Eject > Political > Current Activity in the U.S. Congress – 3 Bills Senator Tina Smith Co-Sponsored or Sponsored

Current Activity in the U.S. Congress – 3 Bills Senator Tina Smith Co-Sponsored or Sponsored

If we are honest, most Americans are weary of the ongoing turmoil in the U.S. government, and many felt like giving up entirely when a partial government shutdown began on December 22, 2018. Few knew that it would be a record-setting length of time before the government re-opened, but a lot of legislators were concerned enough to sponsor and/or co-sponsor legislation that took action against the shutdown and its effects. One such senator was Tina Smith, the junior, Democratic, Senator from Minnesota.

Like her peers in Congress, Senator Smith continued working throughout the shutdown, seeking ways to alleviate financial hardship and other suffering that such a prolonged period without pay caused. After all, more than 800,000 workers had been furloughed. This meant their jobs remained for them, but that there was no work they could do and no paychecks to be sent out until the government reopened.

Of course, this was not true for all of the furloughed workers and those that were excepted were forced to continue to do their duties without pay. Scores of people working as TSA screeners in airports, as USDA food inspectors, and even the entirety of the U.S. Coast Guard were obliged to work without payment. And when the shutdown ended a month later, many did not immediately receive the income required. In fact, as of this writing more than 1,000 TSA workers remain unpaid.

Thus, legislators took action to get some paid before a shutdown ended and/or find ways to guarantee that they were repaid quickly, including contracted workers who were not technically employed by the government.

In fact, Senator Smith, the subject of this article, introduced a very potent bill herself. On January 16, roughly a week before the shutdown ended, she sponsored S.162 Fair Compensation for Low Wage Contractor Employees Act. This was a bipartisan item which Senator Smith explained was about “helping a group of people who are often invisible—people who work in the cafeterias, who clean offices after everyone else goes home, security guards who keep our buildings safe overnight. These low- and mid-wage federal contract workers have had to go without pay for weeks now, and in past shutdowns, haven’t received back pay. That’s wrong and that’s what my bill is trying to fix.”

Forty-eight other senators from the Republican, Democratic and Independent parties agreed and offered co-sponsorship. The bill aims at getting federal contractors reimbursed for providing back pay, “up to 200% of the federal poverty level for a family of four” and to “ Provide accountability in the equitable adjustment process by including ways for protection of taxpayer funds,” while also covering “employees employed under the Davis-Bacon Act (which governs federally-funded construction projects) and the Service Contract Act (which governs federal service contracts).”

Naturally, this was one of many others that the senator co-sponsored but is a first sign or indicator that she is focused on the people of Minnesota and the U.S., rather than special interests.

Did this mean that lawmakers did nothing but create laws, bills and resolutions relating to the shutdown throughout that entire period? No, in fact, many were involved in negotiations, traditional Congressional hearings, and the business of introducing legislation in the House or Senate. Many kept up with Town Hall meetings, gatherings with their constituents, writing editorials, and more.

Keep in mind, legislators had just been sworn in as the 116th Congress as the second week of the shutdown began. They continued to work for the remainder of January 2019 until the government re-opened on January 25th. Even then, the budgetary impasse that led to the crisis had not been resolved, and many went on for weeks longer worried that another shutdown loomed on the horizon.

We know now that this was averted, but that other dilemmas emerged around it, particularly matters relating to immigration reform and the U.S. border with Mexico. Funding for the creation/completion of a border wall was at the heart of the shutdown, and as of this writing is still an issue of concern. Lawmakers are still dealing with the issue while also striving to live up to the promises made and goals set when they were elected to office.

In this article, we are going to consider Senator Tina Smith and the work she has done during the 116th Congress. Our goal is to determine if there is undue influence on the Senator from her financial backers. However, our work is cut out for us because Senator Smith obtained her seat in a rather unusual way. In fact, her journey to the U.S. Senate was truncated by the fact it was a special election and allowed her to be in the public eye for less than a year before the elections were held. That means that seeking out unusual choices or legislative acts that seem to be the result of influence may be tricky.

