By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on Nov. 30, 2016
The death of Fidel Castro has reignited the debate over President Obama’s opening with Cuba, with hard-liners renewing their calls for President-elect Donald Trump to revisit the decision to normalize diplomatic relations.
Critics of the Obama policy, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), argue that travel and trade with Cuba will only serve to enrich the Castro government despite its history of human rights abuses.
“We’re going to re-examine everything the president has done, and figure out what’s the right thing to do,” Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, told reporters Tuesday.
Earlier this year, the Republican Party appeared to be warming to the idea of a diplomatic thaw with Cuba.
Commercial U.S. flights started landing on the island this summer, pro-tourism bills were gaining more Republican co-sponsors and an amendment to lift the ban on Cuba tourism was easily added to a Senate spending bill earlier this year.
But after Castro — who ruled the Communist nation for decades before turning it over to his brother, Raúl, in 2008 — died on Friday, critics of the rapprochement of Cuba have gone on the offensive in hopes of shaping Trump’s policy once he takes office in January.
Trump has repeated his threat to reverse Obama’s decision to open diplomatic and commercial ties with Cuba if the communist government doesn’t adopt changes.
“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal,” Trump tweeted.
But it’s still unclear just how far Trump is willing to go in rolling back Obama’s laundry list of regulatory actions, which are aimed at easing travel and trade restrictions and are widely popular with the U.S. business community.
Trump said earlier this year that he was “fine” with opening up Cuba and told CNN he may open a hotel there. A top aide to the real estate mogul, Kellyanne Conway, said on “Meet the Press” this weekend that “nothing is definite” when it comes to Trump’s Cuba policies.
“We don’t know what he’s going to do,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a vocal proponent of reengaging with Cuba, told reporters on Tuesday. “We’ve heard varying signals from the Trump administration. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Since Obama first announced the new policy toward Cuba in 2014, the administration has reopened the embassies in Havana and Washington, removed Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terror and resumed commercial air service with the island for the first time in over 50 years.
U.S. tourism to the island is still banned and the trade embargo has not been lifted, but Obama has carried out a string of other regulatory changes aimed at bringing the two countries closer together.
Those actions include allowing Cuban textiles, coffee and pharmaceuticals to be imported to the U.S.; removing or lessening most licensing requirements for permitted travel to Cuba; allowing American travelers to bring home an unlimited amount of rum and cigars; and authorizing U.S. individuals and businesses to have bank accounts on the island.
But because almost everything was done through executive action and without the help of Congress, there is wide consensus that almost all of Obama’s Cuba policies can be dismantled with the stroke of a pen.
“Nothing [Obama] has done in the past 23 months cannot be reversed by President-elect Trump with a signature,” said John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “The only impediment to president-elect Trump reversing or revising the initiatives of President Obama is a lack of ink in his pen.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is of Cuban descent, said he was encouraged by Trump’s response to Castro’s death.
“There’s a stark contrast this week between President-elect Trump’s response to the death of Fidel Castro, and the weak and timid response of President Obama,” Cruz told reporters Tuesday. “I’m encouraged by that stark contrast.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), another staunch Cuba critic, hopes Castro’s death is “the first page of the closing chapter on the Castro regime” and said she believes Trump will make good on his promise to revisit Obama’s Cuba policies.
“However, a tyranny led by Raúl Castro and its repressive apparatus remains in place oppressing the Cuban people,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “President-Elect Trump has pledged to roll back President Obama’s unilateral concessions to the Castro regime and it is my belief that he will keep that promise.”
Although Trump may be able to easily dismantle Obama’s efforts logistically, it may not be politically popular, especially among the business community.
“Can he do it? Yes,” Kavulich said. “But what are the repercussions?”
Kavulich warned that there might even be legal repercussions because of the deep-rooted commercial interests in the island.
Any effort to suspend or reduce flights, for example, is sure to face fierce pushback from the U.S. airline industry, which invested significant time and resources into the new flight routes.
Obama has also already authorized U.S. hotels to manage properties on the island, allowed Airbnb to offer reservations for 10,000 residences and let telecommunications companies install equipment in Cuba.
Travel advocates hope the economic benefits of Cuban trade and travel will convince Trump to leave many of Obama’s policies in place.
“Mr. Trump says the government should be run like a business, and there’s no business in the world that would continue a failed strategy for 55 years,” said Madeleine Russak, communications director for Engage Cuba. “Cuba is a growing market with tremendous investment opportunities. We’re hopeful that as a businessman, he recognizes those opportunities.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest also suggested that Trump could find it difficult to unwind the growing ties between the two nations.
“It’s just not as simple as one tweet might make it seem,” Earnest said Monday. “There are significant diplomatic, economic [and] cultural costs that will have to be accounted for if this policy is rolled back.”
Some travel advocates think Trump is more likely to take steps like closing down the embassies, refusing to nominate an ambassador and cracking down on people trying to travel under one of the 12 permissible categories, as opposed to completely halting commercial flights to Cuba.
While some had hoped Fidel Castro’s death would pave the way for a complete reversal of the détente, others think the biggest impact will be that Obama is now more hesitant to move ahead with any further Cuba regulations in his final weeks in office.
The business community has been pushing for the White House to allow Cuban financial institutions to have accounts with U.S. banks and expand the products that can be imported and exported to Cuba.
“There’s no question that the timing of Fidel’s death couldn’t be worse for the Obama administration,” Kavulich said. “The problem is, now any additional regulations will be accompanied by Fourth of July fireworks. It will be controversial by definition, even if people agree with it.”
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on Sept. 11, 2016
The Transportation Security Administration has completely transformed airport security since its creation following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But 15 years later, the agency credited with making the traveling public more safe has also grown to become one of the most unpopular agencies in the federal government.
Even lawmakers who helped create the agency have become some of TSA’s toughest critics, blasting the agency for massive checkpoint lines, invasive pat downs, failed security tests and employee misconduct.
Yet as Congress continues to bash the beleaguered agency and haul in officials to grill them in hearings, members are far from giving up on the TSA.
Indeed, appropriators have proposed giving the agency a funding bump in the latest spending bills, and most see TSA’s role in securing the nation as getting bigger, not smaller.
“Given the heightened sense of security that we have, I can only see TSA’s role increasing,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, told The Hill.
Transforming air travel
Prior to 9/11, airports were in charge of their own security operations and would outsource screening to private companies.
In the aftermath of the attacks — and the realization that the nation’s airport security wasn’t up to snuff — Congress and the George W. Bush administration quickly sprang into action with a series of reforms designed to deter terrorism.
A cornerstone of that effort was establishing the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA to oversee the security of airports and other modes of transportation.
Over time, the agency introduced new procedures such as removing shoes and banning liquids; deployed advanced screening technology; put federal air marshals on flights overseas; created behavior detection programs; and used bomb-sniffing dog teams.
“As we commemorate the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is a time for remembrance and resolve,” the agency said in a statement to The Hill. “We remember and honor those who lost their lives, and their families and friends whose lives are forever changed. We resolve to remain vigilant and prevent such an attack from ever happening again."
The TSA says it continues to test new technologies that can speed up screening efficiency and effectiveness, as well as coordinate with airlines, airports, lawmakers and travelers to help accomplish its counterterrorism mission.
There’s “no question” we are safer today than before 9/11, Thompson says.
But in its effort to protect travelers, the agency also has become a lightning rod for criticism. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), a chief sponsor of the legislation that formed the TSA, says the agency has become a bloated bureaucracy that puts too much stock in administrative staff.
He criticized the agency for employing 46,000 security officers — up from 16,500 when TSA first started — and another 10,000 administrative employees.
When asked whether this is how he envisioned the TSA would look today, Mica was unabashed: “Never.”
String of Missteps
The TSA has most recently come under fire for long checkpoint lines that led to three-hour wait times in some cases and thousands of missed flights around the country.
Part of the problem was that the agency overestimated how many passengers would sign up for the expedited PreCheck program and cut its staff in anticipation of enrollment.
But the massive lines were also the product of a security crackdown at the agency, following an explosive report last summer that found TSA screeners were failing to detect fake bombs and weapons in nearly 96 percent of security tests.
The laundry list of missteps has led to a contentious relationship with Congress.
“The monster continues to grow,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told The Hill. “I want them to be adequately resourced, but I’m not convinced they know how to evaluate and implement new technology.”
Chaffetz acknowledged, however, that TSA’s job is “a very difficult task. They have to be right 100 percent of the time.”
Under new leadership from TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger — a generally well-liked figure on Capitol Hill — the agency has taken steps to correct course.
Neffenger retrained the workforce, established the first ever TSA Academy and significantly improved checkpoint lines — even in the face of historically high travel volumes and heightened security.
But not everyone is convinced.
“TSA is a huge bureaucracy. It has melted down many times in the past, and I think that the changes are only temporary,” Mica said. “It will melt down again.”
The TSA is here to stay
Some critics have called to abolish the agency, while more airports have considered privatizing their screening operations through TSA’s screening partnership program.
But completely getting rid of the TSA is a highly unlikely scenario — no matter how unpopular the agency is.
Airports that have privatized their screening since 9/11 still operate under TSA oversight and comply with all its standards.
House and Senate appropriation committees proposed a funding boost for the agency in their fiscal 2017 Homeland Security spending bills.
And Thompson, who acknowledged that the TSA is still the “new kid on the block” and has progress to make, just doesn’t see members of Congress who fly regularly doing away with the secure system already in place.
“Despite the perceived inconvenience of how you get to your flight, I believe the public now understands that that’s a necessary inconvenience,” Thompson said.
By Melanie Zanona and Mike Lillis
This article appeared on The Hill on Feb. 8, 2017
President Trump’s criticism of federal judges could color the debate when big issues on his agenda hit the Supreme Court.
The collision appears inevitable, with Trump’s executive order halting travel to the United States by people from seven majority-Muslim countries — a ban a federal judge blocked last week — already moving quickly through the judicial system.
Legal scholars say Trump’s attacks on judges are unlikely to have any effect on a high court ruling. But it will be impossible for the justices to have missed those broadsides, which have extended to Chief Justice John Roberts himself.
“Judges will and should try not to be influenced by his trashing of the independent judiciary, but judges are only human,” said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School.
Roberts has maintained a reputation as an institutionalist who prides himself on staying above the political fray. But many also consider him the savior of ObamaCare after his votes kept the law afloat in two major decisions that conservatives called politically motivated.
And he made little effort to disguise his vexation when President Obama criticized the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision on political spending.
Trump’s travel order could be on the Supreme Court docket soon.
A federal appeals court heard arguments on Tuesday, and the next stop would be the high court.
Any decision will be interpreted through the prism of Trump’s comments on the judiciary, which critics say threaten the separation of powers.
“This is obviously not helpful to the [Department of Justice], which is dealing with a very challenging legal issue,” said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. “When you’re trying to convince the courts to respect presidential authority, it’s something incongruous when you don’t show respect for judicial authority.”
The criticism extends beyond judicial scholars.
Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) warned that Trump’s attacks, if they continue, threaten not only to undermine the separation of powers but also the president’s own policy agenda.
“We’re a nation of laws and not men, and this idea of ‘follow me because I say so’ is completely at odds with the Founding Fathers’ intent,” said Sanford, a Trump supporter who has also criticized the president on certain issues.
“I learned a long time ago in politics [that] attacking the person or the group that will decide your fate on a given issue generally doesn’t work out that well,” he added.
Trump acknowledged Tuesday that the fight over the travel ban could wind up at the Supreme Court.
“We’re going to take it through the system,” Trump told reporters during a meeting with sheriffs at the White House. “It’s very important for the country.”
Separately, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, said the president respected the judicial branch, a different signal than Trump sent.
Trump on Saturday morning lashed out at U.S. District Judge James Robart — an appointee of President George W. Bush who temporarily froze Trump’s travel ban — labeling him a “so-called judge” and later suggesting he should be blamed if anything bad happens as a result of the policy being put on ice.
Trump’s remarks were all the more notable because it wasn’t the first time he had attacked a judge who disagreed with him.
In June, Trump suggested that District Judge Gonzalo Curiel — an Indiana native who was then presiding over a fraud case involving the now-defunct Trump University — could not rule fairly because of his Mexican heritage.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said Tuesday that Trump’s repeated attacks on judges — both on the campaign trail and now from the White House — constitute a “dangerous” trend that undermines the public’s faith in its own court system.
“If I called President Trump a ‘so-called president,’ it would be perceived as a disrespect of the office of the president of the United States, and a question of the election, which I do not do. It was an unfortunate demonstration of [his] lack of respect,” Hoyer told reporters in the Capitol.
The remarks have put GOP leaders in an uncomfortable spot, caught teetering between their defense of the president and their support for a robust, independent judiciary.
“We respect an independent judiciary,” Ryan said Tuesday. “This is a separate branch of government.”
But Ryan was quick to emphasize that the administration is also “respecting the process” by complying with Robart’s ruling even as it appeals the decision.
Roberts, who has been somewhat of a focus among conservatives for upholding ObamaCare, has also been the target of Trump’s attacks. The president called him an “absolute disaster” on the campaign trail.
Those comments could be on display if any of the president’s policies land at the Supreme Court.
“They have vastly different personalities. It’s extremely unlikely that Roberts would engage in any tit-for-tat with any politician,” Turley said. “ I doubt that Roberts has tweeted once in his life.”
While Trump’s stormy relationship with the judicial system is unlikely to directly affect the outcome of a Supreme Court case, legal voices say his open venting from the bully pulpit could undermine Trump’s own agenda.
“[They] cannot avoid taking cognizance of the fact that they are dealing with a rogue chief executive who seems insensitive to our basic system of checks and balances and who … could well bring down that system and the republic built upon it,” Tribe said.
Some constitutional scholars say Trump’s tactics are problematic because they could undercut the public’s faith in the court system by appearing to pressure judges over politically charged decisions.
“You just want [judges] to be completely independent of the other branches and not to feel they’re under pressure from any source to decide the facts before them,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor.
It’s highly unusual for a sitting president to personally attack a justice in modern times, though legal experts say it’s more common for candidates to criticize judges on the campaign trail.
Scholars also point out that in his 2010 State of the Union address, as the justices looked on, Obama took aim at the Citizens United ruling, which allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. Justice Samuel Alito, sitting near the front of the chamber, appeared to mouth the words “not true.”
Roberts later shot back, calling the comments “very troubling.” But Obama’s critique focused on the way the court ruled, not an individual justice.
“Most presidents leave the criticism to the opinion rather than the judges,” Tobias said. “I don’t remember this issue coming up before, even though the courts, and the Supreme Court, have issued opinions with which presidents have violently disagreed.”
By Melanie Zanona, Scott Wong and Mike Lillis
This article appeared on The Hill on Sept. 28, 2016
Congressional leaders had the playbook for how to avoid a messy pre-election government shutdown all along. They just had to execute the plays.
Republican and Democratic leaders had given hints about this possible path for days, if not weeks: Congress would attach aid to deal with the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich., to a separate water projects bill, appeasing Democrats who had been holding the spending bill hostage over the issue.
Then lawmakers would pass the stopgap funding bill, leave town and get back to the campaign trail.
The bipartisan deal on Flint “was the key that unlocked everything else,” said one leadership source.
After a flurry of phone calls and meetings, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reached a deal Tuesday night on federal aid to address Flint — the final major sticking point in negotiations over a 10-week bill to fund the government.
“We decided we don’t want to create brinksmanship. That doesn’t do anybody any good,” a victorious Ryan said Wednesday at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.
The Senate approved legislation keeping the government funded through Dec. 9 on Wednesday afternoon, with the House approving separate legislation that includes money for Flint hours later. The House approved the stopgap measure Wednesday night, 342-85.
“We’re basically having a low-drama moment here, because I think we’ve sort of taken the sting out of the room that we used to have,” Ryan said, highlighting his outreach to Democrats as well as conservatives in his party.
In the end, all of the political posturing over a potential shutdown just weeks before the presidential election — the partisan finger-pointing in floor speeches and press conferences — was for naught.
But the victory wasn’t the quick and easy one many had anticipated when lawmakers returned this month after a long summer recess. And few predicted that an impasse over funding to address the lead contamination in Flint’s drinking water supply would emerge as the biggest threat to a deal.
In her early conversations with Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Pelosi had pressed the GOP leaders to include $220 million for Flint — the same provision approved as part of the Senate’s water bill — in the government-funding bill, or continuing resolution .
Pelosi and Democrats saw it as the most certain vehicle for securing the Flint funding, which many Republicans deemed a local issue.
Ryan and McConnell repeatedly refused, arguing that the aid should be handled in the water bill. Instead, the Speaker offered to make “some sort of public commitment” to do Flint later, said an aide familiar with the negotiations. This time it was Pelosi who refused, demanding a more ironclad commitment to ensure Flint wasn’t abandoned in the lame-duck session of Congress.
On Tuesday afternoon, Pelosi hosted a press roundtable in her Capitol office, where she amplified her demand that the Flint funding be “legislated now.”
“We’re not talking about pie in the sky,” she said.
Shortly afterward, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rallied all but four Democrats to block the Republicans’ funding bill because it contained no money to address lead contamination in Flint.
The Senate was at an impasse, and it was unclear what McConnell would do next. He threatened to pull a separate amendment providing $500 million to flood victims in Louisiana, West Virginia and Maryland.
Democrats howled. But Reid’s move handed Pelosi more leverage in the fight.
Bipartisan negotiations in the House quickly kicked into high gear.
Pelosi and Ryan spoke twice Tuesday afternoon about drafting a Flint amendment on the water bill. Earlier in the week, the GOP majority of the Rules Committee had determined that a similar amendment was not “germane,” or relevant, to the water bill. So the amendment needed to be restructured as an authorization rather than an appropriation to make it acceptable.
To further pressure Ryan, Pelosi also reached out to McConnell, who agreed to talk to the Speaker about taking concrete action on the floor this week, aides said.
At 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, Pelosi gathered her entire Democratic leadership team in her office to update them on the path forward; she also invited two-term Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), whose district includes Flint.
Pelosi “deputized” Kildee and dispatched him to the Speaker’s office, where for several hours he, Ryan and leadership staffers negotiated the wording of the amendment. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) phoned freshman Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.) and urged him to team up with Kildee. Kildee phoned Michigan’s senior senator, Democrat Debbie Stabenow, throughout the evening, to keep her up to speed. Stabenow was spotted walking outside the Capitol Tuesday night talking on the phone about Ryan.
The final product was a bipartisan amendment, authored by Kildee and Moolenaar, that authorized $170 million for Flint. Kildee wanted more money but said he settled for what he described as a “significant number.” The Rules panel approved the amendment shortly before midnight, and it was successfully attached to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which cleared the House on Wednesday.
“You get close to one of these [recesses] and time sort of accelerates. And that’s sort of what happened,” Kildee said in an interview, describing his talks with Ryan. “We did 48 hours of work in 12 hours.”
In her conversations with McConnell, Pelosi also asked if he would make a statement on the Senate floor emphasizing his strong commitment to keeping the Flint language in the final WRDA package — a promise McConnell fulfilled Wednesday morning, saying he’s “extremely serious” about “ensuring that Flint funding remains in the final bill.”
Reid wasn’t involved in the final negotiations, but Pelosi was keeping him in the loop. He also spoke to McConnell and had countless phone calls with Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff.
The bipartisan agreement was finalized for a simple reason: It allowed all sides to take a victory lap.
Democrats had already won several victories in the funding fight last week when GOP leaders agreed to abandon a provision barring Planned Parenthood from receiving new funds to combat the spread of the Zika virus and another blocking the Obama administration from transferring control of internet domain monitoring to an international body.
On top of that, the Democrats secured the Flint money they’d demanded, while keeping Congress — and vulnerable Republican incumbents — in Washington much longer than GOP leaders had hoped to stay.
GOP leaders, who are scrambling this year to keep control of the Senate and minimize expected losses in the House, were able to appease conservatives by keeping Flint off the funding bill while also averting a shutdown. The Republicans took a political drubbing after the 16-day government shutdown of 2013, and this week’s Flint deal means they’ll avoid a similar debacle just weeks before November’s high-stakes elections.
The Republicans also secured one of their top policy priorities: a provision preventing the Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring corporations to disclose more political donations.
“It took some good work, and I think we’ve got a good package,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) told The Hill.
By Melanie Zanona and Vicki Needham
This article appeared on The Hill on Nov. 17, 2016
Republicans in Congress appear ready to embrace President-elect Donald Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure proposal — at least for now.
But even the most optimistic lawmakers caution that conservative support for his plan will hinge on the details, such as how the package is paid for and whether it’s coupled with other GOP priorities.
“There’s an interest among our members, frankly, on both sides, in doing something on infrastructure,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told reporters. “But my guess is, if that gets done, it probably hitches a ride on tax reform. I don’t know that just an infrastructure bill on its own, as a stand-alone, would go anywhere.”
It’s unclear exactly what Trump’s final proposal will look like. He has called for $550 billion worth of infrastructure investment paid for by bonds, as well as a $1 trillion package financed by offering tax credits to private investors.
Buzz was growing Wednesday that Trump’s economic adviser is now looking at establishing a national infrastructure bank, an idea long favored by Democrats that has gone nowhere under the Republican-led Congress. Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, included such a bank in her infrastructure plan.
Still, more than a dozen Republicans surveyed by The Hill said they were encouraged that the issue was being prioritized by the incoming administration.
“Obviously, it’s going to be a long time till he presents a specific plan to us, but I think it’s a positive step,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, told The Hill. “There’s going to be a lot of interesting suggestions. And that’s refreshing.”
The Obama administration frequently pressed Congress to act on infrastructure spending.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO came together five years ago with lawmakers to propose an infrastructure bank, which would have provided low-interest loans and other financial assistance to encourage investors to back national infrastructure projects.
Republicans blocked a $447 billion infrastructure package in 2011 from President Obama because of its massive price tag, despite the support from business and labor.
But Trump’s election could change the dynamic in Congress, where the idea of an infrastructure bank and massive federal spending on transportation projects has typically given fiscal conservatives heartburn.
“It’s music to my ears,” said Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), chairman of a Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee and member of Trump’s transition team. “There’s nothing better for this country and getting back to work than a robust infrastructure agenda.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has focused on deepening the Port of Charleston, said that of all issues Trump has talked about, infrastructure spending is the one most likely to pass Congress.
“So when President-elect Trump mentions infrastructure, count me in,” Graham, who had a contentious relationship with Trump during the campaign, told reporters. “And I hope he’ll look at ports, inland and coastal, highways and bridges are falling in disrepair.”
Moderate Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said there is a real opportunity for the Trump administration to bring the parties together on infrastructure.
“There will have to be some kind of sustainable revenue source. I think a lot of things are going to have to be on the table,” he said.
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said he also supports a plan to ramp up infrastructure spending but will wait to see how the details develop around financing and priorities.
“I’ve felt all along that the best opportunity to get a bipartisan process working would be on infrastructure,” he said.
Yet enthusiasm alone won’t be enough to get a massive transportation spending bill over the finish line.
Lawmakers acknowledged that coming up with a palatable budget offset would be a herculean task.
“The concept is right on target,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, told The Hill. “How we do it, that’s the key.”
Conservatives have made clear that increasing the federal gas tax to pay for infrastructure is a nonstarter. There’s more appetite for taxing corporate earnings that are being stored abroad, a process called “repatriation” when that money returns to the U.S.
But Republicans have also floated repatriation as a way to finance tax reform.
“I like the idea of using at least a part of repatriation to pay for infrastructure,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “I think there has been a debate in the government about to what extent to use repatriation to pave the way for tax reform. I tend to believe there’s enough revenue out there to do both.”
Trump’s proposal does not rely on repatriation, but the renewed talk about an infrastructure bank suggests his plan is far from finalized.
“There are a number of vehicles that could finance infrastructure that would meet the approval of conservatives, whether it’s public-private partnerships, investment bonds, repatriation,” said Rep. Mark Meadows.
The North Carolina Republican said other components of the plan that may be important to conservatives are whether it ensures dollars are distributed fairly across the country and whether it rolls back certain regulatory hurdles to getting projects off the ground, one of the major critiques of Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus plan.
“I think that our infrastructure is in dire need of help all over this country,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “I think President-elect Trump’s right on that it would put a lot of people to work and do some substantive things.”
GOP leadership has so far treaded carefully when it comes to Trump’s $1 trillion proposal.
“We’re going to work on all of these things in the transition,” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said during a Tuesday press conference, when asked about Trump’s plan. “So, it’s going to take time to figure out exactly what bill comes where and how it all adds up. But that’s what the congressional process is all about.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the majority whip, noted that Congress just passed a “substantial” five-year highway bill at the end of last year. The legislation was financed through a series of budgetary gimmicks, underscoring the challenge of finding long-term funding solutions.
Cornyn said Senate Republicans would at least be interested in hearing Trump’s ideas and how to pay for it.
Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said an infrastructure spending bill would need to be offset in order to get his vote and the vote of other conservatives.
“If Trump doesn’t find a way to pay for it, then I think the majority of us, if not all of us, are going to vote against it,” Labrador said at an event moderated by the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday.
Lawmakers may also face pressure from outside conservative groups, which have been pressuring Trump to steer clear of any package that adds to the deficit or looks like an economic stimulus plan.
“That’s going to go through some pretty significant and rigorous vetting in the Congress,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), another member of the House Freedom Caucus, said of Trump’s proposal. “Reality will ultimately be the arbiter of the final version.”
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on May 16, 2016.
It’s the problem that no one has been able to solve.
For years, Washington policymakers have widely agreed that the nation is facing an infrastructure crisis, with dangerously congested roads and deficient bridges threatening public safety and trade.
Time and again, lawmakers in both parties have expressed consensus that something should be done.
Yet, congressional attempts to revitalize the country’s transportation infrastructure — which now ranks 11th in the world after slipping from No. 1, according to the World Economic Forum — have gone nowhere.
Members of Congress, local legislators, former Cabinet members and experts alike say the impasse largely boils down to one thing.
“It’s politics,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Funding shortfalls ahead
By 2025, the price of maintaining and updating the country’s infrastructure will total $3.3 trillion, but planned investments are only $1.8 trillion, leaving a $1.4 trillion gap.
That shortfall is projected to grow to $5.1 trillion by 2040 if spending continues on the current trajectory, according to the latest report from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
President Obama, speaking at a news conference earlier this month, blamed the nation’s infrastructure woes on Republicans who have “been resistant to really taking on this problem in a serious way, and the reason is because of an ideology that says government spending is necessarily bad."
