Reflections: Blue Hilltern in a Red Legislature

Emerging from the intern cubby after six amazing weeks on the Hill, I leave just like I came: wide-eyed, hopeful, and hungry for change. Except, a new feeling of confidence has wiggled its way in.

First arriving in DC, I was honestly quite cautious. The Hill was actually on a hill (who knew altitude was a thing beyond the Florida flatland?), Jimmy Johns didn’t deliver to my apartment, and Mitch McConnell had slithered off to a secret closet in order to ruin health care for poor people. I didn’t even know turtles could read, let alone write legislation!

But… my first week of work rolls around, and I start to find my footing. I make it on the Metro, answer some phone calls, and meet my Congressman, the amazing #baldveganrep himself, Ted Deutch (D-FL22). It was absolutely sensational to see our office run like clockwork and to actually run around the underground tunnels of the House and Senate getting signatures and scheming to find Bernie Sanders.

In all sincerity, my time in Congressman Deutch’s office truly reaffirmed my passion for representation in government. Carrying the cosponsor sheet calling on Iran to release our constituent Bob Levinson, the longest held US hostage in history, I felt the weight of the paper increase as I realized the weight of my actions for the Levinson family back home. Later writing the questions many congressmen asked of Levinson’s son in a MENA Subcommittee hearing, I felt an intense sense of respect for how well our government can really run when led by people with the best intentions in mind.

A similar sense of pride filled my heart at a rally against the abhorrent AHCA outside the Capitol steps. We chanted, we marched, and we actually managed to kill the bill that would have ultimately killed thousands in our country. Something Cory Booker said at that rally really stuck out to me after that gut-wrenching vote: “The power of the people is greater than the people in power.” The constituent calls, emails, visits, and rallies, which I was so privileged to encounter this summer, truly fuel the fire of change! Realizing this, I finally found the confidence in our democratic system I really needed.

Then perhaps the most important thing I learned on the Hill in six short weeks was that I am extremely well-represented by people that I truly trust. The staffers in my district’s office pump out responses to every constituent concern, the congressman responds to community crises, and the chief-of-staff is absolutely full of heart. Their intentions, like those of many other representatives and senators I encountered – including the stellar ladies Lois Frankel, Nancy Pelosi, Susan Collins, and Elizabeth Warren – are truly sincere and have the masses in mind. Accordingly, I believe that John McCain’s game-changing vote was a matter of good intentions and realization that will hopefully extend to his colleagues in the foreseeable future.

For now, though, we must fight to challenge and expose the bad intentions of those in power who pander to the wealthiest one percent for reelection. And from my inspiring time on the Hill, I have no doubt our generation will do just that.

~Charlie Rollason

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The Life of the Unpaid Hilltern

“People will tell you your whole life what you can’t do.”

Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota, looked out over the moderately sized crowd of interns in Russell’s Kennedy Caucus Room. Hearings on the sinking of the Titanic had taken place in this room. Crucial parts of the Watergate investigation had taken place in that room. And now, in SR-325, she was closing out the intern lecture series.

From growing up in a town where her family of nine made up a tenth of the population, to her breast cancer diagnosis during an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, to her 2012 election to the United States Senate—which, she noted, Nate Silver (A.B. ’00) had given an 8% chance of occurring—the junior senator from the Roughrider State wove an inspiring story that continued to return to two points. First, political service is a worthy goal towards which to strive. Second, anything is possible if you set your mind to it.

***

Since July 10, I have been interning at the Office of U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), 706 Hart Senate Office Building, 120 Constitution Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. (Please send us mail). Hart is full of summer interns—there are nine in our office alone–and there are six other office buildings besides ours that make up the Capitol complex. Russell and Dirksen, the two other buildings on the Senate side through which we pass to reach the Capitol, are equally packed with (mostly unpaid) college students during Washington’s swampy summer months. The House office buildings, Rayburn, Longworth, and Cannon, appear to be, from my infrequent visitations, mad houses. Four hundred and thirty-five offices are crammed into three four-story buildings, while the Senate only has to deal with one hundred.

As I reach the halfway point of my time in the Senate, Senator Heitkamp’s message is reassuring. I often estimate that there are between four thousand and five thousand interns on Capitol Hill, each as involved with politics and policy as I am. Everyone here is striving for something, not the same thing, but something. It can be intimidating.

It is obvious that there are tens of thousands of young people across the U.S. with dreams of having a career in public service or the public sector, and many, many of these people are not lucky enough to find their way to an internship on the Hill. But seeing all these thousands of interns, plenty smarter than I, plenty more ready to ruthlessly climb the ladder of success than I, gave me pause. What chance is there for me? Well, when it all boils down to it, about the same as all the rest of these folks—after all, we’re just college kids on summer break.

