Introduction

The August recess for Congress is here, making it a critical time for you to engage with your elected officials. Representatives began their break on July 28, and the Senate a few days later on August 3. Congress will be back in session after the Labor Day weekend on September 5.

This document will arm you with the information you need to ask challenging, hard-hitting questions of your representatives at town halls, meetings or other events. The RISE Stronger Policy Working Group Program has prepared for you overviews of key topics on the national agenda across a range of areas, including the economy and jobs; education; energy and the environment; ethics and open government; foreign policy and national security; healthcare; infrastructure and urban policy; justice and civil liberties; science and technology; and trade and development. These key issues are summarized with background information and relevant questions for you to ask, as well as additional resources for you to better understand the topic. A PDF version of the document is available here.


Economy & Jobs

Trump attacking overtime pay for low-salaried workers. In 2016, the Obama administration expanded the right to overtime pay to more than four million salaried workers who make less than $47,500 per year. But the Trump administration has distanced itself from the Obama-era rule in court, signaling that it intends to issue a watered-down replacement rule that would protect fewer workers.

Additional background can be found in this article from NPR.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. Do you feel that workers making $47,500 a year or less should be entitled to overtime pay? If so, what will you do to stop the Trump administration from taking away these workers' rights to fair pay?

Senate Democrats' bipartisan tax reform principles. The Republicans have stated that tax reform is their top priority upon returning from recess. Democrats in the Senate have said that they are willing to negotiate a bipartisan tax reform bill, as long as the Republicans agree to three principles:

  1. There won't be an increase in the tax burden on the middle class or a tax cut for the wealthiest one percent;
    1. a) This shouldn't be controversial as Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said in his confirmation hearing that there shouldn't be a tax cut for the rich
  2. Any tax cuts won't increase the deficit; and
  3. The bill will go through the regular Senate process and won't require 60 votes.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. Are you willing to sign on to these principles and work to negotiate tax reform on a bipartisan basis? If not, which ones do you disagree with?


Education

Undermining civil rights in education. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) is stepping back from advances in civil rights investigations in public and higher education that were put in place by the Obama administration. The Department seeks to abandon policies that broadened investigations for individual complaints into systemic inquiries when evidence revealed violations that affected a class of victims. Additionally, the Department is reversing the Obama-era practice of requesting regional offices to notify headquarters in Washington about highly sensitive complaints. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos states that those practices increased the total number of investigations and resulted in a backlog of cases. Yet DeVos's proposed reductions to staffing in the office will result in even longer delays in the completion of investigations. DOE staffers under Obama counter that discriminatory practices, such as expulsion of a student with a disability without appropriate procedural protections, are often not isolated events, but rather errors repeated throughout the school or district that affect many other students. The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights was founded with the overarching goal of protecting the civil rights of all students, not just those with the knowledge and wherewithal to file complaints.

Civil rights are also under attack at the Department of Education in other areas. Under DeVos, the Department has also criticized "Dear Colleague" letters, which the previous administration posted on the web to help provide compliance guidance to school districts and educate the public about educational rights and obligations under OCR's purview. The effectiveness of the "Dear Colleague" letters was demonstrated by a 20 percent reduction in national suspension rates in schools in two years after the publication of a letter addressing the issue. Finally, the Department has removed guidance on transgender students, thereby removing protections for some of the schools' most vulnerable students.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. How can the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights fulfill its mission of ensuring equal access to education and promoting educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation's schools if it reduces its staffing, restricts its activities and investigations only to responding directly to complaints brought by a small number of informed people, and ignores evidence of systemic issues?
  2. Do you support maintaining the current level of staffing in the civil rights office of the Dept. of Education? If not, how do you propose that the civil rights office be able to adequately address legitimate complaints with a reduced staff?

Cuts to the education budget. The proposed budget from the President reduces the overall education budget by 13.5% ($9.2 billion), cutting essential programs such as teacher training, class-size reduction, and after-school programs. Yet the budget also diverts $1 billion to "school choice" programs, a favorite of Trump and of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Under Trump's proposal for higher education, funding for Pell grants should remain stable, but other programs–including the federal work-study program, which allows students the ability to pay tuition through working part-time jobs, as well as others which provide low-income students with financial assistance–are being significantly reduced. Cuts in the House budget aren't quite as severe as the President's budget, but still reduce education funding by $2.4 billion. Most of the reductions come from the elimination of Title II funds, which primarily go to teacher training and development and reductions to class size. The House budget does not, however, provide for any funding for school choice programs. Any cuts to Medicaid will significantly impact school districts as well, especially in terms of funding for special education. Many of the services provided to students with disabilities—such as language therapy, occupational therapy, and counseling—are funded by Medicaid.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. Keeping in mind that "school choice" options are not required to educate all students or to meet all students' needs as required of public schools under federal law, do you support diverting federal funds to privatized educational options such as vouchers for private schools or privately-operated charter schools? Or do you support public funds staying with public schools?
  2. What do you feel are the most important education programs provided for by federal funds, and how will you ensure that the government safeguards those programs?


