Sunday, June 28, 2009

Considered Forthwith: The Committee Primer

Welcome to the 14th 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.

This week is a special edition of Considered Forthwith. Instead of examining a single committee, I will look at the committee system in general this week. For one thing, Congress is in recess for Fourth of July (funny, I only get one day off for that). For another Meteor Blades is launching the committee monitoring project, so this seems to be an ideal time to go over the basics.

Note on sources: Much of the uncited material in this post is from these sources:

Roger Davidson and Walter Oleszek, Congress and Its Members, 10th ed. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2006)

Sarah Binder and Paul Quirk, The Legislative Branch (Oxford University Press, 2005)

James A. Thurber, Rivals for Power: Presidential-Congressional Relations. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001)

The two most important things to know about committees

There are two important points to keep in mind when you are considering the Congressional committee system. The first is the actual power of the committees and the second is the relative power of committees in the House and Senate.

The most important power of the committees is to create the framework of legislation that will be considered by the whole chamber. Further, the committee can even decide whether or not to advance legislation at all. Indeed only a small fraction of bills even make it out of committee. Conservative Southern Democratic committee chairs used this power to hold up civil rights legislation, for example.

To use a worn out analogy, consider an architect at a major firm who has been assigned to "design a one family house." If she designs a ranch home and turns the draft into the bosses for final approval, the garage may be enlarged and a bedroom converted into a bathroom, there is not much chance that the final product will be a row house. (When this does happen in the legislative context, it is called an "amendment in the nature of a substitute.")

The other important point to keep in mind is that House committees are generally much more relevant than Senate committees. For one thing, Senators have far more committee assignments (they average 11 vs. 6 in the House) and most majority members serve as chair of a full committee or subcommittee. Therefore, Senators have less time to devote to committee matters.

The other factor in this disparity of power is the rules of the respective chambers. In the Senate, bills come to the Floor by unanimous consent. This means that everyone has to agree to debate and consider the bills. Generally, the unanimous consent agreement is just a one sentence resolution saying that the bill will come up for consideration. On the Floor, Senators are generally free to offer any amendment, which can render moot the committee's work on the bill.

In contrast, it is very rare for a bill to come up for consideration in the House without a rule from the Rules Committee. Rules, which are voted on before consideration of the bill, set the terms of the debate and determine which amendments are in order (i.e. can be offered). For example, Rep. Jeff Flake wanted to offer 11 amendments to "cut costs" from the FY 2010 Homeland Security Appropriations Bill. The rule only allowed him to offer four of those amendments (his choice). The result of this set up is that the House Committee bills are more likely to resemble the final product than those in the Senate. Click the link for the Rules Committee above for more details on the types of rules -- open, closed, and modified -- that can be issued.

The process
Oleszek calls committees "little legislatures" and the characterization is accurate. Once a member drafts a bill (or more accurately, has legislative counsel draft it) and submits it, the bill is referred to a committee (or sometimes multiple committees). Technically, this is done by the Speaker of the House and the Senate Pro Tem. In actual practice, parliamentarians routinely handle this function. The referrals are based on the committees' jurisdictions. These jurisdictions, which are set in the rules of the Chambers, often overlap and it is common for bill sponsors to lobby the parliamentarians for favorable referrals.

Once the committee gets the bill, the chair (usually in consultation with the ranking member) decides whether or not to even consider the bill. Of course if the bill's sponsor is on the committee (score!) or chairs the committee (bonus!) there is a good chance the bill will be considered and advanced.

It is worth pointing out at this point that each committee operates differently and the chair has broad discretion in setting the rules for speaking and voting and even the number, jurisdiction, and composition of subcommittees. One common custom, though, is that full committee chairs do not also chair one of the committee's subcommittees. However, chairs and ranking members are usually ex-officio members of all of the subcommittees under the full committee.

The chair then decides whether to send the bill to a subcommittee or handle it in the full committee. Often, major bills will stay with the full committee while less important bills end up in the subcommittees. Of course, this is not always the case. The chair may decide to pass a bill along if the subcommittee chair has more expertise on the subject.

Then the committees start work on the bills. Admittedly there is always a lot of behind the scenes work, but there are three general types of committee meetings, which I will consider in the next section...

What am I watching on C-Span? Hearings, markups and business meetings

Business meetings are not often televised. They are merely regular meetings to get the members up to speed on the status of legislation pending in the committee.

Hearings are exactly that. These are formal opportunities for citizens (usually selected by members of Congress), special interests (i.e. both "good" and "bad" lobbyists), and other members of Congress to make their cases for the bill under consideration. For all the hoola and media coverage of hearings, nothing is officially accomplished here. Hearings are really just a forum to share ideas and viewpoints. Considering the hyperpartisanship in Congress and inattentiveness of the public, I would argue that not much actual persuading happens in these hearings, either.

A special type of hearing is the oversight hearing. Congress has a responsibility to oversee the functions of the Executive Branch. Most committees have subcommittees dedicated to oversight. In addition, the House has a full oversight committee. These are the people who make sure that the bureaucracy does not abuse it's power. This is what we are talking about when we call for Congressional investigations. Often, just the threat of a Congressional subpoena can cause an agency head to make wholesale reforms. Furthermore, oversight hearings often attract media attention and the reforms Congress cannot or will not force can be achieved through public pressure.

Markups are the really the important part of the process because the committee actually changes the content of the original bill. At this point, members of the committee may offer amendments and speak on the amendments before they are voted upon. Committees vary on the actual voting process. Some hold formal votes while others, particularly smaller ones, can get away with voice votes.

