Advocacy Report - June 19, 2011
Advocacy Committee Chair
As many of you know, I’m serving my third term on the national board, and, in addition to being first vice president, I’m chairing the Advocacy Committee. Before being asked to be on the LWVUS board, I was president of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota and served on the Developing Countries committee at the national level, as well as the Budget Committee. So I’ve had a number of opportunities to see the League from different perspectives.
I joined the League to do advocacy. And my issue background is in international relations. So one of the real thrills of my work with the League came last year, when, at the very end of the congressional session, the Senate finally ratified the New START Treaty. And the League was there, pushing for ratification, activating our grassroots and our grasstops, speaking to the press, doing what needed to be done, including publishing a letter in the New York Times from Elisabeth MacNamara noting that the treaty was essential to maintaining a stable strategic relationship between the United States and Russia.
It took many years, and it took real commitment to achieve this victory.
Another victory came just at the beginning of the Congress this year. With the changeover in the House, there was real concern that the new Office of Congressional Ethics would be at risk. With our usual allies, and with some new ones on the right side of the political spectrum, we raised the issue publically, and the new leadership in the House chose not to abolish the OCE.
In late January, the Advocacy Committee met to carefully consider all the issues we expected to come before the new Congress and to choose a few for priority attention. It was clear that many of our most important laws and policies would come under attack. The committee and the board selected four key areas: Health Care Defense, Clean Air Defense, Money in Elections, and Election Administration. Unfortunately we were right on the mark – defending our hard-won victories from previous years was our most important task.
One of the first orders of business for the new House of Representatives was to pass legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act – the historic health care reform legislation that we supported in the last Congress.
The bill passed the House rather easily, but the Senate was a different story. Health care advocates were able to block action on the bill. Our national Lobby Corps visited Senate offices, the grassroots sent thousands of messages in response to our action alert and we worked with a good coalition to help gain the victory.
That was not the end of the story, however, because in discussions about federal spending, Medicare and Medicaid are on the chopping block.
For an organization like ours, which supports “Medicare for All,” attacks on the basic underpinnings of Medicare, not to mention the funding issues, are very serious. Similarly, the Medicaid program is critical to providing health care for many, many people. Funding cutbacks to states, or block grant proposals that will mean very substantial cuts in health care coverage for the poor and the near poor, must be fought.
And fight them we are. We’ve communicated our deep concerns about the budget plan that was adopted in the House and will be working throughout the rest of the year to protect health care programs and the funds that are necessary to make them work. The Lobby Corps visited Senate offices in April and May to urge Senators to oppose the House budget and any other attempts to balance the budget by decimating the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
But the final word on health care reform is likely to come from the Supreme Court. As you know, the Affordable Care Act is being challenged in several federal courts. Health care proponents are winning some, but we are also losing some. In any case, the constitutional issues will be resolved at the Supreme Court level. We will be keeping our eyes open for the best opportunity to put the League’s views before the Court.
The House of Representatives also got an early start on campaign finance reform – or should I say campaign finance deform. They quickly and easily passed legislation to repeal the presidential public financing system – the one that helped protect the presidency against corruption in the decades following the Watergate scandal. We and our allies fought hard, employing our grassroots and sending an action alert, reaching out to the press and visiting key congressional offices. But the new majority in the House was not to be denied, and the legislation passed.
Again, thanks to the Senate, we’ve been able to stop, at least for now, the move to repeal that system.
We fully expect, however, that there will be further challenges on campaign finance. Some prominent members of the House have even questioned the notion of contribution limits, so we will have to remain vigilant, and stay close to our supporters in the Senate.
Very soon, we expect the DISCLOSE Act to be reintroduced in Congress. You will recall that this legislation, introduced after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, would require disclosure of independent expenditures for electioneering advertising – the ads that urge viewers to vote for or against particular candidates in an election. You will also recall that this bill fell just one vote short of passage in the Senate last year. Unfortunately support for the bill in the Senate has not increased this year, and, of course, the House is no longer supportive, so this will be a tough fight. We are -- in fact -- on defense rather than offense.
This is especially true over at the FEC, where three of the six commissioners have basically announced that they will not be enforcing the campaign finance laws as passed by Congress. Because many of the commissioners are serving terms that have expired, the best way to get reform at the FEC is for the President to appoint new commissioners. We have called on him to do so, and we will be pressing this issue of fixing the FEC as long as it takes.
On clean air, just as with health care and campaign finance, the House of Representatives moved quickly with basic repeal legislation. In this instance, the legislation would block EPA from taking any regulatory action to control carbon pollution. Despite our work, including the Lobby Corps visiting key offices before the vote and tens of thousands of messages to Congress from four different action alerts to the League’s grassroots, the House did pass the bill. At that point, we hoped, the legislation could be blocked in the Senate committee process.
The Senate rules, however, allow any Senator to bring any amendment to the floor at any time, even on unrelated legislation. And that’s just what happened. In a surprise move, Senator McConnell tried to attach the House language blocking EPA to an unrelated bill on small business.
We came very, very close to losing the clean air fight at this point in early April. If the Senate passed the McConnell Amendment, both houses would have been on record against EPA. This was especially critical because, at the same time, the House had included limitations on EPA in their bill to fund the government in the current year. That government funding bill was must-pass legislation – you remember the huge debate about shutting down the government. That was a bill that the President couldn’t veto. If the McConnell or other weakening amendments had been adopted, then there would have been irresistible pressure to include EPA cutbacks in the budget bill.
