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George J. Mitchell

Senate Career Highlights

 Mitchell at Iran-Contra hearings
Senator Mitchell at the Iran-Contra hearings, 1987.
(From the collection)


Leadership Positions

  • Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
  • Deputy President Pro Tempore
  • Senate Majority Leader
  • Senate Democratic Steering Committee

Committee Assignments

  • Iran-Contra Affair Committee
  • Senate Select Intelligence Committee
  • Veterans' Affairs Committee
  • Committee on Government Affairs
  • Committee on Environment and Public Works
  • Committee on Finance

Contributions by Stephanie Fine '97 and Anita Jensen


Legislation
Leadership Positions
Committee Assignments

Legislation

Transition
After President Jimmy Carter appointed Maine's senior Senator, Edmund S. Muskie, to be Secretary of State in 1980, Maine Governor Joe Brennan tapped Federal District Judge George J. Mitchell to fill the remainder of Muskie's term. At the time of his appointment, Senator Muskie had been working on legislation pertaining to the windfall profits tax, waste treatment plant costs, veterans' education aid, and approval of the SALT II treaty.

Superfund
Senator Mitchell inherited Senator Muskie's files on the Superfund legislation, which passed just days before the end of the 96th Congress (PL 96-510). The Superfund legislation established a Hazardous Substance Response Trust Fund from fees on oil and chemical industries. The fund paid for certain losses resulting from releases of hazardous chemicals. The new law also defined "hazardous substances" more clearly than had been previously outlined in the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Solid Waste Disposal Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act; and defined "effects" of hazardous chemicals as "any spilling, leaking, pumping, pouring, emitting, emptying, discharging, injecting, escaping, leaching, or dumping" into the environment or other areas that may present a danger to the public.

Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act
In 1976, a federal court ruling imperiled title to about two-thirds of Maine land when several tribes of Native Americans successfully challenged the legality of the 19th-century agreement by which they had given up title to the land. By 1980, when Mitchell became Senator, the uncertainty about land ownership was contributing substantially to declining economic conditions in the state, both at the individual level and in the sense of economic growth. Final settlement and extinguishment of all native title claims gave the tribes title to some land plus a financial settlement and secured clear title to Maine's land owners over the disputed areas.

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Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
From 1980 until he left the Senate, Mitchell was very active in the effort to reach arms agreements with the then-Soviet Union and to reduce the levels of nuclear arms stockpiled by both sides. He worked for a test ban as one way to curtail the reliance of both sides on nuclear conflict.

Campaign Finance Reform
After his 1982 election race, Mitchell appointed a commission of prominent Mainers to review and recommend the most effective way to reform campaign financing, because he recognized that it was the appearance of conflict, as well as the possibility of actual conflict of interest, which has a corrupting effect on the outcome of political contests. The Mitchell office engaged in more legisative work on this issue in 1989-90.

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Court-Stripping
During the early 1980s, repeated efforts were made to alter the outcome of Supreme Court rulings with which there is disagreement by seeking to strip from the Supreme Court the right to hear cases involving particular issues, such as prayer in schools, abortion, etc. It is claimed that Art. III of the Constitution allows the Congress to place some matters beyond the reach of the Supreme Court by legislation. Mitchell took an active role in those debates. His status as the only former federal judge in the Congress lent weight to his opinions on Constitutional issues.

Nuclear Waste Disposal
In 1982, growing concern about the quantity of waste nuclear materials at power plants and the safety of nuclear materials against theft led to a recommendation that Maine be one of the states to house long-term storage of dangerous radioactive wastes, despite the earthquake fault which is a feature of the state's geology. Mitchell fought this plan and remained active in seeking safe permanent disposal for spent nuclear materials.

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Criminal Law Reforms
In 1984, Congress undertook the first substantial revision of federal criminal law in many decades. During that debate and in subsequent crime debates, Mitchell was a leader in seeking to protect habeas corpus and the "exclusionary rule." Habeas corpus is a fundamental tenet of U.S. Constitutional law, and serves to protect each citizen against arbitrary government actions. The exclusionary rule was designed by the Supreme Court to ensure that law enforcement cannot benefit from ignoring the Constitutional ban on illegal seizures. It bars the use of illegally obtained evidence at trial.

