THE TOP LINE
Happy birthday to the US Constitution, signed 231 years ago today. In its honor, we are pleased to publish online the Constitution Annotated, a treatise commissioned by Congress that explains the Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. By we, I mean Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, GovTrack.us, and Demand Progress.
Reforming the House’s rules is a major topic of conversation in front of and behind the scenes.
— A coalition of 20 organizations and 8 experts on Congress released a letter outlining 10 principles for rules reform. Fleshing out those principles, Demand Progress issued a 21-page white paper with specific reform ideas. Roll Call has the best summary of those recs.
— The House Rules Committee held a members-day hearing on rules reform, with 11 documents submitted containing a variety of ideas.
— Minority Whip Steny Hoyer outlining his reform ideas in a major speech; it included several of our technology reform suggestions.
— Let’s get it started. While some House members said it was too soon to consider what to include in the rules package, 15 members of the Problem Solvers’ caucus pledged to withhold their votes for Speaker if their rules recs aren’t adopted.
— The House’s subpoena power will be the topic of a Good Government Now + Leg Branch Working Group panel on Friday. RSVP.
— Punishing defectors. The Republican Steering Committee is considering a rules change that would punish lawmakers who disobey the party, costing members their committee assignments, chairmanships, and party donations. (Bad idea.)
The mini-bus Legislative Branch Appropriations bill, 2019 passed both chambers and is on the president’s desk.
— What’s in the conference bill? Casey summarized it here; I wrote about the House and Senate bills as they passed each chamber. Notable is that the House paralleled the Senate and added $8.8m for paid interns, a good start, but well shy of the approximately $18m needed to have 1 intern working in an office over the course of the year.
— What’s the good stuff? Money for GAO to expand its science and technology program; funding for CRS to oversee a NAPA study on restoring the Office of Technology Assessment; a study of staff pay and retention in the House that includes a look at equal pay based on race and gender; a similar study in the Senate except that it was stripped of a review of staff diversity; a study on how whistleblowers communicate with the House; making the House’s witness disclosure forms digital and centralized; publishing the bioguides as structured data; a slight bump for MRAs; campaign e-filing for the Senate (finally!); and CBO transparency.
— Equal pay? Apropos the Senate’s cutting its study of pay equality focusing on diversity, the Joint Center found in a new report that that among top House staff, “of the 329 personal offices of White Members, only sixteen (under 5 percent) are led by chiefs of staff of color.” Read the report; there’s a lot to unpack.
— Shutdown delayed. In passing this and another appropriations minibus, Congress managed to fund most of the government through a normal appropriations process and cut a deal to fund the remainder through at least December 7th, when there will likely be an ugly lame duck Congress fight over the border wall.
CRS must publish its non-confidential reports online by tomorrow. We’re skeptical they’ll publish all the reports they’re required to put online, and do so in a tech-smart fashion. Look to https://www.congress.gov/crsreports for their reports, and https://www.everycrsreport.com/ as a model of what they should do.
LEGISLATIVE CAPACITY, PROCESS, AND POLY SCI
Congressional Budget Office Director Hall testified before the Senate budget committee last week. According to his testimony, CBO’s three transparency goals are to enhance the credibility of their work, promote a thorough understanding of their analyses, and to help people gauge how estimates would change in different circumstances. We wrote to CBO last year with our own transparency recs.
Earmarks could make a comeback if Dems take the House, at least according to Minority Whip Hoyer. Vox laid out the pros and cons, and the Congressional Institute describes how they’d do it. Would this centralize dealmaking power in the hands of leadership?
20% of laws enacted in recent years were federal property naming bills, composing only 1.5% of all bills introduced in the current Congress.
Fiscal year Rosa Hashana. Rep. Steve Womack, the co-chair of a special joint select committee looking at the appropriations process, proposed changing the start of the fiscal year to January 1. Other members aren’t a fan, as the December holidays make that logistically difficult.
The Government Publishing Office hired a new CIO last week, Sam Musa.
15 dark money groups spent over $600 million on elections since Citizens United. These groups accounted for more than 75% of the over $800 million spent by dark money organizations between January 2010 and December 2016, according to a report from Issue One.
— Number 1. The US Chamber of Commerce is the top-spending dark money group, accounting for $1 of every $6 spent on dark money political ads, or roughly $130 million.