The president in 2009 touted “shovel-ready” transportation projects as the backbone of his economic stimulus package. But some lawmakers in Obama’s own party have complained that the over $800 billion stimulus law only devoted $105 billion to infrastructure, with $48 billion going toward transportation, partly in the form of competitive grants.
Other Democrats criticized how long it took for some of the stimulus projects to begin.
“It put a pathetic morsel of money into infrastructure, yet the president went around the country pretending that we were doing some massive rebuilding,” DeFazio said.
And when both chambers of Congress were actually controlled by Democrats in 2009 and 2010, DeFazio said Obama killed a multiyear surface transportation bill that the lawmaker was writing with the late Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.).
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were generally eager to avoid a vote on increasing the gasoline tax, underscoring just how politically unpopular it is. The federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, forcing lawmakers to find other sources of funding.
“Politicians don’t want to raise the gas tax, because they are afraid they will get thrown out of office,” said former Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We have to have a big pot of money to get us back to No. 1. And to do that, we have to replenish the Highway Trust Fund”
Politics at the pump
It’s easy to see why lawmakers would be reluctant to raise the gas tax, because consumers pay the cost directly at the pump.
But with the tax unchanged in two decades — and absent other concrete funding alternatives — the Congressional Budget Office predicts that the Highway Trust Fund will be insolvent in the next decade.
The fund, which provides for road construction and other surface transportation projects across the country, is financed by a federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel.
Congress has sought long-term funding solutions to pull the fund out of its gaping financial hole.
Last year’s five-year surface transportation bill neither raised the gas tax nor came up with a sustainable funding solution. Instead, Congress financed the measure with a series of accounting gimmicks, such as shifting funds from the Federal Reserve.
But for all the apparent political problems surrounding a fuel tax hike, over a dozen states — including Republican strongholds Georgia, Idaho and Nebraska — have passed or considered legislation to boost their statewide gas taxes.
“It kind of became campaign folklore that you can’t raise the gas tax,” said Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future, who worked in the White House during the Clinton administration, the last time the tax was raised.
A national gas tax hike is likely to be a tougher sell, even with low gas prices. Taxpayers at the local level may have an easier time envisioning where their state or city tax increase is going when they can physically see a bridge or highway being built.
“Once you’re talking about really large projects around the country and there’s something that needs to go through Congress, it kind of gets lost in all the arguments,” Hale said.
Other speed bumps
Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, says he opposes fuel tax increases because evolving vehicle technology would eventually make them unsustainable.
But coming up with a suitable, long-term funding solution for transportation projects is difficult when voters have little trust in Washington’s spending, he said.
“There is very little faith that money that Washington uses goes to the right thing,” Diaz-Balart said. “The infamous phrase of ‘shovel-ready’ sounded good, but it wasn’t true. There’s a lot of cynicism as to whether the federal government is capable of delivering on things it says it needs to do.”
The ban on earmarks has also complicated Congress’s ability to deliver on local transportation projects.
“Earmarks allowed them to be courageous,” said former Gov. John Engler (R-Mich.), president of the Business Roundtable. “Some don’t need that courage, some do.”
Transportation advocates also in constant competition with other pressing issues in defense, healthcare and education, making it hard to grasp a slice of the funding pie.
But with nearly everyone using the nation’s infrastructure on a daily basis, it’s certainly a campaign message that can be relatable.
“It seems difficult that it would ever be someone’s first issue that they would vote on,” said Brian Pallasch, managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives for ASCE. “But most voters have an infrastructure story, whether it’s the time that the normal commute takes three times longer or a water main breaks nearby.”
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on Sept. 29, 2016
A fatal New Jersey Transit train crash on Thursday morning is putting the spotlight on a potentially life-saving technology that railroads across the country have been slow to adopt.
Although the cause of the crash at a Hoboken train station is still unknown, preliminary reports suggest that it was caused by operator error, and that the train went through a bumper stop at the end of the track.
The train was not backstopped by positive train control (PTC), a technology that automatically slows a train that is going over the speed limit.
A central question that has emerged in the aftermath of the crash is whether it could have been prevented by PTC.
Officials acknowledged that the train was traveling at a high rate of speed, based on eye-witness accounts, but were reluctant to speculate about whether any automated technology could have prevented the crash.
"PTC no doubt can be a benefit, depending on circumstances. What we’re saying here is that we don't know what the circumstances were,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) during a news conference on Thursday. “It could be any number of things: personal to the conductor, equipment failure.”
Cuomo said they are focusing on figuring out the cause of the accident before trying to come up with solutions.
Bella Dinh-Zarr, vice chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said at a press conference on Thursday that PTC is a top priority for the agency and it will “absolutely” investigate whether the crash could have been avoided by the technology.
A recent report from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) shows that the technology is only operating along 9 percent of freight route miles and 22 percent of passenger train route miles.
Congress originally gave commuter and freight railroads until the end of 2015 to install the technology, which can prevent derailments, collisions, crashes and improper track switching.
But as railroads struggled to meet compliance deadlines, lawmakers pushed back the PTC implementation date to at least Dec. 31, 2018.
“I don’t think we should have extended the deadline while the trains were still running. I think that was unfortunate,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a Thursday news conference.
“We know that where [the technology] exists, safety is greatly improved. Hopefully we can revisit that.”
In the first half of 2016, New Jersey Transit made little progress in implementing PTC, according to the FRA report. The transit agency said its target completion date is 2018.
The transit agency has not yet conducted any employee training or equipped any of its 440 locomotives or 124 radio towers with PTC, and has zero route miles in operation, according to the report.
Other rail systems, including Amtrak and BNSF, have made far more significant progress.
But safety advocates have still criticized the pace of progress, and the NJ crash is likely to further fuel the debate.
One reason that railroads have been slow to install the technology is the cost. Freight railroads have already kicked in more than $6.5 billion in private funding for PTC, with the industry expecting final costs to reach over $10.5 billion by the time the automated system is fully operational, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Since 2008, Congress has awarded more than $650 million in federal grants to assist passenger railroads in equipping their systems with the technology.
The FRA doled out $25 million in PTC grants last month and is currently accepting applications for an additional $199 million in competitive grant funding.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has urged railroads to implement the technology ahead of the deadline, while also calling on Congress to provide additional funding.
President Obama sought $1.25 billion in his fiscal 2017 budget request to help railroads install PTC systems.
A deadly Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia last year could have been prevented if the train operator, who was speeding around a curve, was backstopped by PTC.
The NTSB will be investigating the New Jersey Transit crash, along with the FRA, to determine the cause of the accident and the role that PTC could have played.
At least one person has been confirmed dead and over 100 have been injured, according to multiple reports.
“Our thoughts and prayers with those who are hurt and those who were killed,” Pelosi said. “Just so sad.”
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on CQ Roll Call on Sept. 28, 2015
It's not surprising that Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican presidential candidate who passionately opposes abortion and orchestrated the 2013 government shutdown, would lead the charge against funding Planned Parenthood in a government spending bill.
But Cruz's effort, which includes a 50-state campaign aimed at the family planning group, is being fortified by $15 million in financial support from a pair of socially conservative billionaires who have long funneled large sums of money towards anti-abortion efforts.
Mega-donors Farris and Dan Wilks, who made their fortunes in recent years in the fracking and masonry businesses, are brothers from Cisco, Texas, who have generally maintained a low profile. They were thrust into the spotlight this summer, when financial disclosure reports showed they and their spouses gave $15 million in the first half of 2015 to a super PAC supporting Cruz.
None of the Wilks’ previous political donations came close to that sum. The brothers and their wives have only contributed $263,000 at the federal level since 2006, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
“It’s sort of unusual to see people like this just appear on the scene,” said Viveca Novak, the center's editorial and communications director. “It’s a very substantial amount, even for groups that can take unlimited money. They are the largest super PAC donors in this cycle so far.”
Cruz is trying to boost his standing with social conservatives by vowing to fight any short-term spending measure that provides money to Planned Parenthood. The organization has been embroiled in controversy since the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress began releasing undercover videos that implicate the group in the sale of aborted fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood officials deny the charge and say the footage is heavily edited.
Though Senate Democrats last week blocked a spending bill with defunding language, Cruz reiterated his promise to use all available procedural tools to stop any legislation that funds Planned Parenthood.
“I think he is a true believer in wanting to defund Planned Parenthood,” said Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at the nonprofit People for the American Way. “But I also think he sees that at this moment in the campaign, leading the attack on Planned Parenthood and attacking other Republicans as weak and too willing to cave to [President Barack] Obama is clearly a way to position himself as the religious right candidate who’s willing to fight.”
Cruz's office didn't return calls seeking comment.
A Pattern Of Giving
The Wilks are social conservatives who have a history of shuffling money to the religious right. The older brother, Farris, is a pastor whose private Thirteen Foundation has routinely donated to groups that push anti-abortion platforms such as Online for Life and Heartbeat International, a network of crisis pregnancy centers.
