, and Pfizer have been invited to testify remotely at the hearing.
This week, as part of the development of a COVID-19 relief package moving through Congress, House Democrats included a provision in the bill that would expand ACA subsidies — a key piece of President Joe Biden’s healthcare agenda that Congressional Democrats hope to enact into law in the coming weeks.
Additionally, the Biden Administration’s U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) changed the federal government’s position in the U.S. Supreme Court’s case regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA’s) individual mandate, arguing that they believe the individual mandate is constitutional. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a final decision on the case in late spring or summer. Congress will closely monitor health insurer actions surrounding the high court’s decision, particularly if the court rules that pre-existing conditions protections are invalid.
President Biden is expected to request $4 billion in pandemic relief to build two vaccine manufacturing plants. The plans would produce and fill 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses per month. The request would be part of the President’s $83 billion request to ramp-up Americans access to and production of COVID-19 resources. The proposal faces Republican criticism, as GOP lawmakers call for more limited COVID-19 funding.
What We Are Watching:
HOUSE DEMOCRATS MOVE ON AIRLINE RELIEF: On Thursday, the House Financial Services Committee approved $75 billion in economic relief for housing, small businesses, and airline workers. The language includes a $15 billion injection of relief funds for the Payroll Support Program to help the airline industry avoid layoffs and furloughs. The House is expected to pass the complete COVID-19 relief package before the end of the month.
LET’S BUILD SOMETHING TOGETHER: President Biden met with Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) and Ranking Member Shelley Moore Capito (D-WV) to discuss infrastructure legislation. A day before the meeting, Chairman Carper announced his committee would markup a surface transportation reauthorization package by the end of May 2021. Chairman Carper indicated the infrastructure package would include a “strong climate” title that will likely regulate emissions standards and invest in renewable energy sources.
AVIATION INDUSTRY PUSHING BACK ON TESTING MANDATE: Trade associations representing the commercial aviation industry are lobbying Congress and the Biden Administration to hold off on mandatory COVID-19 testing for passengers on domestic flights. A coalition of organizations that includes the Aerospace Industries Association, Airlines for America, International Air Transport Association, and U.S. Travel Association published a paper that argues a testing mandate for domestic flights is not “Scalable, feasible or effective,” would require a 42 percent increase in U.S. daily testing capacity, and would add a sizeable compliance cost to an industry already facing a financial tailspin.
REGAN CONFIRMATION: It is unclear when the Senate floor will resume final confirmation of President Biden’s cabinet appointees. If the impeachment trial of President Trump is wrapped up soon, the Senate may deliver the final vote to confirm Environmental Protection Agency Administrator nominee Michael Regan before the end of next week.
SENATE APPROPRIATIONS ANNOUNCES SUBCOMMITTEES: On Friday, Senate Democrats announced the Chairs of the Appropriations Subcommittees. The announcement revealed Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) would assume the gavel for the Subcommittee on Defense. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) had seniority on the Subcommittee but he relinquished the gavel to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee. In addition, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) also assumed the role as top Democrat on the Subcommittee for Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.
TECH, MEDIA & TELECOM SECTOR
What We Are Watching:
TIK TOK OUT OF THE WOODS, FOR NOW: The Biden administration asked a federal judge this week to pause litigation over a ban on the Chinese-owned video-sharing app that was pursued by former president Donald Trump. The government “plans to conduct an evaluation of the underlying record justifying those prohibitions,” the administration said in a court filing on Wednesday.
SOCIAL MEDIA’S ROLE IN RADICALIZATION: In a poll of Americans taken between January 28-31, 44% of respondents strongly agreed and 41% somewhat agreed with the statement that social media “has played a role in radicalizing people,” with 71% of respondents said the federal government should impose stronger regulation on social media platforms.
THE $81 BILLION AUCTION FAIL?: Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt argued in an op-ed published by the Financial Times that the FCC’s C-Band auction, where companies like Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile bid on spectrum valuable for 5G and the U.S. Treasury netted $81 billion was actually a fail as the high costs could hamper U.S. efforts to win the 5G race. “The outcomes are predictable,” writes Schmidt. “Americans will face higher prices and weaker digital services — yesterday’s internet tomorrow.”
The House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee will hold a hearing on Wednesday, February 17 at 11:00 am to discuss “Connecting America: Broadband Solutions to Pandemic Problems.”
NET NEUTRALITY… FOR EVERYONE: While everyone expects Title II net neutrality regulation to be revisited under a Biden presidency and Democratic majority, a broader take on the regulation could take many by surprise. At an event this week, Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr suggested action should be taken against companies like Google and Apple. While rules on content blocking is at the heart of net neutrality, previous iterations have centered around internet service providers controlling bandwidth, not restricting select content (e.g. taking action against President Trump). Carr’s comments suggest Republicans may use net neutrality as the newest battleground for tackling content moderation and treating internet companies more like public utilities.
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