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Legislative Update

Warner announces the Safe Tech Act to reform Section 230

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On February 5, 2021,  U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) announced the Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism and Consumer Harms (SAFE TECH) Act to reform Section 230 and allow social media companies to be held accountable for enabling cyber-stalking, targeted harassment, and discrimination on their platforms.

“When Section 230 was enacted in 1996, the Internet looked very different than it does today. A law meant to encourage service providers to develop tools and policies to support effective moderation has instead conferred sweeping immunity on online providers even when they do nothing to address foreseeable, obvious, and repeated misuse of their products and services to cause harm,” said Sen. Warner, a former technology entrepreneur and the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Section 230 has provided a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card to the largest platform companies even as their sites are used by scam artists, harassers, and violent extremists to cause damage and injury. This bill doesn’t interfere with free speech – it’s about allowing these platforms to finally be held accountable for harmful, often criminal behavior enabled by their platforms to which they have turned a blind eye for too long.”

“Section 230 was passed in 1996 to incentivize then-nascent internet companies to voluntarily police illegal and harmful content posted by their users. Now, twenty-five years later, the law allows some of the biggest companies in the world turn a blind eye while their platforms are used to violate civil and human rights, stalk and harass people, and defraud consumers—all without accountability,” Sen. Hirono said. “The SAFE TECH Act brings Section 230 into the modern age by creating targeted exceptions to the law’s broad immunity. Internet platforms must either address the serious harms they impose on society or face potential civil liability.”

“We need to be asking more from big tech companies, not less. How they operate has a real-life effect on the safety and civil rights of Americans and people around the world, as well as our democracy. Holding these platforms accountable for ads and content that can lead to real-world harm is critical, and this legislation will do just that,” said Sen. Klobuchar.

The SAFE TECH Act would make clear that Section 230:
• Doesn’t apply to ads or other paid content – ensuring that platforms cannot continue to profit as their services are used to target vulnerable consumers with ads enabling frauds and scams;
• Doesn’t bar injunctive relief – allowing victims to seek court orders where misuse of a provider’s services is likely to cause irreparable harm;
• Doesn’t impair the enforcement of civil rights laws – maintaining the vital and hard-fought protections from discrimination even when activities or services are mediated by internet platforms;
• Doesn’t interfere with laws that address stalking/cyber-stalking or harassment and intimidation on the basis of protected classes – ensuring that victims of abuse and targeted harassment can hold platforms accountable when they directly enable harmful activity;
• Doesn’t bar wrongful death actions – allowing the family of a decedent to bring suit against platforms where they may have directly contributed to a loss of life;
• Doesn’t bar suits under the Alien Tort Claims Act – potentially allowing victims of platform-enabled human rights violations abroad (like the survivors of the Rohingya genocide) to seek redress in U.S. courts against U.S.-based platforms.

These changes to Section 230 do not guarantee that platforms will be held liable in all, or even most, cases. Proposed changes do not subject platforms to strict liability; and the current legal standards for plaintiffs still present steep obstacles. Rather, these reforms ensure that victims have an opportunity to raise claims without Section 230 serving as a categorical bar to their efforts to seek legal redress for harms they suffer – even when directly enabled by a platform’s actions or design.

Bill text is available here. A three-page summary is available here. Frequently asked questions about the bill are available here. A redline of Section 230 is available here.

“Social media platforms and the tech companies that run them must protect their users from the growing and dangerous combination of misinformation and discrimination. As we have repeatedly seen, these platforms are being used to violate the civil rights of Black users and other users of color by serving as virtually-unchecked homes for hateful content and in areas such as housing and employment discrimination through the targeting and limiting of who can see certain advertisements. Section 230 must be strengthened to ensure that these online communities are not safe harbors for violations of civil rights laws. LDF supports Senator Warner and Senator Hirono’s bill as it addresses these critical concerns,” said Lisa Cylar Barrett, Director of Policy, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF)

“Tech companies must be held accountable for their roles in facilitating genocide, extremist violence and egregious civil rights abuses. We applaud Senators Hirono and Warner for their leadership in introducing a robust bill that focuses on supporting targets of civil and human rights abuses on social media while also addressing cyber-harassment and other crimes stemming from the spread of hate and disinformation. The sweeping legal protections enjoyed by tech platforms cannot continue,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO of ADL (Anti-Defamation League).

