On Wednesday May 24th, Indivisible East Bay and Indivisible CA-11 United hosted a spirited question-and-answer in Richmond with Sean Elsbernd, Senator Feinstein’s State Director. Abby Ellis, the Senator’s Field Representative, also attended. Moving quickly through the Trump administration’s checklist of horribles, we touched on the federal budget, Senate healthcare bill, use of military force, whistleblowers, Russia Russia Russia, and more.
Shenanigans: A hot topic right now (see this article published the day after our meeting) is the Repubs’ attempt to jam through their agenda by dropping the bipartisan tradition of consulting senators about judicial appointments in their states. Sean said that Senator Feinstein is pushing Senator Grassley to keep the “blue slip” tradition – where unless both senators from a state where a nominee would serve return their blue slips to the Judiciary Committee, the nominee doesn’t get a hearing.
Sean elaborated that some Republicans say they’ll keep the “blue slip” for district court but not appellate appointees. She’s doing what she can to maintain the tradition for all federal judicial nominees at ALL levels, including using Senator Orrin Hatch’s previous support and quotes in favor of the tradition. Senator Feinstein considers this a big issue she’d go to the mat on. See her press release from the day of our meeting. What we can do: keep up the pressure on Grassley to maintain the blue slip process for all nominees.
Federal Budget: Candace Goldman, who has worked with nonprofit East Bay skilled nursing residence homes, shared her assessment that the proposed budget would result in closures and require the state to assume responsibility to care for very frail elderly at greater cost and with substantial disruptions that would put many people at risk for early death.
Sean said the Senator is very concerned about the budget. He referred to her op-ed piece in this Monday’s Los Angeles Daily News on the devastating effects of changes to Medicaid. He noted that September 2017 is a big month for the budget because the continuing resolution only keeps the government open until then, and that the risk we’ll fall off the “fiscal cliff” will force discussion on the budget.
He suggested we connect with the Orinda Progressive Action Alliance, and commended their dropbox tool “Stories for Senators” where personal stories like Candace’s can be efficiently collected and used by the Senator and others for op-eds, conversations with fellow Senators, speeches, etc. Sean said we can still send direct emails.
Sean also emphasized that we need to push any contacts we have in the medical/health industry to stay strong against the Senate bill that’s being drafted. California businesses have been strong so far – and if you get the chambers of commerce, you get the Republicans. He noted that the less-publicized Trump tax reform proposal to eliminate state and local tax deductions could have devastating impacts to California and other blue states.
Congressional Authorization of Military Force: Sean said Senator Feinstein supported use of force in Syria for the past two years, and initially supported President Trump’s tomahawk launch, but she is cautious about any military action moving forward. Sean wasn’t aware whether the Senator would support or introduce a similar Senate Resolution to Rep Adam Schiff’s Consolidated Authorization for Use of Military Force Resolution of 2017; he’ll check and let us know.
Drug Policy: Referring to AG Sessions’ memo to prosecutors to enforce mandatory minimum sentences for even nonviolent drug crimes, we asked whether the Senator will support: (1) the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would empower federal judges to impose shorter prison terms; and (2)the bipartisan Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act, which protects the civil rights and facilitates the reentry of formerly incarcerated drug offenders. Sean said he would find out and let us know.
Raising concerns that Sessions is pushing his policies to get more money for private prisons, and that more convictions results in more disenfranchisement, we told Sean that we’d like to see the Senator address these issues.
We wondered why the Senator collaborated with Senator Grassley on S.739, the Protecting Kids from Candy-Flavored Drugs Act of 2017, given that policy experts say no data supports claims that candy-flavored narcotics are being used by or marketed to children. To our concerns that she is wasting time on legislation perpetuating misinformation and likely to lead to severe criminal charges for people legally selling marijuana-infused products, Sean countered that the Senator’s experts think that there is an impact. She also felt it was important to work on the bipartisan act and to advance Senate comity.
Senate Health Care Bill: Sean said they have no further information we don’t have on the version of the health care bill that Republican senators are working on in secret. He noted McConnell’s recent admission that they’re nowhere near 50 votes, but said that the window to press on the Senate bill is now; he thinks it’ll come up end of June or early July because their recess is in August. The CBO score is crucial, and the House may even need to re-vote. He also noted that under reconciliation they’d need only 51 votes.
Caleb mentioned the importance of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), and Sean said that the Senator agrees, and acknowledged that they’re under threat of being entirely eliminated. He suggested that we can work with local elected officials to illustrate the significance of how they use CDBG funds.
Russia Investigation: Sean joked that he was surprised it took us so long to get to Russia. He let us know that the Dept of Justice did grant a conflict-of-interest waiver so Robert Mueller could lead the Russia probe. He emphasized that Mueller’s is a criminal prosecution, and the congressional investigations must continue so there is transparency and the public knows what happened. He said we need to keep up pressure to combat Republican efforts to stop the investigations.
Sean explained that an independent commission would require a bill through Congress and signed by the president, and that an Independent Select Committee would have to be created by Ryan and/or McConnell. Sean suspects that Senator Feinstein would disagree that the latter option is better than the current Senate Intelligence Committee, which he said is moving along, including holding multiple hearings and issuing subpoenas.
Emoluments Clause: Senators Feinstein and Grassley are investigating possible violations of the Emoluments Clause through the Judiciary Committee, including whether Trump changed his position on the China one-child policy, resulting in his receiving patents from China, and misuse by Kushner companies of EB-5 immigrant investor visas.
Office of Government Ethics: Sean alluded to the administration’s refusal to provide waivers granted to lobbyists and other appointees to the OGE, and noted that various government departments are similarly failing to respond to ANY Democratic request for information. It was very troubling to hear Sean say, very bluntly, that “very basic communication is not happening”.
High Crimes and Misdemeanors: We all shared a bitter laugh when this issue was raised. Regarding the big “I” (impeachment), Sean said the Senator isn’t ready to commit to pursuing impeachment, and that she didn’t think the evidence needed was there yet. She takes Trump’s careless sharing of classified information very seriously, and is working to formalize and standardize the rules and processes for classification and declassification.
Immigration: An IEB member shared her fears about an impending visit by an Arab-Muslim relative. Sean appreciated her suggestions that the Senator work to promote the values of diversity and to fight discrimination.
Sean didn’t have an update on the Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy Act, which the Senator co-sponsored. He mentioned the “Blue Card visa program” (the Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2017), recently introduced by Senators Feinstein and Harris to create a path to citizenship for farmworkers. He emphasized the large impact on the economy the Act would have, and although acknowledging that it would be tough to get the bill through, said that even some Republicans would support it.
Finally, to a general question about the value of contacting MoCs on committees who aren’t our state reps, Sean said that Senator Feinstein responds to Californians’ concerns, and that likely other MoCs do the same. He suggested we urge people we know in other states to call their own reps. He noted that an exception could be about transportation issues. He also reminded us that we can contact committees directly via their websites.
Our detailed questions can be found in the memo to the Senator.