Getting Congress to Move: Get on the Blower and Hold that Line!

Illustration by Oliver Munday / Source: Gary Ombler / Getty (phone)

Little Rock   Ever wondered what your representatives in Congress really listen to other than lobbyists, local business people, and of course their donors? Well, Kathryn Schulz in an informative piece in The New Yorker waded into the Washington swamp and came back with some interesting answers to that question.

A lot of people might think its mail. In the Senate 6.4 million letters were delivered last year, so that’s something. A 2015 survey she cites says that senior staffers say personalized emails, personal letters, and hometown editorials rank highest. Nonetheless when it comes to disruptive action it’s the old school telephone that gets the job done. In Schulz’ words:

“For mass protests…calls are a better way of contacting lawmakers, not because they get taken more seriously but because they take up more time—thereby occupying staff, obstructing business as usual, and attracting media attention.”

What doesn’t work according to her interviews are Facebook posts, random tweets, online petitions, comments through app, or mass e-mails from advocacy and websites. She also found that you are more likely to be successful on a small, specific item from your district as opposed partisan and polarized matters. This resonates with me as well. I can remember easily getting an amendment to the budget reconciliation bill years ago to retain hazardous duty pay for our workers at the National Hansen’s Disease Center, but having to work like the dickens to get ACORN’s Homesteading Bill passed, even in watered down form.

But in this moment the telephone seems to have become the citizen’s weapon de jour. Calls are flooding into Congressional offices in record volumes. Schulz notes one Democratic Senator from Washington got 31000 calls in 3 weeks, while a Republican Senator from Colorado got 3000 in one night. Senator Bob Casey from Pennsylvania got 1000 pieces of mail over two weeks in January of 2016, but got 45,000 in the same period this year. As Schulz reports:

“Members of Congress claim that, Senate-wide, the call volume for the week of January 30, 2017, more than doubled the previous record; on average, during that week, the Senate got 1.5 million calls a day. Three of those days January 31st, February 1st, and February 2nd – were the busiest in the history of the Capitol switchboard.”

They don’t like being on the hot seat either. They are frightened by the “spontaneity” and the fact that it seemed “organic: people saw something in the news, it made them angry, and they called their member of Congress.” Yes, Americans are acting like the President, but the average America is grabbing her telephone and letting her Congressperson have a piece of her mind, rather than the President fumbling for his Twitter account on his phone.

Of course this is not organizational and neither is it sustainable, but it speaks to an important moment and a potential movement, if it could be marshalled, though that won’t be easily done since the response, interestingly, seems to be on issues across the board from health to education to appointments to general misbehavior.

There is something so American in the naiveté all of this, but it offers hope for change as well. As Schulz closes, she writes:

“The telephone might not be a superior medium for participatory democracy, but it is an excellent metaphor for it, and it reminds us of the rights we are promised as citizens. When we get disconnected, we can try to get through. When we get no answer, we can keep trying. When we have to, for as long as we need to, we can hold the line.”

How dear is that? It won’t really work, as most of us know, but, very importantly, it’s something to build on.

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Healthcare Plan is a Killer

Little Rock   How many of us have heard from our mothers that “if we can’t say something good, then don’t say anything at all.” I wish that were the case with the Ryan and some Republicans’ healthcare bill. So far, I’m failing to find any silver lining, other than it’s not a total repeal where we have nothing, but that’s too thin a reed to grab.

There are still no Congressional Budget Office tabulations on the cost of this proposal or the number of people likely to lose healthcare. Some Republicans are even wary and unhappy about being forced to vote on this thing without even that meager level of information. Reporting by the New York Times finds Standard & Poor’s in a report has estimated that 2 to 4 million people would drop out of the individual insurance market, largely people in their 50s and 60s who are too young to qualify for Medicare because of higher costs. Why? One feature of the new proposal is that it would allow insurance companies to increase the gap for older Americans from three times the young to five times the young causing premiums to soar to unaffordable levels.

