SWFL reps vote to deny mothers baby formula

The final vote in the House of Reprentatives to provide funding for baby formula funding. (Image: C-SPAN)

May 19, 2022 by David Silverberg

Southwest Florida’s congressional representatives voted last night to deny $28 million in funding for the emergency purchase of baby formula in the face of a nationwide shortage.

The bill, Infant Formula Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2022 (House Resolution 7790) passed the House of Representatives yesterday, May 18, at 9:36 pm by a vote of 231 to 192. All opponents were Republicans.

According to its official summary, the bill “provides appropriations for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to (1) address the current shortage of FDA-regulated infant formula and certain medical foods in the United States; and (2) prevent future shortages, including by taking the steps that are necessary to prevent fraudulent products from entering the US market.”

Reps. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) all opposed the bill.

“It is essential that we ensure the federal government has the resources it needs to get baby formula back on the shelves,” said House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) in a floor statement urging passage.  “And as the President said, we want to do it quickly but we do not – we must do it safely, and we must do it with caution, so not so fast as not to be safe.” 

As of this writing, Donalds had not issued a statement explaining his vote. However, on May 13 he charged in an interview with The Floridian that the baby formula crisis “blew up in Joe Biden’s face” and criticized the administration for seeking aid to Ukraine when there was a formula shortage.

In his statement explaining his vote, Diaz-Balart tweeted, “The American people will not be fooled. House Democratic Leadership’s legislation DOES ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to put more baby formula on store shelves, or hold the FDA accountable. Instead, all it does is wastefully increase big government socialist bureaucracy.”

Steube was similarly scornful in a tweet: “Record inflation, no baby formula, war in Ukraine, invasion on our southern border, record crime in our communities, and what have Democrats focused on this week? UFO Hearings! Democrats are literally using UFOs to distract the American people from their incompetence.”

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

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Florida Redistricting, Collier County and you

A presentation on new districts at the congressional, state and county levels made to the Collier County Democratic Party on May 11, 2022.

Hours before this scheduled presentation, Judge Layne Smith of Leon County, Fla., struck down the governor’s congressional redistricting map. The fate of Florida’s congressional districts remains undecided at this time.

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(c) 2022 by David Silverberg

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SWFL reps on Roe v. Wade leak; all have long-time anti-choice stances–Updated

Protesters gather outside the Supreme Court last night. (Photo: Reuters)

May 3, 2022 by David Silverberg

Updated 3:30 pm with statements from Rep. Byron Donalds, Cindy Banyai.

This story will be updated as more information and comment becomes available.

Southwest Florida’s elected representatives were slow to respond or comment on a draft Supreme Court opinion striking down the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

The draft opinion for the majority by Associate Justice Samuel Alito was made public by the news organization Politico at 8:32 pm last night. Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts confirmed its authenticity and announced an investigation to find the leaker.

In the opinion Alito argued that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences. And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division.” He calls for its complete overturn.

Of the region’s congressional delegation Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) was the first to comment on Twitter with three tweets starting at 7:41 am today.

“It is unfortunate that the news of the greatest victory for the Pro Life movement comes on the heels of one of the most profound breaches of trust the Court has ever seen,” he tweeted. “If the report is true, I am grateful that all of God’s children will now have a voice, and I am committed to ensuring that the leaker and their complicit partners in the media will be held accountable for their actions to the fullest extent,” he continued.

At 12:41 pm today Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), released a tweet and statement condemning the leak.

“Those liable for prematurely and irresponsibly unveiling this draft opinion have engaged in a historically dangerous political maneuver intended to intimidate Lady Justice and the Constitution that guides our Republic,” he tweeted.

In his formal statement he maintained that the leak was a crime and stated that America had fallen victim to “culture wars and clickbait journalism.”

In no statement, however, did he address the substance of overturning Roe v. Wade or a woman’s right to choose.

Cindy Banyai, a declared Democratic candidate for the 19th Congressional District, issued a statement saying “Conservative activist justices inappropriately appointed to the Supreme Court are about to send the United States back 50 years. The overturning of the right to medical privacy and abortion care should alarm all Americans.”

She continued: “I stand firmly in opposition to overturning the super precedent of Roe v. Wade. I believe people have the right to choose when and where to start a family. I believe people have a right to medical privacy and decisions about medical care should be made by a person and their medical practitioner, not pre-emptively made by the government.”

As of this writing Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) had not yet commented on any platform.

All of Southwest Florida’s Republican elected representatives ran on anti-choice platforms.

In his 2020 election bid, Donalds’ campaign tag line was: “I’m everything the fake news media says doesn’t exist: a Donald Trump-supporting, liberty-loving, pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment black man.”

All of Southwest Florida’s state elected officials voted in favor of Florida’s “Reducing Fetal and Infant Mortality” bill (House Bill 5), which was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on April 15. The law prohibits abortions after 15 weeks and makes no exceptions for rape or incest. It is slated to go into effect in July and will likely stand if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade before then.

Of Southwest Florida’s state senators, Kathleen Passidomo (R-28-Naples) has consistently held an anti-choice position, telling Florida Politics in September 2021 that while she opposed abortion she was also uncomfortable with provisions of Texas’ anti-abortion law encouraging civil litigation against those providing or seeking abortions.

“I am pro-life but I am not pro-telling on your neighbors,” she said in a speech to the Argus Foundation in Sarasota at that time.

State Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Fort Myers) reaffirmed his anti-abortion position to the Fort Myers Beach Observer in February.

