83 Organizations Join Demand Progress Action and the Fred T. Korematsu Institute to Support Passage of Legislative Package Honoring World War II-Era Civil Rights Hero Fred Korematsu Who Fought Against US Concentration Camps

Demand Progress Action and the Fred T. Korematsu Institute led a coalition of 85 civil society organizations to call on Congress to support a new bicameral legislative package introduced today by Senators Hirono and Duckworth and Reps. Takano and Tokuda that recognizes civil rights hero Fred Korematsu for his activism against US incarceration of American citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps during World War II. 

“The legislation introduced by Senators Hirono and Duckworth and Reps. Takano and Tokuda honors the legacy of civil rights hero Fred Korematsu, who bravely challenged our government’s policy of forcing Americans and residents of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps during World War II,” said Hajar Hammado policy advisor of Demand Progress. “As xenophobia, racism, and anti-Asian violence surge in America, it’s critically important to elevate this grim history for all Americans to learn from it and to affirm the liberties that we must always be on guard to protect, just as Fred Korematsu did.”

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First Branch Forecast for January 30, 2023: What’s the clearance?

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TOP LINE

Congress continues to take its sweet time getting organized and down to business, which would include preventing a global financial meltdown via US debt default. The Senate still is working out ratios for committee assignments, while six new Republican senators are jockeying for their preferred assignments. Maybe all of this will be completed by the first month anniversary of the 118th Congress, in time to grind the Senate to a halt again over objections to the Biden Administration’s resistance to sharing classified information.

The House, meanwhile, finally rostered its committees, with Republican leadership following through on the pledge to seat three Freedom Caucus-ish members on the Rules Committee. The House will spend its first few weeks of legislative work granting backbenchers floor votes on messaging bills and tinkering (positively, we admit) with structured open rules. Some members can feel good about gaining precious floor time for things like incredibly regressive and politically comical consumption taxes and condemning 100 years of Marxist dictatorships via spurious Jefferson quotes to play gotcha with Democrats about “socialism.” Nevermind there is still no plan to avoid default.

Ok, there’s this: Republican leadership in the House is considering a clean short-term extension of the federal debt limit to sync it with the end of the fiscal year on September 30 and create even more leverage by having that many more things to hold hostage.

This week the House is in session for votes Monday through Thursday. Now that they have been rostered by both parties, committees will start to hold organizational meetings, starting with a House Rules double-header on Monday. The Senate will try to finalize committee organization. Here’s the committee schedule. Personally speaking, I’m fascinated by committee rules, which in the House have to be adopted at the start of the new Congress, and I wonder whether any members will take the opportunity to protect their rights on the committees in which they serve by pushing for more favorable rules. I’m not holding my breath.

CLASSIFICATION. CLEARANCES. CONGRESS.

As there’s little legislative work to be done, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee wanted to look into what classified documents Presidents Trump and Biden and Vice President Pence had mishandled at their homes to assess potential risks, only to be stonewalled by National Intelligence Director Avril Haines. Senators from both parties were not happy, and Sen. Tom Cotton threatened to block all Administration nominations until the committee was granted access to the same documents available to two special counsels.

Classification has been a recurring issue so far this term. You’ll recall incumbent members of intel-centric committees complained about being kicked out of the SCIF by the House Sergeant at Arms because, in the view of the SAA, they were merely members-elect and thus were not in office and couldn’t be granted access. (We think unsworn members prior to the passage of House rules don’t need clearances and the SAA goofed.) The newly-formed Select Subcommittee on The Weaponization of the Federal Government, meanwhile, will have access to the same classified information as HPSCI and an incredibly broad investigative mandate compared to previous investigatory select committees, allowing it in theory to see the same documents the Department of Justice is accessing in ongoing criminal investigations. We expect the Executive branch will once again play games and try to dictate whether and which committees are allowed to have access to documents, which makes little sense to us.

Three related issues define Congress’s position in the broader classification system. The first is that while Congress can legislate a system of classification, it has chosen not to except concerning nuclear issues, leaving the Executive branch to create a bespoke system by Executive Order. Second, overclassification and up-classification is rampant, a circumstance acknowledged by Director Haines, and the classification system is driven by a combination of CYA, prestige, no incentives to properly classify or declassify, and a desire to block out congressional staff and other possible oversight.

