Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
September 2, 2015

Posts by Publius Valerius Publicola

24 Posts

July 14, 2014

House Panel Hones Skills on Genetically Modified Consumers | Madisonville

Ranking member Schrader. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Ranking member Schrader. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The more obscure House committee hearings can be like minor league baseball: a place to see raw talent refining its skills for a bigger stage. You just have to look past the wild pitches and base-running mistakes.

House Agriculture has a Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee that includes Rodney Davis, R-Ill., and ranking member Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., on the roster. Davis, holding the gavel in the absence of the chairman, pounded it audibly at a hearing last week and spoke with one-day-I’ll-be-a-real-chairman deliberation. Schrader kept saying “this great country” as though he had been flubbing it in the past and was sent down for additional practice.

The hearing was on the Benefits of Biotechnology. The missing subtitle was “The Problem With Consumers.” The committee was there to lament the fact that consumers don’t buy enough genetically-modified food. Shoppers apparently picture the skull and crossbones whenever they see a label saying genetically modified. General Motors can boost sales after disclosing its cars kill people, but the food business can’t move beef fed with genetically engineered grain. Full story

June 20, 2014

Senate Panel Goes Back to (Dr.) Oz | Madisonville

Madisonville-Logo185x185Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., brought a bit of glamour to the Senate to get to the bottom of why Americans want to lose weight without really trying. Dr. Mehmet Oz, the star of “The Dr. Oz Show,” came to explain why he speaks so kindly about products that McCaskill said combine promises of weight loss and a “lack of serious effort.”

You could tell Oz was a star because his entourage included somebody to knot his tie. Bright studio lights were stationed in the corners for the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance hearing Tuesday. Other witnesses knotted their own ties and mostly faded into the wings.

McCaskill gave Oz a tongue-lashing, telling him to stop talking about the benefits of green coffee bean extract, garcinia cambogia and raspberry ketone — “The number one miracle in a bottle to burn your fat!” — on his show. “Why don’t you tell people to take a walk instead of a pill?” McCaskill asked. She was on such a roll that you expected her to accuse Oz of being the inspiration for the 64-oz. soda. Full story

June 13, 2014

Health Subcommittee Diagnoses Country’s Mood | Madisonville

Madisonville-Logo185x185The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health has gotten to the heart of what’s ailing the country. It turns out we’re sick. Literally. Almost half the country — 133 million people, one witness said — has a chronic medical condition or disability. That’s the news. The bad news is that it’s going to get worse. No wonder everybody’s in a bad mood.

The June 11 hearing on 21st century cures raised the question of how to encourage investment in potential treatments or cures for all those sick people. The issue combines two things Americans are passionate about: Their health and getting rich. The hearing was accordingly filled to standing-room-only capacity.  Full story

May 27, 2014

House Panel Searches for Intelligent Life | Madisonville

Madisonville-Logo(185x185)Members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee reached out to boldly cross a great divide last week. Not the one separating Republicans and Democrats. That would be asking too much. The divide between earthlings and aliens.

The committee initially stumbled over what to call its May 21 hearing. It started as Cosmology: The Search for Intelligent Life, possibly in expectation of a dire outcome in Tuesday’s primaries. But by Wednesday, the title — if not the ambition — was enlarged to Astrobiology and the Search for Life in the Universe.

Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas welcomed a group of high schoolers, saying the hearing was to inspire today’s students to become tomorrow’s scientists. (Just perhaps not the vast majority of climate scientists, about whom Smith is unenthusiastic.)

Dan Werthimer, director of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at SETI, came to talk about efforts to pick up communications signals emitted from distant planets. There are so many that have the conditions to support life that Shostak predicted results, funding permitting, within 20 years. “The kind of life that could uphold its end of the conversation,” he said. Full story

May 7, 2014

Wyden Channels ‘Portlandia’ at Senate Finance | Madisonville


The country’s roads and cars are a rich source of invention in our language, not to mention our music, literature and movies. You can find something for any purpose: living in the fast lane, moving on cruise control, running on empty, pedal to the metal, firing on all cylinders, asleep at the wheel, buckle up, we’re in for a rough ride, speed bump, my way or the highway, back-seat driver, one for the road, green light, bump in the road, hit the brakes, road kill, deer in the headlights, red light.

