Forecast for September 3, 2019.

It’s been a quiet week in Woebegone, D.C., our fair city. Uh, nope. It was a dark and stormy night. Nooooooooo. It was a bright cold day in September, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Ah, that feels right. Welcome to the First Branch Forecast.


More members announced their retirements, including Sen. Isakson and Rep. Duffy. In the House, departures include 13 Rs and 3 Ds; in the Senate, it’s 4 Rs and 1 D. Keep track here.

Cyber Day on Capitol Hill is this ThursdaySeptember 5th. The focus: training staff to protect themselves. RSVP.

The number of trade reporters covering capitol hill are up and daily newspaper staff are down. The Post cites this 2015 Pew study that specialty reporters outnumber those working at broadsheets. Digging deeper, much Congressional coverage is now done by niche reporters who charge a high premium for their specialty focus. So far unexamined: how does this information flow back to capitol hill, does it reach regular constituents, and what’s the result of inequities in access to in-depth information on the advocacy landscape? (BTW, our little newsletter is intended to fill one of the gaps.)

Russia denied Sens. Johnson and Murphy a visa to visit that country as part of a delegation, claiming Johnson had acted in a “russophobic manner.” Just recently Israel denied Reps. Omar and Tlaib a visa at the prompting of Pres. Trump.

Wow. Data scientist Will Geary made two amazing visualizations of the federal budget. Take a minute and watch these two videos: US discretionary spending from 1963 to present; and federal spending from 1963 to present. Doesn’t this really bring all that data to life? Imagine if the Budget Committee or CBO or even CRS presented material this way. All it takes is structured data and a clever person to analyze and visualize it. There’s more cool stuff on his website.


Who’s partisan? A new academic paper (summary) ranks committee partisanship by examining roll call votes. Among its flaws, however, is that it fails to take into account that roll call votes usage varies by committees and that some committees do not need to pass House resolutions/legislation to act, most notably the House Administration Committee, which often uses committee resolutions and a polling method of voting. It also fails to account for where committees do most of their work, such as breaking out Appropriations by subcommittee.

Do staff reflect constituent interests? A new paper explores the agency of Congressional staff, finding “staffers who rely more heavily on conservative and business interest groups for policy information have more skewed perceptions of constituent opinion. Egocentric biases also shape staff perceptions.” This has implications concerning the ability to pay for lobbying and staffer perceptions.


OLC Opinions: The Knight First Amendment Institute and others are suing the Office of Legal Counsel for its much coveted and often withheld opinions, focusing on those more than 25-years old and thus no longer protected from disclosure by a FOIA exemption. Follow the court docket here. We testified on the importance of congressional access to OLC opinions.

Good FOIA News. The Ninth Circuit split with the DC Circuit and upheld the ability of federal courts to require agencies to publish records online in virtual reading rooms in response to a FOIA request; the D.C. Circuit had held a requester could only compel the documents be released to that requester and not the public at large. (H/T Patrice McDermott)

Rep. Richard Neal used his government Facebook page to air campaign ads, which violates House rules. Neals says it was a boo-boo, and that the vendor was mistakenly given access to the official Facebook page. (Why did the campaign have access to the official page?)

The number of theft investigations by the Architect of the Capitol Inspector General has been on the rise since 2017 a new IG report reveals.

The FEC no longer has a quorum because another of its members has departed. It can no longer enforce the law (not that it was), protect against cyber attacks (ha!), or protect US elections from foreign interference.

The Leg Branch Capacity Working Group is holding a panel discussion on the Fix Congress Committee next Tuesday, September 10th.

The Pig book is out. Citizens Against Government Waste’s annual compendium of what they consider pork projects, many of which they characterize as earmarks (issued in spite of the earmark “ban”). Check out the interactive database.