September 24, 2021

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Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, September 8, 2021

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

2:16 P.M. EDT
 
MS. PSAKI:  Hi, everyone.  Okay.  So, today we have two special guests.  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese are here to talk to you about what we’re seeing behind increases in grocery food prices and what the Biden-Harris administration is doing to lower prices for families.
 
Brian will discuss the details of the data, namely that beef, pork, and poultry are the real drivers of increased grocery store bills, and that there’s an underlying corporate consolidation problem with meat-processing giants that we need to address so that families can pay lower prices at the grocery store and farmers and ranchers can earn more.
 
And Secretary Vilsack will discuss the actions our administration is taking to build back a better food system, which includes: stepping up antitrust enforcement; investing in small businesses, workers, and a more competitive supply chain; our efforts to get ahead of climate-related disruptions; and the need for legislation to make cattle markets more transparent and fair.
 
And they’ll take a few questions.  With that, I will turn it over to Brian.
 
MR. DEESE:  Great.  Thanks, Jen.  And it’s good to see all of you.  I will be — I’ll be brief and just provide a little bit of market context and then let Secretary Vilsack really get into the steps we’re taking as an administration.
 
But as Jen said, the context here is the focus — the appropriate focus on the question of grocery prices and the increase in grocery prices that we have seen recently over the last couple of months.
 
And if we — if we unpack that, one of the interesting findings of the report that we put out today is that about half of the overall increase in grocery prices can be attributed to a significant increase in prices in three products: in beef, in pork, and in poultry.  And in beef and in pork, we’ve seen double-digit increases in prices over the last couple of months. 
 
In fact, if you look at the category that is grocery prices, what economists call “food at home” — so food that is being purchased to eat at home — in a number of areas, we’ve seen — if you take out those three categories, we’ve actually seen price increases that are more in line with historical norms.  And we’ve seen, in some categories — for example, fresh fruits and vegetables — prices have actually declined since the end of last year. 
 
And if you look at a category of prices like eggs — obviously a similar supply chain, similar input and feed costs to poultry — the price of eggs has actually come down over the last couple of months.  The real drivers in these three areas — these three proteins. 
 
If you look at that market, the thing that is striking is — across beef, poultry, and pork — significant consolidation in those industries.  So anywhere from 55 to 85 percent of the market is controlled by the top four producers in those industries. 
 
And so when you see that level of consolidation and the increase in prices, it raises a concern about pandemic profiteering — about companies that are driving price increases in a way that hurts consumers who are going to the grocery store, and also isn’t benefitting the actual producers — the farmers and the ranchers — that are growing — are growing the product. 
 
And the report that we’ve outlined today details that, in these industries, the four top companies in these industries have seen record or near-record profits in the first and second quarter of this year and seen near or approaching record gross margins as well. 
 
So we have a story of consolidated industries with companies that are generating record profits and then driving price increases for consumers without price — without passing on those benefits to the underlying producers. 
 
So this raises for us one of the issues that was core to the President’s direction to all of us and his entire Cabinet: to focus on ways that promoting more competitive practices and more competition across industries could actually lower prices for consumers and benefit middle-class families. 
 
And so, with Secretary Vilsack in the lead, we have been focused on steps that we can take as a federal government to try to drive more price transparency, encourage greater competition in this sector in an effort to help ranchers, help farmers, and help consumers at the grocery store as well. 
 
This is part of the President’s competition executive order that he signed a few months back.  We’ll be holding the inaugural meeting of the President’s Competition Council on Friday at which this will be one of several issues that we will discuss — about promoting greater competition across the economy. 
 
But these steps are important and this effort is important because we’re trying to also shine a light on the fact that these price increases that are affecting consumers are not happening in isolation and that companies are making decisions to drive these price increases.
 
At the end of the day, what we want to do is work with industry to try to generate better outcomes for end consumers, better outcomes for farmers, and we think the steps that we’re taking today can help move us in that direction.
 
So without further ado on that, I want to pass it over to Secretary Vilsack who will talk about those steps that he is leading on behalf of the administration.
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  Brian, thanks very much.  It’s good to be with everyone today.
 
You know, basically, the Department of Agriculture sees this in — as basically two functions, two responsibilities.  Goal number one is to make sure that farmers get a fair return for their efforts in their capital investment.  And the second goal is to make sure that when consumers go to the grocery store and they’re at the checkout counter, they get fairer prices.
 
And the reality is today that farmers are losing money on cattle, on hogs, and poultry that they’re selling, at a time when consumers are seeing higher prices at the grocery store and, as Brian alluded to, the fact that there are now record profits or near-record profits for those in the middle. 
 
So part of this is a function of consolidation and concentration, and we’ve learned during the pandemic that this is also a resiliency issue.  When there was a major disruption in processing capacity because there are so few processors, we saw significant disruption at the marketplace as well. 
 
So this administration is focused on four major steps to try to take action in this area.  First, strengthening the current regulatory system that we have — our Packers and Stockyards Act — to make sure that we are identifying and holding people accountable for unfair and discriminatory practices and that regulatory changes are now being undertaken as we speak. 
 
Secondly is to make sure that there’s adequate price discovery in the market.  Because there is such consolidation, there is very little cash transaction that takes place in this market, and so it’s very difficult to determine whether or not the prices that are being paid to farmers are fair.  And so we are producing studies — recently a couple of studies — to provide more price discovery.  Certainly, we want to work with Congress in their efforts legislatively to pass legislation that will expand the capacity for us to have information. 
 
Third, we want to make sure that when people go into the grocery store and they see things that are labeled “a product of the U.S.,” we want to make sure that consumers fully understand and appreciate precisely what that means or what it doesn’t mean, and whether people are taking advantage of whatever value-added opportunity that might present to increase price.
 
And finally, expanding processing capacity and maintaining the small and — and very small processing facilities that are dotting the landscape today.  We provided additional resources to keep those small processing companies in business recently by announcing about $150- to $160 million of assistance and help.  And we have put together a $500 million effort to work with states and local governments, as well as nonprofit organizations and the livestock industry, to look for ways in which we can finance expanded processing capacity.
 
We’re doing this at the same time that agriculture is confronted not just with the issue of concentration and consolidation, but also the impacts and effects of severe weather, which are linked in part to climate — whether it’s forest fires or drought or hurricanes.  Obviously, that’s also causing a disruption.  And as we build this broader processing capacity, we also want to build a more resilient food system.
 
And right now, we’re deeply concerned about the impacts and effects of drought on these beef prices and pork prices and poultry prices because it could lead, potentially, to people having to sell their herds because they can’t simply afford the cost of maintaining them, particularly in the western part of the U.S. 
 
For that reason, we’ve looked at a number of different steps to try to provide help and assistance to deal with the drought.  And today, we identified yet another way in which we can provide help and assistance. 
 
