Sunday, August 30, 2009

Considered Forthwith: Conference Committees

Welcome to the 20th 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's entry is a little different than usual. With Congress out of session until Sept. 8, there is not much going on in the standing committees. When they do get back, there will be a ton of work to get done, not the least of which will be a health care reform bill and a climate change bill. There are also 13 appropriations bills to handle. Everyone of these will certainly end up in a conference committee. This seems an opportune time to discuss that process.

Under Article I Section 7 of the Constitution, a bill must pass both the House and Senate with the exact same wording before it may be sent to the president for final approval. Since the members of both houses have their own prerogatives and the ability to amend bills, usually only the most routine bills (like naming post offices) go unamended. One notable exception was the additional appropriation of funds to the Cash for Clunkers program.

On less complicated and/or controversial bills, the houses will often "ping-pong" the legislation, giving each the chance to just accept the other chamber's amendments and finally pass the bill. This is essentially what happened with Cash for Clunkers. The added wrinkle was that the House was out of session for more than a month while the Senate debated the bill. Had the Senate even changed a comma, the House would not be back pass the updated version and the program would have died for want of money. In fact, this is what the Republicans tried to do, but failed.

Going to conference

When the "ping-pong" method fails or is obviously not feasible, the two houses pass resolutions request a conference with the other. Could these resolutions be voted down or filibustered? It's conceivable. However, if a bill has garnered enough support to pass both chambers, there is no reason to believe that a resolution to go to conference would fail to gain the same support.

For what it's worth, this item either flew under the radar or we have forgotten about it, but President Obama is planning to let the health care reform battle play itself out in Senate. Then he is planning to get involved more directly during the conference process. The president has no formal role in the process, but it is an opportunity to do some arm-twisting, dealing, and bullying from the pulpit.

Selecting conferees

Without a doubt, this is the key part of the conference committee process. The people who negotiate the final product will obviously bring their own biases to the bargaining table. For this reason, it is vital to pick conference committee members who will likely return a bill that the majority party leadership will find acceptable.

According to the rules of the House (pdf), the Speaker selects the members of the committee:

Committee appointment
11. The Speaker shall appoint all select, joint, and conference committees ordered by the House. At any time after an original appointment, the Speaker may remove Members, Delegates, or the Resident Commissioner from, or appoint additional Members, Delegates, or the Resident Commissioner to, a select or conference committee. In appointing Members, Delegates, or the Resident Commissioner to conference committees, the Speaker shall appoint no less than a majority who generally supported the House position as determined by the Speaker, shall name those who are primarily responsible for the legislation, and shall, to the fullest extent feasible, include the principal proponents of the major provisions of the bill or resolution passed or adopted by the House.

Similarly, the power to appoint conferees from the Senate falls to the presiding officer. These appointments are subject to a debatable (and thus subject to a Senate filibuster) resolution, so it is important to select committee members who will be acceptable to a majority of the chamber. Just like standing committees, members of the minority parties are included in the conference committee, but this is not always particularly important since the minority can be frozen out of the substantive part of negotiations. See more discussion below.

In actual practice, though, the chairs and ranking members of the relevant standing committees usually have the inside track on appointment to the conference committee. Additionally, the parties' leaderships are heavily involved in the process on major bills. This means that the final vote on the conferees is often not controversial, but the behind-the-scenes process may be highly contentious. That said, the Democrats when they were in the minority, did sometimes attempt to filibuster these resolutions when they felt excluded from conference committees.,

For the health care reform bill, that means the Democrats will almost certainly appoint Max Baucus, Chris Dodd, Henry Waxman, George Miller and Charlie Rangel (presumably among others) to the conference committee on whatever bills emerge.

There is no upper or lower limit to the number of members that each chamber may appoint to a conference committee. Indeed, committees that deal with large omnibus bills are often huge and split into subcommittees to work are various sections of the bill under consideration. The 1981 Omnibus Reconciliation Act set a record with 250 members working on different parts of the bill in conference. (No link, but noted in Congress and Its Members by Davidson, Oleszek, and Lee on page 268.)

During this process, the houses may also pass resolutions expressing what they would like to see ultimately emerge. The conferees are not formally bound to such resolutions, but there is always the possibility that the full body will vote down the final conference report (i.e. the final bill).


Conference committees are, for all intents and purposes, a forum for negotiations. Ultimately, they must report out a bill that both chambers will find acceptable and pass. This requires a simple majority of committee members to vote for passage. Like regular standing committees, there are always more majority party members than minority party members, meaning a united group of Democratic Senators and Representatives can report out a Democratic bill that will likely pass both chambers and be signed into law. Keep in mind that the conference committee is intended to be a negotiation between the House and Senate, not between Democrats and Republicans.

