On our January 2020 trip to DC, Indivisible East Bay met with Representative Barbara Lee (CA-13), Senator Dianne Feinstein’s chief of staff and legislative director, Senator Kamala Harris’ legislative director, and immigration and foreign policy specialists from various offices. We also had several more informal chats ranging from breakfast with a former staffer for Senator Harry Reid who now works for a nonprofit that gives extra support to Congressional offices, to a meeting in the majestic Library of Congress with a former Jeff Sessions staffer and Senate procedure expert.
Overall, it was a very productive trip. We made progress in our relationship with all the Member of Congress offices, building toward the day when we will need to push on them not just to block things but to pass strong legislation that will become law. We met with an unprecedented number of organizations with whom we share goals such as a more active and capable Congress, war prevention, improving whistleblower protections, and democracy expansion. Altogether, we feel we are well set up for big advocacy work. Now we need to do the electoral work that will let us come back in a year and insist that Congress and the new president enact our ambitious agenda.
We gave Rep. Lee a copy of Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin’s book We Are Indivisible, which she added to the collection on the coffee table in her office. The top of our agenda was the then-escalating situation with Iran. (Just as we were wrapping things up and taking a photo, Rep. Lee and her staff were turning on the TV to listen to Trump’s January 8 remarks.) She said she was working on getting important pieces of legislation through the House. These included the War Powers Resolution that passed last week and also her own repeal of the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which passed as part of a funding bill last year but was removed in the Senate compromise and will now be voted on as standalone legislation during the last week of January. We also discussed military spending, renewable energy, and democracy expansion–her top priority is getting money out of politics. When we told her that we had been hearing more mainstream discussion of ideas like court expansion and an end to lifetime appointments for the federal judiciary, she said it wasn’t something she had given much thought to yet, but that she would look into it. We’ll send her some of the proposals we like best.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s staff
With Indivisible SF, we met with the Speaker’s science/tech staffer Sarah Swig in the Capitol. We told her that in spite of many important accomplishments in other areas, Democratic control of the House hadn’t resulted in significant improvements to the appropriations bills that fund the government. We suggested that this was probably in part because Congress hasn’t given itself the resources–money, expertise, infrastructure–necessary to take a strong negotiating position with the executive branch. Swig did not agree with our assessment of the appropriation bills, citing this list of “wins” for San Francisco, but she did agree that Congress needs to fund itself better, and specifically build its capacity in science and technology including restarting the Office of Technology Assessment, increasing funding for staff–particularly committee staff–and continuing the work of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. She emphasized, as did everyone we talked to about this, that legislative branch funding has to be bipartisan–and basically unanimous–so that it can pass by voice vote and no one has to face scrutiny over their vote back home. We told her we wanted to push back on the assumption that constituents don’t want to fund Congress, and that we hoped to make it part of our push for democracy expansion. And on that note, we presented the Speaker with a copy of the Indivisible book, pointing out mention of one of our protests at her office and explaining that it lays out a pro-democracy agenda supported by Indivisibles across the country.
Senator Feinstein’s immigration staff
Sen. Feinstein’s immigration staff has turned over several times since we started meeting with them. It’s easy to see why there would be high rates of burnout documenting the suffering at our border and fighting the unresponsiveness and lack of compassion of the agencies they are tasked with overseeing. It was encouraging, in a sad sort of way, to learn that these staffers are thinking carefully about the long term effects of our new asylum policies and the complexities that will come along with reversing them. We expressed our disappointment that Democrats, including Sen. Feinstein, didn’t fight harder to prevent the Department of Homeland Security from moving money around in order to detain more people than Congress has authorized; and we also expressed our worry that Congress would again vote to give ICE and CBP more money for immigration enforcement over the summer. And we asked them to look into the issues raised in a Disability RIghts California report about the treatment of special needs migrant kids in custody.
Sen. Feinstein’s chief of staff and legislative director
We had our first meeting with Sen. Feinstein’s newish chief of staff, David Grannis, along with one of our oldest DC friends, legislative director Josh Esquivel. We checked in about Iran, an issue our sometimes hawkish senator has been very good on. We asked her, in addition to passing the “privileged” resolution (which has an easier path through the Senate than regular legislation) to use Senate procedure, to force a vote on any other legislation passed by the House. They promised to speak with the parliamentarian about possibilities–a minor improvement over their usual non-answers around deference to the majority leader. Since Esquivel is a budget expert, we touched again on the problematic DHS funding bills, but didn’t get much of a response, perhaps because Congress is again planning to push working on these bills until the last possible moment.
Voting rights is a top democracy expansion priority for Sen. Feinstein, and she agrees that the Democrats should move quickly to enact everything in H.R.1 as soon as they have the power. We also talked about possible legislation to improve whistleblower protections in the context of the challenges faced by the famous Ukraine whistleblower–Grannis was the head of Sen. Feinstein’s committee staff when she chaired the Intelligence Committee and he said that although there is nothing currently in the works this is an area she has worked on in the past and might be interested in supporting again. And of course we told them that we’re counting on their boss to ensure a fair, open, and complete impeachment trial and they assured us that she would do everything she could.
Senator Harris’s staff
Like Senator Feinstein’s staffers, Sen. Harris’s legislative director Deanne Millison and foreign policy staffer Matt Williams assured us the Senator would do everything she could to ensure a fair, open and complete impeachment trial, and they pointed us to her excellent opinion piece on this subject in the New York Times. They also had a similarly positive response to our whistleblower request. In fact, they suggested that Sen. Harris may already be working toward related legislation aimed at imposing consequences on members of Congress who threaten or intimidate whistleblowers from the agencies they oversee. We also discussed military spending and tried to clarify whether what Sen. Harris calls “smart” national security spending means less spending on weapons and war and more spending on diplomacy and non-military assistance around the world. It sounded like generally the answer was yes, although staff was still light on specifics. We also talked about DHS spending, democracy expansion, and legislative branch funding, all of which they emphatically agreed with us about. We also mentioned that now that the Senator has a little more time on her hands, maybe she could spend it doing some town halls in California. They said they thought she was looking forward to it, though they, of course, didn’t make any specific promises.
Photo: January 2020 visit to Rep. Barbara Lee’s DC office: Amelia, Rep. Lee, and Linh