Rep. Gerry Connolly Calls Out Trump Administration for Politicizing Coronavirus

Over the course of the last several years, the Trump Administration has constantly tried to limit access to the healthcare system and is still filing lawsuits trying to challenge the Affordable Care Act. If the president is successful in his efforts to do away with Obamacare, it could have a devastating impact on the country as we’re facing a deadly worldwide pandemic.

Of course, this is on top of how Trump has disbanded the National Security Council’s global pandemic team and his latest budget has drastically cut funding to the Center for Disease Control. And as if doing away with critical programs wasn’t enough, the president has declared the coronavirus a “hoax” and was extremely slow to actually address the issue. These are just some of the several ways in which the administration has mishandled the situation.

Now that it’s become abundantly clear that COVID-19 represents a major issue that’s already having large ramifications all across the country, the president has insisted he doesn’t “take responsibility at all” for the mistakes his administration has made. This is a far cry from Harry Truman’s the buck stops here remarks, but sadly isn’t terribly surprising to many people.

With all this in mind, it was good to see Rep. Gerry Connolly calling out the administration for politicizing the pandemic and being extremely unprepared. Trump needs to be held accountable for his actions and we quickly need to have leadership put doing what’s best for the American people ahead of the president’s political interest.

At Fairfax Town Hall, Tulsi Gabbards Goes After Pelosi for Ripping Up Trump’s Speech

Rep. Tulsi GabbardDuring a campaign rally yesterday evening in Fairfax, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard expressed her disappointment in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to tear up her copy of the State of the Union address Donald Trump delivered earlier this month.

“I would not have done what she did,” the Congresswoman said. While she wasn’t at the State of the Union because she was campaigning up in New Hampshire that evening, she claims to have woken up the next morning and noticed Pelosi ripping up the speech “was one of the main things that was trending.” She told the crowd she “just shook [her] head” upon reading the news because she was so disappointed.

“I think, like a lot of people,” she added, “we’re sick and tired of the political theater and the drama in Washington. It’s not helping. It’s not helping to heal these divides.”

The remarks were made during the Q&A portion of the event in response to a question from a self described Trump supporter. The gentleman wanted to know if Rep. Gabbards supported the ethics complaint Republican Matt Gaetz of Florida had filed against Pelosi. He claimed the Speaker’s actions were “beneath the dignity of the House and a potential violation of law.”

Although Gabbard did say she didn’t think Pelosi’s actions warranted an ethics investigation, she believed it helped to illustrate how many elected officials aren’t focused on the right issues.

“There are real challenges and real hardships that every one of our leaders from Donald Trump to Nancy Pelosi need to be focused on,” Tulsi told the crowd. “Actually working together to solve these problems and help people” deserves much more attention that partisan bickering.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Gabbard has gotten into a rift with leaders in the Democratic Party. Back in October, for instance, Hillary Clinton famously implied she was a puppet of the Russian government. The Congresswoman has now filed a lawsuit against her for $50 million saying the former Secretary of State “carelessly and recklessly impugned” her character.

In the lawsuit, Tulsi says she “seeks to hold Clinton, and the political elites who enable her, accountable for distorting the truth in the middle of a critical Presidential election.” This was very much along the same lines of the message that she was promoting during last night’s campaign rally.

While introducing her at the event, for instance, a supporter named Carl said “the corporate establishment has its foot the neck of every other politician,” but could never gain control of Rep. Gabbard since “they know that Tulsi will not do their bidding.”

This tied in with how Tulsi claimed that greed was corrupting the political process. Whether it was through financial gain or simply those in power supposedly being willing to do whatever it takes to keep it, she repeatedly spoke in opposition to “the establishment” and the current state of our political system.

“I hate the pay to play politics that rules the day in Washington,” the Congresswoman said. “I hate the politics of hyper partisanship. Of people in positions of power and influence who are more interested in keeping their power than helping people who they are supposed to be serving.”

This type of messaging could potentially tap into a growing sentiment among the general public, but her campaign has somehow managed to attract supporters who take the frustration expressed in her stump speech to a whole new level. As the line was forming prior to last night’s event, for example, several of her supporters were claiming Assad’s war crimes in Syria were really just a media conspiracy that people were using in part to make Gabbard look bad.

Others claimed the DNC was out to get Tulsi and were actively trying to prevent her from sharing her views during the debates. While her campaign isn’t the only one frustrated by not being able to qualify for the debate stage recently, other candidates don’t appear as eager to claim their inability to get enough donors or high enough poll results were actually a result of a conspiracy being run by high ranking officials within the Democratic Party.

The conspiracy theories being floated only got worse once inside the building. An older gentleman wearing a “veterans for Tulsi” t-shirt rambled on about how the establishment was doing everything it could to limit her influence on the primary process. He insisted this was actually one of the reasons he was supporting her candidacy. The 68 year old retiree eventually tied his claims about “the establishment” into a theory he was promoting that Israeli oil interests played a role in the war in Iraq. According to the people he was talking to, this is why Colin Powell gave his speech about weapons of mass destruction in a desperate attempt to keep world leaders in powerful positions.

