The US House of Representatives today passed the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2021 (House Resolution (HR) 3755) permitting health care professionals to provide abortions, by a vote of 218 to 211.
The bill, introduced in June by Rep. Judy Chu (D-27-Calif.), effectively codifies the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in legislation by making abortion legal nationally.
All of Southwest Florida’s congressional representatives voted against measure, along with the rest of the Republican caucus.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-28-Texas) was the only Democrat to break ranks and vote against the bill.
“Today, Nancy Pelosi is bringing the most radical pro-abortion legislation ever for a vote,” tweeted Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), who has long characterized himself as anti-abortion. “This indefensible bill would remove every protection for the unborn and would allow taxpayer-funded abortions up until birth. I’m proudly standing for life and voting NO.”
As of this writing, neither Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) nor Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) had issued statements explaining their votes.
House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) urged passage of the bill in a speech from the House floor.
“This is the first time…that we have a pro-choice Democratic [Majority] with a Democratic president,” she said. “And the timing could not be better, because of the assault that has been made on the constitutional rights of women in our country.”
She stated the Texas law effectively banning abortions “unleashes one of the most disturbing, unprecedented, far-reaching assaults on health care providers and on anyone who helps a woman in any way access an abortion, by creating a vigilante bounty system that will have a chilling effect on the provisions of any health care services. And what’s next? What’s next with these vigilantes and their bounty system?”
On Wednesday, Sept. 22, Florida state Rep. Webster Barnaby (R-27-Volusia County) introduced House Bill 167 in the Florida House of Representatives to follow Texas’ lead in restricting abortions.
HR 3755 now goes to the US Senate, where passage is uncertain.
Last week Southwest Florida’s congressmen were very vocal in condemning President Joe Biden and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. But they fell strangely silent on the issue of women’s choice when the Supreme Court let stand a Texas law effectively outlawing abortion.
Of the area’s three members of Congress, only Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), whose district covers Punta Gorda north to Venice, commented on the issue and did so indirectly.
When the chief executive officer of Whole Women’s Health, which bills itself as “a privately-owned, feminist healthcare management company” based in Austin, Texas, tweeted on Aug. 31 that the clinic would continue providing abortions right up until the moment the law went into effect, Steube responded on Twitter with a Biblical quotation from the prophet Jeremiah (1:5): “What about the child, who is living in the womb that is about to be murdered, is that not a loved one?”
(Editor’s note: Steube’s citation is not at all what the Old Testament passage states. In it the prophet Jeremiah says that God chose him to be a prophet before his birth. As stated in the King James version: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.”)
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), who represents the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island, has always advertised himself as “A Trump supporting, liberty loving, pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment black man,” so his position on choice is known. There were no key votes on choice-related bills since he took office on Jan. 3 of this year, so he remains unrated by Planned Parenthood Action Fund. As of this writing he had not commented on the Texas law on any platform.
“Many of us are still reeling from the attacks on one of our most basic civil rights—the right to decide if we are going to be a parent,” she stated. “For decades, Republicans and their far-right extremist allies have attacked women and tried everything they can to keep us from being able to control what happens to our lives and bodies.”
She continued: “My America does not impose forced birth on women and then attack them when they struggle to provide for their families. This isn’t about doing anything other than imposing the choice of fundamentalists on women, fundamentalists who don’t care about the consequences to the mother or the child. We are better than this, and now we must rise to the moment.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.), whose district goes from eastern Collier County to Hialeah in the east, has been in the House of Representatives since 2003. He has a 3 percent rating from Planned Parenthood Action Fund based on 31 votes. He too had not commented on the Texas law as of this writing.
His challenger, Democrat Adam Gentle, however, had a strong reaction.
“I am sick and tired of women’s health being a political, judicial football,” he told The Paradise Progressive. “Healthcare isn’t a sport. We must codify a woman’s right to choose into our federal law. We can and we must.”