“They appear to have a pretty single focus,” Novak said.
The anti-abortion group Life Dynamics received the bulk of its funding from the Wilks family in recent years, according to IRS Form 990 filings. Between July 1, 2011, and July 1, 2014, the Thirteen Foundation gave a total of $2.2 million to the organization, which mounted its own undercover sting operation 15 years ago targeting fetal tissue practices.
Life Dynamics also sent direct mail DVDs to lawyers in a 2013 effort to entice them to sue abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood. Some believe Life Dynamics has provided oversight and inspiration for the recent undercover Center for Medical Progress videos, but neither group would respond to requests for comment. CMP’s funding sources remain unknown because nonprofits aren’t required to disclose their donors, while private foundations are required to disclose who they give to.
The Thirteen Foundation gave the American Family Association $922,000 in 2013, according to forms filed with the IRS. Meanwhile, Dan Wilks’ Heavenly Father’s Foundation gave $750,000 to the group specifically for “pastors and pews” conferences. The events are sponsored by the American Renewal Project, which is funded by the AFA and teamed up with Cruz last month to launch a nationwide campaign urging evangelical pastors to help him end taxpayer support for Planned Parenthood.
“This is all about a very specific political plan on the part of Sen. Cruz, and he has made no secret of the fact that he views evangelicals as his pathway to the nomination,” said Brian Walsh, a veteran GOP strategist with 20 years of experience on Capitol Hill. “He believes he’ll win politically no matter what.”
It remains to be seen whether the Wilks brothers will maintain their support for Cruz if a compromise spending bill maintains funding for Planned Parenthood. But Cruz will have at least one more opportunity to go to battle over the issue in the near future: the so-called "clean" continuing resolution (HR 719) without defunding language expires Dec. 11.
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.
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on CQ Roll Call on March 17, 2016.
Just like doctors listen to their patients, diagnose an illness and provide treatment, lawmakers listen to their constituents, identify a problem and offer a legislative solution.
Former physicians and Louisiana Reps. Charles Boustany Jr. and John Fleming each hope the skills they learned as doctors will help propel them to the Senate next year.
The pair are among eight candidates vying to fill retiring Republican David Vitter’sopen seat this November. With one of the few physicians in the Senate—Republican Bill Cassidy — already serving in Louisiana, the race involving Boustany and Fleming increases the odds that two senators in the same state next year will both be former doctors.
That scenario has only occurred three times, but never in modern history: The last time was in 1837 when physicians John Shelby Spence and Joseph Kent both represented Maryland as Anti-Jacksonians in the U.S. Senate.
For all the traits shared between physicians and politicians, doctors represent a surprisingly small slice of the representation in Congress compared to their outsized role in shaping health policy.
Currently only three doctors are in the Senate and 15 in the House, according to a CQ Roll Call tally that excludes optometrists. By comparison, there are 204 attorneys in Congress.
“There are very few doctors in Senate right now,” Boustany said in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call. “When I first ran for Congress and I met (former Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., and Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas) we talked about if I got elected, there were so few of us that we ought to form a Doctors Caucus. And we did.”
Fleming and Boustany are competing against GOP State Treasurer John Kennedy, tea party favorite Rob Maness, former Republican Rep. Joseph Cao, and Democrats Caroline Fayard and Foster Campbell. Former state Sen. Troy Hebert also is running as an independent.
Louisiana’s top-two system means that a candidate must clear 50 percent of the vote on Election Day, or else the top two candidates — regardless of party affiliation — face off in a runoff election.
Although Fleming and Boustany share the goal of repealing and replacing the 2010 health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) and draw heavily on their medical experience, their legislative styles couldn’t be more different.
Boustany, who is more closely aligned with leadership, touts his role bringing lawmakers together on historic doc-fix legislation. Fleming, who often bucks leadership, prides himself on being an outsider and founding member of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus.
“We are tremendously different. He is much more moderate in his voting record, and I have the most conservative voting record of anyone in our delegation,” Fleming told CQ Roll Call in an interview. “I’m someone who has defied our leadership, and the American people feel like there needs to be a lot more people like me.”
Fleming came to Congress in 2009, just in time to become one of the most vocal opponents of the health care overhaul. The lawmaker says his small-government mindset was shaped by his experiences as both a physician and a businessman.
The Meridian, Miss., native said he had wanted to become a doctor since age 11, when he was inspired by his grandmother who was a nurse. Fleming served six years in the Navy Medical Corps practicing family medicine before setting up his own practice in Minden, La.
He also opened up the first Subway sandwich franchise in the state.
“Nobody had ever heard of it,” Fleming recalls. He now owns 40 shops, and also is a sub-franchiser of The UPS Store.
“I found myself not only delivering health care, but also providing coverage to them as employees,” Fleming says. “And that gave me a very unique perspective on health care and health care reform.”
Fleming advocates for a private insurance system in which people would have health savings accounts. He is a co-sponsor of the Republican Study Committee’s health care plan (HR 2653), which would entirely repeal President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement and replace the law’s tax credits to help people pay premiums with tax deductions for purchasing insurance.
The RSC blueprint also would use high-risk pools for individuals with pre-existing conditions, overhaul medical malpractice laws, and increase the contribution levels allowed in flexible saving accounts and HSAs, among other things.
“If you make it more affordable and more attractive, people will voluntarily purchase it,” Fleming says. “You don’t have a law that says people have to buy cars.”
Fleming has sponsored bills to dismantle the health care overhaul (HR 370) and opposed the deal that ended the government shutdown in 2013 because he said it didn’t do enough to curtail the health law. He also led the charge to oppose any government spending bill that funds Planned Parenthood after sting videos about the family planning plan group were released in summer 2015.
Fleming is encouraged, however, that Congress for the first time sent a repeal measure (HR 3762) to Obama’s desk this year through the process of budget reconciliation. Even though it was vetoed, he hopes to repeat the process next year.
Fleming, a self-professed “ideas” man, says he is interested in allowing veterans to seek certain health services from local physicians and hospitals; enhancing research for cystic fibrosis, a condition that his grandson has; and promoting telemedicine and other innovative delivery methods, or what he like to calls the “uberization” of health care.
Workhorse With a Track Record
But Boustany is quick to point out that unlike some of his opponents in the Louisiana Senate race, Boustany has a track record of successfully passing legislation.
“One of the key distinguishing factors for me, especially with regard to health care, is the fact that in my time here in the House I’ve actually gotten legislation passed," he says.
Boustany, the oldest of 10 children and son of a doctor, grew up in Lafayette, La. After medical school, he completed residencies in both general surgery and cardiothoracic surgery — another factor he says separates him from the pack. He then opened a medical practice in his hometown.
“Many of the doctors who have come into Congress represent primary care fields. I dealt with complex cardio and pulmonary conditions,” Boustany says. “So I have a good handle on how to get costs under control that some of the others may not have.”
Boustany served on nonprofit boards and the local chamber of commerce, which helped him transition to Congress in 2005. Like Fleming, Boustany says he got into policy because he was “increasingly concerned about all the problems in our health care system.”
Perhaps one of Boustany’s biggest legislative achievements was helping overhaul Medicare’s oft-criticized physician payment formula, an issue known as the doc fix.
The effort was years in the making — Boustany recalls working right after Christmas one year — but Congress finally passed a permanent fix (PL 114-10) in spring 2015.
“Even at times when the whole effort was getting ready to fall apart, I’m proud I was able to provide some glue to keep everybody together,” he says.
Boustany continues to call for repealing the health care law, saying he favors health savings accounts and more competition among insurers and providers.
As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, Boustany has focused his attack on the taxes in the law, as well as advocated for Medicare changes that emphasizequality over quantity. The tax-writing panel is involved in ongoing GOP efforts to propose a health care replacement plan this year.
He has sponsored a stack of bills (HR 4689, HR 3320, HR 1863) on veterans’ health care issues, with a focus on reducing waste and increasing transparency within the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and says he was instrumental in gettingtwo VA clinics opened in Louisiana.
After he gave the Republican response to Obama’s joint session to Congress in 2009, Boustany says he started receiving calls from physicians all around the country seeking advice about running for office.
He says he helped several colleagues become lawmakers —including Fleming and Cassidy.
“A medical background is very helpful,” Boustany says. “We’re very good at listening, then using that information to diagnose a problem.”
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared in CQ Weekly on March 30, 2015
In the military, access to reproductive health services has long involved its share of unique bureaucratic and logistical hurdles.
To refill prescriptions for birth control, active-duty women may have to take a monthly helicopter ride to an on-base treatment facility with limited varieties and supplies of contraceptives. Nonactive-duty women and their dependents who don’t live near a base face copayments if they fill such an order at a local drug store. And emergency contraception and counseling can be scarce, according to surveys.