Incidentally, if you cannot catch hearings and markups on C-Span, most of the committee websites do live feeds and archive the videos. When Nancy Pelosi took over as Speaker, she encouraged the use of live feeds to increase transparency in the government.

Of course, some hearings are closed to the public in the interest of "national security." This includes most intelligence committee hearings and some related to the military and homeland security.

Final passage

Following the markup, the committee votes on final passage. If the bill was sent to a subcommittee, the hearing-markup-final vote procedure happens in both the subcommittee and full committee. On the other hand, the full committee will often just pass the subcommittee bill on routine legislation.

If the final version of the bill passes the committee, it is "reported out" of committee. Usually a staffer writes a report of the content of the bill. Quite often, these pieces are as much persuasive as they are informative since the committee has an interest in seeing its legislation passed.

As noted above, House bills go through the Rules Committee and their public website even has a link to the secure section for committee chairs to requests a rule. Anyone interested in tracking House legislation might want to get an RSS feed of the current bills.

Types of committees

There are three basic kinds of committee and the most important has two subcategories.

Select committees: Select committees are temporary panels that are created by the chamber leadership to investigate certain issues. Select committees may hold hearings, but not mark up legislation. One current example is the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Both chambers also created select committees to look into homeland security after the 9/11 Commission Report. The result was a reshuffling of committee jurisdictions to oversee the new homeland security bureaucracy.

Note that the intelligence committees are called "select committees," but they function as regular standing committees.

Joint committees: There are a handful of issues that are either so routine or so important that it makes sense for the House and Senate to work together. The major joint committees are Taxation Committee and Economic Committee. These committees comprehensively study the potential impact of taxation and economic policies respectively. Some of the minor joint committees oversee the Congressional Printing Office and the Library of Congress.

Standing Committees: This is where most of the legislative work gets done. The committees are sometimes renamed (especially after a new majority takes over) and the jurisdictions get shifted, but the system is fairly stable. The two types of standing committees are appropriations and authorization.

Most committees are authorizing committees. Simply put, authorizing committees decide to write bills that create program X and authorize spending $Y on it. Both chambers have a single appropriations committee (with 12 subcommittees to handle the 13 routine appropriations bills) that decide to appropriate $Y + or - Z. Z is a combination of $Y, appropriators whims, budget constraints, and earmark requests.

I hope all of that is clear. I had thought about including discussions of committee assignments and a history of the system, but that would take up another diary. Also, we will not have to worry about committee assignments until after the 2010 midterm elections.

Past Considered Forthwith entries:
House Education and Labor Committee
Senate Finance Committee
Senate HELP Committee
Senate Judiciary Committee
House Energy and Commerce Committee
House Ways and Means Committee
House and Senate Appropriations Committees
House Intelligence Committee
House Judiciary Committee
House and Senate Ethics Committees
House Science and Technology Committee
House Financial Services Committee
House Rules Committee
The Role of Committees

Crossposted on Daily Kos, Congress Matters, and Docudharma.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Considered Forthwith: House Education and Labor Committee (Health Care update)

Welcome to the 13th 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.

First, I want to note the committee monitoring project that Meteor Blades has announced. I hope to take part and invite anyone else who is participating to see my list of links at the end of this diary for more information about specific committees.

This week, I will look at the House Education and Labor Committee, yet another committee with jurisdiction over health care reform. The big news: we have a public option sighting!

First, here are the members of the committee:

Democrats: George Miller, Chairman (CA-07), Dale E. Kildee (MI-05), Donald M. Payne (NJ-10), Robert E. Andrews (NJ-01), Robert C. Scott (VA-03), Lynn C. Woolsey (CA-06), Rubén Hinojosa (TX-15), Carolyn McCarthy (NY-04), John F. Tierney (MA-06), Dennis J. Kucinich (OH-10), David Wu (OR-01), Rush D. Holt (NJ-12), Susan A. Davis (CA-53), Raúl M. Grijalva (AZ-07), Timothy H. Bishop (NY-01), Joe Sestak (PA-07), Dave Loebsack (IA-02), Mazie Hirono (HI-02), Jason Altmire (PA-04), Phil Hare (IL-17), Yvette Clarke (NY-11), Joe Courtney (CT-02), Carol Shea-Porter (NH-01), Marcia Fudge (OH-11), Jared Polis (CO-2), Paul Tonko (NY-21), Pedro Pierluisi (PR), Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (Northern Mariana Islands), Dina Titus (NV-3), Vacancy

Republicans: John Kline (MN-02), Ranking Member, Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, Ranking Member (CA-25), Thomas E. Petri (WI-06), Peter Hoekstra (MI-02), Michael N. Castle (DE-At Large), Mark E. Souder (IN-03), Vernon J. Ehlers (MI-03), Judy Biggert (IL-13), Todd Russell Platts (PA-19), Joe Wilson (SC-02), John Kline (MN-02), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-05), Tom Price (GA-06), Rob Bishop (UT-01), Brett Guthrie (KY-2), Bill Cassidy (LA-6), Tom McClintock (CA-4), Duncan D. Hunter (CA-52), Phil Roe (TN-1), Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson (PA-05), vacancy

Buck McKeon left the committee last week to take a seat on the House Armed Services Committee. The Republicans picked John Kline to be the ranking member, but the member page has not been updated yet.