“Platforms should not profit from targeting employment ads toward White users, or from targeting voter suppression ads toward Black users. Senator Warner and Senator Hirono’s comprehensive bill makes it clear that Section 230 does not give platforms a free pass to violate civil rights laws, while also preserving the power of platforms to remove harmful disinformation,” said Spencer Overton, President, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

“I applaud the SAFE TECH Act introduced by Sens. Warner and Hirono which provides useful modifications to section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act to limit the potential negative impacts of commercial advertising interests while continuing to protect anti-harassment and civil and human rights interests of those who may be wrongfully harmed through wrongful online activity,” Ramesh Srinivasan, Professor at the UCLA Department of Information Studies and Director of UC Digital Cultures Lab, said.

“Congress enacted 47 USC 230 in the mid-1990s to support online innovation and free speech but the way in which courts have very generously read Section 230 have meant there is no legal mechanism that has done more to insulate intermediaries from legal accountability for distributing, amplifying, and carefully delivering unlawful content and facilitating dangerous antisocial connections. Racist, misogynist, and violent anti-democratic forces coalesce online because intermediaries rarely have to account for their social impacts. Senator Warner and Senator Hirono’s proposed changes create a new and necessary incentive for such companies to be far more mindful of the social impacts of their services in areas of law that are of vital importance to the health of the networked information environment. It does this while not abandoning the protection for intermediaries’ distribution of otherwise lawful content,” said Olivier Sylvain, Professor at Fordham Law School and Director of the McGannon Center for Communications Research.

“We applaud Senator Warner and Senator Hirono’s important effort to reform Section 230 and thus bring greater accountability to the tech sector. Warner’s proposed reforms are crucial to protecting civil rights and making the web safer for those who have been negatively impacted by much that happens there, both online and off. We thank Senator Warner and Senator Hirono for tackling this critically important issue,” Wendy Via, Cofounder, Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said.

“The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative welcomes this effort to protect civil rights in the digital age and to hold online intermediaries accountable for their role in the silencing and exploitation of vulnerable communities. This bill offers urgently needed provisions to limit and correct the overzealous interpretation of Section 230 that has granted a multibillion-dollar industry immunity and impunity for profiting from irreparable injury,” said Mary Anne Franks, President, Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, and Danielle K. Citron, Vice President, Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.

“For too long, companies like Facebook and YouTube have undermined the rights and safety of Muslims and communities of color in the U.S. and around the world. We have urged them to take responsibility for the targeted hate and violence, including genocide, facilitated by their platforms but these companies have refused to act,” said Madihha Ahussain, Muslim Advocates Special Counsel for Anti-Muslim Bigotry. “We appreciate Senators Warner and Hirono for introducing the SAFE TECH Act, which includes essential adjustments to Section 230 and will finally hold these companies accountable for violating people’s rights.”

“The SAFE TECH Act is an important step forward for platform accountability and for the protection of privacy online. Providing an opportunity for victims of harassment, privacy invasions, and other violations to remove unlawful content is critical to stopping its spread and limiting harm,” said Caitriona Fitzgerald, Interim Associate Director and Policy Director, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

“The SAFE TECH Act is the Section 230 reform America needs now. Over-expansive readings of Section 230 have encouraged reckless and negligent shirking by platforms of basic duties toward their users. Few if any of the drafters of Section 230 could have imagined that it would be opportunistically seized on to deregulate online arms sales, protect sellers of defective merchandise, permit genocidaires to organize online with impunity, or allow dating sites to ignore campaigns of harassment and worse against their users. The SAFE TECH Act reins in the cyberlibertarian ethos of Section 230 imperialism, permitting courts to carefully weigh and assess evidence in cases where impunity is now preemptively assumed,” Frank Pasquale, Author of The Black Box Society and Professor at Brooklyn Law School, said.

“For far too long online platforms have placed profit over accountability and decency, and allowed misinformation, algorithmic discrimination, and online hate to be weaponized. When the Communications Decency Act was passed in 1996, no one imagined it would be used to shield the most valuable companies in the world from basic civil rights compliance,” said David Brody, Counsel and Senior Fellow for Privacy and Technology, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This bill would make irresponsible big tech companies accountable for the digital pollution they knowingly and willfully produce while continuing to protect free speech online. Black Americans and other communities of color are frequent targets of online hate, threats, and discrimination, and many of these online behaviors would not be tolerated if they occurred in a brick-and-mortar business. It is time that big tech stops treating our communities of color as second-class citizens, and give them the protection they deserve.”

“It is unacceptable that Big Tech enjoys near-total legal immunity from the harm that their platforms expose to children and families. Tech companies should not be able to hide behind Section 230 to avoid abiding by civil rights laws, court injunctions, and other protections for families and the most vulnerable in society. Reforms proposed by Sens. Warner and Hirono begin to change that. It is time to hold these companies accountable for the harms their platforms have unleashed on society,” said James P. Steyer, CEO, and Founder, Common Sense.

