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A Long Time Coming

I work for the folks that I represent. It’s the approach I’ve always taken as a member of Congress. And one of the most important parts of my job is making sure that constituents are treated fairly by our government. When crisscrossing the region, I like to tell anyone I meet that if they are grappling with a federal agency, having trouble getting an answer they need, or facing difficulties accessing the benefits and services they’ve earned, they should reach out.

I’m proud of the extraordinary casework our office does on a daily basis. In fact, you probably noticed some numbers at the top of my homepage. We keep a running tally of the money we’ve saved folks and the number of people who have contacted us for help. That’s because casework is one of the most important things my office does.

We’ve done everything from help reverse a bureaucratic blunder that prevented a widow from receiving benefits to correcting a mistake that would have forced a retiree to give back a large portion of her retirement package. Given that so many veterans call our region home, we also get to help men and women who served our nation in the military.   Often that means helping them access VA benefits or even get long overdue recognition for sacrifices they made.    

That’s what brought me to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10018 last week to celebrate the service of SGT Edward Dvorak from Lakebay. Along with the Undersecretary of the Army, Patrick Murphy, we presented a Silver Star to SGT Dvorak for protecting his fellow servicemembers on a November day in 1968.

 

When his long-range patrol faced a much larger force while on a mission, his team was hit with two rocket propelled grenades injuring several team members, including Ed. SGT Dvorak, without hesitation, exposed himself to danger, rushing to a machine gun and making sure the soldiers he led could be safely evacuated by helicopters. Most notably, he refused treatment until he knew the folks he led as Team Leader were safe. During the ceremony Undersecretary Murphy remarked that Ed, “was suffering great pain, but that no-quit attitude is the embodiment of the American soldier.”

Unfortunately, for nearly 50 years, Ed did not receive the proper recognition for the bravery he showed that day.  So when he decided to submit an application to the Department of Defense for a Bronze Star he asked for help from my office. Our office was more than happy to assist in submitting the application for review. During that process, the Department decided to upgrade the award to a Silver Star, our nation’s third highest military award.

I was proud to watch as SGT Dvorak, after so many years, received this well-deserved recognition of his bravery. Ed is yet another example of the extraordinary men and women who serve our nation.  It was an honor to play a small part in making the day happen. You can see highlights of the ceremony here, courtesy of I Corps at Joint Base Lewis McChord.

It was also a great example of the work our office can do to help the folks we represent.  If you need a hand – with the VA, with the IRS, with the Social Security Administration, or with any other agency – please do not hesitate to reach out to my office.  Again, we work for you!


A Time for Action

This week the New York Times published a story that powerfully captured why in 2016, we still need a strong Voting Rights Act.

In Sparta, Georgia more than 180 African-American citizens were confronted by law enforcement officers that were dispatched by the local election board. These citizens, all American voters, were told they had to appear in person in order to prove they were a resident and could vote in upcoming elections.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Local governments across the United States have engaged in practices that intimidate potential voters and diminish turnout. We’ve heard the stories about voter ID laws (requiring voters to purchase expensive state-issued identification cards) and states curtailing early voting periods.

These practices have gotten more attention recently as an Appeals Court raised real concerns regarding voter restrictions in North Carolina. Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote, “The new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and “impose cures for problems that did not exist. Thus the asserted justifications cannot and do not conceal the State’s true motivation.”

This is unacceptable. We should be making it easier for American citizens to have their voices heard in our elections, not harder.

This all started with one of the most consequential Supreme Court decisions of recent years. In 2013, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holdereffectively gutted the Voting Rights Act. The court struck down a section of the law specifically designed to ensure that when state and local governments with a history of discrimination are changing their voting laws, they aren’t disenfranchising voters.

At the time, Chief Justice John Roberts said that the key protections they did away with were “extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem.” I would argue they were extraordinarily successful. From 1982 to 2006, the Voting Rights Act successfully blocked more than 700 discriminatory voting changes throughout our nation. Recent events like the ones described above show that those types of protections are still needed today.

On what would have been the 51st anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, folks across the nation will be going to the polls without the key protections it offered. That’s not right. As the New York Times pointed out, states that were once being monitored by the Justice Department are up to electioneering tricks once again. Counties in Florida, North Carolina, and Alabama with large minority districts have closed or moved polling places.

And it still matters when we’ve seen the state of Alabama pass a law establishing a voucher test, requiring that voters be verified by two poll workers in order for them to vote without a government-issued ID. Under that law, a 92-year-old woman was turned away from the polls, told that her public housing ID did not satisfy the state’s requirement.

Just last decade, a town in Mississippi canceled a municipal election rather than allow an African-American majority on the city council. Our nation has made progress but the stain of racism still remains. We have work to do to fix it. We need strong measures to help.

It’s time for Congress to take up and pass legislation that would put teeth back into the Voting Rights Act, address the issue raised by the court, and counter voter disenfranchisement. In 2016 our march is not over. It’s time to act.


A New Opportunity for the Peninsula

I grew up in Port Angeles. The lifeblood of my town, and others on the Olympic Peninsula was the timber industry. As harvest levels declined, I watched as my friends’ parents lost their jobs and were forced to find new work. Those experiences motivated me.

They motivated me to work in economic development and guided my focus on getting the local economy working for everyone. In our region, we don’t want the top export of our rural communities to be young people. Today, we have an opportunity to grow the timber industry in a way that doesn’t put conservation at odds with job creation.

It starts with innovation. We generally think of Washington state as the birthplace of big innovations. Commercial jets from Boeing ushered in a new era of air travel. Personal computers with software created by Microsoft changed the way we do business. And a little website called Amazon changed the way we shop.

Now, we have a chance to change the way buildings are constructed. Instead of concrete and steel we can now use innovative wood products like cross-laminated timber (CLT) to construct buildings over six stories tall.  These products are being used in buildings all around the world – just take a look at the University of British Columbia in Canada where they are building an 18-story residential hall almost entirely out of these new wood products.

With CLT and other innovative wood technologies we can utilize an abundant and sustainable product native to Washington state that connects rural economies to greener urban growth.

CLT has a lot of folks excited for a lot of reasons.  First, increased use of responsibly harvested wood could mean more jobs in rural areas of our state.  Additionally, using a renewable resource rather than steel or concrete means that our buildings can be greener.  Furthermore, these new wood products are strong, fire resistant, and may actually be safer in an earthquake than non-wood alternatives.

Construction sites across the country could soon use sturdy, innovative, renewable wood products grown and manufactured right here in our region. That’s why, for the past two years, I’ve directed key agencies like the Department of Defense to explore using these products when constructing new facilities.

And this week, I’ve helped take the next step on this front by introducing new bipartisan legislation to promote the production and use of these innovative timber products. The bill would get a few key initiatives started like a new research and development program to advance tall wood construction in our country and reauthorize the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Tall Wood Building Prize Competition for another five years.

I’m proud to say the bill also includes a provision I authored to ensure that a newly established wood innovation grant program would help rural communities hit by declining timber harvest levels by prioritizing projects that would utilize existing mill infrastructure in areas currently experiencing high unemployment. That could provide a boost to towns like Forks, Shelton, and Port Angeles that have experienced recent mill closures.

I’m glad we are making progress on this front, but there is still a long way to go. Our goal is to make sure Washington state revolutionizes our nation’s economy once again. This time with a product that is part of our state’s DNA. 


How We Make Sure that Foreign Contributions Don't Influence Our Elections

Over the past year whether I’m at a coffee shop, holding a town hall, or talking to someone at my local Safeway I’ve heard a common complaint from folks. They want Congress to do something about the plague of campaign cash that has poisoned our political system.

Every year it seems like more and more money is spent by groups and individuals in an effort to get preferred candidates elected. This reduces political debates to wrestling matches and makes voters feel left out. I firmly believe that we need to bring people power back to Congress. And in order to do that, it’s time to make some changes to our campaign finance laws.

It’s why I’ve tried to lead the way in making progress on this issue. Last week, I continued my work by introducing a bill to stop any foreign money from being used in our elections. Of course, our current laws explicitly prohibit foreign nationals from contributing directly or indirectly to campaigns in the United States.

While this is the letter of the law for any federal, state, or local election in reality, there is still the possibility for a foreign national or corporation to end up influencing our process. This is happening because of the role outside groups are playing in our elections. So far in 2016, entities like 501(c) nonprofit groups have spent more than $400 million on campaigns. According to Open Secrets, that’s a 175 percent increase so far from 2012.

That’s a lot of money. And foreign nationals, or U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies, can donate to these 501(c) groups so long as the money does not go toward influencing elections. But here is the problem. These groups do not have to disclose where the money comes from. So as ever more of it is spent we simply have to trust that none of it is coming from overseas.

I don’t think that’s right. The potential for foreign contributors to try and influence electoral outcomes is a threat to the integrity of our political process. That’s why I’m proud to have worked on a bipartisan bill that will bring some sunlight to this process and make sure that groups involved in campaigns have not opened a backdoor to foreign contributions.

To better ensure foreign contributions do not influence elections here is what our bill would do:

  • Include on the annual return filed by tax-exempt organizations and certain applications for tax-exempt status an additional check box for 501(c) groups to declare no foreign donations went to campaign activities.
  • Require these organizations to certify on Federal Election Commission filing forms that no foreign funds were used for independent expenditures and political communications.
  • Direct the Government Accountability Office to look into corporate campaign activities, and see if foreign funds are being used.

I’m proud to say our legislation has been backed by key campaign finance groups like Campaign Legal Center, Take Back our Republic, and Issue One as well. I’m hopeful we can make progress because it’s time we did a better job of making transparent just how money is being spent in our democracy.


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