Bringing the grassroots to the Hill: Peace Action’s national lobby day
Cara and I were in Washington, DC this week, joining people from Peace Action affiliates from around the country to bring our concerns directly to members of Congress and their staff. We spent two days trudging around in the sweltering heat in our suits, meeting with congressional staff from districts throughout the west. Here are some of the overall themes that came out of our meetings:
• 2008 is nearly over as far as Congress is concerned. Even though it is only July, Congress has about 25 working days left in the calendar. They are taking most of August off, and are planning to adjourn September 26th for the elections. Because they are working with a lame duck president who is impeding their agenda, the Democratic leadership doesn’t even want to have a lame duck session after the election. What this means is they are trying to cram everything they want to do into a short calendar. Iraq, Iran and nuclear weapons are not likely to be high priorities. A lot of our discussions involved laying the groundwork for the foreign policy we want to see in 2009. On the grassroots side, we are making sure we keep constant pressure on, so members of Congress remember that ending the war in Iraq is still a top priority for voters.
• It’s all about the presidential election. For much of this year, we have been pushing against the idea that we need to wait around for a new president before working to bring about major foreign policy changes. This dynamic is even stronger now that the Democrats have chosen a nominee. Many congressional staff brought up Senator Obama and the need to calibrate their agenda with his platform. It’s important for us to keep the pressure on the presidential candidates as well as congressional ones, and be setting up a clear mandate for 2009.
• The Iraqi government’s call for a withdrawal timeline is resonating on the Hill. While congressional staff don’t see many opportunities left in the year to pass legislation on Iraq, it’s clear that the latest news is having an impact. There have been efforts to express solidarity, including a new piece of legislation calling for the US to withdraw troops if the Iraqi government requests a withdrawal. The new assertiveness the Iraqi government is showing is likely to weigh in decisions Congress is making about how to move forward on Iraq.
• Congress hasn’t done a thorough examination of the idea of leaving a residual force in Iraq. Peace Action West has been working to highlight the fact that many plans passed through Congress, as well as Sen. Obama’s, call for leaving behind a residual force, so-called “non-combat” troops to carry out limited missions. A residual force would not do anything to dispel the perception of the US as an occupying power, and would leave a smaller, weaker US force as targets for the insurgency. Some congressional staff seemed genuinely surprised when we pointed out that Obama’s plan could leave as many as 50,000 troops on the ground. We emphasized the need to debate the relative merits of this idea, and it seems like an issue we should keep pushing on.
• The push back against the Iran naval blockade legislation is working. We have joined a number of groups in pushing back against H Con Res 362, a resolution that has language that could be interpreted as calling for a naval blockade against Iran, an act of war. The legislation was hugely popular, with 244 representatives signing on as cosponsors. The response from the grassroots has been overwhelming, and some members are starting to backtrack, going as far as withdrawing their names as cosponsors. Many congressional staff brought up the bill before we even had a chance to mention it, and several expressed support for the idea of changing the language in the bill (which is not as good as opposing the entire bill, but still significant progress when most people were expecting rapid passage of the bill). We are hoping now to run out the clock on the bill and not have it come to a vote. Our pressure is working and we need to keep it up.