“The deadly insurrection at the Capitol made clear that lawmakers must take immediate action to ensure multi-billion-dollar social media companies, whose business models incentivize the unchecked spread of hate-fueled misinformation and violent clickbait conspiracies, can no longer abuse Section 230’s broad protections to evade civil rights laws,” said Arisha Hatch, Color Of Change Vice President and Chief of Campaigns. “The SAFE TECH Act from Sen. Warner and Sen. Hirono is critical. The proposed reform would not only prevent power-hungry social media companies from leveraging Section 230 to turn a blind eye to civil rights violations on their platforms, but it would also incentivize them to take down dangerous paid and organic content — and establish better protections against real-world harms like cyberstalking, which disproportionately impacts Black women. We strongly encourage members of Congress to support this legislation, which represents a significant step towards finally holding Big Tech accountable for their years-long role in enabling civil rights violations against Black communities.”

“After 2020 no-one is asking if online misinformation creates real-world harms – whether it’s COVID and anti-vaxx misinformation, election-related lies, or hate, it is now clear that action is needed to deal with unregulated digital platforms. Whereas users can freely spread hate and misinformation, platforms profit from traffic regardless of whether it is productive or damaging, the costs are borne by the public and society at large. This timely bill forensically delineates the harms and ensures perpetrators and enablers pay a price for the harms they create. In doing so, it reflects our desire for richer communication technologies, which enhance our right to speak and be heard, and that also respect our fundamental rights to life and safety,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO, Center for Countering Digital Hate.

“Our lives are at stake because hate and white supremacy are flourishing online. On January 6th we saw the results of what continuous disinformation and hate online can do with the insurrection and domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol, where five lives were lost,” said Brenda Victoria Castillo, President & CEO, National Hispanic Media Coalition. “It is time to hold online platforms accountable for their role in the radicalization and spread of extremist ideologies in our country. NHMC is proud to support Senator Warner’s limited reform of Section 230, and applauds his efforts to safeguard our democracy and the Latinx community.”

“Senator Mark Warner is a leader in ensuring that technology supports democracy even as it advances innovation. His and Senator Hirono’s new Section 230 reform bill now removes obstacles to enforcement against discrimination, cyber-stalking, and targeted harassment in the online world. The events of Jan 6 demonstrated that what happens online isn’t just a game. Online conspiracy theories, discrimination, and harassment are a public danger. The Warner-Hirono bill would go a long way toward addressing these dangers, and incentivizing platforms to move past the current, ineffective whack-a-mole approach to these important online harms,” said Karen Kornbluh, Director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund of the US and Former US Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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Legislative Update

Warner welcomes unemployment insurance fix

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On February 25, 2021, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) welcomed a move by the U.S. Department of Labor to expand the number of workers who are eligible for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program that was created as part of the federal CARES Act. Last week, Sen. Warner and four of his colleagues raised concern with the Department that policy guidance issued to state unemployment offices on Jan. 8 was limiting the ability of workers whose hours have been reduced to access PUA benefits.

“There are workers all over the country who have had their hours reduced or been temporarily laid off due to COVID-19, and they should be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance under the CARES Act,” said Sen. Warner. “I’m glad to see the Department of Labor listened to our concerns and is adjusting their guidance to states to make clear that these workers are eligible for PUA benefits.”

On Feb. 17, Sen. Warner joined Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in calling on the U.S. Department of Labor to issue revised guidance making clear that workers who have had their hours reduced, or who have been temporarily laid off even though their employer remains open, are eligible for PUA.

In the Feb. 17 letter to the Department of Labor, the Senators wrote, “Partial closures are very common for businesses like restaurants that are operating with limited indoor dining capacity, or only offering take-out services, and have resulted in many service workers working reduced hours or being temporarily laid off even though their employer remains open. The recent guidance directs states to deny PUA eligibility to workers who have been impacted by partial closures. This is of particular concern for workers who do not have sufficient qualifying earnings to be considered eligible for state unemployment, including workers who are newly hired. It is clear from the language of the CARES Act that PUA is intended to cover workers who are ‘unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work’, which would include workers affected by partial closures… We ask that the Department clarify that workers impacted by partial closures or their employer scaling back business operations are eligible for PUA, or use its authority under 2102(a)(3)(A)(ii)(I)(kk) of the CARES Act to ensure these workers are eligible. This clarification is vital so that these workers can make ends meet during the pandemic.”

