Articles Tagged The-Hill-101
In both the House and Senate, the majority controls the agenda and the Speaker decides what gets a vote, with one exception: the discharge petition.
In the House, if a majority sign on to "discharge" a bill from committee (218 signatures required), it will be brought to the Floor for a vote. Since 1993, all signators to a discharge petition are public. This means that this petition can only be sucessful if some members of the majority party are willing to buck their own leadership to see a bill get a vote.
This week some House Members are touting a discharge petition in the House that would force a vote on the Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending (DISCLOSE) Act (HR 4010) from Represenative Chris Van Hollen [D-MD-8]. The discharge petition currently has 149 signatures, 79 short of the 218 that would be necessary to force a vote.
Today the Senate will hold a cloture vote on a similar bill. The Senate bill, S 3369 from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse [D-RI], would "provide for additional disclosure requirements for corporations, labor organizations, Super PACs and other entities…" Senate Republicans have indicated they will filibuster and the bill is not expected to make it to an up or down vote.
While rare, discharge petitions have been employed by both parties throughout the years. Additional discharge petitions filed in the current Congress are:
- HR 1148 The STOCK Act from Rep. Tim Walz [D-MN-1]: While the requisite 218 was never reached for this petition, the bill was brought to the Floor and passed on February 9, 2012. It was signed into law on April 4, 2012. (View the discharge petition.)
- HR 1297 The Ensuring Pay for Our Military Act from Rep. Louis Gohmert [R-TX-1]: This bill was introduced in the heat of the debt ceiling talks, and would have provided that members of the military would still get paid in the event of a government shutdown. In the end, a deal was reached and a shutdown avoided. (View the discharge petition.)
- HR 639 The China Currency Bill from Rep Sander Levin [D-MI-12]: The first discharge petition of the 112th Congress currently has 179 signatures. The bill passed the Senate in October 2011 and continues to be discussed on the 2012 Presidential campaign trail.
The House will likely vote this week on a resolution to hold Attorney General Holder in contempt of Congress.
The history of Congressional contempt findings go back to the early days of Congress itself. Modern cases show that enforcement of contempt can be tough -- especially against a federal officer claiming executive priviledge.
Early "Contempt of Congress" -- According to CRS, the first "contempt of Congress" finding was in 1795, when three Members of Congress accused Robert Randall and Charles Whitney of attempting to bribe them to pass a law granting "18-20 million acres of land bordering Lake Erie." The Seargent-at-Arms arrested and detained Mr. Randall. A proceeding similar to a trial was held at "the bar of the House", and on on Jan 4, 1796, the House found Randall in contempt. He was held in custody for nine days until the House passed another resolution letting him go.
Details of this and other precedents of Congressional contempt findings throughout the years are described in the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service report, "Congress’s Contempt Power and the Enforcement of Congressional Subpoenas: Law, History, Practice, and Procedure" (CRS does not actually publicly release its reports, but several sources, including the Federation of American Scientists keep a catalog of any CRS reports that have been released by others.)
Inherent Contempt (A Trial in Congress) -- In those early days, Congress asserted (and the Supreme Court agreed) that it inherently had the right to hold people in contempt because the Constitution grants the power to legislate -- which requires a power to investigate so Congress understands what it is legislating -- and includes the power to compel testimony (McGrain v. Daugherty). As the CRS report alludes, who would argue "original intent" with Congress in 1795? Many then-Members of Congress also happened to have been at the Constitutional Convention just a few years earlier. The Supreme Court later clarified that the "inherent contempt" power is broad (Eastland v. US Servicemen's Fund), is at its peak when the investigation in question is waste, fraud, abuse within gov dept (Barenblatt v. US) and it has to be related to legislating, not the private matters of citizens (Kilbourn v. Thompson).
But there is no Capitol jail and Congress has not used this "inherent contempt" power since 1934, when Hoover's Commerce Secretary, William MacCracken, was held at the Williard Hotel for his participation in the Air Mail scandal.
Criminal Contempt (Turn it over to the U.S. Attorney) -- In 1857, Congress passed a law making contempt of Congress a crime. According to 2 U.S.C. §§192, 194, "a person who has been “summoned as a witness” by either House or a committee thereof to testify or to produce documents and who fails to do so, or who appears but refuses to respond to questions, is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 and imprisonment for up to one year."
If Congress wants to find someone in criminal contempt, the process is that:
- A Congressional committee recommends a finding of contempt,
- The committee report is read on the House Floor,
- The full body votes on a resolution recommending that the Speaker of the House certifies the finding of contempt to the U.S. Attorney,
- The Speaker certifies the finding,
- The U.S. Attorney has a duty to bring the certification to a grand jury for action.
Executive Priviledge Complicates Executive Enforcment -- Things get complicated when the contempt discussion is around an "executive priviledge" and the question becomes whether one branch of government can compel another branch do something.
