DESCRIBING WHY CONGRESS IS BROKEN can be hard, but this awesome claymation video helps. Seriously, it’s better than schoolhouse rock. (Thanks CS Monitor).
ON STARTING IMPEACHMENT PROCEEDINGS, PELOSI’S STRATEGY HAS BEEN DELAY, DELAY, DELAY. But with Rep. Justin Amash’s statement this weekend that the “Mueller’s report reveals that President Trump engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behavior that meet the threshold for impeachment,” the political calculus is changing.
At a closed door Dem caucus meeting last week, Speaker Pelosi advised colleagues to avoid impeachment proceedings and to stick to the policy agenda leading up to the 2020 election. “Not a single lawmaker challenged her,” The Washington Post reported. Speaker Pelosi also is moving slowly on holding witnesses in contempt, although this is less unusual.
Trump is trying to buy time on the impeachment issue, too, by stonewalling Dem requests. The thing is, Pelosi and Trump can’t both be right about who benefits from delaying impeachment proceedings.
When Trump was elected, the mantra was to avoid normalizing Trump’s behavior. The Democratic take-over of the House in part provided an opportunity for the Congress to finally, belatedly push back against an over-powerful executive branch and a president unrestrained by the law. And yet, Speaker Pelosi has moved the goalposts on what is sufficient to trigger the formation of an impeachment committee to report on the possible grounds for impeachment. She also hasn’t moved aggressively to beef up the House.
Waiting until the election is Pelosi’s answer, but it isn’t the answer. Elections are where you resolve policy conflicts, not constitutional conflicts. There’s no guarantee that the policy options that are politically tenable now will be available in 18 months. And the failure to move on impeachment will allow Trump to say that all the talk about his behavior is just talk, because if the Democrats actually had something they would have acted.
WITH IMPEACHMENT PROCEEDINGS GETTING THE BACK HAND, what oversight options does Congress have at its disposal to keep the executive in check?
The administration has been ignoring congressional subpoenas and the House doesn’t have a reliable mechanism for enforcing them. This means the two branches will likely have to resolve matters in court unless the House avails itself of the power of the purse or changes its rules.
The House has already taken Trump’s private lawyers to court over defying a subpoena for his personal accounting records. The U.S. District Court Judge hearing the case Trump et al. v. House Oversight and Reform Committee appeared to agree with lawmakers that the accounting firm would have to turn over the financial records.
Secretary Mnuchin may be in court next: the secretary missed the deadline for a subpoena for Trump’s tax returns.
Congress could give its subpoenas some teeth through legislation. Last Congress, former Rep. Issa introduced the Congressional Subpoena Compliance and Enforcement Act (H.R. 4010), which passed the House but didn’t get a vote in the Senate. Provisions of the bill allowed for federal court enforcement of congressional subpoenas and authorized the court to impose monetary penalties on the head of government agencies or components who willfully fail to comply with a congressional subpoena. Will it be reintroduced?
ANY OTHER OVERSIGHT NEWS?
Employees leaving the White House are signing non disclosure agreements (NDAs) that may violate whistleblower protection laws. If that’s the case, House Dems may withhold the salaries of the administration officials enforcing the NDAs. House Oversight Chairman Cummings wrote Mick Mulvaney to let him know that if the NDA language doesn’t highlight “the rights of federal whistleblowers to make protected disclosures to Congress,” they are in violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989.
Lawmakers and experts discussed potential fixes to Congress at a committee hearing earlier this month. There’s been great coverage of proposals, some of our favorites include an ‘artificial intelligence engine’ for comparing legislation (currently being developed by the House Clerk), creating a Chief Data Officer to make legislative data accessible, and bringing back the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), endorsed by 50 lawmakers.
A not-so-serious attempt to fix Congress: the Make Washington Work plan from Sens. Rick Scott and Mike Braun, which endorses a supermajority to raise taxes and eliminating automatic pay raises for members of Congress. Really?
Work on the Hill? Please take this survey on congressional capacity from James Madison University Prof. Tim LaPira and University of Michigan grad student Zander Furnas. The study covers topics like congressional staffers’ professional backgrounds, career paths, policy views, technical knowledge, substantive expertise, and job experiences.