So far there have been no publicly-available polls of attitudes toward abortion in Southwest Florida. But according to reporting on the website FiveThirtyEight, the US public largely opposes overturning the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, ensuring a woman’s right to choose.
In the article “Why Texas’s Abortion Law May Go Too Far For Most Americans,” senior writer Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux writes that “For decades, Americans have broadly opposed overturning Roe v. Wade — despite escalating attempts by anti-abortion advocates to turn public opinion against legal abortion.”
“The heartbeat bill was the thing that made them jump” into the Democratic Party column, according to Georgian resident Jen Jordan. (The law was ruled unconstitutional in 2020 and never took effect.)
The same could occur in Florida and nationally as the assault on women’s choice proceeds. “For better or worse, Americans’ views on when abortion should be legal will probably get a lot clearer,” writes Thomson-DeVeaux.
It will also be harder and harder for Southwest Florida representatives to maintain their silence.
New democracy index
FiveThirtyEight has also produced a new metric measuring the degree to which representatives and senators support democracy based on their congressional votes. Users can look up the actions of any member of Congress.
The article by Laura Bronner looks at two 2021 measures of commitment to democracy: a “bare bones” metric based on six votes “limited to basic requirements like free and, in theory, fair elections and other measures that help safeguard democracy.” A more expansive metric is based on 18 votes and “everything in the first category, but also includes bills that expand civil liberties and who has political power.” This is not based on party affiliation or support for Biden but on those specific votes.
Readers can look up their representatives and senators and see where they fall on the democratic spectrum.
It may not be a surprise, but all three of Southwest Florida’s representatives clock in at 0 percent for bare-bones support for democracy.
The more expansive definition yields different results, however. Diaz-Balart has a 31.6 percent rating while Donalds and Steube both voted for democratic measures only 5.3 percent of the time.
Not mentioned in the FiveThirtyEight article is that Donalds has been prominent and vocal in supporting Florida’s legislative efforts to restrict voting access and praised Georgia’s passage of its voter suppression law.
Florida’s two Republican senators yield very different results. Sen. Marco Rubio voted 50 percent of the time in favor of the six key bare-bones democratic measures and 42.9 percent in favor of the 18 more expansive measures. Sen. Rick Scott voted for 25 percent of the bare-bones measures and 28.6 percent in favor of the more expansive proposals.
Starting today Lee County students and teachers will be required to wear masks for the next 30 days, a mandate imposed by that county’s school superintendent, Kenneth Savage.
It comes after a judge’s ruling against the governor’s mask mandate ban and a tumultuous school board meeting at the School District of Lee County headquarters in Fort Myers on Monday, Aug. 30, that resulted in violence and arrests.
It’s just part of a changed landscape—biological, political and environmental—in Southwest Florida and around the nation following an awful August.
Might September be better? What are the prospects politically and environmentally?
It’s time to take a survey, or a “tour d’horizon,” to use a French military term, of the challenges likely to confront us in the month that now looms ahead. Forewarned is forearmed.
COVID and consequences
In August, COVID-19 and especially its Delta variant took the lives of 25,408 Americans, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. Of those, 4,900 were Floridians.
The change of the calendar will not alter the challenge of COVID. What is more, with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) executive order banning mask mandates having been overturned in court (although under appeal) the battle over school mask mandates will likely rage on.
A handful of significant local September dates loom as this situation proceeds.
Sept. 8: The Collier County Public School Board will hold its regularly monthly meeting. If a mask mandate has not already been imposed, the subject is likely to be discussed.
Sept. 14: The Lee County School Board will hold its regular monthly meeting and the mask mandate is likely to be debated again.
Sept. 30: Lee County public school officials and Board members will have to decide whether to renew the mandate.
Increasingly it appears that school authorities, simply cannot indulge and accommodate anti-mask and anti-vaxx parents and activists. With the danger to school-age children clear and present, mandates are being imposed by necessity regardless of the opposition by anti-mask parents—and the governor.
