Technology staff hiring faces huge challenges, according to House Clerk Cheryl Johnson and House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving. At this past week’s House Admin hearing, both agencies said they struggle with hiring and retaining IT personnel, a topic that came up several times. The House officers identified insufficient resources to pay staff, the pay cap, and increased competition from companies like Amazon for talent. Eliminating the pay cap would be very helpful — staff currently cannot earn more than a member of Congress, whose pay has been frozen at $174k since 2009, and is $41,000 less than what an equivalent member of congress earned in 1998 (adjusted for inflation).
Chief Administrative Officer Philip Kiko proposed creating a tech innovation lab, “where Member offices will be able to test, evaluate, and share innovative tools and ideas.” One such innovative idea was raised by Rep. Susan Davis, who proposed digitizing the process of co-sponsoring bills. There are about 135,000 co-sponsorships each Congress, and the Clerk’s office spends five hours a day collecting and confirming those co-sponsors, and then inputting the names into the system.
The idea of a tech innovation lab inside Congress isn’t new, as there have been proposals to create an 18F for Congress — the Congressional Digital Service — for a few years. We’ve seen great success with improving technological coordination via the Bulk Data Task Force, which is one reason why we’ve proposed transforming it into the Congressional Data Task Force.
Sexual Harassment at the Architect of the Capitol is the topic of a report by the AOC IG, released this Friday, which was requested by the Senate Rules Committee in October 2018 and first covered in Roll Call. (We note that the AOC IG releases its reports publicly, which is more than we can say for the House IG or the Capitol Police IG). This matter did not come up at the House Admin hearing.
The IG said the AOC has exhibited “success” in meeting its mission with respect to sexual harassment, and elsewhere described the agency as making “significant strides.” However, “noted issues predominantly involve inadequate reporting and tracking mechanisms and poorly defined victim’s advocacy procedures. In addition, indications of outdated and permissive attitudes by AOC officials require further attention.”
It appears the Human Capital Management Division did not cooperate fully with the IG. In addition, the independence of the Diversity, Inclusion, and Dispute Resolution office appears to be a significant issue.
According to the IG, there’s inadequate record keeping, a lack of internal controls, the AOC was reluctant to cooperate with the inquiry and a “cultural resistance and lack of transparency at all levels. ” In addition, there’s an outdated cultural attitude in some areas that has set a tone of permissibility, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on settlements over the last decade, and there’s a lack of trust in leadership. Power disparities (some night shift custodial staff report harassment while working in the offices of Members of Congress) and harassment by non-AOC staff (like the US Capitol Police members of the press, or visitors to the Capitol) also are a problem.
An obvious point of action for Congress is on whistleblowers. “The lack of whistleblower protections for Legislative Branch employees is a recognized inhibitor to the filing of complaints; this is reflected in the AOC cultural narrative that those who report are not protected by the AOC, OOC or legislation.”
This is a key point, and it is in line with what the Office of Compliance said recently in its biennial report containing recommendations to address harassment: “The Board has [repeatedly] recommended … that Congress provide whistleblower reprisal protections to legislative branch employees comparable to that provided to executive branch employees under 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(8), and 5 U.S.C. § 1221. Additionally, as discussed below, the Board recommends that the Office also be granted investigatory and prosecutorial authority over whistleblower reprisal complaints, by incorporating into the CAA the authority granted to the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates and prosecutes claims of whistleblower reprisal in the executive branch.”
THREATENING MEMBERS OF CONGRESS
Patrick Carlineo was charged with threatening Rep. Ilhan Omar where he called her office and said “he was a patriot, that he loves the President, and that he hates radical Muslims in our government,” according to court records. He went on: “Do you work for the Muslim Brotherhood? Why are you working for her, she’s a fucking terrorist. I’ll put a bullet in her fucking skull.” Carlineo was charged with threatening to murder a US official with the intent to interfere with the official performance of their duties, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 115(aX1)(B).
There’s a direct connection between right wing media outlets, members of Congress, allies, and Trump smearing Reps. Omar and Ocasio Cortez — e.g., calling them domestic terrorists” — and an uptick in death threats. Even as some members try to twist away from their personal responsibility, there’s little doubt it will end in tragedy.
