New Congress, New Approach to Youth



The 107th Congress convened Jan. 3, and a flurry of proposed bills as well as new committee assignments signal that this year may see changes in the way the federal government deals with youth-related issues. Here are the key moves so far:


Younger Americans Act

The most substantive youth-related bill is H.R. 17,  the "Younger Americans Act of 2001." Introduced in the House by the bipartisan duo of Reps. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) and George Miller (D-Calif.), and referred to the Education and Workforce Committee, the legislation aims to capitalize on President George W. Bush's promise to "leave no child behind" and on his selection of Colin Powell as secretary of state.

In their floor statements, Roukema and Miller cited support from Powell, who endorsed the proposal last fall, as chairman of America's Promise. Roukema calls the act a "comprehensive, coordinated, community-based approach to youth development," and says that her belief in this approach grew in part out of her experience as a member of the Bipartisan Working Group on Youth Violence in the 106th Congress.

Miller noted that the legislation has the support of a "vast national coalition," including the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, the National Urban League, the Child Welfare League of America, the United Way, and the National Mental Health Association. The bill's sponsors now wait to see if the new president and secretary of state will help these groups push the bill through Congress.

Mental Health

Rep. Roukema also joined 27 bipartisan co-sponsors to take the lead in re-introducing the "Mental Health and Substance Abuse Parity Amendments of 2001" (H.R.-162).  This act was introduced on the heels of the Surgeon General's "National Action Agenda for Children's Mental Health,"  in which Dr. David Satcher reports that  while one in 10 children and adolescents suffer from mental illness severe enough to cause some level of impairment, fewer than one in five of these children receive needed treatment.

The Act prohibits group and individual health plans from imposing treatment limitations or financial requirements on the coverage of mental health benefits, or substance abuse and chemical dependency benefits, if similar limitations or requirements are not imposed on medical and surgical benefits. "The burden of suffering by children with mental health needs and their families has created a health crisis in this country," Dr. Satcher said. Rep. Roukema, the Surgeon General, and mental health advocates hope the Mental Health Parity Act will be a first step toward addressing this problem.

Education, Violence, Abstinence...

In addition to these efforts to make substantive policy changes that could affect services for youth, a number of members of Congress used the first few days of the new session to introduce a slew of special interest bills, staking out their corner of the congressional bully pulpit. For instance, Reps. David Dreier (R-Calif.) and Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) each introduced several bills related to education (H.R. 59, 60, 61, 100, 101, 102).  Other notable voices in the youth legislation parade are Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), whose seven bills (H.R. 70-76) include youth-related measures dealing with hate crimes, gun violence and abandoned infants, and Rep.  JoAnn Emerson (R-Mo.), whose seven bills (H.R. 69, and H.R. 77-82) cover lightning-rod conservative issues such as school prayer and a constitutional right-to-life amendment. But the champion of new youth-related legislation just may be Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), who introduced more than a dozen bills (H.R. 194-213), several of which involved funding for the Education and Secondary Education Act, stiffening punishment of violent youth, and stepping up drug enforcement. 


The new committee assignments broke from the decades-old tradition that relied almost exclusively on seniority to determine who heads which committee. Here are the new lineups that will have the greatest impact on youth issues:

House of Representatives

Ways and Means: Republican Rep. Bill Thomas (Calif.), viewed by some as a moderate, is the new chair of this powerful committee. Thomas' most notable prior track record is in health care policy, although he is also highly regarded within Republican ranks as a tough negotiator and legislative tactician. John Feehery, staffer to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), says, "We're going to need his expertise to get the Bush agenda through." Chris Jennings, who was senior health care policy advisor to President Bill Clinton, calls Thomas a "formidable opponent" and a "reliable ally."

Human Resources: This subcommittee of Ways and Means is now chaired by Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.). It had been most recently chaired by Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), who worked closely with ranking member Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to pass the Chafee Foster Care Independence Act last year. Both Johnson and Cardin continually put youth and child welfare issues high on their priority lists, as did the lead staffer for the committee, Ron Haskins.  With Haskins gone, and Johnson no longer in charge, it's unclear how much attention will be paid to foster care and youth issues. Herger has not listed youth among his priorities, and in accepting his chairmanship, he stated, "One of my first priorities on the subcommittee will be to address the problem of our nation's fugitives, who illegally receive hundreds of millions of dollars in welfare payments each year."  Ms. Johnson has moved over to chair the subcommittee on Health.