***

The work we do is not necessarily glamorous. Today, we listened to our one-thousandth voicemail, a benchmark for calls we passed long ago. The debate on the fate of the Affordable Care Act had caused our office to be inundated with correspondence; I can’t imagine how the poor interns of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) or John McCain (R-AZ) must have felt. Calls aside, all of us are trained and authorized to give tours of the Capitol to groups of fifteen or fewer constituents, and we are often sent around the Capitol complex to collect signatures and file bills. So far, I have not had to get coffee for anyone, which I count as a win.

Of course, as with any summer internship, getting coffee with people is a common pastime. I’ve sat down with staffers from the House and Senate side, to shoot the breeze and pick their brains, from both Connecticut and from Illinois. So far, three of the five people I have or have scheduled chats with are University of Chicago alumni. Go Maroons.

***

I say Senator Heitkamp’s talk was reassuring, but it was not only the talk that has reassured me in my time here that a career in public service may be an admirable goal.

After the third vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the vote on the so-called “skinny repeal” bill, failed, our office received hundreds and hundreds of calls thanking the Senator and his staff. Senator Blumenthal, a member of the unified Democratic caucus, voted against the repeal which failed 51-49 after Republican Senators Collins (ME), Murkowski, and McCain jumped ship.

These calls were unlike the usual ones we had to sift through. Yes, in the days leading up to the vote we had received hundreds of calls begging us to fight the repeal, to delay the vote, to filibuster-by-amendment. Those callers tugged at our heartstrings, relaying stories of sick and ill loved ones and family members, friends and neighbors, men and women suffering from diseases and ailments of so many different sorts.

But these calls after the vote, the caller’s absolute relief, their feelings that prayers vindicated, their voices heard, these were the calls that really made me feel something deeper. A little bit of faith was restored to them. I felt like I was part of something larger than myself in the smallest possible way, a part of something larger than any other collective being of which I had been a part in the past. Corny, I know, but that’s what I thought of during Senator Heitkamp’s speech.

Generally speaking, when I’m asked what I want to do with my life, I say that I want to help people, and I think effective politics and governance is a way to go about doing just that. Whether it is working as a Hill staffer, running for local, state, or federal office, or even simply voting, engagement with government can make our country better. If you want me to talk more about my internship, my coffee chats, my general experience, don’t hesitate to reach out, but the message I want to leave on is another quote borrowed from Senator Heitkamp’s address:

“Where are the opportunities to listen, to bridge the divide, to come together?”

To me? Good government.

~Ridgley Knapp

Is it 2020 Yet?

Life comes at you fast, and I’m pretty sure it moves even faster during the Trump administration. Here’s a walk-through of American news from the last week, in case you missed anything. Questions? Something I missed? Leave them in the comments!

Wednesday, July 26th

Donald Trump surprised his West Wing and Pentagon staff by tweeting that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed to serve in the military in any capacity. (General James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, was on vacation.) Although Mattis quickly walked back the comments with a statement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff clarifying that “there will be no modifications to the current policy until the president’s direction has been received by the secretary of defense and the secretary has issued implementation guidance,” the tweets sparked a massive backlash from liberals and conservatives alike. President Trump still does not have the power to implement major policies with Twitter alone, and nobody knows how he envisions a transition out of the military for the thousands of active duty transgender soldiers. (The Pentagon does not track numbers of active or past trans soldiers, but almost every estimate numbers them in the thousands. Trans people are statistically more likely to serve in the military than the rest of the population.) An estimate from the RAND Corporation puts the cost of trans-specific healthcare at 0.004-0.017% of the Department of Defense budget. The military currently spends fourteen times more on Viagra than on necessary medical care and transition services for trans service members.

After Tuesday’s motion to proceed on a repeal of Obamacare, GOP senators scrambled to concoct a “skinny repeal” of the ACA with an even skinnier replacement. The bill was kept secret by McConnell, and remained unseen by the majority of senators through Wednesday night.

President Trump continued to excoriate Jeff Sessions in the news media and on Twitter, following an interview he gave to the New York Times on July 19th in which he claimed that he would never have appointed Sessions had he known Sessions would (or would have to) recuse himself from the Department of Justice’s ongoing Russia investigation. On Wednesday, he queried on Twitter why Sessions hadn’t yet fired Andrew McCabe (acting FBI director) on the grounds that McCabe was a Clinton ally. Sessions, unlike most members of Trump’s team, has not revealed any plans to resign.

The Federal Reserve declined to raise interest rates with the goal of monitoring inflation more closely before a new hike.

President Trump compared illegal immigrant gang members to animals, claiming they “take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15 and others and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die.” He may have been alluding to the MO of a particular gang, MS-13, but immigrants arrested under his authority have largely committed no crimes other than unauthorized entrance to the country.

