In a previous article on LLRX.com, Monitoring Congress: A Revolution in Access, I noted the changes in the online process of monitoring legislation. Standard bill tracking is being enhanced by additional documents, providing a much deeper look at legislative developments on Capitol Hill.
The objective of a piece of legislation introduced in Congress is to get passed or, at the very least, to move an issue further in the public policy debate. Bills and Committee reports are not poetry or fine literary essays. They are ostensibly legal documents, and they need help to move along in the legislative maze.
A Member or Senator that introduces a bill knows full well that in the interpersonal and partisan political world of Capitol Hill the legal text of the bill will not speak for itself. Some poetry, perhaps some science, some hype, and definitely some political cover will be needed for other Members to sign on and support the bill, when and if it comes, to a vote.
We enter a world of additional materials. At GalleryWatch, there has been considerable debate on a name for such materials. Originally labeled “Additional Government Documents” they settled instead on “Gallery Watch’s Hot Docs.”
I proposed a different name that gets closer to the heart of what they are. These documents live concurrently and counter to the “officially printed” materials, a sort of “counter-culture document” or my term, “Hippie Documents,” suffice to say that title did not fly, but I believe it does come closer to describing them. Like a beatnik, they are certainly not “official” and would never admit to such establishment tendencies, but they are just as influential, if not more so, than the official agent (document).
Sometimes these documents assume the air of officiality. I am reminded of a time as a young boy in the 1960s when my grandfather introduced me to a friend of his who was an FBI agent. Remembering my older brother’s admonition to me that you can tell an FBI agent amidst the counter-culture by the wearing of socks with their sandals, I responded to my grandfather’s friend, ”you can’t be an FBI agent, you are not wearing socks with your sandals.” Counter culture documents can, like a good FBI informant, blend into the world of official documents. Does a document have socks? A good journalistic instinct is always helpful with these documents.
For simplicity sake, I will refer to these counterculture documents as “GW Hot Docs.”
Like everything produced by the public policy apparatus, GW Hot Docs can be monumental or insignificant, banal or prescient, and in most cases, very perishable. They are either trumped by the bill signed by the President, or made irrelevant by other GW Hot Docs. Just because these documents are not officially printed does not mean you should discount them. In many cases, these documents are produced to avoid the official publication, or at the very least, to quickly disseminate information before the official document can be produced. GW Hot Docs should never be ignored, taken with a grain-of -salt perhaps, but never ignored.
What to expect.
What should you expect from GW Hot Docs? Since the vast majority of bills introduced in Congress go nowhere, expecting a Hot Doc on every bill is not reasonable. However, the existence of a Hot Doc, even one lonely Hot Doc, could be significant – it may or may not signify real movement of the bill in the legislative debate.
A key point about GW Hot Docs is that there is no official distribution channel for them. They have to be retrieved manually, one call (or office visit) at a time, by someone who can recognize them. Often, the harder they are to obtain, the more meaningful. They are available however, because they had to be disseminated somehow in order for them to have some affect. A letter to the President has no meaning if it is never sent, let alone not released somehow to the public. A computer has taken over the task of retrieving bills; GW Hot Docs are at the moment impervious to automation.
One type of legislation that always has GW Hot Docs are appropriations bills. This makes sense…these bill are the only bills in Congress that are required to become law if the government is to function. I frequently outline to clients what to expect in the form of GW Hot Docs immediately following a Committee Markup. Mind you, the official printing of the bill is days away:
1. Text of amendments and vote tallies offered during the Markup Session.
2. Committee staff summaries (majority and minority) of the legislation.
3. A summary report from someone who attended the meeting (note: there is no transcript).
4. An advance copy of the Committee Report and new bill language.
GW Hot Docs in fact have become quite regular within 4 – 8 hours following an appropriations markup. Not all bills have this regular progression. Below is a simple but very real example of the stream of GW Hot Docs. I have denoted them with stars**
- A member issues a Press Release on a measure he or she is interested in or will be introducing.**
- Since it may be a while, before the bill is printed…a draft** is circulated. Perhaps a Dear Colleague letter** is sent to other members.
- The official bill is introduced. (not a Hot Doc).
- To generate some interest, perhaps the Member will write a letter** to some Administrative agency demanding attention. This is becoming more common as Press Releases often do not have the same affect on the Media they used to, but a letter to an Executive agency may have some more traction.
- Perhaps a group of Members write a letter** to solicit information or data on the urgent problem proposed in the bill(s).
- Independently or perhaps with some assistance of the Member the CBO releases a report** on the issue addressed in the bill. Perhaps its sister agency the GAO reports** too. Maybe the Executive Agency responds in kind with there own report**. All adding to a growing frenzy.
- Maybe a Congressional hearing is arranged. More press releases** ensue.
- The research arm of Congress may hold forth with their own analysis of the issue in a Congressional Research Service Report**.
- The bill is considered in Committee. Drafts of amendments** are floated around. Even the Chairman’s mark** is disseminated.
- The administration weighs in on the process with an OMB report** or committee staff draft highlights** or analysis**.
Each one of these documents alone may not seem significant. When viewed in progression, a narrative can provide insight into the nuances of what is really happening. Together for the fly on the wall, they will paint a picture of what is really happening.
Clues to Significance
One document at a time, there are some obvious clues to look for when examining a single document. These clues can help to determine the significance and impact of the document.
Who wrote it? The Chairman of a committee means more than a minority member.
What is the tone? Conciliatory tone may mean movement more than bombast, though an angry press release can often speak volumes too.
Type? Reports, White Paper, Letter, Draft, etc.
Audience? If a letter, whom is it written to?
News Value? Will this be in the newspaper tomorrow?
Political Background? Assume you are following the political facts of the issue.
Timing? This can be obvious at times, but often the significance of the timing of a document can only be understood in the context of a running narrative of other documents on the topic. Another factor relating to timing is the serendipity factor. Was this Hot Doc created at this time on purpose, or just released in the course of normal business? Letters usually fall in the former category and reports (GAO, CBO, CRS, etc.) can often fall in the latter.
The significance of the timing of a Hot Doc is difficult to gauge in real time. A coordinated approach to managing these documents is usually important, so you can spot the trends, merging real-time and broader historical items into a narrative. Some issues you know are approaching, and any document brings you closer to the end.
A good example is the developments on the Central America Free Trade Agreement in mid June 2005, as documented in the chronology below.
Everyone knew a bill was coming. In this case however, the rules for consideration of the measure (Congressional Fast Track) severely altered the process. According to the rules, once an “official” bill is introduced a clock starts ticking and Congress had a limited amount of time to act on the measure. The ensuing debate was entirely “unofficial.” GW Hot Docs—The clues, especially the political background, lead me to believe that the last letter from the Secretary of Agriculture appears to be an important document.
Draft Implementing Proposal of S____, the “Dominican Republic-Central
America-United States Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act”
Discussion draft to be ‘mock’ marked-up by the Senate Finance Committee
on June 14, 2005
Draft Implementing Proposal of HR____, the “Dominican Republic-
Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement Implementation
Discussion draft to be ‘mock’ marked-up by the House Ways and Means
Committee on June 15, 2005
Summary of S__ Draft Implementing proposal of S__ the “Dominican
Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade
Agreement Implementation Act”
Prepared by the Majority Staff of the Senate Finance Committee
CAFTA-DR Senate Finance Staff Summary of the Draft Implementing
Summary of provisions in the Draft Implementing proposal of S__ the
“Dominican Republic-Central America-United States
Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act”
CAFTA-DR Draft Statement of Administrative Action
Statement on Draft Implementing proposal of S__ the “Dominican
Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement
Press Release from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus: Congressional
Hispanic Caucus Opposes CAFTA
Letter to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Finance
Committee From 70 U.S. Association Executives
Letter urges the Finance Committee to reject any amendments that would
undermine or nullify legislation implementing CAFTA-DR
Section-By-Section Summary of Draft Implementing Proposal of
HR____, the “Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free
Trade Agreement Implementation Act”
Summary prepared by the Majority Staff of the House Ways and Means
Ten Reasons Why Congress Should Support Passage of the Central
America Free Trade Agreement
Senate Republican Policy Committee Policy Paper
Sen. Jon Kyl: Kyl release on CAFTA
Sen. Mike Crapo: Crapo Calls for Changes to CAFTA
Sen. Craig Thomas: Wyoming senator reserves right to
vote against CAFTA if concerns aren’t addressed
Description of the Chairman’s Amendment in the Nature of a Substitute
to Draft Implementing Proposal, H.R.____,
The “Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade
Agreement Implementation Act”
Description of substitute amendment offered by Chairman William
Amendment in the Nature of a Substitute to Draft Implementing
Proposal, HR___, the “Dominican Republic-Central America-United States
Agreement Implementation Act”
Offered by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman William
House Ways and Means Committee: Committee Approves Draft DR-
Rep. Earl Pomeroy: Pomeroy Opposes CAFTA During House Ways and
Means Committee Mark-UP
Rep. Sherrod Brown: Portman Statement on CAFTA Vote Reveals Deep-
Rep. Fortney Stark: Stark Moves to Block CAFTA Without Access to
Generic Drugs for CAFTA Countries
Rep. William Jefferson: Congressman Jefferson Announces New Labor
Provision for CAFTA
Rep. John Larson: Larson Opposes CAFTA Without Better Labor
House Committee on Ways and Means – Informal Mark-Up of Draft
Implementing Proposal of HR____, the “Dominican
Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement
Letter from Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to Sen. Craig Thomas
Letter seeks to alleviate concerns CAFTA-DR concerning the sugar
This three-day period featured no “official” documents. The whole world of this bill existed entirely in the form of GW Hot Docs. The last entry, Letter from the Agriculture Secretary, was very important; it provided cover to sugar state Senators and Members to perhaps move towards the Administrations position in favor of the measure.
Legislative monitoring has become much more interesting. Next month, I will discuss the legislative narrative concept in more detail and GW Hot Docs’ important role in the media strategy for a piece of legislation.