Historically, we’ve always provided resources to farmers to be able to pay for the cost of hauling water to their facilities.  If they had a situation with a drought and they needed to access additional water, there’s a cost associated with that, and we helped to defer some of that expense. 
 
We’re now changing that program.  The Emergency Livestock Assistance Program, called ELAP — we’re now changing that to include also assistance and help for transportation expense for feed. 
 
We know that these farmers, particularly in the western U.S., are going to be confronted with having to truck or rail feed from far distances, and that’s going to be an incredibly increased cost to them. 
 
So we’re going to use this emergency program to provide up to 60 percent of the additional cost that they’re incurring above and beyond what they would normally incur for transportation expense.  And for limited resource farmers, it could be as high — as much as 90 percent of assistance in help. And the goal here is to focus on those areas that have been designated serious drought areas — D2 for eight consecutive weeks, or D3 or greater.
 
The hope is that by providing this resource, we’ll be able to make it easier for farmers to stay in business and, therefore, not basically create more disruption in the market. 
 
So, a combination of focusing on concentration and consolidation, as well as making sure that we continue to look for ways to make the system more resilient are steps that we’re taking pursuant to the President’s directive.
 
MS. PSAKI:  Okay.  Go ahead.
 
Q    Thanks, Jen.  Mr. Secretary, Brian, could you guys please go back to this pandemic profiteering that you mentioned?  You said there are — up to 85 percent of the market is controlled by the top four industry big names.  So, are these the companies that are — that you suspect of profiteering right now?  Forgive me if this is an ignorant question: What are these companies?  Who are they?  What are the top four?  And what specifically are you seeing as it relates to this profiteering?
 
MR. DEESE:  Sure, let me —
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  Yeah, go ahead.
 
MR. DEESE:  — let me just start, and then the Secretary should jump in.
 
I think — so, with respect — with respect to — with respect to the data, if you look at the beef industry, for example, the top four — the top four meat processors control 85 percent of the market.  That’s in contrast to — I mentioned the issue of eggs earlier, where a far less concentrated — the top four processors there are in control of about 30 percent of the market. 
 
And what we’ve seen is that those — those four companies — those four — those four companies — we can get you the details — it includes JBS, Tyson.  We — it’s in the report that we put out.  Those companies have seen record or near-record profits in the first half of this year.  And that has coincided with a period where we’ve seen a disproportionate increase in prices in those segments, and that that actually is driving about half of the increase in overall grocery prices, in overall food — food away from — food-at-home prices. 
 
And so, it raises this question of: In this consolidated industry, are those price increases being driven by, you know — or being passed on to the — the growers?  And what we see — the real concern we have is that consumers are facing higher prices, and the growers are not getting paid higher.  And that raises real concern and a real question, which is, what’s motivating this focus and the actions that we’re taking.
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  And I would just simply say, you know, there’s reason for concern here.  The Department of Justice recently had a price-fixing case involving Tyson, where clearly there was some wrongdoing that took place.  And so it’s not something that we are — you know, it’s not something we’re dreaming up here.  The profits are real. 
 
The fact that producers are not making a profit — I mean, I remember talking to a producer the other day in Council Bluffs, and he said, “I don’t get this, Mr. Secretary.”  He said, “I just sold my cattle and I lost $150 a head, but the processor made $1,800 a head.  How can that be?”
 
MS. PSAKI:  April?

Q    Yes.  Secretary Vilsack, two questions.  One, you’re
saying “profiteering.”  Would you go as far as price gouging, as well as saying that word, “price gouging” — those words, “price gouging”?
 
And then, also, as you talk about farmers right now, in this moment — in this season of COVID, in this season of hurt, I want to go to the Black farmer.  There is an effort by this administration to help the Black farmer — that Lindsey Graham has said is “reparations.”  Could you give us the state of the Black farmer as you’re talking about average farmers right now?
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  Sure.  Let me answer that question — last question first. 
 
There are now 13 separate lawsuits that are directed at the debt relief efforts that were passed in the American Rescue Plan.  We’re obviously going through the process of litigation, building the record — and we’ll proceed. 
 
In the meantime, you know, we’re really focused on those farmers who are distressed, those farmers who are low-income farmers.  And just to give you a sense of this: 89.6 percent of American farmers today — today — do not make a majority of their income from farming.  And so that is a call to action. 
 
And that’s why, in the American Rescue Plan, the President and Congress included a provision that is encouraging us to take a look at ways in which we can expand market access and land access for those financially stressed farmers. 
 
So one of the things we did with — again, with the American Rescue Plan, is we identified procurement.  We purchased a lot of emergency food for food banks.  In the past, we have purchased that food from large-scale distributors, probably some of whom are doing business with JBS and Tyson and Smithfield and so forth. 
 
But we think maybe it would be a good idea for us to also use a few of those procurement dollars to help local and regional distributors, and to focus and direct some of those resources, as well, on low-income, distressed farmers, producers. 
 
So we are now using our — what we refer to as our flexible TEFAP program, or temporary assistance program, to use resources to basically create market opportunities to create better balance and greater resiliency in the system.  We just can’t have this concentration on just — you know, focusing on just a few.  We need to have greater diversity across the — across the board here. 
 
So we’re looking for ways to increase market, increase land access, make it easier, obviously, on the debt side.  And that’s — that’s going on.
 
Q    But what about the “profiteering” versus “price gouging,” I asked you (inaudible)?
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  Well, look, again, if I’m losing $150 a head on my cattle, and the guy who’s buying it from me — who’s forcing me to take that price — is charging and making $1,800 a head, I don’t know what you call it, but what I do know is that our job is to make sure that that farmer gets a fair price and that the producer — that the — when I go to the grocery store and I’m in the checkout line, I’m paying a fair price; I’m not paying more than I should. 
 
And right now, because of the concentration, we have two issues here: One, we have the issue of fairness; and two, we have the issue of resiliency.  Any one of these facilities, whether it’s a cyberattack in JBS or whether it’s COVID basically shutting down some of Tyson’s facilities, it causes disruption in the market.  We need a much more resilient system.
 
MS. PSAKI:  Trevor.
 
Q    One for each of you.  Brian, for you: How did you integrate climate into this decision?  I think meat production and consumption is one of the leading greenhouse gas-emitting areas of the economy.  And don’t higher prices, kind of, disincentivize that kind of behavior? 
 
And then for you, Secretary Vilsack — we asked you this in May: But where are you on the Twin Metals copper mine decision?  Are you going to allow that, or are you going to block that?
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  Sure.
 
MR. DEESE:  Yeah, so on the — on the — on the first, the goal — and just to pick up on something that the Secretary just said — our goal here is to work with industry to get to a better outcome that is — ends up with a fairer outcome for consumers and a fairer outcome for American farmers.
 