— Bad reporting. Three groups—the 60 Plus Association, Americans for Tax Reform, and the National Rifle Association—had major discrepancies in their IRS and FEC reports. Issue One andProPublica compiled a searchable database of 1,200 primary source records on dark money spending.
Shedding light on dark money. A federal appeals court ruled last week that the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the main political arm of the Koch network, must disclose donors to the state AG. Justice Roberts stayed implementation of the opinion, which would have resulted in the disclosure of dark money donors.
Open Courts? The ROOM Act, which provides for eventual appellate audio and video streaming of proceedings, making all PACER opinions available to GPO (who can publish them online), addressing the judicial code of ethics, and adding more than 50 judicial spots to overburdened courts, was favorably reported by the House Judiciary Committee after an amendment that would hold the creation of the new spots until January 2021.
Foreign influence extends to the halls of Congress. Non-government witnesses who testify in House hearings must file Truth in Testimony statements, which include whether the witness/organizations has received funding from a foreign government related to the subject of the hearing. In a new report, POGO highlighted how think tanks exploit a loophole to avoid disclosing their funders, provided specific examples of when this has happened, and pointed to Rep. Speier’s proposal to close the loophole.
— Omissions. Witnesses exploited the phrase ‘related to the hearing’ and testified in a “personal capacity,” to avoid submitting information. For example, the Atlantic Council did not disclose foreign funding despite receiving over $1 million from the UAE in 2017. As we have seen, foreign countries can buy influence at these think tanks.
— Non-disclosure. Witnesses didn’t file the required formsor didn’t do so properly in many cases. CSIS, for instance, testified 21 times for House Foreign Affairs between 2016 and 2018, but reported relevant funding in six of their filings.
Mind your own business. Trump signed an executive order to curb foreign influence in U.S. elections. The order allows for levying sanctions against foreign individuals, entities, or countries that have engaged in election interference.
Foreign agents trying to influence American politics are supposed to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The law largely relies on self reporting and has easily exploitable loopholes. The Center for Responsive Politics held a discussion on how we can fix this broken system. Demand Progress and POGO have jointly submitted testimony on reforming FARA enforcement and improving its disclosure processes.
What’s Google collecting? A new study found devices communicated surprisingly frequently, even when there was no user interaction. A dormant Android phone with Chrome active in the background communicated location information to Google 340 times in a 24 hour period. An iOS device with no Google apps communicated with Google about half as many times in the same period.
Major web companies and ISPs will testify before the Senate Commerce Committee on September 26th. Twitter, Amazon, Apple, Google, and other will discuss data privacy practices. California Governor Jerry Brown signed data privacy legislation in June aimed at giving consumers more control over their personal information.
Circumventing fundraising limits. Rep. Mia Love raised over $1 million for a primary race that was never going to happen. There was no threat of a challenger; in Utah there’s no primary when a candidate secures their party’s nomination through a nominating convention. The FEC told Love’s campaignshe violated federal guidelines about money for primaries; she said she would redesignate or refund some of the funds.
Speaker Jordan. Conservative groups are working to help Jim Jordan, co-founder of the Freedom Caucus, to become House speaker or minority leader in the next Congress. They may not get to 218, but his campaign could give him influence and weaken Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s bid to lead the party.
Senators can’t catch a break. Majority leader McConnell will break another Senate tradition and keep the Senate in session for most of October. The goal, as described in the Politico headline, is to screw Dems who are campaigning for reelection.
ODDS & ENDS
The British Parliament is looking at reducing the number of MPs, which is a reminder the size of the House isn’t fixed, either.
The House is off and will reconvene on Tuesday the 25th.
The Senate reconvenes Monday, with the first vote at 5:30. It is off on Wednesday for Yom Kippur.
A Senate Judiciary Committee vote on Brett Kavnaugh is set for Thursday at 1:45 PM, but in light of accusations of sexual assault, it may be pushed back.
Down the line
- Reboot Congress conference is this Friday in San Francisco; I’ll be there.
- Data Transparency 2018 hosted by the Data Foundation is happening October 10th in DC. The event will explore how government and society are beginning to embrace data formats that equip insight-driven decisions and reduce compliance burdens.
- The FOIA Advisory Committee will have their second meeting of this term on November 29th. The committee, comprised of FOIA experts from inside and outside the government, has identified communication and technology as critical issues to explore.