IEB and ISF Meet with Senator Feinstein’s State Director

Photograph © Charlie Moehle
Photograph © Charlie Moehle

By Ted Landau

The conference room in Senator Dianne Feinstein’s San Francisco office was packed — standing room only. In attendance at our December 6 meeting were over 20 members of Indivisible: a combination of members of the East Bay and San Francisco chapters, plus one brave South Bay commuter. At the head of the table was Sean Elsbernd, the Senator’s State Director.

After brief introductions, we dove into a 90 minute conversation where Indivisible members took turns sharing our positions and asking Sean about the Senator’s plans. He was both communicative and frank in his replies.

Top of agenda were the two looming topics of the day: the tax reform bill and the impending showdown over the budget.

When asked what we as Indivisible members could do to help block the passage of the tax bill, Sean stressed that we shouldn’t focus our attention on Representatives outside our own districts because our actions would be unlikely to affect those votes (a point already well-understood by Indivisible).

At the same time, he indicated that the Republican House members from California should be a primary target for any statewide action. Being from California, a state that will be hit especially hard by the tax reform bill, these GOP Representatives could be susceptible to a change in their vote. They did, after all, vote to raise taxes on their own constituents. Sean admitted it’s a long shot — but it’s the best we can do.

As for the budget, Sean informed us that the Senator’s priorities are health care and disaster relief (especially for California fires and Puerto Rico). We stressed that we want Senator Feinstein to vote no on any funding deal that doesn’t include immediate re-authorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and to again vote no if the bill does not include a solution for DREAMers.

Sean responded cautiously, noting that while the Senator supports these priorities, they have to be balanced against the damage to constituents that a government shutdown would cause. Similarly, he added, the Senator believes it is not in our interest to sound as if we are in favor of shutting down the government, as this opens us up to potentially shouldering the blame should a shutdown occur. All agreed that this is a delicate balancing act, although Indivisible’s position tilted more strongly to proclaiming the intent to vote no if these issues were not addressed satisfactorily.

The rest of the meeting covered a diverse array of issues, ranging widely from Temporary Protected Status visas to gun control to net neutrality to health care to sexual assault to the Russia investigation to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) reauthorization. In general, as you might expect, Sean indicated that the Senator agreed with and was supportive of our requests and concerns, although how this would translate into action was often less clear. A few highlights:

  • Regarding Senator Feinstein’s Safe Environment from Countries Under Repression and Emergency Act, Sean informed us that this would not be taken up until next year.
  • On the matter of net neutrality and the FCC’s plans to dismantle it, Sean indicated that he did not think there was much that could be done on this matter legislatively.
  • When asked about reports on a major escalation in the privatization of intelligence work, separate from the CIA, Sean said Senator Feinstein will continue to oppose this.
  • Sean predicted that removal of the ACA’s individual mandate will remain in the tax bill, and said he thought there’s no stopping it at this point.
  • Regarding the Russia investigation, Senator Feinstein is sending out letters to various people requesting information regarding obstruction. However, her letters do not carry the force of a subpoena. On the plus side, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein’s tacit support for Mueller’s budget is a sign that Mueller will be protected from possible actions by Trump.
  • When asked whether the Senator expects passage of an amendment to the FISA bill that would prevent warrantless searches, Sean replied that this is a top priority for her. She still thinks the amendment has a chance to pass when the bill hits the Senate floor.

Overall, everyone agreed it was a productive and worthwhile discussion. IEB looks forward to our next meeting with Sean, which will likely be held separately from the ISF contingent.

Ted Landau is a retired professor of psychology. He has also spent several decades as a tech journalist/author — writing primarily about Apple products. He has been politically active in the East Bay since moving here in 2004.

November 2017 Visit with Sen. Feinstein’s State Director

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

 

Sojourn in Southern California for Senator Feinstein

Senator Feinstein spoke to the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce at a luncheon on Wednesday October 11. As you’d expect the 400 or so attendees were mostly business people among whom the senator seemed very comfortable.

We’re not making any accusations—and it was likely just that the hosts were so  in sync with their guest—but the questions seemed to be exactly what the senator would have chosen to be asked at her first public appearance since announcing her reelection campaign. And she was clearly very prepared, down to statistics on how the elimination of the state and local tax deduction would hurt middle income Riverside residents.