And when the lack of competition doesn’t benefit — you know, that we want to work with industry because, actually, the lack of competition also leads to resiliency issues.  And one of the things that we’ve seen — I mean, we all have experienced in this pandemic — is that a serial underinvestment in the resilience of supply chains, coupled with consolidation in particular industries, left our economy extraordinarily vulnerable.  And we continue to live with the consequences of that. 
 
And so, in that context, we — you know, we think it’s pretty — we think it’s pretty important not only to address the very practical issue that Secretary Vilsack is describing about the market dynamics, but also to remind everybody that we just lived through an extraordinary period of time where demand for these products was sustained by extraordinary government action. 
 
Incredibly appropriate to make sure that food insecurity and other basic human needs didn’t fall off during this pandemic, but at the same time, going back, and to — you know, to borrow a phrase the President drills into us every day: without building back better to a more resilient system puts all of us at risk. 
 
On the question — and resilience is also important with respect to the realities of the climate-affected world and a climate-affected country and those involved — the kind of investments that Secretary Vilsack was talking about — in having more resilience against the reality of more frequent and severe extreme weather events, but also transitioning our agricultural system to be part of an effort to actually reduce emissions across the board. 
 
I think, you know, we have, with the Secretary’s leadership, the most ambitious strategy of any — of any administration in history that the agricultural sector will actually be part of moving us and creating new markets in — as we — as we address climate change. 
 
But we can do that in a way that actually doesn’t end up in a situation where American consumers are left paying higher prices and American farmers are left with less income.  That’s sort of 0 for 2. 
 
MS. PSAKI:  Mara.
 
Q    Yeah.  You mentioned the —
 
Q   Sorry, there was —
 
MS. PSAKI:  Oh, sorry.  I’m sorry —  
 
Q    Sorry.  Oh, sorry.  Go ahead.
 
MS. PSAKI:  Mr. Secretary, go ahead. 
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  Yeah, I just want to underscore that point, and then I’ll answer you Twin Metals point.
 
The fact that we can create new revenue streams for these farmers by conversion of agricultural waste into a variety of products basically will mean that that farmer gets a fair — fairer return, a broader return, more return on his or her investment, and that consumer gets a decent price at the counter.  That’s not an — that is a possibility — it’s a real possibility in this administration with the passage of the reconciliation bill and the Build Back — the infrastructure bill will have the resources to be able to create that kind of new opportunity.

On Twin Metals, we continue to wait for the Department of Interior.  They have to issue a legal opinion before we know what direction we need to take at USDA.  It’s conditioned upon the DOI.  We’re waiting for the DOI.

MS. PSAKI:  Mara.

Q    You mentioned that DOJ has a price-fixing case against Tyson.  How much of the profiteering and the lack of competition do you think is illegal?  And what are you going to do about it? 

MR. DEESE:  Well, so I — we — I want to be very clear that the President’s executive order directs the Department of Justice and the FTC to train their enforcement on potential illegal activities, including price fixing and price gouging. 
 
We’re going to leave that to the enforcement agencies — that’s their appropriate role — and not for the White House to interfere with.  What we are focused on here is policy issues that can actually help to get at the underlying issue of concentration. 

So, for example, the investment that Secretary Vilsack was talking about in encouraging more entrants — more small and new entrants into this market.  That’s the kind of step that we can take to help encourage more competition and help reduce the likelihood that concentration leads to the opportunity for those type of illegal activities. 
 
But with respect to the enforcement — the specific enforcement issues, both as they’ve resolved or as they may be ongoing, we would leave that to the FTC.
 
Q    Do you have a sense of how much of this problem is illegal?  Regardless of the enforcement and what DOJ is going to do about it, I’m just asking you: Is it like 10 percent, 50 percent?  How much of this consolidation and profiteering is illegal, in your mind?

MR. DEESE:  Right.  Precisely because I’m going to leave those investigations to those agencies, I’m not going to speculate on —
 
Q    So, you don’t know.

MR. DEESE:  — I’m not going to speculate on the work that they have undergoing.  What I can tell you is that our — you know, we believe this is a problem.  We believe that this is a problem that’s affecting consumers and farmers alike.  And we believe that there are concrete steps that we need to take and that we can take to try to help improve. 

MS. PSAKI:  Weijia.

Q    Thank you.  Mr. Secretary, farmers want you to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to dissolve GIPSA so there is an independent agency that can focus on promoting competition and fair trade practices instead of being buried into AMS.  Are you going to reestablish GIPSA? 

SECRETARY VILSACK:  Well, that’s a slightly different area.  GIPSA basically takes a look at grading grain and things of that nature, okay?  It’s not really into the Packers and Stockyards area.

What farmers really want us to do is what we are doing, which is to enforce the Packers and Stockyards and strengthen that.  That’s the vehicle by which you can determine whether the poultry tournament system, for example, is fairly compensating poultry farmers, or whether there is a circumstance where packers are discriminating or unfairly treating producers.  So, that’s our focus right now, is making sure that the Packers and Stockyards Act is strengthened. 

You know, we’re going to continue to do the grading necessary to make sure that people understand what, you know, grade 2 corn is and that it meets a certain standard.  I don’t think you necessarily have to reinstitute GIPSA to do that, but you do have to focus on the Packers and Stockyards Act.

Q    But when GIPSA was disbanded, you know a lot of farmers were very concerned.  Are you saying you think that they can operate stronger the way it is structured under AMS than it was before — before Trump?
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  They can operate stronger when you have the enforcement tools and mechanisms with the Packers and Stockyards.  That’s what’s been missing.  It isn’t so much the structure or where within AMS this would — this would still be within AMS; it would just be a missionary within AMS.
 
It isn’t that; that’s not the issue.  The issue is what tools do we have, if there is an unfair practice taking place, if there’s a discriminatory practice.  If the poultry system is not treating poultry producers fairly, what tools do we have?  Right now, we don’t have very strong tools.  We are strengthening those tools so we can call out bad behavior. 

MS. PSAKI:  Phil.

Q    Brian, just to broaden it out a little bit: Between the EO, public comments, some letters you’ve sent, you guys have made clear you want — on the enforcement side of things — to be more aggressive than they have been in the past.  Are you and the President comfortable that the enforcement arms of these agencies have been as aggressive as you want them to be?
And, I guess, secondly, there’s some sense inside the White House that just taking this posture may preemptively cause companies to lower prices or be more willing.  Have you seen any tangible results tied to that? 
 
MR. DEESE:  So, on the first — on the first question, the answer is, “Yes and.”  The President’s executive order directed the creation of a Competition Council precisely so that we can get the appropriate federal agencies, both the Cabinet agencies and the independent agencies, together to make sure that we are all working as effectively as possible toward the goal of that executive order.
 
So, on Friday, we will be convening with Attorney General Garland and a number of the other relevant agencies to discuss steps that each agency is independently taking but then how these all work together.  And the truth is that, you know, just that information sharing is incredibly important because, you know, some of these issues that we’re talking about here are intimately related to logistics and transportation issues. 
So, the steps that, you know, Secretary Buttigieg is taking at the Department of Transportation with respect to our ports and our trucking and logistics, you can’t — you know, you can’t effectively solve these issues without having that cross-functional approach. 
 
