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

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Rooney, Castor, renew efforts to stop Gulf offshore oil exploitation

06-15-20 Letter to Secretary Bernhardt re Florida offshore drilling reports_Page_1 cropped

June 17, 2020 by David Silverberg

Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) and Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.) are leading a renewed bipartisan effort to protect Florida Gulf shores from offshore oil exploitation.

In a June 15 letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Rooney, Castor and 16 other members of the Florida congressional delegation urge him “to protect the coasts of Florida from oil and gas development.”

The members recount the history of efforts to protect Florida from oil exploitation and ask four questions of the secretary:

  1. What is the status of the 2019-2024 National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Proposed Program? Does DOI [Department of Interior] have a target date for its release?
  2. Is the Department still working on a new 5-year leasing program that would go into effect prior to the expiration of the current leasing program in 2022? If not, can you indicate whether the Department would consider not releasing a new leasing program that contains any offshore lease sales scheduled prior to the expiration of the 2017-2022 program?
  3. Would the Department consider, when the Proposed Program is eventually issued, not including lease sales for any new areas in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic?
  4. Would the Department consider supporting our bipartisan legislation, the Protecting and Securing Florida’s Coastline Act of 2019, to permanently ban drilling off the coast of Florida?

In response to a June 10 article in Politico that the administration planned to begin oil leasing in Gulf waters if President Donald Trump is re-elected in November, the Department of Interior’s press secretary tweeted the same day that the article was “#FakeNews based entirely on anonymous sources who don’t know what they’re talking about. Current offshore plans do not expire until 2022, and @Interior does not plan to issue a new report in November.”

However, identical concerns were expressed by the House Natural Resources Committee in 2019. (For a full report on the Gulf offshore oil issue, see the June 6 article: Trump, Biden and the Gulf shore oil war.)

The full text of the Rooney-Castor letter follows:

June 15, 2020

The Honorable David Bernhardt Secretary

U.S.     Department of the Interior 1849 C Street, NW Washington, DC 20240

Dear Secretary Bernhardt:

We write to urge you to protect the coasts of Florida from oil and gas development. As you know, in 2019, the House of Representatives passed the Protecting and Securing Florida’s Coastline Act to permanently ban drilling off the coast of Florida with broad bipartisan support. Despite that vote and the economic and environmental damage left by the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, it appears that the Department of the Interior (DOI) is preparing to open the door to oil and gas drilling off Florida’s coasts shortly after the November 2020 election. As representatives from Florida, we are asking for clarification on DOI’s plans for drilling off the coasts of our state.

Florida relies on coastlines unencumbered by oil and gas drilling to sustain its economy, preserve its marine life and natural resources, and protect our national security. This past April marked ten years since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, when we saw firsthand the destruction offshore drilling can have on our state. Our state and local economies cannot sustain another disaster like that – especially on top of the current economic struggles tied to the COVID-19 crisis.

Furthermore, the eastern Gulf of Mexico is a critical testing and training area for our military, and the Department of Defense has stated clearly that the Gulf Test Range is an “irreplaceable national asset” for combat force readiness. Any oil and gas development would be an obstacle to military preparedness and national security.

Additionally, the people of Florida are also clearly opposed to oil and gas development off our coast. A constitutional amendment on Florida’s November 2018 ballot to ban offshore drilling in state waters passed overwhelmingly. Here is objective proof that Floridians recognize that the state’s economy depends on a pristine environment, and that offshore drilling threatens Florida’s future.

In response to the June 10 Politico story, DOI’s Press Secretary tweeted, “Current offshore plans do not expire until 2022, and @Interior does not plan to issue a new report in November.” In light of our strong interest to preserve and protect Florida’s coasts, we request that you provide clarification through written answers to the following questions:

    1. What is the status of the 2019-2024 National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Proposed Program? Does DOI have a target date for its release?
    1. Is the Department still working on a new 5-year leasing program that would go into effect prior to the expiration of the current leasing program in 2022? If not, can you indicate whether the Department would consider not releasing a new leasing program that contains any offshore lease sales scheduled prior to the expiration of the 2017-2022 program?
    1. Would the Department consider, when the Proposed Program is eventually issued, not including lease sales for any new areas in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic?
    1. Would the Department consider supporting our bipartisan legislation, the Protecting and Securing Florida’s Coastline Act of 2019, to permanently ban drilling off the coast of Florida?

Sincerely,

Kathy Castor,  Francis Rooney

Darren Soto,  Matt Gaetz, Gus M. Bilirakis, Vern Buchanan, Charlie Crist, Val Demings, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel,  Alcee L. Hastings, Al Lawson, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Stephanie Murphy, Bill Posey, John H. Rutherford, Donna Shalala, Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Liberty lives in light

(c) 2020 by David Silverberg

 

Water, wetlands and oil: The Rooney Roundup and Mario Monitor, enviro edition

05-10-19 Rooney Roundtable, facing the press 2 croppedRep. Francis Rooney faces the media on May 10 at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida days after his closed-door meeting on harmful algal blooms.                                   (Photo by the author)

524 days (1 year, 5 months and 9 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has faced constituents in an open, public town hall forum.

