Forecast for August 20, 2018. How Effective Exactly Are Lawmakers?

LEGISLATIVE CAPACITY, PROCESS, AND POLITICAL SCIENCE

Put down the popcorn, congressional hearings aren’t pure theater. An analysis of over 120 hearings found that witness testimony tended to be fairly balanced and sophisticated. That said, we have concerns that the methodology: using complex language doesn’t mean the arguments are strong, and having competing viewpoints should not suggest full and appropriate ventilation of an issue.

Thanks but no thanks was the gist of President Trump’s signing statement for the FY 19 defense spending bill. The bill prohibits any use of funds that recognizes Crimea as part of Russia, but the signing statement signaled the administration won’t be bound by that requirement. Since Reagan, presidents have frequently used signing statements to assert presidential authority and intent by challenging the constitutionality of certain provisions of enacted laws; the American Bar Association has called this practice, which usurps congressional prerogatives, “contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers.”

The VP is the Senate’s special sauce to keep the upper chamber from becoming strictly majoritarian. James Wallner explains how the Vice President limits the power of Senate majorities as presiding officer.

A review of governors turned senators, as explained by the Hewlett Foundation, found they are “more likely to work aggressively on a fewer number of bills, but the ones they focus on tend to have more substance, more bipartisan support, and more success.” While they may be more bipartisan in their behavior, I don’t think there’s a sufficient foundation for this conclusion. That’s not a knock on this article; I don’t think anyone has employed a good yardstick to measure legislative effectiveness. If you want to see some of the values that should be weighed in assessing effectiveness, read my rather cranky article on that topic. This isn’t a fool’s errand, but a better assessment will require a broader use of data in the assessment, making more legislative info available as data, and getting access to more legislative info.

Just being Frank. Rep. Polquin has flooded his district with mailers paid for by taxpayer dollars, raising question again on whether the franking privilege is being used for political purposes. He is the top spender, at $166,000 in the third quarter, and faces a tough re-election. As CRS has explained, there’s an “historical pattern of Congress spending less on official mail costs during non-election years than during election years.”

OVERSIGHT

Choking up on the watchdogs. Five inspectors general offices face substantial budget cuts, including at EPA, DHS, and the Treasury, according to a report issued by HSGAC democratic staff. This is happening even as their respective agency budget are increasing.

Show me the records. With the National Archives unable to finish reviewing records concerning Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh by the September nomination hearing, in an unusual move Pres. George W. Bush’s legal team handed over documents to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Bush team is reviewing the documents prior to publication, raising concerns that unflattering or politically harmful information will be kept private, and also undercutting the non-partisan review by the Archives.

The Treasury Dept. is hampering an investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election, BuzzFeed News reported. The agency has delayed turning over financial documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee for more than a year.

TRANSPARENCY

350 editorial pages pushed back on Pres. Trump’s slur of the press as an “enemy of the people” on August 16th. On the same day, the Senate unanimously agreed to a resolution supporting a free press. (Congress.gov does not yet have the text available, but it is available from Sen. Schatz’s website.) Less symbolic but more practical would have been action on a federal press shield law, like the bipartisan Free Flow of Information Act, which has been introduced in the House but lacks a Senate companion, even though it was once championed by now V.P. Pence. In the meantime, the Pentagon appears to be retaliating against press that covers the DoD, according to Politico.

Declassification methods are stuck in the past, Federal News Radio reported. In their 2017 report to the President, the National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office reported that the systematic declassification rate had dropped from 79% to 35%. According to the office’s director, the drop is a result of agency declassification efforts not making the transition to digital review techniques. Using newer tech like automation, cloud computing, and machine learning could address information management issues, increase security, and improve trust in government. The ISOO estimated the cost to maintain the current systems at $18.3 billion, Federal News Radio reported, in their excellent summary of the findings.

Speaking of declassification disappointments, federal agencies are allowed to publish altered financial statements to keep information on classified spending from being disclosed. The Pentagon IG says the practice “jeopardizes the financial statements’ usefulness.”

CBO is letting us in on method to their madness: After prompts from Congress and civil society, CBO will now publish more details of its methodology. We hope they’ll update how they publish their reports as well.

CRS reports will be publicly available next month, well maybe; we have some concerns about whether the Library of Congress will be able to deliver.

TECHNOLOGY

When the social go pro. 14% of Americans changed their mind about an issue in the last year because of something they saw on social media, according to a recent Pew study. The top hashtags used by members of Congress were #NetNeutrality for Democrats and #taxreform for Republicans, according to Quorum Analytics. And social media is also an effective way to get the attention of Congress, according to a 2015 Congressional Management Foundation report.

