By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on June 18, 2017
HAVANA — In the heart of Old Havana along the city’s historic Cathedral Square, a restored colonial mansion housing a popular tourist restaurant is packed with travelers sipping mojitos and nibbling on plantain chips.
El Floridita, a daiquiri bar made famous by novelist Ernest Hemingway, has become such a hot spot for tourists that the establishment sells merchandise in the corner.
Not too far away, a historic Cuban building has recently been turned into a five-star hotel with a rooftop pool that is operated by Kempinski, a luxury Swiss resort chain.
All of the lucrative tourist spots have something in common: They are run by Cuba’s military, which will soon be restricted from receiving U.S. business under President Trump’s new crackdown on the island.
Many U.S. visitors to the island have no idea which entities are tied to the Cuban government and which are privately owned.
“I get that question a lot,” says Diana L., a tour guide who works for both a private company and one owned by the Cuban government. “We know. Cubans know. But yes, it’s hard to tell.”
A three-day visit to Cuba’s capital by The Hill, involving interviews with tour guides, business owners, Cuban economists and government officials, highlighted some of the difficulties Trump’s administration will face in enforcing its policy.
The White House announced last month that it would be reversing some of former President Obama’s opening policies with the country, which included re-establishing commercial air service and easing travel and trade restrictions with Cuba.
Trump didn’t fully roll back the policies, but he issued a directive that will prohibit U.S. people and companies from engaging in direct financial transactions with entities or subsidiaries that “disproportionately benefit” the Cuban military.
The effort is aimed at restricting the flow of U.S. dollars to Cuban President Raúl Castro’s government and instead funneling American commerce toward the growing private sector.
In practice, that means Americans will likely be restricted in where they can spend their money, while U.S. companies will have a tough time setting up shop on the island, given the Cuban government’s dominance of the travel and tourism economy.
The new regulations, which agencies were directed to start developing within 30 days, are squarely aimed at the Grupo de Administracion Empresarial S.A. (GAESA), the business arm of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces.
The military-controlled conglomerate is involved in nearly all sectors of the economy, but tourism is its crown jewel. GAESA’s tourism affiliate, Gaviota, operates an estimated 40 percent of all the island’s hotel rooms, in addition to controlling a number of restaurants, shops, tour groups, car rentals and taxis.
U.S. travel to Cuba has been surging since Obama made it easier for Americans to visit, though pure tourism is still prohibited. Cuban officials told The Hill and other U.S. reporters on Friday that over 346,000 American citizens visited the island during the first six months of 2017 — a 149 percent increase from the same time last year.
Both private entrepreneurs and the Cuban government have been racing to get in on the action. The crumbling, century-old colonial buildings that line Old Havana’s streets are rapidly being transformed to accommodate the growth.
GAESA’s tourism arm recently acquired Habaguanex, which previously ran all state-owned hotels, stores and restaurants in the historic center of Old Havana. It’s now almost impossible to navigate the tourist quarter without bumping into a military establishment.
But not every business is government-owned. Diana points out two private-sector restaurants with blue-and-white-striped awnings sitting along another square.
She also says there are some clues that can help people figure out what is run by the military.
Private restaurants tend to be more creative and trendy and sometimes have the word “paladar” — a Cuban term for a family-run restaurant — in them, for example. And privately owned stands that sell water bottles are more likely to have small coolers that look like they are from someone’s home, as opposed to a large industrial cooler, Diana added.
Still, it could be confusing for travelers trying to avoid patronizing a military establishment. Further complicating matters is that access to the internet, where one might find such information, is severely limited on the island.
When it comes to U.S. businesses, Trump administration officials have emphasized that the new restrictions will not apply to deals that have already been inked. That is likely to include Four Points by Sheraton Havana, which is operated by GAESA and became the first U.S. hotel to come to Cuba in more than 50 years.
But Trump’s new policy will make it difficult for new American companies to do business on the island.
“Companies spent the last year coming to Cuba to understand how Cuba operates, while simultaneously trying to get a license from [the Office of Foreign Assets Control],” said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, which arranges exchange programs and helped organize The Hill’s trip.
“Many of these companies don’t have a deal or contract that is signed, but were close — and that may involve doing business with entities linked to the military.”
Trump has directed the Commerce and Treasury departments to identify all the Cuban military-linked entities that will now be off-limits under the new regulations, which will allow a few exceptions.
Yet new businesses, which are constantly popping up on the island in the wake of the tourism surge, are likely to grow even after the list is published.
Diana, a regular tour guide, said she often stumbles upon new establishments in Old Havana she’s never seen before.
“Oh, I didn’t even know that was there,” she says, pointing to a new restaurant.
The Trump administration could also struggle to determine which companies “disproportionately benefit” the Cuban military. The books of state-run companies, including GAESA, are not public.
There are also questions about whether a private taxi driver who rents his car from the government or a Cuban military worker who has a side job in the private sector would be banned from doing business with American travelers and companies.
“This concept of an organization linked or belonging to military, it is very much discussable,” María de la Luz B’Hamel, director of North American commercial policy for Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment, told reporters.
Roadblocks to auditing
Another crux of Trump’s new Cuba policy is stepping up enforcement of existing travel restrictions. But that, too, could run into roadblocks.
The White House directed the Treasury Department to conduct regular audits of travelers and called on the inspector general to keep tabs on them, an effort that could require significantly more resources for federal agencies.
“Our policy begins with strictly enforcing U.S. law,” Trump said during his speech in Miami unveiling the new policy. “We will enforce the ban on tourism.”
The administration warned that U.S. travelers can expect to face more questioning from authorities when they return home from Cuba, either from customs agents at the airport or through audits later on.
All visitors are required to maintain full schedules while in Cuba and keep detailed records of their travels for five years. It’s a policy that has been rarely checked, and after a three-day visit to the island, it’s easy to see why.
Financial transactions on the island are done in cash, which makes it challenging for the U.S. government to prove where Americans spent their time and money.
Although visitors are supposed to keep receipts, they are often hand-written or just entirely unavailable. One taxi driver scribbled down his name and the ride’s cost on a piece of paper with the taxi company’s logo, but left off the time and date.
And Julio Álvarez, owner of a family-run company that renovates classic American cars and provides rides to tourists on the island, laughed when asked if they give out receipts.
“The best I can do is write my signature on the back of a business card,” Alvarez said through a translator.
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on April 8
Few Republicans in Washington are willing to go head-to-head with President Trump, but there is one band of GOP members willing to stand up to the leader of their own party: lawmakers who have announced their retirements.
While it’s not uncommon for members to feel far more liberated on their way out the door, it has taken on a whole new meaning in the Trump era, where lawmakers are confronted daily by a never-ending stream of White House controversies.
The GOP’s retirement caucus has provided some of the most biting commentary on the president in recent months, with Rep. Ryan Costello(Pa.) — the latest Republican to jump ship from Congress — even saying that his frustrations with the Trump administration helped drive him to the exit.
"I always thought I was freewheeling, but I think I've become a little bit more freewheeling," Costello told The Hill, discussing how his attitude has already shifted in the nearly two weeks since he announced his retirement. "It's a little bit less stressful."
There has been a wave of GOP retirements over the last several months as Republican members brace for tough midterm elections this November. About two dozen House Republicans are retiring outright, while four GOP senators have decided to call it quits.
Members have cited a mix of reasons for deciding to leave Congress, from expiring chairmanship terms to family and personal reasons.
But some lawmakers have pointed to another factor: Trump. They say that the unconventional president has added new headaches to an already demanding job.
“It’s exhausting,” centrist Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who announced his retirement last fall, told The Hill. “What we’ve gotten out of the administration is all this disruption, and it’s very destabilizing.”
Dent has become one of the most vocal and outspoken Trump critics in Congress, always offering up a reliable soundbite to reporters in the Capitol seeking GOP reaction to the latest White House controversy.
Just last week, Dent told The Associated Press that Trump’s "lack of impulse control" is cause for concern after a week of unpredictable moves by the White House left lawmakers uneasy about key Republican agenda items.
“The spontaneity and lack of impulse control are areas of concern for lots of members on both sides of the aisle,” Dent said. “Disorder, chaos, instability, uncertainty, intemperate statements are not conservative virtues in my opinion.”
Dent first began criticizing Trump during the 2016 presidential race. He conducted polling to see how it might impact his own race and found that 4 percent of his constituents would vote against Dent for the criticism but that 4 percent would actually support him because of it.
After realizing that his attacks on Trump were largely a nonfactor in his race, Dent felt liberated — a trend that continued well after he announced his retirement in September.
But Dent said he has grown increasingly frustrated that his criticisms of Trump don’t seem to earn him points with either side of the aisle: Conservatives say he is betraying the party, while liberals say Dent’s condemnation doesn’t go far enough.
“Too many people on both sides want you to set yourself on fire for them, and when you do, they complain the temperature of the flame isn’t hot enough,” he said. “That gets old.”
Costello, whose reelection in Pennsylvania would have been more challenging due to court-ordered redistricting, has also consistently shown a willingness to needle the president on certain issues — no doubt a reflection of his moderate district.
But since his retirement announcement last week, Costello has unloaded on Trump in a series of interviews in the media, saying he believes Trump had an extramarital affair with adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and criticizing the president for threatening to veto a government spending bill.
“I think she is,” Costello replied after MSNBC’s Katy Tur asked if he believed Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is telling the truth.
“Whether it’s Stormy Daniels, or passing an omnibus spending bill that the president threatens to veto after promising to sign, it’s very difficult to move forward in a constructive way today,” Costello told the Daily Local News.
Costello said he no longer feels obligated to respond to every single Trump tweet or White House scandal — something that had been a source of frustration for him prior to his retirement announcement.
"If I have something insightful to say, I'll say it. But I don't need to," he told The Hill.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who announced nearly a year ago that she would not seek reelection, has never been afraid to speak her mind.
But in recent months, Ros-Lehtinen has become one of just three Republicans to call on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt to resign; she has pressed the administration to reconsider adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census; and she slammed Trump’s reported comments calling Haiti, El Salvador and African nations “shithole countries," calling the remarks “reprehensible” and “racist.”
It’s not just moderate lawmakers who have challenged the White House since announcing their exit from Congress.
Gowdy, a fierce critic of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who is leading an investigation into alleged bias at the FBI and Justice Department, recently tweaked Trump publicly over the federal investigation into his campaign and Russian election meddling, telling him, “When you are innocent, act like it.”
The conservative hard-liner, who announced his retirement in January, has been one of his party’s louder defenders of special counsel Robert Muellerthis year and has called Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department “not helpful.” Gowdy also broke with the assessment from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Russian President Vladimir Putin preferred Trump during the 2016 presidential race.
Gowdy has also begun probing Pruitt’s $50-a-night housing arrangement on Capitol Hill, a GOP source told The Hill on Friday night.
Across the Capitol, retiring Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have been some of the biggest thorns in Trump’s side. There have also been some nonretiring lawmakers like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) who have panned Trump, though Graham is not up for reelection this year.
Flake, long a frequent Trump critic, delivered one of his most blistering Senate floor speeches when he announced his retirement, torching members of his own party and loudly denouncing the Trump administration.
"Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified," Flake said. "And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy."
That same uninhibited attitude was on full display this year at the Washington Press Club Foundation’s annual congressional dinner, where Ros-Lehtinen took the stage, though her remarks struck a much lighter tone.
“I’ve always spoken my mind whether I was running for re-election or not, but retirement did free me up to do the Washington Press Club Foundation speech, where some said I was actually funny!” Ros-Lehtinen told The Hill in an email. “However, it was a one night only show and I won’t be trying my luck at that again.”
The Florida lawmaker took several jabs at Trump and her congressional colleagues during the dinner.
“I know what the problem is: We really haven’t seen the long-form birth certificate of [Trump's] hair piece. That would put you all at ease,” she said.
Ros-Lehtinen went on to say the Trump campaign was shocked to learn that they actually won the 2016 presidential election.
And Ros-Lehtinen also joked that she was going to help write a book about dealing with the “orange monster underneath my bed.”
After Ros-Lehtinen finished her remarks, CNN’s Dana Bash quipped, “Whoever decided to pick somebody that is retiring, good call.”
By Melanie Zanona and Juliegrace Brufke
This article appeared on The Hill on April
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) did not give Majority Whip Steve Scalise(R-La.) a heads-up before publicly endorsing Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to be his successor, according to GOP sources upset by the move.
Allies of Scalise have expressed frustration that Ryan neglected to alert the majority whip before — or after — he told NBC’s Chuck Todd for a pre-taped segment on “Meet the Press” last week that both he and Scalise felt McCarthy was the “heir apparent” and “the right guy to step up” to the position.
Other members of Republican leadership were also in the dark ahead of Ryan’s high-profile endorsement of McCarthy, GOP sources told The Hill.
While it’s hardly surprising that Ryan would back his top lieutenant for the job, the incident, which caught Scalise off guard, has escalated the growing tensions between leadership offices as lawmakers quietly jockey for the Speaker’s gavel.
“That’s not the way to run things, especially with a member of your leadership team,” one GOP lawmaker who is an ally of Scalise, told The Hill. “I would hope that there’s better communication in the future.”
Ryan’s office declined a request for comment.
Some are speculating that the endorsement was a play by Ryan to remain functional in his leadership role through January and quell the palace intrigue surrounding a potentially messy and protracted leadership battle.
But the move does not appear to have shut down the shadow race for Speaker between McCarthy, Scalise and perhaps a far-right alternative such as former Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
While McCarthy, who hasn’t officially thrown his hat into the ring, has strong footing to take over the position, the No. 2 Republican has yet to lock down the conservative votes needed to reach 218, despite Ryan’s endorsement and his close relationship with the president.
Scalise has said he won’t challenge McCarthy in the race, but the No. 3 Republican expressed interest in the role should the majority leader fall short or opt against seeking the position.
Some of Scalise’s allies are still encouraging him to be prepared just in case McCarthy’s bid collapses, like it did in 2015.
Scalise, who has seen his political star rise since surviving a near-fatal shooting at a GOP baseball practice last summer, has been out of the Capitol this week as he recovers from a pre-planned surgery.
“Look, everybody wants to believe Kevin can do it. The onus is on him,” said one Republican lawmaker. “My point to Steve would be: you’re in no different position than you were before. You already said you weren’t going to run against Kevin. Let it all play out. If he can’t get it, you’re in the same spot you were before.”
Last Thursday, a day after his retirement announcement, Ryan suggested to reporters that Scalise would be supporting McCarthy for the Speaker’s gig — even though Scalise had not yet offered a public endorsement of the majority leader.
Some Scalise allies say the move essentially backed the majority whip into a corner.
It wasn’t until after Ryan’s public endorsement of McCarthy — which sources say blindsided Scalise when it dropped in a preview excerpt of “Meet the Press” that aired Friday — that the majority whip’s office put out an official statement saying Scalise would support McCarthy in a Speaker’s race.
“Whip Scalise’s focus remains on moving our conservative agenda forward and maintaining our Republican majority. When a Speaker’s race is called, he’ll be supporting Leader McCarthy,” said a spokesman.
Ryan said shortly after his retirement announcement that he had thoughts about who should replace him, hinting that he may wade into the race before he leaves.
GOP lawmakers say they were hardly surprised that Ryan would endorse McCarthy to be his successor, given that they once teamed up with former Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to brand themselves as the “Young Guns” of the Republican party.
Still, some Republican members questioned the timing of Ryan’s endorsement.
“I don’t know why he had to do it now. I can understand that there would be a reason to endorse someone, but here we are in mid-April. It’s just too early,” said Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who says he would either support Scalise or Jordan for Speaker. “I understand shaking hands and saying you will support me. But not publicly.”
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on March 3, 2018
Corporate America is taking the lead on gun control as Congress slides back into gridlock on the issue.
Several major retailers have decided to impose new restrictions on firearm sales, while numerous companies have moved to cut ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The business moves underscore the growing sense that the political winds are shifting on gun control following the latest mass shooting at a Florida high school.
“This is the biggest signal to me that on this issue, there has been a tipping point,” said Rich Masters, head of North America crisis and issues management for Qorvis. “Companies don’t do this unless they know they are gonna be on fairly safe ground.”
Calls for action on gun control have been steadily mounting ever since the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last month that left 17 students and faculty members dead.
The students who survived the shooting have become powerful voices in the debate, bringing their emotional pleas to cable television, the White House and Capitol Hill.
But it’s U.S. businesses — not members of Congress — that have so far answered their calls for action.
Dick’s Sporting Goods announced this week that it would stop selling assault-style rifles and stop gun sales to those under the age of 21, two gun control proposals that have been floated by members of Congress following the Florida shooting.
The 19-year-old suspect in the attack was believed to have purchased an AR-15 legally, and allegedly used the weapon to kill students at his former high school.
During an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," Dick's CEO Ed Stack said he was "disturbed and saddened" by the attack.
"Based on what's happened, and looking at those kids and those parents, it moved us all unimaginably and to think about the loss and the grief that those kids and those parents had, we said, 'we need to do something,' " he added.
Other companies quickly followed suit.
Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, announced it would hike the minimum age for firearm purchases to 21 and remove items from its website “resembling assault-style rifles, including nonlethal airsoft guns and toys.”
L.L. Bean said Thursday it will no longer sell guns or ammunition to anyone under 21 years of age, while Kroger announced the same day that it would raise the minimum age for gun purchases and ammunition at its Fred Meyer stores to 21 years of age.
“Kroger's vision is to serve America through food inspiration and uplift,” the grocery store chain said in its statement. “In response to the tragic events in Parkland and elsewhere, we've taken a hard look at our policies and procedures for firearm sales.”
Other businesses have distanced themselves from the NRA.
Two major outdoor retailers, REI and Mountain Equipment Co-op of Canada, decided this week to stop selling products from a sporting goods company that is connected to the NRA and produces assault-style weapons.
Companies that have direct business relationships with the NRA have also come under pressure to cut ties with the group.
The student survivors from the Parkland shooting have focused much of their attention on the powerful gun group and Republican lawmakers who have received contributions from it.
Activists have threatened boycotts and flooded social media with comments criticizing companies that have deals with the NRA, ranging from discount programs to a Visa credit card that has NRA branding.
In response, several companies — including two airlines, six car rental companies, a bank and an insurance company — have ended their corporate sponsorships with the gun group.
The NRA lambasted the companies over the moves, calling it a “shameful display of political and civic cowardice.”
Public relations experts say that companies are likely basing their decisions on the poll numbers, which suggest that the support for gun control is higher than ever before.
“For the first time ever, the numbers are really clear cut,” Masters said. “In general, companies only jump into the middle of contentious political issues when the numbers have significantly shifted in a way that they view as safe for their brand.”