All this is to say that somebody who simply listens to her stump speech might find Tulsi Gabbard’s candidacy appealing, but a deeper dive into her campaign and its supporters raises a whole lot of other questions. And decrying Pelosi’s decision to tear up the text of Trump’s speech simply highlights how the Congresswoman from Hawaii appears to almost seek out any opportunity she has to attack the current leaders in the Democratic Party.

For those who are interested, the audio below is of the exchange she had regarding Pelosi at the State of the Union Address.

Virginia Democrats Respond to Trump’s Iranian Airstrike

There’s been a lot of questions raised since news broke that Donald Trump launched an airstrike against Iran that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. While there doesn’t seem to be any doubt the Iranian general was a horrible man who needed to be held accountable for his past actions, people from a variety of different backgrounds are questioning Trump’s actions.

The airstrike seems to have been carried out almost on a whim without consulting Congress through things such as the tradition of notifying the “Gang of 8” before the mission was launched. There’s also no clear strategy, which puts the country’s national security at risk as there are already reports of potential cyber attacks by Iran in retaliation for the strike.

While Congressional Republicans have mostly praised Trump for launching the attack that could potentially lead to war with Iran, most national security experts and Congressional Democrats have spoken out against the careless manner in which the attack was conducted. Those making public remarks about the president’s decision include Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA10).

“Suleimani was a brutal killer who deserved to meet justice, but President Trump’s airstrike has brought us to the brink of war with no clear strategy or plan,” Wexton tweeted. “The American people are not seeking a war with Iran, nor did Congress authorize one.”

Wexton not only criticized Trump’s actions, but would also later on focus in on some legislative options the House of Representatives is considering.

“Article 1 of the Constitution places the power to declare war and authorize military force with Congress, not the President,” the Congresswoman said while retweeting remarks by Rep. Andy Levin. “I’m cosponsoring the bipartisan #AUMF Clarification Act because there can be no war with Iran without the express approval of Congress—that must be clear.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was a senior staffer for the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee before running for office himself, also spoke about how Trump’s actions could have a devastating impact on our foreign policy.

“President Trump has unleashed the dogs of war in approving the drone attack that killed Iranian General Qassim Suleimani, the head of Quds forces in the region,” Connolly tweeted. “It will enrage Shia communities in the ME, further destabilize the Iraqi government and bring Iran and the US to the brink of war. A dangerous and portentous decision.”

Connolly would also later appear on MSNBC to say Trump’s behavior isn’t acceptable just because his “enabler-in-chief Lindsay Graham happened to be at Mar-a-Largo with his golfing partner and therefore got briefed.” He added that “the legislative branch” needs to be “consulted and informed” on matters such as the airstrike.

In response to the airstrike, Rep. Don Beyer took to twitter to highlight how the House has passed legislation that would have blocked Trump from attacking Iran without Congressional authorization, but “the Senate’s obstruction is a huge problem.”

Rep. Bobby Scott has also echoed the sentiment that Congress needs to receive justification in a tweet that said “it is important that the Trump Administration immediately present to Congress all the information it relied on to justify this airstrike, as well as its strategy as to how it intends to address this situation moving forward.

In other words, Virginia’s Democrats are actively making it clear their opposition to the attack isn’t because they don’t like Trump. It’s because his actions are part of a larger trend of ignoring the foreign policy ramifications of his decisions and refusing to follow his constitutional obligations to respect Congress as an equal branch of government.

House Announces Articles of Impeachment

In a press conference this morning, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of the Democratic leadership announced they’ll be introducing articles of impeachment on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Ever since Pelosi announced she had asked the relevant committee chairs to draft articles of impeachment, there had be questions about what specific charges would be used. The Speaker and other members had been noncommittal on giving an answer and said they were working together to draft articles that lay out Trump’s inappropriate behavior and are supported by the available evidence.

While this might not be something folks would say directly, how much support various articles of impeachment would get from individual members of Congress and the public at large was also likely taken into consideration while deciding exactly what charges would be brought. This could be an important factor as the Republicans are already trying to portray the entire process as a partisan witch hunt and it’s unlikely 20 Republicans will vote to convict (which is how many would need to do so to reach the 2/3 majority required for removal).

This concept hasn’t been lost on the Democrats. During her appearance on a CNN Town Hall, the same day she publicly asked committee chairs to draft articles of impeachment, Speaker Pelosi said that while Democrats took their oath to defend the Constitution seriously, it appears as though the GOP has “taken an oath to Trump.” Other Democratic leaders have made similar remarks, both during official hearings and during interviews with the press.

We’ve seen this locally here in Northern Virginia as Rep. Gerry Connolly told a crowd of Democrats in Fairfax County this weekend that he would be voting to impeach Trump. This wasn’t a surprise to anybody in the room as Connolly called for an impeachment inquiry back in August and frequently highlighted how the president’s behavior, especially surrounding the interactions with Ukraine, was an abuse of power that Congress had to hold him accountable for.

Connolly went on to bluntly say he didn’t think the Republican controlled Senate would actually vote to convict the president. The obvious implication was the GOP has put loyalty to Trump ahead of loyalty to the Constitution and the best interests of the American people.