It is important to remember that there is a time limit on debate on conference committee reports in the Senate. Therefore, it is not subject to a filibuster. Additionally, amendments are not allow as this would pretty much defeat the point of having a conference committee. If either chamber fails to pass the final bill, it dies.

Another important point is that the conference committee cannot add new material, nor can it remove anything that is included in both versions. Using the example of Cap-and-Trade and the climate change bill:

1. If Cap and Trade is not included in either bill sent in from the two chambers, it cannot be inserted into the final bill.

2. If it is in both in identical form, the program could not be touched by the conference committee, but other provisions of the bill are up for negotiations.

3. If it is in both bills, but in different forms, the program stays, but the terms can be negotiated.

4. If it is in one bill but not the other, the program could be cut entirely, included as is, or included in a modified form.

This is why it is important to pass bills with favored policies (like a public option, for example) in at least one of the chambers and to appoint conferees who will fight for those policies. This is also the reason why it is not necessarily the worst possible situation if the House passes a public option, but the Senate does not as Orrin Hatch threatened today.

Davidson, Oleszak and Lee note (page 206) that there are four basic types of negotiations formats used in conference committees. Note that this process might take days or weeks and include multiple meetings.

Traditional: The conferees all come together and hash out the differences in the bill in a familiar negotiating format until they reach a compromise on all of differences in the bills.

Offer-counter offer: Often used for tax measures, this is a format favored in union-management negotiations. One side will make an offer. The other side will retire to consider the offer and come back with their own counter offer. Eventually, a final compromise report will emerge.

Subcommittee: As noted above, omnibus bills are usually too large for a committee to tackle wholesale. On bills like this, the committee may divide itself up into subcommittees and negotiate the various conflicting provisions piecemeal. After all of the subcommittees are done, the final bill is assembled and voted upon. This, of course, illustrates the basic problem with "must pass" omnibus bills. Even the members on the conference committee don't know what all is included in the bill.

Pro-forma: The conference committee must meet initially for an opening session and meet to vote on final approval. Beyond that, there are no requirements for actually holding formal negotiating sessions. When they were in the majority, Congressional Republicans were particularly fond of conducting negotiations among themselves in private, calling a meeting of the committee, and voting as a bloc on the report/bill that they had previously hammered out. Democrats, feeling they had been frozen out of negotiations, retaliated by sometimes filibustering and otherwise delaying the naming of conference committee members on subsequent conference committee resolutions.

When the Democrats took over in 2007, the leadership pledged to both open the process and legitimately include Republicans in the process. Health care reform and climate change will be some of the first major bills on which the Democrats can live up to these promises. With the veto crayon wielding George W. Bush in the White House and only bare majorities in Congress the Dems in the 110th Congress did not have the opportunity to push for major legislation like these measures before now.

Openness and power

Even with the Democrats new openness rules, there are no guarantees that the public will be able to see anything other than the opening session and final vote on C-Span or streaming on line when the conference committees start to meet this fall. Even if we do see some actual bargaining, it is not only possible, but probable, that the actual Democratic proposals will be worked out ahead of time. Considering the commitment to obstruction path on which the GOP seems set, there really seems little reason to include them in the process anyway.

There has been some criticism of the conference committee system for putting too much power into a largely unaccountable group of Senators and Representatives. Others point out that these members are simply acting on behalf of the leadership of their respective chambers and not significantly changing policy. I tend to side with the latter view, but I do think the process should be more open. At any rate, if you are following health care reform and/or climate change, be sure to keep up with the conference committee appointments.

For more about other committees, check out my previous work:
Senate and House Budget Committees
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
Senate and House Armed Services Committees
Small Business Committees
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming
The Committee Primer
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 at Congress Matters, Daily Kos, Docudharma, and Progressive Electorate

Not a spammer site

Yesterday, I received a notification that this site had been identified as a "spammer." Rest assured that this is not the case. My best guess is that I have been asked to submit my Considered Forthwith series, written under my nom de blog "Casual Wednesday," at so many places that Blogger/Google's computers raised some red flags.

I post my series at these sites:

Daily Kos
Congress Matters
Progressive Electorate

I feel so syndicated now.

I have e-mailed Blogger/Google and requested a real person to review the site.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Filling Sen. Kennedy's seat

Originally posted at Congress Matters.

