Sunday, May 31, 2009

Considered Forthwith: Senate Judiciary Committee

Welcome to the tenth installment of "Considered Forthwith."

This weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies. If you want to read previous dairies in the series, search using the "forthwith" tag or use the link on my blogroll. I welcome criticisms and corrections in the comments.

This week I will look at the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The committee's jurisdiction is very similar to the House Judiciary Committee (the Forthwith diary is posted here). There is one big difference, though. The Senate committee gets to hold hearings on judicial confirmations, so this seems timely.

Additionally, the committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on an important gay rights/immigration bill (see Uniting American Families Act below).

Note: last week I mentioned that the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will likely get the Cap and Trade bill. It turns out that the Environment and Public Works Committee has jurisdiction on global warming legislation. However, there is a an argument for sending it to either committee. This might wind up as a multiple referral.

Here are the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Democrats: Patrick Leahy, Chairman, Vermont; Herb Kohl, Wisconsin; Dianne Feinstein, California; Russ Feingold, Wisconsin; Chuck Schumer, New York; Dick Durbin, Illinois; Ben Cardin, Maryland; Ron Wyden, Oregon; Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island; Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota; Ted Kaufman, Delaware; Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania

Republicans: Jeff Sessions, Ranking Member, Alabama; Orrin Hatch, Utah; Chuck Grassley, Iowa; Jon Kyl, Arizona; Lindsey Graham, South Carolina; John Cornyn, Texas; Tom Coburn, Oklahoma

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (hey, if the wingnuts insist on using President Obama's middle name) is only the ranking member temporarily. When the 112th Congress convenes, Grassley will take over the ranking member post (assuming he gets reelected) or the chairmanship if the Democrats manage to lose a net of 11 Senate seats. In 2012, the plan is for Sessions to take the ranking member spot on the Budget Committee while Grassley will give up his spot on the Finance Committee to take over on the Judiciary Committee. If you haven't guessed, Senators only get to chair or serve as ranking member one committee at a time. Additionally, there are term limits on the seats and the leadership position assignments are typically based on seniority. CQ Politics had the full explanation here.


The Senate Judiciary Committee's jurisdiction is nearly identical to the House Judiciary Committee's jurisdiction. I could not find an explicit statement of the committee's jurisdiction on their website, so this one is from the Center for Responsive Politics (better known as

Apportionment of Representatives; bankruptcy, mutiny, espionage, and counterfeiting, civil liberties; constitutional amendments; Federal courts and judges; Government information; holidays and celebrations; immigration and naturalization; interstate compacts generally; judicial proceedings, civil and criminal, generally; local courts in the territories and possessions; claims against the United States; national penitentiaries; Patent Office; patents, copyrights, and trademarks; protection of trade and commerce against unlawful restraints and monopolies; revision and codification of the statutes of the United States; and state and territorial boundary lines.

I listed the House Judiciary Committee's jurisdiction in this diary. This diary will focus on two main differences: apportionment of representatives and nomination hearings. Under the Constitution, the Senate is solely responsible for approving appointments under the advise and consent clause.

Nomination Hearings

Right now, we are all excited Sonia Sotomayor's upcoming confirmation hearing. Obviously, this will be important, but the committee deals with a lot of nominations every year. Specifically, there are 875 federal judicial positions nationwide that are subject to Senate confirmation. These are lifetime appointments. In addition, the committee holds hearings for a number of top positions in the Executive Branch.

Granted, the SCOTUS nominations are important. However, the publicity is overblown in comparison to the other nominations. During the Bush era, many of the judges who were appointed to the federal bench were as wingnutty as the President himself and that will probably be his legacy. Consider this reporting from the LA Times:

"Some of the appeals courts will be quite far to the right for a generation to come. So why is the Senate rushing to confirm as many of these terrible nominees as possible?" asked Simon Heller, a lawyer for the Alliance for Justice, a liberal advocacy group.

He gives the Republicans more credit than the Democrats for adhering to the party line. "Republican senators have voted in lock step to confirm every judge that Bush has nominated. The Democrats have often broken ranks," he said.

Conservatives tend to agree on that point. They say the ideological makeup of the courts has grown into a major issue on the right, and it has brought Republicans together, whether they are social conservatives, economic conservatives or small-government libertarians.

The important point to remember is that the Supreme Court typically considers less than 100 of the thousands of cases that they receive each year. (Incidentally, the court clerks have a large influence on which cases are even considered.) This means that the rulings of the District Appeals Courts are often the final word on questions of law.

On the other hand, this guy was a Bush nominee, too.

The next section will examine the nomination processes for judicial and executive appointments. These will be brief descriptions, but full rundowns are available here and here. This nomination process is part of the "checks and balances" and "separation of powers" that your high school civics teacher talked about.

The process for judicial nominations: The committee handles appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Courts of Appeals, U.S. District Courts, and the Court of International Trade.

The first step is for the president (in consultation with his/her advisers) to name a nominee. This is also part of the separation of powers. Congress cannot pick their preferred nominee; they can only approve or deny the president's choice. The nominations are then automatically referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The next step is for the committee to collect information about the nominee. The nominee is expected to submit answers to a questionnaire, which is not unlike an indepth resume. The questionnaire that Sotomayor must fill out is here (pdf link).

The committee also receives ratings from the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary. These ratings evaluate a nominee's integrity, competence, and temperament. They say nothing about political leanings or philosophy.

Finally, the Senators from the nominee's home state receive blue slips. The Senators use these blue slips to indicate their support for or opposition to holding a hearing on a nominee. This is part of the "Senatorial Courtesy" tradition. The committee's website indicates that "the return of a positive "blue slip" is not a commitment by either home state Senator to support or oppose, a pending nomination." However, a lack of support from one's own Senator can seriously undermine a nominee's appointment to a lower court. The point is that the committee cannot possibly know everything about every judge in the country and Senate is willing to defer to the opinion of the members who would know the local judges. Indeed:

Throughout the nation's history, appointments to judicial posts below the Supreme Court have generated little controversy. This has been due in part to the large number of such appointments and to the tradition of "senatorial courtesy," which defers to the preferences of senators belonging to the president's party who represent a particular nominee's home state.

Blue slips and Senatorial Courtesy are not a consideration with a Supreme Court nomination since the high court has jurisdiction over the entire country and not just a part of a state or a few states.

The next step -- however unofficial -- is for the media, special interest groups, other Senators, and now the blogoshere to go bat shit crazy about the nominee. Perceived opponents scramble to find that one nugget of bad information that will sink the nominee while supporters scream that the attacks are untrue and/or irrelevant. This phase applies to SCOTUS nominees only; other nominees are usually allowed to fly under the radar.

Next is the actual hearing, if requested, before the full committee. For obvious reasons, hearings are always held for Supreme Court nominees. This is the real power of the committee and the advantage of seniority. The character of the questioning influences public opinion and more importantly the opinions of Senators. For example, between the pre-hearing framing and the intense questioning, Robert Bork never really had a chance at confirmation. It's probably worth mentioning that Bork on the court would be a disaster for Progressives, but there's no arguing that the term "borked" has become a term for character assassination due to the intense questioning he went through. Another example is the Clarance Thomas hearings. Anita Hill's allegations that Thomas sexually harassed her did not stop the nomination, but it did start the national conversation about sexual harassment.