Perhaps the obvious question that comes from all this is why move forward with impeaching Trump if even Members of Congress are admitting the Senate is extremely unlikely to convict him on any charges. There have even been some suggestions that Congress simply move forward with censure instead of impeachment, which would only require the support of four Senate Republicans and would still hold Trump accountable to some degree.

As was pointed out during today’s press conference announcing the articles of impeachment, however, Trump’s actions have “threatened the integrity of our elections” and “are consistent with President Trump’s previous invitations of foreign interference in the 2016 elections.” In other words, moving forward with any action other than impeachment would allow the president to potential steal an election with blatantly illegal behavior.

Rep. Adam Schiff also highlighted how delaying impeachment in order to hear from the Trump Administration also is not an option. Trump has already order administration officials not to corporate with Congress and there has been a lengthy court process already taking place for other matters trying to force executive branch officials to comply with subpoenas. Waiting on impeachment would therefore likely result in the process extending beyond the 2020 election, which would allow Trump to take even more illegal action to swing the election in his favor.

The House Judiciary Committee is likely going to vote on the articles on Thursday and the full House will follow with a vote next week. They will then be sent over to the Senate where Mitch McConnell will have to set up the timeline for the trial.

Video: Jennifer Wexton Holds Town Hall in Hamilton

IMG_1963One of the major complaints about Barbara Comstock was she refused to hold town halls during her time in Congress. She was so adamant in her refusal to engage the public that community groups eventually ended up holding mock town halls featuring a cardboard cutout of the Congresswoman. Unfortunately, this was the closest many people got to actually having their concerns heard by Comstock.

Realizing the strong desire of the district’s residents to have a member of Congress who was willing to hold discussions with the community, Rep. Jennifer Wexton made it clear she’d hold multiple town halls all across the district if she was elected. This is a promise she’s kept as she held her seventh town hall last Saturday (November 9th) at Harmony Middle School in Hamilton, VA.

Now if you’ve ever been to one of these town halls, they’re usually fairly tame affairs. There always seems to be a couple high school students who want to talk with her about appointments to the military academies, some people who have a real specific issue or cause they want to discuss, and others who want to talk about some of the issues being featured on the evening news. This was largely the case at Saturday’s town hall.

The only exception was a small group of Trump supporters who asked some “gotcha” type questions and proceeded to hand out flyers opposing impeachment to folks walking out of the school after the event was over. Most of these people wanted to complain about how Congress was supposedly “wasting time” on impeachment instead of actually getting work done.

Much to the Trump supporters’ disdain, however, Rep. Wexton, was able to list several pieces of legislation she was personally responsible for and also highlighted how the House had passed hundreds of bills the Republican controlled Senate refused to even consider. In particular, she mentioned how the House of Representatives passed 11 of 13 appropriations bills before they went on their August recess but the Senate had yet to pass a single bill to fund our government. In other words, it’s the Senate’s inaction under Mitch McConnell’s leadership that’s putting the livelihood for the region’s large number of federal workers and contractors at risk.

It quickly became apparent that this small band of Trump supporters were simply there to promote their right wing talking points and desperately try to make Rep. Wexton look bad. That being said, the severity of how out of touch they were could be illustrated in how one of them suggested Wexton’s views on immigration played a role in why so many people of color were living in the United States.

“We know that Mexicans would never accept an immigration policy that would reduce Mexican to minority status,” the older white man claimed. “Why should we have an immigration policy that is going to reduce whites to a minority. Whites, who were 90% of the population in 1960, why should whites welcome an immigration policy that would reduce them to a minority in their own country?”

There was an audible murmur of disgust that spread throughout the auditorium as this guy went on his rant. There’s room to discuss how to deal with immigration issues facing our country and how to properly address the large number of undocumented people living here, but this wasn’t what he was concerned about. This guy was clearly disturbed by how many people of color were living in the country and appeared upset by how Rep. Wexton wasn’t appalled by this concept.

“Immigration, I believe very strongly, is a net positive for this country,” Wexton responded to loud applause from the audience. “To me this isn’t about a white or non white issue. This is about making our country as strong and diverse as possible.”

Clearly not happy about how Wexton embraced diversity, this man proceeded to get back in line to ask another question. When he got back up to the microphone, he once again refused to even provide his first name (most other people were giving their name and the town they lived in) and proceeded to claim diversity was just leading to people being lazy.

“The greater the diversity in the community, the less people trust each other. The less they are likely to do volunteer work, get involved, or vote in politics. They’re not even likely to carpool because of the mistrust resulting from the rise in diversity. The only thing they are more likely to do of is stay home and watch television,” this guy suggested. “If, in fact, diversity is a great strength of the United States, perhaps you could give me concrete examples of the benefits that we receive from the fact that we have six million Muslims living in the United States.”

This question actually resulted in him getting boo’d. While that’s an understandable natural reaction when folks heard the blatant bigotry lthis man was spewing, Wexton had the absolute best answer possible. She made it clear she disagreed with the sentiment he expressed and highlighted how there Muslims from all sorts of backgrounds that are giving back to the community.

