Sunday, September 27, 2009

Considered Forthwith: House Transportation Committee

Welcome to the 23rd 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 discusses the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. This is an authorizing committee that has the initial authority over the nation's public works projects. This authority encompasses everything from repaving highways to parts of the Clean Water Act to the government involvement in the Katrina rebuilding effort.


This is a huge committee, which is not at all surprising. There is not a district in the county that could not use public works projects like highways, levees, bridges, railroads, and public buildings. Citizens pay taxes for these things and and expect results. To put it more cynically, this is the committee where members can get their pet issues authorized and thus take the credit at election time. If you are on the authorizing committee, there is a better chance of your project getting approved. As a result, this is a very attractive committee assignment.

Instead of wasting a lot of space listing every member, the committee members are listed on the web page. Take a peek and see if your congresscritter is on the committee. James Oberstar of Minnesota is the chair and John Mica of Florida is the ranking member.


Here is the formal statement of the committee's jurisdiction:

* Coast Guard, including lifesaving service, lighthouses, lightships, ocean derelicts, and the Coast Guard Academy.
* Federal management of emergencies and natural disasters.
* Flood control and improvement of rivers and harbors.
* Inland waterways.
* Inspection of merchant marine vessels, lights and signals, lifesaving equipment, and fire protection on such vessels.
* Navigation and laws relating thereto, including pilotage.
* Registering and licensing of vessels and small boats.
* Rules and international arrangements to prevent collisions at sea.
* The Capitol Building and the Senate and House Office Buildings.
* Construction or maintenance of roads and post roads (other than appropriations therefor).
* Construction or reconstruction, maintenance, and care of buildings and grounds of the Botanic Garden, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution.
* Merchant marine (except for national security aspects thereof).
* Purchase of sites and construction of post offices, customhouses, Federal courthouses, and Government buildings within the District of Columbia.
* Oil and other pollution of navigable waters, including inland, coastal, and ocean waters.
* Marine affairs, including coastal zone management, as they relate to oil and other pollution of navigable waters.
* Public buildings and occupied or improved grounds of the United States generally.
* Public works for the benefit of navigation, including bridges and dams (other than international bridges and dams).
* Related transportation regulatory agencies.
* Roads and the safety thereof.
* Transportation, including civil aviation, railroads, water transportation, transportation safety (except automobile safety), transportation infrastructure, transportation labor, and railroad retirement and unemployment (except revenue measures related thereto).
* Water power.

Note that the Coast Guard is a department within the Department of Homeland Security and the House Homeland Security Committee has some jurisdiction over the Coast Guard as well.

Authorizations vs. Appropriations

Transportation and Infrastructure is an authorizing committee, meaning that they approve projects and set spending limits on the projects. No project can proceed until the money to do the projects is included in the relevant appropriations bill and the Appropriations Committee and the relevant subcommittee have jurisdiction over the actual expenditure. Naturally, these bills also have to be approved by the full House and Senate as well.

Identifying projects

Believe it or not, decisions on which projects to authorize are not solely made within the Beltway Bubble with no regard to the needs of the districts. The local needs filter up to the Congressional level and through the Executive Branch bureaucracy with varying levels of effectiveness.

Here is an example using agencies with which I am familiar. Assume that there is a need for a federal highway project in Pennsylvania's Northern Tier. Citizens can contact this agency or go to one of their occasional public hearings intended to accept input on local needs:

NTRPDC is the regional transportation coordinator and liaison between PennDOT and our communities. Getting approved for transportation improvement projects can be a time consuming and detailed process and we help make the process more manageable.

If the project in question is the responsibility of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, then PennDOT and the state legislature will decide if and when the project moves ahead. If the U.S. Department of Transportation has jurisdiction over a project -- if it deals with the Interstate system, for example -- PennDOT would work with US DOT and the members of the state's delegation to Congress to get it on the agenda.