Notice that delegates from Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands sit on the committee. Delegates from U.S. territories and the District of Columbia do sit on committees (and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton chairs the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Emergency Management, and Public Buildings). They are allowed to vote in committees and when the House resolves into the Committee of the Whole (typically on amendments). However, they do not get to procedural matters or on final passage.

Cooperation on the public option

This might qualify as "breaking." The full committee has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday at noon to consider the The Tri-Committee Draft Proposal for Health Care Reform. If C-Span does not cover it, a live webcast should be available on the committee's website. (Aside: the expanded use of webcasts for committee hearings is one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's reforms to promote open government.)

The Tri-Committee Draft Proposal includes the ever elusive public option. The key portion of the proposal:

1. If an individual likes their current plan, they would be able to keep it.

2. For individuals who either aren’t currently covered, or wanted to enroll in a new health care plan, the proposal would establishes a health care exchange where consumers can select from a menu of affordable, quality health care options: either a new public health insurance plan or a plan offered by private insurers. People will have similar choices that Members of Congress have.

3. This new marketplace would reduce costs, create competition that leads to better care for every American, and keep private insurers honest. Patients and doctors would have control over decisions about their health care, instead of insurance companies.

The proposal also includes a number of common sense measure to reduce health care costs and improve the quality of health care. You may want to check it out if you care about the debate.

What is really remarkable about this is that the three committees with jurisdiction, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor Committees worked together on this. The norm in Congress is inter committee rivalry. Instead, the House committees will consider (and hopefully report) similar bills for Floor consideration. I have noted in past diaries that Senators and Chairmen Kennedy (HELP Committee) and Baucus (Finance Committee) agreed to work together on the Senate version as well. However, Baucus may be wavering on the public option.

So what would a committee called "Education and Labor" be doing with a health care bill? Let's look at the...

From the committee website:

Education. The Committee on Education and Labor oversees federal programs and initiatives dealing with education at all levels -- from preschool through high school to higher education and continuing education. These include:

* Elementary and secondary education initiatives, including the No Child Left Behind Act, school choice for low-income families, special education (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), teacher quality & teacher training, scientifically-based reading instruction, and vocational and technical education;
* Higher education programs (the Higher Education Act), to support college access for low and middle-income students and help families pay for college;
* Early childhood & preschool education programs including Head Start;
* School lunch and child nutrition programs;
* Financial oversight of the U.S. Department of Education;
* Programs and services for the care and treatment of at-risk youth, child abuse prevention, and child adoption;
* Educational research and improvement;
* Adult education; and
* Anti-poverty programs, including the Community Services Block Grant Act and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

Labor. The Committee on Education and Labor also holds jurisdiction over workforce initiatives aimed at strengthening health care, job training, and retirement security for workers. Workforce issues in the jurisdiction of the Education and the Labor Committee include:

* Pension and retirement security for U.S. workers;
* Access to quality health care for working families and other employee benefits;
* Job training, adult education, and workforce development initiatives, including those under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), to help local communities train and retrain workers;
* Continuing the successful welfare reforms of 1996;
* Protecting the democratic rights of individual union members;
* Worker health and safety, including occupational safety and health;
* Providing greater choices and flexibility (including "comp time" or family time options) to working women and men;
* Equal employment opportunity and civil rights in employment;
* Wages and hours of labor, including the Fair Labor Standards Act;
* Workers' compensation, and family and medical leave;
* All matters dealing with relationships between employers and employees.

Since health care is the gold standard for employment benefits, the labor side of the committee certainly has a claim to this legislation. The rest of the jurisdiction is fairly self explanatory. The committee's turf includes the (fairly limited) federal role in education as well as labor relations and worker safety.

It is also important to keep in mind that this is an authorizing committee. They can deal with policy changes and authorize new programs with spending proposals. It is up to the Appropriations committees to actually fund those programs, however.

A little history

The committee was established in 1867 as industry started to grow after the Civil War. In 1883, it was split into separate panels and handled education and labor separately. Following the Second World War, Congress passed the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. This reduced the number of committees (at the time there were 48 committees in the House and 33 in the Senate) and more clearly defined committee jurisdictions. Under the act, the Education and Labor Committees were once again merged.

When the Republicans took over Congress in 1995, the committee was renamed the "Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities." In the next Congress (1997), it was again renamed to the "Committee on Education and the Workforce." When the Democrats won back Congress, the name reverted back to its current name.

For more, click here.

Other current issues

401(k) fee disclosure. The committee is scheduled to mark up the 401(k) Fair Disclosure and Pension Security Act of 2009. This bill would increase disclosures about fee associated with 401(k) plans. This would allow workers and employers to better decide which 401(k) plans to select. More information is here.

Conflicts of interest in investing advice
. Remember all of those last minute regulations that George W. Bush issued? One of them loosened regulations regarding conflicts of interest in the investment industry:

These actions opened the door for financial services companies to provide advice to employees where they had a direct or indirect financial interest.

The Conflicted Investment Advice Prohibition Act will restore workers’ protections by laying out clear rules to ensure that workers receive investment advice at work that is based solely on interests of the account holder’s needs, not investment firms’ bottom line.


The subcommittee voted 13-8 (presumably along party lines) last week to report the bill to the full committee.

OSHA oversight
. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report says that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) invested too much time and energy in the Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) under the Bush Administration. VPP was established in 1982 recognizes businesses that voluntarily comply with safety regulations. Critics, including Congressional and Committee Democrats, contend that voluntary programs risked worker safety by relying on asking for compliance rather than enforcing it. Expect greater oversight and probably some hearings by the committee.