Flag Burning
The First Amendment flatly prohibits the enactment of laws that curtail the freedom of speech. When the Supreme Court ruled that a Texas law criminalizing the burning of an American flag was intended to punish free expression, and struck down the law, efforts were made in the Congress to amend the Constitution. Mitchell sought a Constitutionally valid law to ban flag burning, but because there can be no constitutionally valid ban on the expressive element that is involved in flag-burning, the Supreme Court ruled a year later that the federal law could not stand. Mitchell then led the fight against the effort to amend the First Amendment.

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Daylight Savings Time
In a campaign that took a number of years of active engagement, Mitchell finally achieved passage of a Daylight Savings revision that today begins Daylight Savings Time three weeks earlier than in the past. Although a seemingly small achievement, the passage of this law affects more people nationwide more regularly than most other legislation.

Lighthouse Preservation Act
Because Maine is a coastal state, Mitchell became aware that the historic lighthouses which dot the coastline were in danger of vanishing as their functions are replaced with high-tech navigational equipment and as their structures became dangerous through neglect. The Lighthouse Preservation Act keeps these symbols of American maritime history intact for future generations.

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Mitchell Amendment to the 1986 Tax Reform Act.
The amendment failed, but it was the single most important action taken on the 1986 tax bill. The underlying bill altered tax rates to a three-tier system, dropped 6 million low-income wage-earners off the federal income tax rolls entirely, and, not surprisingly, gave very well-paid persons a substantially larger tax break than middle-income wage-earners. The Mitchell amendment would have added a fourth tier for the top income, flattened the intervening tiers so that more middle-income wage-earners would get a more significant tax break, and provided for a modest capital gains tax relief. In the 12 years since that amendment failed, higher marginal rates on the well-off have helped close the federal budget deficit and a new modest capital gains tax has been enacted into law.

The Clean Water Act of 1987 and Amendments of 1990
In early 1987, the Senate overrode President Reagan's veto of the Water Quality Act of 1987 (PL 100-4), also known as the Clean Water Act, and during debate on the override, Mitchell harshly criticized the President for his failure to keep his promise about funding the clean water program. The Clean Water Act was a high point in Mitchell's outstanding congressional record on the environment.
One central goal of this 1990 amendment, beyond the necessity of reauthorizing an expired law, was to provide financial resources to small communities to upgrade their waste water treatment and to begin the more difficult task of dealing with non-point-source pollution (which comes from runoff).

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Iran-Contra
As a member of the Iran-Contra Special Committee, Mitchell questioned Oliver North's understanding of the meaning of American patriotism and sought to assure that future presidents would not try to operate a secret parallel foreign policy alongside the publicly acknowledged foreign policy, as the Reagan Administration did.

War Powers Act
The War Powers Act of 1972 was passed over President Nixon's veto, but although Presidents since 1972 have sought to introduce American forces into conflicts, the Act has never been invoked by a President. Because the Constitutional power to declare war is so clearly a Congressional one, Mitchell sought to improve the Act so that it would preserve the power to declare war to the Congress without, at the same time, seeking to hamstring presidents in emergency situations. Conflict between the Executive and Legislative branch over war powers has a long history and this is one of the more recent episodes in that history.

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Minimum Wage Act 1989
During the 1980s, income disparities between the most poorly paid and the best-paid Americans increased substantially, The poorest of the poor -- those who worked for the minimum wage -- had not seen a pay raise in almost a decade, although inflation had substantially undermined the buying power of the minimum wage. Mitchell led the fight to restore some of that buying power by raising the minimum wage for the lowest-income working Americans.

