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News Brief: Relief Measure, Texas Mask Mandate, Big-Tech Critics

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The House will vote today to approve a massive $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is so happy about it, she's quoting the Pointer Sisters.

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NANCY PELOSI: I'm so excited. I just can't hide it.

MARTIN: President Biden had said he wanted a bipartisan bill. The White House argues that a lot of Republican voters support it. But in the end, the bill is passing with only Democratic support in Congress. Here's Republican Liz Cheney.

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LIZ CHENEY: It includes provisions that are not targeted. They're not temporary. They're not related to COVID. And it didn't have to be this way.

MARTIN: Still, it's set to be a major victory for President Biden on this, his 50th day in office.

DETROW: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us this morning. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

DETROW: So we heard Liz Cheney there saying what we hear from many Republicans lately, that this is a bill that doesn't have much to do with the pandemic. What specifically are they referring to?

LIASSON: Well, they're saying that the direct payments, those $1,400 checks, are too broad, that they should be conditioned based on people facing a job loss, something like that. Democrats say that the money is going to the people who need it the most and that the direct payments are now a lot more targeted than they were when they were first proposed. Republicans also say the Democrats are trying to use this bill to permanently expand the social safety net by putting in more money for the child tax credit, expanding funding for affordable health care. And to that, Democrats plead guilty. Here's what White House press secretary Jen Psaki said yesterday when asked whether that funding really is related to the current health and economic crisis.

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JEN PSAKI: Well, I would say if you're a family with kids, then the notion that the child tax credit is unrelated to the economy is an absurd notion. So I don't know who the critics are, but I would be surprised if they had small children.

LIASSON: You know, that child tax credit is big. It's a big, if temporary, expansion of the social safety net. The expanded child credit has the potential to cut child poverty in half. So to Democrats, this is a big deal. But again, these measures are temporary because of the reconciliation rules. And when we get close to the midterms, they'll expire, and then there'll be a big debate about whether we should extend them.

DETROW: It is interesting right now that you have President Biden out campaigning, and he and other Democrats are kind of making the exact same argument Republicans are making right now about the makeup of this bill.

LIASSON: That's right. What happens going forwards is that Republicans are going to be closely watching how this money is spent, holding the president and the Democrats responsible for any problems. Democrats say the success of this bill depends on two things, implementation - in other words, people have to get vaccinated, schools have to open, the economy has to get going again - and salesmanship. This is something they feel Obama didn't do enough of with his stimulus. But they are going to have Biden out there starting this week with his primetime address on Thursday, telling the American people. You know, short of giving them a Publisher's Clearinghouse-sized check to each eligible American, he is going to try to tell people exactly what kind of help they are getting from their government.

DETROW: So we're expecting yet another party-line vote today. What does this dynamic tell us moving forward, especially as you get to some of the areas where President Biden is really intent on actually having a bipartisan coalition, infrastructure in particular?

LIASSON: Right. That's the next chapter. If the COVID relief bill was an emergency measure, you kind of had to put the fire out first before you could rebuild the house. This next bunch of bills - gigantic infrastructure bill, voting rights, immigration - this is what Biden feels could be transformative and define his legacy. He does want bipartisan buy-in from Republicans. And the question is, does he bring them in from the ground up, which is a different model than just saying, here's my 1.9 trillion bill; they come back and say, here's our 681 billion proposal. How much effort will he put in getting Republicans on board? That's the question.

DETROW: NPR's Mara Liasson, always great to talk to you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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DETROW: As of today, Texans are no longer required to wear a mask in public.

MARTIN: Businesses, including restaurants, can now operate at full capacity without any restrictions. Governor Greg Abbott announced the change last week over the objections of public health officials. Businesses will be able to implement their own guidelines, but none are required anymore by the state.

DETROW: Sarah Self-Walbrick of Texas Tech Public Media joins us now to talk about how things are playing out in Texas. Good morning, Sarah.

SARAH SELF-WALBRICK, BYLINE: Good morning.

DETROW: Sarah, there are so many positive trend lines in the pandemic, but there are still a lot of new cases and COVID deaths out there. How do Texans feel about this change?

SELF-WALBRICK: So Texans are split on whether the mask requirement should continue. A lot of people think that it's too soon to not require masks, but others insist that wearing a mask should be a personal decision and not a matter of public policy. Abbott insists there are fewer people in hospitals and more people getting vaccinated. But it is worth noting that vaccinations are taking place at a much slower rate than elsewhere in the country.

DETROW: Yeah. Just give us a quick reminder of what the trends are in Texas right now on cases and vaccinations.

SELF-WALBRICK: So yeah - and as I said, compared to the rest of the country, Texas ranks toward the bottom in terms of the percentage of the population that has received at least one vaccine. And in terms of new cases per 100,000 people, Texas ranks 10th towards the top according to the CDC.