Student loan reform. Last month, the committee held a hearing about the need for reforms in the student loan system. Take it from this professional student, college is not cheap and the best education is really not cheap. In order for poor and middle class students to afford a higher education, there is agreement that the government programs that offer student loans needs reform. Read more here.

Check out the committee's website for other related news.


There are five subcommittees under the full committee. The full membership lists are available here. Note that the these lists have not been updated to reflect Buck McKeon's change of committee. All jurisdiction descriptions are posted and taken from here.

Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education: Dale Kildee is the chair and Michael N. Castle is the ranking member.

Including education from early learning through the high school level including, but not limited to, elementary and secondary education, education of the disabled, the homeless and migrant and agricultural labor. Also including school construction, overseas dependent schools, career and technical training, school safety and alcohol and drug abuse prevention, educational research and improvement, including the Institute of Education Sciences; and early care and education programs and early learning programs, including the Head Start Act and the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act.

Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities: Carolyn McCarthy is the chair and Todd "Russell" Platts is the ranking member.

Adolescent development and training programs, including but not limited to those providing for the care and treatment of certain at risk youth, including the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act; all matters dealing with child abuse and domestic violence, including the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, and child adoption; school lunch and child nutrition, poverty programs including the Community Services Block Grant Act, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP); all matters dealing with programs and services for the elderly, including nutrition programs and the Older Americans Act; environmental education; all domestic volunteer programs; ; library services and construction, and programs related to the arts and humanities, museum services, and arts and artifacts indemnity.

Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness: Rubén Hinojosa is the chair and Brett Guthrie is the ranking member.

Education and training beyond the high school level including, but not limited to higher education generally, postsecondary student assistance and employment services, the Higher Education Act; postsecondary career and technical education, training and apprenticeship including the Workforce Investment Act, displaced homemakers, adult basic education (family literacy), rehabilitation, professional development, and training programs from immigration funding; pre-service and in-service teacher training, including Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Title II of the Higher Education Act; science and technology programs; affirmative action in higher education; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972; all welfare reform programs including, work incentive programs, welfare-to-work requirements; the Native American Programs Act, the Robert A. Taft Institute, and Institute for Peace.

Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions: Robert Andrews is the chair and John Kline is the ranking member. Note: since Kline is now the ranking member of the full committee, he may have to give up this position.

All matters dealing with relationships between employers and workers generally including, but not limited to, the National Labor Relations Act, Labor Management Relations Act, Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment-related retirement security, including pension, health and other employee benefits, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA); all matters related to equal employment opportunity and civil rights in employment, including affirmative action.

Subcommittee on Workforce Protections: Lynn Woolsey is the chair and Tom Price is the ranking member.

Wages and hours of labor including, but not limited to, Davis-Bacon Act, Walsh-Healey Act, Fair Labor Standards Act , workers’ compensation including, Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, Service Contract Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, including training for dislocated workers, Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988, trade and immigration issues as they impact employers and workers, and workers’ health and safety including, but not limited to, occupational safety and health, mine health and safety, youth camp safety, and migrant and agricultural labor health and safety.

That's it for this week. Next, I am planning a general discussion about committee rules, procedures, assignments, etc. If there is a demand, I will get it up before next Sunday.

Also, if you are interested in the U.S. Congressional response to the situation in Iran, monitor the House Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

Past Considered Forthwith entries:
Senate Finance Committee
Senate HELP Committee
Senate Judiciary Committee
House Energy and Commerce Committee
House Ways and Means Committee
House and Senate Appropriations Committees
House Intelligence Committee
House Judiciary Committee
House and Senate Ethics Committees
House Science and Technology Committee
House Financial Services Committee
House Rules Committee
The Role of Committees

Crossposted at Congress Matters and Daily Kos.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Considered Forthwith: Senate Finance Committee

Welcome to the 12th 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.

This week, Considered Forthwith looks at the Senate Finance Committee. This committee is the other half of the health care reform debate equation. I detailed the other half, the Senate HELP Committee, last week.

In general, the Finance Committee handles tax measures and government-funded health insurance programs. As a result, this is a very powerful committee. Moreover, if health care reform dies, it will likely find its grave in this committee.

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 Senate Finance Committee:

Democrats: Max Baucus, Chairman, Montana; Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia; Kent Conrad, North Dakota; Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico; John Kerry, Massachusetts; Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas; Ron Wyden, Oregon; Charles Schumer, New York; Debbie Stabenow, Michigan; Maria Cantwell, Washington; Bill Nelson, Florida; Robert Menendez, New Jersey; Thomas Carper, Delaware

Republicans: Chuck Grassley, Ranking Member, Iowa; Orrin Hatch, Utah; Olympia Snowe, Maine; Jon Kyl, Arizona; Jim Bunning, Kentucky; Mike Crapo, Idaho; Pat Roberts, Kansas; John Ensign, Nevada; Mike Enzi, Wyoming; John Cornyn, Texas

Public Comment!

We are late on this one, but the committee actually solicited public comment on health care reform. The deadline was May 26. However, the committee has a regular link for submitting comment on the topic du jour. Looking through past comments and comment solicitations, it seems that this is a fairly regular option.

On the other hand, if you have a particularly strong opinion on closing the alternative fuel tax cut loophole for "black liquor," click here (pdf link). In fact, using the "hearings" link, citizens and organizations can submit comments for the record via mail. The problem, of course, is that the committee is not always prompt about posting upcoming hearings.