With the passing of the Lion of the Senate, the question now turns to who will fill his seat. As much as I think Barney Frank is one of the few people who can live up to Uncle Teddy's legacy, I am nominating Eric Mogilnicki, Kennedy's chief of staff. Follow me on this.

Less than a week before his death, the always forward-looking Kennedy urged his state to prepare for his imminent passing. He of all people recognized that he was not mortal and that someone else would need to carry on his work, particularly on health care reform. Kennedy was obviously focused on the political calculus. The vote of a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts will almost certainly be needed to pass a meaningful public option during this session of Congress.

The problem is that a special election to fill the seat cannot possibly take place in time to seat someone before any vote will be held.

From The Hill

The special election must be held between 145 and 160 days after the vacancy occurs. Since Kennedy died late Tuesday, that puts the window between Jan. 17 and Feb. 1. Holding the race on a Tuesday, a traditional Election Day, would mean Jan. 18, Jan. 25 or Feb. 1.

Kennedy wanted the state legislature to change a 2004 law setting the special election, but forbidding the governor from appointing even a temporary "seat warmer." This law was passed to prevent then governor Mitt "Mittens" Romney from appointing a Republican to fill a seat left vacant by a possible President John Kerry. With a Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, now in office in this overwhelmingly Democratic state, the dynamic has changed. (One question, why did you vote for Mittens, Massachusetts?)

From the New York Times

Abby Goodnough, The Times’s Boston bureau chief, noted in an article published today that Gov. Deval Patrick spoke with the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, on Wednesday. The topic at hand is how and when to fill the seat long held by the state’s senior senator. On Wednesday, the governor vocally and publicly endorsed Mr. Kennedy’s wishes that a special appointment be made to replace him, in lieu of state law providing for a special election several months hence.

And it looks like the state legislature is willing to go along.

Also from the Times:

Wednesday, Democrats in Washington stepped up pressure on the governor to see Mr. Kennedy’s wish fulfilled, and state legislative leaders said they would immerse themselves in the issue after a mourning period for Mr. Kennedy.


The governor said he would sign a change in the law if the legislature approved it. He said it was important for Massachusetts to have two voices in the Senate as Congress prepares to vote on overhauling the health care system — contentious legislation whose passage may well require every Democratic vote.

And we assume that anyone Patrick appoints would be in favor of the public option. (For some odd reason, Mittens fairly publicly took himself out of the running for the seat. Hey, I'm not seeking that seat, either. Can I get a story over here?)

Is this all blatantly partisan? You betcha. Can Massachusetts actually decide the ultimate fate of health care reform? Yep, in much the same way as six Senator representing 2.75 percent of the country can save or kill reform. Sorry. That's politics. As a partisan, I'm all about this change in the rules. As a student of politics, I'm uneasy about abruptly changing the rules for political expediency.

The individual states, as we are aware, are responsible for replacing their own Senators and they all have a motivation to select a replacement as quickly as possible. When Barack Obama and Joe Biden were elected, four states found themselves in this unenviable position. The results were, shall we say, mixed. We had:

The best possible decision,

A jockey for position that went largely unnoticed outside of Colorado,

A comi-tragedy that played itself out on the national stage and,

What can be charitably described as a gigantic clusterfuck

The American people absolutely must be allowed to vote for Senate replacements. They also absolutely deserve representation in that body and a vacant Senate seat is patently unfair to the residents of that state. Exhibit A: Minnesota.

Therefore, the governors of each state ought to retain the power to appoint a "benchwarmer" until an election can be held. Should he/she be required to pick someone of the same party as the outgoing or deceased Senator? No. Obviously, a Romney-Kerry dynamic is problematic. A governor who is allowed to pick anyone to serve temporarily has an incentive to appoint a strong member of his/her own party. If the governor is required by statute to pick someone from the opposite party, the obvious option is to pick a corrupt ditch digger who happens to be a member of the party.

This is why I have always thought that the appointment of Ted Kaufman to fill Joe Biden's seat until the next election. Kaufman was Biden's 19-year chief of staff. This person essentially acts as a vice senator, generally holds the same views as the boss, and knows what is going on in the office. This person, in almost every case, would be a hard worker who reflect the views of the person who was elected.

I would offer this as the best reform. Elevate the chief of staff to the Senate until a special election can be held. I still don't like that Kaufman will be in office until Joe's son runs in 2010, but it is the best we could do under the rules.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Considered Forthwith: Budget Committees and reconciliation

Welcome to the 20th 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.