July 31, 2019 by David Silverberg

In Southwest Florida the three biggest environmental issues are water, wetlands and oil. Address those and you’re basically covering your environmental bases.

Certainly Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), whose district covers the coast from Cape Coral to Marco Island, was active on this front in the past three months as he aggressively positioned himself as a “green” Republican. He has managed to raise his lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters, the best political barometer of environmental sensitivity, from zero percent at the start of 2018 to 10 percent today.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) has never made much of an effort on the environment even though his district covers much of the Everglades. He has an 11 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters and as long as he keeps his Cuban-American constituency happy in Hialeah, which he does with regular fulminations against the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, he doesn’t need to make the effort.

But the 19th Congressional District is extremely environmentally sensitive, as Rooney learned to his pain last year.

Water

Water quality is Rooney’s number one issue, according to his website. But while he campaigned on promoting pure water in his first race in 2016, he was caught completely flatfooted last year when both red tide bloomed in the Gulf of Mexico and blue-green algae filled the canals of Cape Coral and the Caloosahatchee River.

For weeks over the summer, as the blooms gathered strength, nothing was heard from Rooney. It was a serious lapse that his Democratic opponent, David Holden, tried to exploit in the general election. (Full disclosure: this author helped.)

Rooney won his race in the 2018 midterm election, but he’d received a wake-up call. In 2019 he began working to make up this deficit.

On Jan. 10, he introduced the Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act (House Resolution (HR) 414). This consisted of a three-word amendment to the Stafford Act (The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act), which provides the legal framework for disaster response. The bill would add “or algal blooms” as major disasters subject to federal action. The bill was cosponsored by eight Republicans and six Democrats, some members signing on as late as June.

However, after being referred to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s emergency management subcommittee in February, the bill hasn’t made any further progress in the House.

Rooney had some success in 2018 bringing together federal officials to see local conditions and in May 2019 he tried again. This was to be a grand gathering of Southwest Florida officials like mayors and experts from relevant federal agencies to coordinate their responses to “harmful algal blooms,” as they are now known, or HABs. Rooney’s team over-hyped the gathering but then had to suddenly announce that it was closed to the press and public, causing outrage and charges that the meeting violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.

According to Rooney, officials of one federal agency refused to attend the meeting if it was public and that agency was widely believed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It was a measure of the Trump administration’s descent into secrecy that this once most public of agencies, whose very mission depends on its relationship with the press and public, has now drawn a curtain over its activities.

If it was, indeed, the CDC that insisted on secrecy, it was an instance of the administration screwing Rooney—and royally. To ensure the meeting proceeded with CDC participation, he bore the brunt of the criticism for closing the meeting, which he did not in fact have the authority to do and which, argued the lawyer for WINK-TV, violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.

But adhering to the spirit and letter of the Florida Sunshine Law has become a lower and lower priority in the great state of Florida. Indeed, the meeting was blessed by the presence of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

Rooney tried to make up for the public and media outrage with a subsequent meeting on May 10 that served as a public airing of grievances for conservation groups and environmental activists. They were able to vent and it brought him some favorable press but he was the only elected official present and the auditorium at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida was not exactly “the room where it happened,” as it’s put in the musical Hamilton. There were no elected executives or government experts present and no decisions were made. Still, Rooney had thrown a sop to the press and public.

But whatever good the meeting had done now faced a new threat—the possibility of another government shutdown because of conflict over reaching a budget agreement or raising the federal debt ceiling. In the January 2019 government shutdown essential government operations had been affected; in particular, national weather forecasting, so essential to Southwest Florida, was cut back.

This particularly affected the response to HABs; the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a key player in monitoring their development. A NOAA expert was at the May 7 closed-door meeting and NOAA weather predictions are essential to warning of HABs or red tide so that local officials can prepare. If the government shuts down and NOAA stops working, Southwest Florida will, literally, be at the mercy of the tides.

Accordingly, on June 14 Rooney introduced the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act (HR 3297), which would exempt NOAA forecasting from any government shutdown. The bill has, as of July 9, nine cosponsors, six Democrats and three Republicans. Ironically, one of the first cosponsors was Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-13-Mich.), a progressive member of the “The Squad” and the target of President Donald Trump’s twitter rage.

The legislation is even more ironic in that Rooney voted repeatedly against bills in January to end the government shutdown and then voted again against a two-year budget deal negotiated between President Trump and House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.), which will bring stability to the budget and debt ceiling processes. In effect, he was saying it was OK to shut down the government and keep it shut down, just not the agency essential to his district’s health and well-being that he cared about.

All that said, the bill was referred to the House Science, Space, and Technology; Natural Resources Committee’s water subcommittee, where it remains.