Is FiscalNote the political version of Moneyball? The MIT Technology Review thinks so, although it strikes us that several companies are vying to play that role. Regardless, using data to analyze Congress could disrupt old ways of lobbying, empowering small organizations to have an outsized impact, but only if they can afford the fees.

Who’s pulling the strings? Google published its political ad database last week, but the database only updates weekly, doesn’t cover issue ads, and only tracks federal election ads.

FOIA secrets. The CIA is now accepting FOIA email requests at cia_foia@ucia.gov, but Emma Best, who noticed this fact buried in the CIA’s CHIEF FOIA Officer Report for 2017, notes they never tell this to requesters, it’s not on the website, and it’s not in their response letters.

Return to sender. The New York Times has a heartwarming article on volunteers who print out constituent messages to congress and hand deliver them. Glossed over except for a brief cautionary note from CMF’s Brad Fitch is that this in inefficient, ineffective, and that people have no problem contacting Congress. In fact, the number of people contacting Congress has grown geometrically. That’s why everyone who ever thought of building an app to call or write Congress should reach Josh Tauberer’s cautionary article — he created GovTrack, a free congressional information portal that has nearly a million users monthly.

ETHICS

Overdone: Rep. Neal Dunn, who has a history of pushing pro-banking industry legislation, earned $72,000 from his corporate board position in 2017, Sludge reported. While House members can sit on corporate boards, they cannot be paid directors fees or other compensation. There were efforts to ban House members from sitting on corporate boards in 2012, and it’s likely the House will hear competing proposals to address this issue again.

Farenthold. Disgraced former Rep. Blake Farenthold is back in the news, and yet again it’s not in a good way. The Huffington Post obtained a copy of his deposition in a lawsuit concerning whether he was improperly hired by a Texas port authority after he resigned from Congress. He admits he quit Congress after the Ethics Committee gave him its required notice that “it was going to announce a violation,” which strongly suggests that in those circumstances, the Ethics committee should proceed to announce its findings even when a member resigns. He also comes off fairly unglued, blaming conspiracy theories as to why he was drummed out of the House and not sexual harassment charges.

Abuse accusations. Rep. Keith Ellison’s ex-girlfriend, Karen Monahan, detailed claims of physical abuse and intimidation in an interview with CBS last Thursday.

Foreign money. Anna Massoglia, a reporter with the Center for Responsive Politics, was featured on Washington Journal to discuss the Center for Responsive Politics new report on foreign spending in the U.S. The bottom line: foreign interests have spent over $530 million influencing US policy and public opinion since 2017. The top spenders are South Korea, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Ireland, and China. The top lobbying firms: Akin Gump, the Podesta Group, and Sonoran Policy Group.

Leadership Pacs. Also on Washington Journal was Meredith McGehee, Issue One executive director, to talk about their new report All Expenses Paid, which has the enticing subtitle How Leadership PACs Became Politicians’ Preferred Ticket to Luxury Living. Robin Leach eat your heart out. The report reminds me of my favorite bill acronym, the MERIT Act, or Making Every Representatives Integrity Transparent, introduced by Rep. Speier in the 113th Congress, which would address many of the issues Meredith spoke about but alas has not been reintroduced in more recent Congresses.

Confidential to Washington Journal: I’d like to have a full set of mugs. Call me, maybe?

POLITICS

The FBI identified a cyber attack targeted at Dr. Hans Keirstead, the Democratic opponent of Rep. Rohrabacher. Rolling Stone reports that Microsoft identified three hacking attempts on congressional candidates for this year’s midterms.

What’s the odds? 30% of House candidates have “significant security problems” with their websites, Reuters reported. Researchers didn’t identify any cases where politically motivated hackers had exploited these vulnerabilities.

Musical chairs. There’s a bunch of news stories about the fight over who will be the next Speaker in the House, but I think the only thing that’s true is no one knows what is going to happen.

ODDS & ENDS

Just [the] facts: GAO issues up to 1,000 reports each year investigating the federal government to hold them accountable. Last week they started a “Just Facts” series on their twitter (@USGAO) to share some interesting (and true) nuggets that get overlooked.

ICYMI, see LegBranch.com’s top reads on Congress.

Wag the Dog. Trump aides discussed using security clearance revocations to distract media attention during unfavorable news cycles, the Hill reported.

CALENDAR

The Senate reconvenes on Monday at 3:30, with votes on amendments to the approps bills at 5:30. There’s a handful of scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. The House is out of session.

On September 5th the OpenGov Hub is hosting a seminar presenting the V-Dem dataset, the world’s largest dataset on democracy, to offer new insights on open government. The FOIA Advisory Committeehas its first meeting for the 2018-2020 term on September 6th in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives. Registration is open now. The House is having its new employee ethics training on September 10th.