Since we are all interested in passing the public option through reconciliation, this seems an opportune time to look at the House and Senate Budget committees that have jurisdiction over reconciliation. This process, which has existed since 1974, is not used every year, but is being actively considered this year. The major function of the budget committees, however, is to handle the budget resolution, which was done months ago. (CF regrettably missed that opportunity to discuss the Budget Committees.)

Members and Jurisdiction

Normally I list all of the members of the committees and their jurisdictions here. This will be a lengthy and substantive entry, so here are links to the House members, Senate Democratic and Republican members and official statements of jurisdiction of the House and Senate committees.

Kent Conrad is the chair and Judd Gregg is the ranking member of the Senate Committee. John Spratt is the House committee chair and Paul Ryan is the ranking member.

Neither committee has any subcommittees.


Reconciliation is not the main function annual function of the committees. That would be writing the annual budget resolution, which is discussed below. The Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 established the modern budget process including the optional reconciliation process and the budget resolution. Reconciliation... utilized when Congress issues directives to legislate policy changes in mandatory spending (entitlements) or revenue programs (tax laws) to achieve the goals in spending and revenue contemplated by the budget resolution. First used in1980 this process was used at the end of a fiscal year to enact legislation to fine tune revenue and spending levels through legislation that could not be filibustered in the Senate. The policy changes brought about by this part of the budget process have served as constraints on the levels of mandatory spending and federal tax revenues which also has served since 1981 as a vehicle for deficit reduction.

Reconciliation is immune to a filibuster because debate is limited to 20 hours by the statute. That's why we are considering using reconciliation to pass health care reform, or at least the public option. With out the filibuster threat, the Democrats only need to muster 50 votes plus the vice president's tie breaker for passage.

The health care reform bill was included in both the House and Senate budget resolutions for fiscal year 2010. More on the process of this below. The important point is that reconciliation was included in the budget resolutions, so the reconciliation process may take place this year.

Under the rules of reconciliation, the budget committees direct the authorizing committees to submit their pieces of the reconciliation bill. It is up to the budget committees to combine these bills into one omnibus bill to be reported to the full chamber with fiscal reports from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation. (Honestly, I cannot make heads or tales of the current reports on the reform bills. However, I do see a few key Blue Dogs, including Max Baucus and Kent Conrad on the committee.) The work of the Budget committees, however, is largely administrative since they are not allowed to make substantive changes to the bills that make up the omnibus. If the public option, for example, is in one bill, then it will be in the omnibus.

From there, the bill goes through the normal floor votes and conference report process with the exception of the 20 hour limit on debate in the Senate and the possibility of points of order outlined next.

At the moment, our current debate is not so much whether the public option can pass under reconciliation. The current whip count seems to indicate that a majority are in favor of establishing a public health insurance agency. The real problem is whether the public option may even be included in a budget reconciliation bill. This is due to the Byrd Rule. The Byrd Rule rule, originally propagated by Senator Robert Byrd in the mid 1980s, defines what constitutes "extraneous matter" that would be subject to a point of order by any Senator. These six tests for identifying extraneous matter are:

* do not produce a change in outlays or revenues;

* produce changes in outlays or revenue which are merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the provision;

* are outside the jurisdiction of the committee that submitted the title or provision for inclusion in the reconciliation measure;

* increase outlays or decrease revenue if the provision's title, as a whole, fails to achieve the Senate reporting committee's reconciliation instructions;

* increase net outlays or decrease revenue during a fiscal year after the years covered by the reconciliation bill unless the provision's title, as a whole, remains budget neutral;

* contain recommendations regarding the OASDI (social security) trust funds.

A point of order can be waived if 60 members vote in favor of waiving it. If the point of order is upheld, the provision would be struck from the bill. Of course, that essentially defeats the point of running the public option through reconciliation to get around the filibuster threat. Now, there are some exceptions to the Byrd Rule that can eliminate the point of order. They are:

* a provision that mitigates direct effects attributable to a second provision which changes outlays or revenue when the provisions together produce a net reduction in outlays;

* the provision will result in a substantial reduction in outlays or a substantial increase in revenues during fiscal years after the fiscal years covered by the reconciliation bill;

* the provision will likely reduce outlays or increase revenues based on actions that are not currently projected by CBO for scorekeeping purposes; or

* such provision will likely produce significant reduction in outlays or increase in revenues, but due to insufficient data such reduction or increase cannot be reliably estimated.

