The mood in the U.S. Capitol, sparsely populated this week since the U.S. House was already on its Memorial Day break, was somber and subdued because of the horrific mass shooting of 19 school children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas.
That tragedy, and efforts to mark the second anniversary of George Floyd’s death this week, underscored Congress’s impotence when it comes to addressing some of the nation’s pressing problems. Coming on the heels of a massacre at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., the Uvalde shooting has not changed attitudes in Congress, with Republicans maintaining any new effort to regulate guns would not stop the bloodshed and Democrats unsuccessfully pleading for support for largely modest measures aimed at taking guns out of the hands of those most likely to do harm.
A poll taken by Morning Consult and Politico before Tuesday’s Texas school shooting found that a majority of Americans said Congress should pass gun control legislation. Overall, 59 percent of respondents said it was “very” or “somewhat” important that elected leaders in the United States pass stricter gun control laws. Meanwhile, 13 percent said it was “not too important” to pass gun restrictions and 19 percent said it was “not important at all.”
Despite the congressional gridlock, a result of the inability to pass gun bills in the closely divided U.S. Senate, a group of senators led by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., are trying to broker a deal to win 10 Republican votes needed to break the deadlock. But the negotiators are not optimistic.
Meanwhile, commemorations of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police were reminders of Congress’ inability to approve a police reform bill. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would ban choke holds, limit “no knock warrants”, and weaken a legal shield that protects police from liability for bad acts, is also a victim of the 50-50 Senate.
A frustrated President Biden used his executive authority this week to implement some reforms, mostly on federal law enforcement agencies. In a Rose Garden ceremony attended by Floyd’s relatives, Biden signed the measures, which authorize the creation of a national accreditation system for police departments and creates a national register of officers who have disciplinary records or face substantiated misconduct complaints.
“Thank goodness President Biden is taking this historic action,” said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who also attended the Rose Garden ceremony.
In a statement, Ellison said “Biden has shown once again today he understands it’s government’s duty to help provide that safety. But Congress is still failing to do its part.”
“Two years to the day after the death of George Floyd that sparked a worldwide cry for just policing and safety for all, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is still languishing in Congress,” Ellison said. “Congress is failing in its duty to build trust and keep all Americans safe — civilians and police officers both — so the President took decisive action.”
A horrible environment of mistrust
Although the U.S. House was on recess this week, the chamber held remote hearings on some key issues – including the nation’s baby formula shortage.
One hearing focused on the Food and Drug Administration’s deadly delay in responding to a whistleblower’s complaint of problems at an Abbott baby formula plant in Michigan The FDA was also slammed for its “work at home” policy during the pandemic that resulted in a lack of on-site inspections of the Abbott plant, which what eventually shut down by the administration because of concerns about formula that was contaminated with pathogens and may have led to the deaths of two infants and the sickening of many more, including an infant in Minnesota who was hospitalized for 22 days with a Cronobacter infection. Abbot denies its formula was to blame for the deaths and illnesses.
Another hearing, in the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, featured witnesses describing the plight of hungry babies and desperate parents as baby formula, especially specialty formulas, disappeared from grocery store shelves.
Committee member, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th, asked witnesses about misleading and bad information on social media about the formula crisis.
“A horrible environment of mistrust has been created,” McCollum said. “Are the online media sites, is Twitter, is anybody doing anything? Is there a safe site to go get help for your child?
Witness Ginger Carney, director of clinical nutrition at St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital in Memphis, said the internet is “rampant” with harmful recipes for homemade formulas and suggestions to substitute formula with goat’s milk or almond milk, which lack calories and nutrition.
Carney also said there’s misinformation about the safety of formula. She said a mother told her “I don’t think I would get any formula on the shelf because it could be contaminated.”
McCollum said she planned to work with Minnesota state legislators to get accurate information to the public.
“I see an opportunity to communicate with our state legislators,” McCollum said. “I also see a failed opportunity for our public media organizations to get the facts out, to get it right, whether it’s snooze radio or whatever, or social media. These are our public airwaves and this is a public crisis, just as COVID was.”
The battle over a wilderness, continued
McCollum also fired another salvo this week in her war with Twin Metals Minnesota and Republican colleague Rep. Peter Stauber (R-8th) over proposed mining in a popular wilderness area in northeastern Minnesota.
For years, McCollum has tried to win congressional approval of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Act, legislation she sponsored that aims to prevent mining in nearly a quarter-million acres of Superior National Forest near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. McCollum says the ban is needed to prevent runoff and byproducts of mining for nickel, cobalt, copper and other mineral from the pristine area, which draws many tourists.
She invited several witnesses who agreed with her to the hearing.
“Permanent protection for the headwaters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, or Boundary Waters, is the right thing to do for both present and future generations and is in line with the science and decades of established law,” testified former U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell.
Tidwell said at least two dozen new scientific reports document the likelihood of harm if sulfide-ore copper mining were allowed on Superior National Forest lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.
Democrats on the panel agreed the mining ban was needed. But Republican members of the panel, including Stauber – whose Iron Range district includes the Boundary Waters area – said McCollum doesn’t live anywhere near the area that would be off limits to mining and her bill is about “ending an industry that has employed Minnesotans and Iron Rangers for over 130 years.”
“It’s about imposing a radical, keep-it-in-the-ground philosophy in lockstep with the Biden administration,” Stauber said. “And it’s about keeping, opportunity, wealth, and economic development out of northern Minnesota.”
Stauber also said the proposed Twin Metals mine would not be anywhere near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and located instead in the Superior National Forest.
“There is no proposed mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or in the surrounding Mining Protection Area, which we call a buffer zone,” Stauber said.
Stauber’s sole witness was Julie Padilla, chief regulatory officer at Twin Metals Minnesota. She said the studies her company conducted determined its plans to mine for copper, nickel and other metals are safe.
“The mine that Twin Metals has proposed – which is one of the projects directly targeted by this legislation – encompasses the future of mining,” Padilla testified. “Twin Metals will be a carbon neutral mine, utilizing renewable energy and an electric mining fleet.”
Padilla also said the nation needs the metals the mine would produce wind turbines, electric cars and other green technology.
Another argument Twin Metals has made is that mining the Boundary Waters area would result in hundreds of high-paying jobs, including 750 full time employees at the mine and about 1,500 “spinoff” jobs, including “several million hours” of union labor time in the construction of the facility.
Is the 1st District race cooked?
Political analyst Charlie Cook determined this week that the race for the 1st congressional district will be won by a Republican.
The race to replace Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who died in February, was shifted by Cook from “likely R” to “safe R.”
That is not so much a reflection of the electability of former Hormel CEO Jeff Ettinger, who handily won Tuesday’s Democratic primary to run for the seat, or the strength of the winner of the Republican primary, Brad Finstad, a former state representative and Trump administration Department of Agriculture official.
Instead, the shift is a reflection of Democratic woes. Not only does the party in power – in this case the Democrats – tend to lose congressional seats in mid-term elections, but the Democrats have been under attack for sharp price increases, especially for food and gas.
“Inflation has become such a dominant concern that neither a Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade nor Jan. 6 hearings are likely to drastically alter the midterms’ trajectory,” the Cook Political report said.
More evidence of Democratic troubles: a Gallup poll released this week said only 16 percent of its respondents said they believe the nation is going in the right direction.