The story behind the bill


The big ones always make the news: the Americans with Disabilities Act, the USA Patriot Act, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

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But there are thousands of pieces of legislation that don’t get that kind of press.

Oftentimes these are the bills that have special meaning for members of Congress because they stem from real, identifiable people with problems the lawmakers are in a position to fix.

What are the stories that compel lawmakers to put forward those pieces of legislation?

With each installment of The Hill’s new feature, The Story Behind the Bill, we examine legislation you may not have heard about and the people inspiring it.

Legislation is not always successful. In fact, it rarely is. Last year, in the first session of the 111th Congress, a total of 7,324 bills were introduced in both the House and Senate. Only 586, or about 8 percent, passed. Of those, only 119, or less than 2 percent, became law.

So members of Congress know their bills have a very small chance of passing. But they introduce them anyway, and for a number of reasons. Sarah Binder, an expert on congressional procedure at the Brookings Institution, said members typically introduce legislation for one of three reasons:

• A member recognizes a problem, addresses it in a bill and fights for a vote;

• a member introduces a bill for political posturing (they want to advertise their stance on an issue) but don’t expect to pass it; or

• a member has expertise in an area and wants to advance it through legislation.

“Members can’t expect all of their measures to pass,” Binder said. “So, much of it has to be about getting their voices heard, representing their constituents and taking credit for something or a position on an important or popular issue.”

We will chronicle their efforts in this new feature.


Toxic toy jewelry

Children’s Toxic Metals Act (H.R. 4428 — Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.): A bill that would prohibit the manufacture, sale or distribution in commerce of children’s jewelry containing cadmium, barium or antimony.
Status: Referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, January 2010

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Speier’s bill is rooted in her personal passion for children’s health and what she sees as her duty as a member of Congress.

In 1994, Speier’s husband was killed in a car accident while she was pregnant with her second child, leaving her to raise them as a single mother, ever vigilant to protect them from the ills of the world.

“I think a lot of her devotion to children’s health issues comes naturally out of that experience,” said Mike Larsen, Speier’s spokesman.

Speier served in the California Legislature, where she became known for her focus on children’s issues. She championed a ban on lead-tainted Mexican candy and helped institute more stringent childcare regulations.

When a media investigation last week revealed that children’s jewelry, largely imported from China, contained several toxic substances, Speier introduced the Children’s Toxic Metals Act to ban these hazardous charms and necklaces from the U.S. marketplace.

“Outside the regular healthcare letters we all get, [children’s health and consumer rights] are the issues we get the most contact from constituents,” Larsen said, adding that Speier has her staff constantly monitoring news reports for those issues.

He said Congress should expect his boss to be a relentless child advocate.

“She’s my child’s godmother,” Larsen said. “So I see the natural maternal instinct every day.”


Missing but not gone

Protecting the Retirement of Our Troops by Ensuring Compensation is Timely Act (H.R. 2585 — Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga.): A bill that would delay any presumption of death in connection with the kidnapping in Iraq or Afghanistan of a retired member of the armed forces to ensure the continued payment of the member’s retired pay.
Status: Referred to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, June 2009.

It’s what every military spouse fears: the calls and e-mails from his or her deployed significant other stop. The military declares him or her missing. And then with no body or proof of death, the military says the missing soldier is dead.

That was the story of one of Broun’s constituents.

“It was the spouse of somebody who has been presumed dead by the government but is just actually missing,” he said. “We don’t have a death certificate; we don’t have a body or anything else.”

Broun’s constituent was living off her retired military husband’s government pension when he went missing. As soon as the military declared her husband dead, the government canceled these benefits and replaced them with the more limited survivors benefits.

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Broun introduced the Protect Act to require the military to produce a death certificate or to allow for seven years to pass before it declares a missing person dead.

“In this particular instance, this woman has been left by the federal government,” Broun said. “It’s aimed at those situations in places like Iraq where people are being kidnapped and being held and they may not be dead. It keeps the government from presuming that they’re dead just because they’re missing.”


Phantom customer representatives

Call Center Consumer’s Right to Know Act (H.R.3621 — Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa.): A bill that would require employees at telephone call centers to disclose their own physical location to the consumer.
Status: Referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, September 2009.

Altmire’s constituents weren’t happy with the customer-service calls they were experiencing, so they began calling his office to let the congressman know. Their chief complaint: The customer service representatives would ask for callers’ personal information but wouldn’t divulge what state or country they were working from.

After getting one too many phone calls of his own from his western Pennsylvania voters, Altmire introduced the Call Center Consumer’s Right to Know Act.

“Congressman Altmire strongly believes that Americans have the right to know what country they are calling and with whom they are speaking when they call for customer assistance,” said Tess Mullen, Altmire’s spokeswoman.

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Under the legislation, call-center employees would be required to reveal their physical location to the caller at the beginning of each telephone call, whether they initiate it or receive it.

As an enforcement mechanism, the measure would require the Federal Trade Commission to annually certify companies that offer call-center services to ensure that their employees reveal their physical location.

“This bill will guarantee that Americans are not unknowingly providing their private information — be it a Social Security number, bank account number or PIN code — to employees in foreign counties that may not have to adhere to our consumer protection laws,” Mullen said.

Additionally, the bill addresses another common complaint from Altmire’s constituents: sending American jobs overseas.

“This bill will also help to ensure that call centers cannot outsource good-paying American jobs without their consumers knowing about it,” Mullen said.

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