NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — CONGRESSIONAL CHAOS CONTINUES INTO OCTOBER WITH STOPGAP BUDGET PASSED BUT DEBT CEILING FIGHT LEFT UNRESOLVED ALONG WITH PRESIDENT BIDEN’S LEGISLATIVE AGENDA; UPDATES ON THE PANDEMIC INCLUDING THE VIRUS, VACCINATIONS, BOOSTERS, MANDATES AND MORE; MAKING THE APPOINTMENT; NOTED SUPREME COURT ANALYST KEN JOST JOINS INSIDE POLITICS AS A NEW COURT TERM BEGINS; THE NEXT TWO WEEKS
CONGRESSIONAL CHAOS CONTINUES INTO OCTOBER WITH STOPGAP BUDGET PASSED BUT DEBT CEILING FIGHT LEFT UNRESOLVED ALONG WITH PRESIDENT BIDEN’S LEGISLATIVE AGENDA
As a new month begins, most of the very serious challenges facing our lawmakers in Congress remain unresolved.
A government shutdown was averted temporarily on Thursday, when our elected leaders finally quit playing political games of “gotcha” and “chicken.” But the new government spending plan (a continuing resolution to fund the status quo) expires in December, meaning we may get to endure another round of this foolish during the holiday season.
Another, now more immediate challenge, looms ominously ahead later this month (October 18). Much like the battle over the budget, the fight over the debt limit is one our lawmakers have faced several times in recent years. It has become a political football. The U.S. has never defaulted on paying its existing debt, and everyone on Capitol Hill says it won’t happen in 2021 either. But there is a feeling, we may be closer than ever to a default happening, a development which would have a devastating impact on our nation’s, and the world’s, economy.
The partisan disagreement driving this impasse is Republican refusal to vote for any increase or suspension of the debt limit. They point out the Democrats are in control, and therefore they should use the budget reconciliation process to address the issue, especially as Democrats are seeking to add to the debt with two new multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure spending bills.
Democrats dispute that and say the Republicans have a duty to be involved, especially since a significant part of the latest debt came from the tax cuts the GOP approved under President Trump.
Nobody seems to be talking about how this debt limit matter gets resolved. It may be that won’t happen until Democrats find (or fail) to find a way to agree on the size and funding of their larger $3.5 trillion dollar infrastructure bill. That is being pushed by Democrats using the reconciliation process, so it doesn’t need (or will receive) any GOP support to pass. But passage will need almost unanimous support (especially in the Senate) from every Democratic lawmaker.
Right now, they don’t have it, with the growing friction between moderates and progressives threatening the passage in the House of the smaller $1.1 trillion “bricks and mortar” infrastructure plan. That bi-partisan bill has already passed the Senate with 19 GOP votes, but it may not be going anywhere if a unanimous agreement isn’t reached among Senate Democrats, including
Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kystin Sinema of Arizona. Both want the larger infrastructure bill cut in size, but they have been reluctant to say what to cut or how large a bill they can support. That makes it hard to negotiate.
On Thursday, Senator Machin disclosed his top-line number ($1.5 trillion) which makes reaching an agreement still more difficult. Machin says he has supported no more than $1.5 trillion for the social service infrastructure bill and told Senate Democratic leaders that months ago. But Machin, Sinema and all 50 Democrats in the Senate also agreed some months back to a framework for the larger bill with a price tag of $3.5 trillion.
In wake of Progressive Democrats in the House threatening to kill the bricks and mortar bill without a deal and approval of the larger infrastructure measure first, Speaker Nancy Pelosi twice this week deferred votes on the House floor on the smaller Senate-passed bill. The Madame Speaker has a well- earned reputation for being able to get difficult bills passed. She also says she never takes a bill to a vote unless she knows she has the votes. With the Speaker in her final two-year term as Speaker, can she unite the Democrats in both houses to pull out a seeming miracle to pass both bills and save President Biden’s legislative agenda and legacy?
Here is where the situation stands as I file this column around noon on Friday.
UPDATES ON THE PANDEMIC INCLUDING THE VIRUS, VACCINATIONS, BOOSTERS, MANDATES AND MORE
It appears the projections, released in recent days, that the latest COVID-19 surge, with its Delta variant, is declining, are coming true. Cases and hospitalizations are continuing to go down nationwide.
As has happened with all the other virus surges, the last thing to decline is deaths. Nationally, there have been close to 2,000 deaths per day recently.
But it appears even that grim number may start declining soon.
The decrease in deaths so far has not materialized in Tennessee with the state now recording over 15,000 deaths since the pandemic started in March, 2020.Nashville is now over at over 1,000 deaths while Shelby County (Memphis) has suffered the largest loss of life from COVID-19 at nearly 3,000 persons.
In the area of vaccinations, there indications that this summer the disparity between different racial and ethnic groups is narrowing in getting their shots. In fact, Hispanics now have a better participation rate than white adults.
