AUTHORIZERS AND APPROPRIATORS
This sets the stage for this Tuesday’s House Admin hearing on House Officer priorities for 2019 and beyond, featuring the Sergeant at Arms, the Clerk, the Chief Administrative Officer, and the House Inspector General. Hopefully there is cross-pollination between Leg Branch Approps public witness testimony and priorities for House officers. (Live stream will be here.)
The big question, according to House Leg Branch Approps Chairman Ryan, is whether there’s sufficient funds for any reform ideas. Congress has long been on a starvation diet, as was noted in this recent letter from several dozen civil society organizations and former members of Congress.
THE HOUSE LEG BRANCH APPROPS HEARING
On funding for Congress, Rep. Pascrell submitted testimony that called for a 25% increase in the MRAs and for the legislative support agencies. He said:
“We must make a massive commitment to our institution. We need to drastically reform Members’ Representational Allowances (MRA) to keep staff. Staff should not be enticed to leave for lobbyist pay, taking their expertise with them. This would help us keep staff who can preserve institutional memory. Currently, the MRA is used first, for salaries; second, for member travel; and third, for office supplies. New technology and members’ travel should not impact an office’s ability to offer competitive salaries to retain staff. I encourage the committee to decouple these funding streams and increase funding across the board. We also should study ways to remove the politics from salary increases and benefits, such as student loans and parental, vacation, and sick leave.”
Overall Leg Branch funding was the subject of written testimony submitted by GovTrack’s Josh Tauberer, who recommended appropriators develop benchmarks to guide strategic use of leg branch funds. The specific issue of staff pay was addressed by R Street’s Casey Burgat and the Democracy Fund’s Joe Goldman. I testified on this topic last year, requesting the forthcoming study on staff pay and retention.
— Rep. Casten leaned on his expertise as a chemical engineer to explain why OTA is necessary, drawing on his personal experiences of how the agency filled gaps in impartial, expert information about science and technology when he was in the private sector. He also explained why CRS cannot play this role.
— Zach Graves distinguished between technology policy oversight and foresight, with oversight being necessarily evaluative and backwards looking (and thus a good fit for GAO’s new Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics Team), and foresight being focused on charting the future, which is the role OTA formerly played.
With respect to information technology inside the legislative branch:
— I testified on transforming the Bulk Data Task Force into the Congressional Data Task Force, creating a Chief Data Officer for the legislative branch, and creating a Public Information Advisory Committee for the Library of Congress. The last point is important, because the Library of Congress is often reluctant to meet with tech experts in civil society and is a pain point for improving IT and transparency in the legislative branch.
— CRSX: To the Library’s tech and transparency role, R Street’s Kevin Kosar submitted testimony raising significant concerns with the Library’s implementation of public access to CRS reports and urging CRS to begin releasing non-confidential CRS reports contained in its CRSX archive online. This is particularly notable as Kevin worked for CRS for more than a decade, including as a manager.
— Rep. Susan Davis called for modernization of how bills are co-sponsored, suggesting a process that could save thousands of staff hours. Use electronic means to “let offices know whether they have signed on before and give bill sponsors updates when they get new cosponsors.”
— Hudson Hollister, on behalf of XCential Technologies, called on the House to fully adopt the United States Legislative Markup standard, which would provide a “common machine-readable open data format for all of its legislative materials.” This would significantly improve how the House drafts and manages legislative information
On national security, POGO’s Mandy Smithberger advocated for giving key congressional staff proper security clearances to assist their bosses in their oversight and legislative responsibilities. “We respectfully urge your Committee to provide adequate resources so that personal office staff of members on key committees can receive the clearances necessary to properly oversee intelligence and other national security agencies.”
— Rep. Susan Davis submitted testimony on this point, suggesting a course of action: “Considering that we all have to vote on legislation that concerns highly classified matters, and often have to review materials and be briefed accordingly, it may make sense for every member of Congress to have the option to designate one staffer at the TS/SCI level. But for now, we should at least provide this level of support to members who serve on committees that routinely deal with national security matters.”
— GAO and Oversight: The National Security Counselors’ Kel McClanahan urged Congress to address the Intelligence Community’s recalcitrance to answer questions from GAO by “conclusively validating GAO’s jurisdiction.” This is particularly pernicious as the IC has shrugged off GAO requests for information made pursuant to law or requests from the committees of jurisdiction, saying in effect the IC’s position is GAO can investigate anything involving the IC that the intelligence oversight committees cannot, which amounts to basically nothing.