The North American Wetlands Conservation Act of 1989
Senator Mitchell wrote and sponsored the North American Wetlands Conservation Act which was passed into law in 1989. The primary purpose was "To conserve North American wetland ecosystems and waterfowl and the other migratory birds and fish and wildlife that depend on such habitats." The goals of the legislation were to establish a long-term, joint commitment with Canada and Mexico and to implement the North American Waterfowl Management Plan to help conserve North American wetlands. President Bush called for no net loss of wetlands as a national goal; Senator Mitchell's goal was not only to protect and prevent loss, but to restore and enhance the wetland and grassland resources where many migratory birds live. The Act provides Federal funding for conservation projects throughout North America and for the protection of an additional 50,000 acres of land on the eastern coast of the U.S. In 1994, Maine received 1.25 million dollars of North American Wetlands Conservation Act funding.

Oil Pollution Act of 1990
Mitchell sought to preserve the right of states to regulate standards for oil transport more strictly than the federal law if they so chose. Coastal states like Maine are particularly vulnerable to oil spills from careless or unsafe shipping.

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The Clean Air Act of 1990
Mitchell was instrumental in the 1990 passage of the Clean Air Act (PL 101-549), which he brought to the floor and vowed to keep alive until it passed and was signed into law, against President Bush's wishes.
The process of passing the Clean Air Act of 1990 was as arduous as the passage of the first Clean Air Act in 1970. The 1970 law and subsequent updates achieved much of the easier pollution reductions; the 1990 law was aimed at smaller particulates, as well as at the secondary effects of cleanup technologies (e.g. acid rain, which is caused when high-stack chimneys in the Midwest diffuse their pollutants far from their own locality -- as the 1970 Act demands -- and they are redeposited in rainfall hundreds of miles away).

ISTEA
After long years of deficit-driven budgets which slowly sapped the infrastructure needs of the country, passage of the Intermodel Surface Transportation Equity Act in 1990 provided a much-needed boost for highway, rail and urban mass transit systems nationwide. Mitchell's commitment, as Senate leader, to the passage of this law was instrumental in its success.

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Long Term Care
Mitchell held extensive hearings on long term care and crafted legislation (not enacted) seeking to forestall the massive explosion of long-term care costs which is inevitable with an aging population.

Child Care and Development Act
By the end of the 1980s, one of the most potentially far-reaching and dramatic changes in American life was well under way -- most American children were spending as much time in day care as with their parents, as economic reality required two incomes to sustain a middle-class family life. Mitchell responded to this fact by taking the lead on developing the 1990 block grant of funds to the states for child care and development.

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Affordable Housing Act
In 1990, Mitchell worked with Congressional Democrats and Housing and Urban Development Secretary (HUD) Jack F. Kemp to pass the Cranston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act (PL 101-625), which appropriated funds for the HOME Investment Partnerships Act, to provide state and local governments with money for housing needs; established the National Home Ownership Trust within HUD to provide financial aid to first-time home buyers; and provided low-income rental and rural housing assistance.

Civil Rights Bill
Mitchell worked to pass a compromise civil rights bill (PL 102-166) in 1991, which amended Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act so victims of harassment or discrimination--whether based on race, sex, religion, or disability--could receive limited monetary damages. As President Bush had vetoed a similar bill in 1990, it was Mitchell's job, as majority leader, to help craft a bill which would win bipartisan support in the Democratic-controlled Congress and the signature of the Republican President.

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Gun Control/Brady Bill
Under Mitchell's leadership, the Senate for the first time in 1991 passed a handgun sales waiting period, despite the enormous political clout of the National Rifle Association. He even persuaded Bob Dole, the Republican leader, to be a primary sponsor of the bill. The bill became law two years later.

NAFTA & GATT
As majority leader, Mitchell was instrumental in passing both NAFTA and the GATT agreement, which establishes the World Trade Organization to adjudicate trade disputes among members of the international community and will help create the foundation of just and predictable trade conditions in which commerce among nations can expand.

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Universal Health Care
The election of Bill Clinton as President in 1993 brought a unified government to Washington for the first time in decades. As majority leader, Mitchell worked diligently with the President and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to create a universal health care plan. The plan consumed much of Mitchell's time in the Senate, but competing plans by other members of Congress and a lack of enthusiasm among voters, doctors, and insurance companies made it impossible to pass health care legislation in 1994.