As I have written many times, the goal of this series is to help progressives focus their activism for maximum impact. Sure, you could write your Senators and Representative every day, but there is little that those members cannot do if they do not sit on a committee with jurisdiction over the matter. Even more frustrating is the fact that many members will only accept calls, e-mails, and letters from constituents. This is why I suggest contacting committees directly. It is refreshing to see a committee this open to the public.

Finally, the phone/snail mail contact information is here.


The Committee has jurisdiction over the following topics:

1. Bonded debt of the United States, except as provided in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974.

2. Customs, collection districts, and ports of entry and delivery.

3. Deposit of public moneys.

4. General revenue sharing.

5. Health programs under the Social Security Act and health programs financed by a specific tax or trust fund.

6. National social security.

7. Reciprocal trade agreements.

8. Revenue measures generally, except as provided in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974.

9. Revenue measures relating to the insular possessions.

10. Tariffs and import quotas, and matters related thereto.

11. Transportation of dutiable goods.

The committee also has oversight responsibility for many Executive Branch agencies. Some of those oversight duties are shared with other committees. Follow the link above for the full list.

Cap and Trade Hearing

The only scheduled upcoming committee hearing regards tax considerations of climate change regulation. Presumably this has to do with the Cap and Trade bill that was recently considered by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. (This was the one with the speed reader.) Here's a preview:

The witnesses include:

Mr. Gary Hufbauer, Reginald Jones Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics, Washington DC

Mr. Mark Price, Principal-in-Charge, Financial Institutions and Products, Washington National Tax, KPMG LLP, Washington DC

Mr. Keith Butler, Senior Vice President of Tax, Duke Energy, Charlotte, NC

The Peterson Institute is calling for a multi-lateral approach to Global Warming. KPMG seems to be specialized in providing tax advice to businesses. FWIW, there was also this little issue from 2005. Duke Energy is obviously a large energy company that makes the usual nice statements about protecting the environment. I would expect a lot of hot air to be circulated about how expensive it will be stop global warming.

Hearings are nothing more than policy discussions among members of Congress and interested groups and individuals who manage to get invited/subpoenaed to appear. No official action is typically taken after a hearing. Indeed, it is not unusual for only a few committee members to show up. In any case, this is one of the ways that lobbyists, both good and bad, get access to the government. Urge your favorite public interest groups to get hearings with committees.

Health Care Reform

One of the reasons why it is difficult to pass major reform bills is the practice of multiple referrals. On almost every reform bill, more than one committee can claim jurisdiction over a policy change. Naturally, no committee or member will want to surrender the chance to influence major policy moves. The problem is that different committees often report radically different bills to the floor. All too often neither competing bill will get the votes needed for passage and the policy reform dies.

In the health care debate, both the HELP Committee and the Finance Committee have claims to jurisdiction. In an uncommon move, HELP Committee Chairman Ted Kennedy and Finance Committee Chairman Baucus have pledged to coordinate the bills from their respective committees. However, it looks like Baucus might be wavering on the public option and offering other (admittedly needed) fixes and expanding Medicare instead. Grassley, of course, is having none of the public option. Interestingly, Senator Jay Rockefeller, chair of the subcommittee on Health Care, introduced a bill to create the public option.

I won't go on about this since there are plenty of other posts about this issue, but I will offer this link which detail's Baucus' views on the issue. This would be a good person to contact about health care reform (hint, hint).

Other committee agenda items

The U.S. - Panama Trade Promotion Agreement was on the agenda May 21. The bill is a free trade agreement with Panama. There are concerns about lax labor and tax policies in Panama that could make an agreement unfair to U.S. interests. At least one U.S. company and an industry group favor the agreement. Two senior Democrats and a Kossack are not thrilled with the bill.

Meet Neal Wolin: Mr. Wolin's nomination to be Deputy Secretary was the focus of a recent hearing. He was confirmed May 18. Apparently, he helped deregulate the banks in the 1990, a contributing factor in last year's banking meltdown.

Trade with Cuba: Baucus is pushing a bill to open trade with Cuba (pdf link). Love it or hate it, Baucus is correct that five decades of U.S. sanctions have not forced political change in the little communist nation that could.

Paygo: This is a brand new proposal from the Obama administration. There is nothing on the Committee page about it yet, but this legislation will undoubtedly land in the Finance Committee. Paygo is a Clinton-era law that requires any loses from new entitlement spending to tax cuts to be made up through budget cuts or tax increases elsewhere. This rule would not apply to the 40 percent of the budget that is discretionary spending.

Note: the party of fiscal responsibility allowed the PayGo laws to lapse, which in turn allowed Congress to irresponsibly cut taxes and increase spending. Now the Conservatives are bashing the President for even bringing it up. The Democratic House did reinstitute PayGo as a rule 2007, but it was waived a number of times.


I could not find formal statements of jurisdiction for the five subcommittees, but the names seem fairly self explanatory.

The Subcommittee on Health Care is chaired by John D. "Jay" Rockefeller and Orrin Hatch is the ranking member.

The Subcommittee on Taxation, IRS Oversight, and Long-Term Growth is chaired by Kent Conrad and Jon Kyl is the ranking member.

The Subcommittee on Energy, Natural Resources, and Infrastructure is chaired by Jeff Bingaman and Jim Bunning is the ranking member.

The Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions, and Family Policy is chaired by Blanche Lincoln and Pat Roberts is the ranking member.