This was exactly what happened with the project to upgrade parts of US Route 15 in Pennsylvania and New York to Interstate status (again, I am very familiar with this particular project). If you click on the link, you will see that the road has been designated the Bud Shuster Highway. Shuster is a former Republican Representative from Pennsylvania's 9th District who chaired this committee for the final six years of his term. He was a champion of highway projects and developed a reputation as the "go to guy" to get highway projects approved. (His son, Bill, now represents the district,sits on this committee and chairs a subcommittee.)

Of course, citizen pressure helps, too. As much as we want to deny it, every time we try to influence the government, we are lobbyists. The real distinction is between real grassroots efforts and the major Washington lobby shops that represent corporate interests to the detriment of citizens. Continuing with the Route 15/I99 example, a regional lobbying group, The Route 15 Coalition, has been lobbying the state and federal government for decades to keep the project rolling.

Committee priorities for 2009

You can read committee's full set of legislative priorities in this .pdf file. The stimulus money, they point out, will help relieve some of the backlog of projects in the near future. A few highlights include:

1. Authorizing the year's "surface transportation" (i.e. highways and mass transit) programs for the year.

2. Re-authorization of the FAA. The Senate has yet to get around to voting on this, but the deadline has been extended until Dec. 31. More information here (.pdf).

3. Address $2.5 billion worth of renovations needed at various Smithsonian museums.

4. Look into building more buildings for federal offices rather than renting space and making existing buildings more energy efficient.

5. Consider a water resources development act.

6. Address waste in emergency recovery efforts, particularly in the Gulf region.

7. High speed rail.

8. Levee and dam safety.

9. Address questions about Global Warming and the impact of automobiles.

10: Reform of the Coast Guard's Deep Water Procurement program. The bill would provide additional oversight (.pdf) on a program that will cost $24 billion over 20 years.

Hearings and Pending Legislation

Note: The full list of hearings is here

The next hearing for the committee will examine "Final Breakthrough on the Billion Dollar Katrina Infrastructure Logjam." What timing! It has only been 49 months since the storm hit (although, in fairness, the Republicans were in charge for the first half of that time). Other upcoming hearings will focus on topics like the emergency alert system, the Coast Guard's search and rescue mission, protection and restoration of the Long Island Sound, and the Clean Water Act (the committee has jurisdiction over pollution of navigable waterways).

FEMA Independence

This is a position that I argued for last year. Some excerpts:

Then came the Decider in Chief. Bush decided that his former campaign manager Joe Allbaugh should be in charge of FEMA. After 9/11, someone in the bureaucracy noticed that acts of terrorism will require disaster response. Therefore, FEMA should become one of 22 agencies incorporated into the new DHS. Notably, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin warned against the move.


Somewhere along the way, Allbaugh hired his old college buddy Mike "heckuva job" Brown, who was FEMA head when Katrina hit. There is evidence that Brown was more interested in his wardrobe and how much time he would have for dinner than actually responding to the disaster. There was plenty of time to prepare for the storm, but Brownie (who had zero emergency management experience) did nothing. As a result, the people in New Orleans were stranded in a football stadium and conference center for days without food, water, or sanitation.

Brown got canned and Congress started an investigation. Initially, there was a push to restore FEMA to its former status it enjoyed as an independent agency. This effort was led by Senators Hillary Clinton, Daniel Akaka, Barbara Boxer, Trent Lott, and Rep. Tom Davis a Republican from Virginia. After a lack of response by FEMA to some ice storms in Oklahoma in January, 2007 the very Republican delegation from that state called for FEMA to regain its independent status as well. This includes Coburn and Inhofe.

It turns out that the only time that FEMA was really effective was during the Clinton era when they were independent, focused on emergency management (instead of preparing for nuclear war as it did under Reagan) and had an emergency management expert leading the agency.

Now Oberstar is pushing for a bill (.pdf) to finally reestablish FEMA as an independent agency. The bill is HR 1174 and plenty more information is available on the committee's home page.

How's your state doing?

