By Leslie A. Burton
On January 15, 2019, Indivisible East Bay met with Senator Kamala Harris’ State Director, Julie Rodriguez, and other office staff at the Senator’s downtown San Francisco office.
Shutdown. We opened with the government shutdown, at that point on its 24th day – the longest in U.S. history (and still ongoing as of this writing). We asked that the Senator not back down on her opposition to the border wall. We pointed out the need to disseminate more positive stories about immigrants and noted environmental hazards to wildlife caused by the wall. Julie acknowledged the problems with privatizing immigration detention centers. We asked that Senator Harris consider forcing a vote on the budget by making a motion to proceed, but Julie didn’t think that the senator was inclined to do that.
Barr for Attorney General. Although we disapprove of the appointment of William Barr as AG, Julie explained that though Harris will likely oppose (and she officially announced opposition soon after our meeting) his appointment is likely a “done deal.”
Judicial appointments. We expressed our dismay that judges who have been found “not qualified” by the American Bar Association are being approved. ABA approval should be a non-negotiable qualification. We asked that each judicial candidate be put through the entire vetting and approval process, with no concessions to speed up the process. Julie noted that the Blue Slip process, which had been the protocol for every other administration, is not being followed now, and said she hopes in the future we can move to restore the previous protocol to confirm judges.
Julie was pleased, though, with the decision of the federal court in Manhattan that will prevent citizenship questions from being asked on the 2020 census. She is also heartened that Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts seems to be moving a little to the left.
Nuclear arms. We voiced concern over Senator Jon Kyl’s proposals to stockpile more nuclear warheads. Rep. Engel is willing to open debate on repeal of AUMF in the House. Sen. Merkley’s AUMF repeal framework includes tying humanitarian goals into any repeal legislation. We support Engel and Merkley and would like to know how Senator Harris stands on these issues. We would like her to support a No First Use (of nuclear weapons) policy. Julie was not aware of Sen. Harris’ stance on these issues but she promised that she would discuss them with her. Senator Harris, like us, is concerned that we have the right checks and balances in place when an unstable person is in charge of nuclear arms.
Defense Budget/Budget Control Act Caps. Senator Harris supports parity between military and non-military spending. Julie doesn’t know about the proposal to discontinue humanitarian aid to Yemen, but she will look into it, as well as into the proposal to bring the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act below $700 billion.
DHS/HHS appropriations for immigration centers. Two children have died in ICE custody at the border without explanation; there is no oversight or responsibility to prevent abuses by ICE; there are no background checks on ICE employees; anti-immigration actions are taking funds from cancer and HIV research. Julie explained that most of the monetary aspect of Homeland Security goes through the Office of Management and Budget, and not through the Senate. But the Senator is concerned with the locking up of children and families and the lack of humanity exhibited in these facilities. Harris also sponsored the non-expansion act that would prohibit the expansion of immigration detention and improve oversight of these facilities. The Senator will be flagging Rep. Norma Torres’s H. Amdt. 314 to H.R. 3354, which would prevent the re-allocation of non-immigration detention funds in DHS towards immigration detention, for her immigration team to study.
Climate Change. We inquired about Harris’ approach to controlling greenhouse gases. We pointed out that lower standards are being proposed for Superfund cleanups, which will hurt communities. Julie stated that California is at the forefront of environmental issues, including environmental justice. Among other clean energy proposals, Harris is seeking federal funding for electric buses in rural areas. Climate change will be on the agenda for her next town hall.
Green New Deal. We told Julie that proposals are afloat for a system of public banks or agencies to finance energy infrastructure, which will transform the economy while addressing environmental issues. These banks would be accountable to the people and could be used to give micro-loans for communities and for conservation projects and other projects and endeavors, including the cannabis industry. Julie was very interested and asked us to provide her with good examples of successful programs.
Income Inequality and Taxes. We asked whether Harris supports Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to increase the highest tax rate to 70 percent. Julie acknowledged that taxes need to be reformed, with the goal of getting money into the hands of the people. She noted that the majority of Americans are $500 away from life-changing status (such as homelessness) and that the Senator supports the “Lift the Middle-Class Tax Act,” which will give $500 annually to those who spend more than 30% of their income on rent.
Criminal Justice Reform and First Step. We aired our concerns over some of the terms of the criminal justice reform bill First Step Act, including its reliance on algorithms for predicting recidivism. Harris believes that AG Barr’s oversight of the First Step criminal reform bill will not be a serious concern because she has faith in the career employees at the Department of Justice who will handle most of the hands-on day-to-day administration of First Step. But the senator shares concerns over the recidivism calculations.
Drug Policy. Senator Harris supported the Marijuana Justice Act. The next step is to help the cannabis industry transition to a fully legal business. Harris supports removing it from Schedule 1 of Controlled Substances. In response to her question to Barr about federal prosecution of users who are not violating state laws, he said he would not prosecute those cases.
Next Town Hall. Senator Harris will announce a Town Hall soon. We will let you know the date as soon as we find out.
Leslie A. Burton is a former lawyer and law professor. She is now a traveling professor, teaching Introduction to US Law classes and Legal Writing seminars in law firms and universities around the world.