Other testimony addressed a range of issues: POGO’s Becca Jones pushed for Capitol Police and House Inspectors General to make their reports public (like 70+ other federal IGs already do); Rep. Eshoo and Joseph Alessi requested funds for the Congressional App Challenge; GAP’s Samantha Feinstein asked for funding for the Whistleblower Ombudsman; CRP’s Sheila Krumholz proposed a unique ID to help track lobbyists more effectively.
Library funds: Several organizations addressed funding for the Library of Congress, including the American Association of Law Libraries, the American Library Association, and the National Coalition for History. The National Federation of the Blind made a compelling argument to fund refreshable Braille displays.
DOES SENATE CYBERSECURITY HAVE YOU WORRIED? IT SHOULD.
Former Sen. Hassan IT aide, Jackson Alexander Cosko, and an unnamed accomplice executed an extensive data-theft scheme, outlined in this scary statement of offense (i.e. plea agreement), which became public on Friday.
Cosko was given a key to his former office by a current staffer, broke into the office four times, and installed “keylogging” devices that recorded all keystrokes on six computers, giving him logins and passwords for dozens of staffers. He copied entire network drives — gigabytes of information — and used it to illegally post information about members to Wikipedia and threaten a former coworker to keep silent. Cosko doxxed Sens. Hatch, Lee, Graham, and pled guilty last week.
Two-factor authentication would have prevented Cosko’s keylogging attack, because it requires a layer of authentication beyond a login and password. Staffers would have to use a second device, like their phone, an ID card, or a Yubikey, to prove their identity. Ironically, Sen. Wyden requested exactly this system be installed in the Senate back in 2017.
Coincidentally, the US Capitol Police and Sergeant at Arms testified on cybersecurity last week before Senate Leg Branch Appropriations. Senator Murphy asked whether a “double standard” exists between physical and cybersecurity in the Senate — implying that physical security is given priority over cybersecurity. Senator Van Hollen echoed concerns about cyber vulnerabilities of members’ and staffers’ personal devices.
On that point, Sens. Wyden and Cotton introduced legislation to help secure members’ personal devices. Let’s hope the SAA and USCP make an effort to get in front of this problem. We should note that the USCP Inspector General does not make its reports publicly available, which goes against best practices for Inspectors General — which was the subject of Becca Jones testimony, described above.
Mitch McConnell changed 213 years of senate history in 33 minutes last week when Republicans went nuclear (again!) and changed Senate rules to cut debate time on presidential nominees from 30 hours to 2. The R Street Institute’s James Wallner explains why this is a problem to Roll Call and on his blog.
Republicans previously went nuclear on Supreme Court nominees, of course, to get Neil Gorsuch confirmed to the Supreme Court, after infamously blocking Merrick Garland. While the most recent nuclear blast impacts lower court nominees, it’s not exactly like Trump has had problems stacking the Court. This change makes it easier to speed through executive branch and independent agency nominees, which is about eviscerating the administrative state by allowing toxic nominees to slide by without allowing time for opposition to form.
Schumer shares some blame, but not in the way that you might think. While Republicans have been pushing through nomination after nomination, Schumer was failing to get their Democratic counterparts confirmed.
What’s the difference in tactics between the Rs and Ds? Republicans went nuclear twice in the Senate to push through candidates that couldn’t get 60 votes and blocked a SCOTUS nominee from getting a hearing. By comparison, House Democrats dithered for four months on whether to request Trump’s tax returns, which normally are disclosed by presidents. And it took tons of outside pressure to get Rep. Richie Neal to get off the dime.
CONGRESSIONAL OVERSIGHT MAY BE A WHITE HOUSE WHISTLEBLOWER’S “LAST HOPE.”
White House security adviser Tricia Newbold told the House Oversight committee that dozens of rejections for security clearances for senior Trump administration officials were improperly overrulred. Chairman Cummings started his investigation by moving to subpoena the individual who overruled the whistleblower and has said he’ll issue more subpoenas if necessary.
— There’s a sliding scale for security clearances: If you’re a friend of Trump, it seems easy to get a high clearance; if you’re a regular executive branch staffer it’s cumbersome but not uncommon; but if you work for Congress only a handful of staff are allowed high level clearances. There’s more than a million executive branch staffers and contractors with Top Secret clearances, and thousands with TS-SCI. How common is TS or higher in Congress?
— In addition to Newbold, a small army of whistleblowers from across the government has been working with the House Oversight committee to report misconduct in the Administration.