Several researchers listed the predictable outcomes of transferring these decisions to the states by citing not theories, but the facts on the ground based on what states had done where they have had discretion in the past and get caught with budget shortfalls similar to the ones faced in the 2008 Great Recession. They talked about the blood on Arizona governor Brewer’s hands when that state stopped paying for transplants and allowed people to die. They talked about how states had dealt with billions of dollars from the smoking settlements with tobacco companies and the meager percentage of the funds that had gone to cessation programs as opposed to budget shortfalls, capital expenditures, and a bit of whatever.

Unbelievably there are some Republican Senators who still bridle at any plan at all. More troubling have been some arguments that some are starting to make that we might be better with nothing at all, though that strains credibility as well.

You know it’s bad when we aren’t even getting into the weeds on things like the impact on women. The ban on Planned Parenthood funding just seems like a bizarre, mean spirited outlier which must just drip with questionable legality. Past the first mention, the fact that people would be barred from buying insurance with governmental support that paid for abortions also seems like a flashpoint that hasn’t gotten much attention. Props though to Planned Parenthood for having pushed away the offers for not only continued funding at half-a-billion bucks but an increase, if they were just willing to make a deal and stop doing abortions anywhere, regardless of the fact that no federal money funds any part of their abortion service anyway. Comforting to know that a least one major national nonprofit is unwilling to abandon its mission for money. That must have been something of a shock to the Trumpsters, though the so-called offer was likely something of a wink-and-nod, and never serious anyway.

Or how about mental health services? Will they continue to be supported? Believe me our partners in Alaska with the Mental Health Consumers Action Network (MCAN) are having emergency meetings and deep discussions about this.

The list is endless. The pain tremendous. The death count will be astronomical.

Here’s my point in a nutshell: all of this is bad, and we still don’t know the half of it.

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Trump Militarization of Domestic Policies Is Getting Scarier

London   It is getting harder and harder to deny that there is a very scary, highly uncomfortable pattern emerging around Trump’s domestic policies, and it involves a steady effort to federally militarize policy and policing. These are not tendencies, but firmly expressed proposals. Coupled with his increasing attacks on the institution and independence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the court system, this adds up to something dangerous, even if I hesitate to call its name.

First, of course, we have the Trump immigration and deportation policies. The familiar outlines are well-known in all of their horror, but critical to these efforts, particularly in the light of the unwillingness of not only sanctuary cities, particularly in heavily populated immigrant areas, and already strapped local police forces unable to stretch themselves even thinner on unfunded federal mandates, is his proposal to hire an additional 10,000 immigration enforcement agents to speed up captures and deportations.

A second proposal surfaced in a press briefing that Trump’s press secretary held last week about the loosening standards, as the White House sees it, of drug enforcement. Sean Spicer was careful to say that Trump supports the continued use of medical marijuana for the relief of patients in pain, but that there needed to be a crackdown on federal marijuana laws being ignored in many urban jurisdictions. He indicated that they were likely to propose beefing up the federally controlled police force to do this by many thousands of officers, presumably referring to the agents of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

And, then there’s the blatant attacks and bullying of the Federal Bureau of Investigation which he is excoriating as a threat to the American people, rather than a critical protector of our safety. Some of this seems triggered by reports that Press Secretary Spicer had leaned on the FBI to deny a story in the Times that he asked them to refute a story about the Trump campaign’s communications with Russian operatives before the election. They were scuffling to deny that one of their top dogs had been the source of the anonymous leak, and the Trump team wanted them to go public with their obsequiousness, which they refused. Trump has also been unhappy that the FBI is continuing to investigate the Russian-Trump campaign ties. This is a Steve Bannon-Brietbart.com playbook exercise of attack and disruption meant to realign and control the department.

Fortunately, Congress hasn’t approved the appropriations for either of these expanded police forces for Trump policies, but the lack of independence of the transactional Republican Congress gives me pause that they will slam the brakes down as hard as needed.

