As we do every few weeks, IEB members met with Senator Feinstein’s State Director Sean Elsbernd on November 15, 2017. After an opening round of brief intros for the members not already well acquainted with Sean, we dove into discussing some of our top priorities:
Tax scam:
We thanked the senator for fighting the tax bill and encouraged her to continue the fight and efforts to bring all possible Republicans along in her wake. We noted the potential terrible effects of the bill on higher education in general, and graduate engineers and scientists specifically. Sean responded that Senator Feinstein is deeply concerned with the tax bill’s specific effect on California, including losing deductions for state and local taxes and mortgage interest. The bill will have a significant impact on affordable housing, particularly in California. It’s ironic that this bill is coming from “the party of trickle down economics,” he noted, as it would have a very negative trickle-down effect on state and local governments’ ability to serve their communities. (It might have an unintended result though: “People vote with their pocketbooks.”) The senator is doing everything she can to slow the bill process down.
DACA and other immigration issues:
Sean reported that with all focus on the tax bill, there’s no news on this front, and likewise no update on protecting recipients of Temporary Protected Status visas. The next day she and two other Democratic Senators announced that they were introducing legislation to help TPS visa holders, but we haven’t seen the text yet.
They are working with hundreds of people mired in the DACA process, hindered by administrative issues such as whether their paperwork was filed on time. Sean is skeptical that grassroots campaigns can have an effect, and urges the grassroots to put all efforts into tax reform. especially since the GOP House wants something done by Thanksgiving.
UPDATE: as of 11/22/2017, TPS legislation text, as submitted by Sen. Chris Van Hollen.
West County Detention Facility:
Sean asked what our East Bay Representatives are doing about this issue. The Sheriff and Representative Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11) are not able to tour the facility until Nov. 27th, an unacceptably long time away from when the abuses were revealed. We asked for the Senator’s help to get a full and prompt inspection of the facility. Sean suggested that we also continue to contact Rep. DeSaulnier (CA-11) to put more pressure on the detention center. We followed up with Sean on Tuesday and he said that Sen. Feinstein’s office is writing an oversight letter, something they did not appear to have been considering doing until we brought the issue up.
Health Care:
Senator Feinstein supports the Murray-Alexander bill to fix the ACA, but thinks it will be difficult to pass in the current Congress. They aren’t sure how the tax scam will affect the bill with respect to elimination of the health care mandate. Bernie’s Medicare For All is not a priority for the Senator; according to Sean, “These guys are not going to stop going after the ACA [while Republicans hold majority and Trump is President]. Defense of the ACA is the first priority.” Also: “The GOP painted themselves into a corner with catchy slogans. We need to be careful of falling victim to catchy slogans.” He elaborated: Even if every Democrat sponsored Medicare For All, there would be no hearings and no legislative movement, and it wouldn’t do anything to stop Republicans from going after the ACA; and there is no way for the minority party to force McConnell to bring Murray-Alexander to a floor vote.
CHIP:
It’s not clear whether Congressional failure to re-authorize the CHIP program has made Senator Feinstein re-evaluate the way she tries to work with Republicans. The re-authorization is getting sucked up in the wake of the end-of-year budget process, and the priority is getting through Thanksgiving without letting the tax plan pass.
S.1989—Honest Ads Act:
Senator Feinstein likes the bill a lot, and will be supportive of it. The current bill is co-sponsored by two Democrats and Republicans. Sean thought leadership might try to keep the numbers even, so she might not officially sign on until another Republican does.
Media Consolidation and Net Neutrality:
Focus in committee hearing has been on social media companies. They are tackling both aspects: news sources and internet companies.
Judicial Appointments:
Feinstein, like IEB, wants senators to have more time to review judicial nominations. She issued a press statement the morning of our meeting with Sean about the rushed schedule of confirmation hearings. In answer to our question of how the grassroots can help, Sean suggested electing more Democrats to the Senate. We told Sean that we applaud Senator Feinstein’s efforts to slow the nomination process, but want her to do more.
Sexual Assault and Harassment:
Feinstein does not control the Judiciary Committee schedule and cannot call for the hearing on this important issue.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions:
Sean doesn’t know that the senator would ask for his resignation; we asked for her to explicitly do so. She has already asked for him to come back to testify again, but she doesn’t control the agenda, Grassley does. Sean isn’t aware of the senator receiving any written answers from him yet from his October testimony in front of Senate Judiciary Committee. When she does, we want to hear about it.
Russia Investigation:
Feinstein is not ready to call Trump campaign’s actions “collusion with Russia.” She issued a press release the same day as our visit, announcing a “second tranche of request letters related to the Russia investigation.” Sean says that “the intelligence committee continues along. They seem to be trying to wrap up. It’s no longer much of a joint effort in the Judiciary Committee—there’s now a Minority investigation and a Majority investigation.”  Senator Feinstein has been more and more vocal but all the eggs are in the basket of Robert Mueller: No one wants a Democratic report or Republican Report, they want a Judiciary Committee report.
Puerto Rico:
Sean said that there will be a separate emergency funding bill, akin to what Congress passed for the Texas hurricane and California wildfires. He suggested that we build grassroots support for cosponsoring S.2041, a bill to amend the Stafford Act so that recovery and rebuilding efforts will include improvements in resiliency and efficiency of the energy infrastructure. We assume that she would support such a measure, but might need something of a push from constituents so please call about this.
North Bay Wildfires:
Major focus on has been on the casework team. People are calling FEMA, trying to register for victims’ individual assistance grants. FEMA has been a very good partner, very responsive so far, so the senator sees no need to change the process. We mentioned flood risk during storms and the need for legislation to avoid using plastic pipes, to which Sean replied “You don’t want the federal government regulating building codes” and said that the senator is very focused on getting people in the North Bay through the winter. He suggested that IEB focus on funding efforts for North Bay charities and volunteer efforts. Also: Senators Feinstein and Harris wrote a letter to Secretary of State Tillerson about expediting the process of getting replacement passport and to waive fees for people who lost their passports in the fires; Sean suggested that this might be a grassroots letter-writing opportunity.
Gun Control:
In an update, Sean said that the bump stock bill, which was supposed to get a hearing that week, had been pushed to the first week of December, because Sen. Grassley is the chair and he wanted to push it back to us committee time to confirm some more judicial nominations. The assault weapons bill, he said, is the kind of bill that passes in a Democratic-controlled Congress. They are continuing to try to get sponsors in the Senate and support among national and local organizations to sponsor letter-writing campaigns, and he urged us to work with local organizations such as churches, PTAs, etc., and to be in touch with him on this effort. However, he warned that we should not have expectations about a hearing any time soon.
Climate change mitigation:
We asked if the senator would sponsor the senate counterpart to the House’s Climate Solutions Caucus to help unify bipartisan effort to advance meaningful climate change mitigation policies such as S.1639 – American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act. Sean said she doesn’t feel that the Senate with 100 members needs a caucus to organize around  compared to the House with its 435 members. He did say that she did support a previous version of a carbon fee bill and that she would look at this update to the legislation.
FY 2018 Budget:
Though it’s likely that there will be a continuing resolution bill to fund the government until the end of the calendar year and possibly into part of 2018, the 2018 appropriations bills are waiting to be completed and won’t be taken up until after #TaxScam. Of concern to us is the massive 2018 National Defense Authorization Act which comes in at an estimated $700 billion. Programs authorized in it won’t actually be allowed to draw on funds until there’s a matching defense appropriations bill and negotiations for funding defense and non-defense will be hashed out as part of the budget and appropriations process. Dems plan to push for appropriations increases in non-defense categories in exchange for any defense spending above caps mandated by existing budget laws. We expressed dismay that both our senators had voted for such a bloated and costly NDAA but Sean said that the programs authorized affected many constituencies in California.
FISA Amendments Reauthorization Bill:
Senators Feinstein and Harris cosponsored an amendment to require probable cause warrants from the FISA court for intelligence agencies seeking to do domestic surveillance on American citizens as part of any Section 702 search queries. The amendment did not pass in committee. When asked why she voted for the bill out of committee without that important amendment, Sean replied that she felt that there was a better chance of the amendment passing in a floor vote.
Town Halls:
IEB sent a proposal about future town halls to the Senator and her press team, but haven’t gotten a response yet. Sean said it could be feasible and that he “appreciates the creativity” but he didn’t give any feedback to improve the proposal. He did, however, say that he would talk to the Senator about it.
Photograph copyright Toby St. John

 

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