CONGRESS IS BACK FOR THE NEXT FOUR WEEKS.
Buckle up, it’s gonna be bumpy. The Scylla and Charybdis of our odyssey will be Appropriations and the Trump investigation(s). It’s possible that the Trump administration’s refusal to meaningfully cooperate with subpoenas and accede to requests to testify will become fused to the appropriations process, as appropriations measures can be used to pressure a recalcitrant White House.
This fusion of appropriations and oversight isn’t necessarily a bad thing.The Trump administration may want to avoid a government shutdown out of fear that a slowing economy could hurt Trump’s reelection chances, and the House is being pushed to engage in sweeping oversight. It’s more likely House Dems will use leverage over the upcoming debt ceiling default to redress imbalances in appropriations funding and use other tools to vindicate their oversight obligations, but maybe they’ll go for a two-for-one. Notably absent in news coverage of this issue is the Senate, but I’m sure they’re there … behind the scenes.
Obscured by all of this is probably the most important question relating to a strong Congress: will Congress at last spend more money on Congress? The vote on the terribly named 302(b) suballocations, where the full Appropriations committee decides how much to give each of its subcommittees, is likely set for May 8. This is important.
Congress has cut the amount of non-defense discretionary appropriations for the legislative branch from 0.85% in 2012 to 0.81% in 2019 even while the amount of non-defense discretionary appropriations grewby 5.97% over the same time. Do these numbers make your eyes glaze over? Let me make it easier. The money available for non-defense appropriations grewby $35,660 billion while the money appropriated to leg branch decreased by $94 million.
Even while we spent more money on government, we spent less on Congress. If appropriators are willing to fight for the legislative branch, however, there is such a thing as a free lunch. Democrats and Republicans are proposing to increase spending caps by tens of billions of dollars, so it would be comparatively trivial to find half-a-billion or more of new money to improve the health of the leg branch. Dems are proposing to increase non-defense appropriations by 5.7%, from $597 billion in FY 2019 to $631 billion in FY 2020 and $646 billion in FY 2021. Republicans want to bump defense appropriations from $716 billion in FY 2019 to $750 billion in FY 2020, so there’s definitely enough money sloshing around.
Two specks of light in the darkness? The Fix Congress Committee will hear from former members of Congress this Wednesday at 2, building on their prior hearing focused on learning from experience gained in prior reform efforts. And the Lincoln Network is organizing its annual innovation policy conference this Thursday; hear a conversation with GAO chief scientist and STAA management director Dr. Tim Persons.
SPEAKING OF APPROPRIATIONS
The House leg branch approps subcommittee will be marking up the FY 2020 legislative branch bill on Wednesday. Appropriators will also be hearing several agencies’ budget proposals including the CIA today; DHS, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, FEMA, the Navy, and the Marines tomorrow; and DoD on Wednesday.
The deadline for public witness testimony for the Senate legislative branch and military construction, veterans affairs, and related agencies subcommittees are due this Friday the 3rd. See our approps tracker for the latest.
Appropriators wrote to OMB last week to remind them the power of the purse lies with Congress, not the executive. The letter asks OMB Acting Director Vought for documents detailing how the Trump administration plans to raid previously appropriated funds for his national emergency declaration and border wall.
What else is on deck this spring? Roll Call has coverage of House Majority Leader Hoyer’s legislative agenda for the upcoming work period.
Transparency groups urged senators to pass a bill to reform the Federal Advisory Committee Act last week. The bill will reduce political influence over advisory committees and increase transparency around committee activities.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the FOIA case Food Marketing
Institute v. Argus Leader Media. It looks like the high court will weaken FOIA yet again and broaden exemptions for “confidential” commercial information. Is it time for a new FOIA bill?
House lawmakers are weighing in on the 2020 census question: the Judiciary committee is holding a hearing on 2020 census preparation tomorrowand House lawmakers will also directly address the Supreme Court on the matter. The bipartisan legal advisory group (BLAG), which directs the activities of the House Office of General Counsel, should be publishing information when the House engages with the courts.
The book containing all the Senate precedents hasn’t been updated since 1992.