In 2007, the House Judiciary Committee investigated the Executive Branch over allegations that the resignations of nine United States Attorneys were politically engineered. "The Bush Administration asserted that senior presidential advisors, like Senior Counsel Harriett Miers, were absolutely immune from compelled testimony before Congress when asserting executive privilege at the direction of the President." The U.S. District Court for D.C. rejected that, reaffirmed Congress’s “essential” constitutionally based power to issue and enforce subpoenas, but "made no explicit comment about Congress’s authority to punish executive branch officials through contempt." (quoting CRS report) The case was appealed but no resolution reached because the subpoenas in question expired at the end of the Congresional session that issued them.
"Civil" Contempt (Leave it to the Courts) -- There is a third contempt option, at least in the Senate, which has passed a civil enforcement statute. The statute allows Congress to essentially "sue" for enforcement of its subpoena. This leaves the decision and enforcement to the Judicial Branch. The Senate statute, however, is inapplicable in the case of a subpoena issued to an officer or employee of the federal government acting in their official capacity. 28 U.S.C. §1365.
So what's a Congress to do? What happens if the House votes in favor of a resolution holding the Attorney General in contempt? Who knows. Chances look pretty good, however, for a court battle that lasts at least as long as this Congressional session (which probably ends in December of this year). That could have a result (or lack of a result) similar to the Miers case.
One thing is for sure, however: No one is heading for the "Capitol Jail" anytime soon.
Learn more about how Congress works with our "The Hill 101" Series.
When Congress starts talking about holding someone in contempt, there is invariably talk about a supposed "jail in the basement of the Capitol." This story was given new life last week by Nancy Pelosi suggesting that Karl Rove could have been jailed in the Capitol in 2007. (The New York Times thought so too.)
But is there really a jail in the Capitol basement? No.
Lucky for us, POPVOX developer Annalee Flower Horne is a master of Capitol-related trivia. She has given hunderds of Capitol tours and studied the building since she was a kid. Annalee writes:
There is no Capitol jail.
There is a tomb chamber under the crypt (beneath the star), which was meant to house Washington's body. Washington made arrangements to be buried at Mount Vernon. The tomb chamber has bars, leading many to assume it must be a jail cell. It's never been used as one, though.
I believe the last person to receive the dubious distinction of an arrest for contempt of Congress was a member of the Hoover administration--but they didn't hold him in the Capitol. He was held at the Willard Hotel. These days, if Congress needed to jail someone, they'd probably use the Capitol Police's offsite holding cell.
There was, however, a building called the "Old Capitol Prison," on the grounds of what's now the Supreme Court building. It was the temporary Capitol for a few years after the British set the real one on fire in 1814. After that, it was used as a private school, then a boarding house (where Vice President Calhoun died in 1850). It became a prison during the Civil War. Later, it served as the headquarters for the National Women's Party before the Federal Government bought it back and razed it to make room for the Supreme Court.
Check out this interview from the Senate Historical Office oral history project: Towards the bottom of Page 20, they talk about contempt and rooms in the Capitol used at various times to hold prisoners.
CNN covered the question in 2007:
Memorial Day is the only day in which flags are flown at half-staff for only part of the day -- to both honor the sacrifices of those who gave their lives and to inspire those who continue in their stead.
Photo credit: www.flaginsider.com
On Memorial Day the flag is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon. It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day.
The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all. Source: Wikipedia
Hazel Lodevico-To'o has some more flag-flying tips for Memorial Day on the Glendora, CA Patch.
We at POPVOX have shared some of our own flag photos on Pinterest -- share yours!
For many outside the startup world, the term "disruptive" may have negative connotations. It was not something you wanted on your report card. Certainly for two women -- one an Indian-born American and another a Southern girl -- being called "disruptive" is not something our grandmothers would have praised... until now. POPVOX co-founder Rachna Choudhry and I are in New York today to be officially named "disruptors" -- and we couldn't be more pleased!
The Tribeca Film Festival Awards for Disruptive Innovation
The Tribeca Film Festival Awards for Disruptive Innovation, founded by Craig Hatkoff, capture the spirit of Harvard Professor Clay Christensen’s work, as he described in The Innovators Dilemma. This year's awards recognize innovators from Rick Rubin of Def Jam Records; Jack Dorsey of Twitter; Rachael Chong of Catchafire; Kevin Carroll and Dan Strzempka, who built the prosthetic tail as seen in Dolphin Tale; Dr. Patricia Bath who is literally working to help the blind to see; to Justin Bieber and many more.
What is a "Disruption"?
The gist of Christensen's theory is that successful organizations that have been around for a while are less likely to innovate because they benefit from the status quo. Their success locks them into their demise, when a stealthier less-refined approach enters the market and offers a "just enough" or better/cheaper/faster alternative that first serves an unserved market and then encroaches on the existing market. "An innovation that is disruptive allows a whole new population of consumers access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill." For a deeper explanation, check out why customers "hire a milkshake."