Corporations may also feel a moral obligation to take the issue into their own hands, Masters said, since businesses can move far more swiftly than Congress.
And companies may also sense that there could be changes on the horizon anyway, since President Trump himself has called for raising the age requirement to buy rifles and other reforms.
But diving head first into the politically charged debate could also be a risky gambit for some businesses.
Delta Air Lines, for example, faced a fierce backlash after it ended its discount program for NRA members.
Lawmakers in Georgia, where the airline has its headquarters, this week removed a $38 million tax exemption for jet fuel from tax-cut legislation.
Georgia's Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R), who is also running for governor, had threatened to kill any tax legislation that benefits Delta after the NRA flap.
Delta has tried to quell the controversy, saying it is reviewing all discounts of a “politically divisive nature” and insisting that their intent was to remain neutral in the debate.
“They’re potentially putting their brands at risk,” Masters said.
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on Feb. 13, 2018
House conservatives are warning Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to take a hard line on immigration — or else risk facing a revolt in his own ranks.
While no GOP lawmakers are calling for a leadership change, frustrated conservatives are pressuring Ryan to put a hard-line immigration bill authored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) on the House floor in the coming weeks.
The growing calls underscore how Ryan, who has not yet announced whether he plans to run for reelection, is walking a political tightrope after passing a massive budget deal that was unpopular with conservatives.
“The [budget] bill that passed last week wasn’t consistent with what we told the voters we were going to do. We had better get it right on immigration,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a House Freedom Caucus leader, told The Hill.
“Hopefully, we’ll see an earnest effort this week to get to 218 votes for a conservative [immigration] bill,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).
“We better see some progress on the Goodlatte bill,” he added.
Ryan helped muscle a sweeping, bipartisan budget deal through Congress last week that sets the stage for $300 billion more in federal spending over the next two years. The measure also raises the debt ceiling for one year, knocking two major to-do items off lawmakers’ plate.
House conservatives balked over the plan, forcing Ryan and his leadership team to rely on Democrats to help get the legislation over the finish line.
In the end, a total of 167 Republicans backed the package. The previous two-year budget deal garnered just 79 GOP votes.
Many defense hawks ended up holding their noses to vote for the bill, which delivered a long-sought funding boost for the U.S. military.
Ryan seemed to emerge generally unscathed from the fight, despite the deal’s unpopularity with conservatives.
But Ryan might not get another pass when it comes to the immigration debate, which is the next big policy fight facing Congress.
Trump is rescinding the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He has given Congress until March 5 to come up with a permanent legal solution for the program, which protects certain immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.
Ryan last week said he’s serious about passing legislation to help people who have been enrolled in DACA.
“I know that there is a real commitment to solving the DACA challenge in both political parties. That’s a commitment that I share. To anyone who doubts my intention to solve this problem and bring up a DACA and immigration reform bill, do not,” Ryan said.
“We will bring a solution to the floor — one that the president will sign,” he said.
Conservatives say the solution Ryan is looking for is the Goodlatte bill, which has buy-in from key committee chairmen and has attracted support from both the moderate and conservative wings of the GOP conference.
“I think there would be a lot of folks who would be surprised if the House [immigration] bill is not the Goodlatte bill,” said Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio). “I’ve certainly heard some rumblings that people would be surprised and reactionary.”
In exchange for the Freedom Caucus’s support for a short-term government funding bill last month, Ryan agreed to put a team together to build support for the Goodlatte legislation. He also promised to put the bill on the floor if it could get 218 GOP votes.
But members of the conservative group have complained that leaders are not doing enough to build support for the bill.
“I certainly haven’t seen a strong whip effort on the part of leadership to get the Goodlatte bill on the floor,” Jordan said.
The House majority whip’s office has emphasized that listening sessions taking place on the measure are a critical first step in the process of building support for the legislation, which is necessary before it can be brought to the House floor. A similar process was used for tax reform, the office said.
But Davidson said “there’s not quite the same feel” when it comes to the Goodlatte bill.
Despite the rumblings of discontent, conservatives aren’t throwing out the threat of offering a “motion to vacate the chair” — which would force a vote on whether to strip Ryan of his Speaker’s gavel — if Ryan doesn’t follow through on his promise to only put an immigration bill on the floor if it has a majority of the GOP’s support.
But the threat of such a motion dogged his predecessor, former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who often faced challenges to his gavel, including over the issue of immigration.
Ryan is trying to thread the needle by promising to solve DACA in a way that does not upset members of his own conference.
The Speaker will also have to decide whether to take up whatever DACA bill, if any, passes the Senate.
House conservatives would prefer to put their stamp on the immigration debate by passing their own measure and going to conference with the Senate.
The Goodlatte bill is further to the right than the proposals being floated in the Senate or the framework outlined by the White House.
The legislation would offer a renewable, three-year legal status for DACA recipients in exchange for authorizing border wall funding, ending family-based immigration and eliminating the diversity visa lottery program.
It also would crack down on so-called sanctuary cities, increase criminal penalties for deported criminals who try to return to the U.S. and require employers to use an electronic verification system to ensure they only hire legal workers.
But it’s unclear whether the Goodlatte bill can get a majority in the House, with some Republicans representing the agricultural industry concerned about the E-Verify language and some moderate GOP lawmakers insisting on a pathway to citizenship for DACA enrollees. There could also be concern that putting the bill on the floor could upset the high-level, bipartisan DACA negotiations that are currently taking place among the leadership.
While many Republicans are expecting to see some version of the Goodlatte measure pass the House, others aren’t quite as confident.
“Here is what worries me: The Speaker, just a few years ago, was a leader in our party in fiscal responsibility and yet we got a [budget] bill like we did last week,” Jordan said. “And now we are heading into an immigration debate where we know the Speaker historically has not been where the country is, or the Republican Party is, on immigration.”
Ryan may have less to risk in the debate, however, if he doesn’t plan on sticking around in Congress next year. He said he would make a final decision with his wife this spring on running for reelection.
After Boehner announced his retirement plans, he decided to tackle sticky issues that were unpopular with conservatives, including the previous budget deal, in an effort to “clean the barn” for Ryan before he took over the Speaker’s gavel.
But Ryan has insisted that his political future will not impact how he moves forward in the DACA debate.
“It doesn’t,” Ryan said last week when pressed on how his personal future might play into his immigration decisions. “I don’t think about it at all.”
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on March 27, 2018
Moderate lawmakers in both parties believe their influence will rise after the midterm elections no matter which party takes control of the House.
The centrists are projecting that either Democrats or Republicans could have a narrow majority, which would give lawmakers in the middle more power to drive the agenda as leaders come begging for their votes.
Coalitions of moderate lawmakers also suspect their ranks will swell next year given the political climate.
“If it’s a slim [GOP] majority, we also win,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), whip of the moderate New Democrat Coalition. “You can’t ignore us anymore. You’re going to have to cut some deals if you want to get something done.”
“The idea that you can do it alone,” he added, “is not going to work if you’ve only got a two- or three-seat majority.”
Centrist Republicans have similar hopes.
“The majorities are going to be narrower, but whether it’s in Republican hands or Democratic hands that will only allow a group like ours to have more influence over the process,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
Moderate lawmakers have lost their foothold in the House over the past several years, especially following the historic Tea Party wave in 2010 that gave the GOP a large majority.
Blue Dog Democrats, a conservative and rural segment of the party, dwindled in size from 54 in 2008 to 18. Now they are hoping for a comeback.
“We’re going to have a lot more say in policy and legislation,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition. “I certainly want the Democrat majority, but even if it’s a slim [GOP] majority, the Republicans still need some of the more moderate individuals that might be Democrats to work with them.”
“So either way,” he added, “I think we’re going to be in a good place.”
Efforts to push more bipartisan ideas through Congress have been ramping up over the past year. The Problem Solvers Caucus, which works closely with the bipartisan advocacy group No Labels, launched last year with the goal of building bipartisan consensus on key policy issues.
The 48-member caucus is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. If 75 percent of the group and more than 50 percent of each party agrees on an issue, then the entire caucus will vote as a unified bloc.
The strategy takes a page from the book of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, which takes formal positions on issues if 80 percent of its members agree. The group of roughly 30 conservative hard-liners has been highly effective at blocking bills on the House floor.
“Any bloc of any legislators that is able to stick together is able to be kingmakers ... but the only real organized blocs in the House has been on the far right and far left,” said Ryan Clancy, the chief strategist at No Labels. “What hadn’t existed, until recently, is something like the Problem Solvers Caucus.”
The caucus has already produced bipartisan solutions on a range of contentious issues, including health care, immigration and guns — but none of the proposals have been brought to the floor.
The group blames how legislative business is conducted in the House and has started discussing some potential rules changes that could increase their power.
No Labels has been encouraging lawmakers to withhold their support for the next Speaker unless the candidate agrees to a package of rules changes. Moderates would have even more leverage to make demands from future leaders if there is a slimmer majority.
Some potential reforms that could make moderates stronger include allowing more open rules and amendments, ensuring conference committees have members from both parties, requiring the Speaker to receive a larger majority to win the gavel and abandoning the Republican practice of only allowing a bill to come to the floor if it has a majority of the GOP’s support.
That would force the majority to negotiate with the minority and increase the odds of achieving bipartisan solutions in Congress, the group says.
Reed said he would even consider supporting a Democrat’s bid for Speaker if they agreed to certain rule reforms.