When emergency pandemic unemployment programs were set to expire at the end of last year, Sen. Warner successfully led the fight to include an extension in the $900 billion emergency COVID-19 relief legislation that Congress approved in December. From the start of this crisis, Sen. Warner, a former tech entrepreneur and longtime leader on labor issues affecting contractors and the contingent workforce, has pushed to expand benefits for Americans who have found themselves unemployed through no fault of their own during the pandemic.

In March, Sen. Warner voted in favor of $2 trillion bipartisan legislation that, among other things, expanded access to unemployment benefits for gig workers, contractors, and the self-employed. In the months following the signing of the legislation, Sen. Warner urged states to quickly implement federal provisions easing restrictions on emergency unemployment benefits and called on the Department of Labor (DOL) to issue and clarify state guidance in order to ensure that workers were able to receive benefits. He also introduced legislation to help guarantee that Americans who earn a living through a mix of traditional (W-2) and independent employment income (1099) were able to fully access the financial relief made available under the PUA program.

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Legislative Update

Warner questions Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on need to include broadband funding in next COVID-19 relief bill

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On February 23, 2021, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) participated in a virtual Senate Banking Committee hearing with Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, where he stressed the importance of including robust funding for broadband in any future COVID-19 relief package. According to current estimates, there are approximately 700,000 Virginians who still lack access to high-speed internet, which has become increasingly essential for telecommuting, distance learning, telemedicine, and more amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“I would argue, over the last eleven months, we’ve seen broadband is a necessity. I think it is absolutely COVID-19 related,” said Sen. Warner in questioning with Chairman Powell. “I hope that the current package can be changed to actually include a sizeable investment in broadband as good as our four bipartisan packages have been to date.”

He continued, “Experts like Tom Wheeler and Blair Levin have said somewhere in the $40 to $50 billion range, we can get about 97 percent coverage along with better affordability.”

In response, Chairman Powell said, “I would agree that it is a classic piece of infrastructure for the modern economy, for the service economy, for the technologically advanced economy and having it…as broadly available as possible could be a significant benefit economically.”

As a former governor and now in the Senate, Sen. Warner has long fought for increased access to broadband in the Commonwealth. In December, Sen. Warner negotiated and passed COVID-19 relief legislation that included $7 billion towards broadband, including $3.2 billion for an Emergency Broadband Benefit to help low-income families maintain their internet connections, $285 million to support broadband access in minority communities, and $300 million in broadband grants modeled on bipartisan provisions Sen. Warner drafted with his colleagues. Sen. Warner has also introduced comprehensive broadband infrastructure legislation to expand access to affordable high-speed internet and has also introduced bipartisan legislation with Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott (R-SC) to establish a $10 billion Broadband Development Fund to prioritize funding for areas that currently lack service, support the deployment of advanced technologies in areas where there is the greatest need, and encourage projects that can quickly provide internet service.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), about 21 million Americans do not have access to 25/3 Mbps internet, which is the FCC’s standard for high-speed broadband. Of that 21 million, 16 million live in rural areas, while 5 million live in urban areas.

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Warner highlights how response to violence was slowed by D.C. status as a non-state

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Today, February 23, 2021, the Senate Rules Committee and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee convened the first congressional hearing examining the security failures that enabled a mob supporting former President Donald Trump to overrun the U.S. Capitol on January 6. At the hearing, senators heard testimony from four officials, three of whom resigned following the attack: former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger, former House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving, former U.S. Capitol Police Chief (USCP) Steven Sund and Robert Contee, acting chief of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).

In the hearing, Sen. Warner – a senior member of the Rules Committee – questioned the witnesses about whether the response to the security breach was delayed due to D.C.’s status as a non-state. While the National Guard in other states and territories can be called up by the governor, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser lacked authority on January 6 to mobilize the D.C. National Guard in defense of the Capitol. Instead, the D.C. National Guard is placed under the authority of the President of the United States. The commander of the D.C. National Guard, Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, has told the press that the Pentagon restricted his authority ahead of the mob invasion, and MPD acting Chief Robert Contee testified today that he was shocked by the administration’s “reluctance” on January 6 to approve the deployment of D.C. National Guard troops to quell the violence – resulting in a delay of several hours before troops arrived at the Capitol to restore order.

“I feel like the long-term discrimination against the District – and we’ve seen it in some of the COVID legislation where they did not receive the same kind of level of support that other states did – we saw it play out in real-time on January 6, the hurdles from the previous administration. I have concerns that deployment of the Guard was affirmatively slowed down,” Sen. Warner said at today’s hearing. “As a supporter of D.C. statehood, I would like to see that move forward. But even short of that, trying to ensure that the mayor has appropriate powers going forward.”

