Wednesdays from Washington: Reflections on a meeting with the "Traffic Cop of Congress"

This blog post was written by Arizona State University graduate student Brandee Kitzmiller. In addition to studying Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership at ASU, Brandee is a garden educator for the nonprofit Island Grown Schools.

During our time on Capitol Hill our cohort was able to have a meeting with the chair of the Committee on Rules, Jim McGovern. This was our only meeting in the Capitol building and, as our badges stated, it was official business. We rode the connecting tram from Rayburn building into the Capitol and headed to the Committee on Rules.

The United States House Committee on Rules is one of the most powerful committees in Congress. Nicknamed the “traffic cop of Congress”, since one of their main functions is to write the rules Congress must follow, the Committee on Rules holds a substantial amount of influence. The Committee determines the order in which bills are considered on the House floor and how long they will be debated. There are no time limits to their meetings and the Committee meets more frequently than any other Committee.

Once we settled into the surprisingly uncomfortable gallery chairs, we were able to look at the room as the members of the Committee do during each meeting. Three large photographs/paintings were on the walls around the room. A photograph of Worcester Massachusetts (Chairman McGovern’s hometown), immigrants coming to early America, and a Native American woman. Each photograph was chosen specifically by Chairman McGovern to remind committee members of our country’s origins.

After a brief overview of the Committee on Rule’s functions and responsibilities, the conversation was brought to the current debate over SNAP funding. Chairman McGovern is passionate about ending hunger worldwide. “Hunger is a political condition” stated Chairman McGovern firmly. His explanation for this statement was simply that money is spent easily in other areas of the government, yet people are still going hungry.  Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as it may seem. Many people would like to decrease the amount of funding that is being allocated to SNAP. He mentions how critical it is for SNAP to remain under the Farm Bill. Without the pressure of needing the Farm Bill to be passed every five years, SNAP funding could easily be picked apart or significantly defunded.

Chairman McGovern notes that the SNAP program and its recipients are often given an unfair narrative. People have claimed instances of recipients buying lobster using their SNAP benefits. These harmful stereotypes are often used as a political weapon against the program. In general, people do not want “their tax dollars” to be buying expensive food for others. However, this stereotype is not an accurate reflection of the people who are benefitting from the program. Chairman McGovern urges everyone to share a different story. He states the importance of writing “to the editor” about people who rely on this funding to supply their families with necessary food purchases. Without these truthful stories, the people who benefit from SNAP may be forgotten.

As our conversation was wrapping up, the inevitable was mentioned: COVID-19. The (as of mid-March) recommendation of buying 1-2 weeks of groceries at once isn’t attainable for everyone, especially people who use SNAP benefits. Many families struggle to buy a few days worth of groceries and cannot afford to make fewer trips. The inability to follow CDC guidelines signifies the importance of food security to ensure the overall safety of all Americans.

After our meeting, I found myself thinking about the best ways for people outside of the government to help shape the policies that are being made. As Chairman McGovern mentioned, sharing personal stories with newspapers and members of Congress is one fairly simple way that every person can impact government. You do not have to be a member of the Rules Committee to create change, but meeting with members of Congress is one way to get close.