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Congressman Eric Swalwell’s Grassroots Approach Delivers the Philippines Charitable Giving Assistance Act

April 8, 2014
Congressman Eric Swalwell California 15th Congressional District

Congressman Eric Swalwell recently met with Dublin native and Dublin High School alumni Congressman Eric Swalwell to learn more about how the freshman Congressman successfully took a voter’s concern to Washington, led a bill through the powerful Committee on Ways and Means, both Houses of Congress and ultimately President Obama’s desk to turn that bill into a law. Before we talk about how a bill gets from being an idea to the law of the land, talk about your first bill to be signed into law – “H.R. 3771 – The Philippines Charitable Giving Assistance Act” which is now Public Law No: 113-92.

Congressman Eric Swalwell: “We recently passed our first bill, which is the ‘Philippines Charitable Giving Assistance Act’, and what it does is let any person who makes a contribution to a charitable organization supporting Philippines typhoon relief make that contribution up to April 15 of this year and count the donation on their 2013 tax return. The intent is to provide an incentive for people to donate more money to this worthy cause.

“The importance helping the Philippines came from knocking on the doors of constituents last November. I knocked on the door of a a Filipino gentleman in Hayward and he was pretty distraught so I casually asked ‘Is everything ok?’. He said that he has a brother over in the Philippines and that he had not heard from him because of the typhoon, and was in grief about whether or not he would hear from him. For me it was a reminder that a typhoon across the Pacific Ocean was more than a news story on CNN and that real people in the 15th District were being affected.

“So we went to work. First, we found State Department resources that could help our constituents connect with family members in the Philippines who had not reported back home. We identified 5,000 15th District families with Filipino last names and shared this information. The largest Filipino church in the Bay Area asked us to speak about how we could connect people to family members in the Philippines, and how to make donations in support of typhoon relief efforts.” What is the process of taking an idea sparked from a door-to-door contact and turning it into a bill signed into law by the President?

Swalwell: “As we dug into the issue and talked to organizations supporting the typhoon relief effort, we found that these organizations only had a third of the charitable contributions they needed for relief, and that they’d be in trouble meeting their goals. While the government would be able to provide some economic aid, the most important goal was to encourage individual giving. We believed that providing an incentive to donate right at the time you are are finalizing your 2013 tax return would encourage more giving.

“My staff and I connected with Senator Hirono of Hawaii, who was preparing a bill to do just that. We worked with them to introduce the House version of the bill. At this point we found both Republicans and Democrats in the House to co-sponsor the bill. Adding co-sponsors builds momentum for the bill, increasing the likelihood that the bill will pass.

“We then heard that even though this was a worthy bill, there was a concern among House Republicans that procedurally if you send a tax bill to the Senate they could add on items unrelated to the Philippines relief effort. This is a commentary on the lack of trust between Republicans and Democrats right now in Congress. I don’t believe Senate Democrats would have done this, but that’s the level of paranoia right now in Washington. We needed the Senate to go first.

“Understanding the Republican concern, we worked with the Senate so that the Senate could initiate and pass the bill first. Thanks to the work of Senator Hirono, the bill passed in the Senate. We then passed our bill in the House of Representatives, and with both our bill and the Senate bill passed the bills were sent back to the Senate for final passage.” What was that moment like, when your first bill was signed into law by President Obama?

Swalwell: “It was thrilling. We are faced with a gridlocked and divided Congress. There are fifty freshman Democrats in the House and ours was only the fourth freshman Democratic Office to have a bill pass in the House and signed by the President. Overall not many bills are being passed right now, in this environment. It was thrilling and reinforced that issues relate back to real people. We knocked on 100,000 doors to get to Congress, and we didn’t stop knocking on doors after I was elected, and I think this reinforces that you can learn a lot when you knock on someone’s door. What’s just as important is not what you learn, but how you act. We’ll keep knocking on doors, seeing what we can learn and what problems we can solve.” As a freshman in Congress have you been able to take steps towards bipartisanship?

Swalwell: “At the Congressional Orientation four of us founded the United Solutions Caucus. We were sent to Harvard University for orientation and at one of our lectures we were challenged to defy the trajectory of the last Congress which was gridlocked by partisan bickering and not able to get anything done. Four of us, two Republicans and two Democrats met in a hotel lobby right after the lecture and informally talked about what we could do to work together, but we also knew we needed more members to get involved and that we needed to meet more often.

“When we went back to Washington we each were responsible for bringing more people into the group and pretty soon we started meeting weekly, alternating between a Republican’s office and a Democrat’s office. On Valentine’s Day 2013 we released a statement to the House Leaders (Speaker Boehner and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi), and the President, that we had formed this group, and that we had principles we could agree on. We now have approximately 30 members, about evenly divided between each party and we try to meet as often as possible, likely more than any other caucus in the Congress. We have a bipartisan piece of legislation that the caucus has endorsed.

“It’s been fruitful and the caucus has helped developed early, important relationships that will hopefully serve us well as we go ahead in the Congress. We’re not naive, we know that overnight this effort won’t change the tone in Washington, but we believe that over time initiatives like the United Solutions Caucus can help change the course.” As a Dublin High School alumni, why should Dublin High seniors who are turning 18 this year register to vote and participate in the upcoming elections this year?

Swalwell: “The decisions that we are considering in the Congress, whether it’s on jobs and the economy, healthcare, or education, are all decisions that are going to effect young people tomorrow and into the future. The decisions that I’m living with, and you’re living with, were made years ago and were the result of choices made in the ballot box. The jobs and opportunities these young new voters are going to have in the coming years will be guided by decisions made at the ballot box. The decision to show up – and I hope they will – and the decision of who they choose to support has a real impact.

“Right now I think our country is at a crossroads of whether or not we want a government that is at the table and involved in investing federal dollars and resources in our future or a federal government that is pared down and that cedes every decision to local and state governments.

“I think that we must have a federal government that cares and that it is our responsibility to make sure that every child has the freedom to dream and the freedom to achieve, and that’s why I think the federal government needs to make investments in education, science, and medical research because if the federal government doesn’t, no one else will.”

I’m just a bill
Yes, I’m only a bill,
And I got as far as Capitol Hill
Well, now I’m stuck in committee
And I’ll sit here and wait
While a few key Congressmen discuss and debate
Whether they should let me be a law
How I hope and pray that they will
But today I am still just a bill
– excerpt from “I’m Just a Bill” (School House Rock)


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