Speaking of subpoenas, the House Judiciary Committee authorized Chairman Nadler to subpoena the Mueller report.
— What happens if the executive branch doesn’t comply with these requests? CRS has a report on enforcing executive branch compliance with Congressional subpoenas. The short version: without a process for coercing compliance, the subpoena is reduced to a formalized request. In other words, it’s largely not enforceable through regular legal channels. Congress might have to resort to cutting appropriated funds or passing a new legal mechanism to vindicate its right to access info.
— Some of the concern arises from not trusting Barr to limit his redactions. Former House Counsel Mike Stern has a suggestion: ask the judge supervising the grand jury, Chief Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, to allow the committee access to the memoranda. The court could permit two Judiciary committee staffers (one majority, one minority) to review the unreacted report.
House Dems are suing to block Trump’s border wall saying Trump violated the Appropriations Clause by taking funds without the authority to do so. The House also filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court over the proposed citizenship question in the 2020 census. Question: why isn’t the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which oversees litigation decisions by the House, filing all these documents on a central website?
A STRONGER CONGRESS STARTS WITH STRONGER STAFF:
The Federation of American Scientists launched the Congressional Science Policy Initiative last week to fill the scientific gap in the policymaking process. The initiative will supplement the efforts to increase scientific capacity inside of Congress (i.e. re-establishing the Office of Technology Assessment) by creating a network of scientists and technologists outside of Congress who can lend their expertise to inform Congressional debates, initiatives, and oversight responsibilities.
Paid two-year Congressional fellowships for wounded Veterans to work in Congress have been hugely successful, and there’s a huge backlog of requests. (More on the Wounded Warrior Program). Instituting similar programs for technologists and scientists could help fill Congress’s knowledge gap.
Want to know more about staffing trends in Congress? Check out R Street’s event “Behind the Committee Doors: The staffing traits and trends of Congress’ legislative deal-breakers” tomorrow at noon in HVC 200. If you’re reading from the Boston Area, Lincoln Network’s Zach Graves will be leading a workshop on modernizing Congress tomorrow at the Kennedy School.
At least 10,000 state bills introduced nationwide over the last 8 years were largely copied from “model legislation” — often drafted by corporate interests — according to an investigation by USA Today and The Republic. Among the findings: (1) Models are drafted with deceptive titles and descriptions to disguise their true intent. (2) Special interests sometimes work to create the illusion of expert endorsements, public consensus or grassroots support. (3) Bills copied from model legislation have been used to override the will of local voters and their elected leaders. (4) Industry groups have had extraordinary success pushing copycat bills that benefit themselves. Don’t think this doesn’t apply to Congress: it’s just that so far no one has been willing to support this kind of study on the federal level.
Rep. Paul Gosar omitted a dinner with far-right nationalists in travel report.
Former-Rep. Stockman Aide, Jason Posey, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and 3 years supervised release for his role in defrauding charitable donors.
Republican Rep. Mark Walker has been identified as “Public Official A” in a federal corruption probe of a bribery conspiracy to oust a senior official in North Carolina’s Department of Insurance.
What does white nationalist Rep. Steve King do all day? What about Reps. Collins and Hunter, who are both under indictment?
Two high ranking AOC officials have been placed on administrative leave: House Building Superintendent Bill Weidemeyer and Senate Building Superintendent Takis Tzamaras.
They made it official: House Democratic women formed a formal caucus and a political arm. The caucus is open to all 91 House Democratic women and will be led by a leadership team of three co-chairs (Reps. Frankel, Speier, and Lawrence) and two vice chairs.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján’s decision to run for Senate has raised questions about who will succeed Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. Speaking of, what’s going on with the caucus rules and term limits?
I am loath to give Rep. Matt Gaetz any attention, but the NY Times feels differently.
Capitol Police reported six arrests during the week ending April 3rd, five of which were traffic related.
Do you know an oversight aficionado? The Levin Center is accepting nominations for the 2019 Carl Levin Award for Effective Oversight.
Tech Congress is hiring a DC Director. The organization works to bridge the divide between Congress and the technology sector by placing technologists in Hill offices. Susan Smith Richardson is the new CEO of the Center for Public Integrity. She’s the organization’s first African American CEO. The Data Coalition and Data Foundation have brought on Nick Hart, Ph.D., as CEO and Interim President respectively.
Congressional Budget Justifications (CBJs) are hard to find and here’s why.