Washington Notebook

June 2, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 21

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


Rules of the game

By Joe Feuerherd

Forget what you learned in civics class about how a bill becomes a law. The reality is more interesting. As is the story of how a few members of the House of Representatives, working with a coalition that included environmental groups and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, overcame the inertia of the legislative process and passed a measure requiring the federal government to consider how its environmental policies affect minority and low-income communities.

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First, some background.

Even today, despite partisan rancor and ideological divisions, the 100-member U.S. Senate runs on collegiality. One member can stall routine business, "blue-slip" a judicial nominee, and generally clog-up-the-works; under the filibuster rule, just 41 senators can bring the institution to a standstill. To get anything done, more than a minimum level of civility must exist.

Not so in the unwieldy 435-member House of Representatives.

Unlike the Senate, the House runs by strictly-enforced rules. In fact, the body's most powerful entity is the aptly named Rules Committee. Meeting in a tiny room on the third floor of the Capitol, that committee sets the parameters of debate for every piece of legislation that reaches the House Floor.

That includes not only dividing debate time between supporters and opponents, but defining what amendments to a bill will be "in order" or "out of order." Under Speaker Denny Hastert and Majority Leader Tom Delay the Rules Committee is tightly controlled; operating with a slim House majority, Hastert and Delay broach little disagreement from their Republican colleagues, and virtually none from the minority party.

The Republican ability to set the rules of the game, and the manner in which they do so, is a source of considerable frustration for Democrats (as it was for Republicans when Democrats were in the majority.)

"Republicans have fought to shut down debate, instead of having a full airing of views on America's priorities," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told a May 26 press conference. "Democrats have been excluded and the voices of tens of millions of Americans are not heard," charged Pelosi.

Such was the context when, on the evening of May 18, the Rules Committee met to consider rules governing debate on the $27 billion Environmental Protection Agency/Interior Department appropriation bill.

The 12-member committee, voting on party lines, declined to allow Rep. David Obey, the ranking minority member of the Appropriations Committee, to offer an amendment adding $500 million to EPA clean water programs. Rules Committee Republicans were not about to sanction a televised debate where the merits of clean water would be contrasted with the benefits of giving more money to millionaires.

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But the committee did permit several amendments to be considered (there's generally more flexibility on the 13 appropriations bills than on other legislation). Among them: an amendment offered by Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) requiring that "environmental justice" regulations -- rules that require federal agencies to consider the disproportionate environmental burdens on poor and minority neighborhoods -- first promulgated under George H.W. Bush be enforced.

The Hastings amendment had broad support among environmental interest groups and was being worked diligently by their lobbyists. The Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters and Earthjustice took the lead. Meanwhile, Hastings had assembled a broad coalition -- everyone from the NAACP and the Mennonite Central Committee to the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment -- to support his initiative.

Earthjustice's legislative counsel, Joan Mulhern, made contact with staff at the Social Development and World Peace office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Would they consider supporting the Hastings amendment? Yes indeed was the response.

Over a four-day period, conference staff drafted a letter to members of Congress and vetted it through the offices and departments that must sign-off before the bishops weigh-in on public policy. Among the internal USCCB offices consulted: government relations, general counsel, communications, pro-life, migration and refugee services, African-American Catholics, Hispanic Affairs, and education. The general secretary of the conference, Msgr. William Fay, approved the letter, as did the chairman of the bishops' Domestic Policy Committee, Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.

"We are particularly concerned about the poor and the powerless who most directly bear the burden and suffer disproportionately from the multiple effects of environmental problems in many low-income communities," said the May 19 letter from DiMarzio delivered to each member of Congress.

Back on the floor of the House, Hastings offered his amendment.

"We anticipated a big debate on this amendment," recalled Mulhern. Instead, the Republican majority simply went along with the measure. No objection was raised and the amendment was approved by voice vote. Like the millionaire tax cuts vs. clean water debate, no one in Congress wanted to publicly discuss why the federal government should be less than vigilant in combating pollution in low-income areas.

DiMarzio's letter, said Mulhern, "was extremely helpful."

Now, back to basic civics, the House legislation must be reconciled in a conference committee with the Senate version of the appropriations bill. Will the provision requiring the EPA to enforce its own environmental justice policies survive the process?

Given the parliamentary maneuvering that can take place behind closed doors, it's impossible to tell at this point.

But if senators and congressman are forced to vote publicly on the issue, it is certain to pass.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

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