Health Care Outcomes
Maine was one of the earliest states to begin monitoring the disparities in medical treatment among different cities and different physicians to determine which medical interventions were essential, which were questionable and what dictated different rates of use. The outcomes legislation which Mitchell successfully passed into law created an independent agency within the public health service whose function is to measure, nationwide, the effectiveness of medical interventions and to help encourage medical practice based on researched outcomes. It is the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research.

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Leadership Positions

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
From 1985 to 1986, Mitchell served as Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). As chair, Mitchell was chiefly responsible for the party's efforts to raise funds for Democratic U.S. Senate candidates across the country. In November of 1986, Mitchell's efforts succeeded, as the Democrats reclaimed the Senate.

Deputy President Pro Tempore
Following the 1986 elections, Mitchell was elected Deputy President Pro Tempore, a position which had not been filled since Senator Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minnesota) occupied it in 1977. The position was largely a ceremonial one, having been created for Humphrey by his colleagues as a mark of respect for his former high office as President of the Senate (Vice President of the United States). In Mitchell's case, the position served as a sign of respect for the man who led the Democrats back to majority in 1986.

Senate Majority Leader
Shortly after the 1988 election, Senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) resigned his post as Majority Leader to become President Pro Tempore of the Senate. With Republican Presidential nominee George Bush having soundly defeated Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis at the polls, the Democrats needed to elect a Democrat to stand up against the Republican President. Mitchell had built a reputation as an eloquent and articulate speaker, despite having held few leadership positions in the Senate. After a hard fought battle against Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Mitchell was elected Majority Leader. The Majority Leader has the power to schedule bills for votes and hearings, provide various types of information to members of his party, gather support for legislation, and maintain control over his fellow Democratic Senators.

Senate Democratic Steering Committee
As a member of the Senate Democratic Steering Committee, Mitchell issued Democrats their committee assignments.

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Committee Assignments
Visit the Senate Committee web site to learn more about the Senate committee system or a full list of committees.

Committee on Environment and Public Works 1980-1994
Senator Mitchell served on the Committee on Environment and Public Works, which studies and reviews issues relating to environmental protection, conservation, and resource management; Mitchell's subcommittee assignments, included serving as chair of the Subcommittee on Environmental Protection and as a member of the Subcommittee on Nuclear Regulation and the Subcommittee on Water Resources, Transportation and Infrastructure. Visit this committee's web site.

He also was the committee's representative to the National Ocean Policy Study (NOPS), convened by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Committee on Finance 1980-1994
The Committee on Finance handles the bonded debt of the United States and revenue measures, as well as social security programs and trade issues; Mitchell served on the Subcommittee on Social Security and Family Policy, the Subcommittee on International Trade, and the Subcommittee on Health, which he chaired. Visit this committee's web site.

Veterans' Affairs Committee 1980-1994
Mitchell also served on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, which handles issues specifically dealing with veterans' benefits and services. Visit this committee's web site.

Committee on Government Affairs 1987-1988
The Committee on Government Affairs, which oversees the activities of the Federal government, also oversees its relationship between the states and municipalities. In this area, Mitchell served on three subcommittees: the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations; the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management; and the Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Federalism, and the District of Columbia. Visit this committee's web site.

Joint Select Committee on the Iran-Contra Affair 1987
Mitchell, along with his Maine colleague Bill Cohen, were tapped to serve on the1987 committee which investigated the Reagan Administration's arms-for-hostages plan, known as Iran-Contra. Mitchell's strong questioning of Lt. Col. Oliver North was widely featured in the news.

Senate Select Intelligence Committee 1989-1994
Mitchell served as a non-voting ex officio member, by virtue of his position as Majority Leader, on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. The committee oversees and examines the intelligence activities of the Federal government and submits and drafts legislation and reports pertaining to such intelligence activities. Visit this committee's web site.

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George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives · Staff · Hours
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