September 3, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

The experts at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have come up with a proposal of who should get the COVID-19 vaccine first, once it is available.

Health care workers with direct exposure to the virus — including nurses, doctors and ambulance workers — are first on the list. Then comes first responders, which might include EMTs and firefighters. Seniors living in nursing homes or senior living facilities would be in the first group to be vaccinated, as well.

It is interesting that, despite the fact that some of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks and some of the biggest spreaders of the virus have been in jails and prisons, those facilities do not get first priority on this list.

On the second tier are school teachers and others critical to the functioning of society. Would journalists be on that list? How about truck drivers, bus drivers, restaurant workers and store clerks?

This tier also includes older adults not vaccinated in the first phase; people in homeless shelters, group homes and prisons; and staff working in these facilities.

The real controversies will come when obese people, smokers and others who have health issues that put them in a high-risk category get priority treatment because of those conditions. You can see the protests now.

(From the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine)

StatNews explained:

That more granular work is already being conducted by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, an expert panel that crafts vaccination guidance for the CDC, and by state, local, and tribal health authorities, who must identify the actual people in their regions who fall into the priority groups.

The ACIP’s recommendations will go to the CDC. It remains unclear, however, whether the CDC, Operation Warp Speed — the task force set up to fast-track development of COVID-19 vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics — or the White House will make the final determinations on who will be vaccinated first.

The panel invites public comment through midnight Friday. Remember, the comments become part of the public record (which should produce some interesting reading and reporting). Send the public here to post a comment.

So how will we pay for a $3.3 trillion deficit? It’s a real question

Something happened Wednesday that is worth noting because we will be paying for it for a long time. The Congressional Budget Office said that for the first time since World War II, the national debt was more or less equal to the annual national economy (the GDP.)

The debt has just about tripled in the last year. It was already rising because of tax cuts and spending increases, but the pandemic bailout was the icing on the cake. And another stimulus bill may still be coming in the next few weeks.

While the bailout bills cost money, it also costs money to allow the economy to shut down. That is a significant part of the 2020 increase — the fact that people are paying less in taxes right now because they are earning less, or nothing.

The deficit tripled in the last year and will, even under optimistic circumstances, take years to recover.

(Data and chart from the Congressional Budget Office)

In stories like this, it is useful, I think, to remind ourselves that the federal deficit and the federal debt are different. The deficit is the part of the budget that is unfunded by the income the government takes in. The debt is the aggregate of the deficits over years. It is like you spend a thousand dollars more than you earned this month. You would have a thousand-dollar deficit. But if you do that for 12 months you will have a $12,000 debt.

(Data and chart from the Congressional Budget Office)

The Congressional Budget Office said the national debt is projected to reach levels not seen since the end of World War II. The CBO said, “As a result of deficits, federal debt held by the public is projected to rise sharply, to 98% of GDP in 2020, compared with 79% at the end of 2019 and 35% in 2007, before the start of the previous recession. It would exceed 100% in 2021 and increase to 107% in 2023, the highest in the nation’s history. The previous peak occurred in 1946 following the large deficits incurred during World War II. By 2030, debt would equal 109% of GDP.”

Those government debts are paid by the government selling Treasury notes or Treasury bonds. It is possible that you hold some of those in your 401K or even in a private investment account. Right now, those government bonds, which are considered to be very secure, also pay a pittance of an interest rate. There is a big demand for even those low return bonds because of global uncertainty.

For a deeper dive, read this Washington Post story, which explains how the government prints money and then buys the money back. Someday, the experts believe, we will have to find a way to get all of that money out of circulation. Experts call that “quantitative tightening,” and when it happens, it gets messy.

What is the Hatch Act and why has it become such a big deal?

It seems like we have been circling around this for a while without fully explaining what the Hatch Act is and why it is such a hot topic these days. So many people wanted to know what the Hatch Act is that Google saw a spike in searches on Friday. So here we go.

Democrats got in a tizzy about President Donald Trump using the White House for the Republican National Convention last week. They want an investigation into whether the RNC violated the Hatch Act.

To be clear, violating the Hatch Act is a workplace violation, but it is not a crime. Pretty much the worst that can happen is the loss of a job. It usually results in a slap on the wrist — or nothing at all.

Let’s let the lawyers at the Office of the Special Counsel have the first crack at explaining this:

The Hatch Act, a federal law passed in 1939, limits certain political activities of federal employees, as well as some state, D.C., and local government employees who work in connection with federally funded programs. ​The law’s purposes are to ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure that federal employees are advanced based on merit and not based on political affiliation. ​​​​ ​​

The Office of the Special Counsel reminded the public this week that while it is in charge of investigating Hatch Act complaints and violations, it has no enforcement power. Any prosecution would have to come from the U.S. Department of Justice, and the president appoints the attorney general, who is the head of the department so, you know, that is kind of a dead end.

Another reason there was such a flurry of Google searches on the Hatch Act last week was because Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared in an RNC speech while he was on an official trip to Jerusalem. Then acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf presided over an immigration naturalization ceremony during a pretaped event that was aired during the convention. A top House Democrat and a government watchdog group asked the OSC to investigate.