Sen. Warner is an original co-sponsor of the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, legislation to make the District of Columbia the 51st state. He is also an original co-sponsor of the District of Columbia National Guard Home Rule Act, legislation to grant the District of Columbia full control over the D.C. National Guard and the Metropolitan Police Department.

At today’s hearing, the senators also heard a terrifying and moving firsthand account of the January 6 attack from USCP Captain Carneysha Mendoza.

At the hearing, Sen. Warner, the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, also questioned whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was adequately sharing threat information with D.C. and Capitol police ahead of January 6. According to press reports, the FBI field office in Norfolk issued a field bulletin on January 5 warning of the potential for violence on January 6, but former USCP chief Sund testified today that he learned of the report only after the attack.

“I had a number of conversations [with the FBI ahead of January 6.] I called Director Wray on Monday the 4th, trying to express concerns that there might be this kind of activity. I never expected this level of violence. I had a number of conversations with senior FBI leadership on the 5th through the 6th. Candidly, I don’t think even the full FBI could have been fully informed of what was going to come to pass – but I felt like the FBI felt that they were in better shape in terms of intel and preparation than what came to be the case,” Sen. Warner said today.

Sen. Warner concluded, “Let me just say that my concern is that, in Virginia, we’ve seen these kind of anti-government extremists take to the streets in Charlottesville in 2017, resulting in the death of Heather Heyer. We’ve seen the same kind of groups come to the forefront on January 6. I think this is an ongoing threat to national security. I feel at times that, while the FBI and others have pointed this out, that it didn’t get the level of serious review that it should have with the prior administration. I know I felt at times that they did not want to take the information that was coming out of the FBI. I hope on a going-forward basis we’re going to be able to be more coordinated in terms of taking on anti-government extremism, whether it comes from the left or the right. This is a real, ongoing threat. I can tell you from our Intelligence Committee, that we’ve seen that many of these groups have connections and ties to anti-government extremist groups in Europe.”

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Legislative Update

Sixth District Perspectives with Congressman Ben Cline – February 21, 2021

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As the House prepares to return to Washington this coming week, I have been reviewing the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID-19 spending package that does little to support actual COVID relief programs (only nine percent of the bill’s spending), but instead rewards chronic fiscal mismanagement in cities and states like New York and California. To help us defeat COVID, Congress and the Biden Administration should work to spend funds that have already been allocated and support opening up our schools and our economy. Small businesses are struggling here in Virginia, which is why I also wrote to Governor Northam urging him to support the tax-deductibility of PPP funds sent by Congress. Virginia should be helping small businesses, not tacking on extra tax bills when they can least afford them. I also participated in a hearing in the Appropriations Committee on child care programs to discuss how to best help folks who continue to juggle being parents, teachers, and working professionals during COVID. Additionally, I have continued to meet with constituents and advocacy groups to discuss their legislative priorities and ensure that their voices are being heard in Washington. While our region may have experienced some cold weather over the past few days, I am always thankful to be in Virginia’s beautiful Sixth District connecting with the folks I am honored to represent.

Advocating for Fiscal Responsibility:
Despite the federal government still having $1 trillion in unspent COVID funds sitting in its coffers, Democrats are preparing to pass an additional $1.9 trillion messaging bill. While I could support additional funding to ensure our kids are back in school and our small businesses are back in operation, we should make sure the money we approved last year has been spent before we decide that another dime is needed. Further, if the Majority passes this bloated “aid” package, Congress will have spent $6 trillion in the last year alone on COVID-related “stimulus”. That comes out to more than $17,000 per individual, $69,000 per household, and is larger than the GDP of every country on Earth other than the U.S. and China. This sort of spending is unsustainable and poses a serious threat to the longer-term viability of our economy. Any additional relief must be targeted, temporary, and tied to COVID.

Supporting Small Business:
This week I was joined by Congressmen Wittman and Good, in writing to Governor Northam encouraging him and the General Assembly to fully conform state tax law to the federal government’s recently enacted tax law to allow for full deductibility of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans in order to ensure the recovery of Virginia small businesses. PPP has served as a lifeline to more than 100,000 Virginia small businesses and their employees since the pandemic began, and as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act passed last year, Congress made its intent clear that these loans were to be forgiven and fully deductible due to COVID-19. Failing to conform state tax law with that of the federal government would stick those most in need with a sizable tax bill they did not expect and cannot afford. Governor Northam and the General Assembly must now do their part and support mom-and-pop shops across the Commonwealth. I am confident those serving in Richmond will do the right thing. To read the full letter, click here.

