As we speak, the House and Senate are negotiating over how much in new funding to give to each of the 12 appropriations subcommittees. In play is how to divvy up a significant increase in overall funding: a $27 billion increase in non-defense discretionary spending over the next fiscal year.
According to CRS, in FY 2019 the legislative branch was funded at $4.836 billion. How does the proposed increases in Leg Branch funding from the House and Senate compare to last year’s funding level?
Every year the Congressional Research Service submits a report to Congress that provides some information about the agency’s work over the preceding year. From these reports you can glean some insights about how the agency is run, what they prioritize, the long term projects they have undertaken, get a list of new CRS reports, and understand a bit about their interrelationship with Congress. In general terms, it’s a promotional piece for CRS that shows the agency’s work in the best possible light — it’s geared for appropriators — and also includes some useful information about CRS’s operations. Many agencies publish these kinds of promotional reports.
The reports are a snapshot, and on their own don’t provide much information about changes in the agency’s behavior over time. However, if you take the data from reports across many years, you can start to draw conclusions about how their operations have changed. We’ve tried to do just that — but ran into some interesting stumbling blocks. This article is about how hard it is to get information that should be publicly available.
Government funding runs out by Thanksgiving and lawmakers still haven’t agreed on 302(b) allocations. The Senate will take up a package of four “non-controversial” spending bills this week (Ag, CJS, Interior & Transportation), but there’s no consensus on top line numbers. And now there’s talk about another CR until March — which keeps everyone frozen in place; Congress did agreed upon a $22 billion increase for defense spending and a $24.5 billion increase for non-defense discretionary spending. (We think they should agree to increase the allocation for leg branch, too.)
Sixty Seven Inspectors General called out the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel for a dangerous OLC opinion that undermines whistleblowers and the role played by Inspectors General. The letter from the Council of the Inspectors General expressed their “concern that the OLC opinion, if not withdrawn or modified, could seriously undermine the critical role whistleblowers play in coming forward to report waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct across the federal government…. OLC’s interpretation regarding the [Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act] procedure in question…. has the potential to undermine IG independence across the federal government.” They’re right, and OLC is undermining the trust whistleblowers put in Inspectors General; OLC needs greater transparency concerning its opinions and also significant reform in its operations.
Technology Assessment Study. The National Academy of Public Administration’s report on resources currently available to Congress on science and technology policy and the “potential need … to create a separate entity charged with the mission of providing nonpartisan advice” is due to CRS by October 31, and expected to be available to congressional staff and perhaps the public soon thereafter.
You may have heard of the Congressional Budget Office, the legislative branch agency tasked with advising Congress on the potential economic impact of legislation. In formulating these analyses, CBO may rely on outside experts. The agency has three panels of advisers (Economic, Health, and Health Insurance) composed of experts from academia, the private sector, and elsewhere that provide input on CBO analyses, and CBO also consults with other outside experts.
The bipartisan conference was incredibly well run, and did a fantastic job convening internal and external congressional groups to promote engaging and well-executed events (detailed in the image below). You can check out the event descriptions and panelist bios here, and watch the full conference here. (We note parenthetically that this is the first time the conference has been held under Democratic control of the House, which illustrates how these issues have become institutional matters and not partisan ones.)
The Law Library of Congress (LOC) and the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) have announced a collaborative decade long project to digitize House and Senate reports compiled in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, an official publication dating back to 1817. Traditionally only available in print versions in Federal Depository Libraries throughout the U.S. or for a fee from private vendors, the Serial Set is a complete collection of over 14,000 volumes that contain hundreds of thousands of numbered House and Senate reports and documents. GPO plans to upload the Serial Set volumes in phases and will store the digital files in a certified repository. This effort will allow the public to easily find and download scanned versions of the reports at govinfo.gov.
Drafting legislation in Congress can be a daunting process. Typically, staffers provide an outline of the desired bill to the Office of Legislative Counsel (OLC), and an OLC attorney drafts the legislation. This often is an iterative process, with OLC asking questions and congressional staff updating their ideas.
This process can create problems for staff when they request feedback from other congressional offices or outside stakeholders. OLC sends the draft back as a PDF, which staffers can’t change on their own and other stakeholders cannot edit. This makes it hard to collaborate.
We’ve tried to find a way to improve how Members solicit and receive feedback. We’re proud to introduce BillToText.com, a tool for more efficient drafting.
The Bulk Data Task Force (BDTF) is essentially the justice league of legislative data.
The task force convenes each quarter, bringing together the people in charge of managing Legislative Branch data—like the House Clerk, Secretary of the Senate, GPO, and Library of Congress—as well as outside stakeholders. Together the group works to make legislative data freely accessible to all.
The House is in for the next 2 weeks, the Senate for the next 5.
• Hugh Halpern was nominated to be the new Director of the Government Publishing Office. He had served as Republican floor director and previously as staff director for the House Rules Committee. Mr. Halpern played a significant role in bringing transparency to the House Rules Committee and modernizing the House’s rules. I’ve had the pleasure of working with him over the years and found him smart, capable, engaged, curious, patient, and genuine.
• The hottest ticket in town last week was the 7th annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. We will be covering it more fully in an upcoming article, but we’ve hit the highlights below. We particularly enjoyed the quarterly update from the Bulk Data Task Force. This amazing working group (that welcome engagement from all quarters) brings together experts from across the legislative branch to improve how Congress works, focusing on technology and transparency. Continue reading “Forecast for October 21, 2019”→
Welcome back. The next recess is Nov. 4 for the House and Nov. 25 for the Senate. Buckle up.
CONGRESS IN BRIEF
Approps count-down. The CR ends the week before Thanksgiving—maybe there will be another CR to Christmas, or a full year CR, or a shutdown. I suspect House Approps Chair Nita Lowey, who announced she won’t run in the 117th after 31 years in Congress, has had enough of this stuff. Are you ready to rumble? Expect an approps succession fight, with Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Marcy Kaptur jostling for the top spot—Lowey beat Kaptur in 2012—and everyone else looking to move up.
The legislative and technology event of the season has arrived! This newsletter isn’t exactly a gold-embossed invitation, but you really should come to (or watch online) the 7th Annual House Legislative Data and Transparency Conference, set for this Thursday. RSVP here. We’ve been to ‘em all. Come say hi and get a First Branch Forecast sticker or magnet.
We’re still stuck on the FY 2019 approps bills, especially as that fiscal year just ended. We’ve kept track of whether the Leg Branch Approps bill (and accompanying House and Senate report language) have been implemented. Come on, click here, you know you want to see our nifty checklist of what’s done, what’s half-done, and what’s late. Here’s a summary of what we found.