Wetlands

The Everglades are the wetlands that dominate Southwest Florida’s existence and restoring and preserving them is part of a half-century continuum of environmentalist activism. However, politically, the nuts and bolts of Everglades restoration come to a matter of dollars and cents—in particular federal versus state dollars and cents.

The US federal government is pledged to provide $200 million per year for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) whose centerpiece is the creation of reservoirs that will clean water from Lake Okeechobee before it’s allowed to flow out the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. This is intended to equally match state funds for CERP.

Rooney has been an advocate for the Everglades since his 2016 run and has consistently pursued measures to complete or advance their restoration.

This year in his Fiscal Year 2020 budget, President Trump allocated only $63 million for CERP, setting off howls of protest among Florida lawmakers. Florida’s two senators, along with Rooney and Rep. Brian Mast (R-18-Fla.), sent a letter to Trump protesting the underfunding. Diaz-Balart, notably, did not sign on although his district covers more of the Everglades than Rooney’s.

Trump agreed to come to Florida to see and be seen on the site and on April 29 he toured Lake Okeechobee and the Hoover Dike where he was met by DeSantis and virtually the whole Republican Florida delegation including Diaz-Balart and Rooney. The latter buttonholed him and—as Rooney would put it— “carpet-bombed” him about Lake O and CERP.  Trump subsequently reversed course and asked that the full $200 million be included in the budget request.

Rooney worked hard along with other Florida members to get the money approved by Congress and succeeded. It was included as part of a two-year compromise budget deal reached by Trump and Pelosi. Trump tweeted that it should be passed: “House Republicans should support the TWO YEAR BUDGET AGREEMENT which greatly helps our Military and our Vets. I am totally with you!”

And then, when the budget deal was placed before the House of Representatives for approval, Rooney voted against it (!), denouncing it as irresponsible.

If ever there was a disconnect between the ideal and the practical, between the ideological and the pragmatic, between sight and blindness, between success and failure, this was it.

Fortunately, the House passed the budget deal. As this is written it is before the Senate and if passed there, it is expected—expected—to be signed by the President.

If it becomes law, that budget will include funding for Everglades restoration, which Rooney worked so hard to obtain and then voted against.

Oil

In a break with conservative anti-taxation orthodoxy, on January 24, Rooney signed on as a co-sponsor of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019, (HR 763), introduced by fellow Floridian Rep. Ted Deutch (D-22-Fla.). Of the original six co-sponsors, Rooney was the only Republican.

Today the bill has 58 co-sponsors—and Rooney remains the only Republican.

The original Deutch bill imposes a fee on the carbon content of fuels, including crude oil, natural gas, coal, or any other fossil fuel product that emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“Francis Rooney Endorses Large Tax Increase,” raged the website of Americans for Tax Reform, a fiercely anti-tax group led by lobbyist Grover Norquist. “Rooney claims the bill is ‘revenue neutral’ but this is not a truthful assertion. The bill is a tax increase, a very large tax increase.” The group urged readers to call Rooney and push him to take his name off the bill.

Rooney didn’t and on July 25 he both doubled down on it—and tried to make his support more palatable to conservatives.

Rooney introduced the Stemming Warming and Augmenting Pay Act (SWAP Act) (HR 4058) and he signed on as the only other co-sponsor of HR 3966, sponsored by Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3-Ill.), who also co-sponsored Rooney’s bill. Both bills would use taxes taken from fossil fuel polluters and use them to reduce Social Security taxes, increase payouts to Social Security beneficiaries and establish a trust fund that would help low-income people offset energy costs.

Rooney’s bill, however, has a big tradeoff: It would prohibit the federal government from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act for 12 years.

It’s a classic business approach to a problem, using money instead of regulation to get a desired result: if you pollute you pay—but you’re also unregulated. As its acronym implies, it’s a swap.

It joins another Rooney bill introduced on June 21, the Eliminating the RFS and Its Destructive Outcomes Act (HR 3427).

And what is RFS? RFS is the Renewable Fuel Standard, a program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. It requires that transportation fuel sold in the United States have at least a component of renewable fuel. It was put in place in 2005 to reduce pollution and fight climate change.

Science versus Trumpism

The irony of Rooney’s situation is that he’s making more progress on environmental issues in a Democratic House than he did in the Republican-dominated 115th Congress.

This also applies to issues of oil exploration and exploitation. He teamed with Rep. Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.) to oppose oil drilling in Gulf coastal waters. This was a far cry from the previous Congress when his efforts to protect the shore were repeatedly blocked by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-1-La.), the House Majority Whip, who defended the oil and gas industry and its interests.

When Rooney introduced a bill to protect coral reefs from the harmful effects of chemicals in sunscreen (HR 1834), he was joined by three Democratic co-sponsors and only a single Republican.

His position on carbon taxation and his increasing number of breaks with the Trump line are getting him fire on the right and it is possible that he will face a primary challenge—for being a RINO (Republican in Name Only) of all things.