Asked about Florida’s then-pending anti-abortion bill, Rodrigues told the Observer, “I hope it passes”—as indeed it did.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

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DeSantis congressional map largely leaves SWFL districts intact, splits Immokalee

An overview of the congressional district map being proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Map: Florida Redistricting)

April 19, 2022 by David Silverberg

Southwest Florida’s congressional district boundaries will experience only minor tweaks under the redistricting map (P000C0109) submitted by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), which is expected to be enacted under a special legislative session opening today.

A bitter fight has emerged over the disposition of the 5th Congressional District in the panhandle. DeSantis’ map would eliminate the district represented by Rep. Al Lawson (D-5-Fla.) by splitting it into two new districts, 2 and 3, that would likely vote Republican. Democrats are charging that through deliberate gerrymandering in this district and others, DeSantis is trying to wipe out Black representation in Florida. DeSantis has argued that his map is racially neutral.

Also, DeSantis’ map creates 20 Republican districts to Democrats’ eight, ensuring majority Republican representation in Congress for the next decade and favorably positioning him to take Florida’s Electoral College vote if he runs in 2024.

DeSantis vetoed the legislature’s proposed map and instead insisted on passage of his own, a very unusual move given that redistricting is usually in the legislative domain.

An earlier map proposed by DeSantis was very radical in its changes for Southwest Florida, making Lee County its own congressional district and significantly altering the 19th and 25th districts. The new map, submitted by J. Alex Kelly, DeSantis’ deputy chief of staff, is less sweeping for this region.

The DeSantis map, which is likely to be enacted, makes changes to the three districts that constitute Southwest Florida. Some changes are minor, others substantial. All have electoral implications but would remain majority Republican districts.

The new 19th

Changes to North Fort Myers (left arrow) and Lehigh Acres (right arrow), both of which move into the 17th District under the DeSantis map. Red lines denote existing district boundaries.

Changes to the 19th District, the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island, are relatively minor and the district keeps its existing number.

The DeSantis map takes a bit of territory out of North Fort Myers and moves it and all of Lehigh Acres into the 17th District. However, unlike other past proposed maps, minority neighborhoods in Fort Myers, like Dunbar, remain within the 19th.

In Collier County, the DeSantis 19th extends the district boundary to Rt. 75 and as far east as Santa Barbara Blvd. between Pine Ridge Rd. and Golden Gate Pkwy., so it now encompasses Village Walk, Livingston Walk, Wyndemere and parts of Golden Gate.

This change would put the home of Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) in the district. Until now he has been representing it while living in Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s district.

The Collier County portion of the DeSantis map. Red lines denote existing district boundaries. Blue lines are county borders.

The severed 17th

The DeSantis 17th, which splits the existing district into two. Red lines denote existing boundaries.

The 17th District, currently represented by Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) would be substantially reduced and under the DeSantis plan would extend roughly from the Lee County line north to Sarasota and would include sections of North Fort Myers and all of Lehigh Acres.

Much of the 17th’s former interior area—which is very lightly populated—would be transferred to a newly drawn 18th Congressional District, which would include DeSoto, Hardee, Highlands, Okeechobee, Glades and Hendry County and include part of the unincorporated Collier County town of Immokalee.

The renumbered 26th and the splitting of Immokalee

The new 26th District. Red lines denote existing boundaries.

The old 25th District represented by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart would now be renumbered the 26th and would lose largely unpopulated territory it formerly had in Hendry County. Its center of gravity would still be in the east in the Cuban-American stronghold of Hialeah.

Interestingly, the unincorporated town of Immokalee in Collier County, which was previously in Diaz-Balart’s district, would now be split down the middle between the 26th and the new 18th along North 15th St., and State Road 845.

The town of Immokalee, split down the middle between two congressional districts.

Analysis: The DeSantis implications

For Southwest Florida the most significant change from the DeSantis map is moving Donalds into the 19th District so he doesn’t have to change domiciles and he eliminates a potential electoral vulnerability. Otherwise, the racial, ethnic and partisan makeup of the region stays largely the same and favors the incumbents and the Republican Party.

The division of Immokalee is particularly unfortunate for that low-income community of roughly 20,000 people. The largely Hispanic town of mostly seasonal farmworkers was at the far edge of Diaz-Balart’s district but he would visit it occasionally and he requested $987,000 in federal earmarked funds for sidewalk and drainage improvements. Now, with it divided between districts, it’s likely to be neglected by both congresspeople in whose districts it falls.

The DeSantis map has raised vehement protests from Democrats and charges of racism since it eliminates districts with black representation in the north and around Orlando. Democrats are vowing to challenge it in court, which was exactly the outcome that Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Fort Myers) worked hard to avoid when he headed the state Senate Redistricting Committee.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

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Editorial: Rep. Byron Donalds has failed Southwest Florida and can’t be allowed to do it again

PBS reporter Lisa DeJardins interviews Rep. Byron Donalds on his refusal to request earmarks for his district. (Image: PBS Newshour)

March 16, 2022

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) has utterly failed the people of Southwest Florida. He has done this defiantly, deliberately and knowingly and will do it again if returned to office.

By refusing to request any earmarks from Congress when he could have done so, he deprived the people of Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Estero, Bonita Springs, Naples and Marco Island—the 19th Congressional District—of millions of dollars in improvements, resources and funding to which they and their communities were entirely entitled.

These people, like all Americans, pay their taxes. They have a right to get the benefits of what those taxes can buy. But Donalds, by his blind fanaticism and incompetence denied them those benefits. It is as though he reached into their pockets and stole their cash.

Getting these people, his constituents, their rightful benefits is his job. When everything else that comes with congressional office is stripped away, when all the titles are put aside and the campaign hoopla dies down and the media’s spotlights are turned off, a core function of a congressman is to get his constituents everything from the federal government to which they have a right.