With unplanned pregnancy rates in the armed services an estimated 50 percent higher than in the general population, congressional Democrats plan to use the annual defense policy bills to more closely align the policies of the Pentagon’s health system, Tricare, with the health care law, which requires most private insurers and employers to provide birth control to employees at no cost.
Although past efforts have been scuttled by abortion foes, they may dovetail this year with those of a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, who are looking to potentially address a related policy. Some panel members participated in a roundtable discussion last month on fertility challenges for veterans with disabilities.
“It was basically an opportunity to get people in the room that are actually involved [with the issue] to talk to one another,” says VA Health Subcommittee Chairman Dan Benishek, R-Mich., who led the discussion.
The thinking is that efforts to bring health benefit parity to the more than 3 million women in Tricare may overcome traditional divisions over abortion and contraception. Fertility treatment options for service members and veterans — including those incapable of getting pregnant due to their war wounds — are limited at the federal agencies responsible for their care. There has been some bipartisan interest in tackling the discrepancy, with the Senate Budget Committee adopting an amendment to its budget resolution this month to encourage expanding fertility treatment options for veterans.
Women’s health advocates say successful efforts on less contentious issues such as veterans’ fertility could create a blueprint for lawmakers to address other reproductive issues that have stalled in the past.
“All these issues are connected, and all of them are related to women’s well-being,” says Leila Abolfazli, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center. “It’s all about improving women’s reproductive health in different ways, but whether a congressman or congresswoman will see that the same way is a different question.”
Messaging that focuses on granting service members the same health care access as civilians could help Congress overcome traditional battle lines over abortion and contraception. “If you think family planning is important, then you should think all the pieces are important,” Abolfazli says.
At least some of the provisions could be attached to must-pass legislation. The defense authorization bills, due this spring, are the preferred vehicle because they set policy and recommend spending levels for more than a half-trillion dollars in programs at the Pentagon and other security agencies.
And while the annual budget resolution doesn’t have the force of law, the Senate Budget Committee signaled some willingness to tackle veterans’ fertility issues with the unanimous approval of the amendment to the budget resolution.
One possible provision for inclusion by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., would require Tricare to cover any Food and Drug Administration-approved form of contraception, as well as family counseling services, without a copayment. Military treatment facilities would also be required to stock a wider selection of birth-control measures.
Although Tricare covers a wide range of contraceptive methods, base facilities where many servicewomen receive care are not required to stock all of them. A third of active-duty military women said they could not get their preferred form of birth control while abroad and 41 percent had difficulty obtaining contraception requiring a refill, according to a study by Ibis Reproductive Health. Servicewomen can also face confusion about when to take oral contraceptives because they often cross multiple time zones when deployed overseas.
“For women members of the military who are being deployed for nine, 12 months in Afghanistan and Iraq, this bill requires that they get family planning counseling before they are deployed and enough contraception for that period of time,” Speier says.
Supporters maintain the measure ensures that long-acting birth-control methods, such as intrauterine devices, are more readily available to service members being deployed in foreign countries. They argue that increased access to family planning counseling prior to deployment will help women make informed decisions about their reproductive health, which also can enhance military readiness.
The existing barriers to contraceptive access stem from prohibitions on sexual relationships between soldiers of different ranks, although birth control can still be prescribed for a variety of reasons. A current congressional aide and former service member, speaking on the condition he not be identified, said some military doctors will leave out bowls of condoms on bases in an effort to bridge the gap between the outdated policies and reality, but there are no formal requirements about providing contraception.
Speier’s measure also would permit all Tricare beneficiaries, including members of the Reserves, National Guard and military dependents, to obtain birth control with no copayment at pharmacies off military bases.
“When non-deployed service members go to get their contraception at a local pharmacy, they should have the same benefits that every woman in this country has, which is no copayment,” Speier says.
As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, Speier has fought against sexual assault in the military and sponsored related amendments to annual legislation to authorize the Defense Department. Her contraception measure includes requirements that medical facilities on bases stock emergency contraception and inform all sexual assault victims that it is an available option — a provision that could be a sticking point for lawmakers who view the so-called morning-after pill as a form of abortion.
“I couldn’t support that, because that would be taxpayer funds for what is considered by many to be abortion,” says Republican Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, a member of Armed Services, although “someone paying for that themselves is a whole other issue. I get that.”
Republicans also are likely to paint Speier’s bill as an attempt to expand the reach of the contraceptive mandate in the health overhaul, which could influence lawmakers who have vowed to dismantle the law.
Another reproductive health issue that could spur changes is a policy at the Veterans Affairs Department that bars in vitro fertilization. Improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused more service members to suffer spinal cord injuries and trauma to their reproductive and urinary tracts, which can render them infertile.
The Pentagon provides in vitro fertilization, but has narrow eligibility requirements, and the treatments are only performed at a handful of facilities.
“You can imagine the wait-list,” says Helen Hare, spokeswoman for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “It’s very difficult to access.”
She says many veterans and ineligible service members would have to pay for treatments out of pocket, costing thousands of dollars for some families.
Murray is pressing to lift the VA’s ban and expand treatment options and eligibility requirements at the Defense Department, including for spouses and surrogates. The measure also would provide financial assistance to wounded veterans seeking to adopt children and make permanent a child care services pilot program at the VA.
“We should be doing everything we can, with the best science and health services available, to help our veterans and their loved ones have children despite their injuries,” Murray said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.
Similar legislation advanced out of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in the 113th Congress, with one Republican, Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, recorded in opposition. A version of the bill passed the chamber by unanimous consent in the 112th Congress but was not taken up last year in the Republican House.
Burr, who was then the panel’s ranking member, raised concerns over the cost and effectiveness of the measure in a 2013 committee report. But Burr said he agreed with the principle of the bill. VA officials took issue with the inclusion of surrogates in the legislation, as well as its price tag.
On the other side of the Capitol, Hare is hoping the recent roundtable discussion on fertility issues for veterans is a sign that some Republicans may be willing to support provisions in Murray’s bill. But Benishek says some of the issues could be resolved without congressional intervention.
Speier and Murray were encouraged by the inclusion of language in last year’s year-end spending package that allows Peace Corps members to use federal funding for abortions in the cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger.
The military contraception bill was introduced last Congress and has a Senate companion sponsored by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. But it has never been marked up in committee, and Republican support is less clear.
At least one Republican has voiced potential support for the bill: Freshman Rep. Ryan Zinke, an Armed Services member, says he has not seen the exact text of Speier’s bill yet but generally backs extending contraceptive access for service members. The Montana Republican is a former Navy SEAL officer and could have an influential voice on the panel.
Fellow committee member Jackie Walorski — who was at the forefront of a stand by female GOP lawmakers earlier this year against a 20-week abortion ban bill — says she is “wide open” to working on veterans’ issues, though she has not seen Speier’s bill. The Indiana Republican recently introduced legislation with Democrat Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii to expand veterans’ access to health care.
“I do a lot of stuff across the aisle with Democratic women,” Walorski said off the floor. “VA bills aren’t partisan, they aren’t Republican or Democratic — they’re American issues.”
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on Sept. 9, 2016
Five decades ago, Ralph Nader was losing friends in car crashes at a rapid rate.
Nader, a former third-party presidential candidate, said the tragic deaths in his life inspired him to write a book investigating the dangers of automobiles, which prompted Congress to enact the most sweeping auto safety law in U.S. history.
Since that landmark legislation, the annual number of traffic fatalities has greatly declined.
But 50 years later, Nader is still fighting for a provision dropped from the bill that he says could dramatically reform the auto industry: allowing manufacturers to be jailed by the federal government for covering up safety defects.
“That was the one part we lost,” Nader told The Hill in a telephone interview Friday, reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the law’s enactment. “That was a serious loss.”
Nader’s best-selling book “Unsafe at Any Speed” exposed automakers' reluctance to implement potentially life-saving features, such as seat belts, at a time when there were no federal safety requirements for U.S. automobiles.
The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, signed into law by President Johnson in 1966, set mandatory federal safety standards for vehicles and drivers, and established the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
“It was a big eye-opener for Congress,” Nader said.
Over 50,000 people died on U.S. roadways the year the bill was signed into law, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. NHTSA laws and programs are estimated to have saved over 453,000 lives since 1975.
But recent numbers show a break in the historical trend of fewer traffic fatalities occurring per year, with vehicle-related deaths climbing 7.2 percent, to 35,092 people, last year.
“You can’t say it’s because we’re coming out of the recession,” Nader said. “Something’s going on here. That’s a historic reversal.”
Nader says there are a number of measures that could help fight the trend. He advocated for a bill from Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Ed Markey (Mass.) that would impose criminal penalties on automakers for concealing information about safety defects and eliminate the cap on the NHTSA’s ability to fine automakers who fail to comply with recall regulations.
The NHTSA fined Japanese part manufacturer Takata Corp. for not immediately reporting a known airbag safety defect that has led to 10 deaths, hundreds of injuries and the largest auto recall in U.S. history.