As a realistic matter, anybody who is appointed by the president — and especially those confirmed by the Senate — is not going to be prosecuted for promoting the president’s reelection. Now, if a staffer did that, it could bring a prosecution. Like it or not, that is the history of the act.

And, of course, there was the president’s use of the White House for purely political purposes when he used it to accept the RNC’s nomination.

The Hatch Act covers almost every federal employee. ALMOST. The two people who are exempt are the president and the vice president.

It was born in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt when the government was expanding in every direction and the federal programs had tons of jobs open just when tons of people needed them. The Hatch Act was an attempt to keep federal employees from trying to persuade others to support a campaign by leveraging political positions.

The OSC offers these guidelines — think of them as do’s and don’ts.

(From the Office of the Special Counsel)

The Hatch Act is trotted out more often than you might think. For example, some accused FBI Director James Comey of violating the Hatch Act when he decided to update Congress on the investigation of Hillary Clinton in the closing days of the 2016 election.

In March 2018, the Office of the Special Counsel told federal employees to leave their MAGA hats at home once President Trump was officially running for reelection. Before that moment, federal employees were free to bring 2016 election memorabilia into the workplace. But once a new campaign was underway, the Hatch Act made partisan politics off-limits in the federal workplace.

The OSC has really had a workout trying to flag Hatch Act violations in the Trump administration. CNN has been keeping track of the violations, including:

In 2017, White House social media director Dan Scavino and then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley both received official warnings over tweets that the OSC said broke the rules. Scavino got his warning in June after calling for a primary challenge to Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, and Haley got hers in October for retweeting Trump’s endorsement of a Republican from her home state of South Carolina.

In the Obama years, there were Hatch Act violations, as well. CNN noted:

Obama-era Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro tried to avoid violating the law during a 2016 interview by saying he was taking off his “HUD hat for a second and just speaking individually,” before boosting Clinton. That didn’t work. In its statement announcing Castro had violated the Hatch Act, the OSC noted he was there in his official capacity and had the department seal behind him.

All of this is not to say the Hatch Act cannot cost people their jobs. Government Executive compiled a list of some of the more notable recent enforcement actions:

  • In 2018, OSC reached an agreement with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement employee who repeatedly told coworkers to vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. The employee agreed to resign and faced a five-year ban on federal service.
  • Also last year, OSC referred to the Merit Systems Protection Board a U.S. Postal Service employee for violating the Hatch Act by running for partisan elected office while serving in his federal position. The MSPB judge removed the employee.
  • OSC last year also reached a settlement to suspend without pay two USPS employees after they brought campaign posters for preferred political candidates into their office, announced their endorsements during a meeting and filmed themselves discussing politics inside their official postal vehicles, all despite warnings from a supervisor. One of the Ohio-based employees received a 30-day suspension and the other 60 days without pay.
  • In 2014, OSC reached a settlement agreement with a Federal Election Commission attorney who violated the Hatch Act by posting partisan political tweets and participating in a livestream event from his office in which he criticized the Republican party and candidates. The attorney agreed to resign.
  • Also that year, an OSC investigation led to a 40-day suspension for an Air Force employee who used a work email thread to send information in opposition to President Obama’s reelection.
  • OSC in 2016 reached an agreement for a 50-day unpaid suspension for a Commerce Department employee who while he was in his federal office assisted Republican political candidates in Maryland with fundraising.
  • OSC found a Federal Communications Commission member Michael O’Rielly in violation of the Hatch Act when, at an event in which he used his official title, O’Rielly advocated for Trump’s reelection and the election of other conservatives. OSC issued a warning letter and said future violations would result in disciplinary action.
  • The incident called to mind another high-profile Hatch Act violation when, in 2012, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the audience at an official event that it was “hugely important to make sure that we reelect the president.” OSC found her in violation of the Hatch Act, and Sebelius retroactively relabeled the event political and reimbursed the government for the cost of her travel.

All the free stuff is gone. What’s the point of Costco now?

Thanks to COVID-19, there is no more free cheese at Costco. That is just the beginning of the stuff this damn virus has ruined. The Washington Posts’ Andrea Sachs added up the wreckage:

As stores across the country regroup, customers will notice several new additions, such as social distancing decals and hand sanitizer dispensers, and one significant subtraction: tables piled with free edibles or shelves laden with makeup testers. In early March, Trader Joe’s attempted to salvage the hallowed tradition by switching from samples on a communal tray to white glove service, with employees handing customers individual bites. Less than two weeks later, the gratis nibbles disappeared. A similar vanishing act occurred at Whole Foods, Costco and Kroger’s, among other supermarkets.

“We understand how important experiencing a product is to know if you like it,” said Kenya Friend-Daniel, a spokeswoman for Trader Joe’s, adding that the company’s return policy remains the same. However, to claim your refund, you must go back into the sidewalk line, a queue that would be more tolerable if it led to, say, a free cup of coffee and plate of cauliflower gnocchi.

In a similar vein, department stores and retailers specializing in beauty products have halted the sometimes transformative, sometimes clownish, experience of playing with makeup. Handling the testers is prohibited, and the swabs and applicators are gone. If you are itching to squirt something on your hands, there’s always sanitizer.

The Post has a whole collection of “endangered experiences”:

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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