CongressLine, by The Document’s Story – Legislative Narration

Everybody loves a good story. Washington of course, has lots of them: political maneuverings and international intrigue. I have always found it odd that the White House, the State and Justice Departments and the CIA always have the big stories and Congress and legislation rarely prominently appears as the topic of popular books or movies.

There are indeed stories coming from Capitol Hill, but they are buried in the minutia of the legislative process. The process of moving a piece of legislation from introduction to passage has a hundred subplots, many of which are laid out in the documents produced by Congress. Parts of a legislative story are told in the GW Hot Docs I mentioned in my previous article. These GW Hot Docs, plus a host of additional documents, provide the substance for narrating the story of a bill or issue, a “Legislative Narrative”.

My mother is a retired law librarian, so I must be careful here. A legislative narrative is not a legislative history, although there are similarities. A legislative history is an important legal presentation, compiling all the official documents relating to a piece of legislation that makes its way through Congress to final passage. Legislative histories’ of the Clean Air Act or the American With Disabilities Act could fill volumes with Congressional documents, testimony, and floor debate. The story told by a legislative history, though very important for a Supreme Court argument, is not entirely the story told by a Legislative Narrative.

A single bill can be narrated. The CAFTA example noted in my previous article is one example. That was a unique example; most single bill narratives are hardly compelling stories. A Legislative Narrative on an issue however, can be quite interesting.

Over the past 8 months I have been working on a Legislative Narrative on the issue of stem cell research. Rather than looking at the stem cell debate from a news perspective, I have compiled a running narrative of all the various legislative documents; GW Hot Docs, Congressional Research Service reports, and testimony every week. My perspective is from the documents, and I know very little of the biological science behind the issue.

GW Legislative Narratives take a fairly simple form, listing the documents in chronological order. This chronological list is the basis of a narrative story about the issue. The Stem Cell issue includes an additional look at state legislative actions.

Here is the Stem Cell issue, comprising over 20 bills in Congress in the form of a legislative narration: (I have bolded the events where there are documents).

We begin the Stem Cell Legislative Narrative at Chapter Two (May 2005). Previously the Stem Cell issue began the year with a Presidential directive, limiting federal funding to certain, existing stem cell lines. Congress’ alter ego, the state legislatures decided to jump into the apparent void created by the federal limitations. California had already decided it wanted to become the stem cell hub of the nation and is devoting billions of its own money to stem cell research. When the state legislatures convened their sessions earlier in the year they all jumped into the debate, with Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey mimicking California and Indiana going the other direction.

By Chapter Two, Congress had introduced 14 bills, proposing a variety of different responses to the President’s directive. The sponsors of these bills provide an august cast of characters: Cliff Stearns (R-FL), Dave Weldon (R-FL), Rep Mary Bono (R-CA), Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) with measures prohibiting cloning, Rep Christopher Smith (R-NJ) and his Cord Blood Stem Cell Bank Network and another Stem Cell Research Act. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and Nancy Johnson (R-CT) with measures to open up research more, with selective incentives. By May, a measure by Michael Castle (R-DE) providing an opening for further federal stem cell research was the center of the story. On May 20 as the Castle Bill and his Press Releases were noting “momentum” was building for his bill. Democrats were touting their support, as well. The Congressional Research Service had produced four reports up until mid May on the issue. Also on May 20 a transcript of the Presidential remarks noted his opposition to the Castle measure, and threatened a veto. A news conference transcript of Castle and a number of Democrats responded on May 23. The Office of Management and Budget weighed in with a Statement Of Administration Policy on the measure the following day. That day, May 24, the Bill passed the House. (News articles were touting a stunning rebuke of the President). That same day federal stem cell opponent Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) introduced a measure promoting animal stem cell research instead of human cells.

On May 25, Senators Spector, Harkin, Hatch, Feinstein, Smith, and Kennedy sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Frist to bring up the Castle bill in the Senate. Several dozen press releases streamed out of the House praising and condemning the House vote. As May turned to June, the Congressional Research Service summarized developments and testimony from the Senate Special Committee on Aging weighed in on the promise of stem cell research. The Massachusetts Stem Cell research bill was vetoed by the Governor (and over-ridden) at the end of May.

The Connecticut Governor signed that states new stem cell bill in early June. In Washington, the topic was subject to considerable discussion in the documents associated with the Department of Health and Human Service Appropriations that were separately weaving their way through the chambers. A Markup Report from the House also continues the story line. A different Senate bill by Hatch (R-UT) is quickly introduced and reported out of markup in two days on June 29. The Hatch bill was substituted in committee by an amendment by Senator Enzi (R-WY). Nancy Johnson wrote a letter to the President urging him to sign the House bill, while Rep Vito Fosella (R-NY) and Castle were touting press releases encouraging health organizations and physicians to the measure. By July 13, the sometimes eccentric Roscoe Bartlett was arguing for the President to look at his alternative measure and Rep Diana DeGette was holding PodCasts on the Stem Cell debate. Draft legislation authorizing the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was now floating around the Hill on July 21. (The NIH is the principle entity that would manage federal stem cell research). At the end of July in a unique turnaround Senator Frist changed his mind and decided to support a measure funding stem cell research. Roscoe Bartlett cried out how Frist was “WRONG.” As the Congress recessed in August the debate had shifted in Chapter Two from state efforts running around the federal limitations to a strong likelihood of the passage of the Castle or Hatch measures. Chapter Three now begins and the story will continue when Congress returns.
A narration of the documents of the debate on an issue can be an extremely useful way of keeping track of developments. Some use it as a sort of continuous “ticker tape” making sure they do not miss anything. They can be fairly predictive of events, something a legislative history does not do.

Every school child of my generation is probably is aware of the Saturday morning cartoon: I Am Just a Bill. The zippy cartoon with an infectious tune follows a bill through the standard stages of the process, introduction, committee, chamber passage, etc.

Every librarian, lawyer or government document researcher is familiar with the “Legislative History,” providing all the primary legislative documents in a single collection, ideally suited to assist in any judicial examination of a bill and it’s intent.

In between these two concepts, “I am just a Bill” on TV and leather bound volumes of Legislative Histories in a law library resides a “Legislative Narrative.” More attuned to a newspaper writer or a lobbyist than a Supreme Court clerk, a Legislative Narrative weaves the official documents with the unofficial, the formal documents of Congress with GW Hot Docs.

Once one understands the role, function, and value of a Hot Doc, combining all the Hot Docs and primary documents and other documents on a specific bill or issue can be useful in understanding what is going on and perhaps what may happen to the bill or issue. At the very least, it provides a good story.

If you would like a copy of a regular narrative of the stem cell issue, or any of our other legislative narratives: Diabetes/Obesity, Women’s Health, Underage Drinking, Mad Cow, or Mercury Emissions, please feel free to email me at [email protected].

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