Congress and Traditional Lobbying: The Business of Status Quo
So how did Rachna and I, a former nonprofit lobbyist and former Congressional staffer, start caring about disruption? A few years ago, we noticed that in our world -- not the corporate world, but that of advocacy, Congress, and civic engagement -- NO ONE was doing the task that was expected of them, and technology wasn't helping. The evidence wasn't exactly hidden. Congressional approval numbers were dipping and the "Tragedy of Political Advocacy" (h/t Jake Brewer) was an accelerating phenomenon. We observed several pain points that technology was exacerbating rather than improving:
-- Congress wants to hear from constituents (but technology made it easier to send barrages of messages with no qualification that they were from actual constituents -- or even actual people.)
-- Organizations, advocates, associations, and yes, big lobbyists, want to demonstrate popular support for their positions (but because messages were increasingly hard to process by Congressional offices and there was no independent measure of sentiment, their solution was to send more messages, be more inflammatory, YELL LOUDER.)
-- The people want to be heard and participate, but all the noise ginned up by the pros left them cynical and frustrated, and the unresponsive Congress made them feel ignored and disempowered.
Disruption through Transparency
We thought: what if you could build a platform where input to Congress -- from individuals and pros alike -- was verified, counted, and available to everyone? That would mean that Congress gets what it needs: real input from its constituents in a format that can be processed. The pros get what they need: a real read of what people are saying about issues, and proof that their grassroots efforts are not "Astroturf." And most importantly, the people get what they need: a transparent way to register their input that doesn't go away or disappear into the depths of a broken Congressional correspondence system. This creates a public record of public sentiment on the bills that affect our lives -- and for the first time a benchmark to measure what Congress hears from constituents with what Congress does. After much thought and wrangling, we decided to name this platform "POPVOX," from "vox populi," Voice of the People.
Count the Money or Count the People
It is a well-worn cliché to say that Washington runs on money in the form of political donations. While that is not far off, the true currency of Washington is information and public sentiment. Money just serves to disburse an idea, amplify a message, provide the resources to influence (and this election year, there may even be fewer places to spend it.) The starting theory at POPVOX is that there are two ways to influence legislation: (1) move money, or (2) move people. Our goal is to provide a transparent, qualified metric for what the people have to say regarding pending legislation. This gives Congress the tool it needs to listen and people the tools to ensure that Congress in fact does. The most powerful potential "disruption" of our political and advocacy system, however, is not dependent on any company or tool. It only comes with an engaged, involved public that is paying attention. We'll bring the tools, you bring your voice, and together we can bring about positive, creative disruption.
A few photos from the event
We at POPVOX think a lot about Congress and the staffers that make Congress go. Recently, a Congressional office asked us to share best practices for using POPVOX in their work. The following slideshow demonstrates how staffers (and advocates) can use publicly-available POPVOX information to lead a legislative effort. (Staff also have access to some special district-specific tools and dashboards when they are logged in with a staff account.) How are YOU using POPVOX? Let us know!
Was just asked by a POPVOX reader for some help finding a source for "what's going on in Congress" each week. We curate a few key bills from the calendar for our Bills in Congress page. (Stay tuned for new developments there.) In the meantime, thought I would share some of my favorite places to go find this info. Am I missing any good ones? Send links!
The Hill's Floor Action Blog ( @FloorAction ) I check this everyday. It presents the upcoming calendar with backstory from The Hill's reporters - good stuff! CongressMatters - David Waldman ( @KagroX ) explains Congress better and in clearer terms than anyone I know. The site is associated with the Progressive blog, DailyKos , but content focuses on procedure rather than politics.
When in DC, attend a hearing.
All right, maybe a hearing isn't quite as fun as the Smithsonian, but if you can attend a hearing on an issue you're passionate about it can be pretty rewarding. I've been passionately advocating for improved transparency for many years now, and there were two hearings today about transparency.
The House Committee on House Administration's Subcommittee on Oversight held a hearing on reducing costs and improving transparency through the use of electronic publications . The subcommittee chairman (pictured at left below) viewed it as a matter of fiscal responsibility: does the House need to print 441 copies of the daily House calendar --- one for each office.
The subcommittee did something somewhat unusual in calling as witnesses two of their colleagues, Rep. Mike Honda (CA) and Rep. Greg Walden (OR). I was a little disappointed by their testimony. Honda is formerly one of the transparency movement's heros in Congress. I even wrote a limerick about him a few years ago:
There once was a man named Mike Honda,
A congressman us geeks are quite fond 'a,
In markup sessions takes on the chairman, a hulk,
so that we the people can get our data in bulk.
(And the rhymes get worse. For the rest of the poem and some other geeky poems, see this thread .)
