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Continuity of Congress: A Timeline of Remote Deliberations and Voting

Congress has been mostly absent as the country fights against the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic began, many lawmakers, outside organizations, and former Members of Congress encouraged the legislative branch to instantiate remote deliberations and voting measures in the event of an emergency. 

The following is a timeline of many of the recent key events concerning Continuity of Congress during a pandemic. More information can be found at continuityofcongress.org

Continue reading “Continuity of Congress: A Timeline of Remote Deliberations and Voting”

June Update: Legislative Branch FY2020 Appropriations Items Due Dates

Late last year, Congress passed the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill for FY 2020, starting the clock on dozens of Leg. Branch projects and reports across several legislative agencies. 

In January, our team reviewed requests from the Leg. Branch approps bill, broke them down by entity, and organized each of the deadlines. All requests are organized in a comprehensive spreadsheet that can be accessed here.

At the beginning of every month, our team provides updates of what items are due from the Leg. Branch appropriations bill, broken down by entity. Our previous installments include due dates for March and April (May had zero items to report). Each article also includes which items were due during the previous month at the end of the post. 

Expected This Month

Below are the three items that are expected in June 2020:

Continue reading “June Update: Legislative Branch FY2020 Appropriations Items Due Dates”

Forecast for May 26, 2020

THE TOP LINE

The Senate is out for Memorial Day recess; the House will be in for votes tomorrow and Thursday. (Yes, today is Tuesday. Welcome back.)

Speaker Pelosi triggered a 45-day emergency period for remote committee and floor deliberations on May 20th; we calculate the end-date as July 4th, unless it is extended. Members can opt to vote by proxy or in person; proxy designations are here. Hopefully the House will quickly move to remote floor voting; we’re tracking everything here. Cheers to retiring Rep. Rooney for endorsing remote deliberations.

The House will vote on the domestic-surveillance bill known as the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act, with leadership reportedly agreeing late on Friday to allow consideration of an amendment to require the FBI obtain a warrant prior to searching an American’s Internet search and browser histories. This is an interesting instance where rank-and-file pressure re-opened a bill that leadership had previously jammed through without a markup or amendments.

Senator McConnell is attacking the House for proxy voting, suggesting (at least in POLITICO’s summary) that he wouldn’t take up House bills enacted this way. Given that the Senate wasn’t taking up House bills anyway; that the Senate is in recess while the House is at work; that some senators stand accused of violating the STOCK Act; that appropriations bills originate in the House; and the pace of Senate public-facing activity has slowed to a crawl; this seems more like an effort at distraction than a serious charge; perhaps he should focus on the Senate.

House Dems intro’d a bill to protect Inspectors General from arbitrary removal, with some prominent Democratic sponsors. The Project on Government Oversight’s Executive Dir. explained why protecting IGs is important (and what else should be done) in this op-ed. WaPo takes a look at Sen. Grassley, who historically has defended IGs, and POLITICO describes how unitary executive theory — the extreme political view that the president controls everyone in the executive branch — is being used to undermine IG independence.

We’ve added new international resources to our twitterbot @OpenAtAGlance, which tweets primary sources on legislative operations + actions.

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Continue reading “Forecast for May 26, 2020”

Forecast for May 18, 2020

What a week. On Friday, the House adopted a remote voting resolution (H. Res. 965) that provides for proxy voting on the floor, remote committee hearings, and creates a pathway for remote voting on the floor and remote mark-ups in committees. In other words, the House can function for the foreseeable future despite the COVID-19 pandemic, creating the possibility of a legislative check on the executive branch. The Senate, meanwhile, continues to play Russian roulette with its members, staff, and the ability of that chamber to function.

Just a few months ago, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader McConnell spoke out in opposition to remote deliberations, and Minority Leader McCarthy denounced it from the House floor. It is unusual, to say the least, for a rules change to pass over the opposition of the leaders of both parties in the House, but intense political pressure and the political reality prompted Speaker Pelosi to do a 180, and she put her own stamp on the rule to protect (and possibly aggrandize) her power vis-a-vis the rank-and-file. (Full disclosure: we support remote voting.) The final vote was partisan, but I suspect many House Republicans welcome the move to keep the House functioning even if they wish it had come about differently.

When the House comes back on May 27th, it will vote on a surveillance reauthorization bill, which will be the first major legislation voted by proxy in the House. What’s notable about the Orwellian-named “USA Freedom Reauthorization Act” is (1) the underlying law stayed lapsed in part because of no remote deliberations; (2) the bill was recently amended in the Senate to allow outside experts to weigh in on FBI surveillance requests, and (3) that an amendment failed 59-37 to prohibit the government from warrantlessly-surveilling your website browsing information and search history, but two of the absent Senators would have voted for it had, say, remote voting been in place. Will Speaker Pelosi — who is a hard-liner for national security issues trumping civil liberties — allow the House to consider a pro civil-liberties amendment that has 60+ votes in the Senate? If she does not, what mechanisms are available to House members in a proxy-voting environment to force a vote on that amendment? How do the new processes affect their leverage?

Continue reading “Forecast for May 18, 2020”

Initial Thoughts on the House’s Remote Deliberation Resolution

This morning, House Rules Committee Democrats introduced a resolution (H. Res 965) that would provide for some remote deliberations for House committees and on the floor. Accompanying that resolution was a Dear Colleague from the Rules Committee that explains how the resolution would work, a one-page explainer, and a statement from the Democratic members of the Virtual Task Force on the resolution.

In short, the resolution:

  • Provides for proxy voting on the House floor, which would be turned on, extended, and turned off at the direction of the House Speaker. Members would send a letter to the House Clerk to designate their proxy, and no such designee can cast more than 10 proxy votes. The Clerk would publish the proxy designation on its website. The proxy is revocable, and must provide specific direction as to how to vote. Members voting by proxy would count towards a quorum.
  • Provides a mechanism for the Chair of the House Administration Committee (in consultation with the RM) to advise on whether secure technology is available to allow for remote voting on the floor. The Chair of the House Rules Committee would then promulgate regulations to put it into effect (to be published in the Congressional Record), and the Speaker would notify the House that remote voting is now possible. Presumably, the Speaker would be able to choose whether to provide this notice.
  • Provides for remote deliberations for hearings and markups for committees. Many of the details of how this would work have been pushed to the Rules Committee, whose chair (in consultation with the RM) would issue regulations on remote deliberations that would be published in the Congressional Record. To conduct business meetings (which presumably means markups), a majority of Members of the Committee would have to certify they will follow the regulations and that the committee is ready for remote deliberations.

I am still thinking through the implications of this resolution, which will be considered on Thursday before the House Rules Committee and on Friday on the House floor. Generally speaking, it is a welcome step towards restoring the functionality of the House of Representatives during the COVID-19 pandemic. The choice is stark: a remote House or no House, and this belated move will begin to restore the power of the legislative branch, at least in the people’s House.

I have to applaud the Members of the Virtual House Task Force, Reps. Hoyer, McGovern, and Lofgren, who worked hard to find a solution that met the dire circumstances and made efforts to protect minority rights. I am concerned that Republican members of the Task Force (McCarthy, Cole, and Davis) did not support the final product — and I remain concerned about protecting the ability of the minority to be heard — but given the political circumstances, the position of the minority is not surprising. Hopefully additional accommodations can be made to meet the needs of the majority and the minority, leadership and rank-and-file, as regulations to implement this are promulgated.

I have some reactions to the resolution that are worth sharing. I haven’t fully thought this though, but here are some initial reactions:

(1) A lot of eggs are being put in the basket of the regulations that McGovern will promulgate. The strength and weaknesses of those regulations will go a long way to determining whether this is a workable and fair solution.

(2) The resolution does not yet turn on remote committee markups. Rather, they’re pending both McGovern regulations and certification from the committees. I wonder how long this will take and how many committees are ready to act. It seems like some of them are ready to lead.

(3) The power to go to remote proceedings on the floor and in the committees is placed solely in Pelosi’s hands. She can declare, she can extend. Members of the House are non-entities for this purpose. It would have been preferable for the House to have a role in voting to confirm, extend, and cancel these proceedings.

(4) After House Admin issues report on feasibility of remote voting on the floor, McGovern would issue new regulations on how it works, but Pelosi still has to give notice to the House to turn it on. Power is put in the Speaker’s hands (and not shared with the House).

(5) I don’t see anything beyond remote voting and counting for quorum on the House floor. Specifically, I don’t see anything about how members can participate in debate remotely. Is this an omission? An oversight? Something else? What about the ability to make motions, to object, etc.?

(6) There’s no requirements for transparency, which will be issued by McGovern later. This is a big deal, as it has to do with how public and press can see what’s going on. It makes me nervous to turn off the House Committee’s transparency requirements with a TBD in their place.

(7) Committees cannot hold executive session remotely (except for Ethics committee). Will the NDAA be a more open process? What about Intel oversight?

(8) To turn on remote voting on the House floor, it requires: (1) House admin study + certification that operable and secure tech exists; (2) Rules Cmte Chair submitting regulations, published in the congressional record, that provide for implementation of remote voting; (3) Speaker must provide notice to the House before it’s turned on.

9) There’s lots of interesting technology changes/ improvements, some of which are long overdue.

  • Publication of list of proxy voting designees by the Clerk on the website
  • Committee reports may be delivered to the Clerk in electronic form, including views of minority
  • Electronic motions, amendments, measures, and documents is good enough — don’t need it to be printed
  • Don’t need recorded vote records to be available in committee offices
  • Oath can be given remotely
  • Subpoenas can be signed by electronic signature and attested by the Clerk by electronic signature
  • Can do subpoenas both for hearings and for depositions

There’s a lot more the House should and could be doing from a technology perspective. Unfortunately, the HEROES Act (i.e., CARES 2.0) does not provide for technological modernization in the legislative branch, and it’s likely that there will be no money available through the legislative branch appropriations process. This is a huge missed opportunity that could undermine the ability of the House to modernize in the way that’s necessary to meet this challenge.

Remote Deliberations: Terms of the Trade

Congress is beginning to innovate around how it deliberates in committees and on the floor. These changes are driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made in-person meetings unsafe and unwise, although many of the proposed modifications require rules changes. We have seen various terms used to refer to how Congress could deliberate — e.g. remote hearings, virtual hearings, remote voting, etc. — but they are used inconsistently.

Here are our proposals to add some meat to these terms. 

Continue reading “Remote Deliberations: Terms of the Trade”