Supporting working Families:
COVID-19 has significantly altered the daily lives of millions of Americans. Families with young children have been stretched thin as they try to juggle being a parent, teacher, and working professional. It is well past time for Congress to step up and provide solutions. The answer in most parents’ minds is simple – we must reopen our schools. As I stated in the Appropriations Committee this week, while relief aid is important, we must ensure that funding is going to where it is truly effective. And at this point, the most effective use of taxpayer dollars to alleviate the stress on parents would be allocating resources to get our kids back in the classroom.

Pulp and Paperworkers Resource Council:
The forestry industry brings in nearly $17 billion to Virginia’s economy each year and provides more than $3 billion in recreational opportunities to nearly two thirds of Commonwealth citizens. Further, the forestry industry contributes $345 million back to Virginia landowners for selling their timber and employs 103,000 people throughout the Commonwealth. That is why I was pleased to meet recently with members of the Pulp and Paperworkers Resource Council to discuss their legislative priorities for the 117th Congress. I will remain an advocate for this vital industry both here at home and in Washington.

Port of Virginia:
The Port of Virginia is the third-largest container port on the East Coast and is crucial to the success of various industries. The Port’s mission is to deliver, “opportunity by driving business to, and through, the Commonwealth.” They certainly deliver on their mission as a recent economic impact study shows that the Port, directly and indirectly, supports 390,000 Virginia jobs generating $23 billion in annual compensation and $2.1 billion in state and local taxes. With the Inland Port here in the Sixth District, it was a pleasure to hear from Port officials about how Congress can continue to support their work and ensure they remain a significant economic driver here in the Commonwealth.

COVID-19 Update:
As of February 21, 2021, Virginia has had 564,119 total cases of COVID-19, including confirmed lab tests and clinical diagnoses, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The current death toll in the Commonwealth stands at 7,331. Further, according to the VDH’s COVID-19 vaccine data dashboard, as of February 20th, 1,101,433 people have been vaccinated with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 440,339 people are fully vaccinated.

This week, Virginia announced its launch of a hotline service hoping to streamline the vaccination process throughout the Commonwealth by preregistering those who wish to get the vaccine. The hotline can be reached at 877-VAX-IN-VA (877-829-4682), or can be found online at vaccinate.Virginia.gov.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your congressman. Follow me on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter for the latest updates. If my office can ever be of assistance, please contact my Washington office at (202) 225-5431.

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Legislative Update

Sixth District Perspectives with Congressman Ben Cline – February 14, 2021

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This week, valuable time that should have been spent addressing the critical issues facing American families and small businesses were once again wasted by Congressional Democrats with another impeachment and trial of Donald Trump. And once again, Donald Trump was acquitted by the U.S. Senate. While Congress continues to put politics over people, it was nevertheless a productive week here in Virginia’s beautiful Sixth District. I had the opportunity to meet with several constituents and advocacy groups from across the District, including the Superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, folks from Special Olympics International, academic leaders, officials from the Port of Virginia, and members of the forestry industry. I also joined my colleagues in writing to several Biden Administration officials and the President himself regarding several troubling issues. Whether I’m in Washington or the Sixth District, I will always advocate for policies that benefit my constituents.

Meeting with Constituents:
Shenandoah National Park

In 2019, 1.4 million visitors to Shenandoah National Park spent $96.7 million in communities near the park. That spending supported 1,190 jobs in the local area and had a cumulative benefit to the local economy of $129 million. Needless to say, the Park is vital to Virginia’s Sixth District. For this reason, I maintain a close relationship with Park leadership and this week spoke to the new Superintendent, Patrick Kenney, to discuss how COVID-19 has affected the Park’s operations and the importance of safely reinvigorating tourism in the region during the pandemic.

Special Olympics International
Special Olympics International is an organization that changes lives by encouraging and empowering people with intellectual disabilities by promoting acceptance for all, and by fostering communities of understanding and respect worldwide. Federal partnerships allow Special Olympics to provide vital services to athletes and families, including the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program and Unified Champion Schools Educational programs. This week it was a pleasure to chat with Roanoke resident and Special Olympics athlete, Matt Crowder, about the organization’s work in enhancing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. To learn more about Matt’s work, click here.

National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities
Virginia’s Sixth District is home to more institutions of higher education than nearly any other district in the country. With more than 20 colleges and universities within our borders, students from across the United States flock to the Sixth District to pursue their education. For this reason, it is critically important that I foster an open dialogue between myself and our region’s schools to ensure that I am best representing their and our students’ interests. This week, I enjoyed the opportunity to meet with members of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and other academic leaders from across the district to discuss education policy and ways to ensure student health on campus. As an active member of the Congressional Independent Colleges Caucus, I will remain an advocate for the hundreds of thousands of students receiving education within the Sixth District.

Advocating on Your Behalf:
Reopening Schools
As a parent, I understand the importance of keeping our children safe and ensuring they receive a good education. Remote learning served an invaluable purpose in the height of the pandemic, but it cannot be the only option moving forward. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released clinical guidance titled “COVID-19 Guidance for Safe Schools.” In this report, the AAP outlined key principles to help with safely reopening our schools and strongly advocated that all policy considerations start with a goal of having students physically present in school. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has emphasized the importance of reopening schools “as safely and as quickly as possible for in-person learning.” To read more of the CDC’s guidelines for schools click here.
President Biden promised that he would support policies to reopen schools in the first 100 days of his presidency. Unfortunately, the Administration’s proposed policy of reopening 50 percent of our Nation’s schools and with students in the classroom as little as one day a week is not enough. This is unacceptable, and my colleagues and I wrote to President Biden insisting he reconsiders his plan. The full letter can be found here.

Open Borders
Based on information from sources on the ground, this week, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have seen illegal crossings soar to more than 3,500 migrants a day, up from 2,000 earlier last month. This comes on the heels of several Executive Orders signed by President Biden aimed at weakening our immigration system. These orders halt construction of the border wall, reduce immigration enforcement, order non-citizens to be included in the Census, eliminate the requirement for illegal immigrants to repay the federal government if they receive public benefits, and will allow for 125,000 refugees to be admitted into the United States this year. Policies such as these encourage migrants to make the dangerous trip across the U.S-Mexico border and pose a grave threat to our national security, our economic and health recovery from COVID, and to American jobs. Read a letter to President Biden expressing concern for these policies here.

Defending the Second Amendment
Recently, Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee introduced the Sabika Sheikh Firearm Licensing and Registration Act. Not only would this legislation create a national firearms registry, but it would also require individuals to have a federal license to possess any firearm or ammunition. Further, this bill would mandate gun owners to have firearm related insurance and ban certain calibers of ammunition. Legislation like this tramples on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens, and I will strongly oppose it.

COVID-19 Update:
As of February 14, 2021, Virginia has had 549,999 total cases of COVID-19, including confirmed lab tests and clinical diagnoses, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The current death toll in the Commonwealth stands at 7,012. Further, according to the VDH’s COVID-19 vaccine data dashboard, as of February 13, 994,631 people have been vaccinated with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 303,942 people are fully vaccinated.

On Tuesday, February 16 and Wednesday, February 17 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. the Martinsburg VAMC will be hosting walk-in COVID-19 Vaccination POD’s (Point of Dispensing) for enrolled Veterans who are 65 and older or Veterans who are essential personnel as defined by the CDC. Veterans will need to arrive by 3 pm to check in for the vaccine in the main lobby. Veterans will need to bring their VA ID Card and Driver’s License (or other identification) that shows their date of birth. To learn more, click here.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your congressman. Follow me on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter for the latest updates. If my office can ever be of assistance, please contact my Washington office at (202) 225-5431.

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Legislative Update

Warner raises alarm with IRS delays as Virginians wait for economic impact payments and tax returns

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U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) raised concern with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) after hearing from an alarming number of Virginians who have yet to receive their second economic impact payment (EIP) or long-awaited tax return. These troubling delays come as millions of Americans find themselves in desperate need of a financial lifeline after continuing to face economic hardship due to the COVID-19 crisis.

“I am deeply appreciative of the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) work during the pandemic. The agency has delivered hundreds of millions of EIPs to Americans, all while managing the risks associated with COVID-19 and the need to protect our public servants at the IRS,” wrote Sen. Warner in his letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and IRS Charles Commissioner Rettig. “However, while the IRS has made an effort to provide timely and updated information on their website, my constituents continue to be frustrated with their inability to navigate some of the issues that are delaying their tax refunds and their second round of EIPs.”

As of November 19, 2020, there were an estimated 3.3 million pieces of unopened mail – including 1.6 million tax returns – at the IRS’s four Submission Processing Centers.

Currently, taxpayers who do not receive their economic impact payment must claim these funds by filing a tax return. This threatens to further delay needed payments and poses a particularly burdensome problem for Social Security recipients and other vulnerable populations, who may be forced to file a tax return despite not normally have a tax filing obligation.