The DOJ filed an amicus brief claiming that Title VII, which currently prevents employment discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, and national origin,” does not prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. The ACLU called the brief a “gratuitous and extraordinary attack on LGBT people’s civil rights.” Current appellate court rulings are split on the issue, with the northern 7th Circuit ruling against this kind of discrimination and the southern 11th Circuit ruling for it.

Thursday, July 27th

Anthony Scaramucci, President Trump’s pick to replace Sean Spicer, threatened a reporter with FBI and DOJ investigations after she published an article on his financial disclosure forms, a matter of public record. In a now-deleted tweet, he implied Reince Priebus, Chief of Staff at the time, was behind what he saw as a “leaking” campaign against him.

Senators voted for the first amendment to the Senate healthcare bill, unleashing the process informally known as ‘vote-a-rama’. The voting process lasted until 2 am Friday morning, when John McCain followed the leads of Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and killed the ‘skinny repeal’ of Obamacare. McCain was widely lauded as the savior of the ACA for his common-sense decision, but Collins and Murkowski had opposed the bill since the beginning, and disabled activists had risked arrest and put their lives on the line for weeks in protest of a bill that would condemn many to bankruptcy or death.

White House staff and GOP leaders announced a united front on tax reform, promising to jettison planned border taxes and complete an overhaul of the tax code by the end of the year.

The House approved a $790 billion spending package, including 1.57 billion to fund a border wall with Mexico. The border wall provision makes the bill almost certain to fail in the Senate, but the bill didn’t have an easy journey through the House, either: a New York Times article revealed that squabbles over including the cost of medical care for transgender soldiers had threatened to derail the package and had perhaps sparked Trump’s public ruminations on the subject.

The New Yorker published a truly incredible interview with Anthony Scaramucci, covering his thoughts on Reince Priebus, leakers, Steve Bannon, and self-fellatio. If you haven’t seen it, no summary can really do it justice. Scaramucci claimed that he thought the interview was off the record, and that his only mistake was trusting a reporter. The reporter clarified that he had explicitly asked Scaramucci if the interview was on record, and Scaramucci had said yes before launching into his tirade.

Friday, July 28th

North Korea tested a ballistic missile that some experts say has the potential to hit California.

Reince Priebus, Trump’s embattled Chief of Staff, handed in his resignation at the request of the President. Trump chose Gen. John Kelly as his replacement, becoming the first President since Nixon to appoint a general as his chief of staff.

Monday, July 31st

Trump fired Anthony Scaramucci at the request of John Kelly, bringing an end to the Mooch’s ten-day tenure. Sean Spicer allegedly had a role in drafting the statement on Scaramucci’s departure, perhaps leaving the door open for a potential return.

 

~Madeleine Johnson

From the Field: Reporting from Sen. Blumenthal’s (D-CT) Emergency Hearing on the American Healthcare Act in Hartford, Connecticut

Crammed into Room 310 of the Connecticut State Capitol, upwards of two hundred people were sweating through their shirts. At the front of the room stood U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, braving the heat in a full suit after having called an “emergency field hearing” on healthcare in response to GOP secrecy. If the Republican Congress won’t have a hearing, the Senator though, I’ll have one myself. I watched from the doorway and back of the room as dozens of the over-capacity crowd (about a dozen people watched on TV monitors in the hall) rose and gave testimony. The hearing was so popular that a second was announced in New Haven on Friday, June 23.

Those speaking came from all around Connecticut. They were government officials, healthcare advocates, union advocates, but above all, they were concerned people with terrible, heart-wrenching stories. They spoke about healthcare from every possible angle: state concerns, national concerns, mental health, physical health, etc. Before I go into highlights, I want to specifically draw attention to a line I cannot remember who said: “What number of lives lost will be enough?” Where will the Republican Party draw the line?

Highlights:

  • One of the first to speak was Ted Doolittle, head of the Office of the Healthcare Advocate and appointee of the governor. He attacked the AHCA for magnifying already-existing problems with healthcare, saying (to paraphrase) that taking any money out of the incredibly expensive healthcare system would cripple it. He ended his testimony with an impassioned call for a national single-payer system.
  • Tim Foley, Director of the Connecticut State Council of the Service Employees International Union, the second largest union in the country, predicted that the Republican healthcare plan would create “huge, if not insurmountable problems” for the already suffering Connecticut state budget. He also noted that “eighty percent of a bad bill is still a bad bill,” referencing Texas Senator John Cornyn’s remark that, “80 percent of what the House did we’re likely to do.”
  • Shawn Lang, Deputy Director of AIDS Connecticut, invoked the early days of the AIDS epidemic and asserted that the American Healthcare Act as passed by the House “would bring us back to the early days of the plague” of AIDS. She also noted that many AIDS sufferers would be doubly hit, as many are over fifty, afflicted by the opioid epidemic, and subject to mental health issues as well.
  • Advocates for both mental health and children’s health noted that there was incredible progress in those fields in Connecticut in recent years, but passage of AHCA would halt that progress.
  • Judith Stein, Executive Director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, attacked Republican secrecy and rushing of the AHCA specifically. It would be “devastating,” she said, to force a vote before the July 4th recess, which is rumored to be the GOP plan, and without due time for debate, a CBO score, or amendments.
  • One of the most moving testimonies came from Jennifer Kelly, a mother whose daughter had suffered a heroin overdose in 2015. She focused mainly on a need to increase funding for addiction research and help to victims, especially during, “the worst heroin epidemic we’ve ever seen.”