The Subcommittee on International Trade and Global Competitiveness is chaired by Ron Wyden and Mike Crapo is the ranking member.

Any assistance with jurisdiction would be appreciated.

That's it for this week. I am considering looking at the two Foreign Relations Committees next week, especially if the situation in Iran escalates. Of course, I welcome any suggestions and will watch for movement in any other committees.

Past Considered Forthwith entries:
Senate HELP Committee
Senate Judiciary Committee
House Energy and Commerce Committee
House Ways and Means Committee
House and Senate Appropriations Committees
House Intelligence Committee
House Judiciary Committee
House and Senate Ethics Committees
House Science and Technology Committee
House Financial Services Committee
House Rules Committee
The Role of Committees

Sunday, June 7, 2009

What I learned from the Tank Man

Note: this not a diary about the history of the Tiananmen Square Protests or the situation there now. For the history, check out the Wiki page. For a first hand account of yesterday's "ceremony," I suggest this LA Times story. This diary is the impressions of a teenager watching the world both evolve and devolve 20 years ago.

I have a poster of this picture -- it is also stamped with the date of June 5, 1989 -- hanging in my room:

tank man Pictures, Images and Photos

I picked it up just after I started back to college to study politics after a somewhat unfulfilling career in journalism.

Twenty years ago, give or take a few hours, a 14-year-old Chris was watching television, and it was not Alf. It was the summer of an amazing year that had already seen the triumph of Solidarity in Poland and the election of a democratic government in Hungary. The "Evil Empire" was unwilling and/or unable to suppress the wave of freedom.

For the previous 14 years, I had lived with the nagging fear that someone in Moscow would push THE button that would kill most of the people in the First World and reduce the survivors so something lower than cockroaches. Or maybe a hoard of Russians, Cubans, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, and North Koreans would land in California and push east to Denver and Chicago while Bonn, London, and Paris would fall in advance of Communist attacks on New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. A stead diet of movies like The Day After and Red Dawn and Reagan's proto neo-con posturing didn't help much, either.

Even a 14 year old kid could see that Reagan and Bush Sr. were playing a dangerous game. Gorbachev seemed like a pretty reasonable guy, but if this perestroika and glasnost thing didn't work out, we were probably fucked. Even worse, if the United States failed, our allies in Western Europe were in serious trouble, too.

As 1989 dawned and the United States inaugurated a new president, the world was changing for the better. Poland and Hungary may have called themselves "people's republics," but there were always two inherent lies in those names. The "republic" consisted of the Communist Party and the "People" were "free" to go to work and support the state. That was all changing and it just seemed like a matter of time before the rest of Eastern Europe broke the shackles of dictatorship that stretched back to Moscow.

The story in Asia was different. As protesters (mostly students not much older than me at that time) started to gather in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on April 14, 1989 to morn the death of Hu Yaobang, it seemed like Red China was about to be the next dictatorship to fall. The circumstances were more prophetic than the West would have imagined. Much like Gorbachev, Mr. Hu was a political leader who championed market and political liberalization and cleaning up official corruption. People from all over the country gathered in the heart of the capital to mourn the passing of their leader and to call for the government and the party to continue Mr. Hu's reforms.

In the ensuing eight weeks, many Westerners including a young CW, naively thought that we were seeing an Oriental Woodstock. It was about to turn into Altamont. On June 4, the People's Liberation Army (another name with two inherent lies) cleared out the democracy lovers with shocking violence. The army felt the need to use tanks and automatic weapons to chase off and kill unarmed civilians.

The next day, the tanks remained. The protesters who had not managed to escape the senseless violence were dead or being held as political prisoners. Democracy and freedom were were dead (or at least arrested) in China.

Then a Western journalist in a nearby hotel room caught an amazing sight.

Some dude, armed only with his shopping bags, decided to stare down a column of farking tanks! Not only that, he went out of his way to stand in front of the lead vehicle and made gestures like "GTFO, jackass." Then he climbed on top of the thing before he was finally arrested. Witness:

This man, who remains unnamed in the West, has not been heard from since. Personally, I suspect that he is already dead. If he is alive, I doubt we will ever hear from him. This is tragic because we may never know his true motivations. Was he really the last defiant hero for freedom and democracy in China or was he batshit crazy? I, and most other freedom lovers, like to think the former.

As I watched the footage of the tank man, I knew that I could never be the bravest person ever. This guy had all of us beat. Here was a guy who believed in freedom and democracy so much that he was willing to risk a course of action in which getting plowed over by a tank ranked among the best possible outcomes.

After Tiananmen, democratic reform was pretty much a dead issue in China. To this day, one could not even Twitter on June 4 or access Google's Blogger service (shameless plug for my own site) at any time. Young CW started to lose hope. It seemed like this potentially historic year was going to be an epic failure. In some ways, it was since much of East Asia missed out on the great promise of freedom and democracy. For all of its faults, democracy is still the sole political system that inherently protects basic human rights.

In the wake of Tiananmen, we had a long, hot summer before we finally saw images like this in November:

berlin wall Pictures, Images and Photos

The physical wall that symbolized the dividing line between freedom and repression and the wall that literally tore families apart came down. Der Stasi, who almost made the SS look like a reasonable police force in comparison, were impotent to stop it. The freedom march was alive and well -- at least in Europe.

