U.S. House of Representatives

As the federal government shutdown continues into its second week, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs released a report presenting possible solutions for preventing future governmental gridlock.

The nearly 200-page report presents a wide variety of solutions and recommendations, including increased access to information on congressional websites, workdays designated for strategic planning and streamlined membership on key committees. 

“Seeing reforms in past eras created a credible background to make forward-looking recommendations,” said Sam Spahn, a public affairs graduate who worked on the report.

“We forecasted that this was most likely going to happen back in December,” Spahn said. “The regular order is no longer there. To our generation, the regular order is chaos.”

Spahn said members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate who have reviewed the report received it positively.

“They don’t want to be told what to do,” Spahn said. “But they know the process is off track, so they are
paying attention.”

LBJ clinical professor Angela Evans, former deputy director of Congressional Research Service, led an 18-member team — consisting of 17 graduate student researchers — to produce the report.

The report focused on four main categories: budget and appropriations, agenda setting, deliberations
and staffing.

Public affairs graduate Jocelyn Kuhn was one of the principal writers for the historical analysis. She said the team learned to put aside personal beliefs and work to produce the report in a non-partisan fashion.

“We’re not telling anyone what to do, just what their options are,” Kuhn said. “It takes a look at history, where we are now and where
we’re going.”

Kuhn said congressional gridlock can be caused by many things, but it essentially means anything that is preventing Congress from moving forward.

Spahn focused his research on deliberation in the U.S. House of Representatives. Spahn said gridlock is caused by a lack of communication between members of Congress.

Evans, who is continuing work with the report in Washington, D.C., said it is difficult to know what sort of impact the report will ultimately have.

“In our minds, it’s about having something that moves the debate off of a critical view of Congress to an understanding of Congress,” Evans said. “We can start thinking about
offering solutions.”

Evans said other objectives for the report are to create a central report for anyone to use as a resource.

“We had to do a lot of work — it’s all there,” Evans said.

Kuhn said the most important step in congressional reform is for the American public to be informed.

“We need to know what our Congress is doing,” Kuhn said. “Congress is not beyond fixing — there are options out there.”

In this August 27, 2011 file photo, U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D) addresses Austinites at a community event. Doggett will be representing a new congressional district after winning Tuesday’s election.

Photo Credit: The Texas Tribune | Daily Texan Staff

Educational advocates Lloyd Doggett and Joaquin Castro will represent Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives, where they plan to push for pro-education reform.

Democratic candidate Lloyd Doggett defeated his three opponents for the position of U.S. Representative in Central Texas District 35, gaining 64 percent of the vote. This will be his 10th term in office. Doggett is a UT alumnus and former student body president. He is working to boost federal support for education while in office, calling for a permanent extension of a $2,500 tax cut for students pursuing a post-secondary education.

Democratic candidate Joaquin Castro defeated his three opponents for the position of U.S. Representative in District 20, which is mainly in the western San Antonio area, with 64 percent of the vote. Castro is currently serving his fifth term as state representative for District 125, which is mainly in the northwestern San Antonio area.

He won the seat Democrat Charles Gonzalez is vacating, putting an end to nearly 40 years of district representation by Gonzalez’s family.

Castro has been called a “rising star” by the Democratic Party and has worked to restore millions of dollars in funding to health care and educational programs, advocating an “Infrastructure of Opportunity,” defined on his website as “good public schools, great universities and a sound health care system ... that enables Americans to pursue their American Dream.”

Doggett said Tuesday night that he looks forward to partnering with Castro and San Antonio officials to “advance what’s already an outstanding community.”

Castro said on his website that he would like to give others the same opportunities he has had.

Doggett has also advocated tax, social security and health care reform to positively affect the middle and lower classes.

Castro has focused other political efforts on the areas of mental health, teen pregnancy and juvenile justice.

Both candidates plan to continue their past initiatives as the new legislative session begins. 

This past Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives rejected a bill that would have increased the number of green cards available to foreign students in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). If it had passed, as many as 55,000 visas a year would have gone to foreigners graduating from U.S. doctoral and masters programs, encouraging them to stay in the United States and participate in our economy rather than return overseas and take their talents with them. This proposal should have garnered support from both Democrats and Republicans, but instead the two parties failed to reach a consensus and the STEM Jobs Act died on the U.S. House floor.