So, we’ll continue to do that and continue to stay focused, at the President’s direction, on making sure that we’re living up to the commitments on the executive order.
 
With respect to your second question, certainly we believe that it’s long overdue to have a clear public focus on competition and enforcing anti-trust statutes.  It’s probably — it’s probably been some time, I don’t know if ever — it may be the first time ever that GIPSA was issued from the — from the podium at the Whi- — (laughter) — but, you know, some time to have the Secretary of Agriculture stating a priority — the enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act.  And we believe that that does send an important signal to the market and that these steps in the aggregate send signals. 
 
Certainly we’ve seen some — you know, we’ve seen some instances — there’s been some mergers that you and others have covered recently.  So, I think that we are — you know, we are hopeful that by making clear that this is a priority, that we can bring industry together to more constructively try to solve these issues, and including, you know, ultimately, the decisions that, you know, private companies will make.
 
MS. PSAKI:  All right.  We can do about two more.  Alex.
 
Q    Maybe the Secretary can speak to this: Do you have a sense of when these moves will be felt by consumers and sort of trickle down into lower prices?  Because these are problems that are pretty systemic and have been going on for a while. 
 
And then I have a question for Brian about the economy overall.
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  Well, there’s no question that our intent is to try to get these processing plants and projects going very quickly.  We’ve already been able to identify a couple of projects that would be helped by our resources.  And so, I think you will expect to see, at the end of this year and early next year, some progress there. 
 
That’s going to send a strong message, to Brian’s point, to the industry that there’s going to be competition, and they’re going to have to respond and react to it. 
 
So, the hope would be that they do — that they respond accordingly and, again, farmers get fair prices and that consumers are getting fair prices at the grocery store.
 
Q  And then, Brian, on the economy, the White House has long been promoting these very strong projections for the growth of the economy.  This week, though, Goldman Sachs downgraded its projections for the economy.  So, has the White House overpromised?  Are you at all concerned that you’ve set expectations too high at this point?
 
MR. DEESE:  So, it’s a — it’s a good question, and I think it’s also one in which, you know, the private forecaster that you mentioned downgraded its forecast, but even with a downgraded forecast, growth in 2021 would be the strongest that we’ve seen in decades. 
 
So, what we are seeing, I think, is the record and historic strength of this recovery, not just historically compared to other recoveries from crises and recessions in the United States, but record globally right now. 
 
The United States is the only developed country where GDP has already recovered to its pre-pandemic level.  That hasn’t — that’s happened nowhere else in the world.  The strength of the — of our — of economic growth and of growth in the labor market is sufficient that we can continue to see strong growth, even as we deal with unanticipated circumstances, even as we work through the COVID — the Delta challenges that the President will speak to tomorrow.
 
So, we continue to be focused on the fact of trying — to how can we continue to build momentum into that recovery.  But even as we see these step-downs, I think the thing that is most notable about that is that even with these headwinds, we’re seeing the United States continue to outpace our international peers and continue to outpace our historic progress for, you know, recoveries — at similar points in recoveries.
 
MS. PSAKI:  All right, Josh.
 
Q    Thank you.
 
MS. PSAKI:  Last one.
 
Q    Sir, can you just circle back to the what the DOJ active file is?  Your blog mentioned it was a poultry investigation, but a year ago there was a civil one launched into beef.  Is there one on pork, and are you adding or expanding these investigations?  Because this seems where the real teeth would be — right? —
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  Well —
 
Q    — if you gave DOJ, you know, more firepower of some kind to pursue this.
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  The one — the case I mentioned was a poultry case. 
 
Q    Right.
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  So that’s — I’m not —
 
Q    So we have poultry and beef going on now but not pork?
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  I’m not aware of a pork case.  There could be, but I’m not aware of it.  Okay?
 
Q    Okay.
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  That’s sort of outside of our jurisdiction.  The only time we ever get engaged in this is if the Department of Justice contacts us and says, “Hey, we need some information or data.”  We — it’s not that we precipitate those investigations.  It’s a Department of Justice function, appropriately so. 
 
What we are doing — in terms of the tools, the Department of Justice has the capacity and the ability — and they exercise it — under their current statutory framework. 
 
What we don’t have — what we’re now going to get — are tools that will allow us to take more definitive action, more aggressive action when we see unfair and discriminatory practices.  We don’t have that power now.  We tried to get it during the Obama administration; Congress blocked it.  We now think we’re in a position to move forward on this, and we’re going to aggressively move forward on it.
 
Q    Anti-trust cases, obviously, raise a question of whether you’re interested in looking at breaking up these companies somehow.  Is that what the administration is —
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  Well, I think the fact —
 
Q    — open to at all?
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  No.  I think the fact that we have put $500 million on the table and, basically, have begun a process of reaching out to states, to farm organizations, to philanthropic organizations, and asking the question: “What could you do with this resource that would allow us to significantly increase the processing capacity in this country in places where we know there is a need for this, where there are not competitive markets?”  And the reaction to this has been quite favorable. 
 
I would anticipate and expect that this $500 million is going to leverage additional resources from those sources.  And I think — I think we’re going to find out that maybe we’re onto something here, and we may end up looking at numbers north of $500 million.
 
Q    So you’re more interested in, I guess, incentivizing or building production outside these big four, rather than breaking up the big four?
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  I’m looking at what I have power to do.
 
Q    Right.
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  And I have power to basically put the $500 million on the table.  I have power to do Packers and Stockyards.  I have power to do more price discovery.  I have power to take a look at product labels to make sure that they’re not misrepresenting or confusing customers and consumers.  And that’s what we’re doing.  We’re doing everything we have the power to do, and we’re strengthening the tools to be able to do it.
 
Q    Brian, can you quickly address the debt limit question?  Secretary Yellen wrote Speaker Pelosi today warning about that.  What is your read of that?  How much time do you have left until the debt limit becomes a problem?  (Inaudible.)
 
MR. DEESE:  Well, on the time question, I would just refer you exactly to Secretary Yellen.  I don’t have anything to add to Secretary Yellen’s letter, which outlined her current — the Treasury’s current projection of exhaustion.
 
And more generally, I would just underscore that this is a responsibility — a sacred responsibility that Congress has to operate in a bipartisan way to raise or suspend the debt limit to address the fact that these are — this is a reflection of actions and legislation that Congress has already passed.  And so, there’s often, you know, a confusion or conflation when it talks to the debt limits. 
 
But just to clarify and resolve: The debt limit is a function of bills that Congress has already — has already passed and already racked up.  In fact, 97 percent of the debt under question is associated with actions that happened before this President — he was even taken into office. 
 
