In The News
Congress is making a bicameral push to modernize the Plum Book. A list of all political appointees today is only updated and published once every four years. But a new bill would require the Office of Personnel Management to post and maintain a public website with names, titles, agencies, geographic locations and other information about senior government officials. House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Congressmen Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and John Sarbanes (D-Md.) introduced the Periodically Listing Updates to Management, or PLUM Act. Delaware Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) introduced the Senate companion.
States are beginning to ease some restrictions, but each jurisdiction is developing its own metrics for when to reopen and how to keep residents safe. Most of Maryland began phase one of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s reopening plan in mid-May. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which had higher levels of infection, entered phase one on Monday. “Because there has not been a national strategy, each of us has developed our own re-engagement strategies,” Whitmer told lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including Maryland Democratic Rep. John P. Sarbanes. Sarbanes asked the witnesses how blood serum tests for COVID antibodies are factoring into states’ response plans. Some experts say the antibody test could be key to re-opening more activities. “Obviously it has a certain allure to it, this notion that you can discover whether you got the infection and have overcome it and are now in a more robust position,” Sarbanes said. The Food and Drug Administration has approved 150 different companies to make the tests, which are supposed to measure whether someone was previously infected with the coronavirus and has antibodies against the disease in their blood. But some early antibody tests have been criticized as inaccurate and ineffective. The governors in attendance at the hearing said not enough is known yet about the efficacy of the tests, or even what level of immunity antibodies provide. “I think we are all right to be somewhat cautious about this, but it does have great promise for our strategy in response to the pandemic,” Sarbanes said. “The emphasis rightly remains on the diagnostic test, with all the different needs for supplies.”
A project to increase speeds for Amtrak and MARC trains currently slowed by aging rail infrastructure in Baltimore is getting a boost from an $8 million Federal Railroad Administration grant. The money, announced Wednesday by the agency, will help to rehabilitate and upgrade a five-mile section of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and allow trains to travel 50% faster, up from 60 mph to 90 mph. The improvements will take place between the north end of West Baltimore Station to Winans at the southern end of Halethorpe station, which serves both MARC and Amtrak trains. The work will include replacing deteriorated timber rail ties with concrete, installing heavier rail and laying new track ballast, which holds the track in place beneath moving trains…. Members of Maryland's Congressional delegation, which sent a letter of support for the project to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in December, said in a statement Thursday that the improvements "will help better ensure Amtrak’s safety and efficiency while also encouraging economic development in the area." “We were proud to fight for this funding and will continue working to secure federal investments in Amtrak to ensure it can weather COVID-19, continue serving and employing our residents, and drive economic opportunity to our state," said the delegation, which includes U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes and the recently elected Kweisi Mfume.
Many Americans are replaying, in their minds, the steps they have taken and the choices they have made with regard to the coronavirus crisis, but perhaps few with such tragic force as Rick Bright, who testified in a House hearing on Thursday. Bright, who in April was transferred from his position as the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, had caused a “commotion,” as one colleague put it, by urging more action at pandemic-planning meetings as far back as January and February. At the hearing, Representative John Sarbanes, a Democrat of Maryland, who had a pewter-gray mask around his neck—the members lowered their masks when speaking or, in some cases, when seated—asked Bright to return to that period. “I am sure that there are specific conversations, e-mails, moments in time that you remember like they happened yesterday,” Sarbanes said. Could he recall any particularly haunting ones that had caused a “sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach?” Bright answered by speaking about e-mails he’d received in late January from an American mask manufacturer who warned, “ ‘We’re in deep shit. The world is. And we need to act.’ ” He said, “And I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could in H.H.S., and got no response. From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis—our health-care workers—because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball. That was our last window of opportunity to turn on that production, to save the lives of those health-care workers. And we didn’t act.” The New Yorker’s coronavirus news coverage and analysis are free for all readers. Sarbanes observed that there was “one inescapable conclusion” to be drawn from Bright’s testimony: “It didn’t have to be that way. There was another path. Things could have gone differently.” It is, at this point—with more than eighty thousand people in the U.S. dead, and, for New Yorkers, the experience barely behind us of the days when the city’s health system was so overwhelmed that the dead couldn’t properly be dealt with—hard to say otherwise. Yet almost no one in the Trump Administration has said so, and certainly no one at Bright’s level.
