Update from the Hill: Peace Action West lobby days
Last week, we combined our efforts with the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability’s DC Days for a marathon of lobbying on nuclear weapons, the war in Iraq, diplomacy with Iran, and the US-India nuclear deal. ANA did a fabulous job of coordinating over 100 meetings with congressional staff and administration officials, attended by grassroots groups from all over the country. Our Communications Director Reva Patwardhan, Community and Media Relations Director Axel Woolfolk and I joined meetings on nuclear issues for members of Congress from California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Maine (clearly not on the western half of the US, but I grew up in this district so I made an exception). I also had the interesting experience of attending a meeting with officials from the National Nuclear Security Administration, including Major General Robert Smolen (who you saw up on the video screen if you attended the Complex Transformation hearings). While Peace Action West works mostly on the broad policy impacts of nuclear weapons, many of our colleagues have an in-depth technical knowledge of these programs, and it was fascinating to watch them engage in dialogue and questions about these details for more than 2 hours. We capped off the lobby days with an awards reception honoring key congressional allies Sens. Feinstein and Dorgan and Reps. Visclosky and Hobson, and the activist work of Chris Paine, Bob Alvarez and Seth Tuler. It was great to spend time with such an inspiring group of activists and learn from the tremendous work they are doing in their home states.
The whirlwind of activity on nuclear issues was only the beginning, as we had two more days of meetings where we broadened our focus. In addition to urging members of Congress to cut funding for nuclear weapons and move toward nuclear disarmament, we encouraged them to withdraw all US troops from Iraq and implement a political solution, promote direct, unconditional negotiations with Iran, and to slow down and hopefully kill the US-India nuclear trade deal that undermines global nonproliferation efforts. In many of the meetings we were reconnecting with offices we’ve already met with, but we also broke a lot of new ground in meeting with new staff. In all, we had 26 meetings in 2 days that covered California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Montana, North Dakota and Arizona.
Here are some of the key things I took away from our conversations on the Hill:
• Many (though not all) members of Congress are resigned to waiting for a new president to make real change in Iraq. There is not a consensus that it is politically worthwhile to continue an aggressive push for withdrawal of US troops. While the presidential election is most likely where we will see dramatic change, we highlighted the importance of keeping the momentum going, of keeping the issue at the forefront in a critical election year, and continuing to put people on the record around the war in Iraq.
• The message that the Iraq war is bad for our economy seems to have a lot of resonance on the Hill, and aligns with key concerns of the American public. The leadership plans to use the supplemental funding bill as a way to highlight this aspect of the issue. This could be somewhat dangerous as their moves to attach domestic spending to the bill reinforce the idea that we can afford both domestic spending and the war. It could also make voting against the bill more difficult for members of Congress who are against the war. One unfortunate byproduct of this message is that many members of Congress are starting to say that the Iraqi government should pay for reconstruction and security programs, rather than emphasizing the moral and fiscal obligation we have to repair as much of the damage the US has caused as possible.
• The mood around Iran in Congress right now is generally hostile. While the vast majority of the members of Congress we met with support diplomacy with Iran and do not view it as an imminent threat, many other representatives and senators are continuing a solely punitive approach. This can be seen in the vote that happened last week to exclude poor countries who do business with Iran from debt relief programs and the saber-rattling in the Petraeus hearings. Fortunately, we met with many strong leaders who have emphasized a new approach to US policy with Iran, and we encouraged them to articulate a clear vision for what a positive diplomatic relationship with Iran would look like.
• Some of our key allies have led the way on cutting funds for nuclear weapons, and most members of Congress are inclined to follow their guidance on this issue. Many offices seem open to broader ideas about global nuclear nonproliferation. The recent OpEds by Henry Kissinger and colleagues, as well as the presidential election, provide a political opportunity for reevaluating the role of nuclear weapons in our security strategy. The staff we met with were very open to the idea of reassessing our nuclear weapons strategy and taking steps to engage the global community on nonproliferation.
• Offices pay attention when you call and write! A lot of times it can seem like our calls and letters aren’t making a difference. There were many times during meetings when staff mentioned that they had been getting calls on specific pieces of legislation. Unfortunately, I also heard that in some cases calls and mail about the war have gone down. It is reassuring to know they are tracking and paying attention to their constituents. This is yet another reason to make sure our voices are even louder in this critical year.