Add two new federal police force expansions and one effort to take control over the formally independent federal police force, and what do you get? It’s not jack boots and Stormtroopers, but it is also nothing good for democracy and the American people.

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Fighting to Save Political Parties Out of Sorts with the Base

Edinburgh  Eating curry last night with leaders and organizers of ACORN in Scotland, once the usual questions about Trump were quickly exhausted, one veteran activist asked what Senator Bernie Sanders, last year’s surprisingly successful Presidential candidate, was up to and whether he was gaining ground and credibility in the current chaos. It was a good question, and my answer was that the best I knew his people where focused more on positioning in the Democratic Party than the larger issues. I told the ridiculous story of some moderate Democrats trying to convince Sanders to call off the dogs and make sure that town hall protestors only attacked Republicans, as if Sanders was pulling any strings at all in the activist moment. I found that notion among conservative Democrats as bizarre as the Republican conservative claim that poor old George Soros is paying demonstrators these days to voice their outrage.

Turns out I was either lucky or timely in my observation. Almost as soon as I logged on to the news I stumbled into a story reporting that Sanders’ operatives had been scoring some significant wins in Democratic inner party elections.

In California, supporters of the 2016 presidential contender, Barry Sanders, packed the obscure party meetings that chose delegates to the state Democratic convention, with Sanders backers grabbing more than half the slots available. They swept to power in Washington State at the Democratic state central committee, ousting a party chairman and installing one of their own in his place. Sanders acolytes have seized control of state parties in Hawaii and Nebraska and won posts throughout the party structure from coast to coast.

Presumably the agenda is to move the party in a more solidly progressive direction.

Observers in several papers noted that as miserable as the 2018 midterm elections look for the Democratic Party’s shot at control of the Senate, there’s an arguable path to pick up 24 seats in the House by targeting districts either won by Hillary Clinton by stout margins or where the demographics are heavily weighted with educated white and general Hispanic voters. Polls indicate that Trump’s slide steep has accelerated in both camps. There are fewer districts that Sanders won last year though, so that crossover is uncertain.

Others might argue that you have to be careful what you wish for though without a deeper strategy to engage the base. The Labour Party’s predicament in the United Kingdom is a case study here. Having moved in a more progressive direction as the left took control of internal elections without a program effectively responding to the working class base, right leaning pro-Brexit forces are cleaning their clock. By-elections in hard core Labour districts that they have held for more than 30 years are being watched closely to see if the party can even survive.

Sanders in some ways is well-positioned internally since Clinton is not part of the picture and a more moderate Democratic Party leader has not emerged.

Is it a winning strategy? That’s another question for sure. No lucky guesses will count on that one.

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Is There a Resistance Movement or Resistance Moment?

Bristol   I definitely don’t want to be standing at the station when the whistle blows that the train is moving out. I have to admit that I have my ears perked up at every sound to try to hear whether it’s the thundering feet of a movement or just the sharp cry of a moment.

I’m too jaded in this work to see Congressional town halls as the birthplace of the next revolution, but I don’t want to be blind to history either, and a snippet of the news like the one that follows makes me sit up straight and stand at total attention:

In fact, some of the most formidable and well-established organizing groups on the left have found themselves scrambling to track all of the local groups sprouting up through social media channels like Facebook and Slack, or in local “huddles” that grew out of the women’s marches across the country the day after the inauguration.

When the people are moving and established organizations and institutions are having to work overtime to catch up with them, that’s a very, very interesting sign. In a time of movement, it may be difficult for this kind of activity and anger to be channeled in the way that these same organizations and institutions are hoping to move the stream. It’s good news though for the 30 million lower income families taking advantage of the Affordable Care Act that there are many of the flags being waved as elected representatives slink home from the Congressional chaos are focusing on saving health care.

There are other signs too. When seasoned organizers report that they expected 200 at a meeting, and 1000 showed up, as my generation said, “you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing.” The Times also reported on other barometers that people were in motion:

Anti-abortion demonstrations in some cities this month were met with much larger crowds of abortion rights supporters. At a widely viewed town-hall-style meeting held by Representative Gus Bilirakis in Florida, a local Republican Party chairman who declared that the health care act set up “death panels” was shouted down by supporters of the law.

