Sunday, June 7, 2009

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


No comments: