Washington Watch – The Long Game: Puerto Rico (and Everything Else) Overshadowed by Tweet Wars

By Jennice Fuentes / Fuentes Strategies

The President was elected on the promise of changing the culture in Washington, and perhaps he has. In the new D.C., large-scale humanitarian disasters, like Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico, feel like they barely register at the Oval Office. Moments in history that would otherwise define a political generation—for example, the very real GOP opportunity to design a full-scale overhaul of the tax code—are completely swallowed by Presidential tweets making derogatory references to the physical height of the Senate Finance Chairman (one of the people ostensibly responsible for writing the tax overhaul). This is the environment in which we must elevate and keep attention on Puerto Rico’s recovery. We are hearing and seeing offers of loans to the deeply indebted Island, but we’re not hearing enough talk about a comprehensive reconstruction plan. This is something that I am working to change, but it would be nice to have the President’s full attention.

Washington Watch is published weekly when Congress is in session. Published monthly during extended recess or adjournment.

Spotlight on Puerto Rico

Administration requests $4.9 billion loan for Puerto Rico, Congress set to approve emergency supplemental funding for hurricane victims

The Trump Administration sent a proposal to Congress requesting approval of a $4.9 billion loan to Puerto Rico through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) community disaster program. The $4.9 billion loan will be overseen by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. This would be in addition to the $12.77 billion already requested for FEMA’s disaster relief fund, which the federal agency would divide between Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Governor Rosselló originally requested for $4.5 billion in relief, with $3.2 billion in the form of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), and only $500 million in loans.

An additional $150 million will be awarded to Puerto Rico due to declared disaster zones after Hurricanes Irma and María. Meanwhile, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González announced that House leaders agreed to add $1 billion for the Nutritional Assistance Program (NAP, or PAN in Spanish) from the federal SNAP emergency fund.

These proposals would be included in an emergency spending bill that the House could vote on as early as this week. The Senate is expected to take up the measure next week.

Ryan to lead bipartisan trip to Puerto Rico

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) announced that he will lead a bipartisan Congressional delegation trip to Puerto Rico this Friday. Ryan will travel with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), the committee’s ranking Democrat, Congresswoman Nita Lowey (NY), Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA).

Last week, another bipartisan group of federal lawmakers toured the Island and pledged to help rebuild Puerto Rico, including: Senators Corey Gardner (R-CO), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ron Johnson (R-WI), as well as Representatives Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Lloyd Smucker (R-PA), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), and Stephanie Murphy (D-FL).

Official María death rate up to 48

The Government of Puerto Rico certified the 48th death that can be attributed to Hurricane María and its aftermath. In addition to the lack of food, water, medicine, electricity, and communications across most of the Island, doctors are concerned about the possible spread of a bacterial disease called Leptospirosis. At least 2 deaths have been officially attributed to the disease, and more are expected.

The Government’s official death count has been criticized as low by many experts, who argue that morgues have been closed since the Hurricane and several municipalities remain “incommunicado” from the rest of the island. News reports are also showing that bodies have literally started to pile up in hospitals, with one report that the Demographic Registry, a government office, reported at least 200 deaths due to the Hurricane as of last week.

Senate Democrats request write to FOB, request suspension of fiscal plan

A dozen Senate Democrats wrote to Fiscal Oversight Board (FOB) Chairman José Carrión III asking him to suspend Puerto Rico’s 10-year fiscal plan. The senators argued that the extreme austerity prescribed by the plan is no longer feasible given the post-María humanitarian crisis on the island. Carrión himself, without expressly saying so, recognized that there was “a new reality” and that Congress should step in to provide short-term liquidity and other emergency and long-term relief for Puerto Rico.

Bond insurer drops lawsuit against fiscal plan

Assured Guarantee, one of the nation’s largest bond insurance companies, has said it will drop a lawsuit against Puerto Rico due to the hurricane and the “new realities.” The insurance company continued to insist that the fiscal plan approved by the FOB is illegal, while also accepting that it is likely to be replaced.

Puerto Rico by the numbers

21: days since Hurricane María
85%: PREPA customers without electricity
47%: PRASA customers without drinking water
490: number of working cell sites (out of 1,600) cell sites are working
48: official deaths

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