In particular, the Congresswoman mentioned the ADAMS Center in Sterling. After seeing so many families struggling with the rising costs of healthcare, Wexton emphasized, the Mosque helped start the Adams Compassionate Healthcare Network. This is a clinic that’s “dedicated to providing medical services to low-income and uninsured individuals” and has no religious requirement for its patients to receive medical attention. Wexton also highlighted how the ADAMS Center runs food drives and other helpful programs for the community at large.

Besides this guy spewing his anti-immigrant bigotry, there were questions about the rise in teenage vaping, the opioid crisis, increasing the number of women working in STEM related fields, the recent increase in hate crimes, climate change, affordable healthcare, the soaring cost of higher education, and a few other topics.

For those who are interested, here’s the video of Wexton’s opening statement which gives a decent summary of the work she’s been doing this year.

Where Virginia’s Members of Congress Stand On Impeachment Inquiry

As Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced the launch of a formal impeachment inquiry yesterday, support for the impeachment process has fallen along party lines among members of Congressional delegation. Considering how loyal Virginia’s Republicans have remained to Donald Trump, it shouldn’t be too surprising that all the Republican members of the House have all defended the president. The Democrats, however, have remained open to examining the facts and support the inquiry now that there’s growing evidence Trump committed the “high crimes and misdemeanors” the constitution requires for removal from office.

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Norfolk) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Henrico) were among five freshmen Democrats with military and national security backgrounds who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for a formal impeachment inquiry on Monday. They represent districts that went for Trump in 2016 and they both won extremely close races during the Democratic wave in the 2018 midterm elections. It was the revelations about Trump’s conversations with the Ukrainian president that lead to the two moderates joining the calls for impeachment.

“The president of the United States may have used his position to pressure a foreign country into investigating a political opponent, and he sought to use U.S. taxpayer dollars as leverage to do it,” the op-ed declared. “He allegedly sought to use the very security assistance dollars appropriated by Congress to create stability in the world, to help root out corruption and to protect our national security interests, for his own personal gain. These allegations are stunning, both in the national security threat they pose and the potential corruption they represent.”

Both Rep. Bobby Scott and Donald McEachin also joined the calls for an impeachment inquiry yesterday. In a statement released before the Speaker’s announcement, McEachin highlighted how the developments surrounding Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian president was just the latest example of him putting “self-interest ahead of national interests, putting his desire to win re-election above our rule of law and national security.” Rep. Scott announced his support of moving forward when he said launching the impeachment inquiry was “the only appropriate course of action given the severity of recent events.”

The Democrats representing Northern Virginia (Jennifer Wexton, Gerry Connolly, and Don Beyer) had all come out in support of an impeachment inquiry earlier this month. Although these members represent more liberal districts, it’s worth noting that they still weren’t among the first to call for impeachment and only did so after evidence continued to mount that Trump’s behavior warranted an official inquiry.

As far as the Republicans go, they all not only don’t support the inquiry but have gone after the Democrats for even considering one. Rep. Ben Cline, who represents the sixth district and is on the House Judiciary Committee that would draw up the articles of impeachment, claimed Pelosi “has caved to those on the far left of her party” and says the Speaker “has thrown her support behind the embarrassing spectacle of hearings that have been going on for months.”

Rep. Denver Riggleman has claimed this is just a cheap shot by the Democrats who are trying to score political points and Rep. Morgan Griffith actually claimed Trump was justified in denying aid to Ukraine if they didn’t investigate Joe Biden. They both were essentially echoing talking points sent down from the White House, especially when you consider Donald Trump has gone as far as suggesting the whistleblower was actually a partisan plant.

Among Virginia’s Congressional Republicans, Rob Whitman was perhaps the least fervent in his support for Trump as he called out the Democrats for announcing the inquiry before the transcript of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president was released. This is a somewhat valid point and even some supporters of an impeachment inquiry have suggested they should have waited for the transcript to be released. Whitman did add a little more, however, when he said the impeachment was simply preventing discussion of more crucial issues Congress must consider.

Even if the House does end up impeaching Trump, there’s still a major uphill battle for him to actually be convicted by the Republican controlled Senate. It’s therefore interesting to take a look at where Virginia’s senators stand on the issue. While Mark Warner is the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee and has been largely involved in investigating foreign influence in the election process, he hasn’t made a statement about whether or not the House should move forward with impeachment. Sen. Tim Kaine, however, has come out in support of moving forward with the inquiry.

“The House had no choice but to initiate a formal impeachment inquiry,” Kaine said in a statement on Wednesday. “When a member of President Trump’s own national security team takes the unprecedented step of filing an urgent and credible whistleblower complaint over the President’s improper behavior, it should set off alarm bells for every American. And when his Administration tries to violate the law requiring that the whistleblower report be provided to Congress, those alarm bells grow louder. The time for stonewalling is over, and the public deserves to see the President held accountable for his actions.”