Vaccine usage among African Americans is also increasing, although problems persist with access and misinformation.
In the area of misinformation, there was a major crackdown this week by You Tube.
At the same time, the increased use and misinformation surrounding the antiparasitic drug ivermectin’s ability to treat COVID-19 has caused a series of national problems.
Another COVID-19 remedy that has been popular in Tennessee is monoclonal antibody treatment. It seemed likely to be rationed, because it was said to be in a short supply across the country. However, this week it was announced that due declining virus cases there is suddenly no longer a supply issue.
That gets state officials off the hook because it was vaccinated persons, who had contracted a breakthrough case, who were going to be cut off from monoclonal therapy, with the unvaccinated still receiving the medication when they got sick. It was a proposal that was getting a lot of criticism as being unfair to those who did the right thing in getting their shots.
Presently 65% of Americans over 12 years of age have one dose of the vaccine and 55% are fully vaccinated, but that still leaves 70 million adults (20% of the country) without any shots. That led to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make another strong plea to pregnant women to get their shots, trying to cut through misinformation and mixed messages.
As for booster shots, over 4 million Americans have already received one. They are available to those who are 6 months past their first two shots, are over 65, have pre-existing conditions, or work in jobs with a high risk of exposure to the virus. The shots are also supposed to be available only to those who got their first two shots from Pfizer. But that is not what is happening. People who want a booster shot, can get it, usually with few or no questions asked.
As for vaccine mandates, they continue to be challenged in the courts, but so far with limited success from stopping such efforts. After all, vaccine mandates in America history go as far back as George Washington and Revolutionary War.
There are signs that in several cities, including Nashville, some of these vaccine mandates are getting very strong participation but not without pushback and controversy.
As for the mask wars in Tennessee schools, the court fight continues even as Governor Bill Lee’s executive order, requiring a parental opt-out for those who wish to exempt their children, has been temporarily thrown out by three different federal judges in Tennessee.
The executive order is set to expire in a few days, but Thursday the Governor said he is extending it to pursue the issue in courts. That was actually no surprise as Tennessee’s Attorney General stole some of the Governor’s thunder earlier in the week by announcing he would file an appeal. If the Governor’s order had expired, the issue and any appeal would have become moot.
By the way, there is another survey from the Centers for Disease Control where Tennessee leads the nation. This fall school term, Tennessee leads the country in the number of schools closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
The issue of mask mandates in all indoor public places also comes up again this Tuesday before Nashville’s Metro Council. The 40-member body has approved the measure twice, despite the Metro Health Board saying it wasn’t needed, and focusing on increasing vaccinations would be better.
The mask mandate will again need a 21-vote majority for final approval Tuesday. With virus cases and hospitalizations declining in the last two weeks, will bill sponsors be able to hold their support? At least one At-Large Councilmember (Bob Mendes), who voted for the measure two weeks ago, has expressed doubt the bill would pass if cases trended down as they have. Will he be right? Or will Mayor John Cooper have a decision to make between signing the mandate bill or vetoing it?
Nationally this week, there was another ominous report out of Washington on the impact of the pandemic and social unrest during 2020. While some categories of violent crime decreased and all categories of violence remain below their peaks back in the 1990s, , the murder rate skyrocketed at an unprecedented annual rate of nearly 30% with gun violence leading the way!
Here in Nashville, tough questions were raised this week in a series of reports by NEWSCHANNEL5 Chief Investigative Reporter Phil Williams. The stories concerned whether a local community group, Gideon’s Army, who received a $1 million dollar contract to help Metro Police reduce violent crime in a portion of North Nashville exaggerates its success.
Other reports in the series also raised questions about the involvement of Gideon’s Army leaders in shoot out and some of their media posts. You can access all the related stories here.
How will the Metro Council react, especially at budget hearings next spring, when the time comes to continue the contract with Gideon’s Army?
Problems with the plethora of tourist entertainment buses, and all manner of other related vehicles in downtown Nashville, began well before the pandemic, but it has definitely gotten to be a much bigger issue in recent weeks. The Metro Council is set to consider Tuesday night a major overhaul of the city’s oversight board and the rules and regulations that govern the tourist transportation industry.
While it appears a state law greatly limits what Metro can do, 28 councilmembers, or more than 2/3 of the body are now sponsors of the bill, so approval seems likely. Possibly making passage even more likely is a public push being mounted by students at Metro’s Hume Fogg Magnet High School who have to deal with what they say are the issues the entertainment vehicles create while they are in school trying to learn.
Since the Tennessee General Assembly spent a good bit of time and approved a significant amount of money during its last special session, to fight learning loss due to the pandemic, maybe our elected state leaders ought to take the time to meet with these Nashville students to help them deal with the learning loss they say they are suffering due to these downtown tourist transportation vehicles.
Speaking of the General Assembly and special sessions, Governor Bill Lee is calling another one on for lawmakers on October 18. The meeting will be to consider the state’s assistance to help with the largest single economic investment ever made in Tennessee. It was announced this week the Ford Motor Company will build a $5.6 billion electric car manufacturing facility along with a battery production plant on the state’s mega industrial site near Memphis. The development will create approximately 5,800 jobs.
When lawmakers return, they will find another of their members in serious legal trouble. Memphis State Senator Katrina Robinson has been convicted of four counts of wire fraud. Will she resign as Lt. Governor and Speaker of the Senate Randy McNally is urging her to do?
Getting back to the upcoming special session, while the state has done well in attracting major investments and good jobs during the pandemic, this Ford project is an especially big coup for several reasons. First, after a decade of marketing and investing millions of state dollars, this Ford investment makes the Memphis mega site viable. It also solidifies Tennessee’s status as a national and world leader in the quickly emerging electric car manufacturing and technology industry.
Yes, a record level of investment will mean a record $500 million incentive package from the state to Ford to help the project move ahead. It appears none of what is being offered is new or a one- of a kind incentive. It is just more of what the state offers in other large investments such as workforce training, etc. The Tennessee Valley Authority is also expected to offer major infrastructure incentives to Ford.
Given all this, it appears the approval of the state package will pass without much opposition based on the early and positive reaction from lawmakers.
By the way, the call for the Governor’ call for the special session does not open the door for lawmakers to get into debating any new COVID-19 protocol restrictions such as masks or vaccine mandates or defunding the state’s independent health departments in the larger counties.
There was another notable corporate relocation announced late this week. Smith & Wesson is the latest gun manufacturer moving its HQ to Tennessee (Blount County) because our gun laws are perceived by the company as more favorable to their business.
MAKING THE APPOINTMENTS
The administration of Mayor John Cooper has been committed to increasing the diversity on the city’s many volunteer boards and commissions which oversee many key agencies and departments.
The Council wants more diversity on those governing bodies as well, even they have disagreed with the Mayor over a position on the Fair Board, the seat still remains vacant months after the debate began. In fact the impasse has continued because the time for the Mayor to act has expired and the appointment power has passed on to Vice Mayor Jim Schulman who has seen two of his nominees fail to receive Council confirmation.
Such situations on board appointments have been rare in the 58- year history of Metro government. But this week came stunning news out of the Mayor’s office in a story in THE TENNESSEAN. The Cooper administration has failed to make 17 board and commission nominations since taking office. A mayoral spokesperson blames the failure on distractions caused by the extraordinary challenges facing the city with the pandemic, an economic shutdown, floods, tornadoes and on and on. Vice Mayor Schulman says he does not have the staff to identify and vet the people required to meet this unprecedented volume of appointments that now falls to him to make.
Maybe it is purely by coincidence, but Tuesday’s Council agenda has the largest number of Metro board and commission appointments I have ever seen in the nearly 50 years I have covered and observed city government. There are close to 20 nominees overall with 9 of the appointments on the Mechanical, Plumbing, and Electrical Examiners Appeals Board alone. Not all of those before the Council are mayoral nominations. The Council nominates, appoints, or elects some positions to boards on their own, even with council members themselves being selected by law.
One late addition to the Tuesday agenda, the mayoral nomination for the Council to confirm a new Finance Director for the city, Ms. Kelly Flannery.
NOTED SUPREME COURT ANALYST KEN JOST JOINS INSIDE POLITICS AS A NEW COURT TERM BEGINS
The first Monday in October is always an important day in our nation’s government and politics.
In 2021, that first Monday is next Monday, October 4, as the U.S. Supreme Court begins its annual term.
It appears the months ahead could well be among the most controversial and historic in the Court’s history, particularly surrounding abortion and guns right issues cases before the Justices.
To bring us his insights and wisdom about what lies ahead, we are pleased to once again welcome to INSIDE POLITICS, Ken Jost, one of the country’s leading analysts of the High Court.
We thank Ken for joining us.
It is always an honor to have him to inform our viewers in a city where he began his journalistic career at THE TENNESSEAN.
By the way, Ken joined us within moments after it was announced Justice Kavanaugh had tested positive for COVID-19, so he won’t be present when the Court convenes on Monday. All 9 Justices have been fully vaccinated.
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THE NEXT TWO WEEKS
For the next two Fridays (October 8 and 15) I will again be busy catching up on things the pandemic didn’t allow me to do last year.
Look my next CAPITOL VIEW column on October 22.
There will be a new INSIDE POLITICS show to air the weekend of October 8-9. Vanderbilt history and political science professor Dr. Thomas Schwartz will join us again to discuss where President Joe Biden stands in implementing his legislative agenda and where he and Congressional Democrats stand in defying political history and maintaining their slim majorities in both houses on the Hill. The President’s recent challenges from the virus along with foreign policy controversies and his fall in recent public opinion polls, will also a be focus of our conversation.