When a member makes a point of order, the presiding member rules whether or not it is in order (i.e may even be voted upon). In making this decision, the presiding member confers with the parliamentarian. The parliamentarian is a non-partisan professional who has gone through years of training in the rule and procedures of Congress. When the parliamentarian makes a decision it is highly likely that the presiding officer will rule the same way. The presiding officer, of course, may rule the other way. However, this sets a dangerous precedent. Essentially, the presiding officer is saying that it is fine to disregard the finer points of the chamber rules as interpreted by the person who was hired to know this information.

It seems very likely that the public option would violate one or more of the tests of the Byrd Rule. Therefore, the supporters will need to show that it meets one of the exceptions. In other words, they will need to show that it will save money in the long run despite the required start up costs. This will also necessarily require splitting the bill into the financial components and the sections that do not affect the federal budget.

In this case, the parliamentarian's decision would be heavily influenced by estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation (linked above and the subject of next week's entry). This seems like a good time to discuss CBO, over which the committees have jurisdiction.

Congressional Budget Office

CBO was also created by the 1974 budget reform act to serve as a source of objective budget information and long-term spending and revenue projections for Congress. Their reports do not include policy recommendations. In other words, the numbers are what they are. However, the CBO director, under Congressional testimony can be pressed for recommendations based on the office's reports and studies.

CBO is not to be confused with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which does similar work for the President. The CBO budget for FY 2009 is $44.1 million and employs 235 people, most of whom hold advanced degrees in public policy or economics. OMB's FY 2009 budget is about $72.8 million and has a work force of 489 full time equivalents, meaning that their employees work the equivalent of 489 40-hour weeks. Why have two budget offices? Long-term budget projections are as much art as science. Two sets of experts can come to radically different conclusions on budget forecasts. Therefore it is advisable to essentially get a second opinion.

One major role of the CBO is to produce a cost estimate on every bill that is reported from any committee. In mid July, CBO released a report on the Democrats' health care reform plan. The Senate Budget Committee promptly held a hearing with CBO director Douglas Elmendorf. The result of this hearing was the revelation that the current plan might be a drain on the budget, which sent the fiscal conservatives into a panic and made them waver in their support for a government-run health insurance company. The July 16 hearing was really a turning point in the debate. This hearing also illustrates another key power of the Budget committees: through their hearings the members have the opportunity to shape budget debates.

Like any economic projection, these numbers are only estimate. Furthermore, CBO is quick to point out that the July projections are not based on complete information:

The figures released yesterday do not represent a complete cost estimate for the legislation. In particular, the estimated impact of the provisions related to health insurance coverage is based on specifications provided by the committee staff, rather than on a detailed analysis of the legislative language.

That means that additional information may change the budget forecasts. I have also heard an argument that allowing the Bush tax cuts (which were also passed under reconciliation incidentally) could cover the costs of the public option.

To be accurate, the July time line looked like this: CBO released a preliminary analysis of the House bill July 14. The Senate Budget Committee held their hearing July 16. CBO released it's latest report July 17.

To keep up to date with CBO's health care reform reports, bookmark this page. The climate change reports are here.

The other major roles of CBO include overseeing the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP, or the bank bailout), making long-term projections on the budget and entitlement programs, issuing monthly budget reports to Congress on current incomes and outlays, and assisting with the annual budget resolutions.

Budget resolutions

For a full rundown of the budget process, please see my primer on the budget process.

A major role of the Budget committees is to produce the annual budget resolutions. These are brief statements outlining the amount of money that may be spent on each of 21 "budget functions." The budget functions are listed herehere. If the President and Congress are of the same party, the budget resolutions will be largely based on a President's budget. If relations between Congress and the President are strained, the budget could be declared "dead on arrival" and the budget resolution will be radically different from the President's budget.

In addition, any reconciliation plans must be included in the budget resolution. Under the original 1974 budget reform act, two resolutions were required and reconciliation happened in the second resolution in the fall. This was problematic, The point of reconciliation is to reduce spending or increase resolution. However, by the fall the appropriations committees have already settled on the outlays and it proved difficult to cut funding that had already been appropriated. After that experience, Congress shifted to using only a single budget resolution in early spring.

Once the Budget committees report the budget resolutions, they go to the full chamber for a vote. The resolution is not subject to a filibuster in the Senate as debate is limited to 50 hours. These resolutions become rules of the chamber and it takes a supermajority votes to exceed spending limits to spend more than the amount listed in the resolution.