As the official inquiry moves forward with six House committees conducting investigations, it will be interesting to see if any new evidence emerges proving Trump committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Unless there is a smoking gun that develops or public cries for impeachment grows so incredibly high, after all, it’s incredibly unlike the Senate will actually convict no matter what the House of Representatives does.

Gerry Connolly Supports Beginning Impeachment Inquiry

img_3358Rep. Gerry Connolly is a strong progressive and represents his district extremely well, but he’s probably not on anybody’s list of the most liberal members of the House of Representatives. That’s why his announcement this morning that he supports starting an impeachment inquiry is extremely interesting. This comes shortly after Jennifer Wexton has also announced her support of starting an inquiry, which was something she was hesitant to support and one of the few candidates in her primary last year who didn’t come out in support of impeachment during the campaign.

Through his role as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Operations for the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Connolly has made it clear that he wants to hold the Trump Administration accountable. But while I’ve heard him speak about conducting hearings and investigations, he hasn’t actively been promoting the idea of impeachment. It therefore makes sense that he declared impeachment “the most serious means of oversight we can undertake” and says it “must not be rushed, abused, or taken lightly.”

As direct evidence of why an inquiry needs to be launched, Connolly pointed to how the Mueller Report and his testimony before Congress suggests “at least ten instances in which the President of the United States obstructed justice,” Trump’s refusal to have his administration comply with Congressional subpoenas, and his violation of the emoluments clause that’s lead to his personal enrichment. And although this isn’t a cause for impeachment, the Congressman also highlighted Trump’s divisive and hateful rhetoric that’s divided our country when we needed a leader who would “call us to our better angels.”

As we’re seeing an increasing number of Members of Congress coming out in support in starting an impeachment inquiry, there’s a lot of speculation about whether or not there will be enough pressure on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to actually move forward with proceedings. There’s some legitimate reasons about why the House shouldn’t move forward, including the plain and simple fact that the Senate is extremely unlikely to convict — assuming Mitch McConnell would even allow articles of impeach to be considered on the Senate floor.

On top of that, polling shows 60% of the general public doesn’t want Congress to start impeachment hearings. While the majority of Democrats (61%) and African Americans (66%) do want to move forward with the process, it could come across as extremely partisan. Especially with the public being tired of the divisiveness in Washington that’s prevented any meaningful legislation, that narrative could also be used by the Trump during the 2020 campaign if the Senate fails to convict (which would give a sort of official exoneration to Trump’s claims).

With all that being said, Gerry Connolly is correct in his statement that the evidence suggests Trump’s behavior is worthy of the House starting an impeachment inquiry. As it stands now, it seems as though the main consideration leaders must take into account is the political consequences of moving forward with the proceedings.

For those who are interested, Connolly’s full statement can be read below the fold. Continue reading “Gerry Connolly Supports Beginning Impeachment Inquiry”

Jennifer Wexton Discusses Variety of Topics at Community Town Hall

image1 (4)Throughout her tenure in the House of Representatives, Barbara Comstock refused to actually hold a town hall meeting where her constituents could speak with her about the various issues they cared about. She actually received attention in national publications for her failure to do so and it became a talking point for Jennifer Wexton during her 2018 campaign. Wexton promised to hold at least four town hall meetings every year — a promise she’s kept as she held her fourth town hall in Manassas Park yesterday afternoon a little over seven months into the year.

The town hall opened with Delegate Danica Roem (who represents the area the meeting was held in) giving an update on local transportation projects, which shouldn’t be surprising to anybody who’s talked to Danica over the last few years. She’s always looking for an opportunity to discuss the work she’s doing on transportation (which is something Wexton later highlighted) and it’s part of why people from both sides of the aisle have claimed Del. Roem has been an effective legislator.

When Wexton took to the microphone, she highlighted how the House of Representatives has been very active on topics like the Equality Act, the Violence Against Women Act, climate change, and a variety of others even though Mitch McConnell hasn’t allowed any meaningful legislation to even come up for a vote in the Senate. As part of that activity, the congresswoman highlighted how she’s had two bills pass the House with bipartisan support — a piece of legislation that deals with cracking down on financial crime and another one dealing with increasing research on how to handle the opioid crisis. Furthermore, she’s introduce a total of seven other bills and offered five amendments to legislation that have garnered support from members of both parties.

There were about 150 people who gathered in the auditorium of Manassas Park Middle School to have a discussion with Wexton and the vast majority of people appeared to be thankful to engage with their Member of Congress. There were three or four people, however, who had a negative reaction to almost everything the congresswoman said and got very riled up when it came to the issue of gun reform and the Mueller investigation.

Towards the end of the town hall, one of these women got up and asked when taxpayers would get a “refund for the $30 million wasted” on the Mueller investigation. She appeared to be quite proud of herself for putting the congresswoman in what she thought was a bit of a pickle, but Wexton remained calm and rightfully pointed out how the Mueller investigation returned more from the fines levied as a result of the criminal activity it discovered than was spent on the investigation. She also drew attention to how the investigation led to several guilty pleas and indictments of people closely associated with the president and how many legal scholars have suggested Trump would have been arrested for obstruction if he wasn’t the sitting president.

