Forecast for February 19, 2019. Never Waste an Emergency

THE HOUSE COMMITTEE TASKED WITH MODERNIZING CONGRESS 

has 12 newly appointed members, an initial $50,000 budget (through March), and less than one year to issue recommendations. There’s little doubt that Congress must invest in its own brain power and modernize its technology.

The select committee isn’t Congress’s only hope, as the oversight committees (House Admin + Senate Rules) and leg branch appropriations committees play a major role in modernizing Congress. So too does the House and Senate writ large, as exemplified by the House’s consideration of HR 1 (the voting & ethics reform bill) and HSGAC’s favorable reporting of the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act. What remains to be seen is how Congress will react to Trump’s ’emergency’ power grab; on that topic, it appears Sen. McConnell has dropped his guise as a Senate institutionalist. (More on that.)

Office of Congressional Workplace Rights. During last week’s oversight hearing on the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, Rep. Lowey, who chairs the Appropriations committee, expressed an interest in addressing the lack of a uniform standard for paid family medical leave among House offices. FWIW, we think it should be 3 months and paid out of a non-MRA account. Also of note: the Congressional Accountability Act’s provisions don’t go into effect into June 19, so staff complaining of harassment are stuck under the old system until then; the OCWR will go through a notice and comment rulemaking in April; and a 70 new harassment filings have been received by the OCWR in 2019, with half from the Library of Congress. Finally, the climate survey won’t go out until Q1 or Q2 of 2020.

The Republican-led Senate Rules committee voted to change procedural rules by a 10-9 vote to cut down the debate time on nominations for lower-level positions, i.e. district court judges. To enact the change the Senate may have to go nuclear. Continue reading “Forecast for February 19, 2019. Never Waste an Emergency”

Forecast for February 4, 2019. Executive time.

THE TOP LINE

H.R. 1, the pro-voting & ethics strengthening bill, is getting negative reviews from anti-anti-corruption politicians (Mitch McConnell), court-identified fabulists (Hans Spakovsky), and K street lobbyists. It’s also the subject of an Oversight hearing on Wednesday.

Why won’t House Dems release their caucus rules? Progressives & grassroots orgs are pushing for their publication while Democratic Caucus chair Hakeem Jeffries dodges press questions. Rep. Jeffries didn’t respond to my emails, either.

House Intel will break House rules should it hold its first organizational meeting in secret, as currently scheduled. House rules require the meeting be open and held where the press and public can attend — not in the SCIF — unless the committee first holds a roll call vote in public to close the proceedings. HPSCI is reconvening following Republican appointments.

— Clearances for HPSCI personal office staff may be on the agenda for the organizational meeting. At least, we hope so.

An American hero. Lawmakers introduced legislation to award Fred Korematsu the Congressional Gold Medal; he’s the Japanese-American civil rights activist who took his fight against Japanese internment during WWII all the way to the Supreme Court. Last week marked the hundred year anniversary of his birthday last week. A congressional gold medal requires at least 67 sponsors in the Senate to advance.

The Lincoln Network is hosting a panel today at 3 where experts discuss the challenges involved in modernizing Congress, its technology and digital services infrastructure, and how the Hill can get ahead of the curve. Please note the updated location: 201 D St, NE. ICYMI, GAO announced a new science and technology office last week, and Zach Graves has an analysis of what to expect.

Continue reading “Forecast for February 4, 2019. Executive time.”

House Intel Should Follow House Rules and Keep Its First Meeting Open to the Public

The House Intelligence Committee has scheduled its organizational meeting for this Wednesday, but by setting the meeting as “closed” and holding it where it is inaccessible to the public and press, it is in violation of House rules.

Announcement of House Intel Meeting on Feb 6, 2019 in HVC-304

House Rule XI (2)(g)(2) on open meetings requires that business meetings be open to the public (including the press) except when the committee holds by record vote in open session to close it for one of a limited number of reasons. 