It’s now more difficult to simply label Rooney as a blindly loyal Trumpist as he was when he first took office. Then, he shared the stage and defended his master and railed against socialism, gun control and refused to admit the reality of climate change. He readily sought the media spotlight, held wildly contentious town hall meetings and called for a political purge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation so that Trump could fill it with willing hacks and sycophants.

While Rooney’s positions on budgets, social issues, labor and immigration still mark him as a hard right-winger, it’s clear that he’s learning that if he’s going to be effective on the environment, Southwest Florida’s primary, existential issue, he has to both compromise and make common cause with the Democrats, liberals and even—gasp!—progressives he once disparaged so readily.

He also seems to have awakened to the contradictions and absurdities of Trumpism, as shown in his increasing number of votes in 2019 against the President’s line. This is a president who is indifferent toward environmental protection—when he isn’t actively hostile to it. If Southwest Florida is going to remain livable, this president has to be resisted.

Yesterday, July 30, Rooney was named a member of the House Science Committee. Science is supposed to be factual, objective and realistic. That’s tough to pursue with a president who is delusional and even deranged and who dismisses any fact he doesn’t like as “fake.”

When Congress reconvenes in September it will be interesting to see if Rooney can navigate between science and Trumpism and where his true commitment lies—and how that will play at election time.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

The Paradise Progressive will be on hiatus in August and September.

 

Rooney votes against bill preventing oil drilling in the Everglades

Seismic trucks in Big Cypress 10-3-17Seismic trucks explore for oil deposits in Big Cypress National Preserve.    (Photo: Conservancy of Southwest Florida)

483 days (1 year, 3 months, 29 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has met constituents in an open, public town hall forum.

June 20, 2019 by David Silverberg

Yesterday, June 19, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) voted against House Resolution 2740, a spending bill that includes prohibitions against oil drilling in the Everglades.

Also opposing the bill was Rep. Mario Diaz Balart (R-25-19).

The bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 226 to 203. It will now be considered by the Senate.

The massive, nearly $1 trillion spending bill, which primarily funds the federal departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, has an amendment that puts a one-year moratorium on the issuance of wetland permits by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The moratorium covers the 2020 fiscal year, from Oct. 1, 2019 to Sept. 30, 2020.

“We must do all we possibly can to protect our sensitive River of Grass,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-23-Fla.), declared in a statement following the vote. “Drilling within the Everglades Protection Area is reckless, rapacious and symbolizes just how much those who advocate for the senseless pursuit of fossil fuels will risk, even if it destroys our most treasured ecosystems. It’s absurd it even has to be said, but we must fight any drilling in the Everglades.” A company has applied to do exploratory drilling in western Broward County, part of Wasserman Schultz’s district.

“This appropriations package contains nearly $1 trillion in discretionary spending and is $176 billion above current spending caps,” complained Rooney in a statement. “Even with all this excessive spending, Democrats inserted language to explicitly prohibit any funding for securing our southern border – which seems to be the only area where they have found a passion for spending constraints. Congress has a responsibility to address its spending addiction in a serious manner, not by playing politics with border security. Equally as bad, the legislation is openly hostile to those of us that believe in the sanctity of life.”

Rooney also opposed provisions in the bill that support a woman’s right to choose. Those included providing grants to Planned Parenthood and the bill’s opposition to what is known as the “Mexico City policy,” a Trump administration policy that prohibits federal funding for humanitarian organizations that provide abortion counseling or referrals. He also objected to funding in the bill for Affordable Care Act “navigators,” people who help others apply for health insurance.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

Mueller report reaction, immigration and more: The Rooney Roundup and Mario Monitor

01-13-19 us capitol cropped

The Rooney Roundup – and introducing the Mario Monitor

421 days (1 year, 1 month, 28 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has met constituents in an open, public forum

With this article we add monitoring of Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.), the western side of whose district includes large portions of Collier and Lee counties, including Golden Gate Estates, Immokalee and a major portion of Lehigh Acres.

April 19, 2019 by David Silverberg

It has been a momentous seven weeks since our last Rooney Roundup. In that time Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report was released and the president initiated a purge of the top leadership of the Department of Homeland Security. Congress recessed for two weeks on Friday, April 12 and will reconvene on Monday, April 29.

While Southwest Florida has hardly been the center of national attention, its representatives—Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.)—were active on other issues.

According to WINK-TV, yesterday Rooney issued a statement saying that with release of the Mueller Report the nation should move on. However, as of this writing, such a statement has not appeared on his official website or on his Twitter page. Diaz-Balart has not issued a statement. A query about their positions was sent to both offices by The Paradise Progressive and this report will be updated if an answer is received.

 Cutting legal immigration

On April 10, Rooney introduced the House version of the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act (RAISE Act), a bill intended to cut legal immigration to the United States by at least half.

The bill was introduced in the Senate the same day by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) as Senate bill 1103. Cotton introduced it in 2017 in the previous Congress where it was endorsed by President Donald Trump. White House advisor Stephen Miller praised it as “what President Trump campaigned on.” However, it never made it out of committee.

