by Gabe Fleisher
Good morning! It’s Friday, May 20, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 172 days away. Election Day 2024 is 900 days away.
In today’s newsletter: I’m leading off with a roundup of bills that passed (or failed) in the House or Senate yesterday, to give you an idea of what your representatives in Washington are working on.
Later on, I’ll answer a reader question on the inaction that led to the nationwide baby formula shortage. Plus, some updates on abortion, Covid, and other issues — and a look at the day ahead in Washington.
Here we go:
What Congress got done yesterday
The House and Senate are done for the week, but both chambers held a number of important votes Thursday before departing. Here’s a roundup of the legislation Congress passed — and didn’t — yesterday:
- Ukraine aid: The Senate passed a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine in an 86-11 vote on Thursday; it passed the House last week, so the bill now goes to President Biden’s desk for his signature. The measure, which provides new weapons and equipment to Ukraine, had been delayed in the Senate by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). All “nay” votes came from Republicans.
- Baby formula: By unanimous consent, the Senate also passed the Access to Baby Formula Act, which will allow low-income families who purchase baby formula through the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program to buy a larger variety of brands. After a 414-9 vote in the House, the measure also goes to Biden’s desk.
- About half of baby formula bought in the U.S. is done so through WIC benefits; under the previous contracts and requirements, families were largely limited to purchasing now-recalled Abbott formula.
- Price gouging: The House passed the Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act, which empowers the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate and punish energy companies for possible price gouging as gas prices continue to rise.
- The vote was 217-207, with four Democrats joining every Republican in voting “nay”; opponents said the measure would not solve the underlying issues behind the price increases. The bill is unlikely to pass the Senate, where it would need 10 Republican “yea” votes to advance.
- Restaurant relief: The Small Business COVID Relief Act, a $48 billion package providing aid to restaurants, gyms, theaters, minor league sports teams, and other small businesses hit by the pandemic, failed to advance in the Senate on Thursday. The vote was 52-43, with five Republicans joining all present Democrats in favor. The measure needed 60 votes to advance.
- A new Smithsonian: The Senate did, however, pass a bill setting up a commission to study whether to create a National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The measure passed unanimously in both the House and Senate; it now heads to Biden for his signature.
More news to know
Here’s the latest on abortion, Covid, and the Pennsylvania Senate race:
- A new abortion law: Oklahoma lawmakers passed a bill on Thursday that would ban abortions in the state from the moment of fertilization. That means nearly all abortions will be prohibited in the state, making it more restrictive than any other state law. The measure does make exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother — and explicitly allows the Plan B pill.
- Context: The bill now goes to Gov. Kevin Stitt (R-OK), who is expected to sign it. Stitt has declared his intention to make Oklahoma “the most pro-life state in the country”; just two weeks ago, he signed a 6-week abortion ban into law, a prelude to the even stricter measure he’ll soon sign.
- The enforcement mechanism: Like Texas’ 6-week abortion ban, both Oklahoma bills are enforced by citizens suing those who perform abortions (although not the women who undergo the procedure).
- Cases numbers double: According to the New York Times pandemic dashboard, Covid cases and hospitalizations in the U.S. are both increasing, ticking up 52% and 33%, respectively, over the last two weeks. Importantly, deaths from Covid are moving in the opposite direction, down 17% in the same period. Cases are rising in every state but Maine.
- Latest vaccine news: The CDC formally recommended on Thursday that children ages 5 to 11 receive a Pfizer booster shot, five months after their second dose of the vaccine.
- Oh, and: Cases of monkeypox — a virus that is generally only found in Africa — have begun to pop up in the U.S., U.K., Spain, Portugal, and Italy this week. Don’t compare it to Covid, though: per The Atlantic, “monkeypox doesn’t spread easily, and not over long distances through the air.” Unlike Covid, it’s also a known quantity, one that doctors have long experience in combatting.
The latest from Pennsylvania
- Where the Senate race stands: With 99% of the vote in, Trump-endorsed former talk show host Dr. Mehmet Oz is clinging on to a slim lead in the Pennsylvania Senate Republican primary. Oz currently stands at 31.2% of the vote to former hedge fund executive David McCormick’s 31.1% — a difference of just 1,100 votes.
- What’s next: According to Pennsylvania’s State Department, there are fewer than 10,000 mail-in ballots officials have yet to count in the race. When those ballots are tabulated, there will likely be a recount, as is required in Pennsylvania for any race with a margin less than 0.5%. Oz and McCormick are both lawyering up for a recount and any election challenges to come.