Energy & Environment

Cutting emissions in the wake of Paris. On June 1, 2017, President Trump announced that the United States intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The Paris Climate Agreement is a landmark agreement signed in 2015 by 195 countries to combat global climate change. Its central aim is to strengthen the global response to climate change by keeping a global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Under the Agreement, countries voluntarily put forward their self-defined emission reduction goals through "nationally determined contributions" and regularly report their emissions and implementation efforts. The United States pledged to cut domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and is already halfway towards its goal, having cut emissions by 14 percent. Upon withdrawal, the United States will join Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries not participating in the Agreement. Nicaragua did not sign because it did not think the Agreement did enough to combat climate change; Syria was in the midst of a civil war.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. Even though the United States has announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, do you believe that we should still work towards reducing our emissions?
  2. What steps do you plan to take to help the United States join the rest of the world in reducing emissions and fighting climate change?

Protecting our air and water. The Trump administration has begun rolling back of rules that protect our air and water. In one example, Executive Order 13778 directed the EPA to rescind or revise the Waters of the United States Rule, which broadly defines the EPA's jurisdiction over "navigable waters of the United States" and enables the EPA to regulate pollution in non-permanent streams and wetlands that feed drinking water sources and larger waterways. The EPA now plans to replace the Obama-era Waters of the United States Rule with a narrower interpretation of the EPA's jurisdiction, only allowing the EPA to regulate pollution in waters that contain "a relatively permanent flow" or possess "a continuous surface connection" to waters with a relatively permanent flow. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the EPA's new proposed rule will remove protections for the streams that feed drinking water sources for one in three Americans. In a second example, the EPA announced that it would delay implementation of an Obama-era rule limiting methane emissions from oil and gas operations for two years in order to "reconsider" the rule. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, however, recently ruled that the EPA could not prevent the regulations from going into effect. The Court told the EPA that if it wishes to undo the rule, then the agency must go through the normal administrative process.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. In light of the EPA's rollback of rules protecting our air and water from pollution, how will you ensure the air we breathe and the water we drink is safe?
  2. Given the administration's efforts to revise the Waters of the United States Rule, are you willing to clarify the Clean Water Act to ensure that EPA has the ability to keep streams that flow into drinking water sources clean?
  3. Are you willing to amend the Clean Air Act to require the EPA the ability to put limits on sources of emissions like oil and gas drilling operations?


Ethics & Open Government

Need for legislation to ensure transparency and good governance. Walter Shaub recently resigned from his position as Director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) citing clashes with the Trump administration. According to Shaub, the Trump presidency has exposed the inadequacy of our current laws to ensure that all federal employees are held to the standards of transparency and ethical governance that Americans expect and deserve.

Additional background can be found in this article from the New York Times.

Questions for your representatives: Do you support Shaub's proposals that Congress pass legislation to ensure federal employees are held to high ethical standards and are free from conflicts of interest? Specifically, requiring:

  • All federal employees, including the President, to disclose business liabilities and debts in entities that they control (as opposed to debts for which they are personally responsible)?
  • All federal employees, including the President, disclose assets placed in discretionary trusts (investment vehicles that hold property they can benefit from but which they do not currently control)?
  • Presidential and vice-presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns to the FEC and file them with the OGE?

Protecting the special counsel from interference. After the firing of FBI director James Comey and appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the scope of Russian interference in the 2016 election, various news outlets have reported that the President has sought to undermine the investigation by calling into question Mueller's impartiality, and is considering firing him. On August 3rd, two bipartisan pairs of senators (Sen. Coons (D-DE) & Sen. Tillis (R-NC) and Sen. Booker (D-NJ) & Sen. Graham (R-SC)) introduced legislation to prevent the President from removing Mueller without cause.

For more information on the Russia investigation, please see this Vox article.

Question for your representatives: Do you support these senators' efforts to support Mueller, and what steps are you willing to take to ensure a full and fair investigation of Russia's influence on the 2016 election and the Trump campaign's involvement?