My final impressions came one cold Christmas morning. After all of the gifts were opened, I was allowed to try out my new Atari 2600 games (we were a little behind the times). When I turned on the television, the news was on. I learned that another country had freed itself after about two weeks of violence. Romania had ousted the Communist government and executed Nicolae and Elana Ceauşescu (live on Romanian television as it turned out). I gave up the video games to bask in yet another victory for freedom. However, the brutality of summary execution has always bothered me. In my later studies, I learned that there was a brief trial (a mere formality and a closed affair) Christmas Eve and the couple were shot the next day. It turns out that Ceauşescu thought the Soviets were not repressive enough. To me, that still does not justify state-sanctioned murder.

As I and my generation were dragged into the decadence and idealism that was the 1990s, I resolved to be someone who stands up against repression, human rights abuses, torture (as I am sure the tank man endured), and state-sponsored murder and someone who stands up for democracy, the rule of law, freedom, human rights, family, and basic human dignity. That's what got me into Progressive politics. Thank you, Tank Man -- where ever you are.

It's never easy. Sometimes life takes a shit on you personally. Sometimes our great nation sees fit to elect a clown like George W. Bush. When I am faced with adversity -- personal, political, profession/academic, or social -- I look at my poster and think, "have I really stared down a column of tanks today?"


Crossposted at Daily Kos, where it was my third rescued diary of the week. The other two dealt with the Uniting American Families Act hearing announcement and follow up.

Considered Forthwith: Senate "HELP" Committee (with health care reform)

Welcome to the eleventh 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.

This week Considered Forthwith will examine the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. The Committee is also commonly referred to by its acronym, The Senate HELP Committee.

I settled on a different committee than I planned because there The HELP Committee has a major hearing scheduled this week.

First, here are the members of the committee:

Democrats: Edward Kennedy, chair (MA), Christopher Dodd (CT), Tom Harkin (IA), Barbara A. Mikulski (MD), Jeff Bingaman (NM), Patty Murray (WA), Jack Reed (RI), Bernard Sanders (I) (VT), Sherrod Brown (OH), Robert P. Casey, Jr. (PA), Kay Hagan (NC), Jeff Merkley (OR)

Republicans: Michael B. Enzi, Ranking Member (WY), Judd Gregg (NH), Lamar Alexander (TN), Richard Burr (NC), Johnny Isakson (GA), John McCain (AZ), Orrin G. Hatch (UT), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Tom Coburn, M.D. (OK), Pat Roberts (KS)

The HELP committee's webpage is one of the more informative sites that I have used while writing this series. Unlike many of the pages I have investigated so far, the HELP Committee includes a link to e-mail comments to the committee and the physical address is listed at the bottom of the page. The only thing that is lacking is a telephone number, but I tend to think that e-mail and snail mail is better since there is something of a paper trail. Additionally, contacting a committee or members of a committee directly gives citizens the benefit of addressing concerns directly to the people who can make a difference.

The committee also maintains a list of bills under consideration by the committee. This is helpful, too, since citizens can see what is on the agenda and lobby for or against pending legislation.

FWIW: The committee even maintains a photo gallery.

Important upcoming hearing

The HELP Committee has scheduled a hearing on "Healthcare Reform" for Thursday, June 11 at 3 p.m. There is no further information now -- not even a witness list -- but past hearing pages have included video and testimony in .pdf format. According to this Washington Post article, markups on Kennedy's proposed bill could start on June 16. Markups are the committee version of amendments and we can expect the minority to throw all kinds of killer amendments to any bill that comes from the committee. The GOP threw hundreds of amendments at the Cap and Trade bill, for example.

The timing of this hearing is not coincidental. Obviously, Health Care reform is one of the President's priorities and many members (including newly elected Democrats) in Congress want reform as well. In fact, the White House issued a report on June 2 arguing that health care reform is vital to keeping the American economy strong. Reform has public and special interest support, as evidenced by the 2008 elections. The ideas for reforms have been around for sometime, but we are now talking about them. Finally, There are enough flaws in the current system to fill a book on the subject.

Political Scientist John W. Kingdon discussed the concept of policy windows in 1984. When all of the above "streams" -- problem identified, political will to solve it, and possible solutions -- converge, policy windows open. Policy windows are the opportunity to implement new policies. It seems intuitive, but this is an important theory in the field. To put it more simply, we could have all kinds of great ideas for health care reform, but with a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican President it was not happening.

Perhaps President Obama read his Kingdon when he said:

"If we don't get it done this year, we're not going to get it done," he said yesterday in a call to members of Organizing for America, the political group formed to advance his agenda. "And to do that we're going to need all of you to mobilize."

Source is the same Post article cited above.

One of the great failings of the traditional media is that they rarely announce upcoming hearings (the a fore mentioned Post article is a notable exception). Instead, they report afterwords on what was said. The problem with this convention is that citizens do not have the opportunity to contact their legislators ahead of time. The June 11 meeting is only a hearing and will not advance any legislation, but citizens could still contact these Senators and let their concerns be aired (hint, hint). Ideally, citizens' top concerns would be the basis for questions Senators pose to the witnesses.

The specialized media is better with this, but they are not always perfect. If you have a pet issue, find the relevant committee and book mark the hearings page. Check it regularly and watch for any upcoming hearings. I also want to give a shout out to David Waldman and his work on "Today in Congress." The place to find committee hearings is "Below the Fold" and it is only that day's hearings, but it is more than most news outlets give us.

Nomination Hearing

Like most other Senate committees, the HELP committee holds hearings on many executive branch appointments. In case you were wondering, Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg will likely be the next Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Here is her biography and here is her confirmation hearing.