My fear, beyond the incitement of physical harm, is that the ensuing violence will be used by those engaged in incitement to intimidate their opponents, clamp down on the press, and polarize Americans to do “whatever it takes” against this imagined enemy. We know how that story ends.
Oddly, these incidents aren’t reflected in Capitol Police arrest summaries, and the department won’t comment to the press on threats to lawmakers. Relatedly, we requested the USCP’s annual statistical report on officer misconduct two months ago and have nothing to show for it.
Congress’s “Defense Against the Dumb”: Science and technology expertise in Congress is the subject of a beautifully-reseached Washington Monthly story. Once sentence says a mouthful: “The Gingrich revolution not only wiped out the OTA; it also decimated congressional staff ranks, and their numbers have never fully recovered.” This is suggestive of an iron triangle for a tech-smart Congress: science and technology policy oversight, foresight, and a cadre of personal and committee staff who can make use of those resources.
STAA: GAO unveiled its plan to build up its Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics team. What is technology assessment? At GAO, it’s “a separate product line that provides insight and foresight to Congress by explaining a specific technology’s policy implications and its potential effects on government and society.” GAO is establishing an innovation lab (focused on advanced analytic capabilities, emerging technologies, and audit practices), and it intends to increase its STAA team from its current 49 FTE to 70 FTE in FY 2020, speculating about growth to 100-140 staff in future years. It also will establish a STAA advisory board.
TechCongress placed eight fellows in Congressional offices, who act as supplemental staff with science and technology expertise. They are working with Sens. Cotton (R-AR), Schatz (D-HI), and Rounds (R-SD); Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats; Senate Rules Committee Democrats; Rep. Takano (D-CA), House Homeland Security Democrats, and House Energy Republicans.
Why does this matter? Read about the role that JASON, the independent defense science + technology advisory group, has played for many years. Unfortunately, the DOD has decided to kill it off despite an impressive track record. Congress needs more of this kind of independent expertise.
VoterVoice apparently left thousands of constituents names, phone numbers, addresses, and emails exposed naked on the web, according to TechCrunch. The grassroots advocacy platform, owned by FiscalNote, which also owns Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly, says that 21 million people have sent 36 million messages on its platform. More than 300,000 email addresses were reportedly left unsecure on a server — and VoterVoice stopped responding to requests to fix the problem.
In addition to this serious data breach, VoterVoice’s press statement, published inTechCrunch, also wrongly implies that communications to Congress are in the public domain and can be “obtained via a FOIA or public information request to Congress.” This issue seems ripe for an inquiry by the House Admin or Senate Rules committees, and/or the House and Senate Sergeant at Arms.
2-factor authentication: We mentioned last week Jason Cosko’s break-in to Senate computers, which could have been prevented through the use of 2-factor authentication. The Senate SAA had put out a request for quotation for multi-factor authentication with responses due by September 2018, which followed Senate appropriators requiring a study on multi-factor authentication in its FY 2018 Approps Committee report (adopted in July 2017), and a letter from Sen. Wyden in April 2017.
Last week Democrats postponed a vote on a bill to raise discretionary spending limits for the next two fiscal years. GAO says without action the Treasury can only afford to pay the bills through the end of this Fiscal Year.
Progressives want to bring nondefense spending into parity with defense spending, proposing $664 billion in FY 2020 for each. The House Budget Committee had proposed $664b in defense spending and $631b for non-defense spending. For FY 2019, defense spending was capped at $647b and non-defense spending was $597b (defense has been growing at a faster rate than non-defense).
With the need for Dems to negotiate with the Senate and Trump, one would think the Dem position would be to hold the line on defense spending (at $647b) while bringing non-defense to parity (at $647b), so as to meet progressive demands to address domestic spending while appeasing the rump of conservative Dems who seem to be the only people on Capitol hill in either party who are prioritizing the deficit.
Leadership cancelled the budget vote to avoid a public debate on prioritieson discretionary and non-discretionary spending; instead they pushed through a deeming resolution to set the top combined discretionary number at $1.295b. The defense/non-defense split, and the non-discretionary funding number will be voted on after the recess. However, this top line number allows appropriators to move forward with last year’s baseline of funding for the subcommittees. We think the legislative branch needs more funds.