Just a quick thought here: Wyoming is Best, Florida Worst in Utilizing Recovery Act Highway Funding

“Our Committee has analyzed the percentage of Recovery Act highway formula funds that have been put out to bid, are under contract, and are underway. Over the past five months, most states have moved forward aggressively to use the highway funds to create and sustain family-wage jobs. According to our analysis, Wyoming has performed the best, with New Hampshire and Oklahoma close behind,” said Rep. Oberstar. “Unfortunately, a few states have fallen far behind in putting their Recovery Act highway formula funds to work. Florida has been the slowest state in utilizing its funding allocation, while Hawaii and South Carolina rank 50th and 49th respectively.”

More information on recovery act transparency rules are available here.


There are six subcommittees under the full committees. The names of the committees are fairly self explanatory and each one has a link to its recent hearings.

Aviation: Jerry F. Costello, Illinois is the chair and Thomas E. Petri, Wisconsin is the ranking member.

Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation: Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland is the chair and Frank LoBiondo, New Jersey is the ranking member.

Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management : Eleanor Holmes Norton, District of Columbia, is the chair and Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida is the ranking member. Delegates from DC and the territories may vote in and chair committees, including the Committee of the Whole, but not on final passage of bills in the House.

Highways and Transit: Peter DeFazio, Oregon is the chair and John J. Duncan, Jr., Tennessee is the ranking member.

Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials: Corrine Brown, Florida is the chair and Bill Shuster, Pennsylvania is the ranking member (like father, like son).

Water Resources and Environment : Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas is the chair and John Boozman, Arkansas is the ranking member.

In case anyone is under any sort of delusions about it, the subcommittee has posted this (.pdf) report: Stagnant Waters: The Legacy of the Bush Administration on the Clean Water Act

"The Bush Administration has presided over the slow, but steady, dismantling of the Clean Water Act."

I will leave it on that note.

For more information, see my past work:

Joint Committee on Taxation
House Oversight Committee
Conference Committees
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

This entry is posted at Congress Matters, Daily Kos, Progressive Electorate and my own blog.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Considered Forthwith: Joint Committe on Taxation

Welcome to the 22nd 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.

And we're back. This week, I will be looking at the Joint Committee on Taxation. With the upcoming Finance Committee mark up of the Baucus bill, this little known committee will be in the spotlight. This is the committee responsible for studying the impact of tax policy and has calculated the revenue projections for the Finance Committee bill (opens a .pdf file).

The Joint Committee on Taxation is not a traditional committee. Its members are specifically drawn from other committees and its role is established by statue in the Internal Revenue Code.


There are always ten members of this committee. Five are from the House Ways and Means Committee and five are from the Senate Committee on Finance. There are three members from the majority party and two from the minority party from each of the committees. In the first year of the Congress, the chair of the Ways and Means Committee chairs the joint committee. In the second year, the chairmanship goes to the Finance Committee chair.

The members for the 111th Congress are:

House: Charlie Rangel, chair; Fortney Pete Stark; Sander M. Levin; Dave Camp; and Wally Herger

Senate: Max Baucus, vice chair; John D. Rockefeller IV; Kent Conrad, Chuck Grassley; and Orrin Hatch

Statutory Role of the Committee

As noted above, the Joint Committee on Taxation does not have a specified jurisdiction under the rules of the House or Senate like the other committees. Instead, the committee's role is spelled out by statute. From the committee's website:

The statutorily prescribed duties of the Joint Committee are:

* To investigate the operation and effects of internal revenue taxes and the administration of such taxes;
* To investigate measures and methods for the simplification of such taxes;
* To make reports to the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Committee on Finance (or to the House and the Senate) on the results of such investigations and studies and to make recommendations; and
* To review any proposed refund or credit of income or estate and gift taxes or certain other taxes set forth in Code section 6405 in excess of $2,000,000.

Under Internal Revenue Code section 8021, the Joint Committee is empowered to:

* Obtain and inspect tax returns and return information (as specified in sec. 6103(f));
* Hold hearings, require attendance of witnesses and production of books, administer oaths, and take testimony;
* Procure printing and binding;
* Make necessary expenditures. In addition, section 8023 authorizes the Joint Committee (or the Chief of Staff), upon approval of the Chairman or Vice-Chairman, to secure tax returns, tax return information or data directly from the IRS or any other executive agency for the purpose of making investigations, reports, and studies relating to internal revenue tax matters, including investigations of the IRS's administration of the tax laws.