The whistle-blower who was ousted as the head of a federal medical research agency charged on Thursday that top Trump administration officials failed to heed his early warnings to stock up on masks and other supplies to combat the coronavirus, and that Americans died as a result. “Lives were endangered, and I believe lives were lost,” Dr. Rick Bright, who was removed in April as the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, told a House subcommittee as he warned, “The window is closing to address this pandemic.” Over nearly four hours of testimony, Dr. Bright told lawmakers that the outbreak would “get worse and be prolonged” if the United States did not swiftly develop a national testing strategy. He also predicted vaccine shortages if the administration did not draft a distribution plan now…. Democrats painted Dr. Bright as a prescient man of courage. “It all adds up to one inescapable conclusion: It didn’t have to be this way,” said Representative John Sarbanes, Democrat of Maryland. “Things are upside down. In you we have someone who made the right call in the early days, who has been removed from your position, when so many people who made the wrong call still have their jobs.”
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) asked Richard Bright when he knew with certainly there was a problem with the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic: “Tell me about just one specific moment when you had that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach because you were not seeing the response you knew needed to happen,” Sarbanes asked at Thursday’s House subcommittee hearing. “Congressman, I’ll never forget the emails I received” from Mike Bowen, a manufacturer of surgical masks, “indicating that … our mask supply, our N95 mask supply, was completely decimated, and he said, ‘We’re in deep s---. The world is, and we need to act,’” Bright said. “I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could in HHS and got no response,” he said. “From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our health-care workers because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball. That was the last window of opportunity to turn on that production, to save the lives of those health-care workers, and we didn’t act.” “Listening to your testimony gives me chills,” Sarbanes responded, “because it adds up to one inescapable conclusion: It didn’t have to be this way. There was another path; things could have gone differently. The federal response to the pandemic could have been much more effective.”
House Democrats have proposed mandating that states send all voters a ballot in the case of emergencies — in their most recent coronavirus relief package, dubbed the HEROES Act, along with other sweeping changes to the elections. The bill would also require universal “no-excuse” absentee voting, online and same-day voter registration and expanded early voting, among other changes. In broad strokes, Americans support the expansion of no-excuse absentee voting. A recent Pew Research Center found seven in 10 adults supported allowing any voter to vote by mail if they want to…. The election administration reforms in the package would likely be one of many points of contention. McConnell strongly opposed Democrats’ expansive election reform bill H.R. 1, which contained some of the same reforms included in the HEROES Act and was passed on a party line vote in the House in early 2019. Democrats argue that the public widely supports their proposals — and that the election security grant funding mechanism included in the HEROES Act is of critical importance. “On balance, [voters] think voting by mail is a good idea, and that we ought to expand that opportunity. They also, based on preference or access or other factors, want to make sure that there’s going to be some meaningful in-person voting opportunities,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who helped shepherd H.R. 1 through the House last year. Sarbanes and other Democrats also said all forms of voting need to be available in November. Those include "expanded vote by mail, significant early voting opportunities, and then safe in-person voting opportunities on Election Day," he said. "We need all three of those things.” House Democrats are seeking to allocate $3.6 billion in additional funding to election officials to help prepare their states for holding elections in the middle of the pandemic. The first CARES relief package included $400 million for that purpose. Some outside groups are pressing for more funding for state and local election officials, arguing that time is running short.
A group of House and Senate Democrats seeking stronger oversight of the massive coronavirus relief programs is introducing a new bill to force companies to publicly report how they're using the funds, and to beef up the oversight of the small business aid program. Introduced by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Chris Coons, D-Del., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the proposal would strengthen some of the key watchdog provisions in the original $2.3 trillion CARES Act, according to a review of the bill obtained by ABC News. The measure would require the Small Business Administration to publicly report information on lenders and recipients in the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses every week, in an effort to add transparency to an initiative that was criticized for initially allowing large, publicly-traded companies to participate in the program. It would also expand the jurisdiction of the Congressional Oversight Commission -- appointed by Hill leaders to monitor the Treasury and Federal Reserve programs -- to include all spending, including the Paycheck Protection Program. The proposal, which is being introduced by Reps. John Sarbanes, D-Md., and Pramila Jayapal D-Wash., in the House, would also codify the Federal Reserve's plans to release the names and amounts borrowed in their coronavirus lending programs and require borrowers to share how the funds are being used, along with information about compensation and their workforce -- such as executive salaries and bonuses.