But such reforms are sure to face fierce resistance in both parties, and it’s unclear whether enough centrist lawmakers would be willing to play hardball.
“It might entail some political risks, but if they’re willing to make some asks … it could have huge rewards,” Clancy said.
While a number of Republicans in the Problem Solvers Caucus are facing tough reelection races, Reed said he is hearing more interest than ever before from “influential stakeholders” who want to help get pragmatic lawmakers elected to Congress in order to break gridlock.
No Labels is planning an aggressive effort to spend tens of millions of dollars to protect moderates in both parties from primary challenges.
The Blue Dogs are also expecting to increase their numbers next year, especially as Democrats seek to win over the blue-collar voters that fled the party to support President Trump. They recently gained Conor Lamb, who pulled off a special election victory in a Pennsylvania district that Trump carried by 20 points.
The coalition’s political arm has become a bigger player in the Democratic strategy to win back the House, which is further raising hopes they will wield more influence next year.
“The road to the majority is through the coalition. ... The political arm of the Blue Dogs is very active,” said Kristen Hawn, a senior adviser for the group’s political action committee. “We’re seeing a lot more interest, and a lot of fundraising is up.”
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on Aug. 27, 2017
Escalating tensions this summer have stepped up fears about political violence.
Law enforcement officials, college campuses and cities around the country are bracing for a new wave of alt-right rallies in the weeks and months to come, with parties on both sides of the debate over Confederate statues and monuments prepared for standoffs.
At the center of it all is President Trump, whose heated rhetoric has angered opponents while firing up his supporters, magnifying the sense that the political divide in the country is growing wider.
“When there seems to be no room for compromise and no appetite for listening to the other side, the potential for violence is higher,” said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “And the Confederate monuments are the obvious flashpoint.”
Even before the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., this month, which left one woman dead and 19 others injured after a car mowed down a group of counterprotesters, there was already heightened concern over the threat of violence amid a hyper-charged political environment in the country.
A lone gunman shot up a baseball field earlier this summer where Republican members and staffers were practicing for a charity game, leaving House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) in critical condition.
And the first half of this year saw an alarming uptick in death threats against lawmakers, with Capitol Police investigating more threats in the first half of 2017 than all of last year. Many lawmakers have refused to hold town halls this year, claiming they feel it is too dangerous.
The increasing threats come after one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in modern U.S. history. Tempers on both sides ran high during the 2016 cycle, with punches being thrown at some campaign events.
But even after taking office, Trump has generally stuck to the same street-fighting style that energized his base and helped propel him to victory.
“He himself is kind of more inflammatory, and he tends to react to things in this more aggressive manner. That can be good for a campaign and welcome in a primary, but it’s complicated for trying to build unity,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
“The more the president foams up this dissent, the worse it is to try to unify the country as a nation and to heal these wounds.”
The discord was on full display at a raucous rally in Arizona this week, where Trump attacked lawmakers in his own party, blamed the media for the negative coverage of his equivocating response to Charlottesville and warned his supporters that their culture is at risk of being taken away.
Outside of the rally, police officers used tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters.
While Trump has repeatedly called for unity, his actions appear to be having the opposite effect, according to political observers.
There is growing concern that Trump could be bringing long-simmering tensions to a boil, with his supporters feeling more inclined to go out and defend the president and his critics feeling more pressure to have their own voices heard.
“There’s always been tension over race and ethnicity and immigration, that’s a part of American history. But if you have the president attacking different groups, there is a real danger that people will take him up on his rhetoric,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian and presidential expert at Princeton University.
“People who are angry will want to attack the people he is attacking, and that is not a safe situation. He might be unleashing things he can’t control.”
Whether Charlottesville was an isolated incident or part of a broader trend will be put to the test in the coming months.
A number of cities, colleges and local law enforcement agencies are gearing up for more right-wing rallies around the country, which are expected to bring both demonstrators and counterprotesters.
Stormfront, a leading internet forum for white supremacists, is planning a “White Pride Worldwide” summit in eastern Tennessee during the last weekend of September.
While police departments say they are prepared to handle the events, there is growing fear that the gatherings could spiral into violent clashes.
Other right-wing events have already been halted over the threat of violence. Texas A&M cancelled a “White Lives Matter" rally scheduled for Sept. 11, while the University of Florida denied a request from a white nationalist group to hold an event there.
And, after repeated clashes between left- and right-wing groups during the first half of the year over controversial conservative speakers, University of California, Berkeley unveiled a new policy after Charlottesville requiring eight weeks' advance notice for speakers so that the university can make security preparations.
“What we’re seeing is the consequence of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and his attacks on so-called political correctness,” Cohen said. “Mr. Trump’s comments after Charlottesville … energized the white supremacist movement and gave people a license to act on their worst instincts.”
Others, however, say the rise of social media and cable news networks are partly to blame for inflaming the tensions in the country, pointing to wall-to-wall coverage of the violence in Charlottesville.
“Cable TV needs content, so they replay over and over a statue coming down, someone being punched in the face,” said Craig Shirley, a historian and biographer of former President Reagan. “I think that just adds to everybody’s anxiety.”
Parallels with other points in history
Historians point out that it’s not uncommon to see political frustrations boil over in response to a new presidency or policy.
In 2009, mounting anger over pending ObamaCare legislation inspired hostile town halls around the country, including some that led to fistfights.
There was also a massive divide in the country when President George W. Bush took office following a controversial recount of the 2000 U.S. presidential election.
But many historians believe that the best comparison is to President Richard Nixon coming to power after pledging to impose “law and order,” following civil rights victories during the Johnson administration.
Similarly, they believe the current environment may be a backlash to the changing demographics and social change that the country has seen in recent years.
“There’s a cyclical role of how politics, and reactions to policy, take place,” said Rottinghaus. “Nixon’s presidency is a reaction to LBJ, just like Trump’s candidacy is a reaction to what Obama did in office.”
While historians are not predicting wide-scale riots like the ones that took place in the 1960s, they do caution that there could be more violent clashes if Trump doesn’t tamp down on the growing unrest and try to bridge the partisan divide.
“Trump didn’t create white anxiety, he didn’t create the backlash to having an African-American president. But he harnessed it and revved it up,” Cohen said. “He is blowing up the balloon, and it’s going to pop, and it’s going to be ugly.”
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on April 4, 2018
The House GOP’s campaign arm is facing tough choices about where to shift precious resources in the midterm elections, as Republicans desperately try to stave off a potential blue wave this November.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) must decide how much focus should be placed on competitive and Democratic-leaning districts that Hillary Clinton carried — or if the party should put more energy into protecting solid GOP seats that could be in danger if a wave materializes this fall.
“Not every seat is created equal. ... Ultimately, you have to decide what is the best path to holding the majority,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist based in Texas. “You’re dealing with a chess board that has 30 or 40 pieces on it, and you’re trying to figure out how to get from here to there.”
“It’s a judgment call both sides have to make,” he added. “And it’s challenging.”
Republicans are bracing for tough midterm elections, with anxiety running high over whether anti-Trump sentiment could hurt the GOP at the polls.
The GOP election strategy has been further scrambled by Democrat Conor Lamb’s upset victory in a Pennsylvania special election last month, which suggested the GOP could even be vulnerable in areas of the country where Trump was strong in 2016.
Historically, the president’s party loses about 32 seats on average during the midterms. Democrats will win back the majority if they flip a net 23 seats.
There are nearly two dozen Republicans running in races that are currently rated as toss-ups, including Reps. Leonard Lance (N.J.), Claudia Tenney (N.Y.), Rod Blum (Iowa), Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), John Culberson (Texas), Jeff Denham (Calif.), Barbara Comstock (Va.), Erik Paulsen (Minn.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.).
Meanwhile, there are more than a dozen other races where Republicans have an advantage but the seats are still considered competitive. That list includes some lawmakers who were outraised by their Democratic challengers in the last quarter of 2017, including Reps. Mia Love (Utah), Steve Chabot (Ohio), Mimi Walters (Calif.) and Dave Brat (Va.).
Following Lamb’s upset victory over Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone, the Cook Political Report changed 10 race ratings toward Democrats, illustrating how an already difficult playing field could become even more treacherous.
Three “lean Republican” seats were shifted into the “toss-up” column, while three “likely Democratic” seats moved to solidly blue.
Rep. Ryan Costello’s (R-Pa.) decision to retire last week after a court-ordered redistricting made his reelection more challenging prompted the Cook Political Report to move his suburban Philadelphia seat from “toss-up” to “lean Democratic.”
“The move deprives Republicans of a well-liked incumbent with $1.3 million in the bank … and puts Democrat Chrissy Houlahan in the driver’s seat to take over a very favorably redrawn seat,” wrote David Wasserman, Cook’s House editor.
The NRCC will have to decide in the months ahead whether it’s worth pouring large sums of cash into Democratic-likely and -leaning seats like Costello’s, or if the party is better served trying to save Republican-leaning seats and defending GOP incumbents in competitive races.
“They want to spend their precious dollars as productively and efficiently as possible,” Mackowiak said. “They have a pretty good idea of the top 10 or 15 races. The question: what’s the second 15?”
Incumbents tend to get priority, but a whole host of other factors go into the decisionmaking process. That includes who the Democratic opponent is in a race, what the dynamic is like in the district, whether the candidate is running a good campaign, the resources the party has, how much it costs to advertise in the district and the overall political environment.