Ask Gabe: Why didn’t Washington act on the formula shortage sooner?
Q: Regarding the baby formula shortage, do you know why it took so long for Washington to do anything about it? It’s been going on for months and I can’t imagine the White House and Congress are just finding out about it now. — Christine R.
A: In Wednesday’s newsletter, I detailed the flurry of actions that President Biden, Congress, and the FDA have taken this week to address the baby formula shortage in the U.S.
But Christina brings up a great point: why are policymakers just now addressing the issue?
Abbott Nutrition recalled the nation’s best-selling baby formula brand back in February, and it was then that the FDA ordered the company to shut down production at its Sturgis, Michigan plant, which played a big role in the shortage since much of the U.S.’ baby formula was manufactured there. (Both the recall and the production halt were due to bacteria contamination at the plant that possibly led to two infant deaths.)
So Washington could have at least been preparing for this shortage since February. But the shortage — and the inaction — actually goes back even farther than that: as the graph below from Datasembly shows, the percentage of out-of-stock baby formula on U.S. shelves has been steadily rising since December, partly due to pandemic-era supply chain issues.
What’s more, the FDA actually knew for months about the bacteria contamination at the Michigan plant and did nothing about it. According to Politico, the FDA first received a report of the infant illness’ possible link to the Abbott formula back in September. Then, a whistleblower warned the agency about the safety violations at the plant in October.
It wasn’t until December that the FDA interviewed the whistleblower or until late January that the agency launched a full inspection of the plant. It wasn’t until mid-February — three more infant hospitalizations, and two deaths, later — that the formula was recalled.
Why the months-long (and potentially fatal) lag? I wish I could answer that important question... but we just don’t know. FDA commissioner Robert Califf testified before a House subcommittee on Wednesday, and this was all he’d say when asked that question: “We have an ongoing investigation about the details of exactly what happened, you know, from point A to point B along the way. Since it is ongoing, I can’t give extensive more details on that part of it.”
President Biden has similarly brushed off questions about why his administration didn’t act sooner: “If we’d been better mind readers, I guess we could’ve. But we moved as quickly as the problem became apparent to us.”
But that claim is contradicted by the FDA’s own timeline. And the Biden administration didn’t need to read minds to know there was a problem coming, just the whistleblower report.
Accordingly, members of Congress from both parties slammed Califf at the hearing Wednesday. House Appropriations Committee chair Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) called it a “dereliction of duty,” telling the FDA leader he couldn’t “hide behind an investigation” in refusing to answer lawmakers’ questions about the months of inaction.
“We need answers,” DeLauro added. “We need them now.”
What your leaders are doing today
All times Eastern.
President Biden is in South Korea, on his first trip to Asia since taking office. Earlier this morning, he landed in Pyeongtaek, toured a Samsung plant with South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol, delivered remarks with Yoon, and then traveled to Seoul.
- Context: This trip, which will also take him to Japan, is Biden’s chance to focus on one of his top foreign policy objectives: competing with China. Also, per the Washington Post, officials expect North Korea to conduct a long-range missile or nuclear test as a show of strength while Biden is in the region.
Vice President Harris will travel to Falls Church, Virginia. She’ll deliver remarks at Meridian High School on installing clean energy, zero-emission school buses at America’s schools (3:40 pm). After returning to Washington, she’ll give remarks at an event hosted by the AAPI Victory Power Fund, a super PAC targeted at Asian-American/Pacific Islander voters (6:15 pm).
First Lady Biden is in Panama. Earlier this morning, she traveled there from Ecuador, met with Panamanian first lady Yazmin Colón de Cortizo, visited a local school with Cortizo, and met with staff at the U.S. embassy in Panama City.
Second Gentleman Emhoff will deliver remarks at the 21st annual Women’s Power Lunch hosted by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) in Chicago, Illinois (1 pm).
The Senate is not in session.
The House will meet for a pro forma session (9:30 am), a brief meeting in which no business is conducted and few members attend.
The Supreme Court has no opinion releases or conferences scheduled.
One more thing for your radar: Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), a potential 2024 presidential contender, will speak at a local GOP event in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state (6 pm).
Links to watch for yourself: Biden speech in South Korea • Harris at AAPI event • House pro forma • Scott in New Hampshire
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