The top 6 things revealed at our May Sen. Feinstein staff meeting

A smaller-than-usual but dedicated band of Indivisible East Bay members met with Sean Elsbernd, Senator Feinstein’s State Director, on May 7, 2018, for the latest in our periodic meetings. Sean, gracious as ever, responded to our questions covering a wide range of topics.

The refugee caravan

Despite media hoopla that warned of a recent caravan of thousands of people heading north across the border, Sean told us that the group turned out to be only 287 people, almost all from Central America and with legitimate claims to refugee status. The good news is that they have now all entered the U.S.

Rather than fuel anti-immigration flames by unnecessarily turning such incidents into a controversy, Feinstein would rather focus on addressing the “credible dangers” that lead these people to seek asylum in the first place — as well as to make sure that they’re treated fairly when they arrive at our border. Sean said that the Senator is especially concerned about ensuring that detainees get proper legal representation.

Climate change

The Healthy Climate and Family Security Act (S. 2352), a greenhouse gas emissions cap and dividend bill, currently has no sponsors in the Senate. We wondered why Feinstein was not actively supporting this. Sean’s answer: because the bill has zero chance of reaching the floor. No one wants to sponsor a bill that is a certain loser.

Homelessness

Senator Feinstein believes the ultimate answer to the problems of homelessness will require multiple approaches. Government funds alone will not be sufficient; it will also require philanthropic private money. Sean cited the Monarch School as one example of how this can work.

FISA Reauthorization bill

Senator Feinstein sponsored an amendment to the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Reauthorization bill that would have “required probable cause warrants” for domestic surveillance on American citizens. The amendment did not pass, yet she voted the bill out of committee. Why? Sean told us last November that this was because “she felt that there was a better chance of the amendment passing in a floor vote.”

Yet, when the bill came up for a vote on the floor — still without the amendment — she again voted in favor of passage. In this case, her vote prevented a filibuster that would have defeated the bill. Why didn’t she vote no? Sean replied that the amendment had no chance of passage. In the end, Feinstein decided that it was better to retain at least some protections, as included in the bill, than to have the bill fail and be left with nothing at all.

Puerto Rico disaster recovery

Puerto Rico remains in crisis mode following the disastrous hurricanes last year. It is critical that FEMA continue to provide emergency housing vouchers for the thousands still displaced. Many homes are still without power; the electrical infrastructure requires major rebuilding. Yet we hear almost nothing from Congress about any of this. Why? Sean offered a simple explanation: There is almost no public pressure on this matter, so it gets a lower priority. If we want this to change, he urges us to write or call our Congresspeople and let them know.

Judicial nominations

Everyone at the table agreed that Mitch McConnell views his greatest legacy as the appointments of conservative judges to the federal courts. The Senate continues to work to accomplish this. One way for Democrats to resist is via “blue slips” — a long standing Senate tradition. We want to make sure this procedure remains in force. Currently, it can be used to block Ryan Bounds, nominee for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who lacks blue slips from both his Oregon senators. Sean confirmed that preserving blue slips is a “high priority” for Feinstein.

IEB Meets with Senator Harris’ Staff, May 2018

Sen. Harris office visit 050518

By Myra S. Mitzman

On May 3, 2018, Indivisible East Bay met with Senator Kamala Harris’ State Director, Julie Rodriguez, and Bay Area District Director, June Williams, in downtown Oakland.  

We opened with a serious discussion surrounding ICE tactics of detaining pregnant women and separating children from their parents. Julie stressed that, in light of misinformation about the recently-arrived “caravan,” it is important to humanize the narrative—something we can do to help. Please email Senator Harris if you have a story concerning someone adversely affected by these harsh ICE policies.

The dialogue turned to national security, in particular Trump’s nominee to head the CIA, Gina Haspel (torture, anyone?). We pointed out that the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA Rendition, Detention and Interrogation, about the treatment of detainees during the so-called “War on Terror” rightly belongs to the Senate, not the CIA, and perhaps could be publicly released by any member of the Senate Intelligence Committee – which includes both Senator Harris and Senator Feinstein. Also on the national security agenda: Syria, where there is seemingly no long-term strategy, and where, according to Julie, the U.S.’s “muscular diplomacy” (i.e., ability to engage in effective negotiation) has dwindled.