“Meager fines do nothing more than change the costs of doing business and provide no meaningful deterrence for continuing reprehensible and irresponsible behavior that costs countless preventable injuries and lives,” Blumenthal and Markey said in a statement.
Nader also pointed to laws requiring helmets for motorcyclists, rest breaks for truck drivers and stronger enforcement of laws prohibiting cellphone use behind the wheel.
But perhaps the greatest auto safety revolution on the horizon since the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act could come in the form of self-driving cars, though Nader acknowledges that widespread autonomous vehicles are still decades away.
The Department of Transportation is expected to soon unveil state guidance on driverless cars and issue a rule later this year requiring all new cars to have vehicle-to-vehicle communication.
The focus on autonomous vehicles represents a shift from protecting people in a crash, with things like seat belts and airbags, to avoiding a collision altogether, with features like automatic braking and blind-spot detection.
But Nader worries that the way federal regulators and Congress operate today could impede major efforts to improve safety; the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act went into effect less than a year after Nader’s book was published.
“And it wasn’t like there was a consensus in the beginning. There was horrible opposition to it,” Nader says. “But can you imagine this happening today?”
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared in the Champaign News-Gazette on May 23, 2010
The shamrock-embroidered button on Steve Robinette's taxi van dashboard reads "Kiss Me, I'm the Designated Driver."
It's from Unofficial St. Patrick's day last year, when a group of his regular customers asked him to pull over and grab one from a vendor on the street. Small, plastic handcuff keys are dangling overhead on the mirror, from when Robinette picked up some girls at a Halloween party this October. Just below that, slung around his cup holder, is a faded glow-in-the-dark necklace that a customer gave him from a "hippy concert" at the Canopy Club last month.
For Robinette, a Yellow Cab taxi driver, his van's dashboard is just as colorful as his character.
"I try to form regulars and really get to know them," Robinette says of his cab clientele. "My role is more like driving nieces and nephews around."
The night starts out like most other nights. A group of sorority girls, their stiletto heels clicking on the pavement, scurries out of Mas Amigos restaurant and piles into Robinette's elongated taxi van.
A ringing chorus of "Steve!" echoes through the cab as they scrunch up next to one another and get situated.
"Take us to Kams!" one of the girls shouts.
"Sure thing, ladies, just got to make one stop first."
Robinette slips a Camel Filter cigarette out from its yellow-gold package and lights it, shielding the flame from the cool winter air. Although he is almost 40 years old, it's hard to tell. Robinette has a round baby face with smooth skin and straight white teeth. His hair is graying, but thick. He's nearly 6 feet 7 inches tall with a burly, round frame. But he still wears tiny, thin-rimmed silver glasses that look as though they have always belonged on him. Robinette takes a drag of his Camel with his left hand, switches gears with his right and pokes the van into acceleration.
"You know, this is a family affair for us, Steve," says a smiling Kelly Rourke, the shorthaired brunette sitting in the seat directly behind Robinette. She turns and explains to her friends: "My cousin and older brother used to always go to him, and they passed his number down to me. Now I'll only call him to be my driver. Steve's my only choice!"
As the girls laugh and banter, Robinette pulls up to an apartment driveway. He grabs his Nextel phone from the cup holder and makes a quick call. Within seconds, a young man and his girlfriend climb into the cab and make their way to the back.
"What's going on, Steve?" the man asks. "We're just going to Potbellies."
"No problem," he replies in a slow, smooth voice that bubbles up straight from his belly, and his words project throughout the whole cab. His Boston accent peeks in now and then. When Robinette talks, he always keeps his eyes on the road, but his customers feel as though every last bit of his attention is on them.
Robinette listens and gives advice. He offers tissues to the crying girlfriend who just got dumped. He takes people where they need to go. He gives a cigarette to the drunken kid heading home for the night. In the taxicab world, the customer is always right, but in his regulars' eyes, Robinette is never wrong.
As he backs out of a driveway, the large taxi van bottoms out on the street and scrapes against the rough concrete. Loud cheers and clapping erupt from the passengers. Robinette turns over his shoulder and smirks.
"That one's always a crowd-pleaser."
Robinette started delivering for Dominos pizza in Champaign in 2004, which helped him become familiar with local geography. Ask him any trivia about where things are on the University of Illinois campus, and he'll know it. But pizza delivery was just too boring and impersonal. His manager at the time put him in touch with someone who worked with Yellow Checker Cab Company in Champaign, and Robinette has been driving taxis ever since.
He drives his taxi about five nights a week, starting at 2 p.m. and going till 3 a.m. or later, which might explain why his van is littered with empty sugar-free Red Bull cans and crumpled Jimmy John's wrappers.
The key to Robinette's success as a cab driver has been cultivating a following of regulars, who are known in the cab-driving world as "personals," as opposed to random customers pulled off the street, who are known as "flaggers." Robinette has so many personals that he doesn't need to have the dispatcher radio on all the time.
But business isn't always lucrative. Sometimes he'll go home because sales aren't covering his $600-a-month gas expenses. Other slow times, he'll run a few errands, call his mom or girlfriend, and listen to books on tape.
At home, Robinette doesn't own a TV because his love for books always trumped his desire to watch television. Growing up he read E.M. Forster, Kurt Vonnegut and Oscar Wilde, but today he'll usually read more current books in search of a new classic.
"I'm not saying that I don't consume media," Robinette admits. "I watched TV a lot when I was a kid, and even in my adolescence. I just think TV went to hell."
Being up until the early hours of the morning every day makes it difficult for Robinette to have a normal life, which is another reason it is easier to read books instead of watch television, since primetime programs air while Robinette is working. The weird hours also make it harder to stay in shape, which is why Robinette's girlfriend made him join a gym recently.
"I actually feel weird when I walk because I spend so much time in my van," Robinette says. "I've gotten to the point where I can drive with my legs. I can even take corners with my knees!"
It's early evening and business is slow. Robinette calls the dispatcher to see if she has anything. Two people at the Red Roof Inn in Champaign need a ride to campus. Robinette arrives at the hotel within a few minutes, and two people in their late 20s hop into the van carrying bags of Jim Beam products. They are representatives for the whiskey brand, and tonight they are doing promotions at a campus bar, Fubar Lounge.
The threesome cruises down Green Street. Just before the Beam reps step out of the van and pay, Robinette slips them his business card: a Yellow Taxi Van card with his name and number scribbled in black permanent marker.
"Call me if you need me later," Robinette says. "It can be hard to get a ride out at that time of night."
Robinette's van comes to a halt at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house on Fourth Street. A few minutes later, two girls jog down the long pathway and hop into the cab.
"Steve, my fave cab driver!" one of the girls shouts. "We missed you!"
"Yeah, we denied three other cabs for you," says the other.
"Well, thanks, ladies!" Robinette says as he pulls away, smoothly turning onto the street with his wrist, which is casually draped over the steering wheel. "What are you guys up to tonight?"
"Just frat hopping, the usual," one girl says.
"Oh, man, but I am so hungry," says the other.
"Spring break diet! We have to stay on our spring break diet!"
"OK, fine, you're right."
"But, actually, I'm kind of hungry, too. Hey, Steve, do you have the number to One World?"
Robinette pulls out a sleek, black iPhone, and happily dispenses the number to the girls, who call and order a medium cheese pizza with a side of ranch.
"Thanks, Steve!" the girls exclaim in unison as they get out at their destination. "Here's a little extra tip just for you."
Robinette pockets the money and puffs on a Camel.
"I always try to help out my customers," he says as he flicks the disintegrating ashes out of the window. "I usually hear someone's entire drunken story about a boyfriend or a friend or a policeman, and I just smile and nod and give advice when I can. Sometimes people just want someone to listen, though. That's what I'm here for: the cab-driving psychologist."
When he was younger, Robinette never envisioned himself becoming skilled in the art of cab driving. In fact, Robinette never envisioned himself becoming much of anything. He knew only what he didn't want to do, which was to become an engineer, just like his father always wanted.
"My dad owns a factory that makes eyeglasses and telescopes," Robinette says. "He wanted me to be an engineer because all the people in his life that he respected were engineers."
Robinette was raised in Boston, where he attended Boston English School, a public high school that focuses on teaching business, mechanics and engineering trades. But he was resistant toward school and higher education. His family and teachers had high expectations of Robinette at a young age because of his natural intelligence, he says, but he had difficulty staying on track. It's not that he wasn't capable of completing his schoolwork; rather, he simply found it easier.
After high school, it came as no surprise to his family when Robinette flitted around among several liberal arts colleges on the East coast. For a while, he worked on a roofing crew in Boston, mending old Victorian buildings. And for his father's sake, he gave the factory life a good run.
Nothing seemed to give Robinette any satisfaction, especially because he was carrying around the notion that he could just never be a suit-and-tie type of guy. Robinette eventually migrated to Chicago to give education another shot, but he never finished his degree.
He finally came to Champaign 15 years ago because one of his high school buddies was going to school there at the time. He figured it would be an opportunity to step away from the life that was expected of him and do something on his own in a completely new city.