The bill, which was sponsored by U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), included a stipulation that the 55,000 visas for highly-educated foreigners would not come from just anywhere. They would be subtracted from the visas granted by lottery to applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States, most of which are in poorer parts of the world like Africa and Latin America. According to Smith, whose district includes part of Austin, this provision aimed to limit “fraud and security risks.” Democrats sharply accuse that it would also place an arbitrary limit on the number of legal immigrants admitted to this country.

Foreseeing Democrats’ objections,  Smith and his fellow Republicans attempted to force the bill through the House under a procedure that limits debate and prevents amendments. The Democrats, their bluff called, voted against the bill in sufficient numbers to keep it from reaching the required two-thirds majority. And that was the end of the STEM Jobs Act.

Clearly, the U.S. House Republicans know exactly how beneficial this law would be, even without the limits on other immigrants’ opportunities. “In a global economy, we cannot afford to educate these foreign graduates in the U.S. and then send them back home to work for our competitors,” Smith said. “This bill makes our immigration system smarter by admitting those who have the education and skills America needs.” But he left the rest of the sentence unsaid: “ … at everybody else’s expense.”

The high road was open. The Republican-led House could have easily given the nation something everyone can get behind — an influx of skilled college graduates who could give back to the country that educated them. But instead they took that great idea hostage to score a political point and advance their own restrictive, xenophobic immigration philosophy. Now thousands of new graduates and the U.S. economy will pay the price.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 228-192 to approve a bill last week that could make it harder for public radio stations to acquire funding for programming. Seven percent of University-operated radio station KUT’s budget comes from federal funding to buy programming from National Public Radio and other entities that produce radio content, said KUT director Stewart Vanderwilt. “What the bill does is that it severely restricts how local stations can use federal funds,” Vanderwilt said. The implications of the bill will be felt mostly at local community radio stations that rely heavily on federal grants to pay for national programming, Vanderwilt said. Programs at risk of being cut in local community stations could include “This American Life” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” he said. “KUT has no plans to drop or replace these programs,” Vanderwilt said. “Some stations, however, may be faced with having to do so.” Vanderwilt said 85 percent of KUT’s funding comes from community members and their support. “We will continue to reach out to our audience and ask them to be part of the funding model that keeps the station going,” he said. NPR released a statement saying the cuts would impact public radio stations across the country and weaken their ability to serve their audience. In a press release, NPR interim CEO Joyce Slocum said a society where entertainment is taking precedence over fact-based reporting, public radio stations are serving their audience with honest and critical analysis of issues. “It would be a tragedy for America to lose this national treasure,” Slocum said in the press release. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said in a speech last week that the bill directly attacks KUT and similar public radios across the country. He said 250,000 Texans rely on KUT’s in-depth news analysis of state and local politics. “The only bias of those who begin with ‘Morning Edition’ is a bias for truth,” Doggett said in the speech. “My constituents tune in to KUT because they want fact-based, not faux-based, Fox-based coverage.” Tyler Norris, chairman of the Young Conservatives of Texas at UT, said the bill is a step in a positive direction because public radio stations should rely on private-sector funding rather than federal grants to purchase programming. Norris said many private radio music stations rely on consumer ratings and advertisement to fund their operations. “There shouldn’t be any government involvement in [funding] NPR or public television,” the government senior said. “It’s not government’s job to fund entertainment or information services.”

 

Texans are now facing significant challenges to reproductive health and freedom at both the state and federal levels.

Most Texans have drawn their attention to the sonogram bill that Gov. Rick Perry pushed forth as an “emergency item,” which will require doctors to provide any woman seeking an abortion with a sonogram. Weeks after the state Senate passed a slightly milder version of the legislation, the state House passed the bill Monday, requiring even victims of rape and incest to undergo the traumatic and intrusive process.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act last month to block federal funding for Planned Parenthood — a 95-year-old federation that provides reproductive health care and education for more than 1 million people each year — and other organizations that perform abortions. Title X is the only federal grant program that is solely dedicated to providing family planning services and preventive health services.

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Indiana, who introduced the legislation, said before the U.S. House of Representatives that organizations that provide abortion services should not be subsidized by federal tax dollars. Planned Parenthood received about $363 million from government grants and contracts in 2008-09, according to the organization’s most recent report. However, only 3 percent of the organization’s services were abortion-related.

Moreover, many mistakenly believe that the decision to defund Planned Parenthood would affect only women who seek abortions. However, more than 90 percent of Planned Parenthood services involve preventive primary care, providing both men and women with testing for sexually transmitted infections and with sexual health education aimed to help prevent unwanted pregnancies. These services also allow for safe and reliable breast and cervical examinations. College students especially benefit from the affordability and accessibility of the care that Planned Parenthood offers.

Since the legislation’s passage in the House, several female senators and representatives have spoken out against the proposal. As Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, said emphatically before the Senate last week, House Republicans have “engaged in an all-out assault” and have shown a “heinous disregard” for the health, safety and well-being of women, children and families in America.

With legislation at the state level threatening the freedom for a woman or family to choose to have an abortion and legislation at the federal level defunding organizations that provide reproductive health services and care, the rights of men, women and children to receive quality sexual education and health care are in jeopardy.

Take a stand, and join the effort against this usurpation of rights: Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region, which serves more than 33,000 Central Texans each year, is leading an effort with other pro-choice supporters on the south side of the Capitol today to emphasize the importance of funding and supporting reproductive health and freedom.

A recent proposal from Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives to cut non-defense discretionary spending could adversely affect research institutions, including UT, said UT’s vice president for research, Juan Sanchez. The federal fiscal year officially ended in September 2010, and since then, agencies have operated on the belief that their budgets for the fiscal year of 2011 would be renewed. But House Republicans are now preparing to pass a resolution to carry the government through the next fiscal year and set a limit on the amount they are willing to spend. The bill, which has not yet been released, could impact institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. The bill could also reduce the U.S. Department of Energy’s budget by 18 percent, or about $800 million. “This is a cut that is based on spending for the entire year, but all of those $880 million have to be cut out of what was being spent in those seven months,” said Barry Toiv, spokesman for the Association of American Universities. “That makes it a much steeper cut.” The proposal would have to pass in the Senate and then be signed by President Obama, so there is still uncertainty about the adverse effects it could have, Toiv said. “The truth is we just don’t know what’s going to happen now,” Toiv said. “But it is something that we hope that anybody who hears about energy research that is funded by the Department of Energy will let Congress know these are cuts that don’t help our country.” For UT, these budget cuts would mean those working on research would have to compete more for limited funding. “When there is less money to compete for, the quality of the faculty, the quality of the proposals, the quality of ideas become the dominant factor,” Sanchez said. “We have a good track record in that area.” Laura Kuri, biochemistry senior and president of the Science Undergraduate Studies Research Group, said she thinks the cuts could hurt UT’s research capabilities. “UT is one of the most important research universities in the country,” Kuri said. “I think it’s really unfair because we provide a lot of insight and knowledge to the research world.” Although research institutions will lose a large portion of their funding, some are still not too concerned about this change. “[Research] is the number-one thing we’re known for,” said human biology sophomore Collin Johnson. “We’ve had our share of budget cuts in the past, and everybody knew it was going to keep coming, so we’ll just keep doing what we do, basically.”

 

The Travis County jurors deciding the fate of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay told the trial judge on Tuesday that they were making progress but would need more time to arrive at a verdict.

Jurors will return Wednesday to continue deliberating on DeLay’s fate. He faces charges of money laundering and conspiracy to launder money, which stem from his role in helping to orchestrate the controversial 2003 redistricting of Texas’ congressional districts.

“It’s going to be a long deliberation because of the complexity of the case,” said Gary Cobb, Travis County’s lead prosecutor on the case. “We’re not concerned about the time it’s taking them to come to a decision. We are heartened by the fact they say they are making progress.”

DeLay’s defense attorney, Dick DeGuerin, promised to appeal any conviction on grounds that Texas’ ban on corporate campaign contributions is an unconstitutional violation of a corporation’s right to free speech.

“We know [the jurors] are working hard because they’re writing intelligent questions,” he said. “It means they’re looking very hard at the evidence. I think they’re zeroing in right on the weaknesses of the prosecution’s case.”

The indictment was based on questions about the propriety of money used to help finance Republican candidates for the Texas House in the 2002 election.

DeLay’s Texas political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, sent $190,000 in corporate campaign contributions to an arm of the Republican National Committee in October 2002, along with a list of seven candidates to donate money to and how much money to send to each campaign.

Just a few days later, the RNC sent a total of $190,000 from a separate bank account — money that could be contributed to campaigns in Texas — to the seven listed candidates.

The Travis County District Attorney charged that the money swap was money laundering and indicted DeLay. His defense claimed it was standard practice in politics.

“I don’t think there’s enough money in politics,” DeLay said during an earlier pre-trial hearing. “Money is corruptible to the corruptible; it is up to the individual. There is nothing wrong with participating in the process and [raising money to help] candidates get elected. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done.”

During the closing days of the trial, the prosecution repeatedly argued, while the defense strenuously objected, that DeLay’s motive to conspire and launder money to GOP candidates for the Texas House was to push through what would become the controversial 2003 redistricting of the state.

Retaking the Texas House was essential to DeLay’s plans to redraw Texas’ congressional districts, with the aim of cementing GOP control of the U.S. House of Representatives, said Dave McNeely, a retired longtime political columnist for the Austin American-Statesman.

“TRMPAC was allegedly founded as a means of shuttling corporate money to help Republicans in targeted races in the Texas House of Representatives,” McNeely said. “It was obviously aimed at electing [state] Rep. Tom Craddick, [R-Midland], as speaker of the Texas House, and then having him oversee the drawing of new congressional districts that would punish senior Democrats and help DeLay pad the Republican majority. It worked.”

McNeely said the extra seats were needed to ensure there were enough votes for Craddick to defeat then-Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat who had some Republican support.

Encouraged by DeLay and Gov. Rick Perry, Craddick spearheaded the controversial 2003 midcycle redrawing of Texas’ congressional districts, which resulted in Texas sending an additional six Republicans to the U.S. House.

As Republicans trounced Democrats nationwide on Tuesday night — reclaiming control of the U.S. House of Representatives — two Texas Democratic incumbents also lost their bids for re-election. But Democrats maintained a narrow majority in the U.S. Senate.

With 98 percent of the votes reported, San Antonio Republican Francisco Canseco led the race for U.S. Congressional District 23, which spans from El Paso to San Antonio, by 5.1 percent. Canseco ousted Democratic incumbent Ciro Rodriguez, a Democrat who served two terms.

UT public affairs lecturer Sherri Greenberg said the district is more marginal, but leans Republican because of its large, varied demographic. President Barack Obama won 51 percent of the district’s vote during the 2008 presidential election, while 57 percent voted for former President George W. Bush in 2004.

Voters in District 17, which includes Waco and Bryan, removed 10-term Rep. Chet Edwards in favor of Republican challenger Bill Flores by 44,000 votes.

Greenberg said the Waco-based seat has been a difficult one for a Democrat to retain since the mid-decade redistricting in 2004, which gave Republicans an advantage in the district.

“When redistricting was done again, the seat was drawn for a Republican,” she said. “Through work and will, Edwards has held on to it, but it wasn’t enough for him this time. I think the Republican tide combined with the Republican district is too much to overcome for Edwards.”

Saint Mary’s University government professor Henry Flores said the anti-incumbent atmosphere and voters’ frustrations could have led to Edward’s demise. Henry Flores said he expects congressional gridlock and the new Republican leadership to elect a Republican president in 2012.

“In the bigger picture of things, I don’t think much is going to happen in Washington,” he said. “With a fairly activist Republican House, because of new Tea Party settlers, they’re going to be putting proposals in that counter Obama’s agenda. Obama is going to start putting forth policies, forcing the Republicans to take some very dramatic stands on issues that they will look so bad to the American public.”

Henry Flores said Republicans are likely to raise the issues of extending the Bush tax cuts and to reduce government spending, while the Democrats, under Obama, will push for immigration reform.

“There is going to be a lot of drama and attacking and counterattacking,” he said. “The American people are going to suffer because things just won’t get done.”

The 2010 midterm election season has been the most expensive to date, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a research organization that studies the role of money in U.S. politics. District 17 was the ninth most costly race, with Edwards and Flores raising about a total of $6 million and spending about $5 million.

“Both of the candidates are well above the average mark for money spent,” said the center’s spokesman David Levinthal. “The average winner of a House race in 2008 spent about $1.4 million in victory. Both of these guys, through Oct. 15, had spent more than $2.5 million.”

The District 17 race also ranked high among the House races that have attracted outside spending, such as from American Crossroads, a political organization former Bush political adviser Karl Rove created to support conservative candidates and issues, Levinthal said. According to the center’s website, Flores raised a total of nearly $644,000 from outside spending, and Edwards nearly $892,000.

“If Republicans can pick [Edwards] off, they’ve scored a major moral and political victory for themselves, in addition to the very practical victory of getting another House seat in an election year where every single vote counts,” he said.

— Additional reporting contributed by Andrew Kreighbaum