In fact, even if — even if Congress took no future action ever, did nothing else in the future, Congress would have to raise or suspend the debt limit because it’s a reflection of actions already taken. 
 
And so, our expectation is that Congress will do so and will do so as it has done historically, as it did three times under President Trump, and operate in a bipartisan way to address this issue.  So that’s our expectation.
 
Q    If it doesn’t happen — a decade ago, one of the fallbacks was something called “prioritization,” where you sort of decide who gets paid and who doesn’t.  Is the — are you — is the administration going down this road at all?  Is that the fallback plan if the limit isn’t raised or suspended?
 
MR. DEESE:  Our — our expectation is that Congress is going to act, and act responsibly and consistent with its responsibility.  So that’s our — that’s our expectation and our focus. 
 
MS. PSAKI:  Okay.  Thank you, Secretary Vilsack.  Thank you to our NEC Director. 
 
MR. DEESE:  Thanks.
 
Q    Thank you.
 
MS. PSAKI:  Okay.  Okay, I don’t know that I have anything else at the top.  I know we’ve covered a lot of bit — ground there.  I’m happy that the GIPSA question was answered by my colleagues — (laughter) — there, Weijia.  Relieved.
 
Q    Thank you very much.
 
MS. PSAKI:  Alex, why don’t you kick us off. 
 
Q    Sure.  So the President’s remarks on the pandemic tomorrow — can you preview any of what we should expect from him?
 
And then also, I wanted to ask you — you know, he’s talked a lot about defeating the pandemic in the past.  You, yesterday, said that his remarks tomorrow will address how you’ll get the pandemic under control.  So are we shifting to a point at which this pandemic can no longer be defeated and we need to sort of live with it and figure out how to get it under control?  Is that where the White House is now? 
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, let me say, on your first question: So the President, right now, is meeting with members of his COVID team to talk about a range of steps, including his plan he’ll announce tomorrow — six steps to stop the spread of Delta and increase vaccinations. 
 
And to kind of get to your second question, and then I’ll go through some of the preview: We want to be specific about what we’re trying to accomplish in this moment and what these six steps will do.  We know that increasing vaccinations will stop the spread of the pandemic, will get the pandemic under control, will return people to normal life.  That’s what our objective is.  So we want to be specific about what we’re trying to achieve. 
 
But I would just note that what you’re going to hear from the President tomorrow is going to build on some of the steps that the President announced over the course of the last few months.  We’ve been at war with the virus for a long time, several months — more than a year, year and a half.  We have been working — we’ve been at war with the Delta variant over the course of the last couple of months. 
 
And just to remind you of some of the steps that we’ve announced: We’ve announced new government mandates on DOD, our military forces; NIH; other co- — the VA — the Veterans Affairs — Department of Veterans Affairs — folks who are serving on the frontlines on the health — on health — in health roles in that department.  We’ve also incentivized additional mandates, whether it is in home — in healthcare facilities, nursing homes, and others.  And we’ve also lifted up and incentivized private sector — set private sector mandates because we’ve seen that they have been effective.  We’ve also deployed over 700 surge response teams across the country.  And work closely, again, with the private sector to institute more requirements on vaccinations. 
 
And we’ve seen some impact from those steps.  Tens of millions of Americans are now covered by vaccination requirements; 14 million Americans got their first shot in August, which was an increase from what we’d seen in the months prior — 4 million more than in July.  And the increase in vaccinations has been a consistent trend.
 
But he’s going to lay out these six steps tomorrow because we have more work to do, and we are still at war with the virus and with the Delta variant.  So we’re going to build on that work.
 
And he’s speaking to it now because this issue, of course, is on — front of mind, top of mind to Americans across the country.  People are returning to schools.  Workplaces are either reopening — some brick and mortar.  Or some people are just returning to work after spending some time with family or loved ones over the summer.
 
So he’s going to outline the next phase in the — in the fight against the virus and what that looks like, including measures to work with the public and private sector, building on the steps that we’ve already announced — the steps we’ve taken over the last few months: requiring more vaccinations, boosting important testing measures, and more — making it safer for kids to go to school, all at a time when the American people are listening. 
 
Again, this will be six steps that we’ll work to be implementing over the months ahead.
 
Q    And then one more on boosters.  The WHO — the head of the WHO is calling on basically rich countries with vaccine surpluses to hold off on booster shots until the end of the year.  What’s the White House response to that?  And is it ethical to start moving forward with booster shots at a time when so many countries are barely starting with their first shots?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, our view is that this is a false choice.  And the United States has donated and shared about 140 million doses with over 90 countries, more than all other countries combined.  We’re donating half a billion doses to 100 countries in need.  Last week, we announced a plan to invest $2.7 billion in manufacturing critical vaccine inputs and expanded fill-finish lines at factories.  From Senegal to South Africa to India, we’ve made significant investments in boosting global productions of COVID vaccines.
 
At the same time, the President and this administration has a responsibility to do everything we can to protect people in the United States, in this country.  And as our health advisors have recommended additional booster shots, we are working to implement that.  Our view is we can do both. 
 
I’d also note that there are — in addition to access to vaccine doses, one of the reasons that we have invested in areas like manufacturing critical vaccine inputs, expanded fill-finish is because sometimes the issues are also about distribution channels, about having enough personnel who are trained to distribute these shots, manufacturing capacity, certain — access to certain components that go into vaccines.  We’re working through those as well. 
 
But we are doing both.  We think we can do both.  And we will continue to do both from the United States.
 
Go ahead.
 
Q    Thanks, Jen.  A couple questions on Texas.  The governor there was asked about the lack of an exception for rape or incest in the abortion law.  And I don’t know if you heard those comments, but he said — his answer to that question was that “Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate…rapists off the street.”  I’m just wondering if the White House has a response to that.
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, if Governor Abbott has a means of eliminating all rapists or all rape from the United States, then there’ll be bipartisan support for that.  But given there has never in the history of the country, in the world, been any leader who’s ever been able to eliminate rape, eliminate rapists from our streets, it’s even more imperative — it’s one of the many reasons, I should say, not the only reason — why women in Texas should have access to healthcare. 
 
So, it does not change our objectives; it does not change our commitment.  The Department of Justice — the Attorney General announced a step on Monday.  Our Department of Justice is continuing to look at legal options.  Our Department of Health and Human Services is also continuing to look at all options.  And the President has made clear that it’s a priority to do everything we can to ensure women in Texas have access to healthcare.
 
Q    And I want to push a little bit on that front.  Just looking at options, you know, for women who are in Texas right now who might be in need of having an abortion, who perhaps are looking at this White House for a Hail Mary intervention —
 
MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.
 