As for the seniority issue, members of the committee question nominees and other witnesses in order of seniority, alternating between the parties. That means Arlen Specter gets to go dead last. Had he not switched parties, we would have gone second. Basically, the Senator with the least seniority is stuck rehashing questions that have already been asked or asking the nominee his or her cat's name. Even if the most junior member has an important question to pose, the media has already written their stories and passed judgment on the nominee based on earlier interrogation.

After the hearing, members may submit follow up questions. These followups fly under the radar unless a member decides to make a big deal about it. The committee then votes on the nomination. If the committee votes in favor of the nomination, it is reported to the full Senate for a final vote. Of course, we are aware that the GOP is confused whether or not it is a good idea to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee.

The Supreme Court nomination hearings are typically slated for early to mid September after Congress reconvenes after Labor Day so that the nomination is confirmed before the court's start date of Oct. 1.

Executive nominations: The process for Executive Branch nominations is similar procedurally to those for the Judicial Branch. The difference is that there are no blue slips, questionnaires, or ratings from private organizations. Some of the key posts the committee considers include attorney general; assistant secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and director of Citizenship and Immigration Service within Homeland Security; the directors of FBI, ATF, U.S. Marshalls, DEA; and 93 U.S. Attorneys and 94 U.S. Marshals. Here is the full list.

Apportionment of Representatives

This is one of those things that literally only comes up once a decade. Following the decennial census the 435 seats in the House are divided among the states so that each member of the House represents approximately the same number of people. With population movements, Northeastern states have been losing House seats while the South and Southwest have been gaining seats. This is typically a fairly mechanical process, but this is the committee that gets the final say.

Of course, there is the possibility that the committee may have to make some close calls. For example, if Utah and California have an equal claim to another Representative, a Democratically controlled committee would probably be inclined to award the seat to reliably Blue California. It is later up to the states to gerrymander draw the new congressional districts.

Uniting American Families Act

This is an important bill that falls under the Judicial Committee's jurisdiction. On Wednesday June 3 at 10 a.m., the full committee will hold a hearing on the Uniting American Families Act. Under current U.S. law, American citizens may sponsor their spouses for citizenship. Same sex couples do not have the same right. The Uniting American Families Act would remedy this. This is one of things that we should publicize and contact our Senators about. Of course, this is also an opportunity for the GOP to pull the ever elusive homophobia/xenophobia two-fer. I'm going to tune in.


There are seven subcommittees under the full committee. Unlike many other committees, the Judiciary Committee does not have a specific oversight subcommittee. Instead, the various committees conduct oversight within their own jurisdictions. Here are the subcommittee leaders and jurisdictions.

Administrative Oversight and the Courts: Sheldon Whitehouse is the chair and Jeff Sessions is the ranking member. The jurisdiction is:

(1) Court administration and management; (2) Judicial rules and procedures; (3) Creation of new courts and judgeships; (4) Bankruptcy; (5) Administrative practices and procedures; (6) Legal reform and liability issues; (7) Oversight of the Department of Justice grant programs, as well as government waste and fraud; (8) Private relief bills other than immigration; (9) Oversight of the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission.

Regarding point 8, a private bill is legislation that only applies to one person or a small group of people. For example, if Congress decides that you (and only you) are allowed to grow marijuana, Congress would pass a private bill to that effect.

Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights: Herb Kohl is the chair and Orrin Hatch is the ranking member. Their jurisdiction is:

(1) Oversight of antitrust law and competition policy, including the Sherman, Clayton and Federal Trade Commission Acts; (2) Oversight of antitrust enforcement and competition policy at the Justice Department; (3) Oversight of antitrust enforcement and competition policy at the Federal Trade Commission; (4) Oversight of competition policy at other federal agencies.

The Constitution: Russ Feingold is the chair and Tom "I never met a hold I didn't like" Coburn is the ranking member. Their jurisdiction is:

(1) Constitutional amendments; (2) Enforcement and protection of constitutional rights; (3) Statutory guarantees of civil rights and civil liberties; (4) Separation of powers; (5) Federal-State relations; (6) Interstate compacts.

Crime and Drugs: Arlen Specter is the chair and Lindsey Graham is the ranking member. Their jurisdiction is:

(1) Oversight of the Department of Justice's (a) Criminal Division, (b) Drug Enforcement Administration, (c) Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, (d) Office on Violence Against Women, (e) U.S. Marshals Service, (f) Community Oriented Policing Services and related law enforcement grants, (g) Bureau of Prisons, (h) Office of the Pardon Attorney, (i) U.S. Parole Commission, (j) Federal Bureau of Investigation, and (k) Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, as it relates to crime or drug policy; (2) Oversight of the U.S. Sentencing Commission; (3) Youth violence and directly related issues; (4) Federal programs under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, as amended (including the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act); (5) Criminal justice and victims' rights policy; (6) Oversight of the Office of National Drug Control Policy; (7) Oversight of the U.S. Secret Service; (8) Corrections, rehabilitation, reentry and other detention-related policy; and (9) Parole and prohibition policy.

Human Rights and the Law: Richard Durbin is the chair and Tom Coburn is the ranking member. Their jurisdiction is:

(1) Human rights laws and policies; (2) Enforcement and implementation of human rights laws; (3) Judicial proceedings regarding human rights laws; and (4) Judicial and executive branch interpretations of human rights laws.

Immigration, Refugees and Border Security: Charles Shumer is the chair and John Cornyn is the ranking member. Their jurisdiction is:

(1) Immigration, citizenship, and refugee laws; (2) Oversight of the immigration functions of the Department of Homeland Security, including U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Ombudsman Citizenship and Immigration Services; (3) Oversight of the immigration-related functions of the Department of Justice, the Department of State, the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, and the Department of Labor; (4) Oversight of international migration, internally displaced persons, and refugee laws and policy; and (5) Private immigration relief bills.

Yes, these would be the border fence people.

Terrorism and Homeland Security: Ben Cardin is the chair and Jon Kyl is the ranking member. Their jurisdiction is:

(1) Oversight of anti-terrorism enforcement and policy; (2) Oversight of Department of Homeland Security functions as they relate to anti-terrorism enforcement and policy; (3) Oversight of State Department consular operations as they relate to anti-terrorism enforcement and policy; (4) Oversight of encryption policies and export licensing; and (5) Oversight of espionage laws and their enforcement.

Interestingly, the House established a separate Homeland Security Committee while the Senate handles those issues within a subcommittee.

For more information about the history of the committee, the past subcommittees (for example, the now defunct Youth Violence Subcommittee) can be found here. A history of the full committee since its founding in 1816 is available here.

A few highlights: This was the committee that debated the Missouri Compromise, handled the emergency war powers during the Civil War, and reported the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Committee, then chaired by Dixiecrat James Easton of Mississippi refused to schedule hearings on the Civil Rights Act of 1957. This prompted the Senate to bypass the committee system and bring the bill directly to the floor for debate and a vote. The committee has only held public hearings on Supreme Court nominees since 1955. Before 1916, the committee closed their investigative hearings and in the interim only a few hearings were open.

That's it for this week. Next week will probably be the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works unless news breaks about a relevant committee or someone makes a good any suggestion in the comments.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Considered Forthwith: House Energy and Commerce Committee

Welcome to the ninth installment of "Considered Forthwith."

This weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies. If you want to read previous dairies in the series, search using the "forthwith" tag. I welcome criticisms and corrections in the comments.

This week, I will examine the House Energy and Commerce Committee. There is a lot going on in this committee, including speed reading to neutralize a GOP stalling tactic.

First, here are the committee members:

Democrats: Henry Waxman, Chairman, California; John Dingell, Chair Emeritus, Michigan; Ed Markey, Massachusetts; Rick Boucher, Virginia; Frank Pallone, Jr., New Jersey; Bart Gordon, Tennessee; Bobby Rush, Illinois; Anna Eshoo, California; Bart Stupak, Michigan; Eliot Engel, New York; Gene Green, Texas; Diana DeGette, Colorado; Lois Capps, California; Michael F. Doyle, Pennsylvania; Jane Harman, California; Jan Schakowsky, Illinois; Charlie Gonzalez, Texas; Jay Inslee, Washington Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin; Mike Ross, Arkansas; Anthony Weiner, New York; Jim Matheson, Utah; G. K. Butterfield, North Carolina; Charlie Melancon, Louisiana; John Barrow, Georgia; Baron Hill, Indiana; Doris Matsui, California; Donna Christensen, Virgin Islands; Kathy Castor, Florida; John Sarbanes, Maryland; Chris Murphy, Connecticut; Zack Space, Ohio; Jerry McNerney, California; Betty Sutton, Ohio; Bruce Braley, Iowa; Peter Welch, Vermont.

Republicans: Joe Barton, Ranking Member, Texas; Ralph Hall, Texas; Fred Upton, Michigan; Cliff Stearns, Florida; Nathan Deal, Georgia; Ed Whitfield, Kentucky; John Shimkus, Illinois; John Shadegg, Arizona; Roy Blunt, Missouri; Steve Buyer, Indiana; George Radanovich, California; Joseph R. Pitts, Pennsylvania; Mary Bono Mack, California; Greg Walden, Oregon; Lee Terry, Nebraska; Mike J. Rogers, Michigan; Sue Myrick, North Carolina; John Sullivan, Oklahoma; Tim Murphy, Pennsylvania; Michael C. Burgess, Texas; Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee; Phil Gingrey, Georgia; Steve Scalise, Louisiana.

The chairman
Waxman is brand new to the chairmanship. In November he managed to take control of the committee from Dingell, who had served as chair for 28 years. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her allies quietly supported Waxman's bid under the assumption that the California Representative would be a more effective supporter of President Barack Obama's priorities, including a Cap and Trade bill, than the long-serving Representative from Michigan with ties to the automobile industry. Waxman won the chairmanship by a vote of 137-122 in the Democratic Caucus. Dingell now holds the title of chairman emeritus. According to the committee rules, that entitles him to be a non-voting ex-officio member of any subcommittee that he does not sit on.

Additionally, Dingell is the second most senior Democrat on the committee, meaning he will usually be third in line to ask questions of witnesses (after Waxman and Barton). This is important because the "five minute rule" means members may only take five minutes to question a witness. Going first means a member has a chance to make headlines by asking the tough questions before anyone else. Whereas Dingell might have a chance to ask a relevant and probing question, Peter Welch might be stuck with asking a witness his or her favorite color.

The Energy and Commerce Committee is one of the oldest standing committees (along with the Rules and the Ways and Means Committees). It also has one of the more expansive jurisdictions of the authorizing committees.

Authorizing committees handle non-appropriations bills. They have the power to set spending limits for government programs and purchases. It is then up the the appropriations committees to actually fund programs. For example, the committee recently passed a one-year program called "Cash for Clunkers" what would give Americans vouchers of up to $4,500 for trading in high polluting vehicles. If the program is approved, the appropriations committee would need to actually make money available for the program. This is part of an intra-branch system of checks and balances. Appropriators can only fund existing programs, but cannot create new ones. Authorizing committees, on the other hand can create all kinds of programs, but are at the mercy of the appropriators to get those programs funded.

As expected, the Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over most aspects of the nation's energy policy (including nuclear power) as well as interstate and foreign commerce. The commerce aspect includes several health care responsibilities including all health facilities not covered by payroll deductions (i.e. Medicare), biomedical research and development, public health, quarantine, Medicaid, SCHIP, and mental health research. The commerce aspect also covers consumer safety, the Internet, travel and tourism, sports, vehicle safety, and noise pollution.

Believe it or not, that is only scratching the surface of the jurisdiction. The full rundown is here.

The cap and trade speed reader
Also referred to as "Cap and Trade" the Waxman-Markey Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 was the focus of Thursday's hearing (actually a mark up) that featured that speed reader you may have heard about. The merits and flaws of cap and trade are a topic for another diary, though I generally support it as a first step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead, here's the deal with the speed reader. Barton tried a cheap procedural stunt to kill a bill that has overwhelming support in the House and the committee. In order to make a bill a part of the official proceedings, the clerk must read the bill into the record. That was fine in the early days of Congress when bills might be three pages long. The cap and trade bill was 946 pages, including the major amendments the minority was planning to introduce. These days, presiding officers routinely make a motion that the "reading of the bill be dispensed with" which normally passes with unanimous consent to save time.

Barton decided he wanted the 900+ pages read in the hopes that the supporters would just leave, (resulting in a lack of quorum) and/or Waxman would just give up and adjourn the meeting. Basically, he was angling for a House version of a filibuster.

Since one cheap political stunt deserves another, the committee hired Douglas Wilder to act as the committee's clerk and read the bill as quickly as possible. In fairness, Barton did say at the hearing that he was planning to agree to dispense with the reading, but he seemed interested in hearing the young man actually do it. Wilder went on for about half a minute and got applause before Barton relented.

Via Talking Points Memo, here is the video:

What was much more troubling was the 400+ amendments that the Republicans dreamed up to throw at the bill. Most of them failed, but they did cause the meeting to last 16 hours. The bill was reported from committee (i.e. it passed) by a vote of 33-25 with four Democrats voting against and one Republican (Bono-Mack) voting in favor. The bill will probably pass the House, but will face a committee markup and cloture vote in the Senate.

Other recent issues
One of the other more significant bills that the committee handled recently was the federal expansion of SCHIP by $33 billion. This program, run by states with federal assistance, helps to cover health care for children of low income families. The increase is funded by a new tax on cigarettes (so keep smoking for the good of the kids). This was the same bill that George W. Bush vetoed (one of only ten vetoes he exercised), which allowed us to mock him for hating children. On a related note, anyone with kids should look into this program as some states are fairly generous with guidelines for defining "low income."

On May 1, the committee met to discuss the state of college football's Bowl Championship Series and calls for a playoff system. This is a huge debate with fans; most other people could care less. To wit: three members of the committee showed up for it. Read all about it at, if you care.

Other recent issues have included U.S.-Cuba trade relations, the federal response to Swine Flu, secrecy surrounding a fatal explosion at a Bayer chemical plant, Cybersecurity, and several hearings about health care. Unfortunately, there are no future hearings listed on the committee's calendar and I hope that is due to the holiday break.

As I pointed out last week, if health care reform happens via the reconciliation process, several committees in both chambers will have a say in the process. Furthermore, even if health care reform is handled without reconciliation, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Rules will all be key players in the House. Energy and Commerce's role, of course, will be in coverage for children and any revisions to Medicaid.

When (if) the health care reform debate gains traction in Congress, it is very likely that members of the committees involved will be asked to sit on a select committee, similar to the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Most select committee may only make recommendations on legislation and may not actually report a bill to the floor. On the other hand, the work of a select committee can become the basis for future law. Stay tuned on this one.

Taking it a step further, when (if) health care reform actually passes, there will be an inter-committee turf war/power struggle between the Ways and Means Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee over which one gets jurisdiction over a nationwide health insurance program. We might get extremely lucky and one committee will concede the jurisdiction to the other, but that is highly unlikely since that is the same as surrendering power. It's hardly the most pressing issue of the debate, but one that could hijack the whole damned thing.

There are five subcommittees under the full committee. The chair and ranking member are ex-officio members with voting privileges of all subcommittees to which they are not assigned. The chair emeritus is a non-voting ex-officio member of the subcommittees on which he is not a member. This means Dingell can question witnesses and join the debate, but not vote on amendments and final reporting.

Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection: Bobby L. Rush of Illinois is the chair and George Radanovich of California is the ranking member. Here is the full membership list. The jurisdiction is as follows:

1. Interstate and foreign commerce, including all trade matters within the jurisdiction of the full committee;
2. Regulation of commercial practices (the Federal Trade Commission), including sports-related matters;
3. Consumer affairs and consumer protection, including privacy matters generally; consumer product safety (the Consumer Product Safety Commission); and product liability; and motor vehicle safety;
4. Regulation of travel, tourism, and time; and,
5. Toxic substances and noise pollution.

That's pretty self explanatory, but I am wondering which member has the ability to regulate time. Maybe Bobby Rush is a Time Lord from Gallifrey. (In fairness, this provision probably has to do with Daylight Savings Time, but the second someone goes and develops time travel, this committee is going to be very busy.)

Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet: The subcommittee is chaired by Rick Boucher of Virginia and Cliff Stearns of Florida is the ranking member. The full membership list is here.

The jurisdiction is simple, but inclusive:

Interstate and foreign telecommunications including, but not limited to all telecommunication and information transmission by broadcast, radio, wire, microwave, satellite, or other mode.

In other words, these are the people you can complain to the next time someone flashes a breast for half a second during the Super Bowl or a troll starts mucking about in your blog post.

Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment: Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts is the chair and Fred Upton of Michigan is the ranking member. The full membership list is here. Markey is also chair of the select committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

The subcommittee's jurisdiction is as follows:

1. National energy policy generally;
2. Fossil energy, renewable energy resources and synthetic fuels; energy conservation; energy information; energy regulation and utilization;
3. Utility issues and regulation of nuclear facilities;
4. Interstate energy compacts;
5. Nuclear energy and waste;
6. Superfund, RCRA, and the Safe Drinking Water Act;
7. The Clean Air Act; and,
8. All laws, programs, and government activities affecting such matters.

The committee recognizes that energy and environmental protection are necessarily intertwined. Energy production (i.e. coal power plants, nuclear reactors, oil and natural gas exploration) and consumption (i.e. driving, heating and air conditioning) have direct effects on the environment. Therefore, energy and environmental policy should be considered in tandem rather than in separate vacuums. Yes, sometimes government is efficient and intelligent.

Subcommittee on Health
: Frank Pallone, Jr. of New Jersey is the chair and Nathan Deal of Georgia is the ranking member. Here is the full membership list.

Again, the jurisdiction is straight forward, but encompassing:

1. Public health and quarantine; hospital construction; mental health and research; biomedical programs and health protection in general, including Medicaid and national health insurance;
2. Food and drugs; and,
3. Drug abuse.

Highlighting is mine. Hint: here are some members to track and contact when health care reform hearings start. Considering the pretty specific mention of "national health insurance" in the jurisdiction, this subcommittee will likely end up with authority over any future programs and policies.

Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations: Bart Stupak of Michigan is the chair and Greg Walden of Oregon is the ranking member. Here is the full membership list. The subcommittee's jurisdiction is:

Responsibility for oversight of agencies, departments, and programs within the jurisdiction of the full committee, and for conducting investigations within such jurisdiction.

I could not locate a full list of the Executive Branch agencies that fall under the oversight provision. However, some of the obvious ones include Department of Energy, Commerce Department, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Communications Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Consumer Product Safety Commission. Any additions would be welcome.

That's it for this week. Next week will likely be the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources since they will deal with Cap and Trade soon enough.

Crossposted at Daily Kos, Congress Matters, and Docudharma.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Another plea for support

Well, I didn't get the Netroots Nation scholarship in the first round, but I still have two more opportunities. If you have already supported me, thanks. But all of the supporters were reset to zero and I have to go about the business of rebuilding my support.

This scholarship is sponsored by Democracy for America and generous donors. It would allow me to attend Netroots Nation (formerly Yearly Kos) in Pittsburgh in August.

I need supporters to help me get this, so I am asking anyone so inclined to support my application. Just sign up for an account. Then go to my profile here. Click the link labeled "add your support." You can also leave a nice message if you would like.

Thanks in advance and thanks to everyone who supported me in the last round.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Considered Forthwith: House Ways and Means and reconciliation

Welcome to the eighth installment of "Considered Forthwith."

This weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies. If you want to read previous dairies in the series, search using the "forthwith" tag. I welcome criticisms and corrections in the comments.

For the next few weeks, health care reform through reconciliation will be a common theme in this series. Check out this Front Page story on Congress Matters for a description of the reconciliation process.

This week, I will look at the House Ways and Means Committee. The chair is Charlie Rangel of New York and the ranking member is Dave Camp of Michigan. In general, Ways and Means deals with tax issues, trade, Social Security, and health insurance. http://

A note on the names of committees: The Senate counterpart to the House Ways and Means Committee is the Senate Finance Committee. The Senate counterpart to the House Financial Services Committee, which deals with banking and other financial institutions, is the Senate Banking Committee.

Here are the members of the Ways and Means Committee:

Democrats: Charles B. Rangel, NY, Chairman; Fortney Pete Stark, CA; Sander M. Levin, MI; Jim McDermott, WA; John Lewis, GA; Richard E. Neal, MA; John S. Tanner, TN; Xavier Becerra, CA; Lloyd Doggett, TX; Earl Pomeroy, ND; Mike Thompson, CA; John B. Larson, CT; Earl Blumenauer, OR; Ron Kind, WI; Bill Pascrell Jr. , NJ; Shelley Berkley, NV; Joseph Crowley, NY; Chris Van Hollen, MD; Kendrick Meek, FL; Allyson Y. Schwartz, PA; Artur Davis, AL; Danny K. Davis, IL; Bob Etheridge, NC; Linda T. Sanchez, CA; Brian Higgins, NY; John A. Yarmuth, KY

Republicans: Dave Camp, MI, Ranking Member; Wally Herger, CA; Sam Johnson, TX; Kevin Brady, TX; Paul Ryan, WI; Eric Cantor, VA; John Linder, GA; Devin Nunes, CA; Pat Tiberi, OH; Ginny Brown-Waite, FL; Geoff Davis, KY; Dave G. Reichert, WA; Charles W. BoustanyJr. , LA; Dean Heller, NV; Peter J. Roskam, IL

Last week, Considered Forthwith looked at the Appropriations Committee to see how Congress spends money. Conversely the Ways and Means Committee (and the Senate Finance Committee) are concerned with ways to raise money. In other words, these are the people who deal with tax policy.

The Ways and Means Committee is one of the most powerful committees owing to its broad jurisdiction, particularly its role in setting tax policy, directing entitlement programs, and overseeing international trade. Because the committee is so strong, members are not usually permitted to sit on other committees.

Constitutional authority

Article I, Section 7, of the Constitution:

All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.

Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and...To borrow Money on the credit of the United States.

16th Amendment:

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

These points are important. The Founders, or at least the Federalists among them, recognized that Representatives are more closely tied to the people. (See in particular Federalist 52-57.) This is because most legislative districts are smaller than states, so House members are closer to the people they represent. Additionally, House terms are much shorter than Senate terms. This allows the people the opportunity to vote out House members much earlier than Senators. (It is also noteworthy that Senators were selected by state legislatures until 1913.)

Therefore, the authors of the constitution decided that tax measures should originate in "the people's house." This power to write the original tax measure makes the Ways and Means Committee more powerful than the Senate Finance Committee.


The point of reconciliation is to save money and/or increase revenue. This can be done through raising taxes and fees and/or savings in entitlement programs. As I detailed last week, entitlements include Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. To clarify, Medicare covers hospital costs for elderly Americans and some disabled people. and Medicaid is a similar program for low income Americans. Social Security includes both the familiar monthly payments to retired Americans and coverage for disabled people who are not covered by veterans' benefits.

One of the jurisdictions of the Ways and Means Committee is Social Security and Medicare. Medicaid falls under the jurisdiction of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health.

Presumably, any health care reform will include reforms to Medicare and Medicaid, so these committees will play a key role in the process. By extension, that means some key players will be Ways and Means Chair Rangel, Subcommittee on Health chair Fortney Pete Stark of California, Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Henry Waxman and Subcommittee on Health Chair Frank Pallone Jr. (Hint, these are people to contact if President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decide to pursue the reconciliation route.)

As we are aware, reconciliation bills are effectively not subject to a filibuster. However, reconciliation must be undertaken to save money or raise revenue. Additionally, reconciliation instructions must be included the chamber's budget resolution in order for the process to begin and it is not used every year. (For example, the process was authorized in the 1974 budget act, but not first used until 1980.) Reconciliation instructions were included in the fiscal year 2010 House Budget Resolution, but not the Senate resolution. Regardless, with Democratic majorities in the Senate and the committees, a reconciliation bill has a good chance of passing the both the House and Senate.

So how can we say that spending money on a public health care program will reduce costs? The problem with Medicare and Medicaid is that they do not cover primary care like routine doctor visits. Many uninsured people will not see a doctor when they get sick. When their conditions worsens, a very expensive visit to the emergency room is the next step. Instead of a payment of a couple hundred dollars for a visit to a doctor to deal with a minor problem, Medicaid is paying thousands of dollars for an ER visit and hospitalization for acute cases.

Unfortunately, public health coverage does not necessarily cover all health care costs. This means that people least able to afford huge medical bills are stuck with enormous debt. This, in turn, increases the rate of personal bankruptcy. If more people are caught up in the cycle of bankruptcy and ruined credit ratings, fewer people are able to obtain credit to keep the economy rolling.

There will most likely be upfront costs associated with health care reform. However, the long-term benefit will be lower health care costs (and thus fewer payments from Medicaid/Medicaid or whatever program emerges) and fewer personal bankruptcies. For a more in depth discussion of this rationale, check out this old diary of mine.

(On a personal note, I used to work at a job that required me to run credit checks. The single largest reason for ruined credit was unpaid medical bills.)

The full breakdown of the committee's jurisdiction is available here. Here's the highlights and I will get into the meat more in the subcommittees section.

The committee handles legislation related to taxation, both new laws and revisions to the existing tax code.

As noted above, the committee handles any changes to the Social Security and Medicare laws. In addition, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF is a block grant to states that is used to encourage people to transition from welfare to work. Recipients must work while receiving the assistance and payments are limited to five years. There are also incentives to encourage marriage to reduce "non marital births." I do have some problems with this. For one thing, there is the danger that people will marry for money, not love. For another, same sex marriage is obviously not included.

Tariff and international trade legislation also falls under the committee's jurisdiction. This covers trade agreements like NAFTA, customs, import restrictions and dumping, grants of normal trade relations status, and budget authorization for international trade organizations.

The committee also has jurisdiction over laws covering a number of child protection programs. These include adoption assistance (including adoption of special needs kids), child support payments, foster care, and child welfare.

Finally, the committee has jurisdiction over unemployment compensation programs and low income energy assistance.

That's fairly comprehensive and illustrates the importance of this committee.

Powers no longer retained by the committee
Since the Ways and Means Committee was established as a standing committee in 1802, the jurisdiction of the committee has changed several times. Two key changes occurred in 1865, when appropriations was taken from the committee and given to the newly formed Appropriations Committee, and in 1974 when the committee ceased to appoint members of other committees. That power is now retained by the parties. Specifically, the House Democratic Steering Committee controls committee assignments for the party and the Republicans have a similar committee to make their own assignments.

There are six subcommittees under the House Ways and Means committee.

Subcommittee on Trade. Sander Levin of Michigan is the chair and Kevin Brady of Texas is the ranking member. As the name indicates, this subcommittee deals with the international trade bills handled by the committee. The formal jurisdiction is available here.

Subcommittee on Oversight. John Lewis of Georgia is the chair and Charles W. Boustany Jr. of Louisiana is the ranking member. Like most of the other committees, Ways and Means has an oversight subcommittee that investigate allegations of wrong-doing in the Executive Branch and monitor their activities. The subcommittee's oversight functions include, but are not limited to, the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration. The committee chair and the chair of any other committee with jurisdiction must approve any hearings or investigations of the subcommittee. In other words, if Rangel doesn't want an investigation, it won't happen. The full jurisdiction is described here.

Subcommittee on Health. Pete Stark of California is the chair and Wally Herger of California is the ranking member. This is the subcommittee that deals with health care, health delivery systems, and health research. Hint: this is the subcommittee that would deal with health care reform. Chairman Stark is very supportive of health care reform and is not enamored of the high levels of military spending. Also see this recent press release from the committee's website addressing the long term solvency of Madicare. Here is the full description of the subcommittee's jurisdiction.

Subcommittee on Social Security. John S. Tanner is the chair and Sam Johnson of Texas is the ranking member. This one is straight forward. They handle any bills dealing with Social Security, disability insurance and Railroad Retirement. Whenever the media decide to get paranoid about long term gloom and doom predictions about the projected year Social Security will go bankrupt, this is the subcommittee that has to deal with it. The current projection for bankruptcy is 2037. The subcommittee's jurisdiction is described here.

Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support. Jim McDermott of Washington is the chair and John Linder of Georgia is the ranking member. This is the subcommittee that deals with child protection services, adoption, TANF, welfare, food stamps, and energy assistance. The full jurisdiction is described here.

Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures. The chair is Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts and Pat Tiberi of Ohio is the ranking member. This is essentially and "other" subcommittee. The entire jurisdiction is described as:

The jurisdiction of the Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures shall consist of those revenue measures that, from time to time, shall be referred to it specifically by the Chairman of the full Committee.

Basically, if a revenue measure is referred to Ways and Means and it does not fall under the jurisdiction of any other subcommittee, this one gets the bill. All things considered, this is not typically the glamor subcommittee.

That's it for this week. Next week will probably be the House Energy and Commerce Committee. There is a lot going on there, including Medicaid and the cap and trade proposal.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Considered Forthwith: The Appropriations Committees

Welcome to the seventh installment of "Considered Forthwith."

This weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies. If you want to read previous dairies in the series, search using the "forthwith" tag. I welcome criticisms and corrections in the comments.

This week I will look at the House and Senate committees on Appropriations. With the passage of the budget resolution by the House and Senate (PDF), the Appropriations committees are starting their work. I have heard from Hill staffers that many people worked late last week to review the appropriations for fiscal year 2010.

Since the House and Senate Committees do the exact same thing, this week I will look at both committees. These are large committees. Since the main function of Congress has become spending money, a seat on the Appropriations Committee is one of the most desirable assignments. Such an assignment lets members go back to their districts and brag about their power in Washington. This, in turn, increases reelection prospects.

Here's the members of the House Appropriations Committee.

Democrats: David R. Obey, Wisconsin, Chairman; John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania; Norman D. Dicks, Washington; Alan B. Mollohan, West Virginia; Marcy Kaptur, Ohio; Peter J. Visclosky, Indiana; Nita M. Lowey, New York; José E. Serrano, New York; Rosa L. DeLauro, Connecticut; James P. Moran, Virginia; John W. Olver, Massachusetts; Ed Pastor, Arizona; David E. Price, North Carolina; Chet Edwards, Texas; Patrick J. Kennedy, Rhode Island; Maurice D. Hinchey, New York; Lucille Roybal-Allard, California; Sam Farr, California; Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., Illinois; Carolyn C. Kilpatrick, Michigan; Allen Boyd, Florida; Chaka Fattah, Pennsylvania; Steven R. Rothman, New Jersey; Sanford D. Bishop Jr., Georgia; Marion Berry, Arkansas; Barbara Lee, California; Adam Schiff, California; Michael Honda, California; Betty McCollum, Minnesota; Steve Israel, New York; Tim Ryan, Ohio; C.A "Dutch" Ruppersberger, Maryland; Ben Chandler, Kentucky; Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Florida; Ciro Rodriguez, Texas; Lincoln Davis, Tennessee; John T. Salazar, Colorado

Republicans: Jerry Lewis, California, Ranking Member; C.W. Bill Young, Florida; Harold Rogers, Kentucky; Frank R. Wolf, Virginia; Jack Kingston, Georgia; Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, New Jersey; Todd Tiahrt, Kansas; Zach Wamp, Tennessee; Tom Latham, Iowa; Robert B.Aderholt, Alabama; Jo Ann Emerson, Missouri; Kay Granger, Texas; Michael K. Simpson, Idaho; John Abney Culberson, Texas; Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois; Ander Crenshaw, Florida; Dennis R. Rehberg, Montana; John R. Carter, Texas; Rodney Alexander, Louisiana; Ken Calvert, California; Jo Bonner, Alabama; Steven C. LaTourette, Ohio; Tom Cole, Oklahoma

Notes: No, not that John Oliver nor that Jerry Lewis.

Here's the Senate Appropriations Committee:

Democrats: Daniel Inouye, Hawaii, Chairman; Robert Byrd, West Virginia
Patrick Leahy, Vermont; Tom Harkin, Iowa; Barbara Mikulski, Maryland; Herb Kohl, Wisconsin; Patty Murray, Washington; Byron Dorgan, North Dakota
Dianne Feinstein, California; Richard Durbin, Illinois; Tim Johnson, South Dakota; Mary Landrieu, Louisiana; Jack Reed, Rhode Island; Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey; Ben Nelson, Nebraska; Mark Pryor, Arkansas; Jon Tester, Montana; Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania

Republicans: Thad Cochran, Mississippi, Ranking Member; Kit Bond, Missouri; Mitch McConnell, Kentucky; Richard Shelby, Alabama; Judd Gregg, New Hampshire; Robert Bennett, Utah; Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas; Sam Brownback, Kansas; Lamar Alexander, Tennessee; Susan Collins, Maine; George Voinovich, Ohio; Lisa Murkowski, Alaska

Note: notice that Arlen Specter is listed last among the Democrats. This reflects his lost of seniority after switching parties.

Before the appropriations process

This is an opportune time to discuss the process of appropriating money. (Admittedly, I should have looked at the Budget Committees by this point since they are key players in the process as well.) As you read this, keep in mind the key date of October 1. That is the start of the fiscal year and the official deadline for the appropriations bills to pass. FY 2010 starts on Oct. 1, 2009.

Before the appropriators start their work, the budget process for the next fiscal year has been rolling for almost a year. During the summer of 2008, the Executive Branch agencies were working on budget projections for FY 2010 (really). During the fall and early winter, the president and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) negotiated a final President's budget. This year, the process was a little more complicated as the outgoing and incoming competed to get their priorities included in the budget. Of course, the Obama Administration got the better of the deal since they had the final say on the budget proposal.

Next the House and Senate budget committees received the president's budget. In brief, their role is to develop a budget resolution, which is a statement of Congress' spending priorities for the year. The resolutions set limits on discretionary spending and revenue targets. The resolutions become rules of the chamber and it is difficult, but not impossible, to authorize expenditures exceeding those limits. The resolutions do not carry the force of law since they are not sent to the president for a signature. Additionally, the House and Senate resolutions are not always identical, which can cause problems later in the process. Specifically, the appropriations bills could be radically different by the time they get to conference committee.

This is an extremely simplistic version of the process to this point. A future diary will look more closely at the Budget Committees and I might take a break from the committees to look more closely at OMB.

Cutting the Budget Pie

After the chambers pass the budget resolutions, the Appropriations Committees begin their work. This year, the appropriators have about $3.5 trillion to spend. The full committee divides the money into broad spending areas. (As an aside: federal spending falls into one of 20 different "functions." The full list is here.)

After that, the subcommittees take over.

Both appropriations committees have 12 subcommittees and every agency within the federal government receives money from one or more appropriations subcommittees in each house. Obviously, some subcommittees appropriate money to more than one functions. Additionally, some agencies receive money under more than one function. For example, the Department of Energy gets Function 270 money for "energy" and Function 250 for "General Science, Space and Technology."

During this stage, the subcommittees take testimony from agency officials, activists, lobbyists and even other members as they decide how much or how little various agencies will receive for the year. These numbers do not come out of thin air. They are guided by the president's budget, agency requests, and the budget resolution.

Behind the scenes, staffers in every members' office work overtime to review appropriations proposals, particularly the ones in the Senators' states or the Representatives' districts. The members have a better handle on necessary spending priorities locally and their testimony and informal communications with subcommittee members can save or kill individual programs.

The subcommittees produce 13 spending bills (though this number can change from year to year) which must be approved by the subcommittee. The bills then go to the full committee for possible further revision and a final committee vote. They then go to the full chamber for approval. On the House side, they go to the Rules Committee for a rule first.

Twelve of the 13 spending bills correspond directly to the subcommittee that writes them. The final bill is a separate bill for operating the District of Columbia government.

Discretionary vs. Non-discretionary spending
This is an important distinction. A little more than half of the federal government's budget is "non-discretionary spending." That represents money that the government must spend. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the other mandatory programs are entitlements. If you qualify for these programs and ask for the money, you get it.