On the topic of Social Security, IEB members and staff alike took umbrage at the characterization of this program as an “entitlement” when so many of us have paid into it for decades. Ironically, one of the best things we could do to shore up Social Security is to pass comprehensive immigration reform, so more young immigrants will be able to pay into the system—and earn more money, and create more jobs, growing an economy that can take care of the aging population. And let’s not forget how the Trump tax scam was always intended to dry up funding for social safety net programs.

Over the course of the next 60 minutes, we covered climate change (see S.2352, the Healthy Climate and Family Security Act of 2018, currently in need of co-sponsors); Puerto Rico (debt restructuring/renewable energy?); Trump’s latest judicial appointments (see snippet of Senator Harris grilling Wendy Vitter); defense spending (don’t count on a Harris “No” vote on increases); election security (demand paper ballots!); and sexual harassment in Congress (Harris’s staff undergoes regular harassment training, but she appears to be in the minority in doing this).

We also got into drug policy, including Senator Schumer’s proposed national Democratic platform for marijuana decriminalization. Julie pointed out that, with Democrats holding so few Washington “power levers,” one way to effect change is through the appropriations process. If Congress doesn’t approve appropriations, the Department of Justice can’t implement its regressive drug enforcement policies. For now, the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment is still good law (the DOJ isn’t supposed to spend money enforcing federal drug laws in states that have legalized medical cannabis). But as we know, true drug reform requires reforming sentencing laws, eliminating cash bail (promising, but not if the algorithm used to determine flight risk, etc. is inherently biased), and decriminalizing marijuana (including a nationwide “equity agenda” similar to Oakland’s).

Sen. Harris office visit 050518

A few more notable moments:

  • Julie saying that, for Senator Harris, the conversation always needs to be, “How do we improve people’s lives?” It’s her “litmus test” whenever evaluating an issue or proposal. Amen.
  • Quote of the day: “The Senator’s ability to be fearless is because you all are.” Awwww. See the Senator’s interview on the Stephen Colbert show, where she was perhaps a bit measured, but watch and judge for yourselves.
  • Reminding Julie that, despite Mitch McConnell’s bluster, any Senator can introduce the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, which would protect Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia 

Last but not least, we’re pushing for another town hall. June Williams said she’s been pressing the Senator on this. Historically, town halls were held only by House representatives. Fun fact: Before the 2016 election, Senators Feinstein and Boxer had not held a town hall in 24 years—last year’s Feinstein April town hall in San Francisco was her first ever! But in these troubled times, people’s demands have changed, and town halls are an important way to have our voices heard. Please call our senators and reps and demand more town halls this year—then show up (and speak up!) if and when they happen.

Myra Mitzman is an Oakland real estate/business attorney and sideline women’s fiction author (under the pseudonym Sheryl Sorrentino).

Photos by Maria Bernstein

 

Don’t Forget Puerto Rico!

The administration throws paper towels, says that loss of life and infrastructure isn’t really a crisis, and then makes a jaw-dropping attempt to simply remove unflattering statistics from the FEMA website about the lack of access to water and electricity in Puerto Rico. The territory is still in the grip of a humanitarian crisis. The deadline for people to apply for aid from FEMA will probably run out before electricity and phone service is restored; the governor has begged Congressional leadership for more aid. The Jones Act waiver has expired, meaning that food and supplies will once again become unaffordable. Tell our members of Congress to push for relief for our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico!

Extend FEMA Deadline

You’ve likely heard that nearly all of Puerto Rico was without power after Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20. According to the Department of Energy as of October 18 power has only been restored to 19% of the island. In addition, cell phone service is extremely limited. Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 9.09.24 PMThe Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is telling residents to apply for disaster relief on its website or over the phone, which is impossible for nearly all of them. Further, FEMA has a strict 60 day deadline for emergency assistance applications. That means that by the time the island has fully restored power, it will be far too late for our fellow citizens to get the aid they need and deserve.  