In addition to these functions that are specified in the Internal Revenue Code, the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 requires the Joint Committee to provide revenue estimates for all tax legislation considered by either the House or the Senate. Such estimates are the official Congressional estimates for reported tax legislation.

The members of the committee do not actually do the legwork on all of the actual study. Instead, the committee employs a staff of PhD economists, lawyers, and accountants to make the specific projections on expected revenue of any changes in tax policy.

It is worth noting that Congress passes a new revenue bill every year. At any time, these provisions could be struck out, thus eliminating this joint committee. This is probably unlikely to happen, but a possibility nonetheless.

America’s Healthy Future Act Of 2009 (AKA: The Finance bill)

On September 16, the joint committee released its ten year revenue projections if the Finance Committee bill were to pass as is. Use this link to go to a page that will open a .pdf file to see these numbers.

According to ten-year projections, the Finance bill would generate $348.8 billion in revenue over the next decade (starting in 2010) to help pay for the proposed "insurance exchanges." The vast majority of this new revenue -- to the tune of $214.9 billion would come from:

35% excise tax on health coverage in excess of $8,000/$21,000 indexed for inflation by CPI-U; levied at insurer level; employer aggregates and issues information return for insurers indicating amount subject to the excise tax; nondeductible; high 17 state transition relief

This is the tax on the so-called "premium" health insurance plans.

The bill also calls for "fees" (read: taxes with a different name) on health insurance providers, clinical labs, and manufacturers and importers of medical devices and brand name drugs.

And here's me thinking that health care reform was supposed to reduce health care costs.

The Congressional Budget Office took a more comprehensive view of the Baucus plan. According to CBO, this plan would reduce deficits by $49 billion over ten years and:

By 2019, CBO and JCT estimate, the number of nonelderly people who are uninsured would be reduced by about 29 million, leaving about 25 million nonelderly residents uninsured (about one-third of whom would be unauthorized immigrants). Under the proposal, the share of legal nonelderly residents with insurance coverage would rise from about 83 percent currently to about 94 percent. Roughly 25 million people would purchase coverage through the new insurance exchanges, and there would be roughly 11 million more enrollees in Medicaid than is projected under current law.

In other words, the Finance Committee plan only barely covers more than half of the uninsured and a good portion of the newly enrolled end up in Medicaid. So much for hitting those lofty goals of universal coverage. Moreover, 8.25 million brown people who have not yet become citizens (including mothers delivering newly minted full citizens) are frozen out of the system. Of course, this should assuage any knuckdragger fears that we are treating non-citizens like human beings.

Revenue streams for HR 3200

In case anyone is under the delusion that the Finance Committee bill is somehow superior to the House version, here is the link to the report on HR 3200, the tri-committee bill.

A ten-year analysis of the House bill (which includes a public option) shows that total revenue should amount to $583.1 billion. The majority of this new revenue ($543.9 billion) would come from tax increases on the wealthiest Americans. Specifically, the bill calls for:

Impos(ing) a Surcharge for Certain AGI at the Following Rates: 1% for $350,000-$500,000 for Joint Returns for 2011 Through 2012, 2% in 2013 and Thereafter; 1.5% For $500,000-$1,000,000 for Joint Returns for 2011 Through 2012, 3% In 2013 and Thereafter; 5.4% for $1,000,000 and Above for Joint Returns for 2011 and Thereafter; Income Thresholds are Indexed for Inflation


In the case of unmarried individuals, heads of households and trusts and estates, the income threshold dollar amounts are 80 percent of the above dollar amounts.

News Flash: If the public option really does cost $1 trillion over ten years, the House bill covers 54.4 percent of the costs just by increasing taxes on the rich to pre-Bush era levels. These figures do not include cost reductions in other programs nor do they take into account premiums that one would expect enrollees to pay. Naturally, the point is to make insurance affordable. Consider this. If 47 million uninsured people enroll and are charged $100 per month for the public option, the math works out like this:

47 million uninsured x $100/month = $4.7 billion per month

$4.7 billion/month x 12 months = $56.4 billion per year

$56.4 billion/year x 10 years = $564 billion over ten years

$564 billion + $583 billion = $1.147 trillion.