DETROW: So with the state requirements gone, this now becomes a local issue. How are different cities and counties across the state dealing with this?

SELF-WALBRICK: A local public health ordinance established yesterday in Austin is still requiring masking. So the governor's executive order specifically prohibits cities or counties from doing that. But Austin City Council and Health Authority found a loophole that they think allows them to do - to require masking still. So no word yet on how the governor or other cities and counties will respond.

DETROW: What about schools?

SELF-WALBRICK: The Texas Education Agency has allowed school boards to decide what works best for their districts. A handful have ruled that masks will no longer be required, but most districts are keeping their current rules in place through the rest of the school year.

DETROW: OK. So you're in Lubbock. What is the situation there?

SELF-WALBRICK: So one of our three bigger school districts has made wearing masks optional for both students and teachers. And I've heard that a few businesses are going to stop requiring masks, but that's definitely a minority. The biggest employers in town, both public and private entities, have said that they are not changing their rules, at least not for now. The city of Lubbock's public health director, Katherine Wells, strongly recommends continuing the COVID precautions that have decreased local community spread.

KATHERINE WELLS: We're not at herd immunity yet, so we need to still stay that course and continue to wear those masks, especially when we're around individuals that are not in our family, regardless if you're vaccinated or not.

DETROW: Sarah, lastly, real quick - I mean, how are restaurants handling this?

SELF-WALBRICK: Restaurants are definitely kind of all over the place. We think most of them will continue to require masks of customers and employees. That's what the Texas Restaurant Association is suggesting people do. But we'll see.

DETROW: All right. Sarah Self-Walbrick of Texas Tech Public Media, thank you so much.

SELF-WALBRICK: Thank you.

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DETROW: President Biden is gearing up for a big showdown with Big Tech.

MARTIN: He's reportedly hiring two outspoken critics of Amazon, Facebook and Google for influential roles in the administration. They've both pushed for the government to get much more aggressive at reining in these tech giants, even break some of them up.

DETROW: NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond has been following this story. Shannon, who are these critics of Big Tech that Biden is bringing on board?

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: So Biden is reportedly getting ready to nominate antitrust scholar Lina Khan to the Federal Trade Commission. And just last week, he added law professor Tim Wu as a tech policy adviser. Wu has advocated for breaking up Facebook. And Scott, it's really hard to overstate just how big a deal these names are in tech policy circles. They both have these very progressive views about monopolies and competition, and now they're potentially moving into these very influential roles as the government is investigating and suing the tech giants.

So Wu worked on tech policy in the Obama administration. He now says he thinks the tech giants have helped create a new Gilded Age, much like the robber barons did with their railroad and oil monopolies. Khan is just 32 years old. She made her name when she was still a law student for writing this groundbreaking paper about Amazon. And she's become the face of this approach that's sometimes jokingly called hipster antitrust.

DETROW: OK. I think you're going to need to explain his hipster antitrust a little bit more.

BOND: So Khan is critical of the current way that the government deals with monopoly power. You know, there's this idea that the rules are really focused on when consumers, like you and me get hurt. When we have fewer choices, we have to pay more for products and services. Khan says, you know, in the case of a company like Amazon, that doesn't address concerns that focus on other harms, like those to the independent sellers who rely on the platform to make money. And she thinks Amazon should not be able to both operate this marketplace and sell as a competitor in that marketplace. Here's what she told NPR back in 2018 about the bind that puts sellers in.

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LINA KHAN: That dependence means that Amazon gets to often call all of the shots. And I think that is oftentimes quite harmful because it means Amazon can extract more and more from these sellers, and that can affect quality.

BOND: And Khan has already been influential in Washington. She was advising this big House panel on antitrust last year. They did this investigation. It found Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google all have really unfair power as monopolies. And we should note that all four of those companies are NPR supporters.

DETROW: I mean, this approach is just so different from even a few years ago, compared especially to the way the Obama administration treated Big Tech, cozied up to Big Tech when Biden was vice president.

BOND: That's right. I mean, I think cozy is exactly the description for the relationship the Obama administration had with Silicon Valley. You know, it wasn't that long ago that these companies were celebrated as innovators. But you know, things really have changed. Of course, the Trump administration was hugely critical of these big companies. It sued Google and Facebook for antitrust violations. That's something we're expecting the Biden administration to continue. And we're seeing criticism of tech from both sides of the aisle. Of course, there are some people from the tech world taking positions with the Biden administration. That happened under Obama. But you know, the choice of people like Lina Khan and Tim Wu, I think, signals a tougher stance toward Silicon Valley and that the era of scrutiny and skepticism, what we call the techlash, is far from over.

DETROW: The techlash. NPR's Shannon Bond, thank you.

BOND: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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