The Rodney Report: Independence Edition

  • On Top Of A Hill And Behind The Scenes
  • Budgets, Calendars, Bargaining
  • Another ‘Yea’ On Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Agenda
  • Town Halls, According To Rodney
  • To Russia, With Love?


On Top Of A Hill And Behind The Scenes

In honor of Independence Day, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen had a byline on North yesterday, praising service, sacrifice and civility in an op-ed that referenced Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” speech,   a Holy Grail of GOP oratory. (“... a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.”)

A portrait of a humble, old-school public servant with a gentle knack for connecting with others when the cameras aren’t rolling, contributor Frelinghuysen’s piece comes a few weeks after he hired Mike DuHaime, the GOP strategist who headed Gov. Chris Christie’s 2009 campaign.

The piece talks about monthly trips to Walter Reed National Military Center in Maryland, where Frelinghuysen visits wounded service personnel. And it urged  Americans to find our own way of serving our country, calling upon us to “elevate the level of civil discourse” while respecting the right to free speech.  

These are beautiful words and  sentiments. And although, as he reminds us more than once, Frelinghuysen isn’t seeking praise or attention by mentioning his visits to the Walter Reed Center, he does deserve praise for them. Patients there should know that elected officials recognize their sacrifice and support them and their families during recovery.

Still, we must always ask ourselves whether Frelinghuysen’s deeds support his words. How many of the hospitalized servicemen and servicewomen at Walter Reed would feel the impact from his support of Trumpcare, which will result in 23 million Americans losing health insurance? Thousands of veterans, including the disabled, rely upon Medicaid, which would be slashed by billions under the bill. Millions of veterans would lose tax credits, and those with post-traumatic stress disorder would be placed in high-risk pools because PTS could be considered a pre-existing condition.

As for civil discourse, how many times has Frelinghuysen expressed concern about our president’s attacks on everyone from the parents’ of a slain Muslim soldier to the hosts of “Morning Joe?” Or the hate speech of those who’ve lashed out against minorities and immigrants since Trump’s election?  

Although he urges us to respect the First Amendment, Frelinghuysen attempted to silence a constituent who spoke out against him by jotting a pointed note to her boss at the bottom of his fundraising letter. And even as he invokes Reagan’s classic ode to immigrants and opportunities, Frelinghuysen supports laws that will hurt them and destroy their families.

In the days ahead, as hired help continue efforts to drape the congressman in a cloak of honor and decency, don’t forget to keep looking behind the curtain.

Budgets, Calendars, Bargaining

It’s really a cruel joke of the calendar that so many key budget-policy questions traditionally hit the table just when everyone wants to hit the beach. Last week was no different, with big stakes at the federal level (and implications for state governments, as well).

It’s all about the calendars. The federal spending year ends Sept. 30, so now is the time for bargaining over the spending plan that kicks in Oct. 1. Meanwhile, many states such as New Jersey run on a spending calendar that ends June 30, with a new budget due by July 1, which of course was no problem in Trenton this year … oh, wait.

Anyway: Frelinghuysen’s June 30 newsletter devoted the lion’s share of its space to defense appropriations, proudly beating the drum for a bill surpassing even President Trump’s defense request by over $18 billion. The total provision for the department of defense is $658.1 billion, nearly 90% of which is discretionary funding. Close to home, the bill includes $130 million in funding to programs at the Picatinny Arsenal. (Perhaps not incidentally, Frelinghuysen receives more than 40% of his campaign contributions from defense industry contractors.)

The newsletter’s extensive list of military expenditures amply demonstrates that defense (and defense contractors) continue to be the big winners in the federal budget, and that even as Congress continues its own tweaking, the broad trends of the Trump White House’s spending proposals will hold.

It’s a  budgeting approach that sends the states more non-defense responsibilities, such as health spending, jobs training, transportation and the environment. As this interesting overview indicates, kicking things down the road is a popular solution to a lot of questions. But budget impasses this week in New Jersey, Maine and Illinois show a strain over difficult decisions that will only grow more difficult as fiscal year 2017-18 grinds on.

And there will be a lot of federal budget pain to process in non-defense programs.

For instance, the Department of Justice released a spending plan that slashes Legal Services aid by 24 percent, while increasing funding for law enforcement and immigration court. This is bad news for anyone who doesn’t have the funds for a fancy lawyer to resolve problems like an abusive spouse, a home at risk of foreclosure, or a veterans’ benefits issue. (An estimated 1.8 million veterans nationwide are eligible for LSC-funded services.)

Last week Frelinghuysen praised the Justice Department bill for its emphasis on law-and-order funding, while keeping quiet on what it means for legal aid nationally and, of course, here in the 11th. Locally, Legal Services of Northwest New Jersey receives about 20 percent of its funding through federal grants. As recently as 2013, the agency commended Frelinghuysen as a “staunch supporter of federal funding for legal services.” What a difference a few years makes.

Another ‘Yea’ On Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Agenda

Frelinghuysen continued his quiet support of Trump’s anti-immigration efforts last week by voting for two bills that would harshly punish unauthorized immigrants and undermine bipartisan efforts of the past few years to decrease levels of mass incarceration. Neither vote rated a mention in his newsletter.

Although the Trump administration offers no credible proof that undocumented immigrants pose a significant threat to public safety, Frelinghuysen approved both “Kate’s Law,’’ which would increase maximum prison sentences for deported immigrants that return to the U.S., and a bill that would deny federal funds to so-called “sanctuary cities.’’  

Kate’s Law was named for Kathryn Steinle, who was fatally shot in San Francisco by an immigrant with felony convictions who had been deported five times, according to authorities. While the Trump administration has heavily publicized Steinle’s death and other violent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, the facts don’t support the implication that they are more crime-prone than any other demographic. Many studies have shown the opposite to be true. The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimated that less than 3 percent of America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants have committed felonies.

The No Sanctuary for Criminals act would withhold federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities,’’ which limit their cooperation with ICE agents. Currently, local law enforcement isn’t required to detain undocumented immigrants upon the request of the ICE. For instance, if they’re convicted but don’t face additional jail time, if charges are dropped or if bail is met, they can be released at the discretion of police, despite ICE requests. Federal courts have repeatedly ruled that local compliance with ICE is voluntary, since holding someone in jail without a warrant violates the 4th Amendment.

Immigrant rights advocates and many law enforcement officials, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association, have opposed crackdowns on sanctuary cities, saying these efforts discourage victims from reporting crimes. Another concern: requiring police to enforce federal immigration law siphons resources from protecting their communities. The Obama administration prioritized detention requests for violent offenders. But under Trump, ICE officials have been aggressively pursuing those arrested for minor offenses, such as traffic violations.

Both laws would swell federal prisons with an increase in nonviolent offenders, say both liberal and conservative critics. Even many conservatives contend that Kate’s Law is largely a symbolic move which would have little impact on the number of criminal immigrants who unlawfully return to the United States.

Town Halls, According To Rodney

In his last newsletter, Frelinghuysen talked up his latest tele-town hall, in which having 11,000 constituents “on the line” was yet another stand-in for meeting them face-to-face. And once again, the tele-town hall consisted of a few hand-picked questions and softball answers.

As Frelinghuysen notes, Vinny from Parsippany and Patricia from Wayne expressed concern about veterans’ services -- which the congressman linked to what he termed “failing” Obamacare. Frelinghuysen asserts that constituents are upset with rising premiums and out-of-pocket deductibles, and frustrated by the inability to choose their preferred healthcare providers. True, we’d all like a system with lower premiums, lower deductibles and more choice, but neither the Senate nor the House is offering us a health-care plan with those things. Despite this, Frelinghuysen sees the recently unveiled Senate bill as evidence that, as he said, “the legislative process is working.”

It’s hard to see the source of Frelinghuysen’s confidence, when even a cursory look at the Senate health-care bill, cobbled together in secret, shows the opposite to be true -- if providing healthcare to the majority of Americans at a reasonable cost is a priority. For just one example, if the Senate’s bill is passed and reconciled with the House version to become law, Vinny and Patricia should be very worried about veterans and their healthcare.

The U.S. has more than 21 million vets, and only eight million of them get their health care form the VA. Many of the others rely on Medicaid, or purchase insurance on an ACA (Obamacare) exchange. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the proposed bill will throw 15 million people off insurance in a year. It will gut Medicaid and send the cost of premiums skyrocketing. In a decade, 22 million Americans will be uninsured. Is this bill really something to be proud of?

To Russia, With Love?

We’ve noted the heavyweight emphasis on defense issues in the Frelinghuysen newsletter on this July 4 weekend -- 1200 words in a 1400-word edition. Yet for all the talk of arms funding and global security, it omits a most urgent threat to the democracy we all celebrate tomorrow – Russian interference in the 2016 election and the danger hacking poses in 2018 and beyond.

Unless Frelinghuysen was home sick last month with no access to the Internet, he heard Former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee regarding Russia’s voting machine software hacking. Johnson warned the intelligence committee to “think about grants to state election officials to help them harden their cybersecurity.”

But the Appropriations Committee appears to have taken a pass on protecting one of the pillars of our democracy – free and fair elections. The committee voted last week to terminate the Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency whose 31 employees are currently traveling around the country educating election officials on the threat of cyber attacks, updating voter machine software, and hardening cybersecurity, just as Johnson recommended.  Republican lawmakers claim that the Federal Election Commission will absorb such tasks. But critics insist the FEC lacks the expertise and neutrality of the EAC and will only benefit potential hackers.

Even as the EAC took a hard hit from Congress, the Trump White House took aim at voter registration rolls, requesting that all states provide personal data on every registered voter, including party affiliation and Social Security data. These developments can only unsettle anyone concerned about the integrity of the U.S. election process. It is disturbing that the dire warnings of the nation’s intelligence community are followed by a pair of actions that seem tailor-made to ease the way of a would-be elections hacker.

Perhaps one of the 1% of callers allowed to ask a question during Frelinghuysen’s next town hall can ask why our representative and the GOP don’t seem to think cybersecurity is part of our critical defense needs.

-- By Jane J. Hunsecker, Liz Lynch, Naomi Rand, Lynn Halsey and Karen Rose