August 9, 2004 - Volume I: Edition V
Congress has begun its summer district work period, but the activity in Washington has been as hot as the weather over the past few weeks. Here are just a few of the issues I am working on:
Advancing the 9/11 Commission Recommendations
After advocating for the creation of the 9/11 Commission, for its access to White House documents that the Commission had requested, and for an extension of time for the Commission to finish its work, I am now working to ensure that the Commission’s recommendations are fully and quickly considered by Congress and enacted into law.
In July, I announced the creation of the 9/11 Commission Caucus with Congressman Christopher Shays (R-CT) to track the progress on the Commission’s recommendations in Congress and to spur action. Our website, will provide information on all hearings, legislation, and actions in the House related to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. I plan to work with my colleagues and the 9/11 families in order to get these recommendations enacted.
Making Sure the FDA Focuses On Health, Not politics
The Food and Drug Administration came under sharp and deserved criticism for letting politics trump science in the decision to deny over-the-counter status for the Plan B® contraceptive. To prevent such misguided decisions from happening again, I successfully attached an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations bill (HR 4766) along with my colleague Rep. Henry Waxman of California. Our measure will require the FDA to do the job it is supposed to be doing - determining what is safe and effective contraception, not what is politically expedient (click here). In the case of its decision on emergency contraception, the FDA ignored its own scientific panel, which voted 23-4 in favor of over-the-counter status.
Congress’s position was made clear by unanimously agreeing to the amendment: political interest groups have no place governing our public health system.
Rules Rigged to Scuttle “Freedom to Read” Amendment
During consideration of the Commerce, State, Justice Appropriations bill (HR 4754), I strongly supported the “Freedom to Read” amendment, which would have prevented law enforcement from searching personal library records under the PATRIOT Act. This wild and divisive use of the law must be stopped, and the amendment written by my colleague Rep. Sanders from Vermont should have passed Congress (click here).
That’s where the game was rigged. Though it is the House standard and tradition to limit roll call votes to 15 minutes, give or take a few, the opponents of this amendment - who also happen to control Congress - weren’t pleased that the amendment had enough votes to pass after 15 minutes. There are no two ways about it: we had the vote won. But we waited. And waited. And waited. And after a grand total of 38 minutes, the majority leadership had forced enough Members to change their votes, and the chair of the House quickly banged the gavel when the tally was 210 “yea”, 210 “nay” and 1 “present.” When there’s a tie in Congress, the measure is not approved.
The episode was a double loss. On one hand, the voice of the majority of Americans, whose representatives had voted to pass the amendment after 15 minutes, was ignored when the outcome was rigged. On the other hand, Americans lose out because their personal rights at libraries have not been reinstated. That’s a lose-lose situation.
Bringing Democracy Back to Congress
The “Freedom to Read” episode is unfortunately indicative of how Congress is run by this majority. It’s not the first time a contentious vote has been held open until the desired result is achieved - remember the Medicare vote which went on for three hours in the dead of the night until it passed? We’ve seen some other un-democratic practices, separate from the floor votes. Some lawmakers have been physically kicked out of conference committees they were appointed to because those running the committees simply didn’t want their opinions. Staffers have had their computer files searched. And Members of Congress have been allegedly bribed during floor votes.
To remedy the disregarding of House rules, I have introduced a bill - the “Restoring Democracy to the U.S. Congress Act” - that would limit the time on roll call votes, ensure that conference committees actually meet with all of their members and strictly enforce measures against bribery, among other actions (click here). I hope that all Members of Congress realize that we are here to be the voice of the people, not to fix the game and will support my bill to restore our democratic process.
We are making an important statement that the voices of millions of Americans should never be ignored or shut out of the debate in Washington.
Integrity of Elections In Jeopardy
When the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights told us after its review of the 2000 elections that thousands of voters, particularly minorities in Florida, were wrongly removed from voter registration rolls, we should have left no stone unturned in making sure that no voter is disenfranchised again. After all, one of our most basic rights as Americans is the right to vote - no matter who we are, we each get to cast one ballot. Here in New York, we have heard reports of voter intimidation and suppression at polls guarded by armed prison guards. These are problems that must be eliminated.
That is why it is especially unsettling that we are seeing increasing news reports about likely problems this November and the specter of electronic voting irregularities compounding the situation. In order to ensure every American’s right to vote, I joined with Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas and several other colleagues in requesting electoral monitoring assistance from the United Nations in November (click here). Our government could not guarantee the right to vote in 2000, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the same could happen again this year, so we ought to preempt that problem with outside help. More important than our pride is our right to vote.
Restoring the Waterfront in Queens
The banks of the East River in Queens ought to be a place where residents go to take walks, relax and play - not a place where they have to watch their step. Unfortunately, the seawall in Long Island City has been in a state of disrepair for too long, with gaping holes and barriers threatening the safety of those who use the waterfront.
I have worked hard in Congress over the past few years to get federal funding to repair the seawall, and I was happy to announce $500,000 more in federal aid last week- the third straight year in which we’ve gotten aid (click here). Joining me at the announcement was Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, who announced $325,000 in state funding for the seawall. The combined $825,000 shows a true commitment to getting the seawall fixed, and Assemblywoman Nolan and I will continue to work on this in Washington and Albany until the Queens waterfront is pedestrian-friendly again.
NY Hospitals Could Lose Millions
A simple, mostly-overlooked decision by the federal agency in control of Medicare could cost our hospitals hundreds of millions over the next decade - a cut that could affect patient care. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has decided to effectively cut the Medicare reimbursement payments made to hospitals in New York by adding three New Jersey counties with much lower average hourly wages to what is known as the New York Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). The concept is complicated, but the effect on New York hospitals is easy to understand: smaller reimbursements from the federal government means tougher times for our hospitals.
Working with Rep. Charles Rangel, Rep. Peter King and the rest of the united, bipartisan New York delegation, I have officially requested that CMS Commissioner Mark McClellan reconsider the decision to expand the New York MSA (click here). Our entire delegation will continue to work together to right this wrong, so that patients in New York are never shortchanged on their health care.
Unfortunately, on August 2, 2004, after extensive deliberation, CMS decided to move forward with its proposal to revise the current Medicare wage index labor markets by replacing the Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) with the Census Bureau's new Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs). This change will expand the New York City MSA-which comprises the five counties in New York City plus Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam Counties in New York-by adding Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson Counties in New Jersey. Clearly, I am very disappointed by CMS's failure to preserve the higher wage index for hospitals located in or reclassified to the old NYC MSA. As a result, I will continue to advocate for a higher wage index that reflects the higher costs incurred by our hospitals.