The five bills we specifically looked at were:
- The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2013 (HR 1150) and its Senate companion, the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act of 2013 (S 1256)
- The Arbitration Fairness Act of 2013 (S 878 and identical HR 1844)
- The Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights (S 1803)
The basic update is the same for all of the bills: they have gone into Committee and are deeply unlikely ever to come back out. They have crossed the event horizon into the bureaucratic black hole of Congress and probably won’t ever again see the light of day.
The more interesting question is: why? And that’s where they diverge a little bit.
All About Committees
When most of us think of Congress, we imagine the House and Senate floors, and all those rows of rings of wooden desks. But although the venue looks impressive, the vast majority of a legislator’s work is done elsewhere.
Congressional committees, in both houses, are where everything happens. They are the gatekeepers, in both the House and the Senate, that make the system run. In theory, the system allows for legislators to act as subject area experts — letting them have a go at the text of a bill to be sure it regulates what it needs to and won’t have too many negative unintended consequences.
U.S. law is huge and sweeping and complicated, after all, and a representative who has a strong background in telecom or copyright law may not be so great at reading an agriculture bill and knowing all the relevant context around it. Committees also have specialized subcommittees, to break down areas of law even further.
Of course, there’s more to it than just that. Some committees carry more prestige than others, and ambitious members of Congress are constantly jockeying for positions in the committees that come across as more important in the political game. There are all kinds of rules about who can serve on how many committees of which type at any given moment.
Likewise, not all positions inside committees are created equal. Every committee and subcommittee has a chair, a ranking member, and sometimes a vice chair. And this is where it starts to get tricky.
The committee chair is the one who gets to set the committee’s agenda — meaning he or she is the one who picks what bills a committee will hold hearings and meetings on, and which ones ultimately will stand a chance of advancing out of committee to see a vote on the floor.
Clearly, then, committee memberships are important, and chairmanships even more so. And how are they determined? As the Library of Congress explains:
Membership on the various committees is divided between the two major political parties. The proportion of the Members of the minority party to the Members of the majority party is determined by the majority party, except that half of the members on the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct are from the majority party and half from the minority party. The respective party caucuses nominate Members of the caucus to be elected to each standing committee at the beginning of each Congress.
Meaning: if Party A takes 51% of seats in an election, then Party A gets to determine how many Party A members and how many Party B members get to sit on each committee for the next two years. Then both parties get to nominate committee members, in those numbers, among themselves.
That’s how committees work in a broad sense. So how, specifically, does that apply to these bills?
It doesn’t take a Washington insider to realize that the 113th Congress — the session that started in January, 2013 and will end in December of this year — is not exactly in the habit of civil agreement. In the House especially, but also in the Senate, members of Congress make more headlines lately for torpedoing legislation than for passing it.
As GovTrack.us, Pew, and the Washington Post have all reported, the current Congress is less productive than its predecessors by almost every measure. In 2003, Congress passed 198 pieces of legislation. In 2013, it was 65.
Looking at our five specific bills, who sponsored them, and what committees they’ve gone to, it’s not difficult to see the specter of partisanship at play. In many, though not all, cases, the bills and the committees are in opposing hands.
HR 1150: Introduced by Louise Slaughter (D-NY). 72 co-sponsors (72 D, 0 R). In the House Health subcommittee, chairman: Joe Pitts (R-PA).
HR 1844: Introduced by Hank Johnson (D-GA). 78 co-sponsors (78 D, 0 R). In the House subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law, chairman: Spencer Bachus (R-AL).
S 1256: Introduced by Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). 12 co-sponsors (11 D, 1 R). In the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, chairman: Tom Harkin (D-IA).
S 878: Introduced by Al Franken (D-MN). 24 co-sponsors (23 D, 1 I). In the Senate Judiciary Committee, chairman: Patrick Leahey (D-VT).
S 1803: Introduced by Dick Durbin (D-IL). 10 co-sponsors (10 D, 0 R). In the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, chairman: Tom Harkin (D-IA).
In the House, then, it’s easy to guess why the bills aren’t going anywhere. But in the Senate, there’s a lot more party match, so acrimony across the aisle isn’t the only answer.
Follow The Money
The things these bills target — mandatory binding arbitration, the student loan industry, and the rampant overuse of antibiotics in agriculture — have one aspect in common: money.
Actually restricting the use of antibiotics in industrial farming, as opposed to ineffectually asking nicely, would cost some big corporations a lot of cash.
The Senate bill that would curtail that is S 1256, and it’s in a committee run by Tom Harkin. Harkin represents Iowa, which is a farming state that would likely not want to re-elect a guy that made agriculture lose money. Additionally, an enormous amount of his campaign contributions come from the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. His motivations for hearing and advancing a bill that farmers and big pharma both stand against, therefore, are nonexistent.
On the other hand, the Student Loan Bill of Rights (S 1803) sits in the same committee. Several of the bill’s 10 co-sponsors serve on that committee. In theory it seems like they would be compelled to advance their own bill. But in reality, GovTrack.us finds no correlation there. In fact, the correlation they find runs the other way: “6+ cosponsors serve on a committee to which the bill has been referred” tends to correlate with a lower chance of getting through committee.
But money also comes into play here. Although you don’t see “student lending industry” popping up in the top five donor industries to the campaign funds for any of the HELP committee members, you also don’t see “student borrowers” on that list. In other words: although money may not compel them to avoid advancing the bill, money supporting other interests compels them to spend their time and resources on other bills instead, leaving this one to sit and rot. Corporations and donors have much, much louder voices in politics than masses of ordinary citizens do — especially citizens who are unlikely to vote in midterm elections.
Though Sometimes There’s Hope…
Four of our five bills are almost certainly, without question, going to drop dead in committee. But one actually stands a chance of getting through: the Arbitration Fairness Act.
GovTrack doesn’t give it great odds of clearing committee, mind — just 44%. But as compared to the 0% and 1% chances other bills see, that’s sky-high optimism. And the bill has a fair amount going for it, politically speaking.
The committee chair and all subcommittee chairs are friendly to the idea and to the sponsor, and the concept itself is seen as sticking up for the consumer against big corporations, especially banks. Corporations are inconvenienced, but do not lose megatons of money, if arbitration is reined in and more regulated. And voters get to feel warm and fuzzy about it. So there’s not a net loss for most of the committee members if the bill goes to the floor for a vote.
Unfortunately, even if it does get to the floor for a vote, GovTrack estimates it’s not likely to pass. They give it a 6% chance of becoming a law, overall.
In the defense of Congress, though, the fact that only about 3% of bills ever become law is not necessarily a bad thing. So far the 113th Congress has seen 9012 bills and resolutions introduced; with six months left to go before they adjourn, they’ll almost certainly clear 10,000. There’s no way that all of them can be good law, or seriously introduced in good faith, and some should die in committee, never to be seen again.
But the outsized influence of money on the political process strongly influences which bills are likely to make it or not. Individual consumers aren’t throwing around the same kind of campaign cash as gigantic corporations, and never will be. And that means that passing legislation that serves people, but hurts business, will continue to be a difficult uphill battle.