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Health Care Reform 2009 Part 3: Congress

House Committee Chairs

Executive Summary

This just about sums it up.

Even if you’ve been closely following the health care reform debate in the news, figuring out what’s going on in Congress can be tricky.  If you haven’t been following closely, then you’re probably totally lost.  Fortunately, the folks at Kaiser have put together an interactive tutorial.  Unfortunately, it’s super long, kind of boring (it’s narrated by a guy who looks and talks like Agent Smith from the Matrix), and leaves out some important points.  So we borrowed their handy chart explaining the Congressional process…

chart explaining the Congressional process

…and we’ll break it down so it’s a little easier to understand.

First, here’s the quick and dirty overview of the committee process:

  1. The bill is introduced into the relevant committee.
  2. That committee holds meetings where members can propose and vote on amendments– this is called markup.
  3. Markup ends when the committee votes to report the bill back (which just means sending the bill back to the full House or Senate so that everyone can vote on it).

The health care reform bill will go through this process a lot.  There are FIVE different committees with jurisdiction over health care (three in the House and two in the Senate)- and the bill has to pass through each of them:

In the House of Representatives

  • Ways and Means Committee: Any bill involving federal taxes goes through this committee, chaired by Charles Rangel (D-NY)
  • House Education and Labor Committee: Any bill affecting the American workforce goes through this committee — because it includes benefits, they’re involved in health care reform, chaired by George Miller (D-CA)
  • House Committee on Energy and Commerce: Has super broad jurisdiction.  They handle pretty much everything that’s regulated, including health care, chaired by Henry Waxman (D-CA)

All three of the chairs of the committees that cover health care reform (sometimes you’ll see them called Tri-Committee chairs) introduced the same bill in July– HR 3200.  This itself was a major achievement, as Ezra Klein explains:

If you read histories of the 1994 health-care reform fight, all of them have a substantial section on the committee crack-up: One passed a version of single-payer, another a variant of Bill Clinton’s reform, another went further to the right. There was no unity.

There is unity now. And if it holds — if the House of Representatives manages to pass this plan with a substantial majority of enthusiastic Democrats — that significantly strengthens the House’s hand in its eventual negotiations with the more fractious Senate. That’s a big “if.” But so too would have been the idea that three separate committees could cooperate on a bill of this size.

The bill made it through all three, even though all of the Republicans and some Democrats voted against it.  Now there are basically three different versions of this bill– each committee passed different amendments– and the three bills will be merged into a final version for the House to vote on.

In the House, the merged bill won’t go straight to the floor- first it goes to the Rules Committee.  This committee is extremely powerful. In the Senate, there’s unlimited debate and discussion on a bill (which is why they can filibuster).  But in the House, the Rules Committee sets conditions for the debate.

From wikipedia (yeah, I know it’s bad form to quote wikipedia, but it just says the same thing as the Rules Committee website, only in English):

  • For instance, there might be a limit on the number or types of amendments (proposed changes to the bill).
  • Amendments might only be allowed to specific sections of the bill, or no amendments might be allowed at all…
  • The Rules Committee also determines the amount of speaking time assigned on each bill or resolution.  If the leadership wants a bill pushed forward quietly, for instance, there might be no debate time scheduled; if they want attention, they might allow time for lengthy speeches in support of the bill.

Once the bill comes out of the Rules Committee, the whole House will vote on it.

That’s it for the House of Representatives.  Not too bad, right?  Tomorrow we’ll explain how things work in the Senate, and where the bill will go from there.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • John Nagle August 25, 2009, 11:25 am

    Informative and nice writing. Looking forward to tomorrow’s blog.

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