The Reflecting Pool: Oct. 12, 2009

48 Hours and Then Some

By Carl Tubbesing

Federal health care reform is a huge issue and deserves all the news coverage it has commanded. Although health reform is all-consuming for the legislators and NCSL staff engaged in the issue, other legislators and NCSL staff are equally occupied with a host of other state-federal activities. With health reform building towards a crescendo in both houses of Congress and many other issues swirling just off stage, last week was a more or less typical week for the fall of 2009.

A day-by-day look at some of the highlights of NCSL's state-federal activities for the week of Oct. 5 gives a sense of the many issues on our agenda and provides some insight on how we approach our mission of “representing the states and their legislatures in the American federal system of government.”


Monday

2 p.m. Conference call with U.S. House Speaker's Nancy Pelosi’s staff on health care: Two of the speaker’s senior staff convened this meeting for the staff who cover health policy for the Big 7, the organizations that represent state and local governments in Washington, D.C. They told us this was the week the House leadership intended to put together a final bill to take to the floor later this month. Their bottom line: If you have concerns, you better get to them us now. Joy Wilson, our senior health specialist, took the lead in the questioning and an hour after the meeting sent an e-mail outlining five specific concerns.

3 p.m. Meeting on Distracted Driving: The U.S. Department of Transportation held a Summit on Distracted Driving on Sept 30 and Oct. 1. Policymakers at all levels agree distracted driving is a major cause of traffic accidents and deaths. But who should act to curtail it? Twenty-nine state legislatures have passed laws that restrict talking on a cell phone, texting and other driving distractions. There’s proposed legislation in Congress that would withhold 25 percent of a state’s highway money if it failed to adopt the federal government’s idea of a solution. Molly Ramsdell, Michael Bird, Michelle Blackston and I met to formulate a strategy for combating the threat of federal action in this area of state responsibility. Later in the week, Molly, Michelle and our highway safety experts in Denver, Melissa Savage and Anne Teigen, teamed up to lay out a proposed strategy for review by the leaders of our Transportation Committee.

Tuesday

11:15 a.m. Meeting with New York Senators Malcolm Smith and Martin Dilan: Senator Malcolm Smith, president pro tem of the New York Senate, and Senator Martin Dilan, the Senate’s transportation chair, were in town for meetings on high speed rail. They came by our office to meet with three of us to encourage NCSL to create a working group so legislators from around the country could coordinate their high speed rail efforts.

2 p.m. White House meeting on financial services reforms: State officials once had almost exclusive authority over banking and insurance. Their control over banks was eroded in the 1990s. Their authority over the insurance industry is now threatened in the wake of last year’s financial crisis. Michael Bird, our chief lobbyist, arranged this meeting with Michael Barr, the assistant secretary of the Treasury, who is bird-dogging this issue for the Obama administration. Neal Osten and Michael attended, along with representatives of the National Governors Association, the National Association of Attorneys General and the groups that work with the state banking, insurance and securities regulators.

Wednesday

10 a.m. Meeting with Sarah Greenberger of U.S. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland’s staff on climate change: NCSL’s policy on national climate change legislation takes no position on the controversial cap-and-trade provisions of the federal proposals. However, the policy has strong language regarding an aspect of a cap-and-trade program of significant interest to state legislatures—namely, that state legislatures be given the authority to approve the cap-and-trade allowances allocated to states. This meeting was the first of a series that Tamra Spielvogel has scheduled to elicit interest in an amendment that would ensure legislatures have this authority.

11 a.m. Pre-meeting for meeting with U.S. Representative Jim Costa: Our nation’s capital is notorious for its pre-meetings, post-meeting staybacks and in-meeting sidebars. NCSL is not immune from these and other variants on the good old fashioned half-hour meeting. Molly Ramsdell, Michael Bird and I got together for a few minutes to talk about what we wanted to talk about during our meeting with California Congressman Costa later in the day.

Noon. Lunch and meetings with Georgia Senator Renee Unterman: Senator Unterman is the chair of our Human Services and Welfare Committee for 2009-2010. Her real job brought her to Virginia Beach, Va., last week, so she decided to drive up to Washington to meet with Sheri Steisel and Lee Posey, who are the Washington office staff assigned to the committee. Sheri and Lee briefed her on some of their recent lobbying activities and the three of them worked on the committee’s agenda for the Fall Forum in San Diego.

2 p.m. Meeting with Congressman Costa: Next year will be the 15th anniversary of the passage of the Unfunded Mandate Reform Act. The act has worked pretty well in calling attention to the potential costs of congressional proposals. The law’s definitions, though, don’t capture all of the ways the federal government passes costs along to states. We think UMRA’s 15th anniversary year would be a great time to amend it to make it an even more useful tool in our work against unfunded mandates and other cost shifts. Molly Ramsdell, Michael Bird and I met with California Congressman Costa, a past president of NCSL, to see if he would be interested in developing legislation with us and raising it with the Blue Dogs, the caucus of fiscally conservative Democrats.

3:30 p.m. Technical assistance for Florida: When she hasn’t been trying to influence the health reform negotiations, Joy Johnson Wilson has been in demand by legislators and staff who need to know how the bills will affect their programs and budgets. Joy has testified—mostly by phone—about 10 times since August. This afternoon, she appeared via speaker phone with the Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee of the Florida Senate, chaired by Senator Duane Peaden Jr.

4 p.m. Big 7 pre-meeting to prepare for a meeting with U.S. George Senator Voinovich: Molly Ramsdell and Helen Narvasa attended this pre-meeting to get ready for a meeting Ohio Senator Voinovich asked for to discuss reauthorization of the highway bill—a meeting that since has been postponed.

Thursday

11 a.m. Meeting with Jim Wrathall, counsel to U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, on climate change: California Senator Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has just released her draft of a climate change bill. Tamra Spielvogel and Amanda Mason visited with one of Senator Boxer’s counsels on our concerns about legislative authority. He seemed amenable to clarifying the state legislature’s role in allocating the state cap-and-trade allowances.

Friday

2:30 p.m. Big 7 meeting with U.S. Representative James Oberstar’s chief of staff: The week ended with this meeting that Molly Ramsdell arranged for NCSL and our sibling organizations to talk surface transportation reauthorization with Jim Kolb, chief of staff for Congressman Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Molly reports it was a good meeting, except the U.S. Conference of Mayors argued that all surface transportation money should go directly to local governments. So, what else is new?