Foreign Policy & National Security

Undermining American diplomacy abroad. The Trump Administration has failed to fill leadership positions and all but frozen hiring at the State Department. Six months after taking office, three quarters of senior positions at the State Department remain unfilled. This administration has virtually abandoned efforts to set effective foreign policy with respect to Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea. It has attempted to undermine a working agreement with Iran out of spite for the last administration. It acquiesced to Russian demands in Syria and last month ended an aid program to the Syrian resistance.

More broadly, Trump has demonstrated weak support for our NATO allies and refused to commit to common goals at the recent G-20 meetings. Congress has started to notice and to some extent it has responded: it has pushed back against the proposed 30 percent reduction to the State Department budget, and recently passed sanctions bills against Russia and Iran with veto-proof margins.

Additional background can be found in this article from the Washington Post.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. Why do you think the Trump Administration has withdrawn America from its global leadership position? Is this an example of Trump saying one thing and doing another? Or is this White House determined to destroy U.S. capacity to deal with global challenges just to refute his predecessor?
  2. If Trump abdicates -- or actively weakens -- the Executive's foreign policy responsibilities, what should the Congress do to maintain them?
  3. How has your Representative or Senator responded to the White House's foreign policy failures?

Bolstering China's influence in Asia. One of the first acts of the Trump Administration was to withdraw the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership. The intended effect was to assert an "America First" economic foreign policy that prioritized bilateral relations over multilateral agreements. The real effect has been to drive Pacific nations into the Chinese sphere of influence. China has indirectly or directly threatened military action against multiple Southeast Asian nations who have territorial claims in the South China Sea. It has created islands using military personnel in other countries' territorial waters, but without recent response from the United States. This is finally coming to a head; last week (July 25), Vietnam and the Philippines announced that they would acquiesce to Chinese "partner requests" on developing natural resources in the South China Sea, a key Chinese demand.

Additional background can be found in this article from Foreign Policy magazine.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. Has the Trump approach toward multilateral agreements been successful in securing the interests of the United States? Or has it had the opposite effect -- of ultimately strengthening adversaries and competitor nations at the expense of the interests of the United States and the West?
  2. Will allowing China to dominate Pacific nations threaten U.S. interests for Congress to respond, and how will it affect your community? Will the cost of common goods rise? Southeast Asia is a major consumer of high margin American products (e.g., alcohol, luxury brand goods, etc.); will "uniquely American" jobs and industries disappear as markets for American goods become less open?

Trump administration links with Russia. Every week -- if not every day -- the Trump Administration's ties to Russia are becoming more apparent. For a president who claims to put "America First", this White House seems to prioritize the interests of one of America's longest standing adversaries. Russia has directly threatened American allies and undermined or outright invaded neighboring countries. Instead of denouncing such violations of international law, the Trump Administration has praised its authoritarian leader. In the last month, the President's son and son-in-law both admitted meeting with foreign officials to coordinate political activities. Some members of Congress are attempting to revoke the security clearances of certain individuals close to the president, citing multiple questionable activities with respect to Russia.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. Do you think that this behavior is acceptable for the President of the United States?
  2. Russia is one of the few countries with the capacity to harm Americans even far from the coast; are you concerned about threats to America's allies?
  3. How has your member of Congress or Senator responded to the White House's coziness with a hostile foreign power?

Healthcare

Efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or "Obamacare). Repealing the ACA has been a key policy goal for the Republican Party for many years. While the Senate recently voted down all the versions of repeal and replace (i.e. "Trumpcare") that came to the floor, and most Senators have indicated that they are interested in moving on, there continues to be rumblings of bringing back another vote to the floor--something which is being pushed by the White House. Senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Dean Heller (R-NV) are working on a proposal that would change Medicaid into block grants. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) is working on an amendment to increase Medicaid funding to sweeten the deal for moderates to induce them to vote for repeal. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is continuing to push his proposal to allow states to opt out of ACA regulations. Nothing is likely to happen with these proposals until the fall.

Every member of Congress has now voted on repeal and replace, from the House vote in May to the Senate vote last week. We need to continue to hold them accountable for those votes to repeal. If you live in a state with Senators who are still pushing for repeal, continue to pressure them with phone calls, town hall visits, and protests that they stop. It helps to include in your protests the specific numbers for how many people in that district or state would have lost insurance if that vote had become law. We need to applaud every Democratic Representative and Senator as well as Senators Collins, Murkowski, and McCain who voted no on repeal and replace and let them know how grateful we are for defeating Trumpcare. Even if you are not in the districts or states of these members, you can still send them a thank you, by phone, text, email or social media. Because if a new Trumpcare bill should make its way to Congress for a vote, we need these members to hold fast and continue to vote no.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. Why are some Republicans continuing to force repeal and replace bills, instead of focusing on a bipartisan approach to stabilizing the individual markets? Why would Congress continue down a road that will deprive millions of Americans of their health insurance and not correct the problems of high costs of healthcare nor increase access to health insurance?