FUNCTION AND DYSFUNCTION
The budget negotiations will be a test of whether the Senate is truly broken, opines Politico, but it seems that ship has sailed. It isn’t that Democrats and Republicans fight, or even that Sen. McConnell went nuclear — twice — but it’s that its leadership is acting as an arm of the White House, not as the leaders of an independent branch of government.
House Democrats held their retreat this past week, but I didn’t see any great accounts of what was discussed. We did sign a letter from 22 organizations yet again requesting Dems to publish their caucus rules online.
Members of the House Education and Labor Committee have been allowed to add their votes to tallies after the fact for years (as long as it didn’t change the outcome).The House Parliamentarian says the practice, which has gone on under D & R leadership, violates House Rules and must stop. Good. Next step: publish all the committee votes on a central Clerk-run website, just like we see for floor votes, instead of PDFs on each committee website as is current practice.
Student loans can be a burden for Members as well as staff.
When Rep. Serrano retires in 2020 he’ll give up the gavel for the House appropriations CJS subcommittee. Rep. Cartwright, who ranks 18th in seniority and has been on the committee for 3 years, will take over. Why?
While R’s assign subcommittee leadership based on full committee seniority, D’s do it by subcommittee seniority. The reason is that members should have experience on a subcommittee before becoming its chair.
Seniority is still very important in Congress, as Leg Branch discusses in this article.
Rep. Loebsack will retire at the end of this Congress.
TRANSPARENCY & ETHICS
More equal than others: powerful individuals are more likely to be handled by senior staffers than less powerful people, according to a new study. “Letters from women and families and those dealing with routine legislation are more likely to be answered by lower-ranked staffers.”
Whistleblowers: Last week marked the 30th Anniversary of the Whistleblower Protection Act. While whistleblower protections are insufficiently strong and not available to all, they play an essential role in helping Congress to do its job. The House recently created a Whistleblower Ombudsman, although that position has not yet been filled. Possible whistleblowers should read the new e-book Caught Between Conscience and Career: Expose abuse without exposing your identity, on how to (more) safely blow the whistle.
Domestic lobbying: 59% of the nearly 3,800 referrals Congress sent to the office responsible for policing the lobbying industry between 2009 and 2018 have yet to be resolved. The DC US Attorney has only one part time attorney assigned to the enforcement office, down from 6 part time attorneys two years ago. It has not enforced a Lobbying Disclosure Act violation in four years. Incidentally, the Center for Responsive Politics proposed Congress publish unique IDs for lobbyists on their disclosure forms so bad actors are easier to track. Motivating the DOJ to act could help, too.
Almost 20% of House Dems pledged not to take corporate PAC money during their campaigns but lobbyists have, uh, found a way around it.
Members of Congress who fly on private planes must reimburse donors for the cost.
Tom Bruce, a trailblazing legend when it comes to making the law available to everyone, will retire from Cornell’s Legal Information Institute after 27 years. If you’ve ever Googled or Yahooed or Lycosed or Dogpiled the US Code or the Code of Federal Regulations or a Supreme Court opinion, you probably used his website. In fact, Tom created the first web browser that worked on Windows, “Cello,” in 1993 so that lawyers (who preferred Windows machines over Linux) could have access to legal information online.
Tom says his most important accomplishment was to “break the commercial publishers’ intellectual monopoly on legal information.” I think he’s been a model of what the Library of Congress should be doing — and should have been doing — all along: Take the law, regulations, and court opinions, digitize them, provide useful context, and make it freely available to everyone. The LII will be left in good hands, but Tom will be missed. And now a musical selection.
Know for whom the bells toll: An amazing story of the Capitol’s legislative call system, and a changing of the clocks.
A Chinese state-owned company implicated in disturbing human rights violations has supplied its surveillance cameras for use on the British parliamentary estate, as well as to police, hospitals, schools, and universities throughout the country, the Intercept reports.
Rep. Devin Nunes, for the second time in weeks, filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit alleging a wide-reaching conspiracy to defame him.