It was also rather interesting that while the woman was so eager to cast Wexton and Democrats as wasting taxpayer money, she clearly had forgotten all the time and money that Republicans spent investigating Hillary Clinton — an investigation that led to no criminal convictions or guilty pleas. As Wexton’s answer received some applause from the crowd, the woman walked away with a disgusted look on her face that suggested she was disappointed her attempt to make the congresswoman look bad actually backfired.

She wasn’t the only person there who tried to use “gotcha questions” to make Wexton look bad. Another person, who kept calling Wexton names after almost everything she said and appeared extremely disturbed by her support of increasing the minimum wage, asked her why “the Democrats” passed HR1 after gaining control of the House of Representatives. Like the woman mentioned above, he attempted to paint this as some sort of conspiracy to waste taxpayer money and increase the wealth of people in office.

In stark contrast to the clear disdain the person appeared to hold for “the Democrats,” Wexton politely explained that the SAFE Act “works on getting dark money out of elections,” protects the vote which has been under attack, and helps ensure politicians are held to high ethical standards. In other words, the legislation is the complete opposite of what the person was trying to portray in a desperate attempt to score some cheap political points.

Fortunately, the vast majority of people who asked questions covered a variety of topics and appeared to be legitimately interested in having a conversation with their Member of Congress. While there were some hyper local issues covered (such as noise from air traffic that impacts communities surrounding Dulles Airport), most of the discussion was about topics that have been in the national news recently.

Healthcare reform was probably the most highly discussed topic during the event as people were concerned about treatment being so expensive even though we’ve made some progress on the issue with the Affordable Care Act. In what might disappoint some more liberal members of her party, Wexton said she doesn’t currently support Medicare for All efforts and doesn’t believe “we can logistically and realistically get to Medicare for All in one fall swoop.”

She was quick to point out, however, that she supports a public option (known now as Medicare X). While explaining her reasoning, she claimed some constituents want to make sure they can keep their employer based healthcare. This is a frequent argument made from opponents of single payer healthcare and was brought up during the presidential debates last week, but a lot of people believe this should represent an opportunity for education about Medicare for All instead of an excuse to prevent any meaningful progress.

While there’s discussion about how to do some comprehensive reforms, Wexton drew attention to other efforts she’s supported to do things like allowing generic medicine to come to the market sooner. She also underscored the importance of standing up to President Trump when he tries to “deliberately sabotage” the Affordable Care Act. While she admits Obamacare could improve, she strongly believes it’s proven beneficial by providing insurance to millions of people while also implementing protections for people with pre-existing conditions, lifting lifetime caps on coverage, and allowing children to stay on their parents policies until the age of 26.

With climate change receiving a lot of national attention and Virginia having some interesting local twists on the topic through the pipeline debates, it shouldn’t be too surprising that climate related questions were also frequently asked. One audience member brought up how we could see an increase in “climate refugees” as more people need to move to escape uninhabitable localities impacted by climate change. This obviously would have an effect on the already contentious topic of immigration reform (which was also brought up at the town hall).

While Wexton made it clear she understood the impact climate change is having on our communities, she also pointed out how it has an impact on the economy. Through her role on the Financial Services Committee, for instance, she’s already been focusing in on how changes to programs like flood insurance might have to be put in place as rising sea levels put communities at risk that didn’t have to worry about it in the past.

Wexton concluded the town hall meeting by saying that were currently in the middle of a six week district work period where she’ll be spending her time “criss crossing the tenth district” and talking to her constituents. This follows up on the 150 individual meetings she’s personally had with constituents and the over 500 case files her office has been able to close since she was sworn in back in January.

“When we do return to Congress,” she said however, “my top priority is avoiding another government shutdown.” She added that the simple act of keeping the government open shouldn’t be her goal, but it represents how frustrating the current political climate can be. That being said, House is moving forward by passing 10 of the 12 appropriation bills required to keep the government working even though McConnell and the Republican led Senate haven’t been as productive on that front.

All in all, the town hall has to be viewed as a successful event that allowed productive conversations to take place. Several people raised concerns that Wexton and her staff needed to investigate a little further in order to have a productive conversation, but she was quick to set the community members up with staffers so those conversations can take place. It’s these interactions that truly illustrate why town hall meetings can help improve the way government works.

As the 2020 elections get closer, one has to wonder if Republicans will have their supporters attend and ask “gotcha questions” that’d make Wexton look bad like some folks tried to do at this meeting. While those attempts clearly backfired yesterday, it’ll be interesting to see what happens if they come occur in the heat of a campaign.

House Committee Holds Hearing On Improving Constituent Engagement

IMG_0033With technology making it a lot easier to send messages to people, Members of Congress are now receiving 13 times as many messages than they did in 2001 (and that’s after email was already extremely popular and the internet was making communication easier). Constituents are actually sending 30 million messages to Congress annually, which means staff members are constantly looking for ways to make sure they’re effectively engaging with the folks reaching out to them. It’s with this in mind that the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held a hearing on “improving constituent engagement through technology.”