Another September date has significance beyond just Southwest Florida schools:
Sept. 20: Vaccination booster shots are expected to become widely available.
Climate and consequences
September is the most active month for hurricanes and tropical storms. Louisiana and the western Gulf coast are still digging out from Hurricane Ida and will be for months.
To date Florida has been spared the worst of the weather but there’s no telling if that will hold. It has been a very active Atlantic hurricane season.
Politically, natural disasters tend to favor incumbents if they handle them well. Floridians—in the Southwest and throughout the state—should watch their state and local officials’ response if the worst happens here. Are they focused, responsive and credible when the storm approaches? Do they sound the alarm responsibly with sufficient time for residents to prepare and evacuate? When the storm passes do they take action to aid the afflicted and work effectively with other governments (state and federal) to assist impacted areas?
In addition to the threat of storms, this year there is a red tide bloom that appears to be drifting southward from Tampa Bay. As of this writing it was reaching northern Lee County beaches and barrier islands.
Will the tide reach further south in September? There’s little that residents can do to stop it but business owners, restauranteurs and tourism-based enterprises need to prepare to cope with a blooming September. Local officials and representatives can prepare now to assist Lee, Collier and Charlotte county businesses if they’re hurt by the bloom.
Congress and consequences
For the US Congress, September is going to be a jam-packed month.
President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan and a $3.5 trillion budget already passed in the House will be moving toward final approval.
As part of its efforts to clean up the environment and combat climate change, the infrastructure bill holds promise of resources for Southwest Florida.
Southwest Florida Reps. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) oppose both measures. Donalds, who sits on the House Budget Committee, was particularly vocal in his opposition.
Two larger elements will complicate all congressional deliberations.
One is the fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal. There is no doubt that the scenes of chaos and retreat will hurt Biden and impede passage of his domestic agenda. They have already created an opening for Republicans to attack him. Donalds and Steube joined a group of Republicans calling for Biden’s resignation, a publicity stunt that will go nowhere. (Interestingly, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) did not join the resignation movement.)
The other is the work of the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack. As it proceeds with its investigation and hearings it will throw a spotlight on the events of Jan. 6, 2021, former President Donald Trump’s role in it and the role of his congressional allies.
None of the Southwest Florida congressmen appear to have played significant parts in the insurrection and attack on the Capitol, so they’re unlikely to be in the spotlight as enablers or accomplices. However, the involvement of other Southwest Floridians could emerge as the investigation continues.
Analysis: A better September?
For Southwest Florida, which is so far both intellectually and physically from Afghanistan and Washington, DC, the single overriding issue going into September is surviving and containing COVID. It is literally a matter of life and death.
As COVID has taken its relentless toll, the intensity and volume of COVID-precaution opponents has grown louder and more emotional. Ironically, as COVID-deniers are less able to rely on reason or data to oppose mask mandates, COVID precautions or vaccinations, they’re dialing up the fury to compensate. Instead of logic, they’ve offered rage; instead of argument, they’ve offered rants; instead of masking, they’re infecting.
If it were only their own lives at risk they could take their chances without harming others but they can’t. In ten days of school, 600 cases of new COVID infections were reported in Collier County, according to the Naples Daily News. A Lee County school system dashboard showed 2,655 cases, according to NBC-2 News.
The soaring rates of infection and the obstinate and increasingly emotional refusal of so many local residents to accept simple precautions like masks or vaccinations make the area a COVID Delta hotspot. In addition to the tragedy of the people who are going to be killed or permanently impaired by the disease, the area’s national reputation as a dangerous location is going to grow.
That reputation will have real, on-the-ground implications for the area’s businesses, tourism and hospitality.
September is usually a time when full-time residents flee the area. The heat is hottest, the storms are most likely and tourist season hasn’t started yet, so streets, restaurants and shops are largely deserted. For businesses, though, it’s also a time to start preparing for season.