On its first introduction 1,400 economists—including six Nobel laureates—were inspired to write an open letter to Trump and the congressional leadership favoring immigration and opposing the bill’s measures.

“Among us are Republicans and Democrats alike,” stated the letter. “Some of us favor free markets while others have championed for a larger role for government in the economy. But on some issues there is near universal agreement. One such issue concerns the broad economic benefit that immigrants to this country bring.”

The 2019 bill introduced by Cotton and Rooney:

  • Would ensure that family members of legal immigrants to the United States would not be automatically admitted to the country, which was done in the past to ensure family cohesion but which critics call “chain migration;”
  • It would end the Diversity Visa Lottery program, which provides green cards to applicants from underrepresented countries on a lottery basis to strengthen diversity;
  • It would limit the number of refugees offered permanent residency to 50,000 per year, reducing legal immigration by half.

According to Cotton and Rooney, the current immigration system does not favor merit or skill-based immigration, either in allowing the immigration of family members or in the lottery.

This is not Rooney’s first swipe at reducing immigration this year, particularly for asylum-seekers. On Jan. 10, he introduced the Asylum Protection Act of 2019 (House Resolution 481), which reduced the time during which an asylum seeker could apply for asylum, from one year to just 30 days. Furthermore, asylum applications would have to be made at official ports of entry; so a migrant could not ask for asylum at any other point along the border. With only three co-sponsors, the bill remains in committee.

Letter writing campaign

Rooney has still been unable to make the moratorium on offshore oil drilling in the Gulf permanent. In his most recent effort, he and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-1-Fla.) on April 17 sent a letter to Trump requesting an Oval Office meeting on the topic.

Rooney also sent a letter to the commander of the US Army Corps of Engineers asking that the Corps monitor the use of glyphosate-based herbicides in coordination with state agencies. The herbicides can contribute to blue-green algae growth of the sort experienced in Southwest Florida last summer.

Major votes

While the House of Representatives took votes on major issues over the past seven weeks, Rooney was absent and Diaz-Balart opposed the measures. By missing these votes, Rooney avoided offending both constituents and President Trump. The bills in question were:

  • Save the Internet Act of 2019 (House Resolution 1644) restoring net neutrality, which passed 232 to 190 on April 10. Rooney missed this vote, Diaz-Balart voted against it.
  • HR 271, which condemned the Trump administration for trying to invalidate the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in court. This bill passed the House by a vote of 240 to 186 on April 3. Rooney missed this vote, Diaz-Balart voted against it.
  • HR 1585, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019, which passed the House on April 4 by 263 to 158. Rooney missed this vote, Diaz-Balart voted against it.
  • Senate Joint Resolution 7 to remove US forces from the war in Yemen if their activities were not explicitly authorized by Congress. This bill passed the House by 247 to 175 on April 4. Rooney missed this vote, Diaz-Balart voted against it. The bill passed both chambers and was vetoed by Trump.
Liberty lives in light
© 2019 by David Silverberg

Analysis: Trump’s border shutdown will mean pain in the pocketbook for SWFL

04-03-19 surprised-grocery-shopping-woman

April 3, 2019 by David Silverberg

The big, immediate headline after President Donald Trump threatened to close the US border with Mexico was that the American avocado supply would dry up in three weeks.

That would certainly hit Southwest Florida, even though the state is a major avocado producer. Still, although an avocado shortage would hurt a lot of local restaurant menus, most Southwest Floridians could live a few weeks without guacamole.

But more seriously, the local impact of a border shutdown would depend on its extent and its duration.

For consumers, it would immediately be felt most keenly in the grocery shopping cart, later at the gas pump and possibly in a recession.

The closing

Trump announced the possible border closing during his visit to Lake Okeechobee on Friday, March 29, managing to divert national media attention from his supposedly great efforts on behalf of the Hoover Dike and the Everglades.

Since the offhand announcement, the administration, facing an uproar over its implications, has clarified that it would not apply to truck traffic (which is also one of the major means of drug smuggling into the United States).

Precise details of the closing remain sparse because the possible closing was hardly a carefully considered or vetted policy. Its nature and extent continue to rest on the whims and moods of Donald Trump. On Tuesday he reiterated his threat. “If they don’t stop them [migrants], we are closing the border. We’ll close it. And we’ll keep it closed for a long time. I’m not playing games,” Trump said.

Having lost the battle of the US government shutdown, it seems he’s seeking to shut down something new.

This prompted a rare dissent from even so staunch a Trump enabler as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate majority leader. “Closing down the border would have potentially catastrophic economic impact on our country,” said McConnell on Tuesday. “I would hope we would not be doing that sort of thing.”

Even conservative economist Arthur Laffer, inventor of the “Laffer curve” during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, said that a border shutdown “will hurt us a lot.” US-Mexican trade is “a win-win game on trade,” he said during an interview on Fox News.