Q    — the clock is ticking for them.  The clock is literally ticking for them today.  So, in terms of their decision making, can this administration offer any help to them now?  What would you tell these women who are looking to this White House to help them?  Is help on the way?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, we would tell them first that this law is a violation of your rights, and we are going to do everything we can to provide assistance as quickly as we can.  One of the reasons why the Department of Health and Human Services is a key component here is obviously because they oversee the nation’s healthcare systems, but they are going to look for ways to make sure we are providing access to healthcare to women in Texas. 
 
I noted that the Department of Justice announced a step that they were taking on Monday.  Clearly, this law is — or this bill that was signed into law is something we strongly oppose, and there’s an urgency to looking for and announcing actions to help women now.  And certainly, we understand that women are looking at their choices right now — today, tomorrow, last week — and we are hopeful we will have more to convey to them directly.
 
Q    But in terms of tangible help that’s on the way, would the White House support the FDA lifting restrictions on mifepristone, the abortion — so-called abortion pill?
 
MS. PSAKI:  This is a decision that the FDA has to make on their own based on science.  And certainly we believe in the independence of the FDA to make these decisions, and we know that there are a number of advocates who have called for that, but we’ll leave that decision to the FDA.
 
Go ahead.
 
Q    The January 6 commission has asked for a number of documents from executive agencies pertaining to actions by the prior administration.  I believe the deadline for complying with that is tomorrow.  Is the administration going to assist in that investigation in the way that they have asked, or are you going to assert executive privilege?
 
MS. PSAKI:  For documents from the prior administration?
 
Q    Yes —
 
MS. PSAKI:  I would have to check —
 
Q    — that are in your custody.
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, a number of these — though I know we’ve had conversations about this before, and I’d have to check with the Counsel’s Office — are not in the White House.  They are documents that often go to the Archives or other localities that are not overseen by the White House.  So I’d have to check and see what documents we would actually have access to here or if there are other places, parts of government that would be the ones who would have control of these documents.
 
Q    And just want to check if the White House Counsel is going to weigh in on that decision.  Would your recommendation to those agencies be to comply or to assert executive privilege?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Again, if they are — if we’re talking about documents in the National Archives, that wouldn’t be our purview here.  Those would be documents — and I think we’ve had discussions along these lines before, so I’d have to check on whether there is any applicability to anything we’ve had over- — we would have oversight of from this White House currently.
 
Q    Okay.  And then one economic question.  There was Labor Department data this morning that showed a record number of job openings — 10.9 million job openings.  But we also still have millions of people who are unemployed and been sitting on the sidelines for a very long time.  Just curious if there’s any new approach that the administration is going to take to helping employers get their jobs filled.  It’s curtailing economic growth.  So —
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think you’re talking about the JOLTS data —
 
Q    Yes.
 
MS. PSAKI:  — which is rele- — which is — pertains to July data, so it is a little bit old at this point in time, given we’re into September.  And we’ve seen jobs numbers come out in that period of time where we’ve seen that, still, an average of 700,000 jobs per month are being created — or people are being matched with jobs in that period of time. 
 
Look, I think what we look at is the data across the period of ti- — across a broad period of time.  We know employers are continuing to look for workers to hire, and worker power is rising as workers have more choices available to them, and that continues to be the case.  And we believe that having workers empowered is a good sign. 
 
We are also seeing that we are continuing — we’ve created now, to date, 4 million new jobs — more jobs than any other administration in this period of time in American history.  That’s also a good sign.
 
So I would say that, as we look at our efforts here, we look at whether employers — and we recommend, of course — whether employers are offering a livable wage, whether they’re offering benefits to attract workers.  And we’re also seeing continued positive signs in month-over-month trends as it relates to the economy and job creation.
 
Go ahead.
 
Q    Is there any sense — you know, when you at the uptick in vaccinations, mandates and requirements I think are broadly popular when you look at polling around the country right now — given the scale of the Delta surge that’s continued over months, that perhaps you should have been more aggressive earlier when it came to pursuing policies like that?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, we have seen — yes, they’re not only popular, but they are also effective.  We’ve also known as, say, the federal government — as one of the biggest employers in the country — that we knew we would take a — an approach over time to implement any mandates, or mandates that would require vaccination by employees. 
 
There are some companies out there that were waiting for final approval by the FDA.  There also were some companies that wanted a period of time to implement mandates.  That’s all understandable. 
 
So our view is: This is certainly one of the ways that we’ve seen more people get vaccinated.  We’ve seen it be effective, and we’ve seen it rise in approval and support across the country as people who are vaccinated are increasingly popular. 
 
But all we can do at this point is look forward and determine how we can take steps now to continue to get more people vaccinated and get the pandemic under control. 
 
Q    And then one on the flights that have been stuck in Afghanistan.  I understand State is leading on this, but you guys have made clear you’re paying very close attention to the American citizens still in the country.  I’m trying to square where things actually stand.
 
MS. PSAKI:  Sure.
 
Q    The Secretary of State said a couple of times it was a documentation issue.  A U.S. senator, Richard Blumenthal, pushed back vociferously on that.  Today, the Secretary of State said the Taliban are not permitting the charter flights to leave, kind of putting it precisely on them.  What’s your understanding of the holdup?  And if the Taliban is preventing them, what levers do you have right now?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, there — a couple pieces are true here.  So, one is: We are continuing to press the Taliban — the Secretary of State is — to do more to abide by — allowing American citizens, individuals with — who are legal permanent residents, and individuals with proper documentation to depart the country. 
 
It is also true that we don’t have a role in preventing flights from taking off.  We are not on the ground.  So that is not something the U.S. government is doing.  But at the same time, some of these planes and some of the issues is where are they going to land. 
 
So, a number of these planes, they may have a handful of American citizens, but they may have several hundred individuals where we don’t have manifests for them, we don’t know what the security protocols are for them, we don’t know what their documentation is.  And there is a fundamental question — and this is one of the hard choices you face in government: Are we going to allow a plane with hundreds of people, where we don’t know who they are, we don’t know what security protocols have been put in place, to land on a U.S. military base? 
 
And there are reasonable questions — justified questions, I think — as to why we wouldn’t do that.  And so, right now, there are some charter planes that are taking off.  We do have to make evaluations about the safety and security and protocols in place as planes are landing on military bases.  And there are some challenges, as it relates to documentation, where a number of people may not have documentation, some for good reason — because they’re trying to depart Afghanistan.  But that is something we’re working through.
 
These indivi- — these handful of American citizens, we are also in touch with.  They are not the majority of these flights; far from it.  It is a small number of American citizens who are — we’re talking about on these charter flights. 
 
Q    Can I follow up on that please, Jen?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Sure.
 
Q    So are you essentially saying that — is the administration essentially saying — picking up from what Secretary Blinken has said today about documentation — is the administration essentially saying that the Taliban is the only one who has access and who’s able to check passenger documentation against these flight manifests? 
 
And if so, what is stopping the U.S., for example, from sending personnel over there to do this job and to allow these passengers to leave on the flights?  I understand they’re not all Americans, but many of them are Afghan allies. 
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, none of that is what I said or what the Secretary of State said, so let me try again. 
 