Undermining ACA cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments. Passing a repeal and replace bill is not the only way that Trump and the Republicans can damage the ACA. They can attack it from the regulatory side, and the immediate concern would be if the Trump administration refuses to continue CSR payments. These are payments to help lower the cost of premiums and deductibles for low income and moderate income Americans who purchase their insurance through the individual marketplaces. These payments are made directly to the insurance companies and are not a give-away or bailout for the insurance companies, as Trump has alleged, but compensation for reduced revenues. Without these CSR payments, premiums will rise, and insurance will cease to be affordable for millions of Americans and many insurance companies will exit the marketplaces. Just the uncertainty over this issue is liable to contribute to premium increases and many insurance companies pulling out of the exchanges.

Some Republican members of Congress have been pushing back against Trump's statements to stop the subsidies and let the ACA implode. Senator Lamar Alexander (R- TN) and Representative Charlie Dent (R- PA) have indicated that the administration should publicly state that the subsidies will continue. It has also been reported that over 40 members of the House, Republican and Democrats, are looking for a bipartisan approach to fixing the ACA which would include making the CSRs permanent. Send messages to Alexander and Dent and let them know we support their bucking their party and the administration on this important issue. We need to make our support of continuing these CSR payments a top priority. Each member of Congress should be questioned on where they stand on this issue. With phone calls, texts, emails, social media posts, posters at rallies and questions at town halls, we need to loudly and clearly protest any attempt to weaken or withdraw these CSR payments.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. What are you doing to make the administration commit to continuing CSR payments?
  2. What are you doing to help stabilize insurance markets in light of the uncertainty coming from the administration?

Infrastructure & Urban Policy

Lack of leadership on infrastructure issues. At present it is unclear when the president will roll out the specifics of his proposed infrastructure plan, or how it will fit into a congressional agenda bogged down by a stalled health care bill, a desire to overhaul the tax code, planned measures to lift the debt ceiling and a budget plan that includes infrastructure spending cuts. The infrastructure policy that the President supports, appears to "sell off America" to Wall Street investors. He has said private investors will collect their returns by creating toll roads, increasing fees or finding other sources of revenue to get a return on their investment. The draft budget also indicates that HUD will suffer a net loss in their budget, seeing its total funding reduced from $48.5 billion to $42.5 billion. Many programs set to be eliminated are essential to the lower income senior population.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. The administration has shown no evidence of its desire to invest in public infrastructure. What will you do to ensure that essential funds are secured to make critical, overdue fixes to our nation's infrastructure?
  2. Is the President's proposal that the private sector invest in our crumbling infrastructure realistic, if they lack any reasonable option of recouping their investments?
  3. What will you do to ensure that seniors and other vulnerable individuals are protected and their access to safe, affordable housing is ensured?

Justice & Civil Liberties

Attacks on criminal justice reform. Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Trump Department of Justice has begun or signaled a rollback of many bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts such as marijuana decriminalization, supervision of police departments that systematically violate civil rights, and limits on civil asset forfeiture. These efforts keep law enforcement accountable and promote community policing. Civil asset forfeiture, the practice of seizing a criminal suspect's assets before they are ever convicted of a crime, has drawn especially broad criticism from both left and right.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. What are you doing to fight the system of mass incarceration and other miscarriages of justice in the criminal justice system?
  2. How can law enforcement build trust with the communities they serve when the Department of Justice sets a retrograde example on issues like civil asset forfeiture and the war on drugs?