APPROPRIATIONS SEASON CONTINUES this week with House appropriators holding full committee markups of the Defense and Energy bills tomorrow (May 21st). CJS is set for Wednesday at 10:30. If you’re submitting public witness testimony, Senate Financial Services and General Government’s deadline is this Friday. Check out our testimony tracker.
The Defense Approps bill rebukes the Trump administration for its efforts to work around the law to fund the border wall. The bill cuts the amount of money the military can shift between accounts from $9.5 billion to $1.5 billion. House appropriators also include language on page 9 of the State, Foreign Ops bill reminding the executive branch that “under the Constitution, the President must take care to execute the appropriations that Congress has enacted.”
The Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS)subcommittee
had a markup last week, with a full committee markup set for Wednesday. (Watch for the committee report’s release on Tuesday). Civil society has urged the committee to require the Justice Department to publish Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion titles, authors, and dates of all final Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinions.
Last week the White House wrote a letter criticizing the legislative branch appropriations bill. Specifically the administration disapproved of the 3.6% increase in leg branch spending, making disingenuous arguments about staff funding levels. To put their complaints into context, the House appropriation last year was 23% lower than 2010’s appropriation when adjusting for inflation.
In other money news, Sens. Grassley and Wyden are creating five task forces to delve into temporary tax “extenders.” What’s a tax extender?
TECH & TRANSPARENCY
The Library of Congress published an improved digital strategy, this time after receiving public input. LOC added language saying it would engage with stakeholders to improve public access to legislative data and “will work with internal, external, and congressional stakeholders to continually improve site features on Congress.gov and expand access to this content.” Have suggestions for the library? You can email them at LC-Labs@loc.gov.
Senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced the Creating Advanced Streamlined Electronic Services for Constituents Act (H.R. 1079). The bill, introduced by Sens. Carper and Portman, lets constituents electronically authorize congressional offices to engage federal agencies on their behalf. The current system requires written consent. A companion bill in the House passed 379-0 earlier this year.
Who owns the law? Not the public according to a lawsuit the state of Georgia brought against Carl Malamud and his group Public.Resource.Org for publishing annotated state laws. The state’s lawyers hyperbolically say releasing legal materials was part of a “strategy of terrorism.” The federal appeals court sided with Public.Resource.Org on whether the law can be copyrighted — it cannot — and now the case may go to the Supreme Court.
The Government Publishing Office (GPO) released its 2018 annual report.The report details the full-scale deployment of govinfo, as the successor to our FDsys website and includes performance stats like number of staff (1,737), federal titles available (2.5 million), and monthly retrievals (35 million).
Speaking of GPO, they’ve been staffing up: the agency has named an Acting Deputy Director, an Inspector General, a CFO, and new members to the Depository Library Council.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF INFLUENCER
Ex-Pelosi staff are back on the Hill but now they’re lobbying for Comcast, CVS, Johnson & Johnson, Tesla, PhRMA, and Facebook. Seventeen former staff are now registered lobbyists, including two former chiefs of staff. There’s many more unregistered advocates. It would be interesting to interview them and ask why they left.
When Congress cut the budget of its internal think tanks (CRS, CBO & OTA), it filled the gap with party-aligned think tanks. Research shows that Republican think tank expenditures outpace expenditures from CBO and CRS; on top of that Congress calls on more think tank witnesses for hearings than witnesses from CRS or CBO.
Phillip Swagel will be taking over as the director of CBO. Current CBO director Keith Hall’s four year term ended Jan 3 but he’s continued on in a temporary capacity. In theory, CBO directors are appointed by the speaker and the president pro tempore of the Senate, but they are effectively chosen by the House or Senate Budget Committee chair on a rotating basis.
CRS has a great explainer of the House calendar. It’s basically a “menu” of eligible legislation that leadership can choose in structuring the floor schedule. Find today’s here: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/browse/getTodaysHouseCalendar.action.
It’s been a year since the Pentagon had an on camera press briefing; KISS frontman Gene Simmons broke the streak last week.
I love Matt Glassman’s newsletter on Congress and you should too.
Don’t forget! Next week is recess. Yay! Then it’s four weeks back in before Independence Day.