“First and foremost, the job of the party committees is to protect incumbents,” said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
But, he added, “there are hundreds of factors. It varies in exact science, and it’s very fluid.”
Many of these choices may not be made until around Labor Day, ahead of the two-month sprint toward the finish line in November. Plus, there could be more changes to race ratings coming down the pike — another factor that could influence the NRCC’s strategy.
At some point, the House GOP’s campaign arm may even have to cut certain Republican candidates loose in order to shift limited party resources elsewhere, although those types of tough decisions may not come until late in the election cycle.
A candidate’s own fundraising can also guide where the NRCC chooses to invest.
“You can try to drag a candidate across the finish line, but if they’re not running on their own, that job is very, very difficult to achieve,” Heye said. “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”
After Lamb outspent Saccone 5-to-1, Republican leaders warned lawmakers not to rest on their laurels when it comes to fundraising.
“If you’re getting outraised, this is a wake-up call. Prepare to bear down,” Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the NRCC’s chairman, told rank-and-file Republicans during a private meeting last month, according to a source in the room.
The biggest concern for party leaders, however, is not moderate lawmakers facing competitive races — it’s the entrenched Republicans who have never seen a real fight before.
“Leadership has been really clear to their members about not taking anything for granted,” Heye said. “That’s where people get caught by surprise.”
Fifty-four Democratic challengers outraised 43 GOP incumbents in the last quarter of 2017, according to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), a figure that has further stepped up anxiety among Republicans fighting to keep the House.
That follows on reports that 35 Republican incumbents were outraised in the third quarter of last year.
“Democratic candidates across the country are out-hustling and out-organizing Republican incumbents, many of whom have not faced a competitive challenge in a very long time and are struggling to find those old campaign muscles,” Tyler Law, a spokesman for the DCCC, said in a statement.
Those numbers may also ramp up pressure on Republicans in the safest districts to start ponying up more money for their party.
In an encouraging sign, the NRCC hauled in a record-breaking $32 million at its annual March dinner, where Trump took the stage this year.
The committee had $54 million in cash on hand at the end of February, while the DCCC had $49 million on hand.
But some of the GOP’s donors may feel more inclined to contribute money to candidates in the Senate, where the map is far more favorable to Republicans. Ten Democratic senators are running for reelection in states that Trump won, offering the GOP several opportunities for offense.
“We’ve seen the value of one Senate seat,” said Mackowiak, pointing to the Senate’s failure to repeal ObamaCare. “So what you might see is Dem donors focus on the House, and Republican donors focus on the Senate.
By Melanie Zanona and Jordain Carney
This article appeared on The Hill on January 23
As the partisan blame game on the government shutdown intensified over the weekend, a growing number of senators from both parties began meeting in “little Switzerland."
That was the term used for the neutral ground of Sen. Susan Collins’s (R-Maine) office, which became the stage for a crucial stretch of bipartisan negotiations that were widely credited with breaking the three-day impasse over government funding.
"It’s the one place where we can all go and feel good," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters, referring to the fourth floor Dirksen office as "Switzerland."
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) added that, amid the public bickering, Collins’s office became a place where senators could negotiate, not talk “at each other.”
To help prevent cross talking, senators in the meeting used a stick, and later a ball, to help determine who had the floor. Manchin drew laughter from his colleagues as they tried to figure out speaking order during an impromptu press conference, saying they could “pass the ball around.”
When the group first met on Friday, there were 17 senators trying to come up with a way to prevent the closure. That number swelled to 25 on Sunday afternoon as the shutdown ground through the weekend.
“That is a powerful voting bloc in the Senate and it includes Republican members as well as Democrats,” Collins said.
The group makes up a fourth of the Senate, bringing together a cross-section of the “governing wing” of the GOP caucus and Democrats from red and purple states — including several senators up for reelection next year.
It includes GOP moderates Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), chairmen like Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, and Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) — an immigration duo who began pitching their own plan last week.
Democrats who were involved in the talks included Manchin and Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.) and Tim Kaine (Va.) — who are all up for reelection this fall — as well as Sens. Doug Jones (Ala.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), who has been floated as a potential 2020
“I’ve been to [bipartisan] meetings with pieces and smaller groups, but this was the first one that I’ve attended that was of this scope. We had 19 or 20 in the first meeting, 25 or so in the second meeting,” said Corker, who is retiring at the end of the Congress. “I think it was necessary to build the trust for Democrats to be willing to go along with what has occurred.”
Collins started the “Common Sense Coalition” back during the 2013 government shutdown. She, Manchin and other members were also part of a bipartisan group talking around last year’s GOP effort to repeal and replace ObamaCare, which ultimately failed.
They got the gang back together again on Friday, along with some new members, as a government shutdown seemed imminent. Senate Democrats ultimately rejected a four-week funding bill that did not include a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Trump rescinded the Obama-era program, which allows certain immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children to work and go to school here, and gave Congress until March 5 to come up with a solution.
But as the government shutdown went into effect over the weekend, congressional leaders were trading barbs and casting blame, even as a resolution remained nowhere in sight.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) didn’t speak to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) or Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on the first full day of the shutdown. And Trump kept a low profile in the White House, with Schumer noting on Monday that the two hadn’t spoken since Friday.
That’s when the bipartisan working group took matters into their own hands.
“The attitude was just that we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and get this done,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.). The feeling was that “we’re going to talk to leadership and make this happen.”
The coalition huddled Saturday and then again Sunday to hash out a bipartisan plan to reopen the government. The group also remained in constant contact over the phone throughout the weekend.
Senators weren’t crafting their own legislation, but instead focused on how to get 60 votes to reopen the government paired with enough of a promise on immigration for Democrats to feel comfortable moving forward.
“The 20 of us who spent much of the day together — I mean hours literally together — are trying to bridge that gap and trying to rebuild that confidence. A fair amount of my day was spent on one-one-one meetings with senators who are not sitting at that [bipartisan group] table,” said Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.).
But the negotiations weren’t over yet. Both parties pitched a proposal to their respective party leaders on Sunday afternoon, in what would be a critical first test for their efforts.
Democrats and Republicans remained tight-lipped as they left Schumer and McConnell’s offices on Sunday afternoon, but there were some glimmers of hope.
“It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever been to,” Nelson said of Sunday’s bipartisan gathering.
McConnell and Schumer then met around 5 p.m., according to Flake, who enthusiastically tweeted that “Senate leaders are meeting and talking!”
But as the night — and shutdown — wore on, there were still no signs that leadership would accept the deal. Lawmakers including Graham, who was decked out in khakis and a bright orange Clemson hat, trickled in and out of McConnell’s office, where a large-screen TV screen was wheeled in during the NFL playoff games.
Finally, just after 9 p.m., McConnell came to the Senate floor and promised that, if they weren’t able to work out a larger deal, he intended to bring up legislation to address DACA, border security and related issues.
Graham and Flake, who voted no on the last continuing resolution, announced they would support the three-week funding bill.
But Schumer said Democrats weren’t quite ready to accept the deal. So McConnell teed up a procedural vote on the three-week funding bill for Monday at noon.
That gave the bipartisan working group roughly 12 hours to make a final sales pitch to their colleagues. The coalition met one more time in Collins’s office on Monday morning over bagels, muffins and coffee before each party caucused ahead of the noon Senate vote. At one point, cheers and applause could be heard coming from the Democratic meeting room.
Then, just as lawmakers were getting ready to vote, Schumer announced that Democrats would take the deal and support the Feb. 8 continuing resolution, pointing to the DACA commitments made by McConnell. The majority leader promised earlier in the day that he would ensure a level playing field for offering amendments to a DACA bill.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who took part in the talks, called McConnell’s language on Monday morning crucial to helping soothe the nerves of wary Democrats.
The Senate then voted to reopen the government in the late afternoon on Monday, which the House agreed to do shortly after.
Democrats have taken heat from liberals for giving in so quickly. Critics question what they got in the deal, pointing out that McConnell has long said he would put a DACA bill on the floor, while the House is under no obligation to take up whatever the other chamber passes.
Still, leaders and lawmakers believe that the bipartisan working group was a prominent force behind breaking the Senate stalemate. And the band of moderates achieved their primary goal: getting the government up and running.
“The bipartisan group in a very fine way filled the glaring absence of the president in these talks,” Schumer said on Monday.
The coalition says they now have a blueprint for how to reach constructive compromises and are vowing to use similar tactics in future battles over DACA, the budget and other issues.
“Now the real work begins, and I think the role of this group, a bipartisan group of senators, is to come together and say, ‘OK, now what will the bill be? What can we put together as a bipartisan group?” Murkowski said.
As they wrapped up a press scrum off the Senate floor, Manchin hugged Collins and kissed the side of her head.
Jones, of Alabama, exclaimed, “We’re open. We’re open for business!”
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on March 13, 2018
Rep. Claudia Tenney (R) is embracing President Trump’s confrontational style as she seeks to hold on to a hotly contested New York district considered a toss-up race in this fall’s midterm elections.
While insisting that she is not tied to the president, the freshman lawmaker at times sounds like a mini-Trump.
She’s declared war on the “twist and smear” media, which she blamed last month for not talking about how many people who commit mass murders end up being Democrats.
“I call it twist and smear — that’s what the media tends to do,” said Tenney, who ran the newspaper division of Mid-York Press, Inc., her family’s commercial printing and manufacturing firm.
“Some are better than others,” Tenney added. “I do think the single biggest destructive force in our country is the media. We’ve lost our way.”