Science & Technology

Scientific and domestic programs underfunded in FY18 budget proposals. On October 1, 2017, the federal government will begin its 2018 fiscal year (FY18). Congress will need to have passed a new budget--or a continuing resolution--by then in order to avoid a government shutdown. Because Congress left for its August recess without a new budget in place, the FY18 budget will be a key issue during the August recess and after Congress returns to Washington, DC, in September. In his FY18 budget, President Trump proposed slashing $54 billion (10.9%) from non-defense discretionary spending. This would include draconian cuts to scientific programs, including a shocking $7.7 billion (22%) cut to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and an unprecedented $776 million (11%) cut to the National Science Foundation (NSF). While Congress is not expected to take the President's most extreme recommendations, House Republicans are still considering cutting $7.5 billion from non-defense spending, including deep cuts to scientific programs. Some of the most significant reductions would be the elimination of the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a $1 billion (48%) cut to the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), a $528 million (6.5%) cut to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and a $217 million (11%) cut to the Earth Science division at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Even if budgets remained flat in FY18, important government programs would remain underfunded because federal spending has been constrained by severe spending caps since the sequester went into effect in 2013. However, on top of this, Republicans are still proposing additional cuts to scientific and other domestic programs this year. Thus, it is important for Americans to speak up in support of these important government programs that help build our society, support our local communities, and make the world a better place.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. How can the US remain competitive globally in the face of flat or declining budgets to science and research programs?
  2. Why is Congress not providing more support to key programs that help keep us safe and healthy by better understanding extreme weather, climate change, the environment, human health and disease, and other threats and dangers that would only be revealed through research?
  3. How will you ensure that innovation and research and development (R&D) are funded at levels high enough to keep our economy competitive with countries like China?
  4. What are you doing to ensure our communities are healthy with such severe budget cuts to key programs in the EPA?

Critical administration science and technology posts remain unfilled. Six months into the Trump administration, many critical science positions remain vacant, including the directors for NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the US Geological Survey (USGS). Top science advisors at the EPA, the DOE, and the Department of Defense have either been fired or have departed, and their positions remain unfilled. The administration's lack of leadership on science and technology matters has been wide ranging and appears to demonstrate a desire to largely sideline government science and technology unrelated to the military. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has been reduced from 100 to 35 staffers, and there is no current White House science adviser—a person who would normally have a direct contact with the President. This understaffing has real-world effects, such as President Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, which was made without scientific advice within the White House. Furthermore, roles previously held by scientists in other administrations have been filled in this administration by people who have no science background. For example, the Trump-appointed head of the Department of Energy, Rick Perry, replaced a career scientist that had been a physicist prior to heading the DOE. Agriculture undersecretary Sam Clovis, a former economics professor without life-sciences experience, is the new chief scientist at USDA. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, recently suggested largely disbanding its Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues (S/CCI). The Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State (STAS) has been virtually dissolved, with the latest Adviser leaving in July after being told his contract would not be renewed. In other departments, including the Department of the Interior, some 50 senior scientists and staff have been involuntarily reassigned to roles in such an egregious way that it has prompted a congressional investigation. According to reports, some 45 high-level science positions requiring Senate confirmation science positions sit unfilled. Many of these vacant positions are key to protecting the health and welfare of Americans, maintaining the US's position as a global leader in science and technology innovation, and providing national security.

Questions for your representatives:

  1. What are you doing to ensure that the best science is being used to drive US policy?
  2. What are you doing to push the administration to fill the many key scientific positions that are currently vacant?
  3. What are you doing to make sure that the responsibilities federal agencies are being met in the absence of key scientific advisers?

Trade and Development


Trump and Commerce Secretary Ross postured about restricting steel imports, and caused an 18% surge in imports as a result. The report under Section 232 of the 1962 Trade Expansion Act is a part of the process towards unilateral tariff increases, and so provoked countries and companies to act to shift steel into the US ahead of the actions they assumed would follow. Sen Ron Wyden (D-OR) on the on-again, off-again posturing: "There is a real cost to the all the overhyped rhetoric, when the follow-through isn't there. This episode demonstrates how tough talk without a real strategy hurts American workers".

Question for your representatives:

  1. Why does the administration go back and forth on trade enforcement?
  2. If there is a problem, why didn't they move forward to protect US industries and workers, and if there isn't a problem, why did they irresponsibly make those accusations to the public and the world?

Members of Congress are circulating a letter to demand transparency about the NAFTA renegotiation. Representatives Debbie Dingell (MI-12) and Bill Pascrell (NJ-9) are calling for access to the negotiating texts for congressional staff, public release of the US proposals, and the appointment of a chief transparency officer.

Question for your representatives:

  1. Why won't the Administration share details about its plans and positions regarding NAFTA, when the treaty is so critical to so much US economic activity (and thus implicates most Members' districts? Is it really appropriate to hide such a critical process from Congress?
  2. Given that we're negotiating with one of the countries we trust most, and have incredibly strong ties to, culturally as well as politically, what does the Administration fear from releasing its proposals so that the public can see what we're asking from our cousins to the north? Shouldn't the American public have the same insight into our trade policy that Canadian negotiators get?