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First Branch Forecast for January 23, 2023: In your debt

TOP LINE

The 118th Congress is currently a consequences-free zone. Members kicked off committees for various antisemitic/conspiratorial/white supremacist statements are back on, while perhaps the most spectacular fabricator in modern congressional history got assignments like it was no big deal. As the Treasury tap dances to postpone default on the national debt, the instigators of the crisis skate via the “both sides“ news coverage that remains inexplicable and inescapable a decade after the last time this happened.

This week the Senate returns to Washington on Monday and the House is back in session starting Tuesday. The House floor calendar is bo-ring. If you ask me, they should publish each week’s schedule at a permanent URL and include that link in their newsletter (just like Hoyer did). Who knows about the Senate floor schedule, as the website is currently down for maintenance.

Swifties will get their day in the Senate Tuesday when the Judiciary Committee holds a hearing into the ticket sales monopoly. There’s no committee proceedings in the House because they’re not organized yet, and we only see announced Senate hearings in the Judiciary committee. The steering committees in both chambers still have more appointments to recommend to fill out the committees.

DEBT LIMIT

Rep. Don Bacon captured the current Beltway dynamics of the debt limit perfectly last week when he told Politico that the Biden Administration’s “initial comment of zero negotiations is a non-starter.” This little turn of doublespeak implies there are two legitimate sides to this crisis and that bipartisan negotiation is the solution. In reality, one side is currently refusing to legitimize what amounts to a hostage taking. In reality, the end of law last Congress had Republicans refusing to lift a single solitary finger to fix this — presumably that’s the counterparty? — but the “both sides” reflex of political reporting ensures that logic won’t get in the way of lazy political tropes beloved by editors.

Hearing his music all the way from Davos, Sen. Joe Manchin suggested that Congress should revive the bipartisan “supercommittee” of 2011 to examine trust fund solvency for several federal programs. Pardon me while I look for the airsickness bag. That effort, which predated the creation of the House Freedom Caucus by four years, surfaced an array of ideas for raising revenue and cutting spending but produced bubkis. Gornisht. Zilch.

Well, even worse than nothing: the supercommittee and subsequent sequester highlights a road that no sane person would ever go down again. Moreover, using the debt ceiling to play thermonuclear hot potato is a level of irresponsible that I lack the words to describe. Sen. Manchin proclaiming that the White House ultimately will have to negotiate its way out of this mess is oil magnate rich given how he and his Davos high-five partner kept us in it — and, given Sen. Sinema’s newly declared independent status, would have constituted a bipartisan agreement that met Sen. Manchin’s previous precondition for a deal.

Being locked into a bipolar narrative of political conflict subsumes the real damage being done to the institution of Congress and American democracy, to say nothing of the damage looming for the economy now that the default clock has started ticking. (When we talk about the economy, it should be understood to mean that nearly all of us are going to get squished when things go south.) The faction forcing the debt crisis is not calling for negotiation like Rep. Bacon: it’s making demands in a tripartite conflict between itself, Democrats, and Republicans. Both political parties are hostages, although one has Stockholm syndrome, and we just watched a few weeks ago as the Freedom Caucus-faction extracted concession after concession in a similar situation. Whatever the Biden Administration could offer would never be enough. But the Republican conference has to keep up the ruse that this is a legitimate and serious policy discussion that can be addressed through negotiation (i.e. one-sided concessions) because it’s what the null faction demands.

As economic foreshocks begin, those who realize that negotiations are actually rope-a-dope will pressure President Biden to take some kind of executive action. Some may call for him to declare unilaterally the illegitimacy of the debt limit. Arguing that two conflicting laws gives the president the option to choose which one to follow is a pathway to unfettered executive power. (That’s bad.) A more legally sound if fanciful-sounding idea would be to mint the trillion-dollar coin, which has the virtue of both solving the problem and being lawful. That approach makes the debt hawks scream because they don’t get to extract their pound of flesh — and also because it’s outside the normal discourse about how to resolve these problems. But, and I’m wincing as I write this, it likely will be the coin of the realm, or in this case, the coin that saves the realm.

So long as Congress is gridlocked — which is a metonym for the fact that it is the Freedom Caucus faction and their conservative Republican allies who view the debt ceiling as an opportunity to mug the Congress — public calls for Biden to act unilaterally (and in some instances extralegally) will grow. Such actions likely would save the global economy, but they reinforce the “Green Lantern” theory of executive power where only a president’s imagination and willpower prevents progress on governing priorities. In a Congress where a political minority holds what is, in effect, an insurmountable veto, people will look for a savior on a white horse, er, in a White House. This is understandable, but it’s a very dangerous game to play with executive branch power and it’s, in part, how we got here in the first place.

