FBF: What a week! July 15, 2024

There’s a lot happening in the world, but we will stay focused on Congress. Welcome to the First Branch Forecast. But first…

Other News In Brief

Former Pres. Trump was the apparent victim of an assassination attempt. This is a developing news story, so please remember that early news reports are not always accurate. Political violence is unacceptable.

The Republican National Convention is this week.

President Biden is resisting entreaties to drop out of the race as Democrats publicly and privately encourage him to step aside out of concern for his health and electability.

Continue reading “FBF: What a week! July 15, 2024”

FBF: We’re back! Week of July 8, 2024

Good morning and happy belated 4th of July! Did you miss receiving the First Branch Forecast? Well, we’re back and at our new home at the American Governance Institute.

It seems a few things happened while we were on hiatus. As usual, we’re going to stay focused on building a strong Congress, an accountable Executive branch, and a durable democracy.

Today’s issue is abbreviated, so let me name-check:

  • The Supreme Court’s striking down of Chevron review, which is more about transferring power to the federal courts than to Congress. Everyone seems to want to do Congress’s job, which is reason #1 why Congress should act to strengthen itself.
  • The Supreme Court’s creation of presidential immunity for official actions, which allows a president to commit unlawful acts without criminal accountability. Surely this won’t potentially create problems should a certain ex-president return to office.
  • President Biden’s disastrous debate performance raised big questions about his competency, implicating the 25th Amendment, the ability of the press to learn about a president’s health and to accurately report that information, and what role (if any) there is for members of Congress in pushing out an incumbent. I think we’re about to break another precedent, folks.
  • Several criminal and ethics proceedings against members, including Rep. Cuellar and Sen. Menendez.
  • Did you think this would be the Congress where we saw an attempt to revive inherent contempt? There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, with some civil society groups and members pushing for a fix in the last Congress.
  • Oh, and that funny Supreme Court is making enforcement of rules by agencies much harder.

Since this newsletter is coming to you from a new email address – firstbranch@americalabs.org –  please be sure to add it to your address book and forward it to anyone who might be interested. (They can subscribe here.) You can always email me directly at daniel@americalabs.org.

Continue reading “FBF: We’re back! Week of July 8, 2024”

First Branch Forecast for October 9, 2023: Opportunity in Crisis

A PROGRAMMING NOTE

This will be the last full issue of the First Branch Forecast for a few weeks. Watch for an email from us from a new email address, most likely in November. More to come.

TOP LINE

As soon as it was restored in January’s rules package, the motion to vacate the chair became a Chekhov’s gun in the House. It was going to be fired by the hardline faction at some point. It might have blown up in their hands. But it didn’t, and the House enters the new week with the unprecedented need to elect a new Speaker.

Nobody knows how long that process will take or what the outcome will be. We do know that Speaker Emeritus Kevin McCarthy lost his gavel for about a month-and-a-half extension of government funding, reauthorization of the FAA, and a new submarine. By the time the new Speaker is selected — assuming one is selected — we may be in the midst of another funding crisis. Republicans seem collectively adamant to refuse to recognize the compromise McCarthy negotiated and reneged on for FY 2024 funding levels with the White House and Senate. Default on the national debt isn’t dead and buried, either.

If you’ve been reading this newsletter since last autumn, you know we’ve thought this Congress was likely to be a pivotal one in terms of leadership control and institutional organization in the House. A small faction situated itself to direct the governing coalition of which it is a part. It was quite explicit in that goal. It now has shackled the Speaker with the chains of his own partisanship.

Unlike in past instances, Democratic leadership gave no promises of riding to his rescue in a spirit of institutional patrician obligation. The old order, where a handful of people determined what the House did every year, has buckled. A transition to something less centralized, where power is better distributed, could have been managed — we’ve been sharing ideas for doing so for almost a year. Successors within the old order chose not to. Whatever emerges now will be influenced by a collective sense of grievance and rancor for the rest of this Congress and beyond.

This week the House was supposed to begin considering the first set of funding bills on the floor, including Leg Branch. Now we wait. On the floor: your guess is as good as ours. Expect last-minute notices and lots of caucusing. The Senate is out until next week.

House Republicans are planning to hold a members-only discussion Monday. Perhaps they will see discussion of changes to the conference and House Rules. Tuesday evening, House Republicans will hold a forum with Republican candidates for Speaker. On Wednesday, the Republican conference will hold its elections for Speaker. We have not seen reporting on when the whole House vote might or what it might vote on. We suspect that all of this is in flux.

Read more: First Branch Forecast for October 9, 2023: Opportunity in Crisis

THE OLD GUARD

Something struck us watching Rep. McCarthy’s post-defenestration press conference: a reference he made to Nancy Pelosi, who wasn’t even in Washington at the time. McCarthy said that Pelosi had counseled him to accept a motion to vacate as part of the House Rules package because she assured him Democrats would “back you up.” He said she had made the same offer to former Republican Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan.