Budget breakdown

Graphic source

And check out that outlay for interest. That is just interest on the national debt and does not touch the principal.

So the subcommittees really have less than half of the total budget to play with. Of that amount, the discretionary spending, defense expenditures amount to more than half of the total.

budget breakdown full

Graphic source

It's a Wiki, but it sources the Congressional Budget Office, so I trust it.

After the bills get out of the committees, they go through the standard Floor procedures for final approval.


I ranted about Earmarks earlier this year. In light of recent rule changes as well as my own research, I have changed my position on the issue slightly. This will probably be a special topic in this series.

Earmarks account for about one percent of the federal budget. However, they open the door to rampant corruption. This is Rep. John Murtha's problem with the now defunct PMA Group. Murtha is under investigation for allegedly taking campaign contributions from PMA and its clients and then securing earmarks for those clients. Murtha contends that the earmarks benefit his district and he would have made those earmarks regardless.

Earmarks are extra appropriations not included in the President's Budget and/or considered in the budget resolution. They are pet projects requested by individual members, almost always benefiting their districts. (Indeed, an earmark benefiting a different district will raise some eyebrows.) Since almost every member requests earmarks, they are typically passed. No member wants to risk infuriating another member by opposing opposing his/her earmarks. The iron law of reciprocity says that the opposition will be repaid in kind.

One reform is that members must report all of their earmark requests. Here is a list of links to Senators' earmark requests (and John McCain apparently has none).

Supplemental Spending

Remember when George W. Bush started his invasion and occupation of Iraq? We were going to wage a war on the cheap and pay for it all with oil revenues.

From the Jan. 10, 2003 Common Dreams article:

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the cost of an occupation would range from $12 billion to $48 billion a year, and officials believe an occupation could last 1 1/2 years or more.

Yeah, not so much.

Anyway, the war has been funded through supplemental funding and war funding is not one of those things that it is wise to cut off. When the federal government is faced with an unforeseen expense, a supplemental funding bill is required to cover those costs. This was one of those little tricks the Bush Administration used to make the budget look better than it really was. This is the equivalent of buying a mansion and not budgeting for the mortgage payments.

Regardless, the appropriations committees have jurisdiction over supplemental funding as well as the regular spending bills. oh, and Congress is STILL funding the wars through supplemental bills (PDF Link).

President Obama's budget cuts

On May 7, President Obama announced a plan to slash $17 billion in spending from the federal budget. Most of the cuts will be to programs that officials have concluded are not effective and military projects that are obsolete. The cuts affect 121 programs that benefit nearly every state.

In terms of the actual budget process, this is little more than a suggestion. The President has identified some programs that could be cut and is asking the appropriators to save some money. The total price tag of $17 billion is a lot of money, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the $3.5 trillion in proposed spending.

Politically, this will be a difficult fight. Those programs, whether effective or not, help to employ a lot of people in a lot of Congressional Districts. Senators and Representatives will have a difficult time cutting programs that benefit their districts. However, the President always has the option to veto a final budget including this spending. For better or worse, the president does not have the power to issue a line item veto, so he cannot approve the budget, but veto the offending programs.

The Traditional Media might forget about this proposal, but it will create some interesting subcommittee fights.

Continuing resolutions

Congress moves slowly, especially when they cannot agree on something. In recent years, the budget has been the central focus of political fights. This is nothing new. In the mid 1990s, the government twice shutdown after President Bill Clinton and Congressional Republicans led by Newt Gingrich (the original lizard person) failed to compromise on a budget by the Oct. 1 deadline. There are two resolutions:

Government shutdown: This is exactly what happened in the 1990s. For a brief time, the government shutdown and non-essential employees were temporarily laid off. This forced action, and it is generally accepted that Clinton came out looking better than Gingrich (who was blamed for forcing the shutdown to further his own political ends).

Continuing resolutions
: In order to avoid a potentially damaging and politically embarrassing government shutdowns, Congress has often resorted to using the continuing resolution. These resolutions fund the government at current levels if the relevant budget bill has not yet been passed. In fact, part of the government was funded by continuing resolution between Oct. 1, 2008 and March 2009 when President Obama finally signed the FY 2009 budget.

The subcommittees

This entry is already long enough without detailing all of the committees. The House subcommittees are listed on the left of the homepage. The Senate subcommittees are listed here. Click on links for jurisdictions to see which agencies are overseen by the various subcommittees.

If you are interested in a specific agency, leave a comment and I will dig up the relevant subcommittee. If you are interested in lobbying for more funding for an agency or program, contact the subcommittee or the chair of that subcommittee.

One House Subcommittee of note is the new House Appropriations Select Intelligence Oversight Panel. This subcommittee was created during the 110th Congress (the last session). The panel was recommended by the 9/11 Commission and oversees intelligence funding, including spending that is classified, also known as the Black Budget. While these hearings are largely closed, there is at least some oversight of these budgets and members now have the ability to stop questionable intelligence activities by defunding them.

The 13 member panel includes the chair and ranking member of the full committee and the defense subcommittee. In addition, there are three members who are members of the Intelligence Committee who are not members of the Appropriations Committee. More information is available at the Wiki entry. There is no equivalent committee in the Senate.

I have nothing in mind for next week. If there are any committees you have an interest in reading about, leave a comment and I will try to accommodate.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Considered Forthwith: House Intelligence Committee

Welcome to the sixth installment of "Considered Forthwith."

This weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies. If you want to read previous dairies in the series, search using the "forthwith" tag or use the link on my blogroll. I welcome criticisms and corrections in the comments.

This week, I will examine the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. This is an example of a select committee that has become a permanent fixture in the House. Select committees are usually investigative in nature, but this one also handles intelligence bills like the annual Intelligence Authorization Act.

Note: Last week, I mentioned covering the Senate Judiciary Committee. I'll get to Senate committees after the fallout has settled from the Specter party switch.

First, here are the members of the House Intelligence Committee.

Silvestre "Silver" Reyes of Texas is the chair of the committee and Peter Hoekstra of Michigan is the ranking member.

Democrats: Silvestre Reyes, Chairman, Texas; Alcee L. Hastings, Florida; Anna G. Eshoo, California; Rush D. Holt, New Jersey; C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Maryland; John Tierney, Massachusetts; Mike Thompson, California; Jan Schakowsky, Illinois; Jim Langevin, Rhode Island; Patrick Murphy, Pennsylvania; Adam Schiff, California; Adam Smith, Washington; Dan Boren, Oklahoma

Republicans: Peter Hoekstra, Ranking Member, Michigan; Elton Gallegly, California; Mac Thornberry, Texas; Mike Rogers, Michigan; Sue Myrick, North Carolina; Roy Blunt, Missouri; Jeff Miller, Florida; John Kline, Minnesota; K. Michael Conaway, Texas

Note: Yes, this Jan Schakowsky who stopped by Daily Kos in August to discuss the 2009 Intelligence Authorization Act.

Not surprisingly, there is not much available at the committee's website. I had to run a search for "Jurisdiction" just to come up with this on the FAQ page:

The Committee’s Jurisdiction is over the 1) the Intelligence community and the Director of Central Intelligence 2) Intelligence and intelligence-related activities of the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and other agencies of the Department of Defense, and the Departments of State, Justice, and Treasury. 3) The organization, or reorganization, of any department or agency to the extent that it relates to a function or activity involving intelligence or intelligence-related activities. 4) Direct and indirect authorizations for the CIA and director of Central Intelligence, the DIA, and NSA, and all other agencies and subdivisions of DOD, the Department of State, and the FBI, including all activities of the intelligence division.

