The following is a report of how some major bills fared last week in Congress and how Southern Maryland's representative, Steny H. Hoyer (D-5th District), and Democratic Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski voted.




The House passed a bill (HR 1691) making it more difficult for state or local governments to infringe upon expressions of religion or the actions of religious groups. The bill requires governments to meet a higher standard of evidence to justify interfering with the free expression of religion. For example, in using zoning ordinances to ban houses of worship from certain neighborhoods, or in imposing dress codes on municipal workers, governments that receive federal funding would have to show that the policy serves a "compelling" public interest, not just a "rational" interest as is now the case. A yes vote was to pass the bill.




The House refused to block a plan to raise U.S. presidents' pay from $200,000 to $400,000 in 2001. It is the first presidential pay raise since 1969. This occurred as the House passed a bill (HR 2490) funding the Treasury Department and other agencies in fiscal 2000. During debate on the same bill, the House conducted a 276-147 procedural vote that was interpreted by some as approving a cost-of-living increase for members of Congress. In the absence of any future vote to block the increase, rank-and-file members of Congress next January will see their pay rise by 3.4 percent to $141,300. Hoyer said it is "important for us to compensate the president. Not in the sense of a king or lavishly, but certainly appropriately as it relates to the rest of the people in government. . . . an appropriate salary for arguably the person who has the toughest job in the world and on whom billions of people rely for good judgment and honest service." A yes vote was to block a presidential pay raise in 2001.




The House voted to uphold waste disposal limits in the Mining Law of 1872. The law allows hard-rock minerals on public lands in the West to be commercially mined with little or no payment of royalties to the government. While companies can receive up to five additional acres for waste disposal, critics say they are despoiling much larger tracts with their byproducts. This amendment requires adherence to a limit of five acres per operation. The vote occurred during debate on a fiscal 2000 appropriations bill (HR 2466) for the Department of Interior and related agencies. A yes vote backed the amendment.





The Senate passed a Republican bill (S 1344) to expand patients' rights within health care plans. The bill is designed mainly for the 48 million Americans in employer-operated, self-funded plans not regulated by the states. But some provisions would benefit as many as 125 million insured persons, and a couple apply to all 161 million Americans covered by private health insurance. The bill is more narrow in scope than a defeated Democratic bill that applied to all 161 million Americans with private medical coverage. Democrats sought, for example, to give patients the right to sue HMOs and other insurers in state court over wrongful denial of treatment (next issue), and to give doctors rather than HMOs final say on treatment decisions. The GOP bill provides patients with guaranteed access to specialists within the same health care network; requires insurers to cover overnight hospital stays after surgery for breast cancer; allows pregnant women access to obstetricians without the prior approval of their health plan; guarantees emergency room care; outlaws "gag rules" that deny patients full information about treatment options; prohibits insurers from limiting or denying coverage on the basis of genetic predictions; expands tax-advantaged Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs), and allows the self-employed to deduct 100 percent of their health insurance premiums, up from the present 45 percent. A yes vote was to pass the bill.




The Senate blocked a Democratic plan to give patients the right to bring suits in state court against health insurance providers based on wrongful denial of care. Democrats sought to extend the right to about 125 million Americans in employer-sponsored health plans who are prevented by federal law from filing such suits. As later passed, the GOP bill (S 1344) creates an internal and external review process by which patients can appeal an insurer's decision to not cover a specific treatment. The process assures prompt review of denials, with the final decision to be made by a doctor or other medical expert who is independent of the insurance plan. A yes vote opposed giving patients the right to sue health insurers in state court.




The Senate rejected a Democratic plan to apply new health insurance regulations to all U.S. residents covered by private medical insurance, about 161 million individuals. The vote left intact a rival GOP plan to apply the underlying bill (S 1344) primarily to the 48 million individuals enrolled in employer-sponsored, self-funded health plans. Under the GOP approach, states would continue to oversee health insurance in areas not covered by federal regulators. A yes vote backed the Democratic amendment.