So, we’ll look at her background, how she made it to the U.S. Senate, any of her campaign backers from the past, and the legislation she has presented during the 116th Congress, or co-sponsored. In this way, we can see if her motives are driven by her constituency or others.

About Senator Tina Smith

Born in 1958 in New Mexico, she was raised by well-educated parents (a teacher and a lawyer) and graduated from Stanford University with a political science degree as well as from Dartmouth College with a master’s in business administration. Her path into politics is unique from many of her peers as she did not get involved with politics during her college career.

It was after she relocated to Minnesota in the early 1980s for her work with the famous General Mills firm (where she handled marketing) and did consulting with nonprofit firms that she took an interest in politics. At first, it was volunteering with the Mondale campaign for governor in 1998, but after Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash and Walter Mondale ran for the seat, she became even more involved as his manager.

Shifting to work with Planned Parenthood, Smith soon found herself back in politics, as chief of staff for the mayor of Minneapolis, and by 2010 she was managing a gubernatorial campaign for R.T. Rybak. She went on to support Mark Dayton, where he appointed her is chief of staff in 2011. In 2014, the Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota indicated that she would not seek re-election and so Dayton asked her to be his running mate. She was elected to the seat and served until January of 2015 when she was appointed to the state Senate.

In late 2017, Gov. Dayton indicated that he had selected Smith to serve as a U.S. Senator once Al Franken was forced to step down after allegations of sexual misconduct were posed against him. Many did not think Smith would run for the seat in the 2018 special election, but she did. She took 53% of the popular vote to her competitor’s 42%, indicating an easy win.

Before her election as Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota, it was noted that she was a more active legislator and effective negotiator than many of her peers. She has maintained that reputation in the Senate. Though relatively new to the role, during the 115th Congress she sponsored nearly 40 pieces of legislation and co-sponsored nearly 300 more. During the current congress (just two months old at the time of this writing), she has sponsored four pieces of legislation and cosponsored 81 more.

At her official website, Senator Smith indicates that she is a “fierce advocate for Minnesotans and is focused on continuing the progressive legacy of the seat she holds.” Citing some of her accomplishments in her short time as a senator, her site notes she has helped to reduce prescription drug costs, improved health care in rural Minnesota, pressed for economic opportunity for all, championed the farm and rural economy, and gone to bat for Minnesota veterans and service members, among other issues.

She is also known for traveling the state and meeting directly with residents in need of the kind of support elected officials are entrusted to deliver. She also indicates that the issues or priorities she views as the most important, include:

