Plus, why isn't Congress an essential job?
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Today’s read: 8 minutes.
States are set to begin “reopening,” a question about why Congress isn’t an essential business and some important follow-ups from this week.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who is pushing harder for reopening than any other state leader, being sworn in after the 2019 election. Photo: Georgia National Guard
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Jackson from Denver, who is a few weeks away from becoming a Doctor of Medicine, wrote in saying he "had a bone to pick" with the study showing lower rates of coronavirus deaths than previously thought.
"They tested 3,300 residents and 1.5% came back positive, then they scaled using zip code/gender/race to estimate 2.5% to 4.2%. Their internal measure of 30/30 true negative samples toward specificity is inadequate for a population-based study. A false-positive rate of ~0.5% (manufacturer's data), proven on 371 samples, leaves a lot of grey area. Possibly half if not more of their "positives" could have been false positives... I don't mean to tear down optimistic data, but as you pointed out their conclusions went a little far. We should be careful with our interpretations."
Larisa from Cleveland, who is an immigrant herself, wrote in about “my take” on the immigration story from yesterday.
“You say ‘how difficult it is to come here’ and the left says the same, implying that it’s bad. Why? If a man from the street wants to come and live in your house, will you make it easy for him? I am an immigrant. My family came from the former Soviet Union 27 years ago. It was a long and difficult process. We had to pass a political interview and a health exam. Yes — even 27 years ago, America did not want to bring people with infectious diseases. And we did not expect that America will accept us, we were grateful that America accepted us! I think many young Americans forget that immigrating to America is NOT a right or entitlement and it should not be easy!”
What D.C. is talking about.
Bringing the country back. If there is a theme from this week, it’s the “light at the end of the tunnel” in certain places across the country. Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is allowing nonessential businesses to open as soon as Friday which is implementing the broadest rollback of restrictions anywhere in the country. Hair salons, barbershops, tattoo parlors and even gyms will be allowed to open Friday as long as they follow social distancing and sanitation guidelines. Restaurants, social clubs and theaters are expected to come back April 27th. Only bars, nightclubs and amusement parks in Georgia will remain closed.
In South Carolina, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster allowed access to public beaches starting this week. He also allowed retail shops to open on Monday, though restaurants and salons will remain closed. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, is fielding recommendations from his task force to reopen the state, and indicated some beaches will have loosening restrictions soon. In New York, hardest hit by the virus, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo indicated yesterday that he would reopen the state on a regional basis. Cuomo had previously hinted this might be his strategy, but yesterday was the first time he said it affirmatively — meaning parts of the state will be brought back to life before New York City.
Then, this morning, President Donald Trump tweeted that “States are safely coming back. Our Country is starting to OPEN FOR BUSINESS again. Special care is, and always will be, given to our beloved seniors (except me!). Their lives will be better than ever...WE LOVE YOU ALL!”
What the right is saying.
It’s a mixed bag. The general feeling on the right is that we can’t keep applying the same measures to New York City as we do to Arkansas. Every state, city and county is being impacted differently, and our response should reflect that. There is a strong focus on the economic impacts of the lockdowns and a growing belief that we are doing more harm than good by keeping people at home. Still, there are divisions as to what degree we should take reopening right now. Lindsey Graham, who is a Republican senator in South Carolina, threw his support behind Republican Gov. Henry McMaster. But at the same time, he criticized Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.
“I support what South Carolina Governor @henrymcmaster announced yesterday — a small reopening of our state’s economy with a focus on social distancing,” Graham tweeted. “I worry that our friends and neighbors in Georgia are going too fast too soon.”
In Georgia, Kemp’s spokesperson Cody Hall said: “we can’t have shelter-in-place forever and we can’t have how businesses operated last fall, or even a month ago.” Hall emphasized there must be a happy medium — something between the two that includes precautionary measures but allows businesses to bring in money. Kemp himself said he didn’t “give a damn” about politics, but was worried about someone who spent their entire life building a business and is having that ripped out from under them.
Still, despite this, it’s worth noting that ending social distancing is a fringe position — even on the conservative side of politics. Just 14% of all Americans say we should stop social distancing to stimulate the economy, and 76% say we should continue to social distance for as long as necessary, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.