In his letter, Sen. Warner also stressed the IRS’ responsibility to process individual tax returns and issue refunds as quickly as possible. In order to further understand the ongoing situation, Sen. Warner asked for answers to the following series of questions:

1. What is the current IRS backlog of paper tax returns and correspondence specifically at the Kansas City, MO location where Virginians’ tax returns are processed? When does the IRS project it will be finished processing the backlog? Can the IRS commit to providing more frequent updates on the backlog?

2. As the nation continues to work through the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, what steps are the agency taking to prepare for the upcoming tax filing season and to process all returns, whether filed electronically or by U.S. Mail, as quickly as possible?

3. For taxpayers who have filed their Forms 1095-A and 8962, when can they expect to have that form processed by the IRS?

4. For the second EIP, how many payments have been successfully delivered? How many payments have been returned to the IRS? Why are some constituents who received the first EIP now having issues accessing the second?

During the COVID-19 crisis, Sen. Warner has been a strong advocate for Virginians, working to ensure that they get the funds to which they are entitled. Last April, he pressed the Treasury Department to ensure that families who are not normally required to file taxes do not need to wait until the following year to receive the additional $500 payment per dependent child that they were promised. He also successfully pushed the Treasury Department to allow Social Security recipients to automatically receive CARES Act direct cash assistance without needing to file a tax return.

Text of the letter is available here and below.

Dear Secretary Yellen and Commissioner Rettig,

I write today to express my concern with the alarming number of my constituents who have not received their long-awaited tax refund or the second economic impact payment (EIP). As you are well aware, millions of Americans are facing economic hardships and are desperately in need of these funds to help make ends meet.

I am deeply appreciative of the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) work during the pandemic. The agency has delivered hundreds of millions of EIPs to Americans, all while managing the risks associated with COVID-19 and the need to protect our public servants at the IRS. I applaud your responsiveness to Congress and the agency’s focus on delivering vital assistance to Americans in dire need of support. However, while the IRS has made an effort to provide timely and updated information on their website, my constituents continue to be frustrated with their inability to navigate some of the issues that are delaying their tax refunds and their second round of EIPs.

I understand that as of November 7, 2020, there were approximately 6.8 million individual paper return in various processing stages at the four Submission Processing Centers. Commissioner Rettig stated in his November 19, 2020, letter to my office that there were “an estimated 3.3 million pieces of unopened mail at these four locations, including 1.6 million tax returns.”

Since the November 19, 2020 letter from Commissioner Rettig, I have continued to hear from constituents that still have not had their 2019 tax returns processed or received their refunds. In addition, my constituents report that they have not received their second EIP despite many of these constituents reporting that they received their previous payment via direct deposit, and the agency’s Get My Payment Tool indicates their payment was authorized and mailed on January 6, 2021. Because taxpayers who do not receive their EIP must claim their payment by filing a tax return and claiming the Recovery Rebate Credit, many taxpayers face the possibility of even lengthier waits to receive their payment, including many who do not normally have a tax filing obligation. As you know, this population includes Social Security recipients and the most vulnerable in our county.

In addition, constituents continue to indicate that they are not receiving refunds due to lags in processing Health Insurance Marketplace Statements (Form 1095-A) and Premium Tax Credits (Form 8962), which are required if they receive their healthcare from the Affordable Care Act marketplace.

I appreciate the enormity of the challenges that the agency faces in trying to conduct its work while keeping its workers safe from COVID-19. However, the agency has a responsibility to process individual tax returns and issue all refunds that taxpayers are entitled to as quickly as possible and to be as communicative as possible.

To help me respond adequately to my constituents, please answer the following questions:

1. What is the current IRS backlog of paper tax returns and correspondence specifically at the Kansas City, MO location where Virginians’ tax returns are processed? When does the IRS project it will be finished processing the backlog? Can the IRS commit to providing more frequent updates on the backlog?
2. As the nation continues to work through the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, what steps is the agency taking to prepare for the upcoming tax filing season and to process all returns, whether filed electronically or by U.S. Mail, as quickly as possible?
3. For taxpayers who have filed their Forms 1095-A and 8962, when can they expect to have that form processed by the IRS?
4. For the second EIP, how many payments have been successfully delivered? How many payments have been returned to the IRS? Why are some constituents who received the first EIP now having issues accessing the second?

I know the IRS is working diligently to serve the American people, and I welcome our continued collaboration to help Americans across the country. Thank you for your attention to this important issue.

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