We were initially skeptical, so we looked back to when Boehner stared down the same motion to vacate threat and decided simply to leave. Pelosi talked openly to the press in 2017 about talking to her friends in GOP leadership and sharing a plan to have Democrats save Boehner if it came to that to “protect the institution.” She added, “we would not let a Speaker be overthrown.”

But the Speaker isn’t a cousin running a continental monarchy who needs saving from an uprising. Indeed, there’s something unseemly about the House’s partisan royalty uniting to protect each other against uprisings from the commoners. Nothing entitles or requires the Speaker to be the living embodiment of the stability and health of “the institution.” Indeed, as Daniel has sketched out, power in the House over its history has been distributed to many different types of institutional entities, from czar-like Speakers to the Rules Committee, standing committees and occasionally, members leveraging veto points in the rules.

Our current system of Speaker supremacy actually is the consequence of reformers trying to solve a different problem that hamstrung the institution in the mid-20th century. In the 1950s and 60s, it was committee chairs who wielded inordinate power, particularly Howard Smith of the Rules Committee, a segregationist Democrat from Virginia. (They were also known as Dixiecrats.) As described in this remarkable 1976 document from the Democratic Study Group, committee chairs held control over what legislation reached the floor and could punish members who refused to bend their votes to preferred outcomes with undesirable subcommittee assignments. They were sustained in their roles because of their seniority, meaning most were white supremacist Southerners. Smith delayed bills he found objectionable during the Kennedy administration simply by refusing to call a meeting of the Rules Committee.

The DSG initiated a reform campaign in 1968 with the intent of replacing the committee-dominated system with one in which even junior members would have opportunities to participate in the legislative process. Their first move was to revive caucus meetings, which opened the door for the approval of further reforms in the early 1970s that extirpated the “autocratic powers” of committee chairs through committee-wide committee chair elections, committee elections for subcommittee chairs, and transparency in committee meetings and votes. The Speaker became the enforcer of this new, aspirationally more democratic system by gaining control over the Rules Committee and chairing a new Steering Committee to make committee appointments and chair nominations.

Although these changes ended the old feudal system of committee chair dominance, we can see through this document that reformers had very different intentions than to create an imperial Speaker system. The House had prior experience with an imperial Speaker system in the late 19th century, such as that created by Czar Reed, which led to a huge rebellion. Leaders in the 1980s onward took advantage of what reform made possible. Nowadays, institutional memory is such that a strong Speakership simply seems natural, rather than the steady filling of the power vacuum reformers left when they overthrew committee autocrats.

The contemporary leadership model has created a monoculture hierarchy in the House by razing competing power centers (such as committees) and flattening policy entrepreneurship within factions of parties (by destroying legislative service organizations). By the mid-1990s, even DSG fell to the leadership wrecking ball. The result is centralized legislating, but within a party system witnessing growing divergence based on identity. Party leaders constantly promise sweeping victory to partisan voters, but never deliver the glory, shying away from floor fights that endanger majorities. The goal is always to keep your team together and split the other team, and always, always look to the next election. This pushes a lot of policy off the table.

One of those factions is fed up enough with that top-down homeostasis model to do something about it. They wanted wins. They started talking about their own coalition leadership as part of the problem in a fractured cable TV and talk radio mediasphere. They’re the captain now.

To get there, they created a heads-I-win tails-you-lose environment. Either they get the policy they want or they create political circumstances that drive more power to them through either co-opting their adversaries or replacing them.

The thing is, they’re not wrong about the weakness of democratic process in the chamber. The Speaker has agenda setting power through the Rules and Steering Committees, which were intended to prevent any restoration of the old committee bosses. Leadership dictates what hits the floor and what languishes in legislative limbo. Speaking institutionally, the hardline conservative faction and old Democratic reformers have more in common than is apparent.

It is only the narrowness of the Speakership and the availability of the motion to vacate that gave rank and file members narrow, but significant leverage to make their voices heard. And they were organized and willing to act.

Still, it came as a surprise that McCarthy’s fellow members of the leadership coterie didn’t act to protect the office, if not the office holder. It seems that McCarthy dug so deeply into partisanship for political cover that Democrats saw absolutely no upside in helping him out. He did himself no favors by undermining any trust in his word and appalling Democrats by denying the validity of Biden’s election, soft pedaling January 6th, and reviving the political fortunes of its key instigator.

Although he’s right that it was Democrats that were a key player in disrupting this era of House institutional control — as were the hardliners he cozied up to — McCarthy’s overplaying of the strong partisan Speaker hand without creating an exit plan for when the hardliners played their Trump card brought it to this transition point. The Young Gun era has ended.

WHAT’S NEXT

The governing coalition operating under the label “Republican” now will try to reset their collective agenda and how leadership will achieve it. You don’t have to agree with our working premise of a proto-multiparty system existing in this House to understand this is a normal thing for party elites to do. Every single Republican in Congress today owes his or her seat to similar internecine battles of the 1970s that birthed the New Right and the 1990s that helped usher forth the Gingrich “revolution.” The House looks “dysfunctional” right now, but it’s really just having a messy but normal argument.