So the air — the flights — we obviously don’t have personnel on the ground.  That’s correct; we don’t. 
 
What our objective is — and we have a presence in Qatar, right?  As you know, our Secretary of State has been on the ground in Qatar, is negotiating and having discussions as we speak with international partners.  And also, members of our State Department are in discussions with the Taliban because we do want to work through and ensure that we can allow additional flights to land at military bases. 
 
But it is also true that we are not going to allow flights to land where we don’t know what security protocols have been taken, whether people have been vetted, who is on these — who are on these planes.  And I don’t think the vast majority of American citizens want us to do that either.
 
So, right now, we are working through this process.  And we are also in touch with the American citizens who were on these flights or who are in the vicinity, which are a very small number, to work through getting them out of Afghanistan.  We are committed to that.  We absolutely want to do that.  We have already evacuated a handful of people, and we’re continuing to work through. 
 
Now, things that will make it much easier, for certain, are if Qatari airlines — we’re working with them to see if they can get flights up and operational, more efforts to get individuals evacuated overland.  We’re working through all of these components, and it’s the reason why the Secretary of State is on the ground, in the region, discussing and negotiating as we speak. 
 
Q    Is the aim to get U.S. —
 
MS. PSAKI:  Okay. 
 
Q    — personnel on the ground —
 
MS. PSAKI:  We’re going to keep going.  Weijia. 
 
Q    — to do this, Jen?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead, Weijia. 
 
Q    I mean —
 
MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead, Weijia. 

Q    — is that aim?

MS. PSAKI:  I think I answered your question.  Go ahead, Weijia.
 
Q    Thanks, Jen.  I wanted to follow up on the President’s speech tomorrow. 
 
MS. PSAKI:  Sure.
 
Q    You mentioned schools and private sectors as two areas of focus —
 
MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm.
 
Q    — but you’ve also been very, you know, firm in maintaining independence between the federal government and what schools and the private sector does.  So, tomorrow, should we just anticipate the President to say much of what he’s already said to urge those entities to take action?  Or will there be something new that’s actionable?
 
MS. PSAKI:  There will be new steps the President announces tomorrow.  Absolutely. 
 
Q    And will any of those new steps influence the average American’s day-to-day life?  Should we expect any new mitigation recommendations, as an example? 

MS. PSAKI:  It depends on if you’re vaccinated or not. 
 
Go ahead.
 
Q    So, it’s possible that there’s —
 
Q    Jen —
 
Q    — something new? 

MS. PSAKI:  There are — there are six new — there are six steps the President is announcing.  There will be new components, as I noted and you noted.  Some of that will be related to access to testing.  Some will be related to mandates.  Some will be related to how we ensure kids are protected in schools.  And we’ll have more — we’ll preview more tomorrow as all the pieces are finalized. 
 
But there will be new components that, sure, will of course impact people across the country.  But we’re also all working together to get the virus under control, to return to our normal lives.  And I know many people, I’m sure, are looking forward to hearing what the President has to say. 
 
Q    And then just one follow — quick follow-up on timing.  We’re just a few days away from September 11th.  Do you have any update on when the DOJ might release those FBI documents related to the investigation? 
 
MS. PSAKI:  I don’t.  It’s their process they’re obviously overseeing.  I think we said a couple of weeks ago we didn’t anticipate that process would necessarily be done in advance of September 11th.  It’s really based on their timing; it’s not a deadline, I don’t think, that they’ve set for that. 
 
Q    Okay.  Thank you, Jen.
 
Q    Thank you, Jen.  Following up on these charter flights that the Taliban is holding up in Afghanistan: The Secretary of State said there are limits to what we can do without personnel on the ground. 
 
MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.
 
Q    You just said we are not on the ground. 
 
MS. PSAKI:  You’re right.
 
Q    Whose fault is that?
 
MS. PSAKI:  I don’t think this is about fault here. 
 
Q    Well —
 
MS. PSAKI:  I’m conveying —
 
Q    — (inaudible) Americans —
 
MS. PSAKI:  I think what people want to understand is what we’re doing to help address it.  There’s a handful of Americans — and I’m sure you’re not suggesting we should have flights with hundreds of people we don’t know who they are —
 
Q    Okay, how many Americans —
 
MS. PSAKI:  — and there’s no security protocols —
 
Q    — is too few to go in?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Too few?  I just am conveying to you —
 
Q    You said it’s just a handful.
 
MS. PSAKI:  — there’s a handful of Americans who we are also in touch with and we are working to help get evacuated from Afghanistan.  But decisions you have to make in the federal government are not “yes and no” decisions or as simple as what you’re laying out here.
 
What we’re evaluating and looking at is how to keep people on our military bases safe while also getting these U.S. citizens, dual citizens, people who are prepared to leave Afghanistan, able to leave. 
 
At the same time, we don’t think it ha- — we’re not going to allow flights that have hundreds of people who we don’t know who they are, who haven’t been security protocol — through security protocols, where we haven’t seen the manifest, to land on U.S. military bases. 

Q    Okay.  There are now more terrorists wanted by the FBI in the new Afghan government than there are women.  Does the President think that is a foreign policy success? 
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, first of all, no one in this administration — not the President nor anyone on the national security team — would suggest that the Taliban are respected and valued members of the global community.  They have not earned that in any way, and we’re not — we have never assessed that. 
 
This is a caretaker cabinet that does include four former imprisoned Taliban fighters.  We have not validated that.  We have not conveyed we’re going to recognize it.  What we’re working to do — and nor are we rushing to recognition; there’s a lot they have to do before that.  What we are working to do is to engage with them, because they oversee and control Afghanistan right now, to get American citizens, legal permanent residents, SIV applicants out of Afghanistan. 
 
Q    But you’re —
 
MS. PSAKI:  We have to engage with them.
 
Q    But to engage with them — their new acting interior minister is a Haqqani Network terrorist.  He’s wanted for a bombing that killed six people, including an American.  He’s believed to have participated in cross-border attacks against U.S. troops.  There’s a $10 million bounty on his head.  Why are we engaging with the government —
 
MS. PSAKI:  Should we not — should we not talk to the people who are overseeing Afghanistan and just leave it and not get the rest of the American citizens out?
 
Q    What are you waiting for them to do?  They just formed their government.  What — are you waiting for something — some —
 
MS. PSAKI:  Waiting for what?
 
Q    — specif — you’re saying that we’re not going to rush to recognition; that means that there could be recognition.
 
MS. PSAKI:  As we’ve said many times —
 
Q    Yes —
 
MS. PSAKI:  — the international community is watching, the United States is watching.  It’s whether they let people depart the country who want to depart; whether they treat women across the country as they have committed to treat them —
 
Q    And we’ve seen they’re not doing that.
 
MS. PSAKI:  — and how they behave and operate.  And therefore, we’re not moving toward recognition. 
 