~Ridgley Knapp

 

The Comey Case

In a presidency that has produced a Muslim ban that wasn’t a Muslim ban, multiple attempts to strip Americans of healthcare, and the use of the US Army’s largest non-nuclear bomb, it would be easy to dismiss President Trump’s most recent decision to fire FBI Director James Comey as par for the course. Yet it is anything but. This move coupled with Republicans’ refusal to appoint a special prosecutor threatens the integrity of America’s system of law enforcement and has the potential to wreak the most long-term destruction of any of this presidency’s actions.

Let’s go back to the beginning. On Tuesday, May 9, the White House announced that President Trump had fired Comey “based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.” In Trump’s letter to Comey, he claimed that the former director was “not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” but when acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, he claimed that “Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.” So there seem to be some flaws with the Department of Justice’s evaluation of the situation, but at least the President is listening to his advisors, right?

Moving forward. Two days after news broke of Comey’s dismissal, Trump announced in an interview with NBC News that he “was going to fire regardless of the recommendation.” I take back the part about Trump at least listening to his advisors. Trump did something Jeff Sessions happened to agree with.

Regardless of who made the decision, Sessions and Trump’s involvement in the FBI’s prominent Russia investigation makes both of them unfit to make this call. Criminals don’t get to choose who decides their guilt. President Trump, on the other hand, will get to do just that when he appoints the new FBI director—an appointment that will likely be accompanied by an instruction slipped under the table (“do what I say or you’re fired”).

The termination is made even more suspicious by its timing. Mere hours before Comey was fired, CNN reported that the FBI had issued subpoenas to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and his associates. The New York Times later reported that Comey had requested more resources to put towards the Russia investigation just days before he was forced to vacate his position at the top of the FBI.

Both the two leading decision-makers’ potential involvement in an active FBI investigation and the firing’s taking place so soon after the inquiry began to speed up suggest James Comey’s termination was not done because he was truly unfit to lead the Bureau, but instead because he was investigating Trump and his administration. Russia interfered with our election and showed that it plans to continue meddling when it hacked Emmanuel Macron’s email mere days before the French election. Vladimir Putin cannot be allowed to undermine western democracy by helping unqualified candidates reach office. That is a nonpartisan issue. Firing the leader of an ongoing investigation into his government’s actions at the very least undermines the investigation’s integrity and has the potential to allow Russia and all of their collaborators now present in the Trump administration to get away with election manipulation. By firing Comey, President Trump is failing to uphold his duty to keep elections fair and to hold foreign powers accountable.

If endangering the integrity of western democracy wasn’t enough, Trump’s decision also sets a dangerous legal precedent in our own country. Comey’s firing marks only the second time in the history of the FBI that its director was fired. When William Sessions was fired in 1993, he had lost the respect of much of the Bureau, which, as mentioned above, Comey had not. Presidents cannot be allowed to dismantle law enforcement if it reaches (or nears) a decision they disagree with. As a leader of an apolitical organization, the director of the FBI is deliberately appointed to 10-year terms so that they outlast any one president’s tenure. Trump’s reckless action opens the door for future presidents to treat the FBI as their lapdog.

Before I close, I’ll address the ridiculous argument that Trump fired Comey because of the way he handled the Hillary Clinton investigation during the election. Do people really believe that the same guy who riled up crowds with cries of “lock her up” now sympathizes with his former opponent? It is outrageous to claim that the Republicans suddenly care about the treatment of a woman against whom they have led witch-huts for years. What’s more, if the GOP wasn’t concerned with what would come out of the FBI’s inquiry into Russian interference in the election, it wouldn’t have rejected Democrats’ requests for an independent investigation of Russia’s involvement.

President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey is one of his most reckless actions yet. It threatens both the integrity of future elections around the world and the political independence of American law enforcement. Congress cannot allow Trump to appoint his own prosecutors and jury. They must appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. The President needs to know that he is not above the law and will be punished for his actions.

~Danny Eisgruber