And, perhaps more interestingly, an organizer for Planned Parenthood posed the question plainly as she tries to ride this wave of momentum:

“It doesn’t work for organizations to bigfoot strategy; it’s not the way organizing happens now,” said Kelley Robinson, the deputy national organizing director for Planned Parenthood, which is fighting the defunding of its health clinics. “There are bigger ideas coming out of the grass roots than the traditional organizations.”

If she’s right, that’s a call to arms for all of us to get ready to move, because grassroots activity needs formation, planning, resources, and direction in order to win. That’s not bigfoot, that’s soft touch, listening, and work on the ground that takes a moment and helps make a movement and births new organizations and great social change.

When that whistle blows, we have to all be on the train.

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Valentines for Washington Post and Sally Yates

New Orleans   I made sure on Valentine’s Day that I was covered with my companera, my daughter, and my mother, but turns out I should have figured out a way to send a card to the Washington Post and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, because if they had not done their jobs in such a stellar fashion none of us could celebrate the early Valentine’s present from the President of finally forcing the resignation of former General Michael Flynn as National Security Council adviser.

It turns out the President had known Flynn was off the rails for weeks and weeks, and did nothing, including letting some of his gang know he was sitting on solid evidence of Flynn’s dissembling over his contact with the Russian Ambassador. He was only provoked to action first by a column in the Post that revealed that there was a transcript of the conversations he had with the Russian Ambassador picked up in packets of intercepts by the NSA, and the transcript was at odds with his claim that he had not discussed the sanctions prior to Trump’s inauguration. That column wasn’t the final straw though even as the story unraveled. The final trigger was the White House’s knowledge that yet another story was coming out in the Post on Monday. And, then and only then did Trump demand and receive Flynn’s resignation.

As the story finally dribbles out, Trump had known about this mess since shortly after the Inauguration, when Acting Attorney General Sally Yates after discussion and a greenlight from the head of the FBI reached out to the White House counsel and shared with him the information they had had since late December. The FBI had asked Yates to wait until then in order to do more investigation and interviewed Flynn within days of Trump’s taking office. The White House lawyer immediately informed President Trump that there was a discrepancy in Flynn’s version of his contact with the Russians. This is the same Sally Yates, friends, neighbors and fellow countrymen and women, who was forced out after instructing the Justice Department not to enforce Trump’s travel ban because it was inherently flawed unconstitutional, as numerous federal judges and the 9th Circuit Appeals Court have now held. We lost a good one, when she left the building.

The Post wonders now how far out of the loop Vice-President Pence was as well since he was having to carry water for the White House and Flynn’s credibility throughout the period when Trump was sitting on a powder keg in the Oval Office with Flynn’s name stenciled all over it. Heck, Trump and another loose cannon, Stephen Bannon, were already interviewing candidates to replace Flynn during this period as well.

There’s disruption and then there’s just plain reckless, and that’s what we’re getting now. Trump spent more time thinking about assistants on the “Apprentice” than he seems to have thought about the impact of letting wild men near the steering wheel of the ship of state. There’s no way that Flynn as a former head of Defense Intelligence, before being fired by President Obama, didn’t know that the NSA routinely monitors the phones of the Russian Ambassador, so Flynn clearly was arrogant and foolhardy in assuming none of this would matter, or he was a good soldier doing what he was told to do by his Commander-in-Chief. Either way, this is bad. Very bad.

All of this goes way past any standard notion of dysfunctional, and this is involves national security, which the Trumpsters claim is their top priority, so I hate to think how badly they are dropping the ball on domestic policy. In fact, it seems they have not picked up the ball there at all, since there has been no legislation proposed by the White House on any measure yet, leaving us clueless of the chaos over there.

Any relief has to be short lived in a time of dread.

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