Why do I bother taking up bandwidth making this point? Frankly, it really is that important. The legislature approves top level people to Executive Branch agencies. Many agencies have "rule-making" authority. Congress passes the laws, but it is often up to the Executive Branch agencies to create rules to implement the laws. For example, the HELP Committee reported a bill in May that would allow the FDA to "regulate tobacco products" (PDF link). Well, what does that mean in practical terms? Consider this excerpt from The Medical News:

Under the bill, FDA could ban certain tobacco products, such as candy-flavored cigarettes, restrict tobacco advertising to black-and-white ads, and prohibit use of the terms "mild" and "low tar" (Yoest/Mundy, Wall Street Journal, 5/21). FDA also could limit the amount of nicotine in tobacco products, as well as enlarge warning labels. To pay for the new regulatory efforts, the bill would require all tobacco companies to pay a fee that would raise nearly $5.4 billion over the first 10 years.

Bold is mine.

Basically, the bill gives the FDA broad authority to further regulate tobacco products, but it is up to the FDA to actually force a change in the warning label for example. Furthermore, under this language the FDA does not have to do a thing. Since the boss has ultimate authority, Dr. Hamburg's views on tobacco regulation will carry a lot of weight in the actual results of this legislation.

Committee Jurisdiction

Getting back to the nuts and bolts of the committee, here is the HELP Committee's jurisdiction under Rule 25 of the Senate's standing rules.

Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, to which committee shall be referred all proposed legislation, messages, petitions, memorials, and other matters relating to the following subjects:
1. Measures relating to education, labor, health, and public welfare.
2. Aging.
3. Agricultural colleges.
4. Arts and humanities.
5. Biomedical research and development.
6. Child labor.
7. Convict labor and the entry of goods made by convicts into interstate commerce.
8. Domestic activities of the American National Red Cross.
9. Equal employment opportunity.
10. Gallaudet University, Howard University, and Saint Elizabeth hospital.
11. Individuals with disabilities.
12. Labor standards and labor statistics.
13. Mediation and arbitration of labor disputes.
14. Occupational safety and health, including the welfare of miners.
15. Private pension plans.
16. Public health.
17. Railway labor and retirement.
18. Regulation of foreign laborers.
19. Student loans.
20. Wages and hours of labor.

Such committee shall also study and review, on a comprehensive basis, matters relating to health, education and training, and public welfare, and report thereon from time to time.

This committee will be key to any discussion of health care reform due to their jurisdiction. However, the Senate Finance Committee also has a claim to any reform plan. Such split jurisdiction can, and often does, lead to turf wars as members of Congress fight over who will take the lead on a given policy rather than on actually crafting legislation. In contrast, Chairman Kennedy and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus issued this statement (pdf link):

For both of us, reforming the nation's health care system to cut cost, improve quality and provide affordable coverage remains the top priority on our two committees. We have worked together closely over many months and will continue to do so. We intend to ensure that our committees report similar and complementary legislation that can be quickly merged into one bill for consideration on the Senate floor before the August recess.

In other words, they are not planning to offer radically different pieces of legislation which might both fail. Instead, they want to work together and advance a viable bill.

A few other notes on jurisdiction: Gallaudet and Howard Universities in Washington were both founded by acts of Congress during the Civil War (Howard was actually founded just after the end of the war). Gallaudet University (along Metro's Red Line) was founded to accommodate deaf and hearing-impaired students. Howard University (along the Yellow and Green Lines) is a historically black university that now produces more on campus African American PhD candidates than any oher university in the world.

Retired railroad workers receive benefits similar to Social Security, but a separate agency was set up in the 1930s to handle those claims. More information about the Railroad Retirement Board is available here.

Finally, that final paragraph of the rule gives the committee oversight power over many Executive Branch agencies. I won't list them all here, but if you are interested go to the committee's page and click on the links for Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions to see the committee's oversight jurisdictions and link to those agencies.


There are only three subcommittees under the full committee. Like the full committee, the subcommittees have wide jurisdictions. The chair and ranking member are ex-officio members of all of the subcommittees.

Subcommittee on Children and Families
: Chris Dodd is the chair and Lamar Alexander is the ranking member.


The Subcommittee has jurisdiction over a wide range of issues including Head Start, the Family Medical Leave Act, child care and child support, and other issues involving children, youth, and families.

Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety: Patty Murray is the chair and Johnny Isakson is the ranking member.


The Subcommittee has jurisdiction over a variety of labor issues including worker health and safety, wage and hour laws, workplace leave, employment trends and workforce training among others.

Subcommittee on Retirement and Aging: Barbara Mikulski is the chair and Richard Burr is the ranking member.


The Subcommittee has oversight over many issues including: Pensions, the Older Americans Act; elder abuse, neglect, and scams affecting seniors; long-term care services for older Americans, family caregiving, and the health of the aging population, including Alzheimer's disease and family caregiving.

That's it for this week. I'm going to plan on writing about the Senate Finance Committee next week, unless I find something more interesting or someone makes a suggestion in the comments.

Past Considered Forthwith entries:
Senate Judiciary Committee
House Energy and Commerce Committee
House Ways and Means Committee
House and Senate Appropriations Committees
House Intelligence Committee
Considered Forthwith: House Judiciary Committee
House and Senate Ethics Committees
House Science and Technology Committee
House Financial Services Committee
House Rules Committee
The Role of Committees