What this does not say is that a central focus of the committee's work is the annual Intelligence Authorization Act, first passed in 1947. This act both sets spending priorities and addresses any changes in U.S. intelligence gathering policies. The committee issues a report with its markups each year. They are available here. Committee reports are explanations of bills that will be considered by the full chamber.

In summary, the committee has jurisdiction over all of the country's intelligence gathering activities. Obviously, the committee members deal with very sensitive information that could be detrimental if it were to become public. The FAQ is very concerned with the definition of "closed" vs. "open" meeting. The rules of the committee (PDF link) explicitly state that current and former members are forbidden from discussing any information discussed in a closed meeting or any "classified" information they receive. The committee won't even release the names of witnesses called to testify in closed meetings.

If you still don't believe it, here is a link to the committee's recent open hearings. The last one listed was April 1 regarding "Management Issues in the Intelligence Community." There was another one on Feb. 23, but you had to look under the press releases for a mention of it. PDF link here. Before that, there were hearings on Sept. 17 and 18. Including those two, there are six hearings listed for 2008.

Thoughts on closed government

A few years ago, I quit the newspaper business to go back to school. While I was a journalist in Pennsylvania, I fought the closed government battles. There are really two facets of the fight. One is access to government records and the other is access to public meetings. Access to the government decision-making process is at stake in both situations. Without that access, citizens cannot influence the actions of their government. That influence, in turn, is at the heart of democratic theory.

Governments can take two general approaches to open records and open meetings. One approach assumes that records and meetings are open unless there is a compelling reason to close them. The other approach assumes that meetings and records are closed unless there is a reason to open them. Until recently, Pennsylvania took the latter approach to records. Meetings, conversely, have long been assumed to be open, but state and local governments are still notorious for going into "executive session" (closed door). There are several situations (legal discussions, personnel matters, real estate transactions) where the law says the meeting "can" be closed. Government boards often close the doors, even if there is no particular reason for closing the meeting. They just do it because they can.

The law makes sense. Local governments don't want legal strategies or price negotiations for land hitting the front page. Internal personnel disputes at city hall have no more business being news than the same disputes at the bank. The problem, of course, is that without independent review, information that should be public could be hidden in concealed records or discussed in closed door session.

To put this in the committee context, the committee members could be discussing anything in these meetings. Are they discussing security problems at the Pentagon that won't be fixed for two months? Could it be that they are discussing domestic spying programs? Maybe they are eating pie and reading blog posts about Georgia politicians and their mules.

The point is that there are no whistleblower opportunities. I could not track down specific penalties for members who do disclose information from closed door sessions. Members of Congress are generally allowed to disclose anything they want on the floor of the House or Senate. However, the committee has the option of "disciplining" members, presumably including dismissal from the committee.

Additionally, the committee is not likely to get members who are inclined toward releasing information that might even come close to national security issues. Go back and look at those members and try to remember the last time you saw any of them on the national news.

For an intriguing example of government secrecy, see the case of the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg, a former RAND Corp. employee was charged with (later acquitted of) treason for releasing the documents. (The case revolved around the fact that most of the documents had been improperly classified "Top Secret.") However, Senator Mike Gravel convened a subcommittee he chaired and read the documents into the Congressional Record. In doing so, he made the documents public record, allowing newspapers to print the material. Ellsberg released the document before Gravel's meeting and it would be two years before Ellsberg would be acquitted.

One possible solution, though it would probably never be implemented, would be to have an independent judge sit in on the meetings and rule whether the substance of the meeting warranted a closed session.

Other activities of the committee

The following topics are culled directly from the latest report on the FY 2009 Intelligence Authorization Act. It is available here in PDF form. The report was released in May, 2008.

Torture investigation: as early as May, 2008 the committee was demanding information about "interrogation techniques. See pages 11-12 for the report the committee wanted by November.

The House Judiciary Committee has been making all of the noise about investigating torture, but it seems like the Intelligence Committee will have a role to play too. This is another committee to pressure for investigations.

Domestic spying: The committee remains concerned about the FBI's use of National Security Letters (NSLs) to gather information without probable cause or a warrant. From page 41:

The Committee has been, and remains, extremely concerned by the reports from the Department of Justice Inspector General(DOJ/IG), which found that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) abused its statutory authority with respect to National Security Letters (NSLs) from 2003 through 2006.

The report includes some language about reforms to the FBI's use of NSLs and indicates that the committee intends to continue to monitor this situation.

Bush's handling of Syria: Did George W. Bush violate the Intelligence Authorization Act? From page 36:

In April 2008, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) briefed the Committee on the construction of a covert nuclear facility in Syria and its subsequent destruction in September 2007.

Over the course of the preceding eight months, the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member had requested that the President brief the full membership of the Committee about these developments, which significantly impact U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East and North Korea.

Just hours before a highly-orchestrated public roll-out of the previously classified intelligence, the President finally sent briefers to the Committee. The delay was inexcusable and violated the National Security Act of 1947, which requires that the executive branch keep Congress ‘‘fully and currently informed’’ of all intelligence activities. Congress should be briefed on the threats to the United States in a timely manner, not simply when it is politically expedient.

Unfortunately, there is little else other than a sharp rebuke about how Bush's actions undermined Congress's role in national security.

There is plenty more in those 121 pages. It would also be a good idea for us to read the next report when it comes out, likely within a few weeks.

Like the rest of the committee's webpage, there is next to nothing about the subcommittees. These explanations are culled from other sources.

Subcommittee on Terrorism/HUMINT (human intelligence), Analysis and Counterintelligence

Mike Thompson of California is the chair and Mike Rogers of Michigan is the ranking member.

From the Napa Valley Register article announcing Thompson's appointment as chair of the subcommittee:

The subcommittee has jurisdiction over such agencies as the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the national security aspects of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the intelligence aspects of the departments of State, Energy, Treasury and Homeland Security.

As chairman, Thompson directs the subcommittee’s hearings, investigations and legislative initiatives.

Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence

C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland is the chair of the subcommittee and Mac Thornberry of Texas is the ranking member.

I've got nothing. Any assistance would be appreciated. Presumably, this committee would look at the technology side of intelligence gathering (phones, computers, etc.), but I could be wildly wrong on that one.

Subcommittee on Intelligence Community Management

Anna Eshoo of California is the subcommittee chair and Sue Myrick of North Carolina is the ranking member.

Jurisdiction described by Scientists and Engineers for America.

Oversees policy and management of the 16 government agencies within the United States intelligence community, as well as performs oversight of the policies governing the designation of classified intelligence information.

This seems to be an internal policies and procedures subcommittee. I did find this Government Accountability Office report (PDF) indicating that the subcommittee was involved with security clearance reforms within the government.

Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations
Jan Schakowsky of Illinois is the subcommittee chair and Jeff Miller of Florida is the ranking member.

Like most of the other committees, the oversight committee has the responsibility for conducting investigations into allegations of wrong-doing at agencies under the committee's jurisdiction.

That's it for this week. Next week, I think I will look at the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. With the passage of the Budget Resolution, these committees will be considering how money will be spent in FY 2010.