ON THE RUSSIAN FRONT
Mueller and Barr: Robert Mueller is testifying before the House Judiciary committee on Thursday at 9 and AG Barr is also scheduled to testify before House Judiciary on Thursday and Senate Judiciary on Wednesday. Barr is threatening to pull out if the House goes forward with its smart plan to allow committee counsel to question Barr in half-hour chunks. The Committee should not back down. I’m less sanguine about Nadler’s plans to go into closed session.
The Trump Administration’s refusal to comply with several Congressional subpoenas is “putting forth a constitutional crisis about whether the Congress can effectively perform its oversight duties,” according to Morton Rosenberg.
The Trump administration is clearly trying to delay Congress from exercising leg branch’s constitutionally mandated powers. In his personal capacity, Trump has sued House Oversight Chair Elijah Cummings in an attempt to stop Trump’s accountants from complying with a committee subpoena. As ridiculous as that sounds, Point of Order’s Michael Stern say the case may not be a slam dunk for Congress.
House Oversight Ranking Member Jordan, who is a strong Trump defender, has called for a de-escalation of the situation. Jordan has asked White House Counsel to allow former official Carl Kline to testify in a voluntary interview with the committee. The White House has agreed, but with preconditions.
Rosenberg details congressional oversight powers in his report “When Congress Comes Calling.” He describes what tools are available to enforce Congress’s investigation powers in Chapter 3C, including statutory criminal contempt (section 3) and alternatives to contempt (section 5).
Subpoenas are just one of the many tools available for Congressional oversight. Senator Grassley has been trying a different approach: holding up presidential nominations. Grassley refused to confirm Trump’s selection for director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center because “the Judiciary Committee has experienced difficulty in obtaining relevant documentsand briefings from the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.” (Good for Grassley!)
Another avenue for influencing the executive? Appropriations. I think we beat that horse to death in an earlier section.
An issue where the House is taking a stand? The Mueller report. House Dems turned down DOJ’s offer to view a less redacted version of the Mueller report, not wanting to give the agency an out on turning over the entire unredacted report. This isn’t the first time Congress has had a tough time getting its hands on an executive branch report: during the Obama administration, the NSA only provided a summary of the torture report (as opposed to the full report) and that was only after years and years of Sen. Feinstein working through it.
MONEY IN POLITICS
Facebook hired former privacy activist Kevin Bankston, previously the executive director of the Open Technology Institute, as well as Jennifer Newstead, a Trump official who helped write the PATRIOT Act, to help the company navigate Washington and avoid regulation. Notably, Facebook is socking away $5 billion to pay an expected FTC fine, which they view as the cost of doing business. $5 billion is more than we spend on the entire legislative branch annually.
The “Shelby Mafia” helped usher in a major bank merger. The Interceptlays out how a network of current and former Shelby staff have monopolized the space and make bank on financial deregulatory efforts.
Does either party have formal systems in place for developing future House leaders?
The Center for American Progress has ten congressional ethics reforms to strengthen US Democracy. They include investing in the legislative branch and strengthening OCE.
OCE released a sparse first quarter report. There were no actions taken, likely because members of its board were not appointed until late in the quarter.
Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac dodged the congressionally mandated $600,000 cap on CEO pay by creating a “president” position, which comes with a salary of $3,000,000.
The office within OMB that coordinates tech improvements across government and helps agencies with cybersecurity is grappling with “high turnover,” “a lot of infighting,” a “crushing workload” and “inaction from leadership.”
Sen. Dick Lugar has died.
The National Nuclear Security Administration is making moves to save JASON, the Pentagon’s tech advisory group. Here’s hoping they have success, getting rid of JASON could be a huge detriment to the executive branch. (I’m too tired to make an Argonauts joke, but send me your suggestions. )
The NSA has recommended ending mass collection of phone data under the Section 215 program. Just a reminder that the government secretly and illegally created the predecessor to this program, and that’s there’s lots of ways to engage in mass surveillance.
The ACLU has threatened to sue Republican Rep. Peter King for blocking constituents from his campaign’s Facebook page. Bigger question: should members of Congress be on Facebook?
Having fun isn’t hard, when you have a Library (of Congress) card. I’m a card carrying member.
Amelia and I work hard on writing the First Branch Forecast every week. Take a moment and drop us a line and let us know what you think. Any feedback — good, bad, or funny — is welcome. Daniel(at)DemandProgress.org and Amelia(at)DemandProgress.org.