At the same time, we’re dealing with a reality world here where we have to engage in order to get American citizens and others out of the country.
 
Go ahead. 
 
Q    Jen, you mentioned that there will be news tomorrow in the President’s speech as it relates to mandates.  Should Americans expect more similar government mandates like what we’ve seen with agencies and the federal workforce?  Or would this be in a different category? 
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, we’ve always said we would build on what’s been announced to date — right? — with the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, NIH, and others.  And I expect you’ll hear more from the President on that tomorrow. 
 
We also believe that the private sector has a role here, and you’ll hear more from the President on that as well. 
 
Q    Will he set any new goals or benchmarks tomorrow?  Or is that not viewed as a very useful tool anymore, given vaccinations are lower than they were compared to earlier this year when those were what was maybe driving some of that? 
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President is still working through his speech, and our objective and our goal is to vaccinate more people so we can reduce the spread of the virus. 
 
But I’d also note — before we compare now to six months ago — six months ago, or when the President came into office, there were about a tiny percentage of people who were vaccinated.  Then, we had much wider access thanks to the operational preparations of this administration to the vaccine. 
 
So, naturally, we knew that there would be a — an uptick in vaccinations, and then it would be harder and harder because there — we would get to the point where people didn’t want to get the vaccine who had access to the vaccine.  That was a period that we knew and anticipated would happen.
 
What we did see was a promising trend about the numbers in August, which were significantly higher than July.
 
Q    And just lastly, following up on the trip yesterday —
 
MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.
 
Q    — will any more New Jersey counties be added to that disaster declaration, or is the damage assessment still ongoing?
 
MS. PSAKI:  The damage assessment is still ongoing.  It’s a process, of course, that has to move through not just county officials, but FEMA, to assess the damage.  But certainly, we are amenable to that, and the President has been very clear with every elected official in New Jersey and other states that whatever they need, we will work to get them what they need.  But there’s, of course, a process that needs to be completed, which is still ongoing. 
 
Go ahead.
 
Q    One follow-up on Texas and abortion, and another on reconciliation.
 
MS. PSAKI:  Sure.
 
Q    Can you say if the White House supports the Women’s Health Protection Act?  And if not, why not, since this is a bill that would codify Roe v. Wade, which you’ve said is a priority for the White House?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, there are many ways to codify Roe v. Wade, and that is something the President remains committed to.  I don’t have a new assessment of our support for the piece of legislation.  We are still reviewing what our options are.
 
Q    Are there specific reservations about that bill?
 
MS. PSAKI:  We’re still looking at whether that’s a vehicle we’re going to support, but we still support codifying Roe v. Wade.
 
Q    And there are reports that Senator Manchin will only support as much as $1.5 trillion in a reconciliation package.  Has the President spoken to Senator Manchin, or does he have plans to?  And would the White House accept a $1.5 trillion plan?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, Senator Manchin, of course, continues to be a very important partner to the President and the President’s agenda.  And we fully expected that there would be a range of negotiations in private; sometimes they spill out into the public, and that is what is happening as we speak around components of the package.
 
But we also know that this is a process that’s ongoing, one that we just lived through over the summer, where there were many times where the agenda was called “dead” and it turned out it wasn’t.
 
So I’m not going to read out any calls or engagements the President has with Senator Manchin.  We engage with him on a regular basis from a senior level, including with the President, and we are looking ahead to getting this bill passed and moving it forward.
 
Q    But would you entertain $1.5 trillion?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Again, I’m not going to negotiate from here. What the President is encouraged by is agreements about the need to lower costs for working families — from prescription drugs to childcare, to the cost of college, to eldercare, on the need to tackle the climate crisis, and on the need for corporations and the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share in taxes.
 
I would also note that whatever the size is, it’s not actually accurate to call it any of these sizes — 1, 1.5, 2, 3.5.  This is going to be paid for.  That is something the President is committed to, something Senator Manchin has called for as well. 
 
And the real choice right now is whether you’re going to lower costs for people in this country on eldercare, childcare, cost of college, or whether you’re going to prevent — or allow the wealthiest Americans and corporations to continue to pay the tax rates that are hardly fair, moving forward.
 
Q    I’ve been told you have to wrap.
 
MS. PSAKI:  Okay.
 
Go ahead.
 
Q    In an attempt to clarify the White House’s position on the debt limit that — following up on my friend Josh’s question.
 
MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.  Sure.
 
Q    So, in her letter today, the Secretary said that the extraordinary measures would run out sometime in October.  Is it the White House’s wish — well, is it the White House’s expectation that Congress will act by the end of September — by September 30th?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, our expectation and hope is that they act in advance of the money running out.  Yes.
 
Q    So, you expect then that the line is wrong, that September 30th is the deadline that this White House is setting?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would be clear that in the Secretary’s letter, she made — she also conveyed that because of the fact that we don’t have all of the information at this point on inflows from taxes that come in mid-September, they didn’t give an exact date. 
 
But yes, of course, our objective is to raise the debt limit before it becomes a crisis.
 
Q    Quick thing.  Yesterday, the President said that he intended to see wildfire damage when he heads West.  Do you have any more information you can share on that?
 
MS. PSAKI:  He will see wildfire damage.  I know we are eager — you’re all eager; I’m eager — to get it announced — to announce the details of his trip that will be early next week.  We hope to have those in the next 24 hours.
 
Q    Jen.
 
MS. PSAKI:  Okay.  I think I have to wrap up, but let me do one more.  Okay.
 
Q    A couple questions —
 
MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.
 
Q    — on the reconciliation legislation, on healthcare.  Does the White House believe President Biden and Democratic lawmakers will ultimately have to make a choice between expanding Medicare benefits and shoring up the Affordable Care Act, particularly to stay under the overall price tag?  And if there is a choice, what would President Biden choose?
 
MS. PSAKI:  I certainly understand your question.  I think you probably can predict what I’m going to convey to you is that there are a range of discussions and negotiations between a broad swath of the Democratic caucus right now, and I’m just not going to negotiate or weigh in from here on this particular question.
 
Q    Quick question: Can the White House confirm that it has asked appointees from the last administration to resign from various boards, including the West Point Advisory Board and the Naval Academy Board, and why?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Yes, we have.  And the President’s objective is what any president’s objective is: is — was to ensure you have nominees and people serving on these boards who are qualified to serve on them and who are aligned with your values.  And so, yes, that was an ask that was made.
 
Q    Is there any concern that because a lot of these appointees do go across administrations, that there is a risk of politicizing these non- — traditionally non-controversial positions?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, I will let others evaluate whether they think Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer and others were qualified or not political to serve on these boards. 
 
But the President’s qualification requirements are not your party registration; they are whether you’re qualified to serve and whether you’re aligned with the values of this administration.
 
Thanks, everyone.
 
3:19 P.M. EDT