Latest News

Quiet the storm brewing in health care

By Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA)

Even before the coronavirus outbreak began, a storm was brewing in our health care system. Under the Trump administration, the number of uninsured Americans has steadily increased from the record lows seen following the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Thanks to the administration’s efforts to undermine the health care law, combined with political resistance to Medicaid expansion in many states, the uninsured rate climbed up and up. According to new data from the CDC, nearly 31 million Americans lacked health insurance on the eve of the pandemic.

Then the coronavirus hit. Of the more than 40 million Americans out of work due to the pandemic, an estimated 27 million have also lost their health insurance. Today we face record rates of Americans lacking health insurance precisely when demands on our health care system are greatest. 

The consequences of this policy failure will be severe, and the damage will not just be felt by those uninsured Americans who contract coronavirus. This will hit state budgets, cash-strapped hospitals and American families — who will likely see the financial strain on our system reflected in higher insurance premiums.

Unfortunately, this is not even the worst-case scenario. Having failed twice to overturn the Affordable Care Act in Congress, the Trump administration is currently leading a lawsuit that would overturn the health care law in its entirety with no plan for replacement. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case this fall, precisely when public health experts warn we could face a second wave of COVID cases. If successful, the Trump administration lawsuit would dismantle health coverage for millions of Americans and protections for the millions more who have a pre-existing condition.

To be clear, this legal challenge to the health coverage and protections that millions of Americans rely on represents the entirety of the Trump administration’s plan to address the health coverage crisis we now face.

The administration should immediately withdraw this lawsuit that threatens to disrupt our entire health care system in the middle of a pandemic. But merely avoiding this impending disaster is not nearly enough. We need to dramatically and quickly expand coverage for those Americans out of work due to the coronavirus, as well as for those Americans who lacked insurance before the crisis began.

First, we must expand and strengthen Medicaid. More than 380,000 Virginians have already gained affordable coverage through our expansion of Medicaid. As unemployment increases, states will see a further influx of individuals eligible for Medicaid coverage. Congress should provide states with additional funding, tied to unemployment rates, to help address this influx. In addition, we should pass legislation I’ve introduced called the SAME Act, which would make sure states such as Virginia that were late to expand Medicaid get their fair share of federal funding. 

Second, Congress should help workers who have lost their employer-provided insurance regain that coverage through the COBRA program. To offset the high cost of paying for an employer-sponsored plan without employer support, the federal government should temporarily help cover the costs until it is safe for workers to return to work.

Third, the Trump administration must re-open the Affordable Care Act health care exchanges so uninsured individuals can immediately enroll in health care coverage. Congress should also enhance tax credits to help more Americans afford this marketplace coverage.

These are three ideas that can and should be enacted in the next round of coronavirus relief legislation. While the legislative solutions I’ve described are not a cure-all to structural problems in our health care system, they would quickly help millions of Americans regain coverage during this critical moment.

With unemployment and uninsured rates at record highs, the combined economic and health care crisis we face cannot be ignored. The solutions I’ve described would allow us to get millions of Americans covered as quickly as possible, using the tools that are already available. We should implement them before it is too late.

Mark Warner represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate.

Permalink: https://www.pilotonline.com/opinion/columns/vp-ed-column-warner-0612-20200612-kbbqazzxvnhavlkclltbxzys54-story.html

 

The national security cost of Trump’s politicization of U.S. intelligence

By Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA)

Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate and is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In the world of national security, what we don’t know can hurt us. The men and women of the intelligence community work every day against that unknown, searching for the truth — uncovering our enemies’ secrets to help keep Americans safe.

Presidents do not always agree with the intelligence community’s recommendations, and that independence can be good. But the role of U.S. intelligence services is, and must be, to speak truth to power, even when it is not politically convenient.

Over the past three years, President Trump has made no secret of his distaste for the intelligence community’s independence, which is fundamental to its proper functioning. As vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I have been deeply disturbed watching the president disparage the work of these brave Americans and publicly cast doubt on intelligence findings that run counter to his political narrative. But some of the president’s actions are more worrying than his words or tweets, and I have been particularly troubled by the politically motivated firing of senior intelligence leaders. These firings threaten to do lasting damage to the intelligence community.

Late on a Friday night this month, in the midst of a global pandemic, the president fired the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson. It’s clear that Atkinson was not targeted because he had failed in his job as the intelligence community’s chief watchdog or because he had broken a law. No, Atkinson was fired precisely because he did his job and followed the law requiring him to alert Congress about a whistleblower complaint, a report that later led to the president’s impeachment hearings.

This firing adds Atkinson to the disturbing number of intelligence officials who have been pushed out by this president — a list that includes two directors of national Intelligence, multiple well-regarded career intelligence officials, and the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

What each of these ousted intelligence officials has in common, besides a history of service to our country, is that all were punished for speaking truth to power. They were fired because they had the temerity to brief the president and Congress about threats to the United States that are politically inconvenient to Trump. 

In the case of the most recent director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, his offense was permitting the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to be briefed about Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2020 election. And Maguire’s predecessor, Daniel Coats, was, according to media accounts, forced to step down because he provided assessments on Russia and North Korea, among other matters, that angered the president.

Already, the consequences of this remaking of the intelligence community in Trump’s image are visible. Senior intelligence officials are increasingly reluctant to engage in otherwise routine, nonpartisan communication with the congressional committees that oversee the intelligence agencies, for fear that something they say in a hearing or briefing will anger the president. At a more basic level, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence lacks a single Senate-confirmed official. For now, this crucial office is headed by a temporary appointee and career political operative with little experience in intelligence and few obvious qualifications beyond political loyalty to the president.

These actions send profoundly dangerous signals to career intelligence professionals. If presenting objective information about threats to the United States is treated as political disloyalty to the president, our intelligence community simply cannot function as it was intended to. The consequences of this breakdown will undoubtedly be measured in American lives.

The intelligence community is far from perfect. It makes mistakes. As vice chairman of the Senate committee overseeing our nation’s intelligence agencies, I often see the worst consequences of those screw-ups. But I also see the best our intelligence community has to offer. And that best is made up of professional men and women who work hard every day gathering objective information about what the bad guys of the world are doing to harm our country, and what we can do to stop them.

Their objectivity and the credibility it gives them are our first line of defense. Efforts by this president to intimidate and extract personal loyalty from U.S. intelligence services may be politically advantageous in the short term, but over time the consequences for our country will be disastrous.

Coronavirus exposes gig workforce left behind

By Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA)

It took a global pandemic for Congress to finally, tentatively wake up to major flaws in America’s social safety net. Sitting in negotiations for the third coronavirus relief, known as the CARES Act, I remember as my colleagues began to acknowledge that the U.S. unemployment insurance program failed to cover millions of workers who make a living as independent contractors, freelancers, “gig workers,” and self-employed entrepreneurs.

The “contingent workforce” has been around for decades, long before internet platforms like Uber, Airbnb, Postmates, and Taskrabbit enabled the rise of the “gig economy.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, independent workers make up around 10% of the workforce—approximately 16 million people. But, that doesn’t take into account those who supplement traditional jobs with income on the side or millions of workers in the service and agriculture industries who often work jobs that don’t offer reliable benefits. We know that the majority of service sector, part-time, and low-wage workers in America don’t have access to healthcare, paid leave, or a telework option through their employer.

For years, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that our system was increasingly leaving millions of workers behind. But, it took the prospect that millions of Lyft drivers, hair stylists, truck drivers, freelance designers, handymen, and other independent workers could be stuck with no income and no safety net to fall back on in the middle of a pandemic for Congress to act.

Fortunately, Congress recently took a first, if temporary, step towards correcting this gaping hole in our unemployment insurance program. The bipartisan coronavirus relief package Congress passed contains the most dramatic expansion of unemployment insurance in decades, finally extending benefits to independent workers, the self-employed, as well as part-time workers who’ve had their hours cut. 

This expansion of eligibility is an important step, and one that Congress should look to make permanent in a financially sustainable way – supported by employer contributions – once this crisis is over. But, unemployment insurance is only one piece of our social insurance system. 

Even before we began to feel the economic consequences of the coronavirus, gig workers were sounding the alarm that their lack of access to paid sick leave could create a potential threat to public health, where sick workers would be forced to choose between their health and a paycheck. At the beginning of this pandemic, I called on the largest gig worker platforms to provide paid sick leave for drivers getting treated, quarantining, or caring for a loved one with COVID-19.  I am glad that several companies stepped up to provide this assistance for their workers before it led to a public health emergency. But as recent organizing by gig workers has demonstrated, paid leave for sick workers is just the tip of the iceberg.

Recognizing the public health challenges facing workers in other fields who lack these benefits, Congress temporarily expanded paid leave to some workers as part of the coronavirus response. But millions more still lack paid sick leave, and the temporary nature of these coronavirus relief programs mean the cracks in our system will open right back up when this crisis is over.

Congress should not simply wait until the next economic calamity to swoop in and try to catch these millions of Americans who have been failed by our social safety net. While our first priority must be weathering this crisis, our recovery must include structural reforms that guarantee a social safety net to every American.  To do that, we must find a way to ensure access to our entire system of social insurance, including healthcare, unemployment insurance, paid leave, workers’ compensation, skills training, tax withholding, and tax-advantaged retirement savings. 

We need to move towards a portable benefits system that allows Americans of all walks of life to pay into package of benefits that can follow them from job to job or gig to gig. The program doesn’t necessarily have to come from the federal government—labor unions, technology firms, state, and local governments, or consumer-employer partnerships like New York’s Black Car Fund may be part of the solution.

I’ve proposed a portable benefits pilot program that would empower states, local governments, and worker advocate non-profits to experiment with these ideas, and I am hopeful that we can include this bipartisan proposal in future coronavirus relief legislation. We need to patch the holes in our social safety net now, not when the next crisis hits.

Sen. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, is a former technology entrepreneur and Governor of Virginia. He serves on the Banking, Budget, Finance, Rules and Intelligence committees.

 Dear Friend, 

As Virginia begins to feel the major economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak, I am focused on making sure small businesses and their workers have the support they need to get through this crisis.

That’s why I’m writing to update you on important new resources that just became available to small businesses who are suffering from the economic effects of the coronavirus outbreak. Virginia recently received a statewide disaster declaration from the Small Business Administration (SBA), unlocking emergency long-term, low-interest loans for small businesses.

If you are a small business owner who needs assistance during this outbreak I encourage you to take action immediately. First, read this SBA fact sheet. Then, visit the SBA website to begin your application.

My office stands ready to help however we can during this time. If you run into a problem once you have submitted your application, or if you need help with another issue related to the federal government, I encourage you to contact my office at: 202-224-2023.

I also want to give you a brief update on what I am working on in the Senate to deal with this crisis:

  • Earlier this month, I voted to pass a bipartisan $8.3 billion emergency funding bill to make sure Virginia has the resources it needs to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

  • On Wednesday, I voted to pass to a second coronavirus economic relief package that guarantees free coronavirus testing and expands benefits for Americans impacted by this crisis.

  • I am also working to ensure loan forbearance is available to businesses and individuals. So far, I have successfully pushed bank regulators to ease restrictions that would prevent banks from offering this assistance.

  • This week, I put forward a proposal to create a coronavirus liquidity facility that would provide low-interest loans to small and medium-sized businesses, including potential loan forgiveness and other incentives to keep businesses open and keep workers on the payroll.

  • On March 11, I joined with my colleagues in a letter to the IRS urging them to extend the tax-filing deadline. Today, IRS pushed the tax filing deadline from April 15 to July 15, giving taxpayers and small businesses additional time to file and make payments without interest or penalties. For more information you can visit the IRS’ Coronavirus Tax Relief page.

For a complete list of my actions in response to the coronavirus outbreak, please visit the coronavirus updates page on my website.

As someone who's spent more time in business than I have in the Senate, I know this is an exceptionally tough time for businesses and their workers. We will get through this, and I’m doing everything I can to try to make sure no one loses a job, misses a paycheck, or is forced to close down their business because of this crisis. 

If you want to share your thoughts about an issue that’s important to you, you can send me an email any time using the form on my Senate website. You can also follow me on Facebook and Twitter. I look forward to hearing from you. 

Sincerely, 

Mark Warner

 

This article was originally published in WIRED on 1/30/2020

In mid-November, as his House colleagues on Capitol Hill were consumed with questions about Ukraine and impeachment, Senator Mark Warner took to CNBC’s Squawk Box to discuss what he saw as one of the most important problems facing the country: Fitbit.

Or, more specifically, the danger of allowing Google to swallow up the personal fitness and health-monitoring gadget and its terabytes of consumer data. “The Fitbit deal needs a high, high level of scrutiny,” the Democratic senator from Virginia told anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin. “Large platform companies have not had a very good record of protecting the data or being transparent with consumers. I can’t totally blame them. If Congress doesn’t set rules of the road, asking them to self-regulate is, frankly, just not a viable option.”

Across the board, we as a country need to be hitting pause on the advances of Big Tech, Warner argued, channeling his inner trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt. He sees warning signs flashing all around, like Facebook’s fledgling attempt to launch a digital currency, Libra, and Google’s move into banking. Too much is happening without competition and government oversight, he said. “We have these giant tech platforms entering into new fields before there are some regulatory rules of the road,” Warner told CNBC’s viewers.

“Once they get in, the ability to extract them out is going to be virtually impossible.”

The words coming out of Mark Warner’s mouth throughout 2019 would surely have stunned the Mark Warner who joined the Senate in 2009, amid the wave of techno-optimism that marked Barack Obama’s presidential victory and the early years of his administration. Back then it seemed everyone in Washington, Warner chief among them, thought tech was the solution, not the problem.

Yet more recently, in Donald Trump’s Washington, Warner has evolved into Capitol Hill’s most reluctant and thoughtful tech critic, grilling Facebook, Twitter, and Google executives, lashing out in private and public over their intransigence, and pressing the companies to confront the role their platforms have played in undermining democracy.

As the vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he’s also become one of Capitol Hill’s most vocal advocates urging the country to take foreign technology threats seriously, both the possibility of kinetic real-world cyberattacks (such as disabling power plants or water systems) and already-underway information influence operations like the ones that upended the 2016 presidential election, as well as the looming challenges next-generation technologies pose to national security.

Earlier this month, even as the president’s impeachment trial loomed for the Senate, he introduced—along with the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, North Carolina’s Richard Burr—new legislation aimed at closing the United States’ gap in 5G technologies with China by investing in Western alternatives to Huawei.

“Every month that the US does nothing, Huawei stands poised to become the cheapest, fastest, most ubiquitous global provider of 5G,” Warner said in announcing the new bill. “Widespread adoption of 5G technology has the potential to unleash sweeping effects for the future of internet-connected devices, individual data security, and national security.

Together, his views, advocacy, and legislative work over the past three years have put Warner at the intersection of the biggest stories in American politics—foreign interference in US elections, the evolving consensus that Big Tech is out of control, and the growing tech rift between the US and China.

It’s an unexpected role for a onetime venture capitalist who made a nine-figure fortune helping to usher in the technological age in which we all now live. And the 65-year-old senator remains enmeshed in the culture and politics of technology. His state is one of the top destinations for tech companies outside of the Bay Area (Amazon’s new HQ2 is being built in Arlington). He wears Allbirds—the official sneaker of startup bros—sports an Apple Watch, and dabbles in winemaking. Warner’s dotcom-billionaire friends compare their new Teslas and their private helicopters even as Warner’s political career has thrived thanks to his commitment to the same rural Americans who supported Trump.

Now, as the man who represents one of the country’s most defense-heavy states—home to the Pentagon and the headquarters of 10 of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies—Warner is pressing his colleagues and the US government to reckon with a new age of asymmetric warfare and information operations, a geopolitical landscape where America’s massive Air Force wings, naval fleets, and Army tanks are of little help against Twitter trolls, Facebook bots, deep fakes, and all manner of emerging threats.

As Warner reminds people in almost every set of public remarks, Russia surely spent less on its 2016 election attack than the cost of a single US F-35 fighter jet. “We’re buying 20th-century military stuff, when the conflict in the 21st century is going to be disproportionately in the realm of cyber and misinformation, disinformation, the ability to take down someone’s water system,” he says.

While his current role certainly isn’t where he expected to end up, there’s a deeply familiar aspect to his evolution as someone who has invested in hundreds of startups as a venture capitalist: His experience in the tech world, after all, taught him the art of the pivot. Warner is the first to say that he’s never invested in an entrepreneur who succeeded with their original business plan. “It’s the ones who can shift that succeed,” he told students at his alma mater, George Washington University, while recounting his days in the business world.

He’s followed his own advice in politics too: His recent legislative success and leadership on Capitol Hill occurred only after several aborted attempts to carve out his future in politics. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that Mark Warner—who lately is spending his days as one of the jurors sitting in President Trump’s historic impeachment trial—probably ranked as the most miserable and frustrated man in the Senate.

Warner has long been an intensely political—and social—animal. Raised in a working-class family in Indiana, he came to Washington to attend GWU; he interned on Capitol Hill, and became valedictorian and the first in his family to graduate college. He attended Harvard Law School, where he excelled more outside the classroom—as his class’ unofficial social coordinator and the official women’s intramural basketball coach—than in.

Politics, not law, was always his goal. But first he opted to try to make a financial success in business. Working at the Democratic National Committee in 1980, he found himself haunted by the plight of an unsuccessful Connecticut congressional candidate who finished his race $300,000 in debt. He promised himself that he wouldn’t enter politics until he could afford to lose. Amazingly, after two ventures that failed quickly and brought him to near-ruin—friends recall him couchsurfing with just a 1963 Buick to his name—he succeeded wildly.

With help from a former Atlanta Hawks player, Tom McMillen, Warner realized in the early 1980s that the government was all but giving away radio spectrum that would prove key to the emerging technology of cellular phones. At the time, the licenses were distributed by lottery—but many winners had no real ability to use the spectrum they’d won, so Warner positioned himself as a crucial connector and middleman in what emerged as a market for licenses, perfecting a model where he assembled teams of investors and navigated the license bureaucracy, keeping parts of each deal for himself. In 1987 he helped a business associate found a company called Fleet Call, which grew into Nextel.

Money would never be a concern again.

Freed from financial worry, he turned back to politics, helping to run then Virginia lieutenant governor Doug Wilder’s campaign for the state’s top office, a race Wilder won narrowly, becoming the nation's first elected African American governor. Wilder made Warner the head of the state Democratic Party, and by 1996 he felt ready to challenge the state’s veteran senator, Capitol Hill powerhouse John Warner (no relation). He poured $10 million of his own money into the challenge. Campaign signs that year read “Mark, Not John,” a message that didn’t resonate with every voter: One driver stopped on the side of the road and asked candidate Mark: “Excuse me, sir, is that a biblical reference?”

Mark lost the election, leading to his second stroke of business luck: He was unemployed just as the dotcom boom started. Closely tied into the Northern Virginia tech world—his friends were busy founding a company called America Online—Warner helmed a venture capital fund and was a key figure in an elite social group known as Capital Investors, which brought together the area’s tech leaders for monthly startup pitches. (As much an adult frat as an investment club, one club social at Warner’s house featured AOL’s Steve Case jumping on his bed.) Warner also kept an eye on his political profile, using his tech money to help build job-training and computer skills programs for southwest and Southside Virginia, the commonwealth’s rural regions that had been hit hard by the collapse of the tobacco and textile industries.

That commitment to rural Virginia—which has long been part political strategy and part genuine, sincere cause—proved key to his 2001 run for governor, which he undertook at a moment when Democrats did not control a single statewide office in the commonwealth. Warner, though, bonded with a redneck political consultant named David “Mudcat” Saunders, who built a campaign that paved a path for Democrats in a red state—recruiting sportsmen and hunters in rural Virginia, sponsoring a NASCAR truck, and even penning a bluegrass song that emphasized how Warner, who is rarely seen out of a button-down shirt and khakis, “understands our people, the folks up in the hills.”

The song promoted Warner’s determination “to keep our children home,” a message that he would deliver jobs to rural communities used to seeing their most promising graduates leave for opportunities in the big city. He even convinced the NRA to stay out of the race, promising he’d take care of gun rights. Warner won, handily. “We had a good horse,” Saunders told me, years ago. “You can’t win the Kentucky Derby with a mule.”

Warner, though, actually did deliver for rural Virginia—building more than 700 miles of broadband cable that brought the internet to 700,000 Virginians (and, for good measure, closing the $3.8 billion budget deficit he inherited). He pitched “farm-shoring,” or the idea that rural America could be cost-competitive to emerging offshore tech hubs like Bangalore, and brought the state’s jobless rate to the second lowest in the country.

I first met Warner in 2005, as he was preparing to leave office as Virginia’s governor—the commonwealth has a unique, single four-year term limit—and mulling a run for the presidency, a job he had already coveted for a while. On our first day together—the first of many, as I followed him for months on the campaign trail, to New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, and a host of other stops—I accompanied him as he took a victory lap through rural Virginia, helping to lay broadband cable outside Appomattox.

Warner—wherever he is—is a talker, the life of the party, and that day he was only supposed to ride the cable-laying bulldozer a few yards. But he got to chatting with the ’dozer crew, and as the press, local officials, and assembled schoolkids watched, the governor and the bulldozer got farther and farther away, eventually disappearing over the hill, cable steadily unspooling behind. When he finally returned, he sighed. “The truth is, if I had another go-round [at being governor], I’d take it. There’s a lot of unfinished business.”

Warner set out on the presidential campaign trail in 2006 with a message ahead of its time, talking about how globalization was reshaping work and how towns and cities skipped by broadband would be more economically disadvantaged in the 21st century than those bypassed by the railroads in the 1800s. He said the social safety net needed to be reimagined for an age when workers hopped across jobs and professions.

As he explained at every stop, America’s political differences weren’t between Democrats and Republicans; they were between those who wanted to reclaim the glories of the industrial 1950s versus those who understood the coming technological upheaval: “It’s not about left versus right,” he was fond of saying. “It’s about future versus past.” His hopeful and full-throated embrace of the future was, in many respects, the precise opposite of the backward-looking “Make America Great Again” message that would propel Donald Trump to the presidency a decade later.

As he criss-crossed the country testing the presidential waters, Warner brought along a built-in party—and not the political kind. By nature gregarious and fun, he almost always had one of his wealthy tech friends along for campaign swings. At the end of a long day on the trail, in whatever small place he found himself after another day of “future versus past” speechifying, he was ready to party.

The entourage would drop their bags at the hotel and then find a nearby bar, rolling in for a night of drinking and pool. The evening excursions were a reporter’s dream, as his wealthy friends would compete to pick up the tab. Warner seems to view almost every human interaction as a chance to make a new friend. “Some days I say, ‘Aren’t our current friends enough?’” his wife, Lisa Collis, told me years ago. (Apropos for the party-loving Warner, the couple met at a keg bash in 1984.)

His cell phone fortune became a stump speech punch line on the campaign trail—he’d joke with crowds that he was fine if people left their phones on while he spoke. “Most people consider them an annoyance, but I just hear ‘cha-ching, cha-ching,’” he’d tease. (Today, he’s the fourth-wealthiest member of the Senate—behind Georgia’s Kelly Loeffler, Utah’s Mitt Romney, and Florida’s Rick Scott—with a net worth of about $90 million.)

Ultimately, though, Warner passed on the presidential race. Over dinner at a Virginia restaurant with friends in fall 2006, he walked through the pros and cons and decided he’d rather spend the next years present with his family; his three daughters were growing up fast, and he didn’t want to miss their childhood.

So instead of the White House, Warner pivoted and set his eyes on Virginia’s 2008 US Senate race; a red-state success story, he delivered the keynote at the 2008 Democratic convention, the same slot that Barack Obama had used in 2004 to catapult himself to national notice. Warner trounced his opponent, helping to deliver Virginia’s electoral votes to Obama along the way.

Warner became a member of the institution known as the world’s greatest deliberative body in January 2009—and quickly discovered that he hated almost every single minute of being a senator. By experience and predisposition he was an executive, not a legislator. He liked disruptive ideas, sweeping change, and quick action—not long negotiations marked by tiny advances. “One of the conclusions that I’ve unfortunately come to is that so many of the issues have been litigated and relitigated and relitigated—from tax policy to the deficit to health care to education. One party or another might make some incremental progress, but short of some massive election swing, we’re still fighting in the same place,” he says.

At first, Warner’s interests trended toward finance, but he didn’t get the slot he coveted on the Finance Committee and he chafed under the Senate led by Nevada’s Harry Reid. In the summer of 2010, he and Georgian Saxby Chambliss, a Republican, got to chatting on the Senate floor and saw an opportunity for a big breakthrough on fiscal issues: They gathered a group of moderates into what became known as the “Gang of Six” to attempt a grand compromise on the nation’s debt and deficits.

By negotiating on taxes, spending cuts, Social Security, and deficits, they saw a path to saving the treasury $3.7 trillion. The grand bargain failed. Only later did Warner realize that entrenched leadership on both sides of the aisle had little interest in such an effort. “The forces of the status quo on both sides came crashing down,” he says.

It was a dark time for Warner, who felt he was suffering through what should have been a dream job. “I was frustrated, but I was also self-aware enough to know that I get to do this job on terms very few people get to do,” he says. “I needed a better attitude.”

So the one-time entrepreneur turned his attention to the gig economy, championing legislation known as the Startup Act, and confronting questions he summarized as “Can you make capitalism work a better way? What’s the new social contract?”

Changes in the US economy and on Wall Street, he saw, meant that workplace instability was rising. He talked about how business incentives now favored short-term results over long-term investments—in both humans and capital. “I’m not sure the American post–World War II business environment could have been created if it had all started in the year ’95 or 2000,” he says. He notes that celebrated companies like Google and Facebook featured different classes of stock that have protected them from short-term-ism.

He was confronting what he calls “a growing feeling that modern American capitalism is not working for enough people.” As he says, “That is a pretty radical statement from somebody who’s been an entrepreneur.” He helped launch a new “Future of Work” initiative, housed at the Aspen Institute (where I also work on a separate, unrelated cybersecurity initiative), and proselytized about how to reshape the employer-employee relationship for the 21st century. In almost every conversation on the subject, he cites research from the Kauffman Foundation that found that since 1990 almost all net new jobs in the US have come from startups.

Until 2016, Warner thought that reforming the gig economy through legislation would be his life’s new cause. “I had found something I thought could suck up my energy, time, and curiosity,” he says. “As an old venture capitalist, I felt like I was in a brand new space.”

A couple of years ago, I ran into Warner at a glitzy party at the French Embassy in DC and teased him about how he was still using the same stump speech talking points—not left or right but future versus past. He argued, forcefully, that the world was finally catching up to where he knew things were heading. The theoretical problems he’d been talking about in 2006, the looming problems of automation, the workforce, and the gig economy, were now all coming clear a decade later. “Come on now, there’s some meat on those bones,” he told me.

But Warner’s career was set for one more big pivot.

In 2016, Donald Trump won the office Warner had long coveted for himself, helped along by a Russian cyberattack and campaigning on a message about economic insecurity that raised many of the issues Warner had been talking about for a decade.

As the nation reeled—both from Trump’s surprise electoral college victory and the unprecedented attack by Russia on the foundations of American democracy—Warner, through a reshuffling of committee assignments, found himself the new vice-chair of Senate Intelligence, the top representative of the Democratic minority on the committee that would lead the body’s inquiry into Russia’s efforts.

Warner had never meant to end up on the Intelligence Committee. But his old Gang of Six partner Chambliss had chaired the committee and recruited him into it during the previous congress. Warner was encouraged by his old campaign adversary, John Warner, to embrace the new assignment. (The two one-time opponents have become good friends and Mark proudly keeps a USS John Warner hat in his Senate office.)

Chambliss says he had wanted Warner’s expertise on the committee in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, as telecommunications policy moved to the center of the intelligence community. The body needed someone who knew telecoms, Chambliss thought, especially the constellation of communications satellites that represent the committee’s single priciest line item in an annual intelligence budget of $60 billion. “He understood satellites, and nobody else on the committee understood them beyond them being very expensive,” Chambliss recalls. “In the intelligence world, we deal with the telecom industry every day.”

After the 2016 election, as Warner and the new Republican chair, North Carolina’s Richard Burr, started their own investigation into Russia’s attack, the two senators made a pact: We’re not going to agree on everything, but no surprises. As the parallel investigation by the House Intelligence Committee devolved in a circuslike partisan farce under its Republican chair, Devin Nunes, the team behind the Senate inquiry worked tirelessly to maintain at least the veneer of bipartisanship. “It was obvious they were going to be the adults in the room,” says Chambliss, explaining that he gave Burr and Warner a firm message together at the start of their probe: “At the end of the day, it’s too important for the country for y’all to do this together and have a document that you can both sign.”

The committee’s bipartisan we do everything together approach wasn’t always easy, but, incredibly, Warner and Burr’s deal held. Whereas Nunes parroted Trump talking points and ultimately published a “final report” that Democrats refused to accept, exonerating the administration while ignoring and never examining large swaths of the swirling questions about Russia’s role in the attacks, Burr and Warner forged ahead with an in-depth examinations of the information influence operations by the Internet Research Agency and GRU. In the end they published two massive reports detailing precisely how Facebook trolls and Twitter bots amplified divisive messages, spread propaganda, and seeded disinformation into social media platforms.

Those reports remain a touchstone of the reality-based political establishment today, even as the president and his supporters continue to cast doubt on Russia’s involvement in election interference, preferring instead to cast blame on Ukraine—an obsession that led directly to Trump’s impeachment.

“My Republican colleagues knew I was not going to be a partisan flamethrower,” Warner says. “I’m proud of that traditional behavior in a world where there’s very little traditional behavior. The fact that that looks so good—that the bar had been set so low—was rewarding but a little surprising.”

As the Russia probe continued, the problem the country faced expanded in Warner’s mind from “just” a Russia problem to broader questions about the roles and power of the big tech platforms. “The Russian disinformation efforts opened the door to a whole host of Warner concerns about social media,” says Rachel Cohen, one of his senior staff. “People were telling him this wasn’t a disinformation problem—this was a platform problem.”

A particular turning point for Warner came when he hired as his senior policy adviser Rafi Martina, a one-time corporate tech lawyer who was beginning to argue for a radical rebalancing of tech’s power. As Warner explains, “Before all this unsavory behavior was starting to take place, he was already pointing out to me behavior by Google and Facebook and Twitter that was not great policy, not being fair to users. He was opening my eyes.” Then came the scandals over Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data, broadening Warner’s concerns to not just the platforms and their algorithms but their use and retention of private user data too.

It was a moment of reckoning for someone who had long championed the new economy. “I was probably pretty naive,” Warner says. “I bought the story that these are only forces for good and are going to help everyone communicate better and build new communities. But in retrospect I think I'm probably pretty naive to not have thought through that anything that’s this big, there’s going to be a dark underbelly.”

Warner’s growing sense that major reforms and new legislation were needed to govern the tech landscape only grew last spring when Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing horrified him—both because of the lack of contrition from the Facebook cofounder and because his Capitol Hill colleagues fumbled even basic tech questions.

By last summer, he had come to believe that both Facebook and Twitter had been less than forthcoming to his committee, downplaying the extent of Russian efforts in the election—efforts made all too clear in special counsel Robert Mueller’s 2018 indictments of the Internet Research Agency and Russian military intelligence officers from the GRU. “They were just not straight with me for a long time,” Warner says.

Warner’s frustration with the tendency of the platforms to misuse and abuse their growing clout was evident in a groundbreaking 20-point white-paper released by Warner’s office in 2018. It decried the power amassed by Twitter, Facebook, Google, and other tech platforms and aimed at reforms to combat disinformation, protect user privacy, and promote competition.

Blandly titled “Potential Policy Proposals for Regulation of Social Media and Technology Firms,” the document actually represented one of the most serious attempts to outline a regulation regime for tech ever to come off Capitol Hill. As the 23-page paper—drafted by Warner and Martina—argued, “The speed with which these products have grown and come to dominate nearly every aspect of our social, political, and economic lives has in many ways obscured the shortcomings of their creators in anticipating the harmful effects of their use.”

The paper reflected Warner’s rising concern that there’s a fundamental rot at the center of the major sites dominating today’s online life: “These maybe were not only forces for good,” he says. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other big players may trumpet how they’re changing the world, but, Warner argues, they don’t operate in the public interest—to inform people, to protect users’ privacy, to further our freedoms. They’re engineered to be addictive.

As he says, “You don’t follow a story about a bloody car wreck with a story about how somebody’s promoting good driving techniques. You follow it with something that’s slightly even more gruesome. That's what’s happening.”

In his paper, Warner speaks about the “duty” of tech platforms to police bots, calls for new disclosure requirements on online political advertisements and audit-able algorithms, proposes new powers for the Federal Trade Commission to regulate privacy, and calls for comprehensive European-like legislation in the US.

He cites tech thinkers like Tristan Harris, Wael Ghonim, and Tom Wheeler, all of whom are part of the informal network of advisers Warner regularly consults. He endorses a concept floated by Yale Law professor Jack Balkin for tech platforms to become “information fiduciaries,” service providers with a special duty to protect and manage user data.

The irony of Warner leading the crackdown on the tech platforms is that he’s really a free-market capitalist at heart, viewing policy challenges often as market opportunities. During a visit to Norfolk, Virginia, he once pivoted from talking about the danger of flooding caused by climate change to suggest that the market for sump pumps looked bright. Similarly, he talks excitedly about how giving people stronger ownership over their own data online might open the way to new “data middlemen” who help negotiate prices and access with the platforms and advertisers.

The commitment to these wider questions, from deepfakes to quantum computing, are part of what has made Warner’s efforts in tech stand apart in a body that too often seems populated by Luddites. (In one particularly egregious example a year ago, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai had to explain to one congressmember that Google didn’t make iPhones.)

When I tagged along on one of Warner’s visits to a home state tech company in Arlington, Warner enthusiastically lectured me on the insanity of the federal government’s internet of things procurement policies.

The senator, who seemingly can’t contain his own energy even when he wants to, mixed the tech talk with turn-by-turn directions for the aide driving our car. He’s been pushing the government to raise the security bar for incorporating IoT devices into federal networks and installations—he’s worried that too many technologies and devices are racing ahead of the government’s rules.

The federal government, he said, has proven it can’t even get many of the basics of cybersecurity right when it comes to securing databases and personnel information, so why, he asks, is it racing to incorporate IoT devices into government infrastructure? “If I worked at a rational place, we wouldn’t be increasing the attack surface exponentially,” he said, then he interrupted himself to tell the aide to move over to the middle lane.

It’s no surprise he knows the road better than the aide’s Google Maps. Warner, after all, is a creature of the capital—he’d never call it a swamp—and has made the region home nearly since he attended GW. His annual Pilgrim’s Lunch—a rowdy day-before-Thanksgiving gathering of the region’s elite at DC’s fading power lunch spot, The Palm, where the meal stretches to five hours or more—has been a tradition in the capital for decades. He watched the Pentagon burn on 9/11 from the roof of his gubernatorial campaign headquarters, and unlike most of his congressional colleagues who commute in from their districts on Mondays and race home on Thursdays, his house in Old Town Alexandria isn’t far from his workplace. “To misquote Sarah Palin, I can see the Capitol from the third floor of my house,” he jokes.

Warner’s own evolving views on technology have proven to be in the vanguard of a sweeping sea change in the way tech is seen on Capitol Hill and on the presidential campaign trail. The idea—all but unthinkable just a few years ago—that Big Tech is, well, too big, dangerous to our democracy, and dangerous for our health as consumers, has spread rapidly.

In May, one of Warner’s Senate colleagues, Missouri’s Josh Hawley, labeled platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter a “digital drug” in a USA Today op-ed, arguing, “Maybe social media’s innovations do our country more harm than good. Maybe social media is best understood as a parasite on productive investment, on meaningful relationships, on a healthy society. Maybe we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared.”

Other measures on Capitol Hill have tried to rein in just-around-the-corner technologies like facial recognition. The current 116th Congress has seen Senate efforts both to regulate corporate use of facial recognition as well as to put limits on its use by police.

In some ways, Warner’s views—as unexpected as they are for someone of his background and as radical as they would have sounded even three years ago—now represent the moderate view of his party.

As she’s campaigned for president, his Senate colleague Elizabeth Warren has gone even further, calling for the outright breakup of Amazon, Facebook, and Google. As she wrote in a post on Medium in March, “Today’s big tech companies have too much power—too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.” Senator Bernie Sanders has backed similar ideas, and one of the main lines of attack on Pete Buttigieg has been his friendship with Harvard classmate Mark Zuckerberg.

Yet even as it seemed that most of his fellow Democratic senate colleagues—Warren, Sanders, Michael Bennet, and, until recently, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker—are running for president and even as Mike Bloomberg and Deval Patrick leapt into an ever-shifting field of candidates, Warner’s name never surfaced for president in 2020. He has long harbored presidential ambitions, but today they appear all but on ice.

Instead, Warner has committed himself to remaining in the Senate, where he’s happier than he’s ever been, even amid the administration’s daily chaos and the negativity that pervades the capital.

“What’s given me the new lease on energy and enthusiasm about the job has clearly been the Russian issue,” he says. “Even if I’m not successful in these other areas, getting [the Russia probe] right, at least for the time being, is probably the most important thing I’ve done, which I don’t say lightly considering all the aspirations I’ve had my whole career.”

It’s those big geopolitical questions—and their intersection with technology and its intersection with national security—that most animate Warner. One of the oddities of work on the Senate Intelligence Committee is that much of the heavy lifting is done by the members themselves—the classified nature of the work severely limits how much work can be delegated to staff—and so he’s spent many hours sifting through the evidence of Russia’s attack in 2016, listening to briefings from government officials on emerging threats, and examining how and where the US government is spending its resources. He’s clearly not happy with what’s he’s learning.

As much as his work publicly has focused on the Russia probe, he says that what he’s hearing behind the closed doors of the Intelligence Committee’s workspace makes him worry as much, or even more, about China. “Russia is a more malicious actor. China is a more insidious actor,” he tells me. “My views on China are radically different than what they were three years ago.”

It’s another area where he’s found common bipartisan ground, working closely on China and 5G issues with Florida’s Marco Rubio. Together, they asked the intelligence community in early March for a report on how China was exerting pressure and influence on international standard-setting bodies related to 5G, noting “anecdotal concerns” that China is undermining what have long been “technological meritocracies.” He’s also been cohosting, with Rubio, classified briefings for tech leaders and venture capitalists to hear about the threat from China and discuss how the US should counter China’s efforts in areas like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

He fears that the US is moving too slowly to counter China’s march in tech, repeating mistakes the government made in failing to recognize legitimate fears about embracing Russian technology. “We would sit in the intel committee and hear for years about Kaspersky Labs. It took us three or four years to push the intelligence community to say, ‘You can’t just tell us. You’ve got to get the stuff off the damn GSA acquisition list.’ You take that times 20 with the Chinese,” he says. “If we don’t do more of this, people will look back on Congress and the intel community and certain business leadership and say, ‘What in the hell were you people thinking?’”

He sees his new 5G legislation to combat Huawei—known in the always-acronymized style of Capitol Hill as the Utilizing Strategic Allied (USA) Telecommunications Act—as a step on that path. The proposed bill also comes with the backing of Republican senators Rubio, Bob Menendez, and John Cornyn (plus Colorado’s moderate Democrat Michael Bennett), all of whom serve on the body’ss intelligence or foreign relations committees. It attempts to counter Huawei’s perceived lead on 5G by earmarking at least a $1 billion in investments in Western alternatives and encouraging the development of an open-architecture model to allow companies to bite off smaller pieces of the 5G network.

Not even the heated, partisan impeachment trial can distract Warner from raising the alarm: The day after Chief Justice John Roberts swore Warner and 98 other senators in as jurors, Warner again took to the airwaves to push his effort to confront China’s technological advances. His message was clear: “5G and the issue of Huawei has been over the last year been a bipartisan issue,” he told Bloomberg TV in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building. “This is one area where there are a lot of us who are in agreement with the administration.”

One reason Warner says he’s so committed to regulating Big Tech is, paradoxically, the need to preserve tech as a uniquely American strength. As Warner sees it, America’s failure to act has ceded its traditional leadership role to others—to Europe on consumer privacy and to the UK and Australia on content restrictions.

In the absence of federal action, individual states like California are now taking the lead on regulating tech, a potentially troublesome precedent that Warner fears could lead to a patchwork of laws that slow innovation and retard growth. Letting others—whether Europe or China—set the rules of the road for technology is dangerous, he says, both in terms of American values and economic growth. In Warner’s mind, saving tech as an economic driver for the United States might mean blowing up Big Tech as we know it.

He hopes that his work will help lead the nation forward into the next tech age. Warner tells me that he’s already seen the conversation shift, dramatically even, as the country has reckoned with the twin scandals of the Russia attack and general abuse of the tech platforms. “On the Hill, there’s very much a mind change. We can’t continue to be victims all the time online,” he says. “We can’t keep getting pummeled.” Or, to put it another way, the senior senator from Virginia may have found his next bulldozer to ride over the hill.

###

This article was originally published in the Virginian-Pilot on 12/7/2020

Virginia’s senators have handled with steady professionalism President Donald Trump’s order of a drone strike against Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, one of the most prominent and deadly military leaders in the Middle East, last week.

It is arguably Trump’s most consequential act in office, and Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have raised thoughtful, measured questions about how it happened and what comes next — questions with resonance in Hampton Roads, home to tens of thousands of military personnel and their families.

Soleimani led the Quds force, the network of Iranian militias responsible for decades of death and destruction throughout the region. Quds fighters caused or provoked much of the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq and Syria and were responsible for a deadly type of improvised explosive that killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers.

Americans need not shed a tear at Soleimani’s demise — it was a fitting end for someone soaked in blood — but they are right to inquire about the strike, the decision-making process and the administration’s long-term strategy for Iran and the region.

Toward that end, Virginia is fortunate to have two senators doing precisely that.

Warner, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a statement on Friday that called Soleimani “an enemy of the United States who … should not be mourned” but also expressed concern that Congress was not informed in advance, “not only because it is constitutionally appropriate, and not only because doing so provides the opportunity to secure bipartisan congressional support — but also because that process allows for the airing of outside perspectives that might not otherwise be considered and ensures that tough questions get answered.”

He expanded on that perspective Sunday, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, when he said that America must balance its strength with making smart strategic decisions. He did not criticize the administration as some of his colleagues have done, so much as ask for more information about the strike and urge coalition building so the United States doesn’t find itself alone as a simmering conflict heats up.

While Warner was more measured in his comments, Kaine’s statement on the strike was more pointed, worrying “this drastic escalation of hostilities — waging a military attack on Iraqi soil over the objections of that country and without congressional authorization — will increase the threat to American troops, diplomats and families in the region.”

Those are fair concerns to express when one represents Virginia, home to tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors who would be asked to fight a war with Iran or engage in intensified conflict with that country’s proxy militias.

But Kaine’s argument that the strike occurred “without congressional authorization” deserves amplification because it is the same argument he made when former President Barack Obama expanded combat operations to Syria in an effort to contain the Islamic State.

Kaine was been consistent in arguing that the executive branch has overstepped its constitutional authority by not seeking Congressional approval for these military deployments. He says approval from Congress, in legislation that authorizes the use of military force, was needed for operations outside Iraq.

Last year, Kaine argued that Congress should repeal the AUMF resolutions from 1991 and 2002 which fostered the ongoing war in that region, so that the federal legislature could debate the long-term strategy for Iraq, Syria and their neighbors as well as how to pay for it.

The senator is correct in his contention that war efforts need broad public support. They are grave undertakings — requiring a commitment of American lives and billions of dollars — and that previous AUMF votes aren’t a rubber stamp for whatever military excursion the commander-in-chief desires.

 

There is no way to predict what comes next in this episode, with both the Iranian leadership and President Trump engaging in threats and saber rattling. But the commonwealth should be proud its representatives in the Senate are asking the right questions, in the public’s interest and the Constitution’s defense.

This article was originally published in the Washington Post on 09/05/2019

As we move into the fall, there’s one overriding foreign policy priority for the United States: Find a strategy to deal with a rising China that protects U.S. interests but doesn’t subvert the global economy.

China is the challenge of our time, and the risks of getting it wrong are enormous. Huawei, the Shenzen-based communications powerhouse, argues in a slick new YouTube video that its critics want to create a new Berlin Wall. That’s not true — Huawei and other Chinese tech companies have allegedly been stealing intellectual property for years and are finally being held accountable — but there’s a real danger that the United States will talk itself into a digital cold war that lasts for decades.

We are at a crossroads: At a conference on U.S.-China relations last month at the University of California at San Diego, a Chinese participant offered a blunt prediction about the future: “We think we are heading toward a partial decoupling of our relationship.” Trump administration officials argue that China has been decoupling itself — denying access to Western firms, even as the United States and its allies provided technology, training and market access.

But what comes next? Trump administration officials hope that progress toward a trade deal might happen at last, now that a meeting with a senior Chinese official has been set for October. But Myron Brilliant, who runs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s international programs, cautions, “There’s a trust deficit between Washington and Beijing that needs to be restored before there’s progress.”

President Trump reiterated on Wednesday that the administration plans to deny Huawei access to U.S. technology. “It’s a national security concern,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “Huawei is a big concern of our military, of our intelligence agencies, and we are not doing business with Huawei.” That leaves a little wiggle room, but not much.

White House officials tell me the Chinese are mistaken if they think the administration is seeking to cripple China technologically. Officials say their goal isn’t a rerun of the anti-Soviet strategy of containment but something more flexible. One administration official says his colleagues sometimes refer to this still-unnamed strategy simply as “the noun.”

The Trump administration’s problem is that it has gutted the national security process that could devise a systematic plan for dealing with China. Instead, policy is highly personalized and shaped by Trump’s erratic decision-making style. “President Trump is our desk officer on China,” says Michael Pillsbury, an informal White House adviser on Asia policy. Strange as it sounds, that’s probably accurate.

This administration’s sharp policy debates on China strategy are exacerbated because there’s no decision-making process to resolve them. On one side are China hawks such as White House trade adviser Peter Navarro; on the other are would-be dealmakers such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. In the middle is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who seems to have an instinct for where Trump will eventually land.

“On no issue is the lack of a policy process more visible or dramatic than China,” says Kurt Campbell, who oversaw Asia policy during the Obama administration. He contrasts how the presidents of the world’s two superpowers spent the last weeks of summer. Chinese President Xi Jinping met with top party officials at a beach resort and emerged with a new honorific, the “People’s Leader.” Trump spent those weeks in very public and sometimes self-destructive Twitter barrages, at home and abroad.

Trump has a simple four-word summary of his China baseline, notes one administration official: “Xi is my friend.” Personal diplomacy has its uses, but it’s no substitute for clear policy.

Framing a real China strategy should be Job No. 1 for Trump (and his successor in 2021, if Trump is defeated). Pillsbury described the scope of the challenge in the title of his 2016 book, “The Hundred-Year Marathon.” He told me this week: “We need to change the trajectory that we’re on now. That means running faster and slowing them down.” That’s a good formulation, but both goals require disciplined U.S. policy — something in short supply.

Making good decisions about China (and, implicitly, about the future of global technology) requires a sound U.S. policymaking structure. The best idea I’ve heard is a bipartisan bill introduced this year by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), which would create a new “Office of Critical Technologies and Security” to oversee decisions about China and other key countries.

Trump was right to take the China trade and technology problem more seriously than his predecessors. But the time for Twitter diplomacy and deals with “my friend” Xi is over. U.S. moves on this chessboard should be guided by clear planning, not whim.

This article was originally published in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph on 08/29/2019

TAZEWELL, Va. — Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., made a dramatic entrance into the Back of the Dragon headquarters in Tazewell Wednesday afternoon.

Jamie Cartwright, who works at the headquarters, drove him in riding shotgun in her “slingshot.”

“This is pretty darn cool,” Warner said as he exited the three-wheel convertible. “Compared to my day job, if we could have kept on riding it would be much more fun.”

Warner made a stop in Tazewell on his seven-day trip across the commonwealth.

Standing in front of the Back of the Dragon’s own 15-ft. dragon installed recently beside the headquarters, he spoke to a crowd gathered for the visit.

Warner praised the two men, Larry Davidson and Danny Addison, whose vision and work created the Back of the Dragon concept and fought for a state designation of the 32-mile trip to Marion across three mountains on winding Rt. 16, which is now bringing tens of thousands of motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts to the area.

They should be commended for helping bring people to the area and the tourism dollars that follow, he said. “As Larry was saying, it’s not about him, it’s about bringing the whole community together.”

The tourism industry is here to stay, he said, and “we’re not going to see some company come in and buy Back of the Dragon and ship it to China.”

Warner said he always enjoys seeing how Tazewell is growing.

“There have been challenges but I think you guys have turned the corner,” he said, adding that during his visits to the area when he was Governor he usually bought a check but it doesn’t work that way with the federal government where it’s much more difficult to get anything done.

“I would love to come here and give you a report on all the great positive things that are happening in Washington,” he said. “Let me give you that report.”

Then he stood silently. “All right, end of that report.”

“It is sometimes kind of frustrating,” Warner said, as elected officials in Washington spend too much trying to “run each other down” rather than working together to accomplish what is needed.

Warner touched on several topics and answered questions.

He said he is continuing to work on making sure Black Lung benefits won’t disappear and one reason is it’s still a problem for working miners and “we’ve seen an uptick” in cases.

The recent sudden layoffs when Blackjewel Mines went bankrupt, which impacted many miners in Southwest Virginia and left them without benefits or even a paycheck, demonstrated a situation that should not happen, he said.

“Workers should not be at the back of the line when a company goes under,” he said. “Bankruptcy laws need to change so employees come first, not at the back of the line (for money the company may owe debtors).”

Warner also said the federal government has made strides in fighting the opioid crisis, but “issues of addiction are not going away soon … We need to treat addiction as a health care issue.”

He said being a former addict should not impact a person’s ability to find a job.

“We need to make sure federal and state funding continues to be available (to fight drug addiction),” he said.

Other initiatives Warner said he is continuing to address include working with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) on making sure miners receive the benefits they deserve.

Manchin has led the way with this, he said, and all they want now is for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to allow a vote on the issue.

He also wants to fight outside election interference in American elections with stricter social media identifications and paper ballots as backups if there is a problem at polling stations.

Warner said he is not ready to support any of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020.

“I’m going to wait for awhile and see how it shakes out,” he said. “I get worried with Mr. Trump how he disrespects the rule of law and what he is doing to our reputation around the country so I look forward to supporting the Democrat. But I get worried when either political party goes to the extreme.”

On his own possible aspirations for the job, he said this year was not a time for him to throw his hat into the ring.

“I think we need folks in the Senate to work with both parties and I didn’t feel like it was my time,” he said.

“We are very glad to have the Senator here today,” Davidson said. “We feel that’s a very positive factor that we can be recognized for all the hard work that we are doing and our goal is to make this the hub of the motorcycle and sports car communities not only in Southwest Virginia but in the Eastern United States.”

Mike Hymes, Tazewell County Southern District supervisor, said Warner is a long-time friend and he looks out for working people.

“Sen. Warner has always been a friend to Tazewell County and Southwest Virginia,” he said. “He understands working people and he understands the problems that coal miners have. He has always been able to reach across the aisles and get things done.”

Hymes said Warner demonstrated his frustration in Washington when everyone has to be on one team or another.

“He’s on our team,” he said. “We need to keep him on it.”

Eastern District Supervisor Charlie Stacy was on hand and said the visit is good for the area.

“We are tickled to have the Senator come down and see our Back of the Dragon display,” he said, referring to the giant dragon that has proven to be popular. “It’s been a wonderful tourist attraction. Every time I have been here you have people stopping and lining up for photos with the dragon. That’s exactly what we want. We want people coming to Tazewell County.”

Stacy said the Back of the Dragon trail continues to be a big draw to ride on “and we hope to bring more people here to ride on it.”

“It was great having Sen. Warner here with us to see all of the great economic development going on,” said A.J. Robinson, interim tourism director for Tazewell County. “Obviously, the Back of the Dragon brings a tremendous amount of motorcycles to our region and we are happy to have him here to show him what we are doing.”

Tazewell Town Manager Todd Day said it was a “wonderful event” and Warner has always been a friend to the region.

“He’s bringing some inspiration to the community,” he said.

“Anytime we get exposure for the Back of the Dragon or any our attractions in Southwest Virginia it’s a good thing for us, it’s a good thing for the community,” said David Woodard, executive director of the Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority and chair of the Tazewell County School Board. “It’s also good for economic development.”

Americans are Drowning in $1.5 Trillion of Student Loan Debt. There's One Easy Way Congress Could Help
By Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD)
in TIME

Every summer, college graduates around the country don their caps and gowns in celebration of a job well done, with the hopes of using their degrees to propel them into a successful career.

But for many young Americans entering the workplace, that first job will also bring with it the first payment on tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt — debt that can take them decades to pay off.

While college is certainly not the only path to a good job, the fact is more than half of all jobs paying over $35,000 require a bachelor’s degree or higher — and that number is only expected to grow.

Americans are following the money. Today more than 44 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt, which has become the one of the biggest consumer debt categories. All told, student debt in the U.S. now totals more than $1.5 trillion.

For South Dakotans, more than 109,000 borrowers hold $3.3 billion in total outstanding federal student loan debt, according to recent data from the Department of Education. That averages out to more than $30,000 per borrower. In Virginia, more than 1 million borrowers hold $38 billion in total outstanding debt. Across America, it’s estimated that the average borrower has more than $37,000 in debt, while more than 2 million student loan borrowers owe $100,000 or more — and these figures continue to rise.

As a result of this growing student debt crisis, many borrowers struggle to pay for day-to-day necessities like rent, groceries or car payments. For others, their student debt stands in the way of buying a home, starting a business or pursuing a new career opportunity.

While the federal government already provides some assistance to those who are eligible, much more can be done to help graduates responsibly pay down their student debt and help employers recruit and retain qualified candidates for good-paying jobs.

That is why we introduced the bipartisan Employer Participation in Repayment Act. Employers can already contribute up to $5,250 each year tax free to help cover the education expenses of students who are working while taking classes. Our legislation would expand this benefit to allow employers to provide the same tax-free contributions to their employees who are no longer in school and help them pay down their student loan debt. Right now, borrowers pay taxes on any contributions their employer makes toward their student loans. Our bill would help employees pay down their student debt more quickly and put more of their hard-earned money toward buying a home, starting a business, or saving for the future.

This is an obvious benefit for graduates, but it would also give employers a new tool and benefit option that would help them attract and retain top-level talent. This is a win-win scenario for graduates, for businesses and for the American economy.

We know this bipartisan legislation isn’t a silver bullet. More must be done to bring down the cost of higher education and expand opportunities for those Americans who choose not to go to college. But for the millions of Americans currently saddled with student debt, our bill would begin to ease that burden almost immediately.

Our bill can pass Congress and get the president’s signature this year. With more than one-third of both the House and the Senate signed on as cosponsors and a wide variety of endorsing stakeholder groups, our bill has earned the type of consensus support that’s not easily found in Washington these days. Several major companies have already committed to introducing student loan repayment benefits if Congress steps up and makes this fix. Let’s give employees the chance to take them up on the offer.

By working together in support of this bill, Democrats and Republicans can help give student borrowers some relief and put them on the pathway to success.

A bipartisan proposal to boost rural America

By Sen. Mark R. Warner

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the rise of globalization and new technologies dramatically changed our nation’s economy. Small towns once home to thriving factories, plants, and mills saw entire industries disappear along with many jobs, and the families who relied on them to put food on the table. These losses were later compounded by the Great Recession, which hit rural areas particularly hard.

While the economic recovery that began earlier this decade has brought prosperity to some, the growth hasn’t been spread evenly. Here in Virginia, many of the counties that lost businesses during the recession have not made up those losses — and most of those counties are in rural areas. That’s part of the reason why traditional economic indicators like a booming stock market and strengthening GDP growth don’t always reflect the financial reality of everyday Americans.

Despite the many challenges they have faced, folks in rural communities across the country have been banding together and working to revive the towns and neighborhoods they grew up in.

I’ve seen firsthand examples of this throughout Virginia, in places such as the Danville River District, where entrepreneurs, with the help of federal economic development tools such as the historic tax credit, are revitalizing old buildings and opening up restaurants, breweries, and high-tech companies, among a host of other new ventures launched in the last several years.

However, too many communities across our Commonwealth still face a shortage of investment and opportunity. Even as our larger cities grow and expand, we simply can’t afford to leave our smaller and more rural towns behind.

That’s why I was proud to work recently with a bipartisan group of Senators to write and introduce the Rural Jobs Act. Instead of Washington trying to reinvent the wheel, this legislation tackles the issue of rural job creation head-on, using tools we already know to be effective at expanding economic opportunities.

Our legislation will build on the success of an existing program known as the New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) to kick-start rural economies in Virginia and across the nation, increasing the flow of private dollars to distressed and underserved areas. Currently, the NMTC program gives private investors a modest tax incentive to encourage them to invest in low-income areas. This program has already been proven beneficial for both investors and the communities where they create jobs and build new businesses. In fact, every taxpayer dollar used for the NMTC generates eight times that amount in private investment.

Since its creation in 2003, the NMTC has spurred $1.4 billion in private investment here in Virginia. In Roanoke, for example, the NMTC has supported job-creating renovations at the Claude Moore Culinary School and the Roanoke City Market.

But while the NMTC has created thousands of jobs across the Commonwealth, the truth is, this program could be doing more to support economic growth in less-urban areas.

That’s where our bill comes in. Many Virginians in rural towns are eager to see their communities flourish with innovative businesses. But too often they’re at a disadvantage when competing with larger municipalities. Our legislation would level that playing field.

The Rural Jobs Act would fuel investment in distressed towns throughout Virginia by setting aside $ 1 billion in NMTC funds over two years specifically for areas designated as Rural Job Zones – low-income rural census tracts with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants.

Virginia would have more qualified census tracts than almost any other state, giving towns across Southside and Southwest Virginia an extra boost to help attract business and spur economic development. Importantly, the Rural Jobs Act would work alongside other economic development tools, like the already-successful historic and low-income housing tax credits, and newer ideas, like the “opportunity zones” that were part of the 2017 tax bill, to jumpstart growth across rural America.

The New Markets Tax Credit has already helped create more than 14,500 Virginia jobs. The Rural Jobs Act will help build on this success and make sure rural communities are able to take full advantage of the business-friendly environment for which Virginia is nationally recognized.