Tenney echoes Trump’s talking points on immigration and jobs — a strategy that seems smart in her district, which Trump won by 16 points.
She’s also pretty tough on Democrats, sounding almost Trumpian in her remarks.
“They don’t love our country,” Tenney said of the minority party during a CNN interview last month about the president’s State of the Union address. “I thought it was terrible that they didn’t clap for very American ideas, and why? Why not? They’re just about ‘resist,’ and what does ‘resist’ mean? Obstruct.”
The makeup of Tenney’s district has created fertile ground for Trump’s populist mix.
The district is 91 percent white, with a college graduation rate of 24 percent. While Trump cruised to victory here over Hillary Clinton, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried it by less than 1 percentage point in 2012.
Chris Grant, a GOP consultant and head of Big Dog Strategies, described Tenney as “Trump before Trump.”
“The environment will be different in each race, but Tenney has done a smart job of delivering for constituents on local issues, and standing with the President when it helps her district,” Grant said. “That’s pretty smart politics from where I sit.”
Remington Arms, a firearms and ammunition manufacturer located in the district, has laid off more than 100 employees, while General Electric has significantly scaled back its operations in the region over the years.
“He’s popular in my district,” Tenney says of Trump, noting people stood in line for hours to see him when he visited the area before the New York presidential primaries.
“There are times when he makes me cringe,” she added, “but he’s not a politician. He is very instinctual; he’s very earnest.”
In a 30-minute, wide-ranging interview outside the House chamber, she insisted she is standing for her community and not Trump, though she adds that “many of the things that Trump stands for are issues that are consistent with why he won by such a large margin in our district.”
The Cook Political Report casts Tenney’s race as a toss-up.
She’s been out-fundraised by Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, whom Tenney has tied to “San Francisco liberal” Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the House Democratic leader.
And her brash style has also landed her in hot water at times — including when she linked Democrats to mass murders in remarks about last month’s high school shooting in Florida.
Tenney, 57, told a radio host that “many of these people that commit the mass murders end up being Democrats, but the media doesn’t talk about that either.”
Pressed by The Hill about the comments, Tenney initially rebuffed the question and said the issue has been asked and answered “a thousand times.”
But she then took several minutes to clarify the remarks, saying she was merely pointing out that mass shootings are not all Republicans’ fault — and she also snuck in a few jabs at the media as part of her line of defense.
“This is where I call it ‘twist and smear.’ They slandered me,” Tenney said. “Trust me, if [the Orlando nightclub shooter] had been a registered Republican, it would have been front page, top of the line, everywhere.”
It’s not just Trump’s style where Tenney mirrors the president; she has also taken a slew of policy positions that are in lockstep with the White House.
On immigration, she has labeled the Trump administration’s proposed solution to an Obama-era immigration program “generous” and “reasonable,” while calling a more moderate approach from some Senate Republicans “crazy.”
She’s also one of 13 House Republicans who called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to appoint a second special counsel to investigate Clinton, still a frequent Trump target.
When it comes to taxes, Tenney says the tax-cut bill has been a big boon to her district, and she credited the law with already bringing some jobs back to the area.
But Tenney made clear she doesn’t agree with the president on every issue, underscoring that the interests of her constituents may not always align with Trump.
Tenney, a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), is a staunch defender of the Second Amendment.
While Trump has expressed some openness to raising the age requirement to buy a rifle from 18 to 21, Tenney has expressed far more skepticism to the idea. She is also fiercely opposed to a ban on assault weapons, though Tenney supports strengthening background checks and requiring people to be trained on how to safely use weapons.
“Remington Arms was founded in my district. We have a strong tradition of people who use firearms,” Tenney said. “Have you used an AR-15? It’s the most commonly used rifle. I don’t consider that to be an assault rifle.”
Trump defied GOP orthodoxy last week when he slapped steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, infuriating members of his own party.
Tenney admitted she has “mixed emotions” about the proposal, pointing out that she considers herself a free-trade Republican.
But she was not a vocal critic of the tariff plan and did not sign on to a Republican-led letter urging Trump to abandon the idea — perhaps a sign of the popularity of Trump’s position on trade in her district.
“Trump won in our district largely because of the trade issue and the trade imbalance,” Tenney said. “We’ve got to save our base and people that work in our communities.”
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on June 9, 2017
The White House's self-proclaimed "infrastructure week" has generated a flurry of headlines on nearly everything else.
Part of the reason the initiative was overshadowed was ex-FBI Director James Comey's gripping testimony on Capitol Hill, which commanded the attention of Washington and major cable news networks all week.
But much of the derailment on the infrastructure rollout has been of President Trump's own making. He repeatedly veered off message in tweets and during infrastructure-themed speeches, flouting some of White House staffers’ carefully laid plans.
“They tried really hard, and certainly several people inside care deeply about this,” said Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future, who worked under the Clinton administration.
“But inside the White House, you have to have incredible discipline to stay on message, regardless of what else happens. Everyone inside has to be on the same page, and that just didn’t happen.”
The White House launched a weeklong infrastructure initiative designed to ramp up support for Trump’s $1 trillion rebuilding proposal, which has yet to be fully released but remains a top priority for the president.
The administration has been under increasing pressure to show progress on the package, especially as officials seek to move past Comey’s abrupt firing and the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Aides plotted out a string of high-profile events to draw attention to different components of Trump’s plan, ranging from waterways and airports to roads and bridges.
During a press call announcing infrastructure week, White House officials sounded hopeful that they could build the consensus needed to move the proposal through Congress.
“We absolutely do feel that the infrastructure package can be accomplished this year,” an administration official told reporters last Friday. “We are working every day to that end.”
But hours before the infrastructure event kicked off at the White House on Monday, Trump fired off a series of tweets that blamed his Justice Department for writing a second “watered down” version of his travel ban, labeled Democrats as “obstructionists,” and slammed London’s mayor following a terrorist attack in the city.
By the time Trump unveiled plans to modernize air traffic control in the East Room at 11:30 a.m., the main narrative dominating the news cycle centered on the various feuds Trump had ignited on social media.
“This isn’t news, but there’s something wrong with this guy. … This is a president who is completely out of control,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who has been a major advocate for upgrading the country’s water infrastructure, told CNN on Monday. “He’s the president of the United States. He’s not some guy with a blog.”
And when Trump rolled out his aviation announcement, he first spent several minutes discussing unrelated news that the Department of Veterans Affairs will be overhauling its electronic health record system.
“Before discussing our plans to modernize air travel, I want to provide an update on efforts to fix and modernize vital services for our veterans,” Trump said, standing in front of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and other former Transportation secretaries.
Infrastructure has long been billed as one of the few issues that could receive broad bipartisan support this Congress.
But Trump’s call to separate air traffic control from the federal government is one of his more controversial infrastructure proposals, and quickly earned a stinging rebuke from Democrats at the start of the week.
“Trump’s ‘infrastructure week’ appears to be little more than a Trojan Horse for undermining workers’ wages and handing massive tax breaks to billionaires and corporations,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement.
“Trump’s ideas for privatizing Air Traffic Control — which recycle a tired Republican plan that both sides of the aisle have rejected — would hand control of one of our nation’s most important public assets to special interests and the big airlines.”
Trump continued with early-morning tweets on Tuesday and Wednesday that set off new firestorms: taking credit for four Arab countries’ decision to cut ties with Qatar and announcing his pick for FBI director.
Midweek, Trump was slated to continue his infrastructure pitch with a speech in Ohio aimed at emphasizing inland waterways' important role in transporting steel, coal, corn and other goods.
But slipped into the schedule, just 30 minutes before Trump’s rebuilding remarks, was a surprise speech on healthcare.
And when it came time for his infrastructure speech, Trump spent part of it assailing ObamaCare and Democrats, appearing to veer off script at several points.
“I’m calling on all Democrats — who, honestly, have really been obstructionists. Boy, have they tried, I mean, every single thing,” Trump said. “On healthcare, I won’t get one vote. ObamaCare is crashing, it’s dead, it’s in a death spiral. … They’re just obstructionists.”
The same day, the administration dispatched Chao to Capitol Hill to sell lawmakers on Trump’s air traffic control proposal. But the idea received a brutal reception from both sides of the aisle, with rural Republicans excoriating the plan.
“This is a tough sell in states like my state of Mississippi, where small airports are very concerned about where this will leave them, and I think we’re going to see this on both sides of the aisle,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).
The spinoff proposal was more warmly received in the House the next day, but that hearing was completely overshadowed by Comey’s dramatic testimony.
The White House also hosted an infrastructure summit on Thursday with governors and mayors, during which Vice President Pence declared it a “banner week for infrastructure.”
But the rebuilding effort has almost seemed like an afterthought, with the concept of “infrastructure week” becoming somewhat of a punch line on Capitol Hill.
“I think this is the most exciting hearing of the day on Capitol Hill, for the record,” joked Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.).
“You can tell by all the cameras here,” Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said sarcastically.
Transportation advocates acknowledged that it was always going to be a herculean task to be heard above the Comey clamor.
They also suspected that the White House purposely planned the infrastructure effort to coincide with the former FBI director’s testimony in an effort to distract from Comey’s testimony — but it didn’t seem to work.
Hale thought Trump could have made more headway if he had announced two specific transportation projects that he will include in the infrastructure package, perhaps one in a rural area and one in an urban region.
Larsen also suggested that Trump could have drawn more attention to the initiative by unveiling an actual legislative package or talking it up more on Twitter.