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Demand Progress Education Fund, Freedom of Press Foundation Lead 43 Organizations Calling on House to Let C-SPAN Control Cameras on the House Floor

Demand Progress Education Fund and Freedom of the Press Foundation led a broad coalition of press freedom organizations, government accountability and civil liberties organizations, and media outlets in urging House leadership to let C-SPAN have independent control of cameras that broadcast and stream House floor proceedings. 

The group sent a letter today to Speaker McCarthy and Democratic Leader Jeffries endorsed by organizations spanning the ideological spectrum.

“When C-SPAN is able to call its own shots, the American public benefits by getting an authentic and transparent view of how Congress functions and the mood of the chamber,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress Education Fund. “We can see what really happens on the House floor, such as unexpected bipartisan negotiations like when Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Gosar had a one-on-one conversation during the Speaker vote-a-rama.”

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First Branch Forecast for January 17, 2023: Cooking with gas

TOP LINE

Now that the House of Representatives officially is organized for the 118th Congress, it is clear that the Freedom Caucus faction played their third-party hold out strategy very well. In exchange for forming a governing coalition between themselves and the rest of the Republican conference, the FC faction received a very favorable rules package, placements on key committees, and increased power in the conference steering committee. As James Wallner and I wrote in The Hill last week, their efforts were an appropriate and instructive use of leverage by a faction to wrest back some power from the enormous legislative power of the contemporary Speakership.

Most significantly, three of the 14 Rules Committee slots will be filled by FC-faction members. Democrats, in the minority, get only four. Let’s pretend that the FC was an official third party: If we think about these slots in terms of proportional representation across the entire 435 (voting) Committee of the Whole, those three seats would roughly translate to a party with about 93 representatives in the House. The caucus has roughly 40 members.

Don’t get too excited. The House Rules Committee is far from a democracy, and the four Democratic members won’t win any votes. Those four seats translate to a party with 124 members; Democrats in actuality have 213. What happens if the three Freedom Caucus members join with the four Democrats and cast seven of the 14 votes? Well, you get out the popcorn because there’s bigger issues afoot.

Through the FC faction’s presence on the Rules Committee, the motion to recommit, individual consideration of appropriations bills, and manufactured debt ceiling crisis, FC members — indeed, any subset of the majority — now have many veto points in the House legislative and appropriations processes. It looks a lot more like where Rep. Chip Roy used to work: the United States Senate.

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Appointments of Legislative Branch Office and Agency Heads

Written by Taylor J. Swift

There are over 30 support offices and agencies within the Legislative branch, including the Government Accountability Office, the Architect of the Capitol, the Library of Congress, the United States Capitol Police, and more. How are agency heads chosen and how are they removed?

The answer is not always clear. At times, the legislation or resolutions establishing an office do not specify how an officeholder may be removed. There are often informal practices for how appointments and removal work.

The Legislative branch itself does not have a standard approach. Some variation may be attributed to the roles of the offices, which may perform legislative, administrative, financial, and ceremonial functions. Other variations may arise from when an office was established, where it exists in the legislative branch, and whom it is intended to support. 

Understanding how senior officials are chosen provides insight into whether and how they may be held accountable, to whom they are responsive, and whether their structure implicates the balance of equities between the Executive and Legislative branches. 

We compiled a spreadsheet that contains details on the processes for selecting Legislative branch agency heads. It includes information on who selects office heads, the length of agency head tenures (if terms are set), reappointment or removal provisions (if any), and chamber roles in the appointment process. 

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First Branch Forecast for January 9, 2023: Rule of the Rules

TOP LINE

Even after months of foreshadowing, last week’s Speakership deliberations clearly defied the expectations of many Congress-watchers and even the members themselves. The first day of a new Congress has become so routine and performative over the decades that many people just assumed that, after some preliminary protestation and accommodation, Kevin McCarthy would automatically ascend to the Speakership and the 118th Congress would begin “on time.” Some members-elect brought their children Tuesday, only to have C-SPAN’s unencumbered cameras find them sitting, bored and glued to smartphones, waiting to witness the swearing-in. The family that remained during the week’s worth of votes saw their loved ones take the oath of office in the wee hours Saturday morning.

The language the chattering classes used to describe the series of Speaker votes revealed their flawed understanding of what was happening and illustrated their expectations about how the House works. The inconclusive Speaker-election votes were a sign of “dysfunction,” “crisis,” and “chaos,” a “circus,” a “rebellion.” It was assumed that in the interest of party unity — or out of fear of punishment — Republican members would go along to get along and submit ultimately to the strong Speaker system that has defined the House for decades. When that didn’t happen, some members of the pro-McCarthy faction started referring to the holdouts as “the Taliban.” Some in the McCarthy faction were so outraged that it almost came to blows. Eventually, McCarthy gave away more and more to the Freedom Caucus faction, which negotiated hard for procedural and positional power in return for bestowing the Speakership on McCarthy by voting “present.”

What we really witnessed last week was the coming of age of a proto-coalition system in the House. A group of members in the majority party acted like members of a small third party that refused to form a government until they were given a share of political power. That’s hardly anarchy: it was leveraging the one opportunity afforded factions in the House to maximize institutional power at the start of a new Congress. This has happened often in the House’s history. McCarthy’s personal desperation and a lack of alternatives, along with Democrats turning the screws to keep his agony visible, heightened that leverage considerably.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, as some Freedom Caucus-types have been talking in this way for months and working towards increasing procedural power for years. Conservative Partnership Institute president Ed Corrigan described this tripartite coalition directly in November at an event organized by Rep. Andy Biggs and attended by Gaetz and Rep. Victoria Spartz. (The Grid did a writeup of it last week as Biggs, et al. followed Corrigan’s tactical advice.) The same points were repeated by Corrigan at a panel discussion a week later, hosted by the Lincoln Network, in which I was a co-panelist and all of you were invited. Biggs distinguishes between the “Uniparty,” i.e., Republicans and Democrats who make up the status quo in his view, and conservative purists. He and his compatriots were thinking in European multi-party coalition terms.

What held the Freedom Caucus faction of the Republican party together was their desire for the federal government to shrink, both in size and impact. Because of the rightward drift of the party, nearly every Republican gives lip service to these goals: but the FC wants to go further than most to roll back the New Deal. (We note, however, that the result of political geography is that America’s policies already are significant to the right of what the media voter wants.) With Kevin McCarthy as minority leader, the 116th Congress authorized trillions of dollars in new spending to respond to the pandemic under a Republican president. The Freedom Caucus faction views all this as a disaster decades in the making.

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Legislative Branch Funding Breakdown in the FY 2023 Omnibus Bill

The FY 2023 appropriations omnibus was passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Biden. The FY 2023 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill was rolled into the package, and it is packed with good government initiatives and significant investments in Congress’s capacity to legislate, conduct oversight, serve constituents, and more.

We and our civil society colleagues recommended dozens of items to include as part of the bill text and committee report — see our FY 2023 Appropriations requests, FY 2023 appropriations testimony, and 2022 report on updating House Rules — many of which appropriators graciously considered and included.

As Congress turns to the FY 2024 appropriations process, this blogpost highlights some of the notable funding changes reflected in the FY 2023 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill. You can find the complete FY 2023 Legislative Branch portion of the bill here and the Joint Explanatory Statement here. The Senate summary can be found here and the House summary can be found here. For resources on prior Legislative Branch Appropriations bills, go here. In a future blogpost, we will look at the report language.

You can compare final line item funding for FY 2021 versus FY 2022 versus FY 2023 by looking at our spreadsheet.

The FY 2023 Legislative Branch bill appropriates $6.9 billion towards the Legislative Branch, a $975.0 million increase over FY 2022, representing 16.5% increase.

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First Branch Forecast for January 2, 2023: Hindsight is 2022

Top Line

The 117th Congress was astonishingly productive by any reasonable measure. It had everything arrayed against its success, including an attempted coup even before it began by the outgoing administration that nearly resulted in the murder of the constitutional line of succession. After it gaveled in, it contended with determination by the ex-president’s co-partisans to thwart impeachment proceedings and accountability for the Trump insurrectionists. Mitch McConnell took the Senate hostage, preventing committees from forming for weeks and prompting commitments from Sens. Manchin and Sinema to keep the anti-majoritarian filibuster. Meanwhile, a global pandemic continued to make convening in person difficult and dangerous.

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Legislative Branch Appropriations Line Items: FY 2021 to FY 2023

Congress finally introduced its FY 2023 omnibus bill. In the spreadsheet here and below, we broke down the Legislative Branch line items contained in the FY 2023 omnibus bill and compared them to FY 2021 and FY 2022. The spreadsheet also contains the requests published in the president budget, the appropriations levels supported by the subcommittee and full committee as they come out, and a comparison of how those levels have changed over time.