In this, Rep. Byron Donalds has failed spectacularly.

It is not as though this is a man who doesn’t love money. He said so directly and brazenly when he went before the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) in Orlando: “Folks, I like money. Can we be honest about this? I like money!”

He loves money for himself, for sure. His fundraising is relentless and incessant. He loves the money from his corporate political action committees and has raised over $3 million for his 2022 campaign.

But when there was $1.5 trillion on the table for the benefit of Americans in their local communities, he refused to make even the slightest effort to get Southwest Florida what it was due. Indeed, he voted against the entire package.

His neighbor to the north wasn’t so shy: Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), a far right-wing conservative, requested $38 million in earmarks for the communities he represents. As a result, Lee County, among other recipients, stands to get $720,000 for managing a nature preserve.

His neighbor to the east wasn’t shy, either. Rep. Mario Diaz-Dalart (R-25-Fla.) submitted $12 million in earmark requests. Thanks to his efforts, Immokalee in Collier County will get badly needed sidewalks and Everglades City will get a new wastewater plant and pump station, finally repairing damage done by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

But the coastal communities of Southwest Florida in the 19th District will get nothing—nothing! Nada! Zip! Zilch! They will get nothing from the federal government to build resilience for climate change, nothing to make repairs to their infrastructure, nothing for improvements for their people in any way, shape or form.

All Byron Donalds had to do was ask. He was encouraged to ask. He had a clear and unambiguous way to ask. But he couldn’t be bothered.

As has been clear from the day he took office, Byron Donalds doesn’t care about his district. He doesn’t even live in its boundaries. On Election Day he can’t even vote for himself because the ballot he gets shows Diaz-Balart as his congressman.

For Donalds, the 19th District is nothing more than a stepping stone to higher office. His involvement in its affairs and the needs of its people has been halting and hesitant and only the result of outside prodding. In his weekly newsletters he counts his local activities under the heading “community engagement” as though drudgingly marking them off a checklist.

Instead, Donalds would rather play the cultural, ideological warrior. He’d rather slam President Joe Biden and Democrats than make any kind of constructive contribution. He’d rather disparage scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci than tend to the actual health and wellbeing of the people he represents. He’d rather take money from PACs than get Southwest Floridians the federal benefits they’re due. And he’d rather take the time to make endless rounds of fringe right-wing talk shows and bask in their hosts’ flattery and empty adulation than do the actual labor of working for his district and its constituents.

Surely, there were at least 10 worthy projects and priorities that Donalds could have submitted to Congress. Surely he could have asked for aid for the people whose homes were devastated by storms and tornadoes in Cape Coral. Surely, he could have gotten the City of Naples $900,000 to fix its sagging seawall. Surely there were new schools and roads that could have been built or repaired if he had the energy or imagination or willingness to just ask.

There’s no way to know how many millions of dollars Southwest Florida lost this year because of Donalds’ refusal to do his job—and this as the region comes out of the economic pain and damage caused by two years of pandemic.

This is not a culture war question. This is not part of the debate over wearing masks, or critical race theory or personal freedom. This is a clear, unambiguous, tangible issue of getting cold, hard cash and having enough of it to do what needs to be done.

But wait! There’s more!

Not only did Donalds refuse to submit earmarks this year because of his ideological blindness and rigidity but he will likely not submit them if he’s re-elected. In fact, it’s not certain that the opportunity to request earmarks will even present itself in the next Congress.

This may have been a once in a lifetime opportunity and he blew it.

For the sake of Southwest Florida, Donalds should not be returned to office for another term. If he is, he will doom Southwest Florida and the district he represents to perpetually lagging all the surrounding congressional districts—indeed, lagging the entire country—in getting its rightful and legitimate help from the federal government. He will turn the Paradise Coast into an eternal sucking swamp of expenses and needs without any aid from any outside agency.

The boundaries of the newly redistricted Florida have not yet been drawn; they’re hung up in litigation and contention between the governor and the legislature. It’s not clear that the 19th District will still be the 19th or where its lines will run by Election Day.

However, wherever the lines land, whatever the district that emerges, the people of Southwest Florida should be aware that Byron Donalds, if he runs for representative office, will not represent them effectively but will only represent himself.

What’s passed is past. But being forewarned is being forearmed for the future.

We sometimes forget that our elected representatives are our employees. As voters we hire them at election time, we pay their salaries with our taxes and when their contracts are up, we vote whether to renew them. They work for us.

Byron Donalds has not done his job. On November 8, his contract should not be renewed

* * *

To read full coverage of earmarks and Southwest Florida, see: “SWFL loses out on federal millions when Donalds won’t ask for cash.

Liberty lives in light

©2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate!

SWFL loses out on federal millions when Donalds won’t ask for cash

Diaz-Balart, Steube seek money for Everglades City, Immokalee, Lee County

President Joe Biden signs the Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2022 in the Indian Treaty Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus in Washington, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. (Photo: AP /Patrick Semansky)

March 16, 2022 by David Silverberg

Yesterday, March 15, President Joe Biden signed a $1.5 trillion spending bill covering government expenditures for the next fiscal year.

Ukraine will receive $13.6 billion. Billions of dollars will be provided for all federal agencies, public schools, healthcare, housing, child care, climate change, veterans, police and a host of other causes including specific projects in towns, counties and states across the country.

But amidst all this, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Estero, Bonita Springs, Naples and Marco Island won’t see a dime.

That’s because Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), whose district covers those towns, refused to request any money for them even though he had the opportunity and was encouraged to ask for it.

Such requests are called “earmarks.”

In contrast to Donalds, Southwest Florida’s other representatives energetically pursued the money available for their districts.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) requested nearly $12 million in earmarks for his district, the area roughly from Rt. 75 in the west to Hialeah in the east including Immokalee and Golden Gate in Collier County.

Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) requested nearly $38 million for projects in his district covering six counties including Charlotte and parts of three others, including Lee.

To fully appreciate and understand the consequences of Donalds’ refusal to request funding for his district, a brief explanation of the nature and history of earmarks is in order.

A quick primer on earmarks

When it comes to cattle and hogs, an “earmark” is a distinctive cut on an animal’s ear that designates it as some human’s personal property.

When it comes to budgeting and management, “earmark” means money set aside for a special purpose.

And when it comes to the Congress of the United States, an earmark is money intended for a specific use in a particular member’s state or district.

For years, congressional earmarks were in disrepute. Everyone made them but there were abuses, sometimes spectacular.

For example, in 2005, when Alaskans proposed a bridge between the town Ketchikan and tiny Gravina Island, the powerful Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) inserted a $225 million earmark to fund what came to be known as the “bridge to nowhere.” It was seen to be the most egregious example of pork barrel earmark spending. (The opposition was so strong that the bridge has not been built to this day.)

Many of the earmarks were made in the dead of night, slipped into enormous, must-pass appropriations bills at the last minute, without hearings or notice, using obscure or confusing language. Members didn’t have to identify themselves as requesting the earmarks or clearly state their purpose.

What was more, the possibility of their passing depended on the clout of the members seeking them. Powerful representatives or senators sitting on key committees had a much better chance of getting their earmarks included or approved than freshmen or back-benchers.

Yet for all the abuses and allegations of waste, earmarks played an important role in aiding local communities. Congressional representatives understood their local communities’ very specific needs and could seek funding to meet them.

Further, earmarks were a way for taxpayers to get a return for the taxes they paid. After all, taxes are not a one-way street. The taxpayer pays into a collective pot—in this case the federal treasury—but has a right to expect and receive government benefits and services in return. Earmarks made by a local representative were a way to get those benefits down to the grassroots. While the abuses got all the attention, many of the local needs were legitimate and pressing.

The abusive aspects of earmarks and the clamor against them led Congress to reform its earmark process beginning in 2007. In 2009 members of Congress had to post their earmark requests online along with a signed letter certifying that they and their immediate families had no direct financial interest in the earmark.

In the 2010 election, Republicans took control of the House and banned earmarks within their caucus. In 2011 President Barack Obama furthered the anti-earmark movement in his State of the Union address by threatening to veto any spending bill that contained earmarks. Then, in February of that year, earmarks were formally banned by the entire Congress.

Last year Congress lifted the ban on earmarks for the 2022 fiscal year. It started with Democrats recognizing the urgent and desperate needs of local communities as a result of the pandemic. The House and Senate appropriations committees invited members to make earmark requests. In the House, these earmarks were called “Community Project Funding” and in the Senate, “Congressionally-Directed Spending.”

To prevent abuses, new rules govern earmarks: They must be posted online, be searchable, fully explained, the members have to certify that they and their families have no financial interest in them, and members must provide evidence of community support for the project. From an administrative standpoint, for-profit entities can’t receive earmarks and members were limited to 10 requests. The overall percentage of earmarks in spending bills was limited. To further ensure compliance, all earmarks are audited by the Government Accountability Office.

The change to allowing earmarks again did not happen painlessly. Republicans in particular had to wrestle with the legacy of their anti-government spending creed. Almost exactly a year ago the Republican caucus held a vote that, unusually for them, was closed and secret. The result was a decision to bring back earmarks by a vote of 102 to 84.

And so earmarks have returned.

Earmarks and Southwest Florida

Few Republican members expressed as much torment in accepting earmarks as Rep. Greg Steube. In fact, so excruciating was the change for him that Steube was the poster child for Republican angst in a May 5, 2021 article on the subject called “GOP’s earmark schism evident in ‘earmark’ disclosures: The return of home-state projects has many Republicans pitching for funds,” in the congressional newspaper, Roll Call.

On March 10, 2021, Steube was a signatory to a Republican letter urging top Democrats not to bring back earmarks.

“Nothing epitomizes what is wrong with Washington more than pork-barrel spending in the form of congressional earmarks,” stated the letter, signed by 35 Republican representatives and senators.

Nonetheless, when earmarks were approved, Steube dug right in. In fact, so vigorous was his earmarking that he came up with 11 projects—one more than permitted—for his district. His requests were:

  • $720,000 for Lee County to implement best management practices at the Bob Janes Preserve Restoration Project (the reserve is a massive 5,620 acre nature preserve north of the Caloosahatchee River on a portion of the former Babcock Ranch);
  • $500,000 for the Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville to study shoreline erosion in Charlotte County;
  • $3.2 million for Charlotte County to convert 2,135 septic lots to sewer systems to reduce water pollution;
  • $3.5 million for North Port to build a child advocacy center;
  • $2 million for DeSoto County to use sewer rather than septic systems in new developments;
  • $1.5 million for the Florida Endowment Foundation for Florida’s Graduates in Flagler Beach to help at-risk youth;
  • $1 million for the Okeechobee Utility Authority to convert septic tanks to sewer systems on Treasure Island to reduce water pollution;
  • $1 million for Sarasota County to lower the risks of water delivery disruption to residents;
  • $2.5 million for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge sections of the Intracoastal Waterway;
  • $21 million for Charlotte County to widen Harborview Road;
  • $1 million for Sarasota County to widen the River Road Regional Interstate Connector.

A much more experienced legislator than the two-term Steube, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart was far less tormented by the notion of earmarks and celebrated passage of the spending bill.