Please contact your MoCs today! What to say:

“My name is _____, I’m with Indivisible East Bay from [zip code]. I’m calling to ask that you support extending FEMA’s strict 60 day deadline for aid applications for Puerto Rico. With nearly 90% of the island still without power and very limited cell phone service, it will be impossible for most people to meet the deadline.”

Sen.Dianne Feinstein (email)
(415) 393-0707 • DC: (202) 224-3841

Sen. Kamala Harris (email)
(415) 355-9041 • DC: (202) 224-3553

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (email): (510) 620-1000 DC: (202) 225-2095
Rep. Barbara Lee (email): (510) 763-0370 DC: (202) 225-2661
Rep. Eric Swalwell (email): (510) 370-3322 DC: (202) 225-5065

Inspiration:

Send More Aid

Puerto Rico’s governor has made it clear that – despite Trump’s delusional claims to the contrary – the aid that has been sent is not nearly enough to restore the territory. In fact, it isn’t enough to keep the crisis there from becoming worse. In a letter to Congressional leadership, he says:

We are grateful for the federal emergency assistance that has been provided so far. However, absent extraordinary measures to address the halt in economic activity in Puerto Rico, the humanitarian crisis will deepen …

Get the Jones Act out of the way

The Jones Act is a nearly century-old law under which only ships registered in the United States may carry goods and passengers from one United States port to another. Under the Jones Act, foreign vessels had to pay punitive tariffs, fees, and taxes to bring American goods to Puerto Rico, or they could reroute to Florida and offload to an American ship, an expensive procedure. These extra costs are passed on to the consumer, making prices there on U.S. goods exorbitantly high: under the Jones Act, food is twice as expensive in Puerto Rico as in Florida. A waiver of the Jones Act went into effect in late September, but it has expired. Tell your MoCs to push for getting the Jones Act out of the way so Puerto Ricans can get out of this crisis.

Tell Your MoC: Get Puerto Rico the Aid It Needs!

Three and a half million Americans in Puerto Rico are struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Most of the island remains without power or water; some officials predict that the electric grid may remain down for up to six months. There’s no cell service. Roads have been washed away or blocked by debris. At least sixteen are dead, and that’s just what’s known; many parts of the island are inaccessible and many people have been unable to get in touch with their friends and families.

The government has declared a state of emergency, but aid doesn’t get anywhere by itself. (Paul Ryan says that Congress is working on an aid package that should be ready in a few weeks …)

The federal government has recently waived the Jones Act, a nearly century-old law under which only ships registered in the United States may carry goods and passengers from one United States port to another. Under the Jones Act, foreign vessels had to pay punitive tariffs, fees, and taxes to bring American goods to Puerto Rico, or they could reroute to Florida and offload to an American ship, an expensive procedure. These extra costs are passed on to the consumer, making prices there on U.S. goods exorbitantly high: under the Jones Act, food is twice as expensive in Puerto Rico as in Florida.

But as Senators Feinstein and Harris have told the president, Puerto Rico needs more. It needs relief for the entire island, not just the parts covered by the existing disaster declarations. It also needs long-term relief that is not being planned for. Halfway measures won’t fix this problem.

Please thank Senators Feinstein and Harris and contact your members of Congress. 

SCRIPT: This is [NAME] and I’m a constituent in [ZIP]. Puerto Rico needs our help. I know that help is being given now, but there needs to be a long term relief and rebuilding plan that must include debt forgiveness. I disagree with the proposals for obscene amounts of spending for defense. I want us to nation-build Puerto Rico.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (email)
(415) 393-0707 • DC: (202) 224-3841

Sen. Kamala Harris (email)
(415) 355-9041 • DC: (202) 224-3553

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (email): (510) 620-1000 DC: (202) 225-2095
Rep. Barbara Lee (email): (510) 763-0370 DC: (202) 225-2661
Rep. Eric Swalwell (email): (510) 370-3322 DC: (202) 225-5065


Our friends in Mexico City are recovering from a massive quake; and as Puerto Rico was recovering from Irma, it got hit with even greater force by hurricane Maria. Below are some aid agencies doing work on the ground to bring immediate relief to those affected by quake and hurricanes.

Some of the organizations based in Mexico may convert your donation into pesos, so be sure to check the currency.