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Bay Area House members headed to Armenia

Two Bay Area House members will be part of the presidential delegation that’s leaving Wednesday for Armenia to attend Friday’s centennial memorial of a 1915 ethnic cleansing that claimed more than a million lives.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto – both of whose mothers were of Armenian descent, making them the only House members with such ancestry – are making the trip. Other delegation members include Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew; Richard Mills, the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia; Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J.; and Rep. Dave Trott, R-Mich.

Speier issued a statement saying it’s “thrilling and humbling to represent the United States and the Armenian-American community in remembering the many whose lives were coldly extinguished.

“From an early age, my mother instilled in me the importance of recognizing the genocide and the anguish the Armenian people feel about the need to acknowledge it,” she said. “I intend to speak the truth wherever I go. It is long past time for all nations, including the United States, to recognize the full horror imposed by the Ottoman empire and talk clearly about history.”

Activists are sorely disappointed that President Obama still won’t refer to the 1915 killings as genocide, for fear of souring U.S. relations with Turkey – the founding fathers of which were responsible for the tragedy, as the Ottoman Empire fell apart. Speier and Eshoo are members of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, and both have strongly supported an as-yet-unsuccessful resolution recognizing the tragedy as genocide.

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Rep. Jackie Speier rips federal pipeline watchdog

Rep. Jackie Speier went medieval on the federal agency that oversees pipeline safety during a House hearing Tuesday, calling it “not only a toothless tiger, but one that has overdosed on Quaaludes and is passed out on the job.”

Speier, D-San Mateo, whose district includes the San Bruno neighborhood where eight people died and 38 homes were leveled in a 2010 Pacific Gas & Electric natural-gas pipeline explosion, uncorked her ire at a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee. She wants more accountability from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

“It is clear to me that PHMSA does not have the teeth—or the will—to enforce pipeline safety in this country,” said Speier. “As we’ve seen in California, it is often powerless over state regulators. Even when it has crystal-clear authority, it still refuses to act.”

The Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 eliminated the “grandfather clause” that had given operators a pass on gas transmission pipelines installed before adequate testing was required. This law required PHMSA to close the loophole within 18 months, but instead the agency basically has disregarded the statute, Speier said.

Speier demanded that PHMSA increase its oversight over state pipeline inspection agencies – in our case, the California Public Utilities Commission – and enact the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations to overhaul its policies. She plans to introduce a bill to further tighten pipeline safety requirements and increase PHMSA’s ability to ensure that state pipeline safety agencies are held accountable for enforcing safety rules.

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Speier to offer ‘gay conversion therapy’ ban effort

A Bay Area congresswoman will introduce a resolution next week urging states to ban “gay conversion therapy,” as President Obama called for in recent days.

Jackie SpeierRep. Jackie Speier plans to introduce the Stop Harming Our Kids (SHOK) resolution next Tuesday morning. The resolution calls on states to ban licensed mental health professionals from engaging in therapy to try to change minors’ sexual orientations.

“Conversion therapy is quackery — you can’t ‘cure’ or ‘treat’ sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression,” Speier, D-San Mateo, said in a news release. “I applaud the president for his strong stance against it. I look forward to working with the White House when I reintroduce the Stop Harming Our Kids (SHOK) Resolution. What LGBT youth need is love and support, not discredited pseudoscience.”

Speier first introduced the SHOK resolution in late 2012, soon after California enacted such a ban. California’s law took effect in 2014 after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear challenges to it.

Reacting to a public petition, the White House this week announced the Obama administration’s support of efforts to ban the practice.

The American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association have rejected gay conversion therapy as a scientifically invalid practice, finding it can cause serious harm.

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Speier raises alarm on spoofed ‘constituent’ emails

A Bay Area congresswoman raised an alarm this week that emails that were intended to look like they came from district constituents might instead have come from big-money special interest groups.

POLITICO reported that some “constituent” messages to lawmakers urging opposition to the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules had identical wording as those organized by American Commitment, a group led by a former top aide at the Koch-brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity.

Jackie SpeierAnd Rep. Jackie Speier’s staff determined some of the messages came from constituents who didn’t recall sending them. Her staff produced a memo sent out by Lockheed Martin, which runs the technology powering some House members’ contact web pages, which said “a vast majority of the emails do not appear to have a valid in-district address.” The Lockheed memo also questioned whether the email addresses on the messages were even legitimate at all.

Speier posted a statement on Facebook on Thursday saying she’s “deeply concerned by this suspicious activity, and rest assured I will never, ever tolerate an attempt to subvert the democratic rights of my constituents.”

“This is identity theft, pure and simple,” she wrote. “But instead of impersonating for financial gain, the originators of this theft are striking at the heart of our representative democracy. The idea that an outside group could use consumer data to impersonate constituents suggests an attempt to hijack the important feedback members of Congress need to truly represent their districts. You can’t buy or steal hearts and minds.”

She said she’s pressing for a full investigation and developing a bill to criminalize this activity.

Phil Kerpen, who runs American Commitment, told POLITICO his group didn’t impersonate anyone, but other groups mounting similar campaigns had borrowed the text from his web site.

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Speier proposes redefining ‘armor piercing’ ammo

A Bay Area congresswoman has introduced a bill that would require the U.S. Attorney General to update – and tighten – the definition of “armor piercing” ammunition.

Rep. Jackie Speier said H.R. 1454, the Modernized Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act of 2015, is a much-needed update to the 1986 law that banned “cop-killer” bullets.

Jackie Speier“America’s men and women in law enforcement must be safer and have better technology than the criminals who want to kill them,” Speier, D-San Mateo, said in a news release. “It is unacceptable for them to be outgunned. The ATF has decided not to use its authority and take this common-sense step updating the Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act of 1986, so it’s up to Congress to act. My legislation will make sure our first responders are as well protected from ‘cop-killer’ ammunition as they were when the law was passed.”

The law that President Ronald Reagan signed in 1986 banned the civilian sale and transfer of armor-piercing ammunition, defined as bullets or bullet cores that can used in handguns which are made from one or a combination of tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium.

Since then, advances in bullet propellants, coatings, and materials have rendered the 1986 ban dangerously ineffective and outdated, Speier contends, and the market is now flooded with ammunition that can pierce body armor but skirts the 1986 ban.

green tipsThe Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) this year proposed new regulations to restrict sale of M855 “green tip” ammunition that’s commonly used in AR-15-type semi-automatic rifles – perhaps the most popular style of rifle in the United States. After fierce opposition from the gun industry and gun-rights advocates, the ATF this month withdrew its plan.

Now the battle has shifted to Congress, though Democrats know perfectly well that the Republican leadership will never give these bills so much as a glance.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., last week introduced H.R. 1358, the “Armor Piercing Bullets Act,” to restrict sales of this ammunition, which he said can penetrate the soft body armor often worn by police.

“Armor piercing rounds like green tips should only be in the hands of military personnel or police officers, period. There is absolutely no compelling argument to be made for anyone else to have access to them,” Engel said. “But the out of touch gun industry lobby is fighting tooth and nail to keep cop-killing ammunition on the streets. We need to speak up on behalf of our police officers and say ‘stop the madness.’”

Speier’s bill would require the attorney general to modify the definition of armor-piercing ammunition to conform to the bullet’s performance, not just its content. It also would require the attorney general to establish testing criteria to assess a bullet’s lethality against the minimum standards of body armor worn by law enforcement personnel.

It’s potentially much farther-reaching than Engel’s bill. To understand why “armor piercing” is a hard definition to pin down, I recommend this VICE News article – it’s an opinion piece, but the analysis is interesting.

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Who will skip Netanyahu’s speech to Congress?

The Bay Area delegation is split over attending Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress next Tuesday, March 3.

Democrats and the White House remain miffed that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, invited Netanyahu unilaterally. The Israeli leader is expected to speak against the Obama administration’s ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, instead urging Congress to impose further sanctions; also, the address comes two weeks before Israel’s legislative election. For these reasons, and as some pro-Palestinian groups urge a boycott, some Democrats are choosing to skip the speech.

Here’s how the Bay Area delegation shakes out:

Skipping the speech: Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton; Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose

Attending the speech: U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin; Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose; Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto; Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael; Rep. Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz

Undecided: U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord; Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa

Didn’t respond to inquiries: Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo

A few of them offered explanations, or at least, comments:

Lofgren: “I am disappointed Speaker Boehner chose to irresponsibly interject politics into what has long been a strong and bipartisan relationship between the United States and Israel. As President Obama has noted, it is inappropriate for a Head of State to address Congress just two weeks ahead of their election. I agree that Congress should not be used as a prop in Israeli election campaigns, so I intend to watch the speech on TV in my office.”

Huffman: “I call upon Speaker Boehner and Ambassador Dermer to do the right thing and postpone this speech. Once the election in Israel is over and the current P5+1 negotiating deadline has passed, they should respect protocol and confer with President Obama and congressional Democrats on a time for the Prime Minister of Israel to address a joint session of Congress.”

Boxer: “Whether I wind up going or not, it was a terrible mistake by the Republican majority to play politics with this enduring relationship.”

McNerney, via spokesman Michael Cavaiola: “Rep. McNerney is not planning to attend the speech. He’s got several previously planned commitments for that day.”

DeSaulnier, via spokeswoman Betsy Arnold Marr: “Congressman DeSaulnier has not made a final decision as he hopes the Prime Minister will reconsider his plans particularly in light of the upcoming election.”

Honda, via spokesman Ken Scudder: “Congressman Honda regrets that Speaker Boehner ignored protocol in making this invitation. The speaker turned what should have been an important visit of one of our closest allies into a political stunt. Congressman Honda also has concerns about the potential political nature of this speech given Israel’s elections are less than two weeks away. Despite this, and the congressman’s disagreement with the Prime Minister’s opposition to the U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran, Congressman Honda is going to attend the address on March 3. The United States and Israel share strong cultural, economic and security partnerships, and he will attend the speech to hear firsthand what the Prime Minister has to say on these serious and complicated issues.”

Thompson, via spokesman Austin Vevurka: “We still don’t know what the Congressman’s schedule will be that week, but I will of course keep you posted as we know more. That being said, Congressman Thompson understands the importance of hearing from international leaders, but he is concerned that the speech has become overtly political. He hopes the speech is rescheduled and Netanyahu is invited back at a later date in a manner that respects long-established diplomatic protocol.”