May 14, 2020
Emerging Technologies Washington Update
This week: Coronavirus response; Senate Commerce Committee examines broadband access during pandemic; Senate amendment to curb government access to browsing history fails.
On Tuesday, House Democratic leadership introduced the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES) Act, their proposal for Phase 4 coronavirus response legislation. The $3 trillion bill focuses on funding for states and local governments, including first responders, extends family and medical leave programs, provides eviction and foreclosure protection, and extends work visas for certain immigrants, among other provisions. The House will return to Washington tomorrow to vote on the bill, along with a resolution to authorize remote voting by proxy and provide for official remote committee proceedings. The HEROES Act will not pass the Republican-controlled Senate, but is Democrats’ opening proposal for what will likely be lengthy negotiations around a Phase 4 bill. Senate Republicans and the White House have made clear that they prefer to give existing relief programs more time to take effect before moving ahead with another round of legislation.
The Senate was in session this week and committees held a series of hearings related to COVID-19. On Tuesday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing on “Safely Getting Back to Work and School.” Chairman Alexander (R-TN) chaired the hearing remotely after one of his staffers tested positive for COVID-19; the witnesses, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Robert Redfield and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Dr. Anthony Fauci also testified remotely after potential exposure at the White House. The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing on liability issues related to the public health emergency. On Wednesday, a Senate Commerce Committee hearing focused on the state of broadband amid the pandemic. This morning, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health held a hearing on “Protecting Scientific Integrity in COVID-19 Response.”
On Monday, President Trump announced that the Administration will distribute $11 billion, as well as 12 million swabs, to states, territories, and tribes for testing. The Treasury Department, Small Business Administration (SBA), and Federal Reserve also continue to implement CARES Act relief programs. Last night, the Treasury published a new Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) interim final rule on loan increases. This week, the Treasury also updated PPP FAQs on, published Coronavirus Relief Fund payments to states and eligible units of local government, and announced it has approved over $25 billion in Payroll Support Program assistance to 352 applicants in the aviation industry. SBA continues to update data on PPP Round 2 loans. The Federal Reserve updated the term sheet and FAQs for the Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF) to provide pricing and other information and updated the term sheet and FAQs for the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF), which will initially make up to $100 billion of loans available to help ensure consumers and businesses can access credit at affordable terms.
Elsewhere, the President and federal agencies continue to take other steps to respond to the outbreak, including, but not limited to:
- The Department of Transportation (DOT) announced a second Enforcement Notice regarding airline ticket refunds during the COVID-19 emergency and issued a Notice of Adjustments to Service Obligations, an opportunity for incremental adjustments to service obligations under a previous Order that allows covered carriers to reduce service amid the pandemic.
- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a temporary final rule to change certain H-2B requirements to help support the US food supply chain, maintain essential infrastructure operations, and reduce the impact from the COVID-19 public health emergency.
- The Department of Labor (DOL) issued guidance announcing the availability of $100 million in CARES Act funding for short-time compensation grant funds for states and issued guidance and reminders to states to ensure the integrity of unemployment insurance programs, including the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation programs.
- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued guidance for companies developing drugs and biological products for COVID-19 treatment and prevention and guidance on meeting requests for COVID-19 related drugs and biological products.
- The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) announced a new pilot program will prioritize certain patent applications for products or processes that are subject to an applicable FDA approval for COVID-19 use.
- The Department of Defense (DOD) announced it is using 3D printers to manufacture low-cost emergency ventilators and announced a $138 million contract to expand capability for domestically manufactured, medical-grade injections devices suitable for combating COVID-19 when a proven vaccine becomes available.
A complete overview of both congressional and Administrative response efforts is available here and updated daily.
The House will pass the HEROES Act on Friday, largely, if not entirely, along party lines. It remains to be seen when bicameral negotiations on a Phase 4 bill will begin. Next week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell will testify on Tuesday before the Senate Banking Committee during a hearing on “The Quarterly CARES Act Report to Congress.” The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs will also hold a hearing on the Department’s response to COVID-19.
In Other News
Senate Commerce Committee Examines Broadband Access During Pandemic
Yesterday, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing to discuss how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted broadband networks across the country. Generally, the United States has seen better performance than the rest of the world, panelists noted. They said that due to a pro-business regulatory framework, investment incentives, and competition, companies have built enough infrastructure to allow millions of Americans work from home without significant impacts on internet speeds.
However, Senators, many from America’s less densely populated states, were concerned about rural Americans’ access to broadband. Panelists discussed public-private partnerships that have provided students with the technology needed to learn from home, ways in which Congress can increase access for poor students and tribal communities, and how particular legislation and regulatory reforms could impact the industry. Ultimately, the hearing highlighted lawmakers’ desire to increase broadband access in rural America and how the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated long-standing inequalities between those with access to broadband and those without.
Senate Amendment to Curb Government Access to Browsing History Fails
The Senate considered a number of amendments yesterday to the House-passed USA Freedom Reauthorization Act, legislation that would reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT) offered an amendment that would prohibit the government from collecting Americans’ browser or search history data under FISA’s business records provision without a warrant. The amendment, which needed 60 votes to pass, failed 59-37. A spokesperson for one of the four lawmakers who did not vote, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), said afterwards that she would have voted in favor of the amendment. Murray remains in Washington state this week and has been participating in hearings remotely.
In remarks before the vote, Wyden argued the amendment is necessary because current law is broad enough that the government can collect web browsing and internet search history without a warrant, provided it is “relevant” to an investigation. “This can include the private records of innocent, law-abiding Americans. They don’t have to have done anything wrong. They don’t have to be suspected of anything. They don’t even have to have been in contact with anyone suspected of anything,” Wyden said.