Pain in the produce aisle

Mexico is currently the US’ third largest goods trading partner, according to the US Trade Representative. As of 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available, US and Mexican two-way goods trade totaled $557.6 billion. Goods exports totaled $243.3 billion; goods imports totaled $314.3 billion. The U.S. goods trade deficit with Mexico was $71 billion in 2017.

The primary goods imported from Mexico were vehicles, electrical machinery and machinery, optical and medical instruments and mineral fuels like oil.

Since Southwest Florida is not a center of commerce or immigration and has no cross-border transportation, a border shutdown would not initially be felt by businesses here.

But a border shutdown would be felt by every American consumer and Southwest Floridians are no exception. Costs would rise exponentially, particularly for foodstuffs.

Mexico is the largest supplier of agricultural imports to the United States. In 2017 that trade totaled $25 billion. Leading categories included fresh fruit ($6 billion), fresh vegetables ($5.5 billion), wine and beer ($3.3 billion), snack foods ($2.1 billion), and processed fruit and vegetables ($1.5 billion).

Suddenly, these goods would become scarcer and prices would rise for all foods, even those produced in Southwest Florida like tomatoes and strawberries. Southwest Floridians would be facing substantially higher food bills.

Pain at the pump

A border shutdown would have big implications for oil and gas, both for consumers and for Southwest Florida itself.

There would be substantial pain at the pump. The US imported $11 billion in mineral fuels from Mexico in 2017. A US-Mexico border closing, coming on top of sanctions placed on Venezuelan oil would drive up gas prices even further than the significant increases felt over the past month. Southwest Floridians would know that there’s a border shutdown every time they filled the gas tank.

But then, with oil prices rising, exploring, exploiting and extracting Florida’s oil, both in the Everglades and offshore, would become much more attractive and urgent to oil companies. The combination of oil industry profit-seeking and the Trump administration’s environmental indifference would nearly guarantee drilling off Southwest Florida’s coast and in the Everglades, although that would take several years to implement.

Southwest Florida would feel a double whammy from a border shutdown: both high gasoline prices in the short term and a degraded environment in the long term.

Pain in the pocketbook

As stated at the outset, the full impact of a Mexico border shutdown would depend on its extent and duration. The longer the shutdown, the greater the pain and expense and the deeper the effects would be.

What can be stated with certainty is that Trump is systematically impoverishing the United States just as he bankrupted his gambling casinos. The US national debt has now ballooned 77 percent in the first four months of fiscal year 2019 to $310 billion, up from $176 billion the previous year. Under Trump the trade deficit has reached over $100 billion, going from $502 billion in 2016 to $621 billion in 2018, an increase of 19 percent. Particularly hard hit is the once healthy and thriving US agriculture sector, with previously prosperous farmers now having to rely on government aid due to an unnecessary trade war with China.

A border shutdown would deliver a blow to the economy as a whole and consumers across the nation and would be particularly painful in Southwest Florida with its population of retirees, seniors and people on fixed incomes who would have difficulty coping with skyrocketing food and gas costs.

Even the threat of a shutdown is proving disruptive and disturbing to commerce and consumers.

The conclusion is clear: an unnecessary and absurd border shutdown is no way to make America great “again.”

Liberty lives in light

To read more about the impact of Trump trade policy on Mexican beer imports, see: “Farewell, my little Coronitas!”

©2019 by David Silverberg

 

Trump budget proposal takes aim at SWFL seniors, Social Security recipients

 

01-13-19 us capitol croppedMarch 12, 2019 by David Silverberg

Southwest Floridians receiving Medicare benefits, Social Security payments and other social safety net assistance stand to suffer significant blows to their government-provided benefits under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, released yesterday, March 11.

The budget slashes $845 billion over 10 years from the Medicare program. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as of 2017 (the most recent date for which statistics are available), Lee County had 175,648 Part A and B Medicare recipients, while Collier County had 90,800.

Social Security would suffer $25 billion in cuts over 10 years as well. As of December 2017 (the most recent figures available) there were 12,863 Social Security recipients in Lee County and 4,169 recipients in Collier County, according to the Social Security Administration.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, would receive a $220 billion cut over 10 years and recipients would face mandatory work requirements. The program currently serves around 45 million people nationwide and 99,208 people in Lee County and 26,617 in Collier County, as of December 2018.

Environmental blows

The budget cuts all non-defense agencies by 9 percent and takes aim at environmental and science-driven agencies.

The Environmental Protection Agency would suffer a 31 percent cut, with the agency’s overall funding dropping to $6.1 billion, down from the $8 billion Congress enacted in 2017.

The Department of the Interior’s budget is cut by 14 percent. The Trump proposal, however, increases funding for Interior Department programs that “support safe and responsible development of energy on public lands and offshore waters”—which for Southwest Florida means potential oil exploration and exploitation off the Gulf coast and in federal lands like Everglades National Park.

When it comes to the Everglades, the budget requests a total of $118 million for Everglades restoration of which $74.3 million would be for projects under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) and $44 million would be for non-CERP work, of which $43 million would come through the Department of the Interior.

Controversy and reaction

Nationally, the budget’s most controversial provision calls for $8.6 billion for a wall along the US southwestern border and boosts military spending 5 percent to $750 billion.

The budget proposal was met with a blast of condemnation from congressional Democrats, who denounced it as “irresponsible” and a “cynical vision for our country,” (Rep. John Yarmuth (D-3-Ky.) chairman of the House Budget Committee), “even more untethered from reality than his past two [budget requests],” (Rep. Nita Lowey (D-17-NY), chair of the House Appropriations Committee) and “breathtaking in its degree of cruelty,” (Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)).

Liberty lives in light

 

 

 

Trump nominee for Interior Dept. could roll back protections against SWFL oil exploitation

02-05-19 David Bernhardt DoInt. cropped

David Bernhardt, nominee for Interior Secretary.    (Photo: DoInt.)

Southwest Florida could feel a major impact if David Bernhardt, currently the number two official at the Department of the Interior, is confirmed as secretary, with the potential to roll back oil and gas regulations and restraints just when private landowners and the oil industry are mounting a new exploitation effort aimed at Florida.

Bernhardt was nominated to be secretary by President Donald Trump on Feb. 4.

The US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is expected to hold hearings on Bernhardt’s nomination sometime soon. (As of this writing, a date had not been set. This report will be updated when it is announced.)

The 49-year-old Bernhardt is a former oil industry lobbyist whose policy positions were closely aligned with Ryan Zinke, his predecessor as secretary. In the past Bernhardt has lobbied on behalf of Delta Petroleum Corp., Noble Energy Inc. and California’s Westlands Water District, a government agency that has fought environmental regulation.

Zinke and Bernhardt’s shared policy positions included opening up federal lands to oil exploration and exploitation and removing environmental protections and regulations.

As Bernhardt put it in an interview earlier this year with E&E News, an energy and environmental publication, “I can’t think of an instance in the past year where I’ve done something where I would not be very confident that he and I were 100 percent on the same page on.”

During the government shutdown, Bernhardt was criticized for having unpaid Interior Department employees working on opening up US waters to oil and gas drilling and issuing permits for seismic drilling. Though initially deemed non-essential employees and therefore furloughed, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management brought back at least 40 employees to work on offshore oil and gas projects.

Bernhardt has also been criticized for making the department less transparent and making information more difficult to access, avoiding the congressional confirmation process for key subordinates and limiting the scope or weakening laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

In addition to his own inclinations, Bernhardt has cover from President Donald Trump himself, who, in his State of the Union speech, boasted of unleashing a revolution in oil and gas production and whose April 2017 executive order opening up federal lands to oil exploitation remains in force.

Even Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), a pro-Trump Republican, has complained that the Interior Department has a “drill-baby-drill” approach to offshore oil exploitation, threatening the beaches of Southwest Florida.

“The military is our ally on this [a permanent oil drilling moratorium in the eastern Gulf of Mexico],” Rooney told an audience at an invitation-only meeting at The Alamo gun range and store in Naples on May 30, 2018. “The Department of the Interior is not.  They want to ‘drill- baby-drill.’ They are Republicans, right?”

Bernhardt’s nomination on Feb. 4 unleashed a torrent of criticism and opposition. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, (D-2-Hawaii), called Bernhardt “a walking conflict of interest” in one tweet and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) called him “another scandal-plagued fox guarding the henhouse,” in another.

“Bernhardt might as well be an ideological clone of Ryan Zinke. The American public deserves a true steward who will protect our lands, our wildlife and our waters – not another industry shill who will continue to sell our precious natural resources to the highest bidders for exploitation,” stated Ana Unruh Cohen, managing director for government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental activism group. Her sentiment was echoed by other environmental organizations.

The Naples-based Conservancy of Southwest Florida has not yet taken a position on Bernhardt’s nomination.

The Bernhardt nomination comes just as activity is mounting among private landowners and oil companies to exploit potential oil reserves beneath the Everglades.

On Tuesday, Feb. 5, the Florida First District Court of Appeal ruled that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection had to issue a permit for an exploratory oil well to Kanter Real Estate LLC, a company that owns about 20,000 acres in the Everglades near the city of Miramar.

The Burnett Oil Company is already exploring areas in the Big Cypress Preserve. Tocala LLC, based in Mississippi, has received a permit to detonate explosives in 6,000 holes in an area just north of Big Cypress. Trend Exploration, based in North Fort Myers, has applied for a permit to explore in Caracara Prairie Preserve in Collier County.

(For a fuller account of oil activities in the Everglades and the region, see David Fleshler’s Feb. 3 article, More oil drilling proposed for southern Florida in the South Florida Sun Sentinel.)

Analyis: The rush is on but not necessarily the boom

While the regulatory climate and the presidential mood are promoting oil exploitation in marginal oil producing regions like Southwest Florida, the real determinant will be oil prices. The higher the prices and the demand, the greater the likelihood that the risk and expense of Southwest Florida oil exploration and drilling will be worthwhile.

