Incomes, employment, economic growth might be on the rise and a variety of vaccines are getting out into the market. But that didn’t stop the House from passing a nearly $2 trillion stimulus bill. So now it’s up to the Senate, before the Treasury Department gets that work cut out for it. For what’s next on the agenda, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller.
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Tom Temin: This is a great paroxysm for Congress to do this bill, because it’s been talked about for so long. What are the prospects at this point?
Mitchell Miller: Well, it’s really moving forward now, the Senate taking up the package now. But it’s not going to be exactly what the House has passed. House Democrats, as you know, decided to include the minimum wage increase that stepped up over a period of years to $15, even though the Senate parliamentarian ruled that because it doesn’t have that specific impact on the budget, it cannot be included in budget reconciliation. And of course, budget reconciliation is how Senate Democrats plan to get this legislation passed with or without Republican support. So while it’s a setback for Democrats, many including President Biden actually expected that ruling from the parliamentarian so Democrats are going to have to figure out how they’ll move forward on the minimum wage. One possibility being discussed by Senate Democrats is offering up an amendment that would penalize companies that don’t commit to raising the minimum wage to $15. But that would be tough to pass and there are some Democrats in the Senate who have hesitancy about raising the minimum wage. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Republican side has made it very clear they are going to oppose the legislation saying it is packed with too many Democrats, priorities, including those that aren’t really related to the pandemic. Polls have indicated, though, that most Americans support the legislation that looks like it is going to narrowly pass later this month, and then get to the president’s desk for his signature.
Tom Temin: And the IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig is saying he’s ready for this job of distributing the stimulus money.
Mitchell Miller: That’s right. The legislation includes those $1,400 checks for people earning up to $75,000. Couples earning up to $150,000 would get $2,800. And with the tax filing season underway, the IRS will be especially busy with these checks going out. And as you mentioned, IRS Commissioner Rettig told lawmakers his agency will be ready last week during a hearing. He testified before a House Appropriations Subcommittee saying that the agency is actually bringing back more employees into the office to help process those tax returns. And to make sure Americans get those stimulus checks. The agency has sent out these checks before, as you know, and they’re expected to go out very quickly once this American rescue plan is signed into the law. By the way, the tax filing deadline currently remains April 15. It was extended last year because of the pandemic. Rettig said he’s open to extending the deadline but for the moment, he doesn’t think it’s necessary.
Tom Temin: Alright, and let’s move on to the issue of paying federal contractors that can’t get to work. This is an issue that’s been going on now for a year. There has been some legislation prior to this point. What’s the latest here?
Mitchell Miller: Well, right now what they’re trying to do is extend a key deadline. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have written to Senate leaders urging them to extend part of the CARES Act. Of course, that was the very first big piece of legislation that Congress passed. Within the CARES Act, there is something known as Section 3610. It allows agencies to pay some contractors, even if they can’t work during the pandemic. That section is scheduled to expire at the end of this month. And supporters say it’s really needed so that contractors can keep people on the payroll, keep things a little more stable during these unique circumstances. And as you know, Federal News Network has reported that the Defense Department has utilized this pandemic relief for dozens of contractors.
Tom Temin: Yeah, they have this issue of the continuity of the highly technical staff and so forth, that, in many ways keeps the DoD going. I think that’s the concern.
Mitchell Miller: Right, that there are a lot of really specialized areas for these contractors. And the thinking is that if you allow them to leave the company, or they have to shut down for a time, it just doesn’t allow for the stability that the Defense Department needs to keep things ready to ramp up at any time.
Tom Temin: We’re speaking with WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller. And the Postal Service – that has been a big concern of Congress lately, as things seem to slide in multiple directions for the poor USPS.