Sen. Feinstein and moderator Jack Clarke talked about terrifying weapons: the senator’s gun control legislation, the nuclear agreement with Iran, and the potential crisis brewing between the United States and North Korea— “the longer it lasts this way, the easier it is for one of the two leaders to make a slip in rhetoric and something happens that we don’t want.”

Asked about tax “reform” the senator  was very clear that the Republicans do not have bill. They have “a framework—whatever that is.” And she predicted that if they attempted to jam something through without hearings and “regular order” that it would certainly fail. Let’s hope she has Senator McCain’s word on that. (Note: He voted against the 2001 Bush tax cuts; she voted for them.)

She spoke at length about saving the Affordable Care Act and stabilizing and improving the marketplaces, and about the nearby airport and what it means for the local economy and infrastructure.


Clarke also read three audience questions off of cards collected at the event including one about the future of DACA. She was, of course, strongly in favor of the DREAM Act. But she made some statements that were troublingly supportive of a deal on border security, against the wishes of the DREAMers themselves who don’t want their safety traded for policies that harm other immigrants. She said, “we can use more border patrol,” which might be a reasonable argument to make if the immigration enforcement we currently have was doing a decent job protecting the rights and humanity of the people it interacts with.

For young people who want to be involved in politics and the future of this country, she said: “Instead of sitting back and criticising, get out and run for something…people jump up and down, and you ask them what they really want and it’s some vague statement.”

Clearly she’s not talking about Indivisible East Bay. While we do jump up and down quite a bit, our statements are anything but vague. We certainly criticize, but we don’t sit back. We know what we want and we’ve learned how to translate that into requests for specific votes and legislation, and oversight, because that is the most effective way to maximize our power. But as the senator well knows (and, to be fair, has demonstrated many times) part of the job she took on when she asked to represent us, is the task of taking her constituents’ vague statements and finding the way to address those needs through policy.

And as for the admonition to “get out and run for something.” It’s not bad advice. More of us need to do that. But more of us also need to realize that it’s not the only way. Many of us Indivisibles across the country ourselves realized only recently that democracy doesn’t have to just mean voting and running for office. It can mean working as constituents together with our elected representative to govern ourselves.

Two State Directors in Two Days

It was quite a week at the beginning of October 2017 – we met back to back with the state directors for Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.

We didn’t plan on having our first meeting with Sen. Harris’ state director, Julie Rodriguez, the evening before our umpteenth meeting with Sen. Feinstein’s state director, Sean Elsbernd. (Julie is based in LA, so we normally meet with with Daniel Chen, the head of the senator’s SF Office. But Julie has agreed to another meeting the next time she’s in  town.)

But two in a row worked out well, since there are a lot of things we wanted to impress on both senators: from reminding them of the urgency of passing the DREAM Act, to expressing disappointment that they both voted in favor of a huge national defense authorization bill last week, to some specific asks on long-term help for Puerto Rico as part of a hurricane relief package.

We heard a few more details about Sen. Feinstein’s hesitations around endorsing Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All — mainly about implementation and some remaining fuzzy details on the funding side. But Sean tells us that it’s the feedback from us that has moved her from off the cuff comments about “complete government takeover of health care” to asking her staff to take a close look at Sen. Sanders’ bill.

We also heard a few more details about Sen. Harris’ next steps in her push for Medicare for All. Julie says she will take the lead from Sen. Sanders, but that with a minority in Congress, the important thing to focus on is building grassroots support for single payer health care.

We shared our concerns about oversight of the Homeland Security Department, specifically ICE, and learned about some of the individual cases involving detention centers that each of our senators’ constituent services departments have worked on. In fact, Sean told us, a couple of years ago when ICE detention facilities were overcrowded due to the Central American refugee crisis (including many unaccompanied children), Sen. Feinstein had her staff visit every facility in California to compile a report and recommend changes to President Obama.

We spoke with Sean at length about Trump’s judicial nominations being fast-tracked through the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Sen. Feinstein is the lead Democrat. He told us she’s fighting hard to preserve the “blue slip” process, which gives every senator a say about judges appointed to the federal courts within their state. We asked Sen. Harris to make a statement in support of the senators who have withheld blue slips on dangerous federal court nominees in Oregon and Minnesota.