What the left is saying.
It’s also a mixed bag, but there is far less dissent. Generally speaking, people on the left seem to feel like we need more time. The states that are pushing forward with reopening now are being criticized heavily, even by their own citizens. In Atlanta, business owners told The Wall Street Journal they would not change what they were doing yet, despite Gov. Kemp allowing them to. One business owner even warned his employees he wouldn’t let them work if he finds out they went to a restaurant or a shop. Atlanta’s mayor, a Democrat, said she was “blindsided” by Kemp’s announcement and promised to continue to encourage Atlanta residents to stay home.
Then there’s the idea of regional differences: in theory, it might make sense. But if Pennsylvania “opens up” and New Jersey doesn’t, what’s going to happen then? Won’t people from Pennsylvania travel into New Jersey, or vice versa, and then it just becomes a mixed bag of infections and status? Dr. Fauci, who seems to be one of the few Trump administration voices liberals will listen to, warned Monday that reopening businesses too soon will risk a fresh spike of infections.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who has become a bit of a darling of the left during the pandemic, seemed to throw his support behind the regional plan, and even compared it to how states will (and should) open at different times. Cuomo explained that northern regions of New York have been impacted far less than New York City, and those areas should be allowed to come back to life soon. “We operate as one state, but we also have to understand variations,” Cuomo said. “And you do want to get this economy open as soon as possible, and if a situation is radically different in one part of the state than another, take that into consideration.”
I’ll start by just saying this: I think everyone here is well-intentioned. Prominent in all of this chaos are these competing arguments that liberals want to destroy businesses so Trump loses his re-election bid and conservatives don’t care about killing off the elderly population for some profits. Stop it. Both are just gross, stupid generalizations that make our country worse off. The reality is we are in an incredibly difficult position, with tremendously hard, nuanced decisions to be made, and every lawmaker in every state has competing interests and beliefs in his ear pushing him in one direction or another. This all sucks, and we’re all in it together, and aside from some fringe actors, there isn’t really much disagreement. Polls and common sense show the vast majority of Americans want to leave their houses, want to work, but want their families and friends to be safe.
I’m generally sympathetic to the right’s idea that a state like Arkansas or Nebraska or Texas should not be treated like New York City. That obviously just makes sense on the face of it, and I don’t think many people on the left would argue differently. The real issue here is how we handle things like intra-state travel if two nearby places are being held to different standards. There’s also the obvious consequence of this: migration out of hot zones. I live in Brooklyn, NY. If I find out that a small town 90 minutes north of the city is “reopening,” a place where I could get groceries normally, breathe some fresh air, walk around without a mask, go sit at a bar and have someone serve me drinks, perhaps enjoy a meal someone else cooks for me at a restaurant (holy cow this sounds so good), what’s stopping me from going up there? A CDC recommendation that I should self-quarantine for 14 days if I leave New York City? Fat chance.
Now, would I personally do something like that? Probably not. But I am not going to pretend like other people wouldn’t — and I’m not sure I’d even really blame them. I’ve got family members who are already planning to leave the densely populated place they live to go spend time somewhere more rural. I also thought Cuomo’s proposal for New York was reasonable, and I think many of the southern Republican governors who are talking about loosening restrictions slowly may show us the roadmap for bringing life back to “normal.” What’s really going to be the ultimate test here is what happens when those states come back online. Will there be a huge outbreak in Georgia or Florida or South Carolina? Will folks from Manhattan bring coronavirus to upstate New York? If those things happen, it’s going to slow down everything for the states who are waiting in the shadows to figure out what to do. And I really, really wouldn’t want to be the guinea pigs in this experiment.
If I were a governor in a state that hadn’t been hit particularly hard, I think I’d probably be drawing up plans to lift lockdown measures, too. But like I said last week, there is a lot of economic sensibility in waiting longer. The economy isn’t going to magically come back to life because we lift social distancing guidelines — it’s only going to bounce back if citizens have confidence to leave their homes, to go to work, to eat out, to spend their money. And that’s only going to happen if they feel safe and feel like the virus is under control. Right now, there’s no data I’ve seen that Americans feel that way.
This morning, President Trump used twitter to threaten war. He said in a tweet that he had advised the U.S. Navy to “shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” The tweet comes about a week after the Pentagon said Iran sent 11 fast boats to conduct “dangerous and harassing approaches” to six American warships in the Persian Gulf. It’s not unusual for provocative actions like that between countries, especially Iran and the U.S. in the Persian Gulf, but American ships are often far superior in both weaponry and defense — so they typically act in a reserved way and let those things slide. The harassment usually ends with stark warnings from the Pentagon. If a Navy ship were to destroy a gunboat, it would represent a major escalation in the tension between Iran and the U.S. Click.
An image the U.S. Navy released of Iranian gunboats driving close to a Navy ship on April 15th.
- President Trump announced that his immigration executive order Tangle covered yesterday will temporarily shut down some kinds of immigration for 60 days. The order only applies to people seeking permanent residency, or green cards. "By pausing immigration, we will help unemployed Americans be first in line for jobs as America reopens. So important,” he said. Immigration hardliners were hoping for a bill that went further, and critics say Trump is only complicating the lives of immigrants who were already close to being admitted to the U.S.
- The Senate passed the Phase Four coronavirus relief package that Tangle covered on Monday. As expected, the bill costs about $484 billion, with $322 billion going to the Paycheck Protection Program, the small-business loan system set up to keep businesses afloat during the national lockdown. $60 billion of that money is being sent to small lenders and community banks, and another $60 billion is going to the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, which helps businesses in underserved areas. There was also $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion for testing. The House votes on the bill tomorrow and it could hit the president’s desk before the weekend.
Your questions, answered.
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Q: I've been hearing about how Trump wants to enact a never-before-used law to circumvent the Senate to get his way — how is it possible that Congress is not considered an essential job during a pandemic? I understand that they're old, but I'm struggling to find a good reason why a grocery store worker is considered essential but the legislative branch of our government isn't. Am I missing something?
— Eric, Denver, Colorado
Tangle: Funnily enough, people were asking the reverse of this question just a month ago. When Congress was in session trying to get the first coronavirus relief bill done, a lot of people were scratching their heads and wondering why Congress was at work when the rest of the country had to stay home. Now, Congress is (kind of) staying home and some people are wondering why they aren’t doing their jobs.
Anyway, as to Trump and his never-before-used law, I just want to be clear: what he’s actually doing is attempting to “adjourn Congress” — or put them on a formal break from work. Basically, Congress is in a Pro-forma session, which is a kind of recess, right now. That means they are on a break but not really on a break. If they were in an official recess, then Trump could make what are known as recess appointments. But since Congress isn’t on an actual recess, Trump needs their approval to confirm judges. So his goal is not actually related to whether Congress is “essential” or not, or whether Congress should be “working.” What he wants to do is almost the opposite: a formal break in Congress’s session so he can make recess appointments. Congress typically refuses to fully adjourn during breaks like this to prevent a president from making recess appointments. It gives members a chance to go home without going into an actual recess, so they are out of D.C. but don’t relinquish their power. Ironically enough, it’s exactly what lawmakers did to stop Obama from appointing judges.
The constitutional authority Trump has to adjourn Congress is hotly contested. Jonathan Turley, the conservative constitutional law expert who backed Trump during the impeachment inquiry, said Trump had the authority to adjourn Congress during extraordinary sessions but cautioned that “this power has never been used and should not be used now.” Generally speaking, the left and right actually share skepticism about whether Trump has the authority to adjourn Congress and certainly whether he should. Even though Republicans are critical of Democrats for delaying his nominations, they’re not so critical they support him in adjourning Congress.
As for Congress being essential, it’s a good question. I feel similarly. Why should Congress get to go home and grocery store clerks have to go into work? That does seem, in a word, insane. But essential workers have never really been defined to include Congress. Typically, the downside of being an essential worker is little more than being expected to show up for a job during a snow day. Now it carries a lot more weight, and could mean being on the front lines of a deadly contagious disease. The Department of Homeland Security identified essential workers during a pandemic as someone who works “in a critical infrastructure industry, as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, such as healthcare services and pharmaceutical and food supply, you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.”
That layout of who is essential and who is not is something the DHS has been working on for decades. There is actually an entire 10-page guidance you can read here. Here is a graphic associated with the list:
Basically, government officials are expected to continue to communicate and keep things running when there is a pandemic, but they are not necessarily expected to convene in person. There is far more onus on local and state governments to stay functioning than there is on the federal government, though. And in those guidelines, many workers are included who are now being told not to come to work (for instance: census workers are listed as essential in the DHS guidelines, but in-person census work has been delayed). Congress is kind of a self-officiating entity — so if members agree they shouldn’t be there in person, they’re not going to be there in person.
Which brings me to my final point: Congress only functions if people are there in person. Inexplicably, we have no system for remote work. One of my niche, forward-thinking proposals that I have advocated for since 2014 is that members of Congress live in their districts instead of D.C., and work together remotely to make the federal government run. It’s always been mindboggling to me that representatives and members of the Senate spend most of their time in D.C. and a little time at home, instead of the reverse. Now, though, there is growing criticism of Congress for having no remote infrastructure set up. Vice published a hilariously pointed piece about the absurdity of Congress not having the infrastructure to work remotely, and it’s worth a read. There are about 70 members of Congress pleading for remote voting capabilities, but Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell seem to agree the risks of hacking are too great — even though other organizations like the CIA, FBI, and the Pentagon work remotely all the time.
In short: You’re not really missing anything. The gist of it is there is a lot more expectation that state and local governments continue to function so municipalities don’t break down, and there’s no way for Congress to function remotely. You need the trash picked up and you need to be able to get a title on your car, or government insurance or employment, but we don’t necessarily need Congress to be passing more laws. Hypothetically speaking, Congress could have gone home and not done anything to respond to coronavirus. They only stayed and worked until relief bills were completed because of the public pressure and outcry that would have come had they not. That’s basically Democracy in action — it’s a contract between the voters and the elected officials. If Congress wanted to shut it down, and it seems like they won’t be doing much until they try to reconvene May 4th, there is very little we could do about it legally.
A story that matters.
U.S. health regulators have given the ‘OK’ to the first coronavirus test that allows people to collect their own samples at home. The approach is expected to expand testing options in several states. For now, it will only be available for health care workers and frontline first responders under a doctor’s orders. And it still needs to be shipped to LabCorp, the company that processes the results. But if it is expanded to the general population, the test is an opportunity to improve our understanding of how far the virus has spread — without having to send people to the hospital or a testing location. Kits will cost $119 and won’t be available in Maryland, New Jersey, New York or Rhode Island, where at-home kits are not allowed. But mounting pressure for more expansive testing could lead to changes that make tests like this more widely available. Click.
- $5 million. The amount of money the news outlet Axios, frequently cited by Tangle, was awarded in PPP loans. Axios is the only news organization I know of to publicly disclose receiving one of the loans.
- 87.5%. The percentage of the PPP loans that were for less than $350,000, according to the Small Business Administration.
- 31.92%. The percentage of the $350 billion in the PPP loan program that went toward loans for less than $350,000.
- 48-47. President Trump’s advantage over Joe Biden in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, according to new polling of battleground states.
- 191%. The percentage increase of new coronavirus cases in North Dakota over the last week compared to the week prior.
- 300. The number of layoffs expected at Vice News and Refinery29, one of the first big examples of how the coronavirus pandemic may impact media outlets.
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The Navy ship that docked in New York City could be on its way back to Virginia, a sign of the positive trends in the city most impacted by the coronavirus. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a press conference that he told President Trump the ship — the USNS Comfort — had been helpful, brought “comfort” to the city and saved lives. But New York has the virus and its hospital capacity coming under control, and Trump wants the ship to come home so it can re-deploy to other areas where it may be needed more. The ship arrived on March 30th, treated 179 patients and still has more than 50 onboard. But it will likely depart soon. Click.