Ongoing studies

Finally, the committees continue to oversee the budget process and study proposals to change the current budget or the process in general. For example, the House Budget Committee has held hearings on PAYGO (a law requiring all spending to be covered by revenue or spending cuts elsewhere), the economic case for health care reform, and Budgeting for Nuclear Waste Management. The Senate Committee has held fewer hearings and several recent ones have focused on Chairman Conrad's home state of North Dakota.

Finally, if anyone is still under the delusion that the Republicans operated like the party of fiscal responsibility under George W. Bush, consider these numbers from the House Budget Committee which were current as of November, 2008 just after the election:

Budget Surplus or Deficit:
Fiscal Year 2001: surplus of $128 billion
Fiscal Year 2008 as projected in 2001: surplus of $635 billion
Fiscal Year 2008 (actual): deficit of $455 billion
Fiscal Year 2009 projected in the Administration's July 2008 Mid Session Review: deficit of $482 billion

Debt held by the public in January 2001: $3.4 trillion
Debt held by the public in November 2008: $6.3 trillion
Statutory debt limit* in January 2001: $5.6 trillion
Statutory debt limit* now: $11.3 trillion
*(Statutory debt limit includes debt held by the public and intragovernmental holdings)

Foreign-Held Debt:
Foreign-held debt: $2.7 trillion - more than two and half times its level in 2001
More than 80 cents of every dollar of new debt is bought by foreign investors

Interest on National Debt:
Fiscal Year 2008 debt service as projected in 2001: $27 billion
Fiscal Year 2008 debt service (actual): $249 billion

For more about other committees, check out my previous work:
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
Senate and House Armed Services Committees
Small Business Committees
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming
The Committee Primer
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 Docudharma, Congress Matters and Daily Kos.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bachmann: Keep your Kenyan Shillings out of my country

Crossposted at my new regular gig at Congress Matters.

This one is not really news. Instead this nugget of hilarity has flown well under the radar where it belongs.

Noted birther Michele Bachmann (R-Outer Xenophobia) introduced a House Resolution back in March to get the gears in motion to amend the U.S. Constitution. This one is a beaut.

HJ Res 41 proposes an amendment to the Constitution that would:

prohibit the President from entering into a treaty or other international agreement that would provide for the United States to adopt as legal tender in the United States a currency issued by an entity other than the United States.

I don't know what is going through Rep. Bachmann's mind that would convince her that this is a pressing issue (I'm guessing oxygen). The only logical conclusion to draw is that Rep. Bachmann is concerned that a United States ruled by Barack Obama will force the country to adopt the Kenyan Shilling. I know the economy is in rough shape, but this is stretching the bounds of reality a bit far even for the winggers.

The fact that Bachmann felt the need introduce this legislation is bad enough, but she has 37 co-sponsors or 8.5 percent of the House of Representatives. Here they are along with the date they signed on.

Rep Akin, W. Todd [MO-2] - 3/25/2009
Rep Bachus, Spencer [AL-6] - 3/30/2009
Rep Bartlett, Roscoe G. [MD-6] - 3/25/2009
Rep Barton, Joe [TX-6] - 4/21/2009
Rep Biggert, Judy [IL-13] - 3/25/2009
Rep Blackburn, Marsha [TN-7] - 3/25/2009
Rep Broun, Paul C. [GA-10] - 3/25/2009
Rep Brown, Henry E., Jr. [SC-1] - 3/25/2009
Rep Burton, Dan [IN-5] - 3/25/2009
Rep Conaway, K. Michael [TX-11] - 3/25/2009
Rep Culberson, John Abney [TX-7] - 3/25/2009
Rep Duncan, John J., Jr. [TN-2] - 7/29/2009
Rep Fallin, Mary [OK-5] - 3/25/2009
Rep Fleming, John [LA-4] - 3/25/2009
Rep Foxx, Virginia [NC-5] - 3/25/2009
Rep Franks, Trent [AZ-2] - 4/1/2009
Rep Gingrey, Phil [GA-11] - 3/25/2009
Rep Gohmert, Louie [TX-1] - 3/25/2009
Rep Hensarling, Jeb [TX-5] - 3/25/2009
Rep Hoekstra, Peter [MI-2] - 4/2/2009
Rep Issa, Darrell E. [CA-49] - 3/25/2009
Rep Jones, Walter B., Jr. [NC-3] - 3/25/2009
Rep King, Steve [IA-5] - 3/25/2009
Rep Kirk, Mark Steven [IL-10] - 3/25/2009
Rep Lamborn, Doug [CO-5] - 3/25/2009
Rep Marchant, Kenny [TX-24] - 4/2/2009
Rep McClintock, Tom [CA-4] - 3/25/2009
Rep McCotter, Thaddeus G. [MI-11] - 3/30/2009
Rep Paul, Ron [TX-14] - 3/25/2009
Rep Pitts, Joseph R. [PA-16] - 3/25/2009
Rep Platts, Todd Russell [PA-19] - 4/27/2009
Rep Posey, Bill [FL-15] - 3/25/2009
Rep Price, Tom [GA-6] - 3/25/2009
Rep Roe, David P. [TN-1] - 3/25/2009
Rep Shadegg, John B. [AZ-3] - 3/25/2009
Rep Thompson, Glenn [PA-5] - 3/25/2009
Rep Wamp, Zach [TN-3] - 3/25/2009