Education and the Workforce: The chairmanship of this key committee went to six-term  Rep.  John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). Boehner was instrumental in authoring many of the GOP's  Contract with America provisions in the early '90s, and also belonged to the notorious  "Gang of Seven" that pushed for congressional reforms in the wake of the 1991 House Bank scandal.      The committee defines the federal role in education and provides protection, regulations and supports to those in the workplace. President Bush calls education reform a top priority, and the new chairman hopes to capitalize on this, as he noted on the committee web page: "With a new president and a new atmosphere in Washington, the committee has a chance to enact positive reforms."

The committee has jurisdiction over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESA), laws related to special education, the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), and many workforce and oversight issues. Other "hot topics" likely to surface this year include school choice, welfare-to-work and school-to-work programs.

Judiciary: Former House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) moved on to chair the International Relations Committee, and his seat has been taken by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.). Sensenbrenner made a name for himself during the impeachment hearings as a vocal Clinton opponent, and is one of the wealthiest (and luckiest) members of Congress. He was wealthy when he came to Congress in 1978, and he recently won $250,000 after purchasing a lottery ticket at a Capitol Hill liquor store.

The committee's most notable youth-related role has been in the realm of juvenile justice laws, policies and programs. This year the committee will probably wrestle with the contentious reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which last year became so laden with amendments by congressmen wanting to "get tough" on juvenile crime that the measure died in conference committee. The committee also has jurisdiction over many child abuse and neglect issues, juvenile and family courts, domestic violence, internet privacy and gun control.

Energy and Commerce: Formerly known as the Commerce Committee, this will be chaired by Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.). Tauzin rearranged the subcommittee structure, increasing its membership from five to six, and said, "We plan to pursue an aggressive agenda this year." He named subcommittee chairs, including Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.) to health and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) to telecommunications.

The committee's youth-related areas include Medicaid and other health issues, Internet and telecommunications issues, consumer protection, and the environment.

Note: The new House committee lineup, ideologically conservative and pro-business, is notable for its lack of women. In a controversial move, the GOP leaders bypassed the most senior woman in the House, Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), a party moderate who was in line for chairmanship of the newly reconstituted Financial Services Committee. Roukema has continually made youth issues a priority and is a lead sponsor of the Younger Americans Act.


Senate Democrats held committee chairs for the first two weeks of the session, and during this time, Republican leader Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) took a lot of heat for his agreement with Democratic leader Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to equally divide the seats and staff resources on every committee. While some Democrats see this as a victory, others are more cautious, noting that not only will they share power, but they will also share responsibility for avoiding partisan gridlock on their side of the Capitol.

Not all Senate Committee assignments and subcommittee chairmanships have been released, although a few significant assignments are already known. These include the addition of Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) to coveted seats on the Senate Finance Committee. Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) landed plum spots on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for one-third of the federal budget. Freshman Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) will sit on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, while another newcomer, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) was named to the Judiciary Committee.


With its dying breath the 106th Congress approved H.R. 4577, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2001, the appropriations mechanism for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education and Labor, as well as a bevy of other gems as part of the traditional December "Christmas Tree" legislation. 

While President Clinton touted the Act as a great achievement, largely due to some increases in educational funding, the process leading to final passage was highly partisan and contentious, involving strenuous wrangling between the White House and congressional leadership, particularly Sen. Lott.  In the end several health-related bills became political pawns, with Sen. Charles Grassley's (R-Iowa) Family Opportunity Act going down in defeat in spite of help from more than 77 Senate co-sponsors.  Grassley, and his lead co-sponsor, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), vow to re-introduce the Act in the 107th Congress.

The fight over the Family Opportunity Act and health care benefits for immigrant women and children got so ugly that Family Voices national policy coordinator Julie Beckett of Iowa says that December 2000 was her worst month in over 20 years of policy work.

The complete bill (Public Law 106-554), and detailed conference report, can be found at Some of the more controversial legislation in the 106th Congress received generous funding under this act. For example, the contentious "adoption awareness" program embedded in the Child Health Act of 2000 (and championed as his legacy-legislation) by outgoing Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.) received an appropriation of nearly $10 million. The bill provides $500,000 each for the National Fatherhood Initiative and the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood, while $30 million went for abstinence education. 

In spite of some heavy lifting by a broad coalition of advocates and the strong support of Rep. Johnson, the Social Services Block Grant (Title XX) did not receive substantial increased funding, although supporters staved off some huge hits proposed by the Senate.

Sue Badeau can be reached at