If, under DeSantis, COVID continues to ravage Florida and if Southwest Florida’s COVID-deniers continue making as much noise as they are, the attractiveness of the Paradise Coast is likely to precipitously decline as a tourist destination and a place to do business.
On top of that, the hostility toward immigrants and efforts to curtail immigration that were begun during the Trump administration are bearing fruit, manifesting themselves in the labor shortage the area’s businesses are experiencing.
Add to that the likelihood of a major red tide bloom, the result of the Piney Point mining waste stack being pumped into Tampa Bay in April.
As of right now, far from a better September, Southwest Florida seems headed for a perfect storm of COVID, climate and controversy that will combine to hurt the area going into 2022.
But Southwest Florida residents and their leaders have some options: If they ignore the naysayers and anti-vaxxers, get vaccinated and receive booster shots, they might just flatten the COVID curve and at least make the region less of a hotspot.
If officials and local governments acknowledge the reality of climate change—which they are increasingly doing—they can prepare for the storms and algal blooms that are part of life in Southwest Florida. Preparedness, resilience and realism can go a long way toward mitigating the worst impacts of environmental instability.
If Southwest Florida’s representatives in Tallahassee and Washington, DC cease acting like two-dimensional, rigid, ideological cartoons and instead work for the actual good of their people and the region, they may actually win the state and federal support and assistance that the area needs to cope with the challenges ahead.
It’s a tall order and a lot of ifs. But hope springs eternal.
The US House of Representatives is back in session and on Tuesday, Aug. 24, it passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 (House Resolution (HR) 4) by a vote of 219 to 212.
All of Southwest Florida’s representatives—Reps. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.)—voted against it.
According to the congressional summary: “This bill establishes new criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions must obtain preclearance before changes to voting practices may take effect. Preclearance is the process of receiving preapproval from the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the US District Court for the District of Columbia before making legal changes that would affect voting rights.”
In her weekly press conference, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) said the bill, named for the late Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights activist and icon, was necessary in light of widespread voter suppression efforts, especially those directed against minority voters.
“There are probably 20 laws – bills that had become law, that had been enacted, hundreds that had been introduced to suppress the vote,” she said. “Why? And then you just have to wonder: Why would they not want to make it easier for people to vote? Just because they want to suppress the vote among people of color, they are also suppressing the vote for everyone else by their, again, suppression of number of polling places, hours that are there, the list goes on and on.”
Donalds argued that HR 4 was a retread of the For the People Act of 2021 (HR 1), which passed the House in March. That bill, which he opposed, sought to ensure voting rights by expanding voter registration, guaranteeing voter access and limiting removing voters from rolls, all in response to state laws doing the opposite. It currently sits in the Senate awaiting action, which is unlikely.
“HR. 4 is HR. 1 (2.0), don’t be fooled,” Donalds tweeted on Tuesday. He argued that it would cancel “common-sense” voter identification requirements, updating of voter rolls, allow electioneering, would federalize election laws and would give the Department of Justice the power to veto state election laws.
Southwest Florida Reps. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) were two of only 62 members of the US House of Representatives to oppose passage of a bill today calling for aggressive investigation and prosecution of hate crimes, especially those against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) voted in favor of the bill.
The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act (Senate 937), passed the House by an overwhelming vote of 364 to 62. Support for the bill was heavily bipartisan, with all Democrats and 147 Republicans voting for it. The 62 opponents were all Republicans.
It passed the Senate on April 22 by a vote of 94 to 1, with only Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) opposing it. Both of Florida’s Republican senators, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, voted for it.
The bill now goes to President Joe Biden for signature.
The bill was prompted by a spate of blatant, unprovoked violent hate crimes against Asian Americans fueled in large part by President Donald Trump’s vitriol against China and Chinese during the worst months of the pandemic.