That internal argument, going on since the midterms, really is about tactics more than substance. The side that wanted power, and also a more aggressive unraveling of the welfare state and stronger protection of Trump, insisted in January on institutional changes that altered the way the House functioned to their benefit. The hardline minority faction got an oversized share of the Rules and Steering Committees. Leadership not “holding the line” on spending now came at a cost — your head. Whatever emerges in the coming weeks may reshape the rules and structures of the House further.

Much of the Hill press coverage is descending into the typical horse race narrative as contenders line up to win the gavel. This type of coverage effectively enshrines the strong leadership model of chamber organization: In fact, that’s the business model of several outlets to cater to it. The focus on a few office suites subsumed the story of factional split and ensuing institutional change that has been building since the Tea Party first entered Congress.

We don’t mean to suggest there will be qualitative differences if Rep. Jim Jordan or Rep. Steve Scalise or whomever becomes Speaker. It’s equally possible that Acting Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry remains in the role through the rest of the Congress (more on that role below) and the House has to fly more or less on autopilot. The winner, however, is not the only person with agency in the post-MTV moment as the horse race narrative will indicate — if only members are smart enough to hold on to their leverage, and thus their relevance.

THE OPTIONS

We think it’s a safe bet that if Reps. Scalise or Jordan are elected, a lengthy government shutdown will ensue. It’s also much more likely that the nation will default on the national debt next winter. Absolutely nothing else will get done. A healthy majority of members in both parties don’t want those outcomes. Members in this group may not agree on much of anything in terms of policy, but they understand the significant economic, social, and governing impact a shutdown would have.

In this context, that’s enough in theory to hold a limited “fund America” coalition together. Members don’t have to agree on another single thing in terms of policy. This is their time to use their leverage in the Speaker election to secure what helps them politically, starting with guarantees of a clean long term CR based on the Senate’s package — which, after all, is the deal McCarthy agreed to on their behalf.

The non-hardline members would have to be insane to get rid of the motion to vacate just as a more hardline Speaker comes to the fore. But they’re likely afraid to stand and be counted, which is why we are seeing some efforts to raise the threshold by which the Republican conference chooses a Speaker.

The apparent, glorious collapse of the Problem Solvers Caucus is a signal that policy disagreement actually isn’t what’s driving congressional “dysfunction:” It’s the inability procedurally for the rank and file to push areas of agreement forward for floor votes when they don’t service leadership’s priorities. If the new leadership will pursue only unrelenting total war with the Biden administration, Trump restoration, and government shutdowns, members who want to actually govern have this moment to take action. They can take a page from the hardline faction playbook and hold out for procedural reforms that empower more members to participate in the legislative process.

The point here is while the rest of Washington waits to see who ascends to the Speaker’s chair, members should be discussing and organizing to act on what it is they want and what is in their best political interests. We think further devolution of leadership power is critical to the survival of the non-hardline faction of House Republicans, who must navigate a coalition defined by unwavering loyalty to an agenda of score-settling. Better positioning their faction to govern would be more productive than settling the score with Matt Gaetz. It’s also in the interests of a number of Democratic factions currently locked out of many conversations.

But for them to get there, it’s likely going to take a crisis. A big one. Like a months-long government shutdown. There’s a huge trust deficit among rank-and-file members, one engineered by both parties’ leadership for decades, and it may take time before the pressure to do something overcomes their habituated response of falling in line.

(The current situation in Israel is not such a crisis, and is being cynically manipulated to short circuit the debate over the redistribution of power.)

REGARDING McHENRY

Until the House selects a new Speaker, if it manages to do so at all, Patrick McHenry remains in a role that has not existed prior to last week. It was created in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks to allow for someone to preside over the process of selecting a new Speaker mid-Congress if the sitting one is killed. Rule I, Clause 8(b)(3) installs the next person on a secret list to become acting Speaker pro tempore, who “may exercise such authorities of the Office of Speaker as may be necessary and appropriate to that end.”

But what does that mean? Thinking in the context of the post-9/11 continuity of Congress challenge, does this person facilitate getting the institution back on its feet, or is he/her a substitute Speaker to keep the chamber relatively functional during a dire crisis? The needs of a disaster-recovery situation that activates this rule probably would dictate how narrowly or broadly it would be interpreted in such a case. What we have here is something rather different.

Rules Committee Ranking Member Jim McGovern is accurately describing a very narrow interpretation of the rule. His staff put out guidance that “the acting Speaker pro tempore is empowered solely to act in a ministerial capacity to facilitate the election of a new Speaker or Speaker pro tempore.” (emphasis in original) Democrats are arguing that the position is a little more admin work than what the Clerk of the House does at the start of a new Congress.

Congressional experts Matt Glassman and Molly Reynolds see more elasticity in the role, with McHenry’s choices strongly setting the norms for the position on the fly. The consensus, however, appears to be that the current rules only provide for a narrow role.

McHenry’s choices, naturally, are hemmed in by the novel politics of the situation. He’s assumed the mantle of the Speaker’s control of House office space, kicking both Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer out of quasi-official hideaways as an expression of McCarthy allies’ anger with Democrats. But he has announced that he will not refer bills to committees nor take up legislation before the Speaker’s election. If the House wants to do more, it can elect a Speaker pro tempore or operate under its rules by taking up resolutions directing the chamber to act in a certain way.

OPPORTUNITY IN CRISIS

If the hardline faction succeeds in replacing McCarthy with a new Speaker without any changes to chamber rules — or further empowers the Speaker by reducing or eliminating the motion to vacate — this next era in congressional control will begin with the Speaker using all the powers of the office to impose the political will of a minoritarian faction.

It’s a vision of permanent crisis. Some accelerationist intent may be at play as members create a scenario where a strongman is required to cut through manufactured congressional paralysis. That prospect is why we have been so insistent that members act in their best interests, outside of their comfort zones, and restore some semblance of majority rule. This would be done through a reformed governing coalition that isolates the bad actors, reinforced through the necessary rules changes.

It’s very plausible instead that the hardline faction hostage taking never accomplishes its policy goals, besides anarchy, and any future instance of divided government returns us to permanent crisis mode. The public may quickly tire of the situation, but the inherent structural advantages Republicans currently enjoy in our electoral system will keep it competitive, even as it’s bodysnatched by the hardliners. It’s a path toward incredibly costly political stalemate.

Either scenario could generate the kind of systemic reevaluation of the Legislative branch that frankly is long overdue. Geographically-defined districts mean any electoral reforms that provide voters with more choices do nothing to change the fundamental malapportionment problem between urban and rural voters that allow for minoritarian rule and vetocracy. Perhaps some constitutional redrafting, limited to the Legislative branch, could develop out of the endless frustration and evident national decline. How’s that for optimism bordering on naïveté?

Speaking of optimism, we would be remiss if we did not mention Hakeem Jeffries’ Washington Post op-ed proposing a bipartisan coalition. Here’s his proposal:

“The House should be restructured to promote governance by consensus and facilitate up-or-down votes on bills that have strong bipartisan support. Under the current procedural landscape, a small handful of extreme members on the Rules Committee or in the House Republican conference can prevent common-sense legislation from ever seeing the light of day. That must change — perhaps in a manner consistent with bipartisan recommendations from the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.”

We suspect that most Republicans will view this as grandstanding and that any real effort to negotiate should be done quietly. Maybe so. But it’s obvious that Republicans and Democrats like to see the worst in each other, which leads to a political death spiral.

The savvier move for Republicans would be to examine the proposal from the perspective of enlightened self-interest. Is there a deal to be struck that empowers members and committees and actually provides a political advantage arising from working constructively with your made-for-tv political adversaries?

What about rules changes that are a bit wonky, like allowing committees to move their legislation onto the floor, fixing how committees report bills so they require more buy-in, allowing members to work together through LSOs, and fixing discharge petitions so they are more practical?

House Rules Committee Chair and Appropriations Committee Chair Tom Cole was reported saying, in effect, “Republicans are free to step back from the deep appropriations cuts dictated by McCarthy’s backroom deal with the far right last June.” Read the Politico article, where his direct quote is that the agreement “now in a sense [doesn’t] exist at all because McCarthy isn’t the speaker anymore.”

That statement by Rep. Cole is huge. It’s a path forward that prevents a government shutdown. And, as Matt Glassman points out, the House can act without a Speaker. (Or maybe it could appoint Cole as Speaker for 30 days with authority limited to moving the appropriations bills at the levels agreed to with Biden.)

We think there’s a zone of agreement possible, where just about everyone wins. There are ways to prioritize collaboration over chaos. But, we suspect, the chaos must get worse before people are willing to take a risk on a way out.

ODDS AND ENDS

The House did not adopt any amendments to the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill last week except for blocking the Member COLA.

Federal agencies can sign up and begin submitting their congressionally mandated reports on the GPO’s website.

The Capitol Police were found to have discriminated against “Juan Cobbin, African American, when it transferred him out of the USCP’s K-9 Division and replaced him as K-9 training supervisor with a white officer with objectively inferior qualifications.” Read the OCWR’s opinion.

EVENTS CALENDAR

Congressional Committee Calendar

The Senate is in recess and the House is largely non-operational while it figures out how to select a Speaker.

Former Rep. Rodney Davis speaks on the path ahead for governing in the House on Wednesday from 9-10. More info.

First Branch Forecast for October 2, 2023: CR-azy week

TOP LINE

What a CR-azy week. In many respects it is the natural result of the rules package agreed to at the start of the 118th Congress, the inability of the 117th Congress to enact key reforms, the rise of Trumpism, the return of the strong Speaker model in the 80s-90s, and a Constitutional framework that creates perverse disincentives for lawmakers. Don’t worry, we won’t talk about all of that.

Because of the timing of the House’s passage of the CR on suspension(!), 335-91, we will just make a few quick points. (This measure sailed through the Senate a few hours before midnight.)

First, note that House Republicans did not follow the 72-hour rule and gave Dems fewer than 30 minutes to read the bill, raising real concerns about whether something’s getting snuck past the goalie. (Like a new submarine! And member COLAs!) While it was a politics-created emergency, this points to the need for more time, better policy support, and better technology so people know what they’re voting on.

Second, on the COLAs issue, we are not a fan of arguments that a bill should go down because it allows members to get a COLA. Member pay is down something like $50K in real terms over the last quarter-century, and we don’t want a chamber where you can only serve if you’re wealthy. Better pay is an anti-corruption measure.

Third, we note how hard it is to find the text of the CR, which popped up on the docs.house.gov floor page. This is a fine place to publish information, but most people playing at home would be looking at Congress.gov, which is going to have the bill waaaay after-the-fact. The reason the Clerk’s website exists is because the Library was unwilling to play ball with the House for more realtime information a decade ago. It’s time to get that fixed. The most timely information should be available on Congress.gov, which is where most people look.

Finally, Speaker McCarthy used the suspension of the rules as a way of getting around his own Rules Committee and the hardline Republicans. We will see what kind of retribution they will try to bring. Rep. Gaetz said over the weekend he’s going to force a vote to remove McCarthy. And (some?) Republicans are apparently planning on using the Ethics Committee investigation as a vehicle to expel Gaetz.

We cover below the seismic shifts in the Senate. We run through the impact of a shutdown on the institution. Also how members should be thinking about reconstituting the House to prevent further damage from a faction intent on bending the chamber to its will.

There’s good news, too. We cover a smart House Admin hearing into the Government Accountability Office and an otherwise unnoticed CHA markup. We touch upon the departure of the unlamented USCP IG.

We’re not going to touch the failures of all those other CRs and approps bills in the House and Senate. They appear to be artifacts of a failing process attributable to how the Congress is reshaping its party/faction system, and there’s lots of coverage of the tick tock elsewhere.

This week, the House will continue to work through a scheduled recess. The Senate is in session as well. House leadership drafted this calendar for appropriations bills, starting with the Legislative Branch. The Rules Committee will take it up on Monday at 4 PM ET.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for October 2, 2023: CR-azy week”

First Branch Forecast for September 25, 2023: A Solution to Stop the Shutdown

TOP LINE

This week will be monumental for Congress not only because of whatever outcome arises from the deadline to fund the government, but also the institutional impact of the ways the factional politics play out in getting there. Although it is the hard-right members of the House urging each other to hold the line on spending, it is the much larger faction of “middle-of-the-road” Republicans, and their potential Democratic partners, that must stand firm in the face of this minoritarian power play.

Meanwhile, there’s also much to say about the state of congressional security both in terms of what members are spending on their own to achieve it and how the US Capitol Police allocates its ample resources. Efforts to modernize the House also continue to make progress on several fronts.

This week both chambers return to work Tuesday after Yom Kippur. There is much to atone for.

The Modernization Subcommittee of House Administration will hold a hearing on modernizing the GAO on Wednesday. Thursday, the House Oversight Committee is scheduled to start its inquiry into impeaching President Biden. As for what happens in the House Rules Committee, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

A TIME FOR CHOOSING

We have thought from the start that the most productive way to understand how the House of Representatives in the 118th Congress operates is as a governing coalition, not a simple Republican majority. Far-right conservatives started preparing for this Congress with exactly that language and used the leverage available during the selection of a Speaker to maximize their faction’s position. They’ve followed that playbook ever since, extracting concession after concession out of that Speaker as a cost of maintaining the governing coalition, knowing they can back out at any time.

Having brought the nation to the precipice of default on its debt, that faction now holds Congress at the edge of shutting down the federal government. Finding a resolution to their demands to avoid one through regular appropriations is quite impossible, let alone in one week, and they’ve declared a continuing resolution dead on arrival.

Political observers and other Republicans in Congress are quick to point out that the political consequences of shutdowns typically have been bad for the party and inconsequential to spending reductions. Members, including those in leadership, are critical of the far-right factions’ showboating.

The spectacle, unfortunately, is entirely the point. This faction’s ascendence is deeply tied to the Trumpist core of the Republican base. A shutdown demonstrates their ideological purity and political dominance over the Speaker of the House — a position we’ve all become so accustomed to seeing as all powerful.

Any eventual resolution that requires Democratic votes, meanwhile, enables the faction to expand its numbers by supporting primary opponents of more traditional republicans in safe districts. Ken Buck, for instance, has become the new Liz Cheney.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for September 25, 2023: A Solution to Stop the Shutdown”

First Branch Forecast for September 18, 2023: The Ladder of Chaos

TOP LINE

Happy belated Constitution Day to those who celebrate.

This week both chambers are in session Monday through Thursday, with the Senate remaining so Friday. The House has scheduled some sort of continuing resolution vote for Wednesday or later that contains greater than 8% cuts below FY 2023 levels and authorization text on immigration and border-related stuff. It’s a nonstarter in the Senate and with the White House, the only question is whether it even passes the House.

The House Republican Steering Committeewill vote onMondayto fill the vacant seat on the Appropriations Committee.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will visit the Capitol. We see an all senator meeting is scheduled for Thursday.

Deeper in the newsletter we have a recap of the Congressional Hackathon 5.0 and the Library of Congress forum on Congress.gov.

Personal safety of those on the Hill is top of mind this week. In light of the increased visibility of property and violent crime in the District, CHA is hosting a security briefing for members and staff at 10 AM Monday in 1310 Longworth. Email this link to reserve a spot.

CHA’s Oversight Subcommittee also will hold a hearing ostensibly to assess the security failures that allowed the January 6th insurrection to breach the Capitol on Tuesday. The witness will be Steven Sund, who was chief of the US Capitol Police during the insurrection. Sund has attempted to shift the blame for the successful sacking of the Capitol by arguing that Nancy Pelosi’s resistance to prestaging the National Guard in anticipation of the election certification on January 6 shaped the Capitol Police Board’s decision to deny his request for their deployment on January 3. As we all know, Sund didn’t deploy his own resources adequately in light of incoming intelligence.

Hopefully soon, House Admin will return to issues raised in July’s astonishing hearing when the department’s inspector general explained his lack of independence in releasing his department’s reports and the agency’s habit of marking recommendations related to January 6 as complete even when they are not actually complete. Rep. Barry Loudermilk asked IG Ron Russo to follow up on how the office defines “complete” during that hearing, and we look forward to the answer.

After that hearing, our colleague Taylor Swift authored a comprehensive look at US Capitol Police compliance with post-January 6 congressional directives and completion of GAO recommendations. On many of these directives, it’s not possible to determine the status of progress with the information that’s available to the public. Although the department has completed some directives focused on officer wellness and workplace climate, it has failed to begin work on others and most GAO recommendations.

Related Resources: In light of Tuesday’s CHA’s Oversight Subcmte hearing on January 6 security failures, revisit our report on US Capitol Police compliance with post-Jan 6 congressional directives and completion of GAO recommendations.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for September 18, 2023: The Ladder of Chaos”

First Branch Forecast for September 11, 2023: Hackathon and HH Thursday

TOP LINE

Welcome back to the mess that is the appropriations process. We’re also considering this week how the Senate’s rules contribute to much of the action at the top of the news as Congress returns from recess.

This week, the Senate is in session Monday through Thursday. The House returns from its recess on Tuesday and remains in session through Friday.

The House is scheduled to start consideration of the Defense Appropriations bill on the floor on Wednesday. The Rules Committee will meet on Tuesday to consider that bill and we see 339 amendments on deck. We do not see the Homeland Security Appropriation bills lined up in the people’s chamber this week. Amendments to the Homeland Security package were due last week and Republican members made ample use of the Holman Rule, targeting 12 DHS officials.

The Senate, meanwhile, is moving forward separately, beginning floor consideration of a MilCon-VA, Agriculture, and Transportation-HUD minibus Monday.

Several important events are happening on the Hill this week, too: Monday, POPVOX Foundation will host its Internapalooza event for fall interns. A variety of folks from civil society groups, including our Taylor Swift, will participate. On Wednesday, the Library of Congress will host a public forum on improving Congress.gov. Thursday marks the return of the Congressional Hackathon (with a happy hour afterward).

Speaking of a different kind of hack, don’t forget to update your iOS if you use an Apple device to close a security gap.

ANOTHER FINE MESS

We’re pretty pessimistic at the moment about the House, Senate, and White House finding a way out of the appropriations muddle before the end of the fiscal year. The dynamics that nearly precipitated default on the national debt remain in place and the deal to break that crisis did not attempt to address them. The Senate is attempting to jam a group of House holdouts whose demands continually change.

Although it’s tempting to bemoan the unique dysfunction of this current Congress, the truth is the modern appropriations process has been a mess for our entire lifetimes. Since FY 1977, only four times has Congress enacted all appropriations bills before October 1 – the most recent being 27 years ago. It has enacted an average of a single bill on time since then.

It’s a signal that the current system in place provides too many incentives to break it and that the only current forcing mechanism — the fiscal year deadline — is insufficient to compel any adherence to the process as conceived. Perhaps no other activity that Congress regularly engages in reveals the state of institutional decay present.

Something structurally needs to change. Unfortunately, reform ideas being bandied about at the moment don’t rise to that level. Rep. Donald Beyer and Sen. Tim Kaine last week introduced a bill similar to one introduced in January in the Senate that would generate an automatic continuing resolution if Congress failed to enact spending bills by October 1. GAO actually looked at this idea back in 1986 and concluded that it would disincentivize Congress to take concrete action, forcing agencies to operate under temporary funding over long periods of time. It also may lock in funding levels that were not based on real-world spending needs and provide a preference for the status quo. Changing members’ incentives to encourage more inaction is not what Congress needs more of at the moment.

Another proposal to shift to biennial budgeting doesn’t make sense in a world that has expensive contingencies like armed conflict and natural disasters. Nor does it solve the underlying problem. It also would scramble the agenda-setting power of the presidency during a four-year term, which Congress does enough of already.

More comprehensive appropriations reform deserves discussion on Capitol Hill, particularly to iron out veto points, make it more solidly majoritarian, and align with proper oversight and evaluation of federal programs.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for September 11, 2023: Hackathon and HH Thursday”

First Branch Forecast for September 5, 2023: Back to work

TOP LINE

The political and institutional dynamics that have defined the 118th Congress are building to a crescendo as recess comes to an end and the new fiscal year looms. This week we consider:

  • How the far-right faction of the House GOP continues to maneuver successfully because of the procedural landscape it shaped at the start.
  • The continuing challenge of managing members’ health in the absence of contingency plans and impediments to elderly members’ retirements.
  • The full legacy of a retiring CRS legend.
  • Some wacky stuff going on with bill engrossment and redactions.

This week the Senate returns. Although the House is still in recess until September 12, the Rules Committee is gearing up to move the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill (H.R. 4367) to the floor and has set a deadline for the submission of amendments at noon Wednesday of this week. The Rules Committee is also getting ready for a possible meeting the week of September 18th to consider the State-Foreign Ops Approps bill and set this Friday as the deadline to submit amendments.

Leg branch data for the last 30 years. We have gone through all of the Legislative Branch spending bills for the last thirty years and lined up the spending items in a downloadable spreadsheet. The line item spreadsheet has sections for the House, Senate, and agencies, as well as tabs that adjust funding for inflation, allowing readers to see how spending on each line item has changed since 1994 in both constant and real dollars.

SEPTEMBER SLOG

The House returns next week with leadership and some members divided on the desirability of a federal government shutdown with a dozen working days to go. Speaker Kevin McCarthy tried out a new argument with the holdouts during recess, claiming that a shutdown would impinge the House’s ability to begin impeachment proceedings against President Biden – which nobody seems to have bought.

The decision to resurrect the Holman Rule at the start of the 118th Congress has given those whose political interests align with the shutdown additional bandwidth to garner attention and slow the works. Three members – Reps. Paul Gosar, Majorie Taylor Greene, and Anna Paulina Luna – have proposed invoking it to cut the pay of Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Air Force Major General Troy Dunn, respectively, to $1. Taylor Greene also wants to make a Price is Right bid (RIP, Bob Barker) on Special Counsel Jack Smith’s salary as he prosecutes former President Donald Trump.

The first skirmish of this intraparty funding battle may come if/when the Appropriations Committee considers one of the two bills it has remaining, the Commerce-Justice-Science package. Committee member Andrew Clyde announced last week that he will offer amendments to the Justice package to defund the offices prosecuting former President Trump and to cut money to the Fulton County district attorney. This may preview the type of amendment process that awaits on the floor if rules, as promised, remain even limitedly open.

The MAGA and anti-statist Republicans continue to hold leverage in this process because House rules granted them more power in January and because, particularly for someone like Taylor Greene, the ability to play to the small-donor audience through partisan media allows her to compete with business-funded members. They have considerable negative agenda setting power and continue to extract more and more from Speaker McCarthy as he backpedals to hold onto his gavel. The populist conservative faction understands there are still opportunities for McCarthy and the Senate to squeeze them and are using the fiscal year deadline to squeeze back. It is legitimate for members to push to assert their prerogatives to set the agenda, just as leadership has done for decades, even if we do not welcome the outcome. Members of other factions must find a way to adapt without over-relying on leadership, but they’re still not there.

Simply put, the populist faction has no reason to stop because they’ll keep getting slices of what they want, which, terrifyingly for democracy, looks more and more aligned with a Trump Restoration. They’ve already pushed McCarthy into the impeachment camp. If he stiffens, they can replace him with someone more amenable.

As we’ve been saying since last fall, this faction has figured out how to change the game with House leadership with the tools available to anyone willing to stick together and try. They’ve bet on themselves in thinking that none of these fiscal gambits will harm them politically and that they can cut to the front of the line and govern alongside Trump in 2025. We might not like their odds, but it’s hardly a lottery ticket.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for September 5, 2023: Back to work”

30 Years of Legislative Branch Appropriations: Data Spanning from 1994-2023 All In One Place

Each year, Congress allocates funding for the Legislative Branch entities through the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee. The Legislative Branch Appropriations bills direct congressional spending, line item by line item — but the instructions are not published as data and can run for dozens of pages, making it very difficult to see how appropriations spending has changed over the decades.

We have gone through all of the Legislative Branch spending bills for the last thirty years and lined up the spending items in a downloadable spreadsheet. The line item spreadsheet has sections for the House, Senate, and agencies, as well as tabs that adjust funding for inflation, allowing readers to see how spending on each line item has changed since 1994 in both constant and real dollars. 

Questions, comments, concerns? Reach out to Taylor@demandprogres.org

First Branch Forecast for August 28, 2023: One more week

TOP LINE

With only 12 working days after recess to avert a federal government shutdown, the interfactional dynamics of the House remain unchanged. Last week, the House Freedom Caucus once again saber-rattled about a government shutdown and declared their objection to being jammed in December.

The Senate also has conceded that this year’s farm bill will be late, too, pushing another significant legislative lift into the end-of-year scramble.

Meanwhile, House leadership is talking about the top priority when work resumes: impeachment.

Interested in offering an amendment to the House NDAA? Surprise: the deadline is August 30th.

What’s below:

  • The intersection of committee appointments and political power
  • A week focused on congressional technology
  • Ethics in Congress and the courts
  • The legacies of J6

WHO’S THE BOSS

Appropriations race. A bunch of Republican freshmen are chasing the soon-to-be-vacant appropriations seat of Rep. Chris Stewart, who is retiring from Congress on September 15. Also affected are Stewart’s seats on the Intel Committee and Judiciary Committees. Putting aside the Intel Committee spot, which is chosen by the Speaker but IMHO should not be, the process of how members get chosen to serve on committees is an incredibly important, fascinating, and hidden lever of power.

House Republicans are slightly more transparent than Democrats on this issue, publishing their list of Steering Committee members and the rules of their conference. House Democrats, by comparison, are publishing the rules of their caucus but have not publicly published their Steering and Policy Committee members. (We’ve previously looked at the question of who serves on the steering committee.) Incidentally, according to the House Democratic Caucus rules, there’s a separate set of rules for their steering and policy committee that are supposed to be in writing (see Caucus Rules 10(b)), but no one we’ve spoken with has ever seen those rules. We have begun to wonder whether they exist or are adhered to.

In the Senate, Democrats have published their conference rules here and listed the steering and outreach committee members here. Republicans, who historically have been on top of this, have apparently not re-upped publication of their conference rules — here’s what they had for the 117th — and I don’t know where to find a list of members of their Committee on Committees.

At least in the House, and especially for the Democrats, the steering committees are weighted towards leadership control, who get extra votes and name many members of the steering committee itself. It wasn’t always this way, in fact, at times leadership was largely locked out of the selection process. In the modern era, the Democratic Leader has obtained major control over this process. The Republican Leader, too, has significant control.

Political power in Congress rests on three legs: appointment to committees, control of the floor, and political fundraising. The story of how party leadership emerged and took control of these tools to aggregate and retain power is a fascinating one. (If you’re interested, Galloway’s History of the House of Representatives is a good, book-length place to start.) We have significant concerns that the over-centralization of power in the hands of a few people in the House is making it more unstable and less productive, which is why our sister organization Demand Progress released reports that recommend how to modernize those rules.

Both the chamber and the caucus/conference rules put limitations on who can serve on the various committees. The chamber rules have a light touch, but will say, for example, that committee membership must include someone who sits on another committee. The House routinely waives these requirements. The caucus/conference rules have additional restrictions and lay out a process by which people can self-nominate. The party will balance various factors, such as geographic diversity, seniority, and so on.

The caucus/conference rules are often waived and modified to serve the needs of leadership. They’re used as a discipline tool through which leadership punishes members who don’t toe the line. That’s often couched in terms of a member being in violation of some rule, but the rules in our time reflect the prerogatives of leadership to an extent that is unhealthy.

Naming Stewart’s replacement may rekindle Republicans’ discussion about the conference’s current term limit rules. The Huddle reported that the group may revisit the current rule of three terms as either chair or ranking member when naming Stewart’s successor because a number of current committee chairs would hit the limit after this Congress and would require a waiver to remain. This issue emerged when Rep. Virginia Foxx requested a waiver in January to remain Chair of the HELP committee. Holding firm on the current rules, of course, would benefit less senior members.

At times, what’s really happening with appointments is a fight between the different political factions within the party over whose allies get to serve in powerful positions. This is not necessarily an ideological fight, but rather that members of senior leadership have their own networks and seek to install their friends. Interestingly, the folks who hold senior leadership positions inside the party are often political rivals, although that’s papered over for public consumption. These networks are revealed to the extent you can figure out which members voted for which candidates for a committee, whether in the steering committee or a vote of the entire caucus/conference.

It’s notable that more junior members of the Republican caucus have been the most willing to organize to push back on leadership dominance, meaning reconsideration of chair/ranking term rules would create ripples within the broader dynamics of the caucus. Anyway, it’s interesting to see this process play out with respect to filling the vacant spot on appropriations, which is one of the few places a member can actually move any legislative ideas.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for August 28, 2023: One more week”