Washington Review, November 23, 2020
Last week, I joined the Congressional Labor Caucus, and cosponsored legislation to raise the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) monthly benefits, help ensure children do not go hungry during the pandemic, raise the Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for 2021, help students refinance their student loans, and ensure humane treatment of animals in any research and testing. I also signed onto letters to urge the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to combat the disproportionate amount of COVID-19 deaths in communities of color, extend the deadline for using CARES Act funding, include robust international humanitarian aid to assist countries dealing with COVID-19, and oppose the deportation of witnesses in forced hysterectomy cases.
Earlier last week, Rep. Donald Norcross (D-NJ) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) formed the Congressional Labor Caucus. The goal for this caucus is to be the strongest pro-labor voice in Congress and to connect union leaders and members directly with members of Congress and their staff. As the United States moves away from the failed policies of the Trump Administration, this caucus will prioritize the needs of working families and organized labor during the 117th Congress. Together with President-Elect Biden, this caucus will reprioritize the needs of organized labor in our legislative agenda, reverse the erosion of organizing rights, and support worker safety measures that meet the needs of workers in the 21st century. The labor community and hard-working Americans across the country make up the backbone of our great nation, it is imperative we prioritize a legislative agenda that works as hard for them as they do for our country.
I became a cosponsor of H.R. 1368, the Closing the Meal Gap Act, introduced by Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC). This bill would help families put food on the table by modernizing and improving SNAP benefits to meet the needs of our current moment. The bill supports seniors and people with disabilities who face high medical costs by permanently authorizing the standard medical deduction in every state at a minimum of $140. Additionally, this bill also increases SNAP benefits by 30% to take into account the cost of nutritious foods and household needs. Further, the minimum SNAP benefit per month would be raised from $16 to $25. This will help to ease the burden on families living in areas with high rent and utility costs, and also provides relief for college students to earn an education by allowing full-time students who qualify for SNAP to be exempt from work requirements. The COVID-19 pandemic has made life tough for many Americans and we must ensure that every family is able to buy the food and supplies they need each month.
I also cosponsored H.R. 7887, the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act, introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA). This legislation would make all students temporarily eligible for free school meals during the 2020-2021 school year through the School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program. Thanks to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, school meals will also be available to students during remote learning through grab and go and delivery programs. Additionally, all school districts can serve these free meals to children without having to certify the eligibility of each child. With cases of COVID-19 spiking across the country, and many schools switching back to remote learning because of this, it is crucial that every child have access to nutritious, free school meals.
Last Wednesday, I became a cosponsor of Rep. Peter Defazio’s (D-OR) Emergency Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for 2021 Act. In 2021, the Cost of Living Adjustment for Social Security recipients is set to increase by only 1.3%, the lowest increase on record. With many Social Security recipients now in harder times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this adjustment will not be enough to help people through 2021. The legislation would increase the Cost of Living Adjustment to 3% for 2021, ensuring beneficiaries have access to the funds they are entitled to, and have enough funds to feel secure in the coming year.
As many people know first-hand, student loans and the debt that comes with them is one of the biggest issues of this generation. That is why I signed onto H.R. 1899, the Student Loan Refinancing and Recalculation Act, introduced by Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA). This legislation would allow students to refinance their student loan interest rates, lower future student loan interest rates, eliminate origination fees on student loans, delay student loan interest rate accrual for low-income and middle class borrowers while they are pursuing their education, and allow for borrowers in medical or dental residencies to defer payments until the completion of their program. Student debt is a real problem in our country that needs concrete solutions. In New Jersey, just over one million borrowers hold trillions of dollars in student debt. This legislation will go a long way in allowing people to refinance their loans and keep more of their hard-earned money in their pockets.
I also cosponsored the Humane Research and Testing Act, H.R. 8633, introduced by Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL). This bipartisan bill will establish the National Center for Alternatives to Animals in Research and testing under the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This center would be focused on developing, promoting, and funding human-relevant, non-animal methods of research and testing. The bill would also provide funding to incentivize non-animal methods of research, educate and train scientists to utilize these methods, and establish research collaborations to mitigate a lack of resources.
Unfortunately, this week our nation passed the grim milestone of over 250,000 deaths from COVID-19. This is a tragedy and we have lost far too many lives to this deadly virus. I cosponsored a resolution led by Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) to establish a national day of mourning for those who have lost their lives to COVID-19. The resolution would establish January 21, 2021 as a national day of mourning for all those who have lost their lives to COVID-19. We must commemorate those who have lost their lives to this horrible virus and continue to work to mitigate the spread so we can save more lives.