Mitchell Miller: Right. So Louis DeJoy probably not overjoyed being back before Congress last week – the postmaster general. He’s getting a lot of complaints from members of Congress, really actually from both parties, but more so from Democrats saying that the mail simply isn’t being delivered fast enough. And that is causing a lot of problems for people, especially those who rely on medication to come through the mail. He is moving forward with a 10-year plan to reform the Postal Service that’s going to be rolled out and he hinted about where it’s headed during this hearing last week, and many lawmakers don’t like where it’s headed. During that hearing. Last week, he was repeatedly challenged by Democrats including Maryland congressman Jamie Raskin. Raskin’s concerns center around the new guidelines for first class mail which is supposed to be delivered within two days. Under the new guidelines that the DeJoy is proposing it would be extended to a three-to-five-day delivery. Congressman Raskin told DeJoy he feels that it’s like giving up. But DeJoy says that the Postal Service is already failing to make good on its first class delivery about 20% of the time. What he wants to do is committing more to ground service for the mail rather than air delivery. A lot of people say, well why would you do that, air delivery is faster? But his thinking is that it is more consistent when you have something that’s moving across the country rather than having to be dropped off at one facility and then go to another facility through the air and it gets very complicated. At any rate, as we both know, the Postal Service has just been beaten up for quite a while now. And this is yet another effort to try to bring in those costs, which keeps skyrocketing for the agency.
Tom Temin: Yeah, there was an interesting comment, I think, by Congressman Lynch, Democrat of Massachusetts that said, “Well, you’re just going to deliver the mail anytime you think you can,” as opposed to on a guaranteed level, although that’s not accurate for the plan. And he said, How can you do this when you’re competing with other carriers. But what I’m wondering came up from DeJoy is the fact that when you send a first class letter, it’s only you know, 53 cents, or whatever it is nowadays. If you want to send the same thing overnight on UPS it’s $12.
Mitchell Miller: Right, exactly. So there’s a huge different scale there. And DeJoy is trying to make some of these comparisons with the private sector that they’re dealing with that there’s so much competition out there right now. And as you know, we go through these iterations over and over again, with the Postal Service. It’s really up against it. But you know, it’s as we both know, it’s something that goes back literally to the start of the country. And so many lawmakers are very protective of it.
Tom Temin: Well, maybe they can go back to ponies locally, to get through the traffic some places? And I want to talk about Capitol Hill – I was interviewing a person from one of the nonprofits in Washington and she lives near the Capitol, as you do, and it has become really looking like an armed camp. Fencing is surrounding the place and the concertina wire. And those things have a way of settling in and looking worse and worse as time goes on. What is the likely outcome of all this because it seems to be developing into something of a debate on Capitol Hill.
Mitchell Miller: It is, it’s a really interesting situation. We had a lot of it, of course in the hearings last week, with various people coming up in connection with the investigation. You had the acting U.S. Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman, talking about the fencing and the National Guard. And what she stated is that, first of all, that there is still a threat against the U.S. Capitol, there have been extremist or militia groups actually saying that they want to blow up the Capitol sometime around the State of the Union address. By the way, there has been no date set for the State of the Union address. But because of these very specific threats, they want to keep this fencing up for at least the time being. But even she said, and she is a supporter of getting more security measures around the Capitol Complex, but she said it’s not going to be permanent. But because of these ongoing threats, I think you’re going to continue to see this big fencing and the razor wire at the top, at least for the next probably several weeks, and probably through the end of this month, I would think. And the National Guard members are supposed to start being moved out sometime in the middle of this month, we’ll see if that happens. And again, it may depend on the timing of the State of the Union. But as far as the overall feeling here, you know, during one of these hearings, one lawmaker stated he feels like he’s going to work in a minimum security prison every day. And there is a real feeling – a visceral feeling, I think among staff among lawmakers that they don’t like, not only the look, but just the feel of the way this whole complex is. And frankly, it’s a logistical situation where you have to get from one place to the other. And some of the openings, for example, where the National Guard are – the National Guard themselves don’t let people in it’s only Capitol Police. And so some of those entrances change. And there’s just a lot of feeling that well, that everyone knows that more security is needed around the Capitol. They don’t want to see this permanently in this state.
Tom Temin: In the meantime, is the Capitol Visitor Center open once you can get through there? And are they still having tour groups and visits to local Congress – visits from local constituents to see their Congress people?
Mitchell Miller: No, it’s actually been closed really since early in the spring of last year first because, obviously, of the pandemic. And now it’s a really interesting situation, because you don’t see those people that, as we move into this spring, we would normally be seeing school groups and tour groups and people coming through the Capitol Visitor Center. So actually, except when Congress obviously is in session, that’s really the only people that you see here, which is a very different feel than the Capitol normally has.
Tom Temin: Yeah, it gives a new meaning to the term Silent Spring, I guess.
Mitchell Miller: It does.
Tom Temin: Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. As always, thanks so much.
Mitchell Miller: You bet.
Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Podcastone or wherever you get your shows.