Committee Scores Points for ‘Keeping Kids in the News’

By Deborah L. Cohen — April 10, 1991 5 min read

Washington--When Representative George Miller first proposed creating a special Congressional committee to focus attention on the plight of children, the California Democrat encountered opposition from colleagues skeptical about what a panel with no power over legislation could accomplish.

Undeterred, Mr. Miller and the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families in 1983 set out to raise the Congress’s consciousness on issues ranging from poverty to child abuse.

Since then, through a unique blend of documenting the status of America’s families and highlighting effective programs, the panel has come to wield influence despite its lack of formal jurisdiction in the areas it scrutinizes. Several of its recommendations have found their way into legislation, and some of the issues it has targeted have become premier causes on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Miller chaired the panel from its inception until the start of the current Congress, when he stepped down to accept another chairmanship.

“People who used to speak out against it are now members,” Mr. Miller said in an interview last week. “We have a lot of converts.”

Interest in the panel has become so great that it was expanded this year from 30 to 36 members.

The bill establishing the committee was introduced by Mr. Miller with the backing of then-Speaker of the House Thomas P. O’Neill. Its mandate is to “conduct a continuing, comprehensive study and review of the problems of children, youth, and families” in such arenas as health, welfare, nutrition, education, employment, and recreation.

Because jurisdiction for programs affecting children and families is “scattered” among various committees, Mr. Miller said, he sought “to create a forum within the Congress where we could address issues of children and families in an ongoing and comprehensive way.”

Mr. Miller conceded that the panel also served a political purpose.

“One of our other missions that Speaker O’Neill gave us was to try and chronicle what was happening to children during the Reagan years,” he said. “What we outlined for the Congress was the really tragic status of children in this country” by documenting the numbers of abused, hungry, and homeless Americans.

Added Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who serves on the panel, “It has been a great source of discomfort for the Republican Administration[s] to be continually reminded of how we’re shortchanging children in America.”

‘Standard Lingo’

Others in the Congress and the child-advocacy community say the panel has brought new visibility to disaffected youths and families.

“It’s a real conscience,” said Representative Patricia Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat who assumed the committee’s chairmanship in February. (See interview, this page.)

“They’ve kept kids in the news,” said Helen Blank, senior program associate for the Children’s Defense Fund. “It’s important to have someel10lone who harps on the issues from the inside.”

“In the last five or six years, we’ve really seen greater attention in this country to the plight of children and families,” Mary Bourdette, director of public policy for the Child Welfare League of America, said, “and a lot of the credit for that goes to the select committee.”

The committee has published several reports chronicling the status of poor families and showing the cost-effectiveness of such programs as Head Start, child immunizations, and the Special Supplmental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

“If the committee’s done nothing else, it’s to show the cost-benefit ratio of dollars spent to help children,” Mr. Durbin said.

A 1985 report, “Opportunities for Success,” that compiled data on eight key programs, “became the blueprint” for an initiative giving children’s programs added weight in the budget “when they were cutting back everything else,” said Jill Kagan, deputy staff director for the panel.

The report, which is periodically updated, “changed the budget debate,” Mr. Miller said.

“We now have people from both sides of the aisle competing” to back children’s programs, he said.

Committee reports are also tapped widely by advocates, think tanks, and private-sector officials.

The panel “focuses on what the business community is vitally interested in: what programs really work and give us a return on our investment,” said Sandra Hamburg, director of education studies for the Committee for Economic Development.

Business leaders who recently testified in favor of the wic program before the House Budget Committee “were influenced by data from our committee,” Ms. Kagan said. “It has started to become standard lingo.’'

‘Life Threatening’

The panel has also been credited with resurrecting Congressional debate on child care in 1983, more than a decade after President Nixon vetoed the last child-care measure.

Recommendations laid out in “Families and Child Care: Improving the Options,” a 1984 report by the panel, “led to the debate and final enactment of the child-care measure last year,” said Karabelle Pizzigati, staff director for the select committee.

A section that called for channeling funds through an existing entitlement program--which created a rift with child advocates who favored a larger grant program--clearly reflected the preference of Mr. Miller.

The panel also helped garner bipartisan support for legislation expanding Medicaid to increase access to medical care for low-income mothers and pregnant women. And its re4port noting problems in the child-welfare and juvenile-justice systems helped frame legislation now under consideration, Ms. Kagan said.

The panel has enabled its members to view firsthand the human dimension of issues, then pursue legislative solutions in other committees.

For example, Mr. Durbin, who also serves on the Budget Committee, said his visit to a residential treatment center for drug-addicted mothers had inspired him to seek Medicaid reimbursements for such programs.

While the panel has achieved consensus in identifying issues, agree8ing on solutions has been harder.

“Everyone shares the same goals--but on how to get there, there are obviously disagreements,” said Dennis Smith, who was the panel’s minority staff director in the 101st Congress.

In several instances, Republican members offered “additional views” in committee reports to air their concerns on such issues as the effects of family dissolution and day care on children and the need for more accountability in human-services programs. They also challenged the majority’s presentation of data and said it oversimplified family issues.

While “Republicans and Democrats alike see that the problems in the family [demand more] than just treating the symptoms,” said Mr. Smith, “there is disagreement on whether or not there is a role for the federal government in constructing some of the solutions.”

Members also acknowledge the frustration of hammering away at issues for years before seeing action.

“My biggest challenge,” Mr. Miller recalled, “was not losing my temper at the inability of the Congress to grasp how serious these problems are and the fact that some of these issues are life-threatening for our children.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 1991 edition of Education Week as Committee Scores Points for ‘Keeping Kids in the News’