House Committee Rule XI(2)(g)(1) on Open Meetings and Hearings

The Committee could argue that these openness rules only apply to standing committees and HPSCI is a select committee. But House Rule X, clause 11(d)(1) incorporates this provision to specifically apply to the House Intel Committee.

no title (1)

The House Intelligence Committee has recognized the authority of these provisions in the past. For example, the House Intelligence Committee rules from the *114th* Congress required a public meeting and vote before going into closed session.  See Rule 4.

House Intelligence Committee Rules for the 114th Congress, Rule 4

The House Intel Committee is holding the proceedings in HVC-304, which is on the third floor of the U.S. Capitol (inside the Capitol Visitors Center) and I believe this is a closed space, inaccessible to the public and press. I belief this is where the SCIF is located — a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility– which is by definition keeps out everyone except those with clearance. Holding the organizational meeting here violates House rules, which requires the public and press have access to this public meeting.

It should go without saying that the first meeting of the House Intelligence Committee, at which it adopts its rules of procedure, should be open to the public and press. There’s no reason to close that discussion and, under the House rules, the committee has not taken the necessary steps to make the determination to close the proceedings.

Forecast for January 28, 2019. A Strange Game. The Only Winning Move Is Not To Play.

TOP LINE

The shutdown was shut downat least for three weeks, after (we suspect) Sen. McConnell made clear to the White House that he would no longer use his position as Senate Majority Leader to block a real vote in which the majority of his party would defect. McConnell signalled this by holding two votes during which six Republicans voted for the Democratic proposal.

— McConnell and Senate Republicans tried to shift blame to the White House when they leaked the contents of their conference meeting where a few members blew up and McConnell attempted to distance himself from the shutdown.

— This is also a change in McConnell’s position, stated in the New York Times where, in response to the question “if a hypothetical shutdown-ending compromise landed on his desk that would command a veto-proof majority in both his Senate and Pelosi’s House, ending the standoff over the protests of Trump but without need of his signature, [would] he would bring it up for a vote,” he said “what you need in order to make a law is the presidential signature.”

— The Senate leaders remained unchallenged in controlling the floor agenda, as the the two Senate votes illustrated how the rank and file were unwilling to legislatively push McConnell or Schumer to end the shutdown.

— 30 House Democrats grew nervous about the Democrats’ strategy, at least enough to send this letter.

Where do House committees get their money? A new Demand Progress report lays out House committee spending over the last quarter century. Most notable: spending on House committees is down 25% ($110m) from its peak, and the appropriations committee received 2.5x the funding of the next highest funded committee.

The Library of Congress launched a unified congressional calendar where you can see House and Senate hearings in one place. This was required in the legislative branch appropriations bill (per our request), and when complete (it’s not yet) it should include the name of the proceedings, links to the video, and perhaps the underlying data.

Rep. Walter Jones has entered hospice care. He is an iconoclast known for his tenacity and sense of right and wrong.

Interested in modernizing Congress? Come to a panel discussion on tech and Congress on Mon., Feb 4, in the CVC. RSVP here. Continue reading “Forecast for January 28, 2019. A Strange Game. The Only Winning Move Is Not To Play.”

How House Committees Get Their Money

Committee funding in the House of Representatives is accomplished through a somewhat quirky process. Appropriators in the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee set a top dollar amount for the committees — they appropriate the funds — but it is the Committee on House Administration that provides (i.e. allots) the funds to each committee on a biennial basis.

At the beginning of each new Congress, each committee chair and ranking member jointly testifies before the House Administration Committee and requests funds for their committee. For the 115th Congress, the hearings took place on February 15th and 16th, 2017. Here is the committee notice; the written statements requesting funds; and video from Feb. 15 and Feb. 16.

On March 7th, the House Administration Committee introduced a funding resolution in the House, and on March 8, the committee held a markup on House Resolution 173 that allotted funds to the committees. You can watch the very brief proceedings here. House Administration reported out the committee report a week later on March 15th, and the House passed the resolution on March 17.

HOW FUNDING FOR COMMITTEES HAS CHANGED OVER THE LAST 25 YEARS

What does this look like in practice? Drawing upon the excellent data in this CRS report, plus a little additional research on spending on the appropriations committee, we looked at:

  1. Total committee spending from 1995 to present
  2. The change in spending per committee from 1997 to present
  3. Spending per committee in the last Congress

What did we find? Overall, committees have significantly fewer funds available than their recent historical counterparts, which undermines their ability to do their jobs.

(Want to check our math? You can see our data here: un-adjusted committee spending data from 1994-2018 and inflation-adjusted committee spending data from 1994-2018.)

TOTAL COMMITTEE SPENDING

Total spending on committees is down by more than $100 million from its peak, using inflation adjusted dollars. The House of Representatives put $319,584,882 towards its committees in the 115th Congress, down from $429,551,693 in the 111th Congress, which incidentally was when Democrats last controlled the House. This is a 25% cut in funding. As a point of comparison, Capitol Police salaries for FY 2018 alone amounted to $351,700,000 in FY 2018, with an additional $74,800,000 in general expenses.

What’s interesting is that committee spending is down from when Republicans last controlled both the House and the White House, in the 109th Congress. At that time, committees received $399,361,247 in inflation adjusted dollars, which is $80m more than the most recent Congress.

committee spending

SPENDING BY COMMITTEE

In the 115th Congress, the appropriations committee received far and away the lion’s share of committee funding, more than double the next closest committee. The following two charts show how the last Congress prioritized its committee spending. As mentioned above, it is worth noting that the overall pie has shrunk considerably.

115th

pie

CHANGES IN SPENDING BY COMMITTEE

As the overall spending pie for committees has shrunk, who has come out ahead and who has lagged behind? Ethics, Intel, Financial Services, and Ways and Means are all up, but this is deceiving. Ethics ($6.8m) and Intel ($12.4m) have comparatively tiny budgets, as compared with quite well funded Financial Services ($17m) and Ways and Means ($18.5) committees.

Similarly, Budget, Rules, Appropriations, and Oversight appear down, but this too is misleading. Rules ($6.6m) and Budget ($10.7m) are comparatively small, whereas Oversight ($18.8m) is the third largest committee, and Appropriations ($47.8m) is the largest.

percentchange

WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

House Democrats could increase funding for committees by 20-25 percent and still be within historical norms for committee spending. Indeed, what the data shows is that the House’s committees have been hollowed out in recent years.

The biggest likely constraints on returning to normal allotment levels are that the legislative branch budget is comparatively smaller than historical norms, and it will be hard to find the money. Spending on other items eat up a comparatively larger share of legislative branch funds.

This suggests that when Democrats start the Budget process, in which they will decide how much money to make available to the 12 appropriations subcommittees, they should look to increase funds to the legislative branch.

A FEW FINAL NOTES

First, and not to make things too complicated, but the allotment process (the divvying up of funds among the committees) happens only once, at the start of each Congress, and the allotment resolution covers a two year period. By contrast, the legislative branch appropriations process, which is what okays the spending of money, happens every year. You can imagine the appropriation as Congress spending money to buy a pie, and the allotment process as cutting up pieces for each committee. The appropriation and allotment process run on different calendars, which can make things confusing.

Second, generally speaking, funds for a committee are further subdivided, with 2/3s available to be spent by the majority and 1/3 by the minority. This isn’t always true, such as for the Ethics committee, and there can be other considerations, but that’s generally how it works. In addition, the funds are generally allotted in two segments, for each year of the Congress.

Third, in some Congresses there is a separate reserve fund, just in case a committee overspends.

Fourth, while most committees are allotted funding, Appropriators appropriate funding specifically for the Appropriations Committee in a separate line item.

Finally, the last time there was a select environmental committee, back in the 111th Congress (2009-2010), the committee was allotted $4,875,975 (in inflation-adjusted dollars).

Forecast for January 22, 2019. Champagne Wishes & Caviar Dreams.

TOP LINE

In a lengthy and insightful essay, noted Holocaust historian Christopher Browning drew ominous parallels between the destruction of the Weimar Republic by the “old right” and what’s happening today. The most gripping section is his analysis of the old Republic, but this section is striking as well:

“If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell. He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more.”