So when Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, holds a hearing about the depleted Highway Trust Fund — the biggest single source of funding for the nation’s roads — you expect him to find language to do justice to the cause.

“My bottom line is that you can’t have a big-league quality of life with little-league infrastructure,” Wyden said to open the hearing Tuesday.

A baseball metaphor? Little League? This is Wyden’s way of warning about potholes and deficient bridges? Either the country’s demography has changed far more than anybody realizes or Wyden is the senator from “Portlandia” — maybe both.

If ever a metaphor wasn’t built for purpose, this was it. Jack Kerouac didn’t write “On the First Base Line.” Bob Dylan didn’t sing “Right Field Revisited.” This was the Manchurian candidate of metaphors, a sleeper agent placed to betray the cause it was seemingly deployed to help. You could almost hear the air going out of the builders in the room. Full story

May 2, 2014

Too Much Regulation? There Oughta be a Law | Madisonville


Rep. Kevin Brady, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, underlined his solemnity of purpose on Wednesday by noting that congressional hearings too often get titled merely to attract attention. So he called his hearing: “The First Step to Cutting Red Tape: Better Analysis. ” If the number of people in the room was an indication, he succeeded in not attracting attention.

Two Minnesotans were enough to account for a third of the congressional participation, and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen hijacked a good chunk of time to promote the state’s medical device industry, described by some as “Minnesota’s medical alley.” That’s a fine echo of Silicon Valley if you can block out the image of used syringes littering a poorly lit street.

Red Tape is something all political denominations can agree on.  The pejorative Red Tape is one cue about how to think about it.  Better Analysis is just as uncontroversial, as long as everybody overlooks the reality that Better Analysis is the kind that supports the already established view of one side or another. Full story

April 9, 2014

Wyden Calls His Own Tune in Senate Finance | Madisonville

Madisonville-Logo(185x185)Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden is bringing a new accent to the Senate Finance Committee as the recently installed chairman. Literally. Wyden at work constructs whole sentences that roll along in a monotone until he decides to single out a word for the stress.  And a big stress it is, too.

There’s no particular logic to where he chooses to do it. But once the listener gets in the spirit of it, it’s easy to forget the subject: In Tuesday’s case, it was the misery inflicted on Americans by tax preparers who are incompetent or crooked.

“most of those paid tax return preparers don’t have to meet ANY standards, ANY standards for competence,” Wyden says. Except that the normal typeface doesn’t do justice to the difference between monotone Wyden and stressed Wyden.

Wyden makes the capital letters that should open a sentence seem like they’re cowering under his desk. Proper nouns stay under the radar. “my home state of oregon gets this issue RIGHT.” Who’s suffering from this abuse? “they could be immigrants PROUD to pay taxes in their NEW country,” Wyden says. “the most VULNERABLE people in america will bear the brunt.”

Nina E. Olson, the IRS’ national taxpayer advocate and one of the witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing, either speaks the same way Wyden does or she couldn’t resist following his example, the way some people involuntarily mimic the tics of their conversation partners.

“the only CREDIBLE argument,” “seemed very REASONABLE,” “the BEST enforcement,” “it is a BRIGHT line that all taxpayers can understand,” she said.

“it’s your job to go to BAT for taxpayers,” Wyden said.

“as was discussed in YOUR statement,” Olsen said.

“the heart of what YOU’VE been talking about is very unSCRUPulous preparers,” Wyden said.  He said unSCRUPulous a lot.

“that’s a very important distinction that AUDITS will not get you,” Olsen said. “the irs right now is doing a PILOT.” (That sentence may suggest a way for the IRS to avoid notice.) “there may be things on that END that you can work with.”

Olsen even had a flair for this that exceeded Wyden’s. “there’s a very high learning CURVE,” she said, starting with a loud “c” and working up to a crescendo to a finish on the VEEE note. Try that at home. It’s not easy. Wyden looked appreciative of everything she said.

The two of them communicated with a mysterious musicality, reminiscent of the recordings of whale singing available in national parks and wax candle shops.  The Senate could put it in the gift shop.

“what HAPPENS here on the finance committee,” Wyden said. What happens on the Finance Committee may never sound the same.

April 4, 2014

House Agriculture Discloses the Real News | Madisonville


Not much can beat the House Agriculture Committee for showing what a rich and diverse country we live in. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s appearance Thursday for a “Review the State of the Rural Economy” had moments that felt like the scene in “Men in Black” where Tommy Lee Jones turns to the National Enquirer to get reliable news.

The mainstream media are missing some big stories.

Like “the black vultures problem that is plaguing the Southeast,” says Tennessee Republican Scott DesJarlais. The vultures are attacking livestock, often going for the eyes — but not always. “They also attack the backside of animals,” DesJarlais says. That detail prompts a quick mental check about April Fools’ Day. There’s no comfort in confirming that it was two days earlier.

Farmers are setting off fireworks and firing their guns into the air because they can’t kill the vultures without a permit. Unruffled (heh heh), the vultures keep coming back. Full story

March 26, 2014

‘Debt: The Sequel’ Flops in House Financial Services | Madisonville


Republicans thought they had the home-field advantage at the House Financial Services Committee’s “Why Debt Matters” hearing Tuesday. The falling snow seemed to energize them as much as the cause and they came early and in force, outnumbering the Democrats by more than 2-to-1 when Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas gaveled the hearing open.

The Republican juggernaut slowed down from there.  Sequels, even debt sequels, rarely work as well as the original.

Hensarling nevertheless reeled off the dangers, many of which are mighty familiar: an economic and political death spiral, street lights going out, ambulances not running, buildings going vacant and college graduates turning to subsistence farming. College graduates with the skills for subsistence farming seemed like an inviting campfire in the dystopia, but Hensarling didn’t mean it to be.  Not that the chairman was predicting any of this. He was just saying.

Ranking member Maxine Waters of California mentioned the Bush administration’s tax cuts and wars. She didn’t want to dwell on those things. She was just saying. Waters, to her own surprise, got David Cote, the chief executive of Honeywell Inc., to offer immigration reform as a way to spur the economy and contribute revenue to the government.

Cote was appearing for the debt-matters case and raising immigration reform was his own goal for the team. Later, in the spirit of just saying, Cote told the committee, “There’s a phrase we use a lot in the company, which is ‘we are where we are.’ ” Even Republicans must have wondered at this point whether the 1 percent are all they’re cracked up to be. Full story

March 17, 2014

A Hip Factory in Every Basement | Madisonville

Madisonville-Logo(185x185)The House Small Business Committee meets in a room in the Rayburn building that feels like the warehouse office of one of the business start-ups Congress loves to celebrate.  The translucent plastic panels that screen the fluorescent lights and the drop ceiling tell you that this committee doesn’t waste money on luxuries. You half expect to hear an electric insect killer snap a few bugs to death with a mighty zap that momentarily dims the lights.

The man on the long side of the room chewing his nails turns out to be Missouri Republican Sam Graves, the chairman who bit his way through a hearing on “The Rise of 3D Printing: Opportunities for Entrepreneurs” on March 12.  Washington visitors who wandered over to see their representatives in action may have hoped for a congressional version of “Shark Tank.” Full story

March 7, 2014

McHenry Reaches for the Stars, Settles for Football and NASCAR | Madisonville

When your second-grader’s class stages “Macbeth” at parents’ night, you’re torn between admiring the effort of the kids and worrying that the teacher is unhinged.

Madisonville-Logo(185x185)So it was when Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, the North Carolina Republican, chaired a hearing called “The Growth of Financial Regulation and Its Impact on International Competitiveness.” Vanity prevailed over good judgment when the Oversight and Investigations unit of the House Financial Services Committee took this up Wednesday.

Even the big-thinking McHenry must have noticed that the performance was falling short of the ambition.

Missouri Democrat Emanuel Cleaver II, for example, decided the best way to explain financial regulation and international competition was to talk about his days playing football. Cleaver said he lived for the chance to “put your helmet into” a running back or receiver. Those days are gone.  “It’s been outlawed,” he said. “You can’t even trip anymore. You pamper the quarterback.”

Full story

February 28, 2014

Thinking Like a Terrorist With House Homeland Security | Madisonville

The government spends billions of dollars to find terrorists and plug leaks in the borders. It turns out much of that money could be saved simply by asking members of the House Homeland Security Committee where to look. Members were bubbling over with good ideas for Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson when he came to talk about his “vision for the future.”

Members of Congress like security. They can back-seat drive to their heart’s content. There’s no penalty for false alarms, and if they happen to get one right, well, they look more clear-eyed than the rest of us. Full story

February 12, 2014

‘The Very Model of a Sensible Central Banker’ | Madisonville

Madisonville-Logo(185x185)Newly installed Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen has already mastered the art of agreeing without conceding anything:  Energy has been a great contributor to growth. Certainly regulation has an impact on the economy. The monetary policy of any country affects other countries. We will monitor the impact of the rule. I think it remains an interesting possibility. We have to be very careful not to jump to conclusions. These and other bromides she served warm to Tuesday’s House Financial Services Committee hearing.

Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who chairs the committee, wants to know if Yellen would be a “sensible central banker.” One wished Yellen might be a Gilbert and Sullivan fan and give the hearing a rousing,  “I am the very model of a sensible central banker.” Full story

February 5, 2014

House Judiciary’s Easy Come, Easy Go Eavesdropping Hearing | Madisonville

The House Judiciary Committee has become even more captivating since it last made the Madisonville news, in the days after Thanksgiving.  Members got together Tuesday to consider changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, under which the Obama administration is gathering data on every American’s phone calls and emails with the help of a FISA court that doesn’t like to give “no” for an answer.

At least some members got together for that purpose. Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen wasn’t one of them. He wanted to welcome a special group and the enthusiasm in his voice made the listener momentarily think the Rockettes might be in the room, or at least an a cappella group from Memphis, somebody to lighten the mood of the hearing. Cohen offered instead members of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner was there to remind everybody that Congress still has members who think the place has something to do with legislation. Sensenbrenner can also growl, telling the administration official that the government is misusing the authority Congress gave it and its actions are about to result in the loss of that authority altogether.

Intelligence officials are gathering the phone and email data because they see everybody as a security risk and want to have evidence available in case a crime is committed. The administration says it listens to the actual calls and reads the emails only when it really, really, really needs to. And when, as Virginia Democrat Robert C. Scott slyly pointed out, an intelligence worker wants to spy on a love interest.

California Republican Darrell Issa thinks his calls should qualify for scrutiny, although apparently not because of anybody he is dating. Let’s say I talked to somebody in Lebanon, who talked to somebody in Lebanon, who talked to somebody in Lebanon, who talked to somebody in Lebanon, who talked to somebody in Lebanon, Issa started. (The deputy attorney general who testified must have hoped this would keep going for Issa’s full five minutes.)

Issa eventually got to the point that he’s worthy of surveillance if the person at the end of his phone tree was a terrorist. This is Issa’s idea of being caught with a smoking gun. Worth noting is Issa’s chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson brought up Osama bin Laden, calling him one of the top five leaders of al-Qaida. Johnson notes this in a tone usually associated with a listing of the meanest guys in professional wrestling or the best greasy-spoon restaurants in Washington.  The listener had to poke himself to remember who bin Laden was, given that he’s been dead almost three years running now.

January 29, 2014

Ed Perlmutter’s Cap Captivates | Madisonville

Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter used the House Financial Services Committee hearing Tuesday to draw attention to his Denver Broncos cap.

He left the hearing room and ostentatiously walked back in. The cap was unmissable, not just because it was bright orange but also because it swallowed up Perlmutter’s head.

He took the cap off, made sure to lay it visibly on his desk, then put it back on. Perlmutter doesn’t overwhelm with his physical presence, but he seemed to be managing an extra inch or two of height to make sure all the cameras would notice.  When his five minutes of question time arrived, Perlmutter slid into the conveniently vacated ranking member’s chair, orange cap donned. Then it was doffed and perched over the front of his desk.

If Peyton Manning can move the ball half as far as Perlmutter moved that Broncos cap, Denver will do well in this weekend’s Super Bowl.  Full story

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