The Congress’s Edifice Problem

According to the Architect of the Capitol, it will take several billion dollars to keep the Congress from literally falling apart. This, and much more, was the subject of four legislative branch appropriations hearings this past week.

It’s not just the physical infrastructure of Congress that’s eroding, the power of the institution has taken a hit over the years with budget cuts. The result has been executive branch overreach as well as cyber security and IT practices falling miles behind best practices.

The legislative branch appropriations subcommittee in charge of doling out the funds that keep the branch functioning has the smallest pot of money to work with in the federal government: last year its funding was only approximately $4.3 billion, with overall federal spending about 1000x greater at $4.3 trillion.

To put this in context, $1.244 trillion was allocated to the 12 appropriations committees for FY 2019. The amount for the legislative branch is so small you can’t see it on the chart — it’s the bright green sliver. Here’s the amounts from least to greatest: Legislative Branch ($4.8b), Agriculture ($23b), Financial Services ($23b), Interior & Environment ($35.6b), Energy & Water ($44.6b), State & Foreign Ops ($46.2b), Homeland Security ($49.4b), Commerce & Science & Justice ($64.1b), Transportation & HUD ($71.1b), Military Construction & VA ($97.1b), Labor & HHS & Education ($178.1b), Defense ($606.5b). (There’s an additional $77b for “Overseas Contingent Operations,” of which $67.9b went to Defense.)

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This week the House Legislative Branch Appropriations subcommittee heard from four legislative branch agencies—the Architect of the Capitol (the OG ‘AOC’), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the Government Publishing Office (GPO)—where lawmakers and agency-heads alike emphasized the importance of congressional strength and independence. GAO Comptroller Gene Dodaro explained:

Congress has put itself at [an] increasingly disadvantage[d] position in providing oversight over the executive branch…[it] has reduced its own staff, it’s reduced staff at legislative support agencies, and testifying before this committee over the years I’ve always said that I think that that’s a mistake…Even at its height, [the] legislative branch is so out-personed, if you will, compared to the executive branch, it’s hard to conduct oversight…[as] contemplated by the constitution.

Want to know what agency heads asked for but don’t want to watch four hours of hearings yourself? We’ve got the details below.

Across the four hearings, appropriators discussed campus renovations, cyber security enhancement, intelligence community oversight, the debt ceiling, budget transparency, and leadership vacancies.

Renovations

The AOC recently wrapped up phase 1 of Cannon renovations; next up is phase two, plus the architect also has plans to renovate the Rayburn and Longworth buildings. The projects have an estimated combined price tag of several billion (with a ‘B’) dollars and end date in the 2030s or 2040s. By the time the project is done current college students will be old enough to run for president.

The AOC’s request was 13.3% higher than last year’s to cover several large projects including:

  • $53 million for Library of Congress projects like fixing the sixth floor terrace (which is leaking onto the collections stored below), and replacing the copper roof on the James Madison building.
  • $25 million for the Capitol, $7 million of which will go to the building and destroying the inauguration stage.
  • Money for upgrading the refrigeration plant and replacing aging equipment. Some units have been there since Reagan was in office and Ghostbusters was in theatres.

Cyber Security

GAO first labeled cyber security as a ‘top risk’ issue over 20 years ago in 1997. It was the first time an issue had been labeled ‘high risk’ across the entire federal government.

Fast forward to now, cyber security is still a ‘top risk’ issue. GAO has a technology & cybersecurity team as well as the new Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team, which is on track to release its plan for tech assesment this month. That said, congressional IT and cyber security need more support: GAO can only respond to Committee head and congressional leadership requests—it hasn’t had the capacity to reply to individual members’ requests for 15 years. This ties in to the debate concerning building Congress’s technology assessment capacity, with GAO’s plan due in mid-March and a report from NAPA due at the end of October.

Intelligence Community Oversight

Chairman Ryan raised the idea of introducing legislation (again) that would codify GAO’s right to oversee Intelligence Community (IC) activities. GAO Comptroller Dodaro turned down the offer, explaining GAO already has the statutory power to review IC work and that access has improved in the last few years. This is a touchy point: GAO has the authority to conduct IC oversight, but that authority is not always given appropriate deference by the IC.

To this point, the comptroller did mention, however, that it has been difficult to elicit cooperation on congressional requests that come from non-intelligence committees. The government watchdog could use more support from the intelligence committees as well as assistance getting GAO staff the necessary classifications and clearances to work on IC issues.

Debt Ceiling

Starting tomorrow, Saturday, March 2nd, the Treasury will have to enact “extraordinary measures”—i.e. borrowing against pensions—to pay the government’s bills. Even with ‘extraordinary measures,’ the Treasury can only afford to pay the bills through the end of this Fiscal Year, according to GAO Comptroller Dodaro.

Budget Office Transparency

CBO has no plans to publish the models it uses for calculating how much proposed bills will cost. CBO Director Dr. Keith Hall’s backed up that decision saying that the amount of resources it would take to publish the 200+ models would detract from crucial analysis. In addition, the models use private information and Hall had concerns that if CBO published that private information, people wouldn’t share information as freely with CBO in the future.

While we understand his concerns, we joined a letter in 2017 in support of greater public access to the methodology behind CBO scoring. We also supported technology-centric efforts to improve CBO’s transparency, such as by publishing reports at predictable URLs, and opposed efforts to cut the agency’s funds.

Leadership Vacancies

The AOC and GPO are both currently lead by ‘acting’ directors. GPO Acting Deputy Director, Herbert Jackson Jr. has been in that role since last July and will be retiring at the end of March.

— Written by Amelia Strauss