A View from the Hill: May 2020

U.S. Capitol

It has been a couple of months since we last issued our “View from the Hill”, but boy, has a lot unfolded. Where do we start?

As we mentioned in March, we started the year with the chairman of the House Natural Resources Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), continuing his national fisheries listening tour in New Orleans on January 30th. That was the chairman’s fifth roundtable discussion at the time, and he went on to host additional roundtables in Miami, Florida and Honolulu, Hawaii (remotely).

We also saw a lot of oceans and fisheries activity in the House this spring. Several Congressional hearings were held on oceans and fisheries issues in the House Natural Resources Committee. Those bills included a forage fish bill from Rep. Dingell (HR 2236), fisheries disaster bill from Rep. Huffman (HR 5548), Rep. Cunningham’s climate bill, the Climate-Ready Fisheries Act of 2019 (HR 4679), a descending devices bill from Rep. Graves (HR 5126) for Gulf reef fish, and Rep. Young’s Young Fisherman’s Development Act of 2019 (HR 1240). You can revisit the Network’s statements on all these bills here.

The beginning of March also saw similar Congressional activity in FY21 budget hearings. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) heard from Wilbur Ross, Secretary of the Department of Commerce where NOAA’s budget was discussed. The House CJS Appropriations Subcommittee held a similar hearing a week later. These budget hearings were an opportunity for Congress to hear from senior administration officials on the President’s FY21 budget requests.

Then the coronavirus crisis hit, and Capitol Hill was shut down.

Congress scrambled quickly and, after passing some immediate relief measures on March 6th and 18th, was able to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act at the end of March. (Read the Network’s statement here.) This massive, $2 trillion stimulus package was passed to provide significant relief, including for the fishing and seafood industries, to address the economic hardships from the pandemic. In addition to providing additional funding to NOAA, the bill specifically included $300 million, “to provide direct financial assistance to all manner of fishers, fishery participants, and communities that have been affected by coronavirus.” The bill’s legislative text specifies that this relief assistance will be available to “fishery participants,” defining that term as, “Tribes, persons, fishing communities, aquaculture businesses not otherwise eligible for assistance under part 1416 of title 7 of the Code of Federal Regulations for losses related to COVID-19, processors, or other fishery-related businesses, who have incurred, as a direct or indirect result of the coronavirus pandemic.” The funds will be available through September 30, 2021 on a rolling basis.

Other highlights of the CARES Act included:

  • $150 billion to aid state, local and tribal governments;
  • $500 billion for loans and assistance to companies and state and local governments, including $29 billion for U.S. airlines and related businesses. Additional funds would be provided to aviation workers;
  • Payments of up to $1,200 for individual taxpayers, and $500 per child, phased out when incomes exceed $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples who file jointly;
  • An additional $600 per week for those receiving unemployment benefits; and
  • $349 billion in low-interest small business loans through the now-famed Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

The PPP ran out of money in 12 days, but Congress was able to pass the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, colloquially known as “CARES 2.0,” on April 24th. The President signed it into law. The $483 billion measure recapitalized the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program with an additional $321 billion, among other things.

Soon after, NOAA Fisheries finally released its plan to deploy the $300 million provided for the fishing industry through the CARES Act. Details of that plan can be found here, but highlights included allocating portions of the $300 million to coastal states, Tribes and U.S. territories and partnering with interstate marine fisheries commissions to disburse the funds to address fishery-related losses. The commissions will work with each state, Tribe or territory to develop plans to deploy the funds. Eligible recipients include, “Tribes, commercial fishing businesses, charter/for-hire fishing businesses, qualified aquaculture operations, processors, and other fishery-related businesses.” Those that are eligible have been instructed to work with their state marine fisheries management agencies to better understand the process within their area or state.

There has been significant consternation in the fishing community about how overlooked the industry has been to date. Several members of Congress have pressed for additional funding for fishing businesses and communities, including Rep. Huffman, who led a bi-partisan letter to House leadership urging explicit support for the seafood industry in the next package. The letter included several prominent members of Congress who are active in fisheries policy, including Reps. Graves (R-LA), Wittman (R-VA), Keating (D-MA), Moulton (D-MA), Pingree (D-ME), Young (R-AK), Cunningham (D-SC), Zeldin (R-NY), and Herrera Beutler (R-WA), among many others. You can read Huffman’s press release and letter here.

And just last week, the House passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act on Friday. The measure contains several provisions that could be interpreted as either directly or potentially indirectly benefiting the fishing and seafood industry. Those include:

  • $150 million for local food banks;
  • Another $100 million to NOAA for “assistance to fishery participants;”
  • A refundable tax credit of $1,200 for individuals;
  • Increasing the applicable percentage of qualified wages reimbursed through the Employee Retention credit from 50% to 80%;
  • A 90% refundable income tax credit for certain self-employed individuals who have experienced a significant loss of income due to COVID-19;
  • Several changes to SBA’s PPP, including:
    • Extending the covered period from June 30 to December 31;
    • Extending eligibility to all non-profits of all sizes;
    • Clarifying that PPP loans cannot be calculated on a compound basis, which should save borrowers money in the long term;
    • Providing a carveout of 25% of existing funds to be specifically used for small businesses with under 10 employees.
  • Authority provided to SBA to give lenders the ability to extend loan deferments for one year;
  • A temporary moratorium on the collection of small business debts for the duration of the crisis;
  • Authorizes eligibility for benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) to those maritime employees who are employed between January 27, 2020 and January 27, 2022 and who are diagnosed with COVID-19, or who were ordered not to return to work by the employer or by a public health agency because of exposure or risk of exposure in the workplace.

Another negotiated measure passing Congress is expected, but may not happen until the end of June.

And finally, the White House announced earlier this month that the President had signed an executive order promoting the expansion of American seafood production, including finfish aquaculture in U.S. waters. You can read NOAA’s press release here, and read the executive order here. Specifically, the order calls for more efficient and predictable aquaculture permitting, “cutting-edge” research and development, regulatory reform to “maximize commercial fishing” and enforcement of “common-sense restrictions on seafood imports” that do not meet American standards.

Who knows what the next few months will bring in Congress, but we’ll catch you up in our next installment of our “View from the Hill.”

About Rob Vandermark

Rob Vandermark is the executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.

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