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the hearing was how even though there are millions of messages being sent to Members of Congress every year, the average American still feels disconnected from their elected officials. Part of this comes from how despite there being 24/7 cable news networks that promote primarily partisan talking points and online forums that have titillating headlines designed to get a lot of clicks, it’s becoming harder to get information on local school boards or what your specific Congressperson is working on.

The messages being exchanged between politicians and their constituents aren’t helping the situation either. As Brad Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation mentioned in his testimony before the committee, this is in large part because anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of the 30 million messages received by the House of Representatives every year are generated by associations and nonprofits who get their supporters to contact politicians. 79 percent of these organizations even fully admit mass email campaigns are their top strategy for trying to influence Members of Congress.

In other words, there’s been a definite increase in the number of messages politicians receive but that doesn’t mean more people are actively engaging their elected officials on their own accord. This is different from before the internet became such a sought after organizing tool because there were only a few organizations that could afford to do a large message campaign when they were being forced to pay for printing out postcards and securing postage.

The increased number of mass email campaigns have resulted in understaffed Congressional offices being forced to deal with emails that don’t illustrate how an issue impacts individual communities, come from outside the district, and a variety of other factors that diminish the message’s value. It’s with that in mind that only three percent of senior staffers claim mass email campaigns influence lawmakers, which might also explain why only 40 percent of lawmakers are even reading the emails they receive.

What makes the situation further troubling for elected officials is Fitch focused in on how less than half of constituents who received a response to their email actually took the time to read it. These are people who are engaged enough in the process that they reached out to a Member of Congress, but even they appear to be disinterested in the response they receive. In a time when there’s already a lot of concern about people simply being apathetic towards what’s happening in current events, this is distrubing. The lack of action, however, simply suggests the public doesn’t believe the response will have anything meaningful in it and will leave them with an increase feeling of being ignored by politicians.

In case there was any doubt about the political ramifications of effectively engaging constituents, one can look at the 2018 midterm elections as Barbara Comstock received a lot of criticism for failing to hold any in person town hall meetings. This really frustrated people who frequently pointed out her district was in the suburbs of Washington, which would make it easier for her to hold the meetings when compared to her colleagues who had to travel across the country to get to their home district.

Even when Comstock used technology to reach out to constituents, she couldn’t seem use it effectively. In a telephone town hall that supposedly had 6,000 constituents on it back in February of 2017, for instance, less than a dozen people were able to ask questions. And even those didn’t leave people satisfied as they were screened by Comstock’s office and resulted in mostly softball questions that constituents weren’t able to further follow up on for more details.

A resident of the 10th Congressional District named Jan Hyland, for instance, told the Loudoun Times she felt the call “lacked substance” and highlighted how the Congresswoman missed a “perfect opportunity for her to share her so-called plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.” This was a crucial issue at the time as the call was held in the run up to the GOP holding votes on repealing the Affordable Care Act and all the benefits that go along with it. Comstock had been very wishy washy on the issue (despite voting to repeal it on multiple occasions) and constituents were disappointed when they couldn’t get a straight answer on healthcare reform from her or her office.

Comstock’s critics on the issue were among the 11 to 21 percent of Americans who don’t think Congress listens to the general public or cares what constituents think. The only way to fully address this is for politicians to reach out to constituents in a way that creates meaningful conversations that leave the public feeling valued. While in person conversations and town hall meetings would obviously help with these efforts, there are ways to do this through the internet.

One of the panelists, for example, highlighted how he was surprised after hearing from someone who said they actually enjoyed reading the newsletter their secretary of state sent out. The information was apparently well written and gave the woman know what was going on in her community instead of the partisan rhetoric she was used to receiving from other politicians. In other words, providing timely and relevant information resulted in someone seeing the value in information they received from a statewide official.

In addition to sending out newsletters, politicians can actually conduct online town halls (which can really prove beneficial for Members of Congress who represent districts far away from Washington). While there are some struggles in making sure members know they are interacting with their constituents and not just folks activist organizations have recruited from other areas, there are some forums working towards ways to address this. Facebook, for instance, has a “constituent badge” that people can use to show officials what district they live in.

Knowing that a person online is actually a constituent will help promote a more productive conversation because the politician will know the opinion they’re reading actually comes from a member of their community. It therefore carries a lot more weight and is harder to dismiss than the opinion of someone from outside the district who simply made a few clicks and sent in a message prepared by an advocacy group.

With how easy it is for advocacy groups to organize mass emails and other forms of communication, many politicians are still more aware of their views compared to those held by individual constituents. As Michael Neblo, a political science professor at the Ohio State University, highlighted while on the panel, this is largely because it can be difficult to fully engage individuals who have felt neglected by the political system. The professor suggests there are programs out there that can help take this a few steps further than Facebook’s “constituent badge” by recruiting diverse groups of people to participate in online forums, focus the conversation in on a single issue, and help provide constituents with the background information they’d need to properly engage in an in depth dialogue.

Even though all of the panelists agreed there needed to be a more productive discussion that expanded beyond the mass email campaigns that create most of the messages received by Members of Congress, it became obvious nobody thought the advocacy tactics organizations used would be changing anytime soon. The trick for politicians will be implementing tools that will allow them to gleam as much information as possible from the communications coming in while ensuring their staff is able to fully focus on crafting the best policy solutions possible.

That concept is something that former Congressional staffer Marci Harris is working on at a company she founded called POPVOX. She testified about how one of way of using technology to improve communication would be by creating tools that would provide lawmakers with analysis of the messages coming into their office. The same tool could also turn around and provide constituents with a fact sheet about legislation and links to the most recent statements their elected officials have made on the topic. This would not only help improve the conversation, but it would also mean staffers could spend less time on data entry and more time on conducting policy research and providing valuable advice to their boss.

All in all, the clear message of the hearing was both the lawmakers and panelists agreed action needed to be taken to have the conversation move beyond the form letters and partisan talking points that everyone’s become used to hearing. Whether it’s combining social media with telephone town halls, having more personalized and engaging messages, or using tools to further outreach to specific communities, there are several different avenues lawmakers can use to achieve these goals. The struggle simply is breaking away from ingrained habits to use the new tools that would better serve everyone involved.

Knock Down the House Draws Attention to Insurgent Campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Others

knock down the houseWith so many people getting disgusted with the political process, there are a lot of people who are trying to draw attention to candidates who don’t fall into traditional categories. We saw a lot of those candidates pop up during the 2018 midterm elections and a new documentary released on Netflix has attempted to give an in depth look at four of those candidates.

The documentary, Knock Down the House, follows four progressive women who ran against incumbent Democrats during the Democratic primary. Perhaps the most well known person is featured (potentially because she’s actually the only one who actually won her primary) is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Ocasio-Cortez launched her campaign to represent parts of the Bronx and Queens in the House of Representatives on a shoestring budget by trying to build grassroots support that could eventually defeat a incumbent in Joe Crowley who was the powerful Chair of the House Democratic Caucus (in other words, the fourth highest ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives). Not only did he have a national profile and the power that goes along with it, but he also control over local campaign infrastructure because he was the Chairman of the local Queens County Democratic

Since these were insurgent, non-traditional candidates going up against well funded establishment candidates, the issue of fundraising was brought up several times during the documentary. Not only were the challengers often operating on a shoestring budget, but they were going up against incumbents who were receiving millions from large corporations and their PACs during every election cycle. This was highlighted by how candidates like Amy Vilela in Nevada attracted some support by refusing to take donations from corporate PACs.

The money gap, however, was partly responsible for why Ocasio-Cortez and others were able to be dismissed so easily by the mainstream media or leaders in the local political establishment. Crowley’s victory was so assured, after all, that there was no public polling conducted and even a last minute internal poll from AOC’s campaign showed her about 35 points down.

As a side note, even with the passion that Ocasio-Cortez stirs up among the Democratic base, the money debate is something that still has an impact on the political climate inside the Democratic Party. The party has released new rules saying vendors who help out primary challengers cannot receive contracts from the party. Especially among people who believe in holding leaders of both parties accountable, this has created quite the stir and a lot of people have begun expressing their disappointment in the policy — including myself.

I received a fundraising phone call from the DCCC late last week. Now, I’m on their list because I’ve given to the organization in the past, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that they gave me a call. While I was polite and let the woman calling do her pitch, I eventually let her know I wouldn’t be donating unless the DCCC removed its rule regarding supporting primary challengers.

In response to this, the woman started yelling at me (literally yelling) and telling me that doing away with the rule would only help the Republicans. Setting aside how yelling at me certainly wasn’t going to convince me to give some money, it goes to show that there is a lot of infrastructure developed to protect incumbents and supporters simply blindly believed that any attempt to hold them accountable would solely help “the enemy” — in the case of the woman calling me from the DCCC, conservative Republicans.

What this belief system fails to take into account is that if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t win her primary, we would have never seen such a strong progressive representing New York’s 14th District.  Now that she’s in the House, however, we have a vocal opponent to Donald Trump’s policies and a champion for the people who brings her working class background to the halls of Congress.

Even sitting aside the whole money issue, the documentary also highlights how Ocasio-Cortez struggled to even be invited to crucial community events while she was initially launching her campaign. She was almost shut out of a forum, for instance, which would have denied her an opportunity to receive the attention that Crowley could simply buy with all his corporate PAC donations.

Through primarily focusing in on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the documentary brings an air of hope that even the “little guy or girl” can actually help change the political system. The plain and simple fact that a woman with little name recognition was able to mount a successful campaign against such a powerful Congressman might prove inspirational to progressives who are looking for someone to believe in. As we are now seeing some scrappy campaigns such as that being run by Pete Buttigieg, it might also have an impact on the 2020 presidential campaign.

In a time when we see such over the top personalities featured by the 24 hour news cycle, the documentary also provided several intimate reminders that politicians are people too. We saw Ocasio-Cortez tear up while thinking of her father, another person crying while discussing the loss of a daughter who’s death could have been prevented if her health insurance had covered certain procedures, and other candidates struggling with the sheer emotion that a campaign can drag up.

Knock Down the House is worth watching as it reminds us we have leaders out there who are fighting for everyone, not just the rich and powerful.