I signed onto a bill by Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) to designate temporary protected status to eligible Nicaraguans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans. Hurricanes Eta and Iota have impacted millions of people in Central America, deepening a humanitarian crisis in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Section 244 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides safe haven in very specific circumstances, including when there is a significant impact on living conditions as a result of natural disasters. As our nation has always been, we need to continue being a safe haven for those who are struggling with natural disasters and offer assistance to those around the world who need it.
Last Wednesday, I signed onto a letter led by Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) urging the CDC to combat disproportionate COVID-19 deaths in communities of color. New data has shown that in recent months, Latino and Hispanic populations have had a 54% increase in COVID related deaths, while African Americans have faced a 33% increase. These trends are unacceptable, and we need to be combatting the systematic racism that causes these excess and disproportionate deaths. The letter, addressed to CDC director Robert Redfield, urges the CDC to release more data on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. Additionally, the letter calls for the CDC to use this data to develop a health action plan that would reduce the disparities and excess deaths in communities of color.
I also signed onto a letter led by Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) and Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) urging Congressional leadership to extend the deadline for using CARES Act funding. Currently, the deadline for municipalities to use CARES Act funding is set to expire on December 30, 2020. Without the extension, a large number of counties and local governments across the country will be forced to return millions in much needed funds. These funds can be used to support small businesses, expand COVID-19 testing, support mortgage assistance programs, and to help set up and support food banks for those in need. As millions across the country continue to be impacted by this pandemic, we need to make sure resources are available for assistance.
I joined Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) in sending a letter to the House Appropriations Committee requesting more funds for family aid across the globe. The letter calls for the Committee to include robust international aid as the fiscal year (FY) 2021 conference report for the State and Foreign Operations appropriations legislation moves forward. This pandemic has had a large economic blow to bout our country and the entire world. We need to provide much needed assistance for those in need across the globe so that they can be more secure as we continue to battle this virus.
I also signed onto a letter led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Federal bureau of Investigation regarding the deportation of witnesses in forced hysterectomy cases. In September, reports emerged that unwanted, unnecessary medical procedures were performed on immigrant women without their consent at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. There are now further reports that witnesses in the case are being deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This letter calls on officials to pause the deportation of these witnesses so that they can recount their stories. The letter also calls on officials to provide law enforcement certifications so that these impacted women may have the opportunity to seek visas. This shocking and disgusting practice that was unearthed earlier this year must not be ignored and victims should not be punished for coming forward.
I led a letter, along with Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX) for Mexico’s Attorney General to ensure that the drug trafficking case against General Cienfuegos is thoroughly investigated and pursued to its conclusion, without interference. On October 15, 2020, Mexico’s former Defense Secretary, General Salvador Cienfuegos, was arrested in Los Angeles on drug trafficking charges. According to documents presented by the U.S. Department of Justice, General Cienfuegos allegedly facilitated shipments of thousands of kilograms of cocaine and other drugs into the U.S. in exchange for bribes from cartels in Mexico. On November 17, 2020, U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz released a joint statement explaining that the U.S. would dismiss its charges against Cienfuegos and that he would be returned to Mexico. The letter highlights how this case will be critical for the Mexican government in demonstrating its stated commitment to combating corruption.
On November 1, 2020, Open Enrollment for health care plans began in New Jersey. This year, instead of using the federal marketplace, New Jersey will switch to their own state-run marketplace. In order to browse health care plans you can visit: www.nj.gov/getcoverednj. Here you will be able to compare available plans, review financial assistance options, and select a plan that is best for you. This new marketplace is easy to use and helps to clearly identify plans that will be most beneficial to you. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial we leave no one behind and that everyone has access to affordable health care. If you need health care, be sure to visit the site. Open enrollment is open from November 1, 2020 to January 31, 2021.
With cases of COVID-19 continuing to rise across the country, and in New Jersey, it is imperative we remain vigilant and safe. Please continue to wear a mask in public and practice social distancing when possible. I wish everyone in the 8th District a happy and healthy Thanksgiving. Please exercise caution if meeting with loved ones and take necessary measures to ensure the safety of yourself, your family, and our community. Working together, we can help slow the spread of this virus. Please know that I will continue working to get the 8th District the resources it needs. If you have questions or need assistance please call my Washington, D.C. office at (202)225-7919 and follow instructions to be connected to my staff or send an email to NJ8inquiries@mail.house.gov. Together we can get through this.