Forecast for June 10, 2019.Leg Branch Approps goes to the floor; modernizing the contempt process; and improving constituent communications

CONGRESS IN BRIEF

• The Approps minibus will hit the House floor this week. Several hundred amendments were offered for Rules Committee consideration, including 38 for leg branch; H. Rules meets Monday at 5 and again on Tuesday. Anyone offering amendments to stop the member pay adjustment from taking place should read this and then find something useful to do instead. Don’t just take it from us, read the Congressional Management Foundation’s statement.

• resolution to speed the path to court for contempt proceedings is also on the Rules Committee docket; H. Res 430, set for a Monday night vote, empowers the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) to initiate legal proceedings on behalf of a committee instead of requiring additional floor time. This is good; we would also like the BLAG to publish information about its actions, i.e., when it votes to move forward on a matter and what it authorizes.

• Constituent communications with Congress were the topic of a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress hearing on Wednesday — written testimonyvideo — featuring the Congressional Management Foundation’s Brad Fitch, PopVox’s Marci Harris, and Ohio State University Professor Michael Neblo.

• Ten tools to track legislative information were the subject of a Congressional Transparency Caucus event this past Friday, where speakers demo’d their tools. (Summaryvideo). Speakers included DOJ IG Michael Horowitz on oversight.gov; me on EveryCRSReport.com; Library of Congress’s Andrew Weber on Congress.gov; PopVox’s Marci Harris on LegiDash; House Clerk’s Veneice Smith on ClerkPreview.House.gov; Steve Schultze on CourtListener and RECAP; GovTrack’s Ben Hammer on GovTrack; ProPublica’s Derek Willis on Represent; Center for Responsive Politics’ Sheila Krumholz on Open Secrets; and the Majority Leader’s Steve Dwyer on Whip Watch (AppleAndroid).

 

GETTING HIT BY THE APPROPS MINIBUS

There’s no earthly way I can comprehensively summarize the amendments to the Approps minibus or even tell you whether the bill language has changed from when it was passed by committee. But —

Here’s the key take-away, straight from the committee: “The total House appropriation for fiscal year 2019 is about 10 percent below the fiscal year 2010 level in unadjusted dollars, and about 23 percent below 2010 after adjustment for inflation.” This year’s appropriation is a 4.3% increase over last year. As you know by now, we think approps leadership should have restored leg branch funds to their FY 2009 level by providing leg branch with ~1.5% of the proposed $34 billion increase in domestic non-defense spending. This would have helped pay for cybersecurity, congressional modernization, and science & tech capabilities.

We previously summarized the good items in the Approps bill — and there are a lot of good items. The Leg Branch Approps subcommittee did an excellent job of making do with the available money, and we applaud their work. (More money for paid interns; restoring the OTA; ongoing studies on staff pay and diversity; looking at paid parental leave; funding the office of whistleblower ombudsman; looking at clearance delays; unique IDs for lobbyists; and more).

Here’s the links you’ll need for Rules Committee markup: This is the bill text that is subject to amendment. This is the committee report explaining the leg branch appropriations bill. Here is a list of all the amendments (go to Division B). And here is our spreadsheet that looks at leg branch spending by line item from 1994-present.

Of the 38 amendments before the committee, there seems to be several conceptual clumpings.

• Cutting Congress’s funding attracted 9 amendments, including the ridiculous proposed 14% cut from Rep. Banks. Several members proposed keeping funding at FY 2019 levels, which is a 4% cut; others proposed a 1% cut.

• Stopping the member COLA attracted 8 amendments.

• Increasing funds for interns garnered 2 amendments.

• Increasing the MRAs attracted 2 amendments.

• Punishing members who are criminals attracted 3 amendments.

There are a few amendments worth thinking about.

• MRAs: Rep. Pascrell proposed increasing member MRAs by $102m and committee funding by $32 million (amdt #22), which is the same percentage by which the Speaker’s office has gotten funding increases. If it’s good for goose, eh? Rep. Jackson Lee proposed a more modest $2m increase in member MRAs (admt #14).

• Interns: Rep. Ocasio-Cortez proposed (amdt #29) to increase funding for interns from $11m to $19m by taking $4m from the Speakers Office’s and $4m from the Minority Leader’s office, which are set for a double-digit percentage increase. As leadership has done significantly better funding-wise than Congress as a whole over the last decade, this is a strong political point about empowering the whole Congress, not just the tippy top. Rep. Adam Smith’s more modest amendment (amdt #35) would provide an additional $2.1m for interns so all offices can pay one intern at $15/hour. (Incidentally, Rep. Smith has a good intern pay bill.)

• Ethics: Rep. Rice’s proposal (amdt #13) to prohibit members from sleeping in offices is well received, and Reps. Davis (amdt #26), Yoho (amdt #27), and Garcia (amdt #28) would all go after members of Congress who committed felonies by stopping funding for workers compensation and retirement. Rep. Omar’s amendment (# 19) to increase funds for the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights is well intentioned, but I think the office testified they have the funds they need.

• DC: It seems reasonable to defer to Reps. Blumenauer and Norton’s request (amdt #12) to put $100k to speed up implementation of a bike lane around the Capitol.

• Wounded Warriors: While I’m sure that Rep. Kildee’s amendment (#24) to increase funding for Wounded Warriors comes from a good place, the program already provides 110 two-year fellowships for wounded veterans and this year’s appropriation already supports the addition of 10 fellowship positions.

• Funding cuts: It almost goes without saying that the amendments to cut funding for Congress should all be opposed, as House funding is already down by 10% in the last decade. The idea that you make government smarter by making Congress dumber is a bad one. It’s a false economy, and it’s time to pull down the curtain on this kind of performative politics.

• COLA: Amendments to stop the Member COLA from going into effect out of some sense of cost savings are ridiculous. These members would be better off figuring out how to implement GAO’s Duplication and Cost Savings report. Everyone should have a job in which their pay keeps up with their cost of living, and Members of Congress haven’t had a COLA for a decade. Fortunately, it appears House Republican leadership might be on board, allowing vulnerable members in both parties to throw a hissy fit while still reaping the benefits.

As Levar Burton used to say, you don’t have to take our word for it. Here’s the Congressional Management Foundation’s statement: “The issue of how much to pay Members of Congress is part of the larger question as to whether Congress has the capacity to perform its role in our democracy. Whether the issue is Member pay, congressional staff pay, diversity and staff retention, or modern digital tools, any alteration in the institution’s capacity to do its job has implications not just for Congress, but for the American public. In that context, the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) supports reinstituting a standard cost of living adjustment (COLA) for Members of Congress to align with other federal employees or Social Security recipients.”

 

IMPROVING CONSTITUENT ENGAGEMENT

The Fix Congress Committee’s hearing on Wednesday (written testimonyvideo) focused on improving constituent engagement and featured the Congressional Management Foundation’s Brad Fitch, PopVox’s Marci Harris, and Ohio State University Professor Michael Neblo. According to CMF, in 2017 received Congress 13 times the constituent messages than they received in 2001, with the House receiving between 25-35 million constituent communications annually.

Among the more interesting observations: individuals are engaging at scale and they’re not going to stop. In response to arguments that these communications are superficial — “not quality engagement” — and neither effective nor helpful for policymaking decisions, both Marci Harris and Rep. Pocan pointed out that in other contexts, hearing from your constituents often would be a gold mine to find out what they care about and engage more deeply with them. Brad Fitch explained that every communication is an opportunity to connect.

Staff up? CMF’s Brad Fitch raised the issue that there are not enough congressional staff to manage the incoming volume of information. I think this point isn’t emphasized enough, as personal office staff numbers have been frozen since the 1970s. In 1980, the US population was 226 million, or 519,000 constituents on average per congressional district; in 2018 the US population was 327 million, or 751,000 constituents on average per district. Putting aside the 13x increase in communications over the last two decades, the number of constituents per district has increased on average by 44%, or 232,000 people. We haven’t scaled staff accordingly.

New approaches? There are alternative models and approaches to dealing with constituents, which the hearing touched upon. Here are some I’ve been thinking about.

• A federated approach to drafting letters shared by those ideological similarities? The Obama administration received 10,000 messages daily and had 50 staff, 36 interns, and 300 volunteers to manage the workflow, according to the NYT. (By way of context, FDR received one-half a million letters in the first week he spoke on the radio, as the Atlantic noted, so this isn’t a new problem.) The Democratic Study Group, de-funded by Newt Gingrich, used to provide sample letters to constituents for members to use. One could imagine offices banding together, or the creation of a shared service to help address the back-end work.

• “We the People” was the website built by the Obama administration that allowed anyone to contribute ideas online, and if enough people added their name to a petition, the administration would respond. (The code is open source). While the approach wasn’t perfect, one could imagine deployments of “We the People” for the House, or for the party caucus, or even for particular committees, as a way to manage engagement. This also might help lessen the duplicate response issue.

• Publishing the letters? It’s not unusual for member offices to have at least two letters on any topic: one for people who agree with them and another for those who do not. This has always seemed a bit disingenuous, not to mention perilous. Why not consider publishing a public letter to constituents on policy issues on a member’s website and pointing constituents to the response? You could even review comments on the policy positions (however received) and respond to valid points.

 Constituent service wasn’t really brought up, but many constituent letters concern requests for help. Maybe there’s a better way to help them. What if there was a central constituent liaison service inside Congress that managed these requests from the member side? This could help address some of the big problems that arise when members turnover and all their staff leave as well as the further professionalization of this kind of service. It also might free up personal office staff.

• Technology has a huge role to play here and I haven’t met many members who are happy with their CMS. Why not require data portability between all the tools and make it easier to use off-the-shelf services to help respond to constituents while still protecting privacy and addressing speech and debate clause requirements?

 

MUST PASS BILLS

First up: the 667-page “minibus” spending bill covering Labor-HHS-Ed, Leg Branch, Defense, State-Foreign Ops and Energy & Water, which we discussed above. Floor debate is set for Wednesday.

More than 40 groups are pushing House lawmakers to use the Defense spending bill to ban the sale or export of weapons that would be used in the war in Yemen. Through the power of the purse, Congress is reasserting itself.

House Armed Services will be marking up the National Defense Authorization Act on Wednesday, but the amendments to the bill will not be available to the public prior to the votes.

The Financial Services and General Government subcommittee approved a FY 2020 spending bill in markup last week. The bill goes to the full committee tomorrow at 10:30. The bill includes $1 million for Oversight.gov, a repository of federal inspectors general reports, and a bunch of other great provisions.

 

CONGRESS VS. THE ADMINISTRATION

A judge dismissed the House’s border wall lawsuit against Trump, saying just one chamber doesn’t have standing to sue the executive branch.

This is troubling: The Trump administration tried to control the substance of testimony by a government climate scientist as part of an effort to undermine scientific integrity. Unusually, the administration refused to approve his written record testimony because his expert opinions did not match those of the administration.

More Trump officials are defying congressional subpoenas.

OLC says former counsel to the president historically have been immune from congressional calls to testify. Point of Order’s Michael Stern has evidence to the contrary.

Last week Pelosi said she doesn’t want to see Trump impeached, she wants to see him in prison, but even her supporters like former Hillary spokesman Brian Fallon say “she wants to sound tougher on Trump rhetorically to mask her continued belief in a go-lightly approach.” The party split is growing. Behind closed doors pro-impeachment members are trying to grow their ranks.

Meanwhile, oversight efforts continue: House Judiciary is holding a hearing on the Mueller report without Mueller. The hearing, titled “Lessons from the Mueller Report: Presidential Obstruction and Other Crimes,” is today at 2.

 

MONEY AND ETHICS

People who submitted comments to Congress on the Affordable Care Act and hosted a fundraiser for a member of Congress were three and a half times more likely to get their proposed text into the bill than people who only submitted a comment.

Democratic Chiefs of Staff are being coached on how to schmooze with lobbyiststhe Intercept reports. As a public interest lobbyist, why didn’t I get invited to schmooze with my K Street peers by our DCCC friends?

 

TRANSPARENCY

DOJ’s Annual FOIA report is out and Adam Marshall has the breakdown. The highlights: the number of requests and backlogged requests are up, the department used a “rare” exclusionary provision 330 times, and the department erroneously reported a “high release rate of over 91%”.

The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) annual open meeting is happening at 10 this Friday, June 14, in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives. You can watch the livestream here.

The office in charge of federal cyber security and IT strategies is having problems, again.

Fix the Court has a guide to every circuit’s policies on audio, video, judicial wellness, and workplace conduct; plus coming June 13th you can find the Justice’s financial disclosures here.

Congress.gov got an upgrade.

 

QUICK HITS

Blue Dogs wrote Pelosi to remind her of PAYGO measures in the rules. Speaking of rules, @DemCaucus will there be a vote on making your rules public? How about on leadership term limits?

Some Republicans are pushing to get white nationalist Steve King back on committees. Just say nein.

Jim Jordan’s constituents react to Ohio State abuse scandal.

House Ethics has trainings for new employees on June 14th and June 28th.

Congratulations to Frances Lee, named by the Library of Congress as the Inaugural Chair in Congressional Policymaking.