HJ Res 41 was sent to the House Judiciary Committee and later sent to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, which handles proposed constitutional amendments, where it will almost certainly die unless chairman Jerrold Nadler goes suddenly and irreversibly insane. On the other hand, three of the co-sponsors are also Republican members of the subcommittee. This is why control of the committees is important.

So, yea. Have at it....

Note: This is the first of an occasional series that I am considering that would highlight the more ludicrous bills that are introduced in Congress. This is why thousands of bills are introduced each Congress, but only a few hundred ever pass and most of these are bills to name the post office in Nowheresville, Minnesota for Ronald Reagan. It's also why Legislative Counsel has one of the least enviable jobs in Washington. This idea was inspired by Magnifico.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

New gig

Just a quick note. I was recently invited to be a contributing editor at Congress Matters. We are all about the process of the legislative progress.

I blog as Casual Wednesday. Come check it out.

Considered Forthwith: Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Welcome to the 19th 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.

Even though Congress is out of session and the members are back home getting shouted down and physically assaulted by lobbyist-funded mobs of teabaggers, there are still a few things going on in the committees. This week, I will look at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has two field meetings (in Alaska and Colorado) scheduled this month.

Here are the members of the committee:

Democrats: Jeff Bingaman (NM), Chair; Byron L. Dorgan (ND); Ron Wyden (OR); Tim Johnson (SD); Mary L. Landrieu (LA); Maria Cantwell (WA); Robert Menendez (NJ); Blanche Lincoln (AR); Bernard Sanders (I) (VT); Evan Bayh (IN); Debbie Stabenow (MI); Mark Udall (CO); Jeanne Shaheen (NH)

Republicans: Lisa Murkowski (AK), Ranking member; Richard Burr (NC); John Barrasso (WY); Sam Brownback (KS); James E. Risch (ID); John McCain (AZ); Robert Bennett (UT); Jim Bunning (KY); Jeff Sessions (AL); Bob Corker (TN)


As suggested by the committee's name, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee generally oversees American energy policy and policies related to most non-military public lands (mainly those lands held by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service). Some other issues under the purview of the committee include Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Native Hawaiian matters, nuclear waste disposal, territorial claims including matters related to Antarctica, preservation of prehistoric sites, and irrigation. A full rundown of the jurisdiction of the full and subcommittees is available here.

This committee assignment is particularly attractive to Western Senators since most of the American public lands are in the West. Here is a map showing the BLM land holdings. This .pdf file shows the total public and private ownership of U.S. forests. Note that this also includes state-owned forest lands. This map shows percentages of land owned by the Forest Service by state. Finally, this one shows the percent of each state's area that is owned by the federal government.

As a result, the committee tends to be rather non-partisan and more interested in regional interests rather than party ones at least on land and resource extraction issues.

A Sustainable "Cash for Clunkers" Program

After seeing the success of the Cash for Clunkers program, Committee Chair Bingaman and Senator Olympia Snowe have crafted a bill to revise the program and make it a long term policy. S. 1620 would revise the tax code to offer tax credits or instant rebates to anyone purchasing a car or truck that exceeds CAFE standards for that automobile's class. The bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee since it primarily deals with revisions to the tax code.

Sure, it is essentially a middle and upper income tax cut since those people will be the ones most likely to buy a spiffy new fuel efficient car. It's also a market incentive to the car companies to turn out more fuel efficient automobiles. This is one of those bills we should track, analyze and push forward if it seems viable. .

Upcoming Hearings

Energy and Natural Resources only has two hearings scheduled during the August recess. On Aug. 22, they are meeting in Alaska to discuss the impact of renewable energy production on rural areas. Murkowski is hosting this hearing at Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks which opened the state's first geothermal power plant in 2006.

The other hearing will be a meeting of the National Parks Subcommittee on Aug. 24. They will learn about the impact of global warming on Colorado's national parks. The meeting will be held in Board Room of Town Hall, 170 MacGregor Avenue, Estes Park at 1:30 p.m. if anyone is interested. And yes, Mark Udall of Colorado is the subcommittee chair.

Cap and Trade

Also known as the American Clean Energy Leadership Act, the bill was reported out of committee in July. However, I cannot find a mention of the actual Cap and Trade program in the Senate version. The program is specifically discussed in the House version. On the other hand, there is a lot of other interesting stuff in the Senate bill including carbon sequestration, incentives for green buildings and alternative energy production, and nuclear waste disposal and recycling. Here is some information from the committee on the bill. The good news for Cap and Trade proponents is that adding Cap and Trade by amendment is easier in the House than the Senate.

Committee History

This is a very abbreviated history. Use this link for a more complete committee history.

Americans have always held land ownership in a regard approaching religious conviction. Land ownership is part of the American dream. Indeed many European colonists and later immigrants (notably the Irish immigrants) saw the New World as the key to escaping feudalistic systems in which peasants worked land owned by wealthy landlords. Indeed, purchasing a house and a small piece of land is among the first priorities of American newlyweds.

At this point, it seems appropriate to point out that much of the land on the North American continent was stolen from the Native Americans who already lived here. Even land that Europeans "purchased" like Manhattan Island was bought for a pittance. To dispel a few myths, the original purchase was for some useful trade goods worth 60 Dutch Gilders, equivalent to about $1000 today. There is also some evidence that Peter Minuit negotiated the purchase with a tribe that did not even live on the island.

The first major land annex in American history was the Louisiana Purchase from France for $15 million, equal to about $213 million today. Contemporary opposition to the deal aside, the federal government had done a major land deal and doubled the size of the country. Almost immediately, the federal government felt the pressure to open the land to settlement. It should go without saying that the settlement was by White people at the expense of Native Americans who had called the land "home" for millennia.

The Executive Branch General Land Office was created in 1812 to oversee the distribution of Western land. This was also the era of the rise of the committee system and the Senate Committee on Public Land was created in 1816 to take the lead on federal land policy. Depending on the policy of the day and the land, settlers brave enough to leave the relative safety of the Eastern Seaboard could own homesteads cheap or free. For one thing, the nation had an interest in populating the land. For another thing the Louisiana Purchase and subsequent land "acquisitions" (Mexico probably has a different perspective on the issue) were done with public resources (i.e. taxes), so American citizens were certainly entitled to a piece of the land.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the beginnings of land preservation as the federal government started to set aside lands that would not be distributed to individuals. Instead that land was set aside for public use and included forests, open spaces, and managed parks (including historic sites). Around the same time, some states established their own forest systems. This raised still unresolved questions over how much access to public lands should be afforded to individuals and ranchers as well as business interests like loggers, miners, and natural gas and oil drillers. It should come as no surprise that the Libertarian Cato Institute would like to see much of the public land privatized.

In 1921, the committee was renamed the Committee on Public Lands and Surveys after gaining jurisdiction over geological surveys. Following World War II, the committee gained jurisdiction over trust territories awarded to the United States following the defeat of the Japanese Empire. In 1948, the committee was again renamed the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs with jurisdiction over both public lands and the mineral rights to those lands. In addition, the committee had jurisdiction over the process of awarding statehood to Alaska and Hawai'i.

By the 1970s, the link between mineral extraction and environmental degradation became clear. Meanwhile, the oil embargoes exposed the country's (still unresolved) strategic vulnerability of reliance on foreign energy sources. In 1977 the committee became the modern Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The realignment confirmed the committee's role in American energy policy, but took away most of its responsibility for policies related to Native American affairs.


The jurisdictions of the subcommittees are listed under the main jurisdiction link above. However, here are the four current subcommittees and leaderships. As with many other committees, the chair and ranking members are ex-officio members of the subcommittees.

Energy: Maria Cantwell is the chair and James E. Risch is the ranking member.
National Parks: Mark Udall is the chair and Richard Burr is the ranking member.
Public Lands and Forests: Ron Wyden is the chair John Barrasso is the ranking member.
Water and Power: Debbie Stabenow is the chair and Sam Brownback is the ranking member.

That's it for this week. I will be at Netroots Nation next week, so the chances of posting Considered Forthwith next week is minimal.

For more about other committees, check out my previous work:
Senate and House Armed Services Committees
Small Business Committees
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming
The Committee Primer
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, Docudharma, and my own blog.