02-07-19 crude-oil-price-history-chart-2019-02-07-macrotrends

Crude oil prices over the past 70 years.   (Source: Macrotrends.net)

The oil industry tends to be one of boom and bust and while the general trend of prices has been up, at the moment prices are relatively stable. Oil exploiters have to factor in the lead time of exploration and extraction as well as the potential profits as they decide to pursue oil in places like Southwest Florida.

Some politicians may think that they can have acceptable oil exploitation on land while not harming the shore. But pro-exploitation advocates should remember: Exploitation will be on both land and sea. If it’s worthwhile to drill on land, it will also be worthwhile to drill offshore and it’s very unlikely that oil companies will pursue one and not the other.

The danger of oil exploitation in Florida, of course, is pollution either of the water table on land or along the beaches on shore. Pollution of the aquifer will make life unlivable on land, while pollution on shore will destroy tourism and the Southwest Florida economy.

Either way, the Southwest Florida environment is under increasing threat. There is no reason to expect any support or sensitivity from the Trump administration.

Offshore oil rigs 11-2-17

Liberty lives in light

Venezuelan oil sanctions may impact gas prices in Southwest Florida

01-29-19 mnuchin at wh on venezuelaTreasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin explains sanctions against Venezuela at a White House briefing, Jan. 28, 2019.

Jan. 29, 2019 by David Silverberg

New sanctions imposed on Venezuelan exports of crude oil could raise oil prices in Southwest Florida and throughout the United States—although it may take time before that impact is felt at the pump.

On Monday, Jan. 28, at a White House press briefing, US sanctions were announced against Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA (Petroleos de Venezuela, SA), by National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and Director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow.

PDVSA owns the CITGO oil company, which is the main supplier of gasoline products to the 7-Eleven convenience store chain.

“PDVSA has long been a vehicle for embezzlement, for corruption for Venezuelan officials and businessmen.  Today’s designation of PDVSA will help prevent further diversion of Venezuela’s assets by [Nicolas] Maduro, and will preserve these assets for the people of Venezuela where they belong,” stated Mnuchin.

Mnuchin was at pains to assure the public that the sanctions will not raise prices at the pump.

“…There’s been a big reduction in the overall price of oil and particularly since we instituted the Iran sanctions.  I think you know we’ve been very careful in making sure that these costs don’t impact the American consumer,” said Mnuchin. “Gas prices are almost as low as they’ve been in a very long period of time.  These refineries impact a specific part of the country.  And I think, as you’ve said, we’re very comfortable that they have enough supply that we don’t expect any big impact in the short term.”

The “specific part of the country” Mnuchin mentioned is the Gulf coast of the United States. However, the main impact there is likely to be felt by refineries on the Gulf coast of Louisiana and Texas, which will have to replace Venezuelan heavy crude oil with oil from other, more expensive sources like the Middle East.

“Citgo assets in the United States will be able to continue to operate, provided that any funds that would otherwise go to PDVSA instead will go into a blocked account in the United States,” stated Mnuchin.

“Now, I’ve been in touch with many of the refineries.  There is a significant amount of oil that’s at sea that’s already been paid for.  That oil will continue to come to the United States.  If the people in Venezuela want to continue to sell us oil, as long as that money goes into blocked accounts, we’ll continue to take it.  Otherwise, we will not be buying it.

“And again, we have issued general licenses so the refineries in the United States can continue to operate.  So I expect, in the short term, very modest impacts on the US refineries.  We’ve been working with them closely on these issues.”

US oil imports from Venezuela have been declining in recent years and currently account for only about 5.7 percent of US oil imports.

01-29-19 us oil imports from venezuela

US imports from Venezuela since 1993. (Source: US Energy Information Administration)

Background

The United States has recognized Juan Guaido, an opposition leader who assumed leadership of the National Assembly and swore himself into office, as the legitimate president of Venezuela following an election that the United States charges was fraudulent and rigged to elect Maduro. Russia and China are backing Maduro; European nations are joining the United States in recognizing Guaido.

Analysis

As with most battles of this sort, the impacts will depend on the length of the struggle. The Trump administration is trying to minimize the effect on consumers at the pump, as Mnuchin pointed out. In the short term, it’s likely to succeed in this, since the US is not heavily dependent on Venezuelan oil.

However, the longer the fight with Maduro continues the more likely some consumer impact will be felt. Should the fight escalate and possibly include military action, the likelier the effects on all oil and gas sales and the higher the possibility of impacts on the economy, already weakened by Trump’s government shutdown.

Southwest Florida will feel these impacts, like the rest of the country.

For more information on the political crisis see: How Venezuela got here: a timeline of the political crisis (Bloomberg)

For an extensive explanation of the US-Venezuelan oil relationship and the impact of the sanctions see: AP Explains: What a Venezuelan oil embargo could mean for US (Washington Post)

For a transcript of the White House press briefing see: Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders (White House)

For the video of the press briefing see: White House Daily Briefing (C-SPAN)

Liberty lives in light