“This year’s spending package is a tremendous win for our nation’s defense priorities and national security interests,” he stated when the bill passed. Praising the money spent on defense and $14 billion in aid to Ukraine, he noted: “Although not perfect, these bills are a huge win for Republicans who were successful in eliminating left-wing, radical policies while prioritizing funding to enhance our infrastructure, reinforce our military, strengthen our national security, bolster school safety initiatives, and support our nation’s veterans.”

Diaz-Balart was not shy in making his earmark requests:

  • $3 million for Everglades City to build a new wastewater plant;
  • $2 million for Everglades City to replace the Chokoloskee Master Pump Station;
  • $750,000 for Miami Dade County to install new sewer systems for Doral and Sweetwater;
  • $1 million for Miami-Dade County to extend water mains;
  • $987,000 for Collier County to build sidewalks and drainage in Immokalee;
  • $999,858 for Clewiston to improve portions of Ventura Avenue;
  • $500,000 for Hendry County to rehabilitate and improve the Harlem Academy;
  • $1.135 million for Florida International University in Miami to establish the Aquarius Coral Reef Observatory.

In the final bill, Diaz-Balart had something to crow about when his requests were granted:

“I am especially proud of the $5 million secured for much-needed infrastructure improvements to a wastewater treatment plant and master pump station in Everglades City and Chokoloskee, which were both damaged after Hurricane Irma,” he stated. “In addition to funding for infrastructure projects in Sweetwater, Doral, Immokalee, Clewiston, and Harlem.”

Donalds’ denial

Donalds chose not to submit any earmark requests. When asked by PBS Newshour’s Lisa DeJardins, why not, he replied: “We don’t have any money. Like, we are deficit-spending in Washington, DC.” When she pointed out that earmarks have a long history and have done good for communities, Donalds replied: “With all due respect to my colleagues who’ve been up there longer, I’m here now. And so my job isn’t to look at what has always happened.”

When the entire bill came up for a vote, Donalds voted against it.

Donalds was not the only Republican to eschew earmarks. Of 435 members of the House, 332 submitted earmark requests and 103 did not. (Interestingly, five of the seven freshmen members of the Republican “Freedom Force,” the conservative Republican answer to the Democratic “Squad,” of which Donalds was a founding member, requested earmarks. Only Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-20-Ind.) joined Donalds in not making any requests.)

The change to allow earmarks is not necessarily permanent and could be changed in the next Congress, so members who didn’t have their requests granted may not get a second chance to get funding in 2023.

(For commentary on Donalds’ refusal to seek funding for his district, see: “Editorial: Byron Donalds has failed Southwest Florida and can’t be allowed to do it again.”)

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate!

Putin’s pawns and the price of gas in Southwest Florida

Cars line up to get gas in South Fort Myers, Fla., following the ban on Russian oil. (Image: NBC2)

March 11, 2021 by David Silverberg

There’s nothing quite like an outside threat to bring Americans together. After Dec. 7, 1941 or Sept. 11, 2001, Americans rallied to the country’s defense and dropped their domestic differences.

The United States is not in a shooting war with Russia right now but it is certainly in a conflict. Only this time, there’s no give in partisanship and Republicans are maneuvering to take advantage of the situation with an eye to the November midterm elections—especially in Southwest Florida.

With its embargo on purchases of Russian oil the United States is turning to Venezuela as a potential supplier, easing its decades-long tensions with the South American country and its opposition to its president, Nicolas Maduro.

This has created howls of protest from Florida Republicans, who sense an opening to expand their appeal to Florida’s Hispanic community, especially Venezuelan-Americans.

Their efforts can particularly be seen in the actions and statements of two Southwest Florida congressmen: Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) and Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.).

While dealing with two dictators at the same time is certainly not a comfortable position for a democracy, at the same time their partisan attacks on the administration display some glaring inconsistencies.

The Doral gambit

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Rep. Byron Donalds

Maintaining an anti-Maduro drumbeat is especially important for Diaz-Balart whose district includes the city of Doral, whose population of nearly 76,000 is as much as 28 percent Venezuelan-American, many of them exiles and refugees from Venezuela’s socialist regime.  

This week, Diaz-Balart was early and adamant in his denunciations of a US rapprochement with Venezuela.

His most articulated and detailed attack came Wednesday, March 9 in a Miami Herald op-ed titled “Biden would be wrong to support the tyrant in Venezuela to fight the tyrant in Russia.”

“If the Biden administration agrees to weaken sanctions against the murderous and anti-American Maduro dictatorship, it would shamelessly betray the Venezuelan people and the cause of freedom, as well as the national security interests of the United States,” he wrote. “Instead, the United States must pursue a policy that puts American values first, rather than trading one type of blood oil for another.”

Noting the energy ties between the West and Russia, Diaz-Balart argued: “We must pursue a policy of ironclad sanctions that prioritizes U.S. national security interests, human rights and freedom, rather than securing a bad deal with a different devil.”

The same day Diaz-Balart and Donalds sent a letter to President Joe Biden and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm expressing their concerns about opening up relations with Maduro. They were joined by three other members: Carlos Gimenez (R-26-Fla.), Daniel Webster (R-11-Fla.) and Scott Franklin (R-15-Fla.). (Interestingly, Southwest Florida’s other member of Congress, Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), who does not have a significant Hispanic constituency in his district, was not included.)

Clearly intended for constituent consumption rather than any genuine policy impact, the letter was predictably accusatory and insulting.

“Since taking office, your administration has engaged in a relentless crusade against America’s energy infrastructure, killing jobs and making us more reliant on adversaries such as the Iranians, Russians, and yes, the evil Maduro regime,” it alleged. “We are concerned that your administration supports Maduro over Midland, the Kremlin over Colorado, and the Ayatollah over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).”

