Congress requested a number of improvements to how the legislative branch functions as part of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (and, in one instance, for FY 2018). What happened?
We reviewed the status of requested leg branch projects in the following chart and then provided an issue-by-issue analysis. We expect to have more status updates at this week’s upcoming Legislative Data and Transparency Conference.
Chief Administrative Officer (CAO)
Study and Report on House Salaries
Appropriators ordered a study on salaries, benefits, and diversity in the House of Representatives. The report was required to 1) evaluate whether employees receive equal pay for equal work and 2) to compare that pay to Executive branch and private sector counterparts.
The CAO was directed to hire an independent contractor and have the report turned in by September 21, 2019. The House-wide Diversity Compensation Study was released to the public on September 26, 2019. You can see our initial thoughts on the study here.
Congressional Research Service (CRS) & The Library of Congress
Establish a Congress.gov Calendar of Committee Activities
The Library of Congress and Government Publishing Office were directed to publish a unified calendar of Senate and House committee hearings and markups on Congress.gov by December 21, 2018. The site went up January 2019 and was updated in late September. It is largely complete and reflects a significant amount of coordination of datasets (and likely data holders) in the background. However, it still does not contain video for Senate proceedings and is missing some video for House proceedings. The website represents a significant improvement over what existed before — we particularly like the faceted search of committee proceedings and the expanded calendar — and we are glad to see the Library is continuing to iterate on the website.
Publication of All Non-Confidential CRS Products on a Library of Congress Website
CRS was directed, originally in the FY 2018 Leg Branch Bill Report, to make all non-confidential CRS products publicly available on a website operated and maintained by the Library of Congress. Civil society created a guide to what the Library should be doing to implement this request.
When the site first went live on September 18, 2018, some (627)—but not all—reports were available. (The original deadline had all reports due online by October 1, 2018). Since then, the number of reports has steadily grown; 7,257 reports were available on the CRS reports website site as of October 9, 2019; October 1, 2019 was the extended deadline for CRS to comply with the publication requirement.
It is unclear to us whether CRS met the statutory requirement to publish all reports required under that law. In addition, the website has significant design flaws. Reports are not available as structured data or text files, which impedes their reuse and undermines SEO; there is no landing page for each report, so it is likely people will link to out-of-date reports; and there is no index of all CRS reports, as is required by the statute. In addition, the reports themselves should be better integrated into the Congress.gov website.
CRS has pledged to continue to update the content of the website. We hope they will do so by addressing the above problems in addition to adding some of the thousands of reports they have already digitized but not yet published online. The law required CRS to publish online the reports available on its internal website as of the date of enactment, but it only encouraged online publication of prior reports. We continue to hold out our website, everycrsreport.com, as a model of what could be done with the website.
Report on Science and Technology Policy Resources Available to Congress; Conducted in Conjunction with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA)
As the number of science and technology policy challenges in the country continues to grow, the technological savvy of Congress hasn’t kept up. Some lawmakers and advocates say a Legislative Branch entity that could provide nonpartisan advice on issues related to technology and science, like the former Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), is necessary for legislators to do their job.
Appropriators directed CRS to oversee a new study on the topic by NAPA, which would produce a report on which resources are already available to Members of Congress and to determine whether creating or reviving such an office would duplicate services that are already available.
The study is expected to be released by the end of October 2019.
Clerk of the House
Webform for Witness Disclosure Forms
Witnesses testifying before Congress are required to submit a disclosure form to the committee that indicates any potential conflicts of interest that would sway that witness’s testimony. Historically those forms have been filled out by hand and scanned; it’s not uncommon for answers to be illegible or for fields to be skipped altogether.
Report language indicates that the Committee wanted the Clerk to develop and make available to all committees a disclosure document to ensure the required information is typed and clearly readable. Accordingly, the Clerk created a PDF form for committees to use.
At the July 