H.R. 1. This week Sen. McConnell jibed at H.R. 1, the House Democrats’ legislation to protect voting rights, end gerrymandering, lessen the role of wealth in our political system, and improve ethical accountability for elected officials, as the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.” Long time reporter Eliza Newlin Carney explained McConnell’s position this way: “In making the case for Democrats’ bad motives… McConnell comes across as both remarkably out of touch with public sentiment and as incapable of debating the topic honestly.”

Shutdown. As Politico noted, Sen. McConnell “is standing firm in his resolve to not move a muscle on any government funding bill that would not have the president’s approval.” Democrats are advancing Republican negotiated appropriations bills, and some Senate Republicans are speaking out in favor of opening the government without preconditions, leading the Intercept to opine that McConnell is blocking progress to save his reelection.

Trump gave a nothing-burger speech this weekend on a warmed over plan intended to shift blame to Democrats instead of actually reopening government. Trump did not consult with Democrats; McConnell said he would hold a vote Tuesday. MSNBC wonders “whatever happened to Mitch McConnell’s principle of denying a vote on any measure that lacks bipartisan backing?” Continue reading “Forecast for January 22, 2019. Champagne Wishes & Caviar Dreams.”

Forecast for January 14, 2019. Snow Day.

THE TOP LINE

“Why is Congress so dumb?” Rep. Bill Pascrell’s op-ed does a masterful job of summarizing how the self-lobotomization of Congress caused a decline in congressional expertise and empowered special interests. It’s why the new House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is a big deal and represents an opportunity for Congress to stand up for itself. The last time the Congress looked systematically at its problems, in 1993, committee and party leaders thwarted much of the immediate progress to preserve their own power only to be thrown out at the next election. Perhaps that’s an object lesson for this go-round.

— The committee’s success depends in part on the skillfulness of its leader, Rep. Kilmer, the yet-to-be-named Republican co-chair, and remaining 10 members, all of whom must be savvy about Congress, reflect its various factions, and be able to work together and work with the gatekeepers. Another significant factor is its budget, which must support enough staff and resources for the committee to do its work and will be allocated in March by the House Admin Committee. Finally, leadership must be willing to share of some of its amassed power for the health of the institution.

— That’s not all, folks. While the select committee is one avenue for reform, it is not the only one. Last year’s House Leg Branch appropriations processput specific reforms in motion and could do so again. The House rules package contained significant process reforms and additional rules changes are just a House resolution away. And the House Admin Committee can be a force for good. Members of Congress would be wise to take advantage of all possible avenues for reform.

— On savvy staff: read this, a profile of Joe Donoghue, who spent 31 years in the Senate working for Sen. McCain. There’s shout-outs to a few other congressional institutions.

All about Mitch. When it comes to the shutdown, Sen. McConnell can lead the Senate or follow Trump, but he can no longer do both. Republicans in both chambers are starting to support proposals to reopen the government without the wall and Dems are increasingly aiming fire at Sen. McConnell for thwarting Senate votes. As the defections grow, McConnell’s room to maneuver shrinks.

— Senate Dems are starting to increase the pressure by moving to block all votes in the Senate. They may move (as Matt Glassman explains) to increase the pain for the GOP by forcing them to affirmatively (and individually) vote to keep the government closed. This gets a little tricky, as making a motion to proceed undermines McConnell and Schumer’s power as leaders and empowers the rank-and-file, which is probably the one thing both party leaders want less than a deal to end the shut-down.

— McConnell is in a real bind as he is the most unpopular current senatoras measured by his constituents, “with 38 percent of Kentucky voters approving of his job performance and 47 percent disapproving.” He, like Trump, is up for re-election in 2020, and is likely afraid of de-motivating his base or having Trump take aim at him.

— Meanwhile, Trump may declare a national emergency for border wall funding. The move is unwise and a fundamental challenge to the separation-of-powers arrangement set out in the Constitution Continue reading “Forecast for January 14, 2019. Snow Day.”