The letter calls the reaching out to Venezuela “a slap in the face to the half a million Venezuelans that call America home who fled his vicious and failed socialist nation” and calls the gas crunch a “mounting Green New Deal policy induced energy crisis at home.” Lastly it urges “complete reversal of your harmful energy and foreign affairs policies.”

Just days prior, Donalds had been demanding a cutoff of Russian oil imports: “This is a no-brainer BAN RUSSIAN IMPORTS NOW!” he tweeted on March 7.

Analysis: Inconsistency, illogic and insecurity

In their attacks Diaz-Balart and Donalds are simply following a larger Republican playbook that is just designed to score points against the Biden administration rather than seriously shape policy.

This strategy was exposed and neatly summarized by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank in a column titled: “Biden heeded Republicans’ pleas to ban Russian oil. Then they pounced.”

“For days, Republicans called for a ban on imports of Russian oil, a move that, while the right thing to do to counter Putin’s attack against Ukraine, would cause already high gas prices to rise even further,” wrote Milbank. “Biden did as Republicans wanted — and they responded by blaming his energy policies for spiking gas prices.”

He continued: “It’s not only that the charge is bogus — the current price of gas has virtually nothing to do with Biden’s energy policies — but that the Republican officials leveling it are sowing division at home and giving a rhetorical boost to the enemy at a perilous moment when national unity and sacrifice will be needed to prevail against Russia.”

Milbank didn’t focus on Diaz-Balart or Donalds but their particular attacks on the outreach to Venezuela after demanding a Russian oil cutoff while still lambasting the president for high oil prices, is in keeping with the overall Republican flight from logic. Milbank called it “a gusher of mendacity.”

“Blaming Biden for the spike in prices around Russia’s Ukraine invasion isn’t just false — it’s an assist to Putin that damages national security,” Milbank pointed out.

It’s also interesting to note that the stridency of Diaz-Balart’s and Donalds’ criticism of Biden seems to be in direct proportion to their lack of criticism of Putin and the invasion of Ukraine.

None of this should be surprising. After all, all Republican politicians including Diaz-Balart and Donalds are just pursuing short term electoral advantage rather than responsibly trying to help the country navigate between the shoals of plague, war and now a fuel famine. Still, at a time when Americans should be pulling together to face a common, unmistakable threat, their inconsistency and illogic is disheartening at the least. At worst it’s unpatriotic and gives aid and comfort to the enemy.

Or, as Milbank put it: “Fighting Russian aggression while avoiding World War III is hard enough. With Republicans acting in bad faith, it’s that much harder.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate!

SWFL Democrats, Republicans clash over Ukraine, State of the Union

Rep. Byron Donalds squirms between Reps. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene as they disrupt President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech last night. (Photo: Reuters)

March 2, 2022 by David Silverberg

In the wake of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address last night, Southwest Florida Democrats are making a point of supporting both Ukraine’s struggle for freedom and Biden’s agenda for the United States, while Republicans were critical.

“I’m so happy to have an American president who’s putting global leadership on the front burner and taking seriously threats like those from Russia,” said Cindy Banyai, Democratic candidate for Congress in the 19th Congressional District. “We need to stand strong for democracy in the face of tyranny,” she told The Paradise Progressive.

Annisa Karim, chair of the Collier County Democratic Executive Committee, was similarly effusive: “Making history by uttering the words, ‘Madame Speaker; Madam Vice-President,’ President Biden’s State of the Union Speech immediately reminded us that we’re under a new, clear, inclusive direction,” she stated to The Paradise Progressive

Biden’s “strong resolve in supporting Ukraine and showing that the US won’t back down to the likes of Putin once again repositions us in the globe as a leader and defender of democracy instead of a sycophant to oligarchy,” she stated. She lauded his Unity Agenda and Build Back Better plan.

“Ultimately, under the leadership of Joe Biden, the chamber looked to be more unified last night than in many years past,” she noted.  “Americans can be proud to, once again, have a President who cares for all the people in this country.”

The decorum of the chamber was a point noted by both Democrats. Both criticized the absence of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who told The Huffington Post that he wouldn’t attend because attendees were required to be COVID-free.

“I don’t have time to go take a COVID test today,” he said. “I only take a test if I’m sick.”

“While the President addressed the nation on the State of the Union, our sitting senator, Marco Rubio, failed to show up.  What a disgrace!” stated Karim.

“No one cares if Marco Rubio is at the State of the Union. But it’s very on brand for him to not show up for work,” tweeted Banyai.

Banyai was also critical of Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-3-Colo.). “We need leaders who follow the rules and don’t flout them on Twitter. If Rubio skipped because of the testing requirement, this chick should be thrown out!” tweeted Banyai about Boebert.

Boebert heckled Biden throughout the speech and yelled “13 of them!” as Biden was speaking about the cancerous effects of military fire pits on personnel, “that would put them in a flag-draped coffin.”  Boebert and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-14-Ga.) also unsuccessfully attempted to start a “build the wall!” chant in the chamber when Biden discussed border security.

Republican reaction

Unsurprisingly, the reaction of Southwest Florida Republican members of Congress was negative and dismissive of the speech and since the invasion of Ukraine their statements in support of the country’s resistance have been tepid.

The day after the speech, when Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee tweeted a question: “What was the most ridiculous lie that Joe Biden said last night during his speech?” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) tweeted in response: “Where’s the ‘All of the above’ option?”

On Ukraine, Donalds has mainly aimed his attacks at Biden rather than Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Feb. 22 he called Biden’s announcement of sanctions “disgraceful,” stating that while they might have been effective two months previously, they weren’t now and “Putin is happy Joe Biden is POTUS.”

Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) was more specific in his criticism of the speech, tweeting:

“Last night, Joe Biden rattled off a wish list of reckless spending:

  • -Tax Credits for Green New Deal initiatives
  • -Federalized Childcare
  • -Free Community College
  • -Mandated $15/hr minimum wage
  • -Taxpayer funded COVID-19 masks

But he failed to mention how much all this would cost!”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) was similarly critical, tweeting: “Last night, POTUS doubled down on his irresponsible, destructive policies that have fueled skyrocketing inflation, made America energy-dependent, undermined our defense, created an uncontrollable border crisis, and weakened our domestic and national security.”

During the State of the Union speech, as Biden recounted the measures he has taken against Russia to punish its invasion of Ukraine, Banyai tweeted simply: “We stand with Ukraine.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate!

Biden, Trump, Ukraine and Southwest Florida’s congressmen –Updated

President Donald Trump shares a laugh with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Kislyak, Russian ambassador to the United States, in the Oval Office on May 10, 2017. (Photo: TASS)

Feb. 21, 2022 by David Silverberg

–Updated Feb. 23 with new Donald Trump comments and additional images

As this is written, the world is on the brink of war. Russia could invade Ukraine at any moment.

But for all that, it’s worth standing back for a minute to compare the American response of President Joe Biden to the actions of former President Donald Trump.

Above all, the steps taken by the Biden administration to date have been rational, reasonable and sensible. The president has rallied and unified the allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin of the consequences of going to war against Ukraine and put in place the mechanisms to impose those consequences should war begin. He has exposed Russian plans for “false flag” operations and provocations aimed at sparking an invasion. His administration puts American concerns before the world in the United Nations. At the same time he has reached out to Putin and maintained a steady diplomatic dialogue to resolve differences peacefully while standing firm on core democratic and allied principles. He has kept the American public and the world informed of the state of play in a credible, truthful way. Most of all he has carefully and loyally advanced and defended the interests of the United States.

Contrast this to the irrationality, the unpredictability and the emotionality of Donald Trump. This was a man who divided and denigrated the NATO alliance. He was deferential to Putin to the point of subservience and hostile to longstanding allies. He was dismissive of the United Nations and world opinion. When it came to Ukraine, he saw it, not as a sovereign nation, but as little more than a source of dirt to attack his then-potential political rival. His interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were so improper and illegal he was impeached. He lied so constantly and repeatedly that nothing he said could be believed no matter how great the crisis. Worst of all he advanced Putin’s interests, he advanced his own interests, but he never substantively advanced or defended United States interests.

“All roads with you lead to Putin,” House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) memorably put it directly to Trump in a meeting in 2019.  

“All roads with you lead to Putin,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tells President Donald Trump on Oct. 16, 2019.

“You couldn’t get a sharper contrast,” between the presidents, Fiona Hill, the steely national security expert who testified against Trump during his impeachment hearings, told CNN in an interview. “There’s no Team America for Trump. Not once did I see him do anything to put America first. Not once. Not for a single second.”

But perhaps the best take on the Trump-Putin relationship was satirical when, on Saturday Night Live in 2017, cast member Beck Bennett, playing Vladimir Putin, addressed Americans: “I promise we will take care of America,” he said, smiling wickedly at the camera. “It’s the most expensive thing we ever bought.” It was meant for laughs but spoke truer than anyone knew.

Beck Bennett as Vladimir Putin on Saturday Night Live on Jan. 22, 2017. (Image: SNL)

Under Trump, Russia was able to modernize and enlarge its armed forces from the woeful mess that fought in Chechnya to the powerful force that now stands arrayed on Ukraine’s borders. It’s not as though the United States and the West wasn’t warned. (For a particularly insightful and prescient look, see the 2019 study by the RAND Corp., Trends in Russia’s Armed Forces.) However, all this was done with the knowledge and abetment of Trump and his administration.

As though to confirm all this, yesterday, Feb. 22, Trump expressed his admiration for Putin on the Clay Travis & Buck Sexton radio show in an interview from Mar-a-Lago.

The exchange merits quotation in full:

Buck Sexton: Mr. President, in the last 24 hours we know Russia has said that they are recognizing two breakaway regions of Ukraine, and now this White House is stating that this is an “invasion.” That’s a strong word. What went wrong here? What has the current occupant of the Oval Office done that he could have done differently?

Donald Trump: Well, what went wrong was a rigged election and what went wrong is a candidate that shouldn’t be there and a man that has no concept of what he’s doing. I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, “This is genius.” Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful.

So, Putin is now saying, “It’s independent,” a large section of Ukraine. I said, “How smart is that?” And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s strongest peace force… We could use that on our southern border. That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re gonna keep peace all right. No, but think of it. Here’s a guy who’s very savvy… I know him very well. Very, very well. By the way, this never would have happened with us. Had I been in office, not even thinkable. This would never have happened. But here’s a guy that says, you know, “I’m gonna declare a big portion of Ukraine independent,” he used the word “independent,” “and we’re gonna go out and we’re gonna go in and we’re gonna help keep peace.” You gotta say that’s pretty savvy. And you know what the response was from Biden? There was no response. They didn’t have one for that. No, it’s very sad. Very sad.”

With Trump, for all his bluster and bombast, the core of American policy toward Russia was weak; Biden may not be loud or pompous but the essence of his policy is solid and substantial.

SWFL’s take

Predictably, Southwest Florida’s Republican members of Congress have been critical of Biden’s responses, although less so of Putin.

In a Feb. 19 interview on Fox News, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), who does not live in his district, said the United States was “late to the game” and accused Biden of weakness.