Honda's office worked with us transparency geeks on congressional data transparency. In the hearing, he and Walden discussed how to reduce Congress's printing costs. Nothing noteworthy.
You do get to feel like you're getting a special glimpse of Congress when you go in person. Although the subcommittee has six members , only three were present. There were far more staffers present than congressmen, but that's not unusual. Rep. Zoe Logfren sat beside the chairman (Rep. Phil Gingrey) and raised issues including how to further transparency, how to be mindful of the digital divide, and how to accommodate Members of Congress who aren't very digital. (There are two things to note about Lofgren. First, her name is pronounced "Zoh" rather than "Zoee". Second, she's the Ranking Member, which is the term for the committee member with the highest seniority in the minority party (currently the Democrats). Committee chairs are always selected from the majority party (currently Republicans).)
It's also nice when you know some of the people in the room, so bring friends. Two of my friends from the Sunlight Foundation also attended, and I knew one of the witnesses, Tom Bruce, who directs Cornell University's Legal Information Institute. Tom's testimony was the most on-point as it related to congressional transparency. He noted that electronic legal documents have a variety of uses, from improving and reducing costs of the internal workings of Congress to created a marketplace of information useful for businesses, and of course transparency. Tom mentioned my other project, GovTrack.us , in his written testimony to the committee --- thanks Tom! Hopefully the congressmen will turn some of those points into real improvements.
Anyone can attend a hearing. They're held in the congressional office buildings, which surround the Capitol Building, where security is just a metal detector, so you can walk right in. The only time you might be prevented from attending is if the hearing room gets full. That's normal for high-profile policy issues. But committees are getting better about posting videos of their meetings online --- most have videos up promptly now.
At the same time as the hearing I was at, a mark-up session was going on elsewhere with an ironic twist. Although that committee meeting was deliberating funding for government transparency programs, it was not held in a transparent way. Daniel Schuman from the Sunlight Foundation wrote beforehand:
Unfortunately, the hearing will take place in a tiny room in the Capitol, so it is very difficult for members of the public to attend. It won’t be webcast, despite House rules requiring committees to “provide audio and video coverage … in a manner that allows the public to easily listen to and view the proceedings,” so you can’t watch the action online.
Committees do some of the most important work of Congress, and while committee transparency has improved markedly even in the short time that I've been following these things, there is still a long way to go.
Navigating Capitol Hill is hard. Signs and room numbers don’t always make sense. Tunnels and long marble halls throw off the even the best senses of direction. Constituents in town for a quick fly-ins, Capitol Hill Interns arriving soon for the summer, POPVOX wants to help!
The most popular POPVOX blog posts that people (read: Congressional staffers) seem to keep coming back to are those in the Hill 101 category. Whether it’s an explanation of why r evenue measures must originate in the House or what the heck the bells and buzzers mean on the Capitol Hill clocks, let’s face it, it’s sometimes tough to find a simple explanation of the things that make Capitol Hill so mysterious.
When I was a staffer I had a recurring, terrible nightmare that I was lost in the sub-basement of the Rayburn building and whether I took escalators up or down, they just led to more, eternal sub-basement - which incidentally, is now even listed as a venue on FourSquare. (At least if you check in, they will know where to find you if you don’t make it back.) But it's not just Rayburn. Here's a few wayfinding tips..
1 ) AWESOME MAP : Start with this masterpiece of an interactive map of the Capitol Complex from Architect of the Capitol. 2) ROOM NUMBERS: They are actually set up to help you know which building you need, but only if you know the code: HOUSE SIDE:
- Three numbers = Cannon House Office Building (CHOB) . The first number indicates the floor; "B" in front means "Basement"
- Four numbers, starting with a 1 = L ongworth House Office Building (LHOB) . The second number indicates the floor; "G" is the ground floor, with 0 as the second digit. (So 1105 is on the first floor, 1035 is on the ground floor; and a"B" in front means "Basement"
- Four numbers, starting with a 2 = Rayburn House Office Building (RHOB) . The second number indicates the floor; "B" in front means "Basement" "SB" in front means "Sub-Basement"
SENATE SIDE (slightly easier) - indicated by "S" and a letter indicating the building, and room number. So, SD-101 is Room 101 in the Dirksen Building (DSOB) . "SH-" indicates the Hart Building (HSOB) and "SR-" is for Russell (RSOB) . CAPITOL BUILDING - Rooms start with "H" or "S" to indicate whether they are on the House or Senate-side of the Capitol. Single digits (H1, H2, H3) are in the basement; three-digit numbers indicate floor; so H-101 is on the first floor; H-201 is on the second. Unrelated but really cool: check out the 360-degree virtual tours of the Senate and House by the AOC: 3) TUNNELS & SHORTCUTS: The Hill has such great breakdown of the tunnels... and UrbanTrekker has some nice photos . The most important thing to know about the tunnels is that the quickest shortcut from the House to the Senate side (and vice-versa) is through the Capitol Visitors Center.
So much more could be said... Staffers and former staffers, add your tips in comments!
You can usually tell if someone is new to the Hill by whether they flinch or even break pace in conversation when the buzzers for votes start going. The real pros can tell you what the buzzers mean. For new staff, Members and visitors to Capitol Hill, we thought a POPVOX primer was in order:
For Members of Congress, there is never enough time in any day. They want to take as many constituent meetings, speech invitations, interviews as they can. Caucuses and Committee meetings must go on, despite almost non-stop activity on the House or Senate Floor when the bodies are in session. To accommodate for this, both chambers employ a system of bells (that sound more like buzzers) and lights (on clocks and displays throughout the Capitol Complex) that provide alerts to Members. Almost no one knows what they mean, and you can easily survive life on Capitol Hill without ever having a clue.
Everyone’s schedule is subject to the buzzing of those bells: committee meetings are stopped, constituent meetings delayed. Elevators flash “members only,” and Members scramble through the Capitol Complex tunnels and across Independence and Constitution Avenue like 8-year-olds afraid of getting a tardy slip for class.
For those who have been around a while, the buzzers make perfect sense. For most who come to the Hill in the past few years, it seems a little archaic - couldn’t they just send out an SMS? Text message? Most people don’t automatically know what is going on from the buzzers alone. Whenever the buzzers start, you can usually look around and see everyone reach for their blackberry holsters in unison, as if someone had yelled, “Draw!” They are checking updates from CQ/Roll Call, maybe an email from their party’s leadership, or a heads up from whomever is watching CSPAN back in the office.
For the majority party that controls the schedule, the information on upcoming votes is pretty comprehensive, and Leadership usually sends out a heads up email: “The House is beginning a series of 5 votes: the first 4 are 5-minute suspension votes on x, y, z; followed by a 15-minute vote on the rule for HR 1234.” For the minority party, the information is a little less clear. Regardless of party, however, a legislative office is in constant info-gathering mode. “Someone heard there was going to be a motion to recommit” ... “This is just the vote on the Rule, right?” If you have no idea, just be comforted by the fact that almost everyone around you feels the same way.
But what do the buzzers mean ?
1 Long Bell: Short Quorum Calls
- 1 LONG BELL, PAUSE, 3 BELLS, 3 LIGHTS ON LEFT - “ Short quorum call that ends when 100 or more Members are present"
- 1 LONG BELL, PAUSE, 3 LIGHTS ON LEFT EXTINGUISHED - Quorum call is over
2 Bells: Votes
- 2 BELLS, 2 LIGHTS ON LEFT - 15 minute vote by electronic device (bells repeat every 5 minutes after first bell)
- 2 BELLS, 2 LIGHTS ON LEFT, PAUSE, 2 MORE BELLS - 15 minute vote by roll call. (Bells repeat when the Clerk reaches the R’s in the first call of the roll.)
- 2 BELLS, PAUSE, 5 MORE BELLS - First vote on clustered votes. (2 bells repeat 5 minutes after the first bell.)
- First vote is a 15-minute vote
- Each successive vote signaled by 5 bells
3 Bells: 15-min Quorum Calls
- 3 BELLS, 3 LIGHTS ON LEFT - 15 minute quorum call (Bells repeat 5 minutes after the first bell.)
- 3 BELLS, PAUSE, 3 MORE BELLS - 15 minute quorum call by roll call. (Bells repeat when the Clerk reaches the R’s in the first call of the roll.)
- 3 BELLS, PAUSE, 5 MORE BELLS - 15 minute quorum call that may be followed immediately by a five-minute recorded vote.
4 Bells: Adjournment:
- 4 BELLS, 4 LIGHTS ON LEFT - Adjournment of the House
5 Bells: 5-Min Votes
- 5 BELLS, 5 LIGHTS ON LEFT - Any five-minute vote.
6 Bells: Recess
- 6 BELLS, 6 LIGHTS ON LEFT - Recess of the House.
12 Bells: Warning
- 12 BELLS @ 2-second intervals, 6 LIGHTS ON LEFT - Civil Defense Warning
7th Light: House in Session
*Source: “ How Our Laws are Made ,” Revised and Updated by John V. Sullivan
Parliamentarian, United States House of Representatives, Presented by Mr. Brady of Pennsylvania , July 24, 2007
The curtain will soon fall on the 111th Congress and flights out of DC will soon be packed to the gills (though some have already headed ou t, it seems ) . The House and Senate will soon adjourn “ sine die,” or “without day,” and not reconvene until the new Congress starts on January 5, 2011.
What about bills that never came to a vote in the 111th Congress? The slate is wiped clean; there is no business pending. All of the HR numbers and S-numbered titles that have been discussed and debated for the past two year go away. When Congress reconvenes on January 5, the process will start all over again. Bills will be introduced and given a chronological number. Expect a flurry of activity in the first few weeks. In 2009, over 400 bills were introduced on the first day of the Congressional session. (Source http://THOMAS.gov.)
It is not a given that all bills get reintroduced. Some bills from the 111th became part of other legislation and actually became law. Others will need new sponsors. Some will be put on hold for political reasons or just planning-the-calendar reasons.
Will bills have new sponsors? A bill’s sponsorship is a relatively sacred thing in Congress. It is highly unusual for someone to introduce someone else’s bill, with one exception: bills with bipartisan main sponsors will be introduced under the name of the main sponsor of the majority party. So, for example, a Nancy Pelosi/John Boehner jointly-introduced bill would have been the Pelosi bill in the 111th and will be the Boehner bill in the 112th.
What about bills that were sponsored by Members who are not returning? Those bills are essentially orphans, waiting for someone to take them up and commit to introducing them. In some cases, sponsors who know they are not returning will hand over a bill to a colleague to champion and sponsor in future sessions. If that doesn't happen, it can be a problem for advocates, and a great deal of energy will be spent trying to get a commitment for sponsorship.
Even for bills with returning sponsors, the RE-introduction process can take a while. Most offices plan out their legislative agenda ahead of time, and will want plenty of time to build support and plan a press strategy for reintroduction. Some bills may not be reintroduced for many months, or even until the second session (the second year) of the new Congress. This slow process is frustrating for individuals and organizations trying to build support for a particular issue. The main vehicle for making progress on an issue is showing support in the form of co-sponsorships by other Members of Congress. Organizations rally their lists and volunteers to ask their legislators to sign on to this or that bill. They arrange phone-banking, fly-ins, and district office visits; but all of this needs to be focused around a specific bill.
This is why I am so excited to offer a little teaser of a new POPVOX feature to allow organizations and individuals to build support for bills before reintroduction . Much like Groupon, POPVOX will allow for the demonstration of critical mass of support. Because it's POPVOX, that support is presented in a way that gets the attention of Congress: publicly, by state and district. This feature will help potential bill sponsors understand the energy a particular bill is generating and potential co-sponsors understand support in their district. For orphan bills, this provides an opportunity for supporters to catch the eye of potential sponsors. For new Members looking for issues to take on, POPVOX provides a metric for those issues that have notable support. For organizations, it is an opportunity to demonstrate real support when making the pitch for reintroduction. Watch for more next week...
Looking to weigh in on the Extension of the Bush Tax Cut (3,790,000 results on Google) or the “ Middle Class Tax Relief " bill (only 570,000) and having trouble? There is a good reason for that. The bill you are looking for is H.R. 4853 , which was originally entitled "the Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2010."
That bill was introduced in March by the Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure; passed the House on March 17, and was sent to the Senate. The Senate then added an amendment, had a vote, and it passed the Senate on September 23, 2010. Since the same version has to pass both Houses of Congress before it can be signed into law by the President , the amended version had to pass the House again, which it did on December 2, this time with an additional House amendment.
So, at the time that the tax cut deal was being discussed, H.R. 4853 was sitting patiently in the Senate, waiting for a vote.
As discussed earlier , "revenue-raisers" are Constitutionally required to " originate in the House ." That includes all tax bills. So, when those making the decisions decided that a vote in the Senate should come before a vote in the House, they needed to find a "vehicle" - that is, a House-originated bill, with a House "H.R." number. H.R. 4853 fit the bill. (pun intended.) The tax provisions were added as an amendment to H.R. 4853. The Senate voted on the whole package on December 15. The bill passed , and was sent yet again to the House for a vote.
The bill that is up for consideration in the House is the “ Senate amendment to the House amendment to the Senate amendment to H.R. 4853 .” That is not a typo.
Want to know how things will happen on the House Floor? See the “ Rule ”. This is a resolution that sets the procedure for the vote.
Roll Call reports that the Food Safety Legislation that passed the Senate on November 30 may be “blue-slipped” by the House because its Section 107 contains “some fees that are classified as revenue-raisers.”
Since that bill has received a lot of attention from POPVOX users, it seemed like a good time to explain exactly what “blue slipping” means. Short version: any bill with a tax has to start in the House of Representatives. Best info: CRS Report from May 10, 2002: “ The Origination Clause of the U.S. Constitution: Interpretation and Enforcement .”
Article 1 , Section 7 of the Constitution (sometimes referred to as the “Origination Clause”) states, “All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives." That little sentence is the basis for the formation of the House Committee on Ways and Means , the oldest Congressional committee. (So much so, that a few years ago the “Article 1, Section 7s,” was in the running for the name of the W&M staff softball team... yes, I was a very non-essential/sometimes member of that team.)
According to Wikipedia , the origin of the Origination Clause (ha) is with the English parliamentary system, to ensure that the “power of the purse” remained with the House of Commons. The specific clause was part of the Great “ Connecticut Compromise ” of the 1787 Constitutional Convention between big and small states.
In law school, one of the first lessons of statutory construction is that you first look to plain language. When that plain language is not just in a statute, but actually appears in the Constitution, it carries a lot of weight. The U.S. Supreme Court has looked at the issue a few times (see the CRS doc) but has respected the Legislature’s determination of a bill’s origination, indicated by whether the bills has an “H” or “S” prefix. This is why you sometimes get long Senate-initiated bills that “ride” on an unrelated House bill with a House bill number.
Trivia: Do you remember the official name of the TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program” bill? (Hint: “The Bailout” is not right.) Visit GovTrack for the answer.
If a law passes with a “revenue raising measure,” that did not “originate in the House,” it can be “Blue-Slipped” by any House Member (but is usually handled by the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee). The name comes from the piece of paper that is attached to the offending Senate bill and volleyed back across the Capitol.
My own observation is that this is not a partisan question - Ways and Means Members generally defend blue-slipping as their Constitutional duty, whether it affects a bill from their own party or not.
The potential outcomes for S.510 are laid out in the Roll Call article, so I won’t repeat them here. The gist is a complicated endgame for Lame Duck passage.
As Rachna described in her recent post, POPVOX will provide a platform for advocacy and endorsements of bills to continue even after the current Congressional session ends, before these bills are reintroduced in the next session. So, for now, for those for or against, continue to register your opinion on POPVOX. Those comments will be archived, searchable, and publicly available -- whether now or in the new Congress next year.
UPDATE: Roll Call reports that on Sunday, December 19, the Senate again voted and passed the Food Safety legislation, this time in House-passed "vehicle," H.R. 2751 , the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save Act, which passed the House in June 2009. At the request of Senator Reid, the text of S. 510 replaced the original text of H.R. 2751, and the bill passed by voice vote. It now has to go back to the House for a final vote before it can be signed into law by the President.
Since we get a lot of questions, here are some resources on the legislative process:
From the House Parliamentarian: “ How Our Laws Are Made ” - A n excellent resource and refresher for anyone seeking to understand the process from start to finish. (Am just sorry that I cannot find the person to credit with re-posting this link on Twitter a few days ago. If you are the one, let me know so I can add a h/t!
Schoolhouse Rock - How a Bill Becomes a Law , (Because it’s just a classic.) Great chart illustrating the lawmaking process by Mike Wirth and Dr. Suzanne Cooper Guasco (winner of Sunlight Labs’ 2010 “Design for America” contest.)
“ Who Writes Our Law s” (CTO Josh Tauberer and I address a reader’s question over at GovTrackInsider.)
And I thought this was a really good post on the same topic over at PoliticsUnder30.org: http://www.politicsunder30.org/2009/featured/who-writes-these-thousand-page-bills
Have other suggested resources? Please share in comments.
From time to time, the POPVOX founding team will share some tips and background we have learned throughout our experience or that we learn from those using the site. If you have tips or comments you would like to share, or questions you would like to have answered, please share at: email@example.com.
Members of Congress only want to hear from constituents (no one else.)*
This is one of the first, most important rules of legislative advocacy. If you have an opinion to share, a request to make, or a question to ask, address your Representative or Senator.
For many individuals, this can sometimes be frustrating, especially if their own Member does not share their view or party or is not a member of a committee with jurisdiction over the issue in question.
This frustration causes many people to send their message to another legislator whom they feel will be more receptive to their concerns. These messages usually begin with, "I know I am not in your district, but I live in your state..." or "You must listen to me because I am a citizen of the United States of America..." or "I am writing to you because my own Senator won't listen." Some of these letters or emails may then go on to make extremely valid points or share touching personal stories, but they will not reach their intended recipient.
The staffer processing letters and other correspondence in the receiving office (usually called a Legislative Correspondent) will automatically pull any that reflect addresses outside the district (or state, for Senators) and forward the correspondence to the correct office. This is known as “professional courtesy.” That means that correspondence addressed to the incorrect office will not be read by the Member of Congress and probably not even read by the staffer sorting the mail.
Does this mean that legislators are solely focused on those who can re-elect them? Well, that is one interpretation, but there are some good reasons for the practice:
- Focus on constituents - Members of Congress are essentially the “customer service” department for their districts. They have a set amount of resources and staff to handle incoming requests and statements. Any diversion of resources to process or respond to requests from outside the district necessarily means less attention can be paid to the constituents that they are in office to represent.
- Franking restrictions - Members of Congress are given a powerful tool in the Congressional Franking Privilege , which allows them to send messages and respond to constituent inquiries through the U.S. Postal Service or over official email addresses. Members’ franking limitations are set based on the number of people in their state or district, so that expenditure of resources to respond to non-constituent requests could compromise the ability to respond to actual constituents. In addition, Franking laws restrict Members’ from sending mass mailings outside their district. These laws are designed to minimize the electoral incumbent advantage that comes from the free access to official communications channels.
So what should you do if you have an opinion to share that you feel should be heard by someone who is not your Representative or Senator?
- Express your opinion to your legislator anyway . Sometimes minds change. Usually the best way to get your point acros is to tell a personal story that illustrates your point. With POPVOX, that story does not just go into the “black box” of legislative correspondence system. You can share your comment via Facebook, Twitter, or email, and ask others to weigh in on the issue. If you are able to show that more people in your district share your opinion, you will increase the chance of affecting the way your legislator thinks about the matter.
(One of the motivating factors behind the creation of POPVOX was the moving testimonials and heartfelt opinions that come into Capitol Hill that are not be shared with a wider audience. Since comments on POPVOX are public and searchable, those that strike a chord or make a particularly salient point can be shared and read by all, and may rise to get the attention of those key legislators that would otherwise not receive the message if it were simply sent to their office.)
- Write a letter to your local newspaper or post on local blogs. Refer your friends and neighbors to the local stories and opinions on POPVOX. Soon we will make it possible for media to contact commenters through their POPVOX profile (we will never give out your name or email without your permission) to conduct an interview or get background.
- Build support in the districts or states of key legislators. If there is a key committee member or whose vote is crucial, then your best bet is to show that his or her constituents agree with your position. Maybe it’s time to tap into that alumni directory or reach out to your cousins’ cousin in a committee chair’s district. We designed POPVOX so that you can see sentiment and comments at the district and state level -- and so that the committee chair’s local newspaper and blogs are able to see what people are saying back home.
* This is a discussion about legislative advocacy and interactions with a Member's legislative office. As a general rule, campaign staff and campaign offices are happy to accept donations from people in any district.
It may be 2010, but when it comes to how constituents contact their members of congress it's like we're still using the Pony Express. As Marci explained in our first POPVOX post , the (electronic) letter is still the medium that works best for constituents and for members of congress, as bad as the cacophonous situation is today.
There is a lot of room for innovation. But us technologists had to make a number of mistakes first. Last summer I ran an experiment over at GovTrack to see if citizens could come together to write a “group letter” to Congress . The letter, which happened to be opposing H.R. 45 , a gun control bill, was collaboratively drafted by 451 participants using MixedInk.com . It was a little like 451 people working on a wiki to write a single letter. (And it worked well, considering.)
I delivered the letter personally to the offices of eight congressmen and learned a few things. We told the offices we were acting on behalf of some of their constituents. They were receptive and happy to respond to the names and addresses of the signatories to the letter in their district. (We had some 3,000 people sign the letter after it was drafted.)
Second, we wanted to see what the staff in each of the offices thought of a group-written letter as an innovative form of communication. Was this useful to them as a way to aggregate voices that was more thoughtful than a petition? Staff reactions were pretty much the same: Most thought the idea of group writing was interesting, but because we delivered it as esentially a petition with 3,000 signers that is how they saw it. There was no added value of going through the hoops of drafting a letter collaboratively.
My experiment failed because I wasn't attuned to the needs of congressional staff. Communication is a two-way street, after all. Constituents have certain needs when communicating with their representatives, and staff for members of congress have different needs. What works for one may not work for the other. Letter-writing is good for constituents but it's too good. Constituents write so many letters that congressional staff can only barely claim to process them. It's just a bad situation.
The POPVOX team thinks it's hit a sweet spot with the development of our new tool. We're by no means intending to replace the letter, electronic or otherwise. Our tool is solely electronic and we recognize that not all communities are equally active online, and what's best for one community may not be best for all. But we think there are times when a communication with Congress could be most effective with something other than a direct letter, and that's where we're hard at work.
If I end here, I'm sorry for being a bit of a tease about what we're actually building. But I'll tell you the most important part: the what is less important than the how . On the surface our idea is not new. It's our team, our experience inside Congress, with Gov2.0, and advocacy and our connections that allows us to develop a deeply thought-through product that will surely be significant.
We're going to be blogging throughout our process of development and of course after launch, and I hope to write about our approach to handling constituent communication "data", plans for analysis, our commitment to open access, and other technological sides of the project.
(For media inquiries, please contact Marci Harris, POPVOX’s CEO, at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
- POPVOX Daily Digest - May 17, 2013
- What to Watch in Congress - Week of May 19
- The POPVOX Top 20: May 10 - 16
- Issue Spotlight: Firearms and Gun Control
- POPVOX Daily Digest - May 16, 2013
- POPVOX Daily Digest - May 15, 2013
- POPVOX Daily Digest - May 14, 2013
- The Week Ahead: May 13 - 17
- Issue Spotlight: Syria
- "What to Watch" in Congress Next Week - with Charlie Mitchell