It calls for the Department of Justice (DoJ) to prioritize and expedite investigations of anti-AAPI hate crimes and to issue guidance to local and state law enforcement agencies to do the same. It provides for better data collection on hate crimes, improves education related to them and creates financial grants to raise awareness, prevent and respond to them.
The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act was introduced on March 23 by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “Today, Congress sends a powerful, united message that we stand in solidarity with the AAPI community as we confront an epidemic of racism and intolerance,” she stated following the House passage.
Neither Donalds, Steube nor Diaz-Balart issued statements explaining their votes in the immediate wake of the the bill’s passage.
Southwest Florida Democrats were elated by President Joe Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress last night, April 28, laying out a sweeping vision and comprehensive plans for national recovery and improvement.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans were less than thrilled.
“It’s so refreshing to have a president leading and serving the people, instead of fanning the flames of division and insurrection,” Cindy Banyai, Democratic candidate for Congress in the 19th Congressional District, observed in a message to The Paradise Progressive.
The address to Congress demonstrated the success of his first 100 days, which included administering 200 million vaccines, providing a needed economic stimulus and revealing a vision for the future, she said.
She particularly praised the unveiling of the American Families Plan to boost and support working families and the next generation.
“When we take care of kids, they can get on a meaningful path and we integrate more women into the workforce,” said Banyai. “Family leave, universal pre-kindergarten and access to community colleges just make sense for our economy. We must make these investments if we want to remain global economic leaders.”
She added: “I’d be remiss if I didn’t also say that I so was proud to have two women, Speaker Pelosi and Vice President Harris, on the dais behind President Biden during the joint address. I’m feeling so optimistic for the future of our country!”
Annisa Karim, chair of the Collier County Democratic Party, was similarly effusive. “President Biden made it clear that we must move forward together as a country,” she said. Moving forward, she pointed out, means investing in the future, making sure everyone is treated equally under the law and acting immediately on the climate crisis by leading development of alternative energy and training people for future jobs.
“I’m proud to have a President that cares for the people of this country and about how we interact with the global community,” she said. “Under President Biden, we can finally move forward together.”
Nationally, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.), who was seated on the dais behind Biden when he spoke, called the speech “a unifying message of resilience, resolve and hope.”
“As the President said,” she noted, “‘America is on the move again. Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength.’”
Unsurprisingly, Republican congressional representatives were dismissive.
Both Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) and Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), complained that Biden removed his mask to speak, which they argued violated rules against going unmasked on the House floor, and they vowed to go similarly unmasked in the future, risking a $5,000 fine.
Both also criticized the speech for paying insufficient attention to the southwest US border and the influx of migrants there.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) did not issue any comments regarding the speech.
Donalds tweeted his criticisms of the speech in real time. They largely followed Republican doctrine to date.
He attacked Biden’s infrastructure proposal: “The American Jobs Plan is a plan to spend trillions we don’t have on liberal policies we don’t need.”
When Biden called for major investment in American public education and teachers, Donalds tweeted: “You don’t improve the quality of education (or anything) by making it free. You improve quality through competition.” Donalds and his wife Erika have long been active in promoting charter and private schools. (See “Byron Donalds and the war against America’s schools.”)
When Biden said “My fellow Americans, trickle-down economics has never worked,” Donalds called it an outright falsehood: “Ok. That is a lie. Trickle down, supply side, or whatever you want to call it has always worked. It works far better than when politicians think they know better.”
Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) was similarly critical in a series of tweets:
“The Democrats’ ‘infrastructure’ package has nothing to do with real infrastructure. It’s an excuse to spend American taxpayer money on outrageous proposals related to climate change, supporting partisan unions, and increasing funding for schools that refuse to open.”
He also complained that the Biden administration was insufficiently hard on China and had emboldened Iran.
Nationally, House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-23-Calif.) tweeted: “This whole thing could have just been an email.”
Initial national public response to the speech was overwhelmingly favorable, according to polls conducted by CNN and CBS immediately after it was delivered.
On March 8, the amounts of funding being allocated to US states, counties and municipalities under the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan were released to the public by the US House Oversight Committee.
Among its many provisions, including the $1,400 checks to individuals and families, the American Rescue Plan is intended to help local governments hurt by the pandemic, the resulting economic slowdown and loss of revenue.
Florida is slated to receive $17.6 billion, of which $10.2 billion will be going to the state government.
When the Plan was being considered in Congress, Republicans vociferously resisted passage of the legislation, especially the provision assisting state, county and municipal governments. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has called on Florida’s governments to return the checks.
What follows below are the amounts being allocated to the various counties and local governments under the Plan, arranged by Southwest Florida’s congressional districts. Because congressional districts overlap county lines, each county is listed only once even though the districts may include pieces of different counties.
All of Southwest Florida’s representatives in Congress voted against the Plan.
19th Congressional District
Represented by Rep. Byron Donalds (R).
The 19th Congressional District covers the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island and includes the most heavily populated areas of Lee and Collier counties.
Donalds denounced the American Rescue Plan in the House Budget Committee and on the floor of the House, calling it “nothing more than a liberal wish list.”
Collier County: $74.65 million
Lee County: $149.45 million
Cities and towns
Bonita Springs: $25.06 million
Cape Coral: $26.87 million
Estero Village: $14.23 million
Everglades City: $.18 million
Fort Myers: $16 million
Fort Myers Beach: $2.98 million
Marco Island: $2.13 million
Naples: $9.28 million
Sanibel city: $3.11 million
25th Congressional District
Represented by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R).
The 25th Congressional District stretches from western Collier County east of the coast, includes all of Hendry County and a piece of northwestern Miami-Dade County.
Diaz-Balart called the American Rescue Plan “this fake COVID bill.”
Hendry County: $8.15 million
Miami-Dade County: $526.93 million
Collier County: (already listed)
Cities and towns
Clewiston: $3.37 million
Doral: $27.63 million
Hialeah: $70.61 million
LaBelle: $2.19 million
Immokalee is the largest population center in eastern Collier County. However, because it is an unincorporated community without a local government it is governed through Collier County and does not have a designated allocation.
17th Congressional District
Represented by Rep. Greg Steube (R).
The 17th Congressional District is a huge district of over 6,300 square miles stretching from eastern Tampa Bay to the northwestern shore of Lake Okeechobee. It includes all of Charlotte, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Highlands and Okeechobee counties, plus parts of Lee (northern Lehigh Acres), Polk and Sarasota counties. Municipalities include North Port, Punta Gorda, Venice, and Okeechobee.
Steube complained that with the Plan, “Democrats chose to turn our nation into a welfare state with more government handouts.”
Charlotte: $36.64 million
DeSoto: $7.37 million
Glades: $2.68 million
Hardee: $5.22 million
Highlands: $20.60 million
Okeechobee: $8.18 million
Lee (already provided)
Polk: $140.57 million
Sarasota: $84.12 million
Towns and cities
North Port: $29.72 million
Punta Gorda: $8.56 million
Venice: $10.08 million
Okeechobee: $2.44 million
Port Charlotte in Charlotte County is an unincorporated entity governed by the county and so has no specific allocation.
The folks who didn’t forget National Agriculture Day were politicians of all stripes who want to remain in the graces of the farming industry and its campaign contributions.
In Southwest Florida, a heavily agricultural area, all three of the region’s congressmen—Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.), Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), were careful to acknowledge National Agriculture Day on their Twitter feeds, the latter two adding bland bromides to the nation’s farmers.
But when it came to substance, they took very different—and very illuminating—actions.
The action in question was consideration of a bill this month that made fundamental changes to the way agriculture gets done in the United States.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021 (House Resolution (HR) 1603) was a sprawling bill that made fundamental changes to America’s agricultural workforce. It closed legal loopholes while maintaining a strong and healthy—and most of all, legal—labor force.
Among its many provisions, it created a Certified Agricultural Worker (CAW) status for farmworkers, effectively a guest worker program that was long needed. Farmworkers could apply, be verified and receive legal CAW status good for five and a half years, protecting them and their families from deportation, while weeding out people with criminal pasts. The existing H-2A visa status for foreign workers was improved to provide for better compliance by both workers and employers.
These changes would have a major impact on farmworkers in Southwest Florida, particularly in the heavily agricultural areas of Collier, Lee and Hendry counties. It provides a measure of legality and security for the many migrants from Mexico and Latin America while still assisting the growers.
According to Diaz-Balart, who was involved in formulating the bill, “my colleagues and I spent almost a year negotiating” and working on the bill, “painstakingly working out its provisions.” Diaz-Balart’s 25th district includes wide swaths of farmland across the interior of Florida and includes the town of Immokalee in Collier County, a center of the agricultural workforce population.
Diaz-Balart was one of the original cosponsors of the bill, which included 61 Republicans and Democrats. By the end of Democratic and Republican negotiations, what emerged was a “bipartisan, targeted labor solution [that] our agriculture industry needs. This removes opportunities to work illegally in the U.S., strengthens our border security, and ensures we have a reliable, legal workforce for our farms and ranches,” according to Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-4-Wash.).
Diaz-Balart hailed it as “a significant and necessary step once again toward finally solving the labor crisis facing our nation’s agriculture industry.”
In their interests
The bill’s provisions tightening legal eligibility to work in the United States and boosting enforcement of immigration status by the Department of Homeland Security should have delighted Rep. Byron Donalds.
Prior to his election to Congress last year Donalds represented the 80th Florida House District, which includes Immokalee and the agricultural areas around it, so he should be intimately familiar with its growers and workers and their needs. What is more, for weeks he had been hammering away at President Joe Biden’s administration for its handling of the migrant influx at the Southwest Border. HR 1603 addressed many of the legal problems at the destination end of that influx, reducing crime while maintaining the workforce Southwest Florida growers need.
Rep. Greg Steube too should have welcomed the bill. His sprawling district includes vast swaths of farmland stretching from the coast to Lake Okeechobee and includes Charlotte, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Highlands and Okeechobee counties, plus northern Lehigh Acres in Lee County. Steube, like Donalds, had taken every available opportunity to attack the Biden administration’s handling of cross-border migration.
HR 1603 was fully bipartisan and addressed longstanding concerns of both parties, providing the humane and orderly treatment of farm workers prized by Democrats as well as the legal procedures and immigration security emphasized by Republicans, all while protecting both growers and workers. It was the kind of bipartisan cooperation in the interests of getting something substantive done that people so often say they want to see in Congress. It also had major beneficial implications for Florida.
On March 18, HR 1603 came up for a vote in the House of Representatives. It passed by a vote of 247 to 174. Of that vote, 217 Democrats voted for it as well as 30 Republicans.
Among those Republicans was Diaz-Balart.
And Byron Donalds and Greg Steube…voted against it.
Neither one bothered to issue a statement explaining his vote.
The bill has now gone to the Senate. Given that it is largely flying under the media radar and it’s a strongly bipartisan bill, it has a relatively good chance of passage.
Both Donalds and Steube had a chance to benefit their districts, their state and the farms, businesses, workers and people they represent. But that would have involved casting a thoughtful, substantive, well-researched vote. It’s much easier to tweet hysterical attacks on border security, issue anti-immigrant broadsides and oppose any constructive compromises.
And, of course, both tweeted their celebrations of National Agriculture Day.
It should come as no surprise that Southwest Florida’s representatives in Congress have responded to Monday’s mass shooting in Colorado and last week’s shooting in Georgia mostly with silence.
Rep. Byron Donalds
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) retweeted a Boulder Police Department tribute to Officer Eric Talley, the policeman killed at the King Soopers market rampage. Donalds added: “Officer Talley embodied the spirit of a hero, and I pray his loved ones are comforted knowing he died a hero. Thank you to all the brave law enforcement officers who devote their lives to protecting communities across America.” He made no mention of the other victims, who were peacefully shopping when the shooting began.
Donalds was the only candidate of nine in his Republican primary to receive a full endorsement from the National Rifle Association (NRA). He touted his gun ownership in his campaign tagline (“I’m a strong, Trump-supporting, gun-owning, liberty-loving, pro-life, politically incorrect black man”).
Rep. Greg Steube
Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), whose district runs from Punta Gorda to Venice to Lake Okeechobee, had not issued any statement of any kind as of this writing. He has long been a vocal gun ownership advocate. Almost exactly a year ago he introduced the End the Normalized Delay of Suppressors (ENDS) Act (HR 6126) to try to force the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to more quickly grant permits for the purchase of gun silencers so that killing can be done quietly. The bill was not even considered in committee. He has called for carrying guns on the House floor.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.), whose district runs from western Collier County and Immokalee across the state to Hialeah in the east, has made no statement about the shootings as of this writing.
Having been in office since 2003, Diaz-Balart’s relationship with the gun violence issue is longer and more complex than that of his Southwest Florida colleagues. For most of his congressional career he was a reliable opponent of gun regulation, even to the point that former representative Gabby Giffords, a shooting survivor, publicly endorsed his Democratic opponent, Mary Barzee Flores, in 2018, after the killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
In 2019 Diaz-Balart bucked his party and the NRA and voted for the Bipartisan Background Checks Act. That bill required background checks for arms transfers between individuals, closing a major loophole in the gun trade. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate.
This year Diaz-Balart switched his vote and voted against the same bill when it was reintroduced. This time, he stated that while he still supported background checks, the bill was now too far left and was “an overly-partisan and extremist bill that fails to effectively address background checks and imposes measures that amount to clear government overreach.”
This year it passed the House on March 11 by a vote of 227 to 203 but its fate is uncertain in the Senate.
The past and the future
Given this record it was unsurprising that these representatives did not join the chorus of congressional lawmakers calling for new measures to curb the latest wave of American gun violence.
Theirs was not the reaction throughout Florida. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-22-Fla.), whose east coast district includes Parkland as well as Fort Lauderdale, where five people were killed in a random shooting at the airport in 2017, said that the Boulder shooting emphasized the need for action to curb gun violence.
“…That’s why we need to act,” he told CBS-4 television news in Miami. “And that’s why we can’t just shake our head and say that’s one more thing and move on and wait for the next one,”
Deutch serves as the chief whip on the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, a group of more than 165 members of Congress who work on gun violence issues. He’s long supported a ban on assault-style weapons and broader background checks on gun purchases, measures also advocated by President Joe Biden.
Commentary:The Southwest Florida reaction
Nationally, the reaction to the shootings has been horrified denunciation by officials and private groups and there is new movement in Congress to take action to curb gun violence.
On the gun-saturated southwest coast of Florida, politically, not only is there no apparent urgency, there’s certainly no inclination by any elected official to propose or support gun restraints and no evident political incentive for taking any action at all.
But while expecting any kind of local legislative effort seems beyond hope, what is striking in the current instance is the resounding silence and complete indifference by local public figures toward the victims, their relatives and the survivors.
To date Southwest Florida has been spared any mass shooting. But guns are plentiful and opposition to restraint is fierce.
So if you hear popping while you’re shopping, get down, stay away from the source of the noise or open areas, try to leave if it’s safe and follow all orders from police.
Remember: You’re on your own. At least until 2022 you won’t get any help from your representatives in Congress.
And your surviving relatives shouldn’t wait for any thoughts or prayers from them, either.