“This is almost like Afghanistan re-done where some of the data elements have been there for some months but where has the administration been? What have they done? And then the tough talk comes late. But by that point things are already in motion. That looks like what’s coming in Ukraine right now.”

He called for a show of strength and criticized Biden for not going to the Munich meeting of European leaders and sending Vice President Kamala Harris instead.

However, when asked what the United States should be doing, he recommended exactly the actions the administration is taking.

“…We have to be very serious about Nord Stream 2,” he said. “That pipeline cannot go into existence at all. The other thing is that we have to have serious conversations with the rest of our allies in NATO about what are the defensive military components they’re going to need to make sure we stop a more aggressive Russia”—which is precisely what Biden has been doing, in contrast to Trump’s past attacks on NATO.

(Nord Stream 2 is an undersea natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany that has been completed but is not yet operational. It has been subject to repeated sanctions from the United States. The Biden administration waived sanctions early in 2021 for geo-political reasons but, along with Germany, has stated the pipeline will be closed if Russia invades Ukraine.)

As a third measure, Donalds veered off into a call for support of Taiwan.

Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) similarly attacked Biden for weakness in a Feb. 9 interview on Newsmax, complaining that Biden had lifted sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline but is now threatening to reimpose them. He also called for imposition of sanctions but stopped short of calling for use of US troops.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) has not issued any public statements on Ukraine.

What is most striking about the Donalds and Steube statements is that they are calling for strength now while the groundwork for Russian actions were laid during the Trump administration, when both were ardent defenders and admirers of Trump. Although Donalds’ time in office only overlapped Trump’s by 17 days he has continued to be a devotee and was rewarded with a Trump endorsement on Dec. 13 of last year.

Understanding Putin

As the world proceeds into this crisis caused by Putin’s ambitions, it’s worth remembering Trump’s truly significant role in preparing this tragedy. If Ukraine is conquered it will join his betrayal of the Kurds in infamy.

While Republicans point fingers, it’s also worth remembering the person who really had Putin’s number and understood him better than anyone else—Hillary Clinton. The opening paragraph of her chapter on Russia in the book Hard Choices is as true today as when it was written:

“Hard men present hard choices—none more so than Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia. Putin’s worldview is shaped by his admiration for the powerful czars of Russian history, Russia’s long-standing interest in controlling the nations on its borders, and his personal determination that his country never again appear weak or at the mercy of the West as he believes it was after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wants to reassert Russia’s power by dominating its neighbors and controlling their access to energy. He also wants to play a larger role in the Middle East to increase Moscow’s influence in that region and reduce the threat from restive Muslims within and beyond Russia’s southern borders. To achieve these goals, he seeks to reduce the influence of the United States in Central and Eastern Europe and other areas that he considers part of Russia’s sphere, and to counter or at least mute our efforts in the countries roiled by the Arab Spring.”

At least now we have a president who understands what Putin is about and is determined to prevent him from succeeding—no matter how softly that president speaks.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate!

SWFL reps vote to let Meadows dodge Congress, allow US default–but contempt charge, debt ceiling bills both pass

The United States Capitol.

Dec. 15, 2021 by David Silverberg

In a pair of momentous votes last night and in the early hours of this morning, the US House of Representatives voted to hold former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in contempt of Congress and to raise the debt ceiling, keeping the United States from default.

Southwest Florida’s representatives voted against both measures, which passed on largely party-line votes.

House Resolution (HR) 851, which held Meadows in contempt for refusing to respond to a congressional subpoena, passed at 11:03 pm by a vote of 222 to 208. Republican Reps. Liz Cheney (R-at large-Wy.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-16-Ill.) voted for the measure.

Senate Joint Resolution 33 raising the US debt ceiling to $2.5 trillion, passed at 12:20 am by a vote of 221 to 209. Kinzinger was the lone Republican to approve the measure.

The Meadows matter

Meadows had initially agreed to cooperate with the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, turning over e-mails and documents related to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection. He then changed his mind and refused to testify before the committee despite a subpoena compelling his testimony.

The congressional contempt resolution passed last night will now be referred to the Department of Justice for enforcement.

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) took Meadows’ side against the House of Representatives, in which he serves.

“Everyone supporting the political witch-hunt, known as the House Select Cmte on 1/6, amplifies a charade intended to subject Trump-supporting Americans to a kangaroo court of injustice & political theater. Unfortunately, Mark Meadows is another American on the Dems’ hit list,” he tweeted yesterday, Dec. 14. He added in a further statement: “Holding the former White House Chief of Staff in contempt is a disgrace to the rule of law and Congressional oversight credibility.”

Former President Donald Trump Donalds formally endorsed Donalds the same day.

On the day of the attack, Donalds characterized the rioters rampaging through the Capitol Building as “lawless vigilantes” and the attack itself as “thuggery.”

As of this writing, neither Reps. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) nor Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) had commented on the Meadows resolution.

Debt ceiling

The vote raising the US debt ceiling averts a default on US financial obligations. With the House approving the already-passed bill from the Senate, it now goes to President Joe Biden for signature. It will extend the nation’s borrowing capability into 2023.

In testimony before the Senate Banking Committee on Nov. 29, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned: “I cannot overstate how critical it is that Congress address this issue. America must pay its bills on time and in full. If we do not, we will eviscerate our current recovery.”

Donalds expressed opposition to raising the debt ceiling in a Dec. 9 interview with Jan Jeffcoat of The National Desk, a television program carried by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. “We’re just blowing trillions of dollars out the back door, then running to the bond market to say give us more money. If we’re going to increase the debt limit on the nation’s credit card, I think that what we’re doing is highly irresponsible.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg