General Articles

New Committees Bring Potential for New Opportunities in the 110th Congress

The 110th Congress began in January with the Democrats in control of both the House and the Senate.  Advocates of sexual and reproductive health and rights are paying close attention to the new composition of those Congressional committees that have jurisdiction over health, funding, and oversight.  Below is an overview of the House and Senate committees that focus on related domestic issues.  Next month, SIECUS will provide a similar overview of committees working on international reproductive and sexual health and rights priorities.

The HELP Committee and the E&C Committee

Two essential committees for advocates of sexual and reproductive health and rights on the domestic front are the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, Pensions (HELP Committee) and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce (E&C Committee).  These committees have jurisdiction over two key pieces of domestic legislation; the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act, which would provide federal funding for the first time for comprehensive, medically accurate sexuality education, and the Prevention First Act, a package of legislation that seeks to prevent unintended pregnancy and increase access to comprehensive contraceptive services and information.1 These bills must be passed by the committees before they can possibly go to the House or Senate floor for a vote.  

The HELP Committee is now chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) who has set forth an ambitious agenda that focuses on “jobs that reward [] hard work, health care that is good and affordable, and education the continues to open the door to the American dream for all of our citizens.”2  Chairman Kennedy welcomes back to the Committee Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Jack Reed (D-RI), and Patty Murray (D-WA).  In addition, he welcomed the new members of the Committee, Senator Barak Obama (D-IL) and freshmen Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Bernard Sanders (I-VT).  Advocates were particularly pleased with the addition of Senator Obama who is now in a position to take a leadership role on these issues. Advocates also welcomed the addition of now-Senator Brown, who had previously served as Ranking Member of the House E&C Committee’s Health Subcommittee as a Representative.  Brown is well-respected for his dedication to HIV prevention, care, and treatment.  Chairman Kennedy will continue to work closely with Senator Michael Enzi (R-WY), who was Chairman of the Committee under the previously Republican-led Congress and will now serve as Ranking Member of the HELP Committee. 

Advocates and community members looking to move the sexual and reproductive health agenda forward will focus on gaining the support of Chairman Kennedy as well as the key support of Senators Clinton and Murray who are strong champions of these issues, particularly in the area of women’s health.  Senators Clinton and Murray led the fight in recent years for over-the-counter access to emergency contraception, and advocates expect their work in this Congress to build on their previous successes.3

The HELP Committee’s counterpart on the House side, the E&C Committee, is also charged with responsibility over health and health facilities.  The E& C Committee also focuses on issues of commerce, trade, consumer protection, energy, the environment, telecommunications, and the internet, among other topics.  Of particular note to advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights are members of the Health Subcommittee. The Subcommittee is chaired by Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and is comprised of 17 Democrats and 14 Republicans.  The Health Subcommittee is charged with jurisdiction over public health and quarantine, mental health and research, general health protection (including Medicaid and national health insurance), food and drugs (including drug abuse), and other health-related topics. In addition to Chairman Pallone, Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA), Diane DeGette (D-CO), Lois Capps (D-CA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Mary Bono (R-CA), and Ranking Member Nathan Deal (R-GA) remain on the committee.  They are joined by Representatives Eliot Engel (D-NY), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Charles Gonzales (D-TX), Mike Ross (D-AR), Darlene Hooley (D-OR), Jim Matheson (D-UT), Anthony Weiner (D-NY), and Steve Buyer (R-IN), among others. 

Appropriations Subcommittees

This year, the Senate and House Appropriations Subcommittee structures mirror one another with a total of 12 subcommittees in each Chamber.  The leadership of the full Appropriations Committees in both the House (Chairman David Obey (D-WI) and Ranking Member Jerry Lewis (D-CA)) and the Senate (Chairman Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-MS)) are hopeful that “with this common structure, the 12 appropriations bills can be completed on-time for the first time since 1994.”4  Domestic health advocates are most concerned with the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Subcommittee (Labor-HHS Subcommittee) which has jurisdiction over funding for such items as abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, Title X family planning programs, and HIV and AIDS prevention, care, and treatment.
In the Senate, the make-up of the Labor-HHS Subcommittee remains almost identical to last Congress with some notable exceptions.  Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) no longer sits on the Subcommittee and has been replaced by Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).  Chairman of the Labor-HHS Subcommittee Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Ranking Member Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) will team up once again to run the committee.  In the House, Representative Obey (who is Chairman of the full House Appropriations Committee) has chosen to remain in the leadership position of the   Subcommittee and will now serve as its Chairman.  Representative James Walsh (R-NY) will now serve as Ranking Member of the subcommittee.  New members of the Subcommittee include Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA), Tom Udall (D-NM), Michael Honda (D-CA), Betty McCollum (D-MN), Tim Ryan (D-OH), and Dennis Rehberg (R-MT). 

The leadership of the Labor-HHS Subcommittees in both chambers suggests mixed support for the issues of sexual and reproductive health; the Chairmen and Ranking Members of these subcommittees are neither strong advocates for nor strong opponents of these issues. The additions of Senator Lautenberg and Representative Lee, however, are good news for advocates for comprehensive sexuality education as they are each the lead sponsor of the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act in their respective chambers.  Community members will be looking for Senator Lautenberg’s and Representative Lee’s continued leadership on comprehensive sexuality education. 

Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

Formerly known as the Committee on Government Reform, this committee which focuses on the themes of federal government waste, fraud, and abuse, will now be chaired by Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA).  Having Chairman Waxman at the helm of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee bodes well for advocates who have long praised the Congressman for his key leadership in the area of health and education oversight, particularly regarding the oversight of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.  While the Committee’s agenda has not yet been set, staff have made clear that “priorities remain priorities” and that oversight of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, the stewardship of taxpayer dollars, and the politicization of science will remain core issues for the Chairman and the Committee. 

Advocates for domestic sexual and reproductive health and rights are looking forward to working with the new chairpersons, ranking members, and committee members and hope that there will be earnest work done this Congress to improve health care, sexuality education, family planning, and HIV prevention.

For more information about the above mentioned Congressional Committees:

Committee on Appropriations:
Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions:

Committee on Appropriations:
Committee on Energy and Commerce:
Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:


  1. See this month’s policy update Prevention First Act Introduced for more information.
  2. “Kennedy Announces HELP Committee Priorities for 110th Congress,” Press Release published 16 November 2006, accessed 22 January 2006, <
  3. See FDA Approves Over-the-Counter Access to Plan B for Women 18 Years and Older; Young Women Still Require Prescription for more information.
  4. “Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Rosters Set,” Press Release published 10 January 2007, accessed 22 January 2006, <>.