“I won’t be the first person to say the president needs to line up his policy focus with what he’s tweeting, because everybody else has already said it,” Larsen told The Hill.
Trump’s tweeting habits have even frustrated members of his own party, with Republicans worried that it detracts from their legislative agenda.
"I think the president could be more focused and disciplined about staying on his agenda," Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said on "The Axe Files” podcast this week.
Trump will have one last chance to correct course on Friday, when infrastructure week wraps up with a final speech at the Department of Transportation to highlight roads, rails and the project approval process.
Transportation advocates will be eagerly watching.
“He has a chance to say something really big there,” Hale said.
By Melanie Zanona and Juliegrace Brufke
This article appeared on The Hill on April 18
A group of GOP lawmakers frustrated with the party’s messaging efforts want to use the leadership races to win more influence for younger members.
Roughly thirty lawmakers, a chunk of them under the age of 40, were slated to meet Wednesday to begin early discussions about how to get a bigger say in the GOP’s messaging strategy.
“There's certainly an appetite among the younger members to organize and to kind of figure out what direction we want to see our conference go after the Ryan era,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), 38, one of the most vulnerable Republicans running for reelection this fall.
While some young Republican members had been casually discussing for months forming a coalition to better represent their interests in Congress, the idea has taken on a new sense of urgency following Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) sudden retirement announcement last week.
At least one of the budding group’s members — freshman Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.), 38 — is weighing a bid for Republican conference chairman, according to one GOP source. Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) is also contemplating throwing her hat in the ring for conference chair, according to another GOP source with knowledge of the situation.
“We need some of the millennial members of Congress at the table when the policy decisions are being made that will affect our generation as much as any,” said freshman Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a 35-year-old firebrand conservative who has made a name for himself through his constant stream of cable news appearances.
“There are a lot of the younger members that I've had informal discussions with that would like to see a younger person pursue one of the leadership positions.”
The band of lawmakers has no official name yet, and lawmakers involved in the effort don’t necessarily envision themselves as being a voting bloc on legislation.
“It’s still loose, it’s still early,” said Taylor. “I don’t know what it will look like it.”
“We’ve been discussing this randomly throughout the last year,” he added. “We’re like hey, this messaging stinks.”
One lawmaker pointed to the GOP tax-cut bill debate.
Some of the millennial members stood up and pitched the idea of creating a calculator for social media to demonstrate how people would stand to benefit from the legislation, which was still being debated at the time
“We were asking for that for a while. Nothing was heeded. And now, you go to the IRS website, and what do they have? An IRS calculator,” the lawmaker said. “And we take a beating for three months over the ‘tax scam.’ If we had done this on the front end, it would have spread like wildfire.”
Unlike the Democratic party, the House GOP has term limits for chairmanships, which has helped younger Republicans rise through the ranks more quickly.
But there is frustration among rank-and-file members about how much power Republican leadership has in the decision-making process.
“We've been frustrated that the boomers will get together and make the decisions and then come to the millennials and say, 'What's your advice on how we can message this,' ” Gaetz said. “That's like salting the gumbo at the end instead of salting it when you're cooking it.”
The group is still figuring out whether there is a young candidate that they could rally behind for a leadership post.
Some young members have their eye on the Republican conference chair — a job that is currently occupied by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and which has a hand in messaging.
Taylor is interested in running for the job, according to one GOP source, though it’s unclear whether he would be willing to challenge McMorris Rodgers for the spot.
Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), who is already a member of leadership as the Republican conference secretary, could also move up the ladder. But the 37-year-old is unlikely to challenge McMorris Rodgers, whom he has worked closely with on the leadership team.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) is another name that has been floated as a potential candidate for some type of leadership role, a GOP source told The Hill.
If the young coalition is willing to band together and play hardball in the Speaker’s race, they would have the numbers to block any candidate from securing the gavel if the GOP hangs on to their majority.
Taylor acknowledged it’s “possible” that they could trade their votes for the next Speaker in exchange for a spot in leadership — a tactic that the House Freedom Caucus has tried to use in past leadership battles.
“This is politics, those things happen all the time,” Taylor said.
Gaetz said he believes the group is more focused on pushing younger members to seek higher positions than an attempt to upheave current leadership.
“That's been my challenge, because there's such a culture around here that the way you get into the leadership is you raise money for people, you spend a ton of time on committees,” Gaetz told The Hill, stressing he has no interest in seeking a leadership position.
“And in some ways some of those cultural elements of leadership races are discriminatory against younger people, who haven't been here as long, but still have a meaningful contribution.”
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on the cover of CQ Weekly on June 1, 2015
Feb. 2 was the kind of day that every Washington lobbyist prepares for with a mix of determination and dread.
New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced the results of a high-profile investigation his office launched that found four out of five herbal products sold at major retailers such as Walgreens and Walmart didn’t contain the ingredients listed on their labels, but were instead made of cheap fillers such as powdered radish. Schneiderman’s office slapped the chains with cease-and-desist letters demanding the products be pulled, and asked the chains for steps to verify the ingredients in supplements came as advertised.
Within hours, representatives of the $35 billion-a-year nutritional supplement industry — purveyors of such store shelf mainstays as ginkgo biloba, echinacea and St. John’s wort — mobilized. The Council for Responsible Nutrition, a leading trade group, dispatched a five-person lobbying team to member offices on Capitol Hill and commissioned a white paper that aimed to poke holes in the investigation’s testing methods. The group circulated “fact sheets” aiming to debunk the report, charging that the DNA barcode test used isn’t the proper test to determine what’s in an herbal dietary supplement. The lobbying press was augmented by the Natural Products Association, another industry group headed by a former director of the Food and Drug Administration’s division of dietary supplement programs.
“We had to immediately get up on the Hill and tell our side,” says Steve Mister, who heads up the Council for Responsible Nutrition. “When something like this occurs, you spend a lot more time playing defense.”
The findings came at a potentially sensitive time for the industry. In April, the FDA issued warnings about an amphetamine-like stimulant contained in nearly a dozen other supplements that weren’t part of the New York probe.
But the incidents turned out to be little more than a blip on the congressional radar. There were no calls for hearings, no long-shot bills calling for greater regulation or more generalized angst.
Which is just the way the supplements industry likes it. In fact, they work very hard to make sure it stays that way.
Under a 1994 law, supplement makers can tout health benefits as long as they don’t claim their products cure diseases, which would subject them to the same regulatory scrutiny as drugs. The Republican Congress has shown zero interest in changing that calculus. But the industry isn’t resting easy. Instead, it works hard to cultivate a wide range of allies on the Hill, contributing more than $1 million during the 2014 election cycle and fostering goodwill through entities such as the congressional Dietary Supplement Caucus. And industry groups react aggressively to any potential threat, no matter how remote.
“Every time I introduce a bill, no matter what it says, I guarantee you that when you walk into GNC or one of those vitamin places, there will be a sign at the cash register that says, ‘Durbin is doing it again, he’s going to require a prescription for your vitamins,’” says Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and leading voice for tougher oversight. “I’ve never done that and I never will.”
With over 55,000 different types of products touting everything from weight loss to sexual potency, manufacturers are accustomed to being caught between crusading officials who claim some of their goods are the modern equivalent of snake oil and consumers who swear they deliver promised benefits.
Industry officials insist that the popularity of their products makes them a target, not a generator, of spurious claims.
“Our industry is one that is always a very hot topic. It’s kind of an industry that people either love or hate, so we play on those lines,” says Dan Fabricant, the former FDA official who now runs the Natural Products Association. “We watch out for the haters and keep things in line.”
Friends in High Places
The industry has long benefited from its connections to senior senators such as Republican Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, where nutritional supplements are the state’s third largest industry and produce billions of dollars in revenue annually. Former Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who headed the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and oversaw discretionary health spending as an appropriator, was another prominent backer and recipient of industry donations during his career.
“You can’t replace someone like Harkin; he has been a huge supporter,” Fabricant says. “But a big part of our activities has been to grow our bench.”
Trade organizations representing the industry collectively spent $4.1 million on lobbying in 2014, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics — a record high for the 10 entities the center lumps in the nutritional and dietary supplements category.
The nutrition and weight-loss giant Herbalife International — which has attracted its own share of controversy (see story, p. 20) — dominates the sector’s political activity, accounting for nearly half of the industry’s total lobbying dollars last year and ranking among the top 7 percent of the 4,072 organizations that the center tracked overall.
Much of the lobbying is driven by periodic attempts to change the framework for regulating supplements. Under the 1994 law, vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, amino acids and other ingredients used to supplement the diet don’t need to be evaluated by the FDA before they are sold on the market. Neither do any products that were on the market before the statute’s enactment. The FDA can intervene if a product is found to be adulterated or unsafe, or if it has a false or misleading label.
Industry representatives contend that the FDA already has sufficient power to remove unsafe products and argue that the law empowers consumers to make their own health care choices.
But opponents say the system has left the industry generally responsible for policing itself, setting up a scenario where a crisis has to happen before products are pulled from the market. Bad actors could also slip in.
“Companies that list their products as supplements when they’re not, hurt the entire industry,” says Scott Melville, president and chief executive officer of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. “It makes our lives more difficult.”
Melville lobbies more broadly for health care products and was not included in the center’s dietary supplement lobbying totals, but his group spent just over $1 million on lobbying last year.
Industry lobbying comprises a wide swath of activities, including letter-writing and social media campaigns by member companies and grassroots efforts such as a recent Alliance for Natural Health USA campaign to provide fact-checking about herbal supplements and distance those products from more controversial weight-loss and sports training pills.
Trade groups also hold regular briefings on Capitol Hill in conjunction with the Dietary Supplement Caucus to further trumpet their message. The caucus cuts across party lines and has created some odd bedfellows in the House, with liberal firebrand Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, and fiscal conservative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, serving as co-chairmen.
“They’re on two completely different sides of the aisle, and yet both support our industry,” Fabricant says.
Ticking Off the Wish List
The industry has a knack for beating back undesirable bills and getting its fingerprints on ones that cross the finish line. Supplement makers had a hand in drafting certain provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act, legislation outlining how adverse side effects are reported and a recent law targeting anabolic steroids, among others. One favored provision in the FSMA, for example, exempts dietary supplement companies from hazard analysis and control plan requirements as long as they comply with good manufacturing practices. Industry groups also pushed for language in the law prodding the FDA to issue new dietary ingredient guidance.
That’s not to say the industry hasn’t had setbacks. Advocates were unsuccessful in repeated bids between 2001 and 2009 to advance a measure allowing dietary supplements to be considered a tax deductible medical expense.
Now lobbyists are shooting for legislation that would allow pre-tax dollars in flexible spending accounts to be used on dietary supplements and are pressing authorizing and appropriations committees for more funding at the FDA.
“Ironically, we are often on the Hill lobbying for money for the industry that regulates us,” says Mister of the Council for Responsible Nutrition. “Funds keep getting diverted out of supplements. So many of the FDA’s resources go towards chasing down the crisis du jour in food.”
In the 2014 election cycle, the industry’s political action committees and executives contributed $1.1 million, with 63 percent going to Republicans and the rest to Democrats. Though the figure is a fraction of what prescription drug companies spend in a year, the industry has an enviable profile. Top recipients of industry cash include New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone Jr., ranking member of House Energy and Commerce; Texas Republican Pete Sessions, the House Rules chairman; New York Democrat Steve Israel, a House appropriator; and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
The Council for Responsible Nutrition’s PAC leans toward donating to members of the Dietary Supplement Caucus, lawmakers on committees with jurisdiction over supplements or the FDA and members from districts with an industry presence. As the organization’s priorities change, so do the recipients of those contribution dollars.
“Now we are also looking to the Appropriations Committee,” Mister says. “I expect there may be more members [on the panel] that we support.”
Trouble One Pill Away
Implicit in the efforts is that the industry is always on the edge of a crisis. Though most of the dietary supplements that are found to be illegally labeled have a relatively small threat of causing harm, there have been recent high-profile cases of supplements causing hepatitis outbreaks, strokes or even death. Enough incidents like those could convince even a regulation-averse Congress to consider imposing a more comprehensive regulatory framework.
“Supplements that are laced with steroids and amphetamines are illegal, and FDA has all the power it needs to enforce that,” says Allison Murphy, legislative director at the nonprofit Alliance for Natural Health USA. “But they are letting bad actors give the entire industry a bad name.”
Americans have increasingly turned to supplements with the aim of improving their health and wellness, a trend that is likely to continue as the nation’s health care system shifts towards a greater emphasis on preventive care. About 68 percent of U.S. adults take dietary supplements and 83 percent of Americans are confident in their safety, quality and effectiveness, according the most recent figures from the Council for Responsible Nutrition.
The dietary supplements umbrella not only includes vitamins, amino acids and herbal extracts, but also any supplements marketed to enhance weight loss, athletic ability or sexual performance. Despite the mass appeal of these products, 20 percent of respondents to a 2014 Consumer Reports survey of nearly 3,000 people were unaware that they have not been tested by the FDA for safety and effectiveness.
“The companies get carte blanche to promote their supplement without the rigors of a drug approved by the FDA,” says Pieter Cohen, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and internist at Cambridge Health Alliance.
Health experts say lax oversight will result in products that don’t fulfill health claims or turn out to have little more than cheap fillers such as powdered garlic, rice, legumes, wheat or houseplants, as the New York attorney general’s office said it found. Such unlabeled ingredients have the potential to spawn allergic reactions.
“You could argue that they are safer if they have inactive ingredients, if you’re just taking fluff or powder,” Cohen says, while agreeing with some industry contentions that the attorney general’s investigation didn’t use the most accurate testing method. “The real risk would be if there is a sufficient amount to cause allergic reactions that wasn’t provided on the label. It’s economic adulteration. These herbs are expensive and people cut corners all the time.”
The most serious threats arise when misbranded supplements actually contain dangerous or illegal ingredients, such as anabolic steroids or synthetic stimulants. Such products will often masquerade as dietary supplements in order to skirt regulation. Cohen says current law makes it easy for companies to hide dangerous ingredients under the name of an obscure or natural-sounding plant, allowing them to slip through the cracks until adverse events are reported.
“A rogue operator might say this is a great opportunity, we’ll get something that looks like it has a natural source, and maybe because of its stimulant effects it will help people lose weight,” Cohen says. “That’s what we are seeing.”
The most recent example is a powerful, amphetamine-like stimulant known as beta-methylphenethylamine, or BMPEA, which Cohen found in a study earlier this year was contained in 11 of 21 supplements that listed “Acacia rigidula” as one of their ingredients. FDA scientists had also identified the ingredient in some products in 2013 but stopped short of recalling them or issuing a health threat. BMPEA — which has never been tested in humans — was deemed dangerous in Canada last year and supplements containing it were pulled from shelves.
At the urging of Cohen and a handful of Democratic lawmakers including Durbin, the FDA sent warning letters in April to five companies with products that listed BMPEA as an ingredient telling them to come into compliance or cease production, saying BMPEA does not meet the statutory definition of a dietary ingredient.
Durbin criticized the agency for failing to send letters to those that only list the Acacia rigidula extract and not BMPEA. Another recent study by Cohen found BMPEA in a hemorrhagic stroke patient who took a supplement that didn’t list the ingredient on its label. But aside from scattered congressional calls for action, Capitol Hill has remained relatively quiet in the wake of the report.
The most noteworthy instances of harmful ingredients include ephedra, which was banned in 2004 after being linked to serious liver damage and 150 deaths, and DMAA, which the Department of Defense banned from military bases in 2011 after it was linked to the deaths of two soldiers. The FDA subsequently issued warning letters about the substance in 2012, notifying companies to remove or reformulate those products with DMAA.
Both proponents and critics of the industry have largely agreed that FDA enforcement has lagged. Such dangerous and illegal products could have the potential to threaten the entire industry, which is why lobbyists always remain on guard and want a strong voice in the proposals that are crafted to help identify and eliminate fringe actors, while still balancing oversight of the legitimate ones.
“Unfortunately, our industry gets adversely affected by those who sell drugs as supplements,” NPA’s Fabricant says. “We would love to see FDA pursue more criminal action as a deterrent, but they haven’t.”
In Congress, the industry’s most vocal adversaries are Durbin and Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. The pair helped ban ephedra and regularly sponsors legislation to impose stricter labeling requirements.
“The actual contents of the bottle do not always reflect the label, either in terms of quality or quantity. I think most Americans would be surprised to know that,” Durbin says. “In fact, a majority of Americans are not aware of the fact they are not tested before they are sold.”
But the measure Durbin and Blumenthal pushed in 2011 and 2013 wouldn’t have required the products to be tested like drugs. It would have ordered manufacturers to register products with the FDA and provide the agency with a list of ingredients in each supplement and evidence of any health claims. The labels also would have been required to contain more detailed warning information and the batch number.
“It’s just basic transparency so we have a record of what is being sold in America and who is selling it,” Durbin says. “I don’t think anybody ought to be able to make claims that are false.”
The bills never got a hearing or markup.
Lawmakers had a chance to go on the record in 2012 when some of the language was offered as an amendment to an FDA user fee bill. The Senate voted 77-20 to table the provision, a move likely fueled by the business-friendly and anti-regulation voices in Congress.
“It would impose another layer of regulation on an industry that already has a workable regulatory framework. It’s totally unnecessary and it’s only going to increase costs for those who use dietary supplements,” Hatch said on the Senate floor at the time. “This amendment would strap the FDA with a huge burden that it can’t afford to do now, it’s already struggling to perform its current core of responsibilities.”
The industry’s ultimate fear of lawmakers seeking to regulate supplements like drugs isn’t completely unfounded. Durbin has acknowledged he would like to see the products have stricter standards for safety and effectiveness.
“I’ve had other legislation over the years that would give FDA more authority, but I’ve learned the hard way that you have to take small steps,” he says.
There also have been targeted changes to dietary supplement oversight in the last two decades, although most of it has been supported by the industry. Hatch and Durbin teamed up in a rare collaborative effort to pass a 2006 law requiring manufacturers to report any serious adverse events associated with their products within 15 days to the FDA. The agency issued a final rule in 2007 requiring manufacturers to follow good manufacturing practices that ensure the quality of the products. And most recently, Congress cleared legislation last year to expand the Drug Enforcement Administration’s authority to go after anabolic steroids falsely marketed as dietary supplements.
Durbin says he plans to reintroduce his dietary supplements labeling measure with Blumenthal soon, although McConnell — who voted against the labeling amendment — remains highly unlikely to allow the measure to be considered on the Senate floor.
The Natural Products Association will nonetheless be waiting.
“We already teed up our grassroots on that if that bill comes out again this year,” Fabricant says.