Members of CMBG3’s Government Relations, Environmental, and Covid-19 practice areas recently attended a candid conversation with Rhode Island junior Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. This event was organized by the New England Council, a non-partisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations throughout New England, of which CMBG3 Law is a member. Sen. Whitehouse addressed the future of the COVID-19 relief package, business liability protection and other issues of importance to New England and the entire nation.
COVID-19 Relief Bill
Sen. Whitehouse discussed Congress’ negotiations regarding additional COVID-19 relief. He and his Democratic colleagues want to ensure that any relief package is “at least as effective” as the CARES Act passed in March, to bolster the economy through an extension of unemployment benefits and the PPP program, and to provide means to combat the coronavirus, including adequate testing and contact tracing, which will support the reopening of schools. Sen. Whitehouse’s top priority in the next bill is funding for state and local budgets that have been strained by the unexpected burdens imposed to respond to the pandemic. He pointed to the additional financial duties facing schools, emergency services and other local services, arguing that additional funding is necessary to avert mass furloughs and firings, a potential “catastrophe” to economic recovery.
Sen. Whitehouse believes the House’s passage of a $3.4T coronavirus relief bill with support by a unified caucus of Senate Democrats puts more pressure on his colleagues on the other side of the aisle to act. He highlighted that the key Republican negotiators – White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Senate President Mitch McConnell, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy – have all taken different positions as to the GOP’s position on how to move forward, which has unfortunately led to stalling in negotiations. Sen. Whitehouse predicted that any eventual deal may require a small bloc of Republican senators breaking ranks to negotiate directly with Democrats.
Liability Protection for Business
Addressing a question about the GOP’s insistence on business liability protections, Sen. Whitehouse emphasized that there was no appetite among his own party to address this. He believed that businesses may have opened too readily and “created a secondary problem.” Rather, he maintained that the focus of his party is ensuring that state and municipal governments can balance their budgets without the need for massive layoffs which would deepen the economic recession.
Sen. Whitehouse mentioned four primary legislative goals for his party on the key issues of infrastructure, climate, taxes, and voting and political reform.
Congressional Democrats would like to pass infrastructure legislation as soon as possible, and certainly early in any potential Biden administration. In early July, the House of Representatives passed the “New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America Act” (INVEST in America Act), including transportation infrastructure, enhancement of broadband and energy grids, and other clean energy investments. Sen. Whitehouse argued that this legislation, currently stalled in the Senate, would create thousands and thousands of jobs.
On environmental issues, Sen. Whitehouse stated that a “Day One” priority of Democrats is to first reinstate the Obama-era regulations eliminated by the current administration through executive action and to legislate and codify these into law. While the Trump administration’s deregulation efforts have focused largely on environmental issues, regulatory action has continued to move forward on select issues, including PFAS regulation.
Sen. Whitehouse supports the efforts to provide massive student loan relief to indebted graduates, and co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to allow student loan debt to be forgiven in bankruptcy proceedings, which is currently prohibited under the law. The proposed legislation would also provide relief to borrowers impacted by COVID-19, including postponement of student debt and interest.
In addressing domestic election issues raised by COVID-19, particularly concerns with the capacity to handle massive mail-in voting, Sen. Whitehouse noted that the Post Office is mandated by the Constitution, and indicated that there is bipartisan support for its funding.
CMBG3 Law’s attorneys help our clients to navigate complex issues including business regulation, liability risk management, environmental regulation, climate change, and climate risk management, among other practice groups. Our Government Relations practice keeps our clients informed of legislative and regulatory developments impacting their businesses and works to develop and implement strategies that protect our client’s interests. For more information, contact us.