IEB Meets With Senator Feinstein’s State Director

Senator Feinstein's State Director Sean Elsbernd

Several IEB members met with Senator Feinstein’s State Director Sean Elsbernd on September 5. Our first question at this first meeting since the Senator failed to hold a Town Hall during the August recess was (surprise!): when will the Senator have a real Town Hall!? Sean’s rationales aside, we heard two things loud & clear: they know this is important to us (thank you IEBers for your calls and emails); and the Senator clearly does not want to hold a Town Hall.

The rest of the meeting was more productive. Sean said using personal stories (instrumental in protecting the ACA) would be effective to resist the GOP’s anti-immigration agenda. He also suggested we send questions for an upcoming hearing at which Donald Trump Jr. will testify, and noted that questions could be submitted for the record which the witness would have to answer in writing.

Given that Feinstein is ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, her positions on judicial nominations and the process are critical. Sean said that the Senator wants above all to preserve the blue slip process, but in order to be heeded on that she can’t unnecessarily slow confirmations.

As evidence that the Senator is listening to us, Sean noted that she mentioned in their morning staff meeting the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to prevent transfer of military equipment to civilian law enforcement. IEB had brought this issue to her attention at the August Commonwealth Club (not-a-town-hall) event.

As to whether Feinstein joins Senator Kamala Harris (and at last count 15 other Dems) in supporting the Sanders Medicare for All Bill, she wants to ensure that subsidies and the mandate remain in place; that both are needed for there to be more than one health insurance carrier in all counties to provide competition to keep costs down. She is not in principle against a single payer bill and would like to see the details of one.

Open questions: Sean wasn’t sure what Senator’s position is on repealing the Authorization for Use of Military Force. He conveyed to her our opinion that it should be repealed. Other issues discussed: the failure of the California legislature’s CA Desert Protection Act (AB 1000); the politicization of scientific research; NAFTA; and GOP bills to split the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Indivisible East Bay Meets With Sen Harris’s Staff

Meeting with Daniel Chen

Walking into the IEB meeting with Daniel Chen, Senator Kamala Harris’s District Director on August 2, 2017, we had varying opinions on most issues we wanted to discuss – but we were INDIVISIBLY united on one question: when would Senator Harris hold a Bay Area Town Hall?

Unfortunately we left the meeting without an answer. Daniel clearly heard our message – it is not acceptable that Senator Harris hasn’t held ANY town halls in Northern California – but the most he would say was that an August Town Hall was a “number one priority” for Harris.

Daniel didn’t give many firm answers to the rest of our questions, but he took notes and said he’d convey our suggestions and concerns to the Senator.

Meeting with Daniel Chen

A rundown of the main issues we covered:

  • Health Care: We asked Senator Harris to join Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) in committing to make no cuts to Medicaid before agreeing to any bipartisan health care bill. Daniel acknowledged and thanked Indivisible’s extensive grassroots work fighting for our health care.
  • Budget and Defense Spending: Daniel will ask Harris to issue a statement on why she agreed to co-sponsor Senate Bill 1414. The SHIPS Act mandates expansion of military spending on battle force ships, up from 276 to support a minimum of 355. The bill is primarily a reward to military contractors.
  • Department of Homeland Security Oversight: Daniel said that the Senator is currently mainly focused on retaining Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). She is aware that ICE and border control have been turning away asylum seekers without granting legally mandated hearings, and she’s seeking documentation of this in the field. Daniel will convey our suggestion that she consider visiting the border to greet asylum seekers.
  • Defense Appropriations and Constitutional Role of Congress: We expressed our concern that the executive branch’s impulsive, undisciplined, and unreliable approach to foreign policy is leading to escalated U.S. involvement in conflicts abroad without strategy or accountability. Daniel will talk to the Senator about supporting a bill to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, work that Rep. Barbara Lee has been doing for years and that recently gained significant support from both sides of the aisle before being removed from the House Defense Appropriations Bill at the direction of Paul Ryan.
  • LGBTQ Rights: Daniel will convey our request that Harris co-sponsor S. 1303. The Every Child Deserves a Family Act prohibits discrimination in adoption or foster care placements based on the sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status of any prospective adoptive or foster parent, or the sexual orientation or gender identity of the child.
  • Reproductive Rights: He will also convey our deep concern about the DCCC’s announcement that they’re willing to fund Democratic candidates who don’t support abortion rights, and about the failure to mention abortion rights in the Democrats’ “Better Deal” agenda. We stated that abortion rights should definitely be a litmus test for Dem candidates.
  • Obstruction of Justice: We were disappointed by Harris’s vote to confirm Christopher Wray as the new FBI Director. Daniel told us she was convinced by his responses at the hearing that Wray would remain independent, and gave us her statement regarding her vote.