And that is assuming 1) no other cost savings and 2) that it actually would cost $1 trillion to run a not-for-profit health insurance program.

Game, set, match.

Role in the Markup

Click here for a full round up of the joint committee staff's role in committee mark ups, Floor debates and conference committees.

During markups of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees, the Joint Committee chief of staff (Thomas A. Barthold) usually testifies first and describes what the bill would do. During the remainder of the markup, the staffs of the joint committee and the Finance/Ways and Means committee are on hand to assist Members with drafting the language of any amendments. When the markup is complete, it falls to the joint committee staff to write the final report, including revised numbers to reflect amendments made during the markup.

The "report" in this instance is a summary of what the bill does and how much is costs. Most bills that are reported out of committee (that is, voted on and passed in committee) are accompanied by a report summarizing the bill for Members not on the committee and often arguing for its passage.

A little history

The Joint Committee on Taxation has a rather colorful beginning and involves a Senator from Michigan getting into a very public fight with the very wealthy and connected Treasury Secretary.

In the 1920s, there were charges of "inefficiency and waste" in the Bureau of Internal Revenue (the forerunner of the modern Internal Revenue Service). In 1924, Senator James Couzens (pronounced "cousins") introduced a resolution to create a select committee to investigate these charges.

The committee found that there appeared to be no system, no adherence to principle, and a total absence of competent supervision in the determination of oil property values.

The next year, Senator Couzens directly accused the BIR of giving preferential treatment to large corporations, costing the government millions of dollars every year. The bureau then notified Senator Couzens that he owed $10 million in back taxes. Treasury Secretary and Gulf Oil principal owner Andrew Mellon was thought have personally directed the retaliation. Mellon was the third wealthiest person in the country in the 1920s and Gulf Oil specifically benefited from the alleged favoritism by the bureau.

The select committee's work led to the 1926 Revenue Act and the creation of the Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation. The idea was to allow Congress to get a handle on how tax law was (and is) administered. The House envisioned a temporary panel to help improve tax policy. The Senate strengthened the committee's role and made it permanent with a professional staff. The committee's first work was recommendations for simplifying the tax code in 1927.

The statutory role of the joint committee has changed very little over the years. They have taken on a handful of extra roles, including investigating tax issues for nominees to executive offices, providing assistance on negotiating treaties that involve tax revenue (i.e. tariffs and duties), overseeing the tax system, and creating and archiving tax-related documents.

That wraps it up for this week. Next week will probably be the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

For more information, see my past work:

House Oversight Committee
Conference Committees
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

This story is posted on Daily Kos, Congress Matters, Progressive Electorate, Docudharma.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Considered Forthwith: House Oversight Committee

Welcome to the 21st 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.

Congress is still in recess (until Tuesday), but the committees are coming back to life and scheduling hearings. This week I will be taking a look at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. This is the main investigative committee in the House. While most other committees have the power to conduct investigations, this committee exists to provide another layer of oversight. The committee also has jurisdiction over several specific operations of the federal government and the local affairs of the District of Columbia.


Edolphus Towns of New York took over the chairmanship of this committee after Henry Waxman took over the gavel on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Darrell Issa of California is the ranking minority member. Here are the members of the Oversight Committee:

Democrats: Chairman Edolphus Towns, New York; Paul E. Kanjorski, Pennsylvania; Carolyn B. Maloney, New York; Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland; Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio; John F. Tierney, Massachusetts; Wm. Lacy Clay, Missouri; Diane E. Watson, California; Stephen F. Lynch, Massachusetts; Jim Cooper, Tennessee; Gerry Connolly, Virginia; Mike Quigley, Illinois; Marcy Kaptur, Ohio; Eleanor Holmes Norton, District of Columbia; Patrick Kennedy, Rhode Island; Danny Davis, Illinois; Chris Van Hollen, Maryland; Henry Cuellar, Texas; Paul W. Hodes, New Hampshire; Christopher S. Murphy, Connecticut; Peter Welch, Vermont; Bill Foster, Illinois; Jackie Speier, California; Steve Driehaus, Ohio

Republicans: Darrell Issa, California, Ranking Minority Member; Dan Burton, Indiana; John M. McHugh, New York; John L. Mica, Florida; Mark E. Souder, Indiana; John J. Duncan, Jr., Tennessee; Michael Turner, Ohio; Lynn A. Westmoreland, Georgia; Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina; Brian Bilbray, California; Jim Jordan, Ohio; Jeff Flake, Arizona; Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska; Jason Chaffetz, Utah; Aaron Schock, Illinois


As noted above, this committee is primarily an oversight and investigations body and has a few other roles within the federal government. Here is the formal statement of jurisdiction:

Legislative Responsibilities
The legislative jurisdiction of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform includes the following areas, as set forth in House Rule X, clause 1:

• Federal civil service, including intergovernmental personnel; and the status of officers and employees of the United States, including their compensation, classification, and retirement;
• Municipal affairs of the District of Columbia in general (other than appropriations);
• Federal paperwork reduction;
• Government management and accounting measures generally;
• Holidays and celebrations;
• Overall economy, efficiency, and management of government operations and activities, including federal procurement;
• National archives;
• Population and demography generally, including the Census;
• Postal service generally, including transportation of the mails;
• Public information and records;
• Relationship of the federal government to the states and municipalities generally; and
• Reorganizations in the executive branch of the government.

And here is the section dealing with oversight responsibilities:

Oversight Responsibilities

The oversight responsibilities of the Committee are set forth in House Rule X, clauses 2, 3, and 4.

House Rule X, clause 2(b), provides that the Committee shall review and study on a continuing basis—

(A) the application, administration, execution, and effectiveness of laws and programs addressing subjects within its jurisdiction;

(B) the organization and operation of Federal agencies and entities having responsibilities for the administration and execution of laws and programs addressing subjects within its jurisdiction;

(C) any conditions or circumstances that may indicate the necessity or desirability of enacting new or additional legislation addressing subjects within its jurisdiction (whether or not a bill or resolution has been introduced with respect thereto); and

(D) future research and forecasting on subjects within its jurisdiction.

House Rule X, clause 3(i), provides that the Committee shall “review and study on a continuing basis the operation of Government activities at all levels with a view to determining their economy and efficiency.”

House Rule X, clause 4(c)(1), provides that the Committee shall:

(A) receive and examine reports of the Comptroller General of the United States and submit to the House such recommendations as it considers necessary or desirable in connection with the subject matter of the reports;

(B) evaluate the effects of laws enacted to reorganize the legislative and executive branches of the Government; and

(C) study intergovernmental relationships between the States and municipalities and between the United States and international organizations of which the United States is a member.

And House Rule X, clause 4(c)(2), provides that the Committee “may at any time conduct investigations of any matter without regard to clause 1, 2, 3, or this clause [of House Rule X] conferring jurisdiction over the matter to another standing committee.”

Nearly every other Congressional Committee has oversight responsibility for the parts of the Executive Branch bureaucracy that fall under their respective jurisdictions. This reality makes the Oversight Committee seem redundant. However, there are no guarantees that a particular committee with jurisdiction will vigorously investigate (or investigate at all, for that matter) any given issue.

More to the point, this committee is a protection against out of control Iron Triangles. To seriously oversimplify, Iron Triangles refer to the often too cozy relationships among interest groups (i.e. lobbyists and contractors), Congress (particularly committee members and staffers) and bureaucrats. If a committee gets too cozy with those that they are supposed to oversee, the oversight can suffer. The oversight committee offers another layer of oversight. Here is a graphic showing how Iron Triangles work:

Iron Triangle

Current Investigations

As set forth in House Rule X, clause 4, the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform may, at any time, conduct investigations of any matter regardless of whether another standing committee has jurisdiction over the matter. In 1998, Rep. Waxman formed the Special Investigations Division to conduct investigations into issues that are important to members of the Oversight Committee and other members of Congress.

It would be impossible to detail every investigation undertaken by this committee. I suggest checking out the investigations page to see a list of all of the major investigations the committee has handled in recent years. Here are some of the most recent announcements of the committee's activities.

SEC Personnel: Chairman Towns is seeking information about the level of experience of investigators at the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding the investigation of the Ponzi Scheme operated by Bernie Madoff. SEC's Office of the Inspector General reviewed the commission's work on the case and issued a scathing report Aug. 31. The executive summary is available here in .pdf format. The report indicates that SEC could have uncovered the scheme as early as 1992, but inexperienced personnel were assigned to the case and the SEC missed important red flags. Towns points out that a 2002 law gave the SEC the authority to offer higher pay than is usually seen in the federal government to recruit experienced and talented investigators, so he wants to know why key personnel on the case:

had “recently graduated from law school” or had “joined the SEC as his first job out of school.”

Federal Procurement System: An Aug. 7 Washington Post article titled A $191 Million Question: How a relationship between an Army official and a private contractor led to allegations of collusion and impropriety caught Chairman Towns' attention. (And you thought the traditional media had shirked its responsibilities a long time ago.) Towns sent a letter to the U.S. Merit Protection Board requesting information about this matter. This is not exactly a Strongly Worded Letter ™. "Requests" for information from Congress are not to be taken lightly.

This situation is a classic example of an Iron Triangle (though the alternate term "cozy triangle" seems more appropriate). In this instance, a technology program director for the Army and an executive in a military contracting company were very close personally (though he claims they were not romantically involved). In any case, he provided her with information about upcoming contracts, allowing her company to write proposals that all but ensured her company would win the contracts. Even if the government got the best deal for the best price, the situation reeks of impropriety.

Bank of America bailout
: Towns is also seeking documents related to the Bank of America - Merrill Lynch merger likely with an eye on future hearings and investigations. When Bank of America acquired Merrill Lynch at the beginning of this year, BoA's stock prices tanked badly -- within three weeks, the bank's stock price dropped 78 percent. The Treasury Department dutifully (though probably reluctantly) forked over a $20 billion bailout and the American taxpayers are now on the hook for that money. To be sure, this is the latest in a string of investigations into the merger that the Wall Street Journal frankly called "A Deal From Hell." For example, three days before Towns called for the investigation, Subcommittee on Domestic Policy Chair Dennis Kucinich took credit for uncovering bonuses promised to Merrill Lynch executives that greased the way for the merger vote.

There is certainly a whole lot more to this story, but I will leave it at that for the sake of salvaging some kind of brevity here.


Have you got a tip about possible corruption in the government? Here is the whistleblower contact information:

Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
U.S. House of Representatives
2157 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
(202) 225-5051

You can also contact them via e-mail through this portal: In addition, there are separate tip lines for general tips; waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars; and steriods in professional sports. You don't even have to include your name.

District of Columbia

From the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8:

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;

That means the federal government was granted the Constitutional authority to run a town. James Madison discussed the need for a separate entity for the nation's capital in Federalist 43 in which he argues that the seat of the government needs to be insulated from the legislative whims of any state that would host the capital.

Initially, the populated areas of the district generally only consisted of the hamlets of Georgetown on the northern bank of the Potomac River and Alexandria on the southern bank. (Alexandria was returned to Virginia in 1846 in a compromise over slavery.) Since the original federal government was envisioned as very limited in scope and the climate was terrible (it was a swamp, after all), few people expected the population to grow very much. However, the government did grow, particularly during the Civil War and later during the New Deal era. This growth, in turn, attracted government workers, special interest groups, and people to actually build and staff all of the things that make a city a city.

Congress continued to directly govern the growing district until 1973 when the Home Rule Act devolved certain powers to the city and provided for a mayor and city council to make local decisions. Regardless, Congress still retains the power to overturn local laws. This committee and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs has jurisdiction over such matters. This is also the reason why the delegate from DC traditionally sits on the House Oversight Committee.

A case in point is the DC council's decision earlier this year to recognize same sex marriages performed elsewhere. Congress could have intervened, and thus touched off a debate that could have either opened the door to overturning the Defense of Marriage Act or conversely banned the practice entirely depending on the votes in Congress. However, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged Congress to just let the issue slide, thus expanding same-sex marriage rights without actually doing anything.

Dissenting from this decision -- but not getting anywhere -- was Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the ranking member of the subcommittee that oversees the District.:

It’s not something I can let go softly into the night.... I recognize the Democrats are in the majority, but I represent the majority of Americans on this issue.

Well, he did not even get a press release on the minority home page at that time, much less a hearing on the matter.

Oversight under Republicans

This committee certainly can abuse its power. During Bill Clinton's term, the Republican-controlled committee issued 1,052 subpoenas compared to three under the Bush Administration. Put quite frankly:

An examination of committees' own reports found that the House Government Reform Committee held just 37 hearings described as ''oversight" or investigative in nature during the last Congress, down from 135 such hearings held by its predecessor, the House Government Operations Committee, in 1993-94, the last year the Democrats controlled the chamber.


Instead of investing Jack Abramoff, 9/11, Plamegate, suppression of NASA supporting global warming, torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, claims of WMD in Iraq, the Downing Street Memo, and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, Committee Chair Thomas Davis was focused on Terri Schiavo (going as far as to issue a subpoena ordering her to appear before the committee) and steroid abuse in professional wrestling. Committee Democrats were even forced to use a small basement room to discuss the Downing Street Memo.

When Waxman took over the chair in 2007, he followed through with promises to step up oversight.

A note about postage stamps

I'm just putting this one out there. This is from the committee's rules:

Rule 20 -- Subjects of Stamps

The Committee has adopted the policy that the determination of the subject matter of commemorative stamps and new semi-postal issues is properly is for consideration by the Postmaster General and that the Committee will not give consideration to legislative proposals specifying the subject matter of commemorative stamps and new semi-postal issues. It is suggested that recommendations for the subject matter of stamps be submitted to the Postmaster General.

While the committee has the power to govern what images appear on postage stamps, they are refusing to waste their time punting such decisions to the Postal Service. Certainly, commemorative stamps can potentially set off damaging political firestorms over essentially nothing. What if the committee decided, for example, to put out a stamp commemorating the Roe v. Wade decision? The committee (and the rest of Congress for that matter) would be distracted from more important matters by a petty debate over stamps. The message here seems to be, it's somebody else's problem. Here are the 2009 commemorative stamp collections. My challenge to readers: can you detect the pronounced liberal bias going on here (snark).


The Oversight Committee has five subcommittees to handle relevant business. Each of them also has their own webpage.The subcommittees are:

Domestic Policy:

Jurisdiction includes domestic policies, including matters relating to energy, labor, education, criminal justice, the economy, as well as the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Dennis Kucinich of Ohio is the chair and Jim Jordon of Ohio is the ranking member. Link

Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia:

Jurisdiction includes federal employee issues, non-appropriation municipal affairs of the District of Columbia, and the Postal Service, including post office namings, holidays, and celebrations.

Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts is the chair and Jason Chaffetz of Utah is the ranking member. Importantly, Delegate Elanor Holmes Norton is a member of the committee. Link

Government Management, Organization, and Procurement:

Jurisdiction includes management of government operations, reorganizations of the executive branch, and federal procurement.

Diane Watson of California is the chair and Brian Bilbray of California is the ranking member. This is the committee that will likely handle that procurement investigation discussed above. Link

Information Policy, Census, and National Archives:

Jurisdiction includes public information and records laws such as the Freedom of Information Act, the Presidential Records Act, and the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the Census Bureau, and the National Archives and Records Administration.

William Lacy Clay of Missouri is the chair and Patrick McHenry of North Carolina is the ranking member. Link

National Security and Foreign Affairs

Jurisdiction includes oversight of national security, homeland security, and foreign affairs.

John Tierney of Massachusetts is the chair and Jeff Flake of Arizona is the ranking member. Link

That's it for this week. I'm soliciting suggestions for next week.

For more about other committees, check out my previous work:
Conference Committees
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

This series appears at Congress Matters, Daily Kos, Progressive Electorate, Docudharma, and my own blog.