Robinette may have walked away from his education, but he never walked away from being an intellectual. He still revisits the writings of his favorite philosophers, including Nietzsche, but is always on the lookout for new material to keep his mind engaged. And Robinette found something that comes naturally and easy to him – casual cab driving in a college town – because it allows his active mind to wander as he gets a chance to bounce ideas and conversation around with fresh new faces.
"I may grow old, but the students never do," Robinette jokes.
As Robinette rounds the corner, he gets a call on his work cell phone, with the name "Sprint Sux Girl" popping up on the glowing screen.
"I have my phone filled with over 500 numbers of regulars from over the years," Robinette says. "But half the time I don't know their real names, so they're just saved as something to jog my memory of who they are. Sprint Sux Girl is a college student who was complaining about how bad her service was. And Sprint really does suck."
Robinette answers his cell and arranges for a personal as he pulls up to the Evans Scholars house, where a group of five guys come fist-pumping out of the door chanting: "Bull-et! Bull-et! Bull-et!"
Robinette quickly learns that the group is celebrating a birthday, and heading to Urbana's Silver Bullet strip club to celebrate. As he cruises down quiet side streets, one of the customers asks for the music to be turned up and Robinette obliges, tuning to 105.5 and letting rapper Lil Wayne echo through the neighborhood.
"I don't like this type of music," says Robinette, whose favorite band is a gothic, dream pop group called Dead Can Dance. "I just play it because that's what the people like."
The cab pulls up to the club and he flips on the overhead lights.
"All right, guys, it's gonna be four dollars a person, except the birthday boy gets a free one."
"Aw, you gave him a birthday present!" says one of the passengers.
"I just hope you guys get him a better one!" Robinette chuckles.
It's bar rush now, which in the cabby world means the time between 2 and 3 a.m. Taxis prowl the streets like predators.
"There's a lot of nasty competition between cab companies, but I don't let it get to me," Robinette says. "I know my style is a lot different than some of these other drivers, who chase kids down when they don't pay, or jack up the prices for extra profit. I just do me."
Robinette's yellow taxicab moseys up to the driveway of a house on Third Street, and it is not the first time Robinette has been here. As a group of regulars on their way to La Bamba slowly trickles out of the house and into the cab, Robinette's phones start ringing at the same time.
"Wow, Steve, you're popular!" laughs one of the girls in the van.
"Yeah, well, it's hard being a rock star," Robinette jokes back.
The group takes a while to climb in, but Robinette is patient. Although he is a big man who drives an even bigger car, he is kind and gentle. And so he waits. After 10 minutes, they're finally ready to go.
"Let's hit it!" Robinette says, putting his arm behind the passenger seat and reversing into the street. He whips through muddy alleys and avoids large potholes, and suddenly passes a parked cop car.
"Everyone be quiet; it's the cops!" someone shouts.
"We aren't doing anything illegal, idiot," another passenger chimes in.
"Yeah, I mean, I haven't smoked crack in like 20 minutes," Robinette bellows to his regulars, who burst out in uproarious laughter.
"Steve, you the man!" shouts one of the guys as they pull up to the fast-food joint.
"Thank you, Steve!" the group yells as they exit.
"No, thank you," Steve answers back.
Just as bar rush kicks into high gear, Robinette gets a phone call from the Jim Beam representatives he had dropped off at Fubar Lounge earlier in the night.
Robinette glances at the clock, which now reads 2:06 a.m., and realizes how much business he is going to lose if he drives off campus right now, but he decides to pick up the reps anyway. He knows that building a reliable relationship with the reps will ultimately be a better payoff than pulling random flaggers off the crowded streets of Champaign. So Robinette pulls up next to Fubar Lounge on Green Street and his returning customers climb in. They're thankful they were able to get a ride back to their hotel, and their tip definitely shows it.
By the time Robinette rides back into town, he knows his night is almost over as bar rush begins to wind down. He cracks the window open and lights another Camel, inhaling slowly and leaning his head back against the headrest before exhaling. The Yellow taxi van cruises down a deserted Peabody Avenue, with 105.5 softly humming in the background, because that's what the people like.
By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on CQ Roll Call on Oct. 8, 2014
Marsha Blackburn is quick to point out that a new investigative panel she chairs is not called the “Planned Parenthood Committee.”
“It’s the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives,” the Tennessee Republican says, carefully punctuating each word.
Democrats have their own moniker: “The Republican Select Committee to Attack Women’s Health,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., characterized the panel at a press conference earlier this month.
The war of words offers just a glimpse of the heated battles that likely lay ahead for the subcommittee, which is stacked with some of the fiercest advocates on each side of the abortion debate. But foes of the procedure are eager to distance themselves from claims that their efforts are politically motivated – an accusation that plagued a different GOP investigative panel in recent months.
“This is not about Planned Parenthood,” Blackburn said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. “This is about abortion service providers and medical practices and tissue procurement organizations and the relationships between them, so it is broader. It’s going to focus on the industry at large.”
The new subcommittee, housed under House Energy and Commerce, was established last month in the wake of undercover videos that purport to show Planned Parenthood employees haggling over the price of fetal body parts for medical research. Officials maintain they only received compensation for reasonable costs and said the footage was heavily edited by an anti-abortion group in an effort to chip away at abortion rights. The panel is due to be disbanded 30 days after filing a final investigative report.
Blackburn hopes to use the subcommittee to streamline and consolidate ongoing Planned Parenthood investigations that began this summer. Joining her in the probe is Diane Black, a Tennessee Republican who authored a House-passed measure (HR 3134) to freeze Planned Parenthood’s funding for one year. Black is among the most vocal abortion opponents in Congress.
Other Republicans on the subcommittee include retiring Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, who received the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee gavel partly for his ardent anti-abortion views; Larry Bucshon of Indiana; Sean P. Duffy of Wisconsin; Andy Harris of Maryland; Vicky Hartzler of Missouri; and Mia Love of Utah.
In the Democratic corner will be Jackie Speier of California, who once passionately spoke about her own abortion on the House floor; ranking member Jan Schakowsky of Illinois; Diana DeGette of Colorado; Suzan DelBene of Washington; Jerrold Nadler of New York; and Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey.
Blackburn said she is still in the midst of picking the subcommittee staff and has not yet scheduled the first working session. Blackburn expects that the panel will issue its final report recommending any changes to current laws or regulations by the end of next year.
But skeptics are already drawing comparisons with a special committee to investigate the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. That select panel – which held a high-profile hearing last month with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that lasted for 11 hours – has come under renewed fire after Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., suggested that it helped drive down Clinton’s poll numbers.
Similarly, the GOP faces accusations that the controversial sting videos and new subcommittee are part of a political witch hunt designed to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood – a long-time target of abortion foes.
“The similarities between the Planned Parenthood panel and the Benghazi committee are too great to be a coincidence,” DeGette said. “In both instances, multiple congressional committees looked into the issue extensively and found no wrongdoing. And just as the Benghazi committee diverted its attention to Secretary Clinton’s emails, Congresswoman Blackburn has already indicated she intends to spend time and resources on unrelated issues that are important to anti-abortion allies of hers.”
Republicans are aware of the stakes. Any blunders or missteps by the new panel could sap the momentum from anti-abortion efforts and politically damage vulnerable GOP members.
Blackburn is tempering expectations, indicating there will be a limited number of public hearings, with the brunt of lawmakers' work to occur behind closed doors. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee already grilled Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards in a highly charged September hearing, which drew some criticism from conservatives for focusing more on the group’s expenditures than abortion practices.
“Our primary focus is working sessions and information gathering,” Blackburn said. “We look forward to having hearings as needed, but we will follow the facts and go where that takes us.”
The resolution (H Res 461) creating the subcommittee doesn’t actually mention Planned Parenthood. Instead, it advises members to examine business and medical practices at tissue procurement companies, federal funding for abortion providers and whether providers follow current laws regarding abortion procedures or protections for infants born alive after a failed abortion.
Blackburn insists Republicans will be as transparent as possible about the cost of the probe and will strive to be inclusive of Democrats. Republicans offered an amendment to the resolution, which was adopted on the House floor, that added an additional Democratic member to the subcommittee and ensured the panel’s subpoena powers were consistent with those granted to Energy and Commerce.
That may not be enough to assuage some critics’ concerns, especially after Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, acknowledged that he found no evidence of wrongdoing in the family planning organization’s finances. GOP leadership acknowledged they were taking advice from outside groups about which lawmakers to include on the subcommittee, further fueling accusations about political motivations.
The non-profit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has at least one piece of advice for how the panel may further avoid Benghazi panel comparisons: Adopt a set of bipartisan rules that allows votes on issuing subpoenas.
“Establishing evenhanded and non-partisan rules will give the panel the best chance of doing its work without the taint of unfairness and partisan agendas that have haunted similar inquiries,” Noah Bookbinder, executive director of CREW, wrote in a letter to the subcommittee.