The McConnell amendment failed on a 50 – 50 tie vote. A number of other Senators voted for other weakening amendments, including the Rockefeller Amendment, which would have blocked EPA action on carbon for two years. But after the Senate votes on April 6 -- the anti-clean air rider on the government funding legislation was dropped.
We won, but it was even closer than the very close vote would indicate. Throughout the roll call vote on the Rockefeller Amendment, the leadership was concerned that proponents of the McConnell Amendment would switch and support Rockefeller as well. Indeed, Senator Rockefeller argued that his bill was the one that could actually pass, and if the 50 Senators who voted for McConnell had switched, he probably would have been right.
We know that these clean air issues are coming back in this Congress. Controls on mercury, new standards on smog and ozone, and a continued debate on carbon pollution still face us in this Congress. Mid-Western Democrats in the Senate will be a problem.
Clearly it is time to change the debate. Despite our years of hard work on climate legislation to curb carbon pollution, despite our lobbying and the work of our allies to protect EPA authority, despite using all our regular advocacy tools, we were not winning the public argument. The debate was framed as a debate about costs, overregulation and jobs.
To help change the debate toward public health, the League in late April and early May produced hard-hitting, factual television ads calling attention to the public health consequences of the votes by Senator Scott Brown (R MA) and Senator Claire McCaskill (D MO) to cut back EPA authority. We gained extensive press coverage in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, USA Today, Roll Call and other papers as well.
From an advocacy perspective the ads worked. The League’s clean air ads changed the debate. They did so in two ways. First, they illustrated that the battle for clean air is about public health, not just penguins, polar bears and overregulation. And second, the ads sent the message – loud and clear -- to Senators McCaskill and Brown, to every swing vote in the Senate, and to the leadership, that the clean air issue is powerful. For example, after the ads, we were called to a special meeting with the Senate Majority Leader to discuss our concerns about clean air legislation.
Polling indicates there is overwhelming public support for clean air – but the special interest money and the messaging on the other side has been effective with too many elected officials. It is time to change the debate; it is time to show the power of the public health argument. The clean air issues will be back.
Our fourth legislative priority this year is election administration. I wish I could tell you that, at least in this case, the House of Representatives hasn’t acted to pass legislation to cut back on voting issues. But I really can’t. The Committee on House Administration has reported a bill to terminate the Election Assistance Commission, and that bill is expected on the floor of the House before the August recess. The Lobby Corps was briefed last week for their visits to key House offices to oppose the bill. Unfortunately, we do expect it to pass, but we are working hard to keep the margin close so we can go to the Senate and make sure that the legislation does not move on that side of the Capitol.
On voting issues, we have also focused our attention on enforcement, full implementation and protection of the National Voter Registration Act. We’ve done that for one simple reason: if voter registration is undermined, voter participation goes down.
We have pushed hard for the Department of Justice to enforce Section 7 of the NVRA, which requires states to offer voter registration at social service agencies, including public assistance agencies. Sadly, many states are not doing what they’re supposed to, and registration at those agencies has fallen dramatically since the early years of implementation of the NVRA. Lawsuits brought by our sister organizations, often including the state Leagues, have shown how effective it can be, with tens of thousands of new registrations in those states where suits have been brought successfully. But we really need the Department of Justice to do its job in enforcing the law. So the League has pushed for strong enforcement in our meetings with the Civil Rights Division, discussions with the Associate Attorney General and communications to the Attorney General. They seem to be promising action, at long last.
We’ve also been pressing the Administration to require federal agencies to offer voter registration as part of their services. We seem to be making some progress with the Citizenship and Immigration Service, which is responsible for naturalizations, but are not having similar luck with the Veterans Administration.
In the courts, we do have a very significant victory to report. The Arizona state League and a number of other organizations in Arizona have challenged the proof-of-citizenship requirement to register to vote in that state. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals – with retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor sitting as a visiting judge -- has ruled that the requirement violates the National Voter Registration Act. We were particularly heartened that Justice O’Conner agreed with the reasoning in the LWVUS’s amicus brief. We fully expect this case to end up at the Supreme Court, and having a former Justice on our side can’t hurt.
As many of you know, the national League has been able to raise funds for state-level advocacy on a number of key topics. The Public Advocacy for Voter Protection program is now in its fifth year and has enabled more than 20 state Leagues to take high profile, effective roles in state legislative fights on a number of issues. This year, destructive legislation has focused on requiring government-issued photo ID for all voters. Leagues are winning in some states, and losing in others, but the level of effort has been extraordinary.
Finally, every state is now in the redistricting process. Enabled by a generous grant, the national office is providing assistance to eight state Leagues. Leagues are working to open the process of redistricting to public scrutiny, and urging that fair plans be adopted. We’re working with coalition members and preparing for what looks like the inevitable legal challenges to plans that violate the federal Voting Rights Act.
As you can see, our key issues, the policies and programs the League has championed for decades, are under attack. We have had to take new and bolder steps to protect the public interest and to use the bully pulpit of the League to speak for those whose voices are not being heard. Undoubtedly, the League at every level – federal, state and local – will need to continue to step up and advocate effectively for what we believe in.
Elisabeth and I often ask you, as League leaders, to contact your Senators or Representatives on issues important to the League. In some cases this request comes as an action alert to your e-mail inbox or in a phone call from our national office staff. We may ask for you to attend a congressional town meeting or to alert your League network. Regardless of how the request comes, taking action is an essential part of what we do. You are not only a constituent to your members of Congress, but you represent our organization, its positions and its legacy. You speak for your League. You speak for our League. And working together we can truly make a difference for our democracy.