  • Agriculture – Senator Smith established the Farm Bill Working Group to ensure that her successful fight for a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee is as effective as possible.
  • Education – Focused on erasing any gaps that might prevent someone from the education that is their right, the Senator has focused a great deal of her professional life on public education, the cost of higher education, and career and technical schools.
  • Energy – A member of the Senate Energy Committee, she works to ensure that innovative technologies are a focal point. As clean energy will create good jobs for Minnesotans and Americans in general, she works to get her home state on track with renewable energy. As she has noted, “clean energy isn’t just smart environmental policy—it’s smart economic policy. The federal government should be following Minnesota’s lead and doing more to accelerate the clean energy transition. We can do this by funding more clean energy research, extending tax credits that incentivize renewable energy, and supporting biofuels.”
  • Environment – Asa member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, she seeks to fight climate change, create stronger protections for natural landscapes, and aims at restoring America’s place in the Paris Agreement.
  • Health Care – Senator Smith is a firm believer that every American deserves “access to affordable, high-quality health care,” and she makes healthcare costs a major priority. She has bipartisan legislation in place to address prescription drugs, coverage limitations, and more. As more than one million Minnesotans are covered by Medicaid and CHIP she fights any cuts to these programs. Another healthcare initiative is the opioid crisis and she works at state and federal levels to tackle its many issues. A pro-choice senator, she also has introduced legislation that touches on women’s health.
  • Indian Affairs – A staunch advocate for the eleven tribes that make Minnesota their home, she has served on the Indian Affairs Committee since her first days in the Senate. She frequently meets with leaders in Indian Country and then works with them to find answers to problems through federal programs, including education, healthcare, and more. She is also seeking to address lack of housing, improve law enforcement, and bring teachers into the region. She says that “we also need to give tribes the tools to develop their workforce and attract business and investment, while also investing in basic infrastructure like roads and broadband.”
  • Jobs and the Economy – Though the economy is rebounding, the Senator feels that Congress must “build an economy that works for everyone, we need a fairer tax code that supports working families, not just the wealthiest of Americans. We need paid family and medical leave for workers so that parents can stay home to take care of a newborn or a sick a family member without losing a paycheck. We need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to close the pay gap between men and women. We need fair trade policies that help Minnesota workers, businesses, and farmers get ahead, and we need to crack down on foreign countries that break international trade rules and put American workers out of jobs. We need to hold Wall Street accountable and make sure they don’t cause another economic collapse. We need to invest in small businesses and support entrepreneurs. And we need to help foster the next generation of Minnesota innovators by investing in research and development.” This is why she joined the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
  • National Security – The Senator’s emphasis here is to “fight for principled national security policies that prudently employ our investments in personnel, technology, and partnerships with our allies for the benefits of our nation…[and]recognize that our national security is best served when the military is not our only tool. We must also make effective use of diplomacy and development. Diplomacy is essential if we are going to solve tough security challenges from the Middle East to China and North Korea – without dangerous military conflict.”
  • Veterans – The Senator’s commitment to veterans is unquestionable and she fights for veterans on everything from benefits to healthcare, education, housing and employment.

So, Senator Smith is remarkably busy, but it is also by comparing her priorities and key issues of concern to her background in politics that a clearer portrait emerges. We also have to take into consideration all of her committee and subcommittee assignments for the 116th Congress, as well as her participation in any non-legislative caucuses or committees.

Senator Tina Smith’s Committee Work

For the 116th Congress, Senator Tina Smith is a member of the following Senate Committees:

  • Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry
    • Subcommittee on Commodities, Risk Management and Trade
    • Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy (Ranking Member)
    • Subcommittee on Nutrition, Agricultural Research and Specialty Crops
  • Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (January 10, 2018 – January 3, 2019)
  • Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs (since January 3, 2019)
  • Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
    • Subcommittee on Children and Families
    • Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety
  • Committee on Indian Affairs, agriculture,

The senator does not belong to or actively participate in any non-legislative committees or caucuses.

Yet, it is easy to see that her legislative committee work does overlap with her established priorities including Indian Affairs, jobs and the economy, agriculture, and more. However, our goal is to be sure that the work she does on any issues does not depict any signs of undue influence. To do that we need to look at where those influences would originate, i.e. her campaign funders.

Let’s start with a very broad look at the industries in which the senator may have received the most support, then which industries were her greatest donors and, lastly, the specific firms that sent the largest amounts.

The Top Industries Funding Senator Tina Smith’s Campaign Efforts

According the Open SecretsWebsite, Senator Smith was a  NOT a top recipient from any of the major industries during the 2018 campaign cycle. Although she was not even one of the ranking favorites in any of the industries, she did obtain a large measure of her support from specific areas of industry, and they are (in ranking order):

  1. Retired
  2. Lawyers and Law Firms
  3. Women’s Issues
  4. Leadership PACs
  5. Securities & Investment
  6. Democratic/Liberal
  7. Education
  8. Business Services
  9. Real Estate
  10. Lobbyists
  11. Health Professionals
  12. Insurance
  13. Non-Profit Institutions
  14. Public Sector Unions
  15. Miscellaneous Finance
  16. TV/Movies/Music
  17. Pharmaceuticals/Health Products
  18. Health Services/HMOs
  19. Miscellaneous Manufacturing and Distributing
  20. Building Trade Unions

Is this enough information to determine undue influence? Not really, because we also need to look at the actual donors who gave the most. Note that the firms in the list below did not donate directly to the campaign but worked with PACs or had direct employee contributions. For 2018, Senator Smith’s greatest contributions came from:

  • EMILY’s List – A PAC that focuses on getting pro-choice candidates into office
  • Democracy Engine – “Empowers donors to support the organizations and candidates they care about at any level, in any party, in any state”
  • University of Minnesota
  • Xcel Energy – Energy provider to millions of businesses and homes “across eight western and midwestern states”
  • Lockridge GrindalNauenPLLP – One of the largest law firms in Minnesota
  • State of Minnesota
  • Delta Air Lines
  • Medtronic Inc – The world’s largest medical device company, with its headquarters in Minnesota
  • Wells Fargo – American multinational financial services company
  • General Mills – One of the worlds largest food manufacturing firms, based in Minnesota

Senator Smith is one of the few senators with so much backing from their home state. Not only has the actual State of Minnesota contributed greatly to her campaigns, but she has the state’s largest university, one of the world’s largest medical device makers, and another of the world’s largest food makers, all from her state and all topping her list of donors.

Does this support show any influence, though? To better answer that, let’s look at the many bits of legislation she has supported through co-sponsorship as well as the items she has sponsored, herself.

3 of Senator Tina Smith’s Bills for the 116th Congress – To Date

As already indicate, many senators wrote, or supported, legislation associated with the government shutdown. Recall that she sponsored the Fair Compensation for Low-Wage Contractor Employees Act of 2019, she also cosponsored the following pieces of legislation to help those affected by the shutdown, to end it or work around it, and prevent it from happening again:

Senator Smith has also indicated that healthcare is a crucial matter to her and her constituents. And though she has support of major medical device manufacturers, she does not hesitate to vote her conscience on many issues relating to medication, health insurance and more. The following legislative acts have her co-sponsorship thus far:

Clearly, she is not kidding when she says that healthcare for the people of Minnesota and the U.S. is at the top of her list of priorities. The same must be said of her solid dedication to the Native American people of the U.S. as her name appears as a cosponsor on almost every piece of legislation that relates to tribal and Native American issues, including:

So, we can see that Senator Smith is living up to the priorities and issues she has claimed.

Additionally, she has not shied away from voting on gun laws, including the S.42 Background Check Expansion Act and S.66 Assault Weapons Ban of 2019.Nor has she remained out of the spotlight on other controversial issues such as immigration, climate change, voter registration, civil rights, taxes, and more. All of this is in line with her commitment to maintaining Minnesota’s policies as a progressive state. There do not seem to be any actions taken that favor or indicate influence from financial backers.

To be 100% certain of this, let’s also look at the three other pieces of legislation that Senator Smith sponsored and introduced to the Senate.

S.199 Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation Restoration Act

Co-sponsored by fellow Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, this bill is a bicameral act (H.R. 733) and a reintroduction of legislation brought before the House and Senate late in 2018. Scuttled by the shutdown, it was aggressively reintroduced in both Houses. As one article about it explains:

“The federal government would return 11,760 acres of land to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe as part of a measure moving through Congress.

The measure reverses a land seizure by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) that began in the late 1940s, when the agency authorized the sale of tribal land allotments to the U.S. Forest Service without the owners’ consent. Sen. Tina Smith, a sponsor, has said that the bill would restore land ‘that was wrongfully taken from’ the Ojibwe.”

In December 2018, it passed in the Senate, but the House took no action on it. At that time, Senator John Hoeven, who sponsored the first bill, said that it was one of several “important steps toward greater self-governance and self-determination in Indian Country.”

Although the Secretary of the Interior had determined, in the 1950s, that the transfer of lands to the Chippewa National Forest was illegal, the Supreme Court ruled in a way that made it difficult for the tribe to get their lands returned. What they determined was that “landowners who had lost land in this manner were prevented from seeking legal recourse due to a 12 year statute of limitations clause in the Quiet Title Act of 1972.”

However, the bill acknowledges the Supreme Court finding AND notes that one Federal judge explained that lands could be restored to the tribe through an act of Congress. Thus, this reintroduction in both Houses.

When Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico presented the bill last year, he indicated that “Congress has an opportunity to right a historic wrong by returning stewardship of these lands to … the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe,” and noted that the “Leech Lake band has no immediate plans to change the way the land is used; natives and nonnatives alike will hunt, fish, hike, bike and explore there.”

After presenting the bill to the Senate at the end of January 2019, Senator Smith met with Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School leaders to discuss their hopes and plans for other projects, but at that time they also discussed this bill and other tribal priorities. At that time Smith said, “I’ll do everything I can do to advocate in the Senate.”

The bill was ordered to be reported without amendment favorably.

S.288 Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Violence Act

A bipartisan effort sponsored by Senator Smith along with Senator Murkowski of Arkansas and Senator Udal of New Mexico, it was brought before the Senate on January 31, 2019.

As a press release from Senator Smith’s office explained, “U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) continued pressing for action to address violence against Native communities…The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 restored the ability of tribes to arrest and prosecute non-Indian offenders for acts of domestic violence committed on tribal lands, but it did not restore tribal authority to arrest or prosecute crimes of sexual violence, threatened domestic violence, violence against children, or violence committed against law enforcement personnel enforcing special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction.” If voted into law, this bill would restore tribal powers to prosecute sexual assaults, sex trafficking and stalking even if the guilty party is not a member of the tribe, resident of the reservation lands, and so on.

As she presented this piece of legislation on the Senate floor, the Senator reminded her peers of the importance of this bill, saying “An alarming number of Native people endure violence in their lifetimes—including women, children, and police officers. We know that these crimes are often committed by non-Native people in Indian Country.

Yet, tribes are unable to take action against these offenders and the federal government is failing to investigate and prosecute these crimes. We need to make sure tribes are able to seek and get justice for their members, and for survivors. We are taking an important step toward that goal by introducing these bipartisan bills—and we should pass them into law.”

Her co-sponsor, Senator Udall explained that although “a number of Tribes have successfully exercised special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction restored by the 2013 VAWA reauthorization to make their communities safer… gaps in the law have left Native children, Native sexual assault survivors, and the Tribal police who are enforcing this restored jurisdiction unprotected.”

This bill has the full support of the National Congress of American Indians, Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, and the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition.

The bill was twice and referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs.

S.555 A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for the treatment of veterans who participated in the cleanup of Enewetak Atoll as radiation exposed veterans for purposes of the presumption of service-connection of certain disabilities by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and for other purposes.

On February 26, 2019, Senator Smith with 14 other bipartisan co-sponsors reintroduced this legislation to secure special health care benefits for a specific group of U.S. veterans. It is a bicameral bill with a companion in the House.

As a press release from the Senator explained, this bill, if voted into law would “secure health care benefits for ‘Atomic Veterans’ who were exposed to harmful radiation when they cleaned up nuclear testing sites during the late 1970s.”

Also known as the “Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act” its goal is to allow any U.S. veterans tasked with the cleanup of the Enewetak Atoll on the Marshall Islands to receive the same health care and benefits given to other servicemembers who were involved in active nuclear tests. Typically, such benefits were limited to veterans who served during a fixed window of time, and were covered by the Radiation Compensation Exposure Act.

That bill “presents an apology and monetary compensation to individuals who contracted certain cancers and other serious diseases:

  • following their exposure to radiation released during the atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, or
  • following their occupational exposure to radiation while employed in the uranium industry during the Cold War arsenal buildup.

This unique statute was designed to serve as an expeditious, low-cost alternative to litigation. Significantly, RECA does not require claimants to establish causation. Rather, claimants qualify for compensation by establishing the diagnosis of a listed compensable disease after working or residing in a designated location for a specific period of time.”

This bill seeks, quite simply, to entitle veterans of the cleanup at Enewetak Atoll with the same benefits.

As Senator Smith explained, “One of our most solemn duties is to take care of the men and women who serve in our armed forces. And a big part of that means ensuring they can get the health care they need both during and after their service. The Americans who cleaned up the radiation-exposed Marshall Islands—where more than 40 nuclear tests took place in the 20th century—have been fighting for proper care for a long time, and it’s past time we stand up for them. I’m standing up by continuing to work on this commonsense, bipartisan fix that’s long overdue.”

As the press release explained, “service members who participated in the Marshall Islands cleanup between 1977 and 1980 suffer from high rates of cancers due to their exposure to radiation and nuclear waste, but are currently unable to receive the same treatments and service-related disability presumptions that other ‘radiation-exposed veterans’ receive.”

The bill received full support of the National Association of Atomic Veterans, and their National Commander, Kieth Kiefer said of the bill, “The Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act recognizes these veterans as Atomic Veterans, providing the healthcare coverage needed and promised.

Despite the fact that the mission was titled ‘Enewetak Atoll Radiological Cleanup Project,’ and the mission was to remediate the islands so the native islanders could safely return to their homeland, and this mission failed, the VA (Veterans Administration) and DTRA (Defense Threat Reduction Agency) in concert deny these veterans ionization radiation exposure status. Despite contamination of the islands with Plutonium, Strontium, Cesium and other toxic materials from years of testing 43 atomic bombs, the veterans did not have proper PPG (Personal Protective Gear) or monitoring during removal and transportation of approximately 110,000 cubic yards contaminated soil, these bureaucracies continue to deny any exposure and proper care associated with that. About 4,000 veterans were part of this project. Of these, we have found about ten percent alive. Most of the survivors have cancer(s); at least one suffers with six unique cancers. These men are in their late 50s to 60s.”

It seems astonishing that this legislation should need to be reintroduced, or struggle to be made law, but that is where it stands. It takes its name from the late Congressman from Hawaii, Mark Takai. He was also a U.S. Army veteran and was the original bill’s sponsor in 2016.

It was read twice and referred to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

And what about the Senator’s bill seeking compensation for federal contract workers? As of this writing, it would seem that Republican lawmakers did not want to get involved in a payback scheme for those missed payments.

According to one source, “Lawmakers already approved back pay for the 800,000 federal employees who missed wages during the 35-day partial shutdown that ended last month, but left out the unpaid workers who are employed by federal contractors.

Democrats, led by Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), have been pushing legislation that would allow federal agencies to reimburse contractors that pay workers who missed checks during the shutdown ― especially low-wage janitors and security guards at federal buildings here in Washington.”

However, as Senator Roy Blount indicated, “I don’t think we should at this moment let it get in the way of funding the government.” Arguing against repayment, Republican and administration officials say that “the process of implementing the proposal alone could cost as much as the actual payments to contract workers and that there would be a high risk of erroneous payments and fraud.”

Although more than one million Americans who work as federal contract workers may have missed their earnings during the shutdown, the bill was not included in the funding that reopened the government and is keeping it open until September of 2019.

As Senator Smith said about this when interviewed, “[it] is designed to pay companies for wage reimbursement as long as each employee’s wages would amount to less than $50,000, and would be voluntary…this is the most streamlined and simplest way to make this happen, and we expect contractors to ask for that back pay. It’s in their best interest as well as the interest of their workers.”

Senator Smith said she will press on with the legislation, even though it has to be part of a spending bill that will not pass if it includes any repayment plans of this kind.

In Conclusion

A remarkably busy Senator, Tina Smith does not have any signs or indicators of undue influence. It is clear she is acting on behalf of the people of her home state and the United States, in general.