It’s nearly a week since we met with Daniel, and still no word on an August recess Town Hall with Senator Harris. Please contact Senator Harris and tell her you want her to meet with her Bay Area constituents!

Update: Senator Harris asked for constituent input on priorities, please use this form to give her feedback.

Road trip to Fresno: Feinstein Q&A with rural California

The atmosphere at Senator Feinstein’s Central Valley Community Foundation event in Fresno on Thursday was quite a contrast to that at her Bay Area events, but the senator herself was largely the same as ever, which speaks both to her integrity and to her moderate inclinations.

The Q&A portion of the event lasted only about 30 minutes and didn’t include any audience questions. The senator displayed her in-depth knowledge of water issues and touted the Water Resources Development Act as an example of the kind of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans that, though she acknowledges it is disappearing, the senator still advocates for as the only way to  solve problems.

Lines like that got applause in Fresno where they would have gotten jeers in San Francisco. But I think many, if not most of us throughout California agree in principal that bringing together differing viewpoints through compromise needs to be part of the way forward for our country.

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The real question is, how do you compromise with people who. as Sen. Feinstein put it,  “want to cut the costs of health care to provide funding for tax reform which will benefit the wealthy”?  And who lie about it. The senator called the huge Medicaid cuts in the Republican health care bill “undeniable,” but Donald Trump denies them. Paul Ryan denies them. HHS Secretary Tom Price denies them.

The senator’s staff has told us in several different contexts that she refuses to take no for an answer even when legislative solutions to problems look impossible. That is admirable. That is what I want from my representative. I don’t want her to give up that optimism. The optimism I do want her to give up is the hope that “this president can change.” He can’t. She also said she wished “he could calm down.” So do we all. But he won’t.

We need different tactics for this administration. One shouldn’t have to refuse to continue business as usual in the Senate in order to secure an independent investigation into Russian interference in our election. One shouldn’t have to threaten to oppose transportation department nominees in order to get that department to release funding that has been approved by Congress.

Sen. Feinstein’s said in Fresno that the Tea Party has pushed compromise out of our government. I share her fear that what we sometimes describe as the Tea Party of the left will drive out what little is left.

But we’re not going to get compromise back by lamenting its passing or by unilaterally caving in the name of comity. In that context, compromise is a bad word. That’s the kind of compromise that you can do to your principles, or to your safety, or to your sacred honor.

To get compromise back into our government we’re going to have to fight for it. Republicans have shown that they won’t compromise willingly for the good of our country. It seems we need to use resistance tactics to force them back to the table before we can get down to the kind of work Sen. Feinstein described rather wistfully on Thursday:

“It isn’t words that come out of your mouth. It’s words that go on a piece of paper, that will be legal, that will stand the test of time, that will be certified as workable. People have to come back to good old legislation. It’s not rhetoric. It’s, how do you solve a problem?”

Resisting the Trump Agenda: Our Convo With Senator Feinstein’s State Director

 

IEB meeting with Sean 5/24/17

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.

 

Lunchtime meeting with Senator Harris’ Office

By Christopher White

What timing! In the run-up to our May 10th meeting with Daniel Chen, Senator Kamala Harris’s Regional Director and statewide Director of Constituent Services, we assumed that the most urgent topic would be the recent House vote to repeal the ACA and Harris’s strategy to protect health care in the Senate. But then, the night before, the president fired FBI chief James Comey. Suddenly the meeting had another acute focus.

Which isn’t to say that health care fell by the wayside. We recognize that overwhelming the public with an endlessly shocking news cycle is a favorite tactic of this administration, so we must keep our eyes steadily on the priorities that affect all our lives.

We began our conversation with Mr. Chen by following up on Harris’s April town hall in L.A. Indivisible East Bay hosted a viewing party of the live-stream, at which we filmed East Bay constituents asking their own questions of Senator Harris. We sent the video to Harris’s team and requested a response to those questions. Daniel confirmed that Senator Harris has the video, and we can expect a response (probably in written form).

