CONGRESS IN BRIEF
• Apparent mismanagement at CRS has created a 19% annual turnover rate in its law division and a lack of diversity in the agency’s senior leadership, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Last week’s House Admin hearing on CRS — the first in more than a decade — shed welcome light on problems facing Congress’s think tank. More below.
• Did you know the House doesn’t have a point person for HR? That point was made by Rep. Kilmer at the Fix Congress Committee’s hearing on congressional staff retention and diversity (video here), which featured experts on building strong, diverse workforces.
• Spending bills: the Financial Services and General Government bill will go to the House floor this week and, potentially, so will the leg branch spending bill (sans member pay raises). Plus, a minibus spending bill (Labor-HHS-Edu, Defense, State, and Energy) passed the House last week, amendments here. The second minibus bill (CJS, Ag, Interior, MilCon, and T-HUD) has been held up.
• The US almost went to war with Iran last week. Dems want to make that harder.
• Recess starts at the end of this week.
THE CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE
There are big problems at CRS. They include sky-high turnover rates, a lack of diversity at the top and bottom of the organization, and a weakening of the content of its reports. At a House Admin hearing, CRS management appeared to play down (or ignore) these problems while CRS’s Union, CREA, tried desperately to find a way to work constructively with management.
Turnover. CRS’s lawyers in the American Law Division (ALD) turned over at an annualized rate of 19% for 2016, 2017, and 2018; other divisions’ attrition rates averaged around 7.4% for the same time period, according to the written testimony of CREA’s president, Dr. Susan Thaul. In response to a question, CRS Director Mazanec said that she has worked with the head of the American Law Division for the last few years concerning the cause of the increased turnover but has been unsuccessful in identifying the cause.
According to the union, its “chief steward has assisted more ALD staff with problems with their supervisors than in any other division. Some former and current ALD lawyers talk about an “atmosphere of fear and distrust.” How bad is it? Excluding ALD, 29% of currently analysts have been at CRS for less than 3.5 years. At ALD, that number is 54%.
Diversity. There are no African-Americans among CRS’s senior management team and only one person of color among the 12 direct reports to Dr. Mazanec. Diversity is highest among Baby Boomers and then decreases through Generation X and is lowest among Millennials. (This is the opposite of what one might expect.)
Despite requests from the union grounded in their contract, CRS management has refused to give CREA demographic data that would shed light on these questions. In addition, CRS management put together an advisory group that generated a plan to hire and retain a more diverse workforce, but according to the union, the central office staff edited the group’s report so extensively that the advisory group asked that the report be withdrawn; the operations staff that oversaw the advisory group said Dr. Mazanec refused a request to meet about the report.
Weakening Reports. It appears that CRS is putting pressure on analysts to shy away from certain topics and eschewing rigorous analysis in others. According to CREA, in some cases “management fear of Member objections overrode the nonpartisan, expert analysis and judgment of their analysts. Such constraint goes beyond whether or not to release a document. Authors see this trend and scale back analytically ambitious products on their own. In some cases, analysts are prevented in CRS’s review process from synthesizing new perspectives on issues, and are told to instead focus only on what others have said.” The hiring process also apparently is becoming focused on bringing in more junior staff instead of experts who can dig deep.
What next? The big questions here are about CRS’s future. At one level, these problems indicate a day-to-day mismanagement of staff that is intolerable. At another, they point at the existential question of the role CRS will play in supporting Congress and how it will perform those duties. House Admin was right to hold this hearing — Congress must be actively involved in answering these questions and not allow them to be answered by default.
FIX CONGRESS HEARING
The Fix Congress committee held a hearing on cultivating congressional staff and building diversity. Here are the major themes:
• Address the hiring process: diversify who screens candidates; address unconscious biases; pay interns to address barriers to entry; and create a HR HQ
• Provide improved benefits and professional development: paid leave, development training, and student loan repayment can help ameliorate the pay gap
• Fix the pay gap
One key to diversifying Congress and keeping staff on board is salary increases.The boost to the Member Representational Allowance in this year’s leg branch spending bill is not enough to give staff meaningful raises, and the pay problem is more acute in the House with chiefs of staff making $50K less than Senate counterparts.
Check out this op-ed from Chair Kilmer and Vice Chair Graves summarizing what the committee is, what it’s done so far, and what’s next.
In the Senate, appropriators can’t/won’t move forward until top-line numbers have been finalized. If top line numbers aren’t in place by July 1st, Appropriations Chairman Shelby said he would work off estimates that are lower spending figures than they expect in a final deal. Would permanent appropriations help this process? (Probably not)
Lawmakers have filed hundreds of amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Why so many? Because, as the NDAA is one of the few bills that gets enacted each year, some lawmakers see it as their only shot to make law. Amendments are due by tomorrow and the bill is likely to be considered the week of July 8th.
Submitting an amendment doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily get a vote: Roll Call reports that while almost all “unobjectionable” amendments are approved by unanimous consent as part of a bundle of uncontroversial amendments, on average just 1 or 2 of the “more consequential amendments” have gotten a vote in the last 6 years.
A former Senate staffer was sentenced to four years in prison for ‘the largest data theft in Senate History.’ Jackson Cosko hacked Senate computers and used key logging software to release five Republican senators’ personal information (this is called doxxing) last fall.
Check out the congressional revolving door visualized via Vox.
TECH & TRANSPARENCY
The GREAT Act was favorably reported by the Senate homeland security and governmental affairs committee last week. The bill, S. 1829, will modernize how nearly $700 billion in federal grant funds are tracked and reported each year, according to the Data Coalition.
ODDS & ENDS
Former Congressional staff are volunteering to help Congress strengthen its oversight muscles.
Congress’ contempt problem is a separation of powers one.
The Black Girl 44 scholarship is hoping to make DC internships more accessible to Black girls in college. The organization will be awarding multiple $1,500 scholarships to black women college students interning in for DC Fall 2019. Interested in applying? Click here.
OCWR: CAA Reform Act went into effect last week
Two Senate appropriations staffers were demoted over botched flight plans for senators to travel to the late-Senator Cochran’s funeral.
• The Innovation Defense Foundation is hosting a panel, “Improving Congressional Research Capacity” at the National Union Building at 6. Directly following there will be a reception in the National Union Building’s speakeasy.
• The Senate Budget committee will hold a hearing on “Fixing a Broken Budget and Spending Process: Securing the Nation’s Fiscal Future,” at 2:30 in Dirksen 608.
A PROGRAMMING NOTE
Starting this week, we are publishing the First Branch Forecast mid-day on Mondays. While we prefer getting it to you first thing in the morning, we like our weekends even more.