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Rep. Pascrell Presses Ways and Means Committee, Trump Administration for Increased Response to Puerto Rican Crisis

Calls for equity in the tax code and for federal health care programs, and comprehensive disaster tax relief

Today, U.S. Representative Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, called on the committee to take action on a number of legislative items that would aid in Puerto Rico’s disaster and economic recovery during a bill markup. Additionally, Rep. Pascrell urged Republican Congressional Leadership and the Trump Administration to mount a meaningful response to the humanitarian and public health crisis in Puerto Rico. Video of his remarks is available here.

[Remarks as prepared]

Mr. Chairman, I move to strike the last word.

While I am a cosponsor of H.R. 849 and support the repeal the Independent Payment Advisory Board, I am very disappointed that we are here today to mark up one of the least timely agenda items we have on our to-do list.

We have a host of Medicare extenders that expired last week, another host of extenders that will expire in the coming months, impending cuts to Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments, and an urgent public health crisis in Puerto Rico. 

On September 19 then-HHS Secretary Price declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Ninety-five percent of Puerto Rico is still without power. And according to the Federal Emergency Management Administration, 58 of Puerto Rico’s 69 hospitals are without power or fuel for their generators.

1.5 million people do not have access to clean drinking water.

I am ashamed by the muted political and public response to this disaster. But as someone who has been fighting for years to ensure that Puerto Ricans receive equal treatment as U.S. citizens, I am sadly not surprised.

That unequal treatment – if not rectified – is going to make responding to this catastrophe even more challenging.

For example, Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program receives far less federal funding than the states and DC in the form of a lower match, in addition to having their total federal allotment capped. The fig leaf being offered by Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans of a temporary fix doesn’t even come close to addressing the problem – and ignores the U.S. Virgin Islands entirely.

Additionally, Puerto Ricans are not eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, and they must have at least three children in order to be eligible for the Child Tax Credit. To help the economy recover and provide the tools families need to lift themselves out of poverty, I am re-introducing legislation to extend these important income supports to Puerto Rico.

Access to the EITC would strengthen Puerto Rico’s economy, workforce participation, and tax compliance.

Given that this bill is in the Ways and Means Committee’s jurisdiction, I would urge the Chairman to schedule a mark-up of it.

Additionally, since 2012 Congressman Reed and I have had a bill to make important disaster tax provisions permanent, which would take politics out of the equation when it comes to disaster relief. This approach would prevent Congress from picking and choosing which of our constituents receive tax relief after a major disaster – which is exactly what happened last week.

I would also make note of a report in USA Today that highlights that the disaster tax provisions that passed last week for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria would be eliminated under the Republicans’ tax reform framework.

The Reed-Pascrell bill has been pending before this Committee for years with no action, so I would urge the Chairman to consider it.

There are no two-ways about it – the federal response in Puerto Rico has been unacceptably slow.

In addition to President Trump’s tone-deaf visit to the island yesterday, the Trump Administration initially denied Puerto Rico’s request for a waiver for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program beneficiaries to use their benefits to purchase pre-prepared meals at supermarkets – despite the fact that similar waivers were granted to Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit. I’m glad that the USDA has now reversed course, but what was the hold-up?

Republican Leadership in Congress and this Administration need to re-examine their priorities and mount a meaningful response to this disaster and the resulting public health crisis by providing the resources Puerto Rico needs to recover immediately.

We also need to address fundamental inequities in our federal health care programs and our tax code that have been plaguing our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico for far too long.

Thank you, and I yield back.

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