As intended, we moved on to the ACA fight, thanking Senator Harris for her continued vocal opposition to the GOP’s assault on Americans’ access to care (for an example, listen to Harris drop an F-bomb on the AHCA on the recent episode of Pod Save America). In particular, we had a request for the Senator: that she hold healthcare town halls in red districts in California, where GOP representatives who voted for repeal conspicuously have not been holding town halls in the most recent recess. New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney used this tactic to shame Republican John Faso. Senator Harris wouldn’t even need to cross district lines: the entire state is her district. While the senator hasn’t committed to using this tactic, Mr. Chen told us, he would pass along our encouragement to her.

Regarding the Comey fiasco, Mr. Chen didn’t yet have much additional news for us. Senator Harris had already publicly called (again) for a special prosecutor to take over the investigation. (Since then, she has also renewed calls that Attorney General Jeff Sessions resign for interfering in an investigation from which he had recused himself.) According to Mr. Chen, Senator Harris is resisting the urge to immediately call for impeachment, suspecting that doing so would turn perception of Comey’s firing from an issue of obstruction of justice to a Democratic ploy to take down the president.

He clarified that the senator’s calls for an independent prosecutor should not be heard as impugning the integrity of the Intelligence Committee’s investigation—both are necessary, and independent of each other. If the Intelligence Committee’s investigation were compromised, Mr. Chen insisted, Senator Harris would say so.

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The rest of the meeting addressed many other important policy issues that we will continue to press Senator Harris on: ICE arrests, at least 50% of whose targets, despite the administration’s rhetoric, have no record or only minor traffic violations; EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s dismissal of half the members of the department’s key scientific advisory board; the revolving door between federal law enforcement and the private prison system, as evidenced by ICE’s second-in-command leaving his post for a job at GEO Group, a private prison company.

On all these issues, Mr. Chen repeatedly asserted the senator’s stance in defense of immigrants, in protection of the environment as supported by scientific evidence, and in opposition to the invasion of corporate profit motives into the criminal justice system. While we sometimes disagreed with the proper messaging around these issues, we mostly aligned on the goals.

We should note that Mr. Chen has been a very attentive, responsive representative for the senator. When we arrived at the federal office building for our meeting, security would not let in one of our group; her German driver’s license apparently didn’t pass muster. Mr. Chen intervened, and our member was able to attend.

He has also agreed to a larger meeting in the East Bay, on a Saturday morning, so that constituents who cannot attend a meeting in San Francisco during work hours can present their concerns and questions directly. Stay tuned for the details on that meeting, tentatively scheduled for June 10!

IEB Harris Team, Memo for Senator Harris office, 2017-05-10

 

Brown bag lunch (at the office) with Feinstein staff

Reflections from a member, Leslie Price, on a visit to Senator Feinstein’s San Francisco office

Various Indivisible groups in the Bay Area have kept Senator Feinstein’s staff busy with meetings, and Indivisible East Bay is no exception. Several folks from East Bay and other nearby Indivisible chapters had a lunch meeting with Feinstein’s State Director Sean Elsbernd and Abby Ellis one of her Field Reps.

The meeting was cordial and productive, but the members in attendance didn’t shy away from pressing Mr. Elsbernd and Ms. Ellis for information about everything from the budget to the Senator’s occasionally lukewarm responses to constituent concerns.

We covered a lot of ground in our hour-long visit: drug policy, healthcare, torture, Russia, immigration reform, and our continuing horror regarding the white supremacists who seem to have the President’s ear.

The long a the short of the meeting? Senator Feinstein supports much of what we were pressing her for including limiting military spending when she can, addressing the opioid crisis appropriately, investigating this administration’s ties to Russia, and continuing the US’s commitment against torture.

She’s not really on board with the notion of single payer healthcare (which we already knew from her Town Hall). Though we didn’t make much headway regarding that particular issue, Mr. Elsbernd did promise to ask the Senator to avoid language like “government takeover” when talking about healthcare.

The Senator is not hopeful that any sort of comprehensive immigration reform is doable at this time, but she is taking a piecemeal approach when she sees opportunities to pass legislation that protects DREAMERs and keeps families together.

Our other big “win” from that meeting was our continued refrain asking Senator Feinstein to listen to our concerns (even if she’s not in a position to act) and to use more powerful language about issues her constituents care about. She and her staff like to say that she’s “a work horse, not a show horse,” meaning that she makes up for a lack of emotion by producing good results. We made it clear that we appreciate all of that work, but that we want and need to hear a little passion about issues that are especially critical.

We ended our meeting talking about that desire for a little passion from the Senator—especially during these difficult days. Looks like maybe she’s listening: