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March 2007

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


An Interview with Representative José Serrano (D-NY)

U.S. Representative José E. Serrano represents the Sixteenth Congressional District of New York, in the Bronx. He joined the House Appropriations Committee in 1993 and is the chair of the new Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government. Congressman Serrano was first sworn in as a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives in March 1990.

Q: You chair the newly formed Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, of which the Judiciary is part. Why was the subcommittee formed and what will be its jurisdiction?

A: In the 109th Congress, Republicans chose to reduce the number of subcommittees from 13 to 10. Over the course of the past two years, Democrats came to realize that this amended subcommittee structure created funding struggles for many agencies, which were pitted against one another in a fight for funding. When we took over Congress after the midterm elections, Chairman Obey made the decision to once again increase the number of subcommittees, to allow the Appropriations Committee to conduct the proper amount of oversight, and to better break out the funding needs of particular agencies. Furthermore, the new subcommittee structure aligned with those of the Senate, which makes considering the differences between the chambers’ versions of the same appropriations bills far less cumbersome.

The subcommittee will have jurisdiction over multiple agencies and departments in addition to the Judiciary. The largest of these, in budgetary terms, is the Treasury Department. However, the subcommittee will also have jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Office of Inspector General, the Small Business Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, among others.

Q: How will the new subcommittee be run under your leadership?

A: I expect and hope that the new subcommittee will be run in as bipartisan a manner as possible, and that all members of the subcommittee will respect the views of their fellow members. There are a lot of agencies and issues that we need to examine, and we will do so with an eye not just towards their current funding needs, but their funding needs in future fiscal years. Oversight is one of the priorities of the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. We felt that rigorous oversight was substantially left undone in past years, and consequently one of our Constitutional responsibilities was neglected. I look forward to delving into the funding and programmatic priorities of the agencies and departments that fall under the subcommittee’s jurisdiction.

Q: You’re not a newcomer to the Judiciary and its budget. Can you tell us something about your history, from an appropriations viewpoint, with the federal courts?

A: Prior to fiscal year 2006, I was the ranking member of the Commerce, Justice, State (CJS) subcommittee, which had jurisdiction over the Judiciary. During my time on that subcommittee, I always tried to be strongly supportive of funding for the federal courts. We sometimes had to make difficult decisions, but we always tried to be fair to the needs of the Judiciary.

The relationship with the Judiciary is, of course, different, and as this is the source of funding for a co-equal branch of government, it will be treated appropriately as we move forward with this new subcommittee’s assignments.

Q: What does Fiscal Year 2008 look like in terms of overall availability of funding?

A: Because of the Administration’s misguided tax cuts, as well as the ongoing funding for the war in Iraq, we continue to face a tight budget climate. However, I do intend to try and provide sufficient funding for each agency to properly do its job.

Q: What do you look for in a submitted appropriations request? What will your subcommittee look at when it comes time to focus on the budget for the judicial branch?

A: The Judicial Branch, like all other governmental entities funded in the bill, will need to present a clear case for their Fiscal Year 2008 budget request. The Judiciary will need to demonstrate with as much specificity as possible as to why it needs the various funding levels it is requesting.

Q: How do you view the role of the courts?

A: The courts are very much the moral conscience of the legislative and executive branches. I strongly believe that the courts have been, and continue to be, a positive agent for social change. Our Constitution has some very lofty ideals, but our history shows that we don’t always want to adhere to them. The courts have played an important role in securing equal rights for all Americans, and in making sure that our nation lives up to the values that it espouses, and in continuing to protect our civil rights and civil liberties.

As a corollary to this, I also am strongly opposed to Congressional attempts to interfere with the domain of the judicial system. In the last Congress there were several pieces of legislation that attempted to limit the ability of courts to review particular parts of the law, and I simply do not agree with those efforts. All branches of government need to respect the system of checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution.

Q: It looks like neither Members of Congress nor federal judges will receive a cost of living increase in FY 2007. What do you think the long-term effect will be of the denial of COLAs for federal judges?

A: Clearly, judicial pay is an important issue, and one to which Chief Justice Roberts devoted his entire 2006 Year-End Report. If we are to recruit the best legal minds to serve on our federal courts, then we need to make sure that the economic sacrifice, when compared to private life, is not too great. This is an ongoing issue that this new subcommittee will discuss.

Q: The issue of courthouse construction funding also will come before your subcommittee. As you have a unique perspective on the Judiciary, how do you view proposed funding for courthouses?

A: We in Congress need to make sure that our co-equal branches of government have the facilities needed to do the work of the American people. Making sure that our federal courthouses have enough space to conduct their constitutional duties, and have adequate security measures in place to ensure the safety of those who work in those buildings, is an important priority. I know that the federal courthouse in Buffalo in my home state of New York is an important demonstration of these needs.