Forecast for October 7, 2019

TOP LINE

The impeachment inquiry is underway — so why don’t members have a sufficiently-cleared staff to help them do their jobs? (They should.) By the way, this Ryan Grimm story on why the Democratic caucus moved towards impeachment is the best one out there.

RSVP for the Legislative Data & Transparency Conference, set for Thursday October 17th. Hosted by House Admin in the CVC, it brings members and staff from the House, Senate, support offices, and support agencies (and us) to talk about improving congressional tech and transparency. RSVP here. Wanna give a lightning talk?

Speaking of tech, join us on Tuesday for “Time for an Upgrade: Getting Better Tech for Congress” at 12 in 2075 Rayburn, hosted by LegBranch.org.

BILL ME

A secret law factory within DOJ known as the Office of Legal Counsel keeps issuing opinions to insulate the executive branch from oversight and accountability. Sixteen reps intro’d the OLC SUNLIGHT Act to require an index of all final OLC opinions and generally require they be made publicly available. We think it’s a good idea — the authors would welcome additional co-sponsors.

Sens. Peters & Portman introduced a spending transparency bill to make it much easier to follow how federal agencies propose to spend federal funds. These proposals, a.k.a. Congressional Budget Justifications, are plain language explanations of spending proposals; they can be hard to find, and this bill would require they be published online in a central location. Good.

Congress’s science and tech policymaking deficits have become a presidential issue. Congress needs its own science and tech expertsReps. Takano and Foster and Sens. Hirono and Tillis intro’d a bill to create a new Congressional Office of Technology. Here’s our two-pager on smartening Congress up. FWIW, Senate approps endorsed more money for GAO’s STAA.

 

APPROPRIATIONS GENERALLY

No shutdown for now: a CR will keep the lights on until Thanksgiving. Over the recess, the Senate and House need to reconcile their 302(b) allocations, aka their top line numbers, as well as the details before the 2020 spending bills can be enacted. The last three shutdowns resulted in 56,938 years of lost productivity.

Senators have approved 10 of 12 spending bills.

 

LEG BRANCH APPROPS

Senate appropriators favorably reported their leg branch approps bill; House appropriators did so earlier this year. Neither bill has passed either chamber. We are nervous about the 302(b) allocation for the leg branch. While we had wanted a lot more to redress decades of cuts, the House’s increase is about 7% and the Senate’s would be about 5%; obviously, the House’s number is better.

Don’t have the time to read the 36 page Senate bill or 62 page reportHere are the highlights:

• Roughly 2/3s of senators don’t have a staffer with TS/SCI clearance. The clearance question was raised at the markup by Sen. Murphy — every member needs a staffer to help with these matters — and there seemed to be bipartisan support.

• Most leg branch agencies saw increases in funding: The Capitol Police got an $8m increase, which completes the 5 year plan to increase officer numbers by 20%. (There’s approximately 2,800 USCP employees). There’s $47m, or 717,791 hours, of anticipated overtime as well. The Library of Congress got $39m increase (p. 47), of which $3.6m was set aside for congress.gov enhancements (p. 47) and $4m was designated for modernizing CRS systems and protect confidential of congressional data (p.52). CBO has a report due in 90 days that is meant to provide transparency around CBO methodology (p. 35).

• Several tech improvements were included: senators want a e-signature tool, similar to what Rep. Susan Davis recommended in the House for sign on letters. A report on the costs and feasibility is due in 90 days (p.13). The Sergeant at Arms was directed to begin updating the communications platform for the Senate, including the development of an enhanced constituent communications platform (p.19).

 There was also some money marked for improving staff quality of life: The GAO report on expanded child care for Senate staffers is overdue, so senators went ahead and allocated $1m for the AOC to evaluate potential location options for expanding child care. Report on the eval is due 3/31/2020 (p. 41). There was a $1m increase in funds for intern pay, but no funds are allocated to committee offices. The freeze on Member pay will be extended.

 

REBUILDING CONGRESS

The highly anticipated House study on pay and diversity 

came out; the upshot is staff generally aren’t paid enough. Data from 5,290 House employees found that they receive equal pay for equal work regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and faith. But: there is a larger proportion of males in higher salary jobs than females. Leg Branch’s Casey Burgat, when comparing the new research to his data, had the same finding, as well as significant under-representations of minorities. According to the Joint Center, more than 75% of senior staffers are white.

We are pleased the House conducted this study — we literally asked for it — and are still digesting the results. Among our preliminary thoughts: (1) the House should publish the final data in a spreadsheet, not just in a PDF, so it is possible to dig further into the data; (2) the results suggest a pipeline issue, where diversity decreases as staff have more senior positions or stay on the hill longer; (3) there is value in looking at the older survey data and comparing the results. We hope the House will continue to conduct these surveys and consider how to automate the collection from the information it already collects.

The Senate, too, is conducting a staff pay study, which is expected by spring next year. These studies are a big step forward for both chambers. The Senate’s effort is a huge lift and we applaud them for it.

In September, the ‘Fix Congress’ committee held a hearing on how lawmakers can get along better. At the hearing, Promoting Civility and Building a More Collaborative Congress (watch here), experts and lawmakers suggested that more socializing across the aisle (for staffers and members alike) as well as nonpartisan retreats and orientations at the beginning of each Congress would help political “adversaries” seem more human.

• A cautionary note: civility is a slippery term. It can mean meeting your colleagues half way, but it can also be weaponized as justification for silencing the voices of outsiders.

ICYMI, MarketWatch has a good profile of the Fix Congress committee. The headline: “Stopping staff brain drain, increasing civility and improving the budget process are all part of modernization.”

 

IMPEACHMENT

Picking up the impeachment talk, it is interesting to compare press coverage of why Speaker Pelosi has finally endorsed impeachment proceedings.

The emphasis on “why” focuses on Speaker Pelosi and national security Dems as a catalyst that paved the way for a narrow inquiry, and that’s a problem. These frontline Dems didn’t break the dam, they were the dam. Narrow impeachment articles written to satisfy members from “swing” districts have a huge downside: they limit the extent to which the House can probe presidential misconduct, narrow the issues the Senate would consider in a trial, and discount the majority of Dems that had come out for it.

The shift from Judiciary to Intel also is interesting. The Judiciary Committee generally has jurisdiction for impeachment proceedings and had adopted committee rules for impeachment. Judiciary received almost $16m in funding for the 116th Congress, compared to $12.5m for Intel, providing it with more funds for its operations and staff. The Judiciary Committee has a much broader portfolio than Intel, and Judiciary has 41 members, compared to Intel’s 22 members, giving it a greater cross-section of the House. Chairman Nadler had been pushing for (and holding) impeachment proceedings for months, but Chairman Schiff publicly opposed impeachment proceedings until September 24, they were endorsed by Speaker Pelosi that same day.

Of particular note, Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader McCarthy are ex officio members of the House Intel Committee, and because Intel is a select committee, Pelosi and McCarthy hand pick their partisan members of the committee and can remove them at will. Schiff has demonstrated he’s willing to bend House rules to maintain secrecy, and the Intel committee has the very narrow national security focus that Pelosi has said she wants brought to these proceedings. Oddly, when the House Dems chose who would succeed John Conyers as Judiciary committee chair, Nadler’s pitch was that “he is best positioned to lead impeachment proceedings against Trump,” and his opponent, Zoe Lofgren, was part of the staff that worked on Nixon’s impeachment. Both Nadler and Lofgren were in Congress during Clinton’s impeachment, but Rep. Schiff has only been in Congress since 2001. House Republicans have brought a(n apparently meritless) censure motion against Rep. Schiff.

At the end of the day, the question is not whether the House will impeach, but whether they’ve made the case sufficiently that it moves the public and moves the Senate. My focus, and I hope yours, too, is fixing the problems that have allowed Trump to be so out of control. This includes reining in the executive branch and undermining unitary executive theory, strengthening Congress’s contempt powers so they’re not reliant on the executive for enforcement, cutting the wings of DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, strengthening the independence of IGs, protecting whistleblowers against retaliation and helping Congress work with them, protecting journalists through a reporter shield law, strengthening the legislative branch by increasing the number of capable and experienced staff, limiting executive branch discretion to conduct mass surveillance and make war without congressional authorization, and so on.

Coda: Sen. McConnell, as part of a fundraising ad for his re-election, vowed to block Trump’s impeachment so long as he remains majority leader.

ICYMI, this is the whistleblower complaint that set off Pelosi’s blessing of impeachment proceedings. Over the years, advocates and allies made many attempts to protect the independence of Inspectors General and secure lines of communication between whistleblowers and Congress. We note with favor the recent establishment of a whistleblower ombudsman office in the House — the Senate needs one too — as well as advocacy from former IC Inspectors General emphasizing the importance of protecting whistleblowers’ identities. We applaud Sen. Grassley for his defense of whistleblowers.

Bandwidth. Former House Counsel Mike Stern makes the excellent point on whether the House’s General Counsel has the bandwidth to handle all the litigation arising from Trump oversight.

 

REXIT

Almost 40% of the 241 Republicans who were in office in January 2017 are gone or leaving, according to analysis from the Washington Post. While some have left because they lost re-election bids, or because they’re under indictment, others are choosing to leave.

Why? The Washington Post says it’s because members of the GOP are fed up with Trump — counterpoint, the Atlantic says Rs aren’t turning on Trump. House Minority Leader McCarthy seems to think the problem is term limits on Chair positions and has proposed modifying the rule.

The rule change would make it so time spent as a RM doesn’t count toward the Chairman term limit. FWIW, term limits spur turnover in chairmanships, which brings “fresh blood into the top ranks of the GOP;” Democrats, who don’t have term limits, have faced the problem of members leaving because there’s no avenues to advance up the ranks into leadership.

As for us, we think a bunch of things are causing the exodus. For one, being in the minority, to use the academic term, sucks; if Republican members used to being in the majority don’t see Rs winning back the House in 2020, they have an incentive to leave. Second, for many conservatives, Trump is a nightmare. Third, member pay is stagnant and you can earn more on the outside. Fourth, for some members, this could be a tough election cycle. Only Justin Amash seems to have found a way out of the merry-go-round.

 

OVERSIGHT OF CONGRESS

Karen Lewis, the head of CRS’s American Law Division, will transition to the front office at the end of the month and retire at the end of the year. Her leadership came under fire when a hearing revealed an extraordinarily high 19% annualized turnover rate in that division for 2016, 2017, and 2018, as compared to 7.4% for other divisions. 54% of employees at ALD have been there less than 3.5 years, as compared to 29% of CRS employees. It’s unclear is why CRS leadership let this problem fester. No word on whether CRS has taken steps to address other issues raised at that hearing, including a dearth of diversity in CRS’s senior leadership and efforts that undermined fixes to that problem.

Know a student coder? Congress is calling! The Congressional App Challenge is accepting applications through November 1st.

The Congressional Management Foundation held a webinar for congressional staff and their families: “Strengthening Employee Well-Being and Personal Resilience” to help with the stress caused by increased threats to Members and staff.

The Architect of the Capitol’s watchdog found that during the audit period, only 10 of the 35 people who accessed an AOC data center were pre-approved. Learn more from Fedscoop’s Tajha Chappellet-Lanier here.

GAO has launched “Science & Tech Spotlights”  learn more about the 2-page briefs here.

GPO began to publish the 2018 main edition of the US Code through Xpub, the agency’s new digital technology for XML-based publishing.

 

ODDS & ENDS

The Project on Government Oversight published a touching tribute to Peter Stockton.

The committee hearing calendar from the Library of Congress has gotten a major upgrade. We approve. The ability to see an entire week’s hearings and markups at a glance — just click on the “expanded” view — is a feature we’ve long requested. Good job!

The Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs, is set to be implemented among House Dems, according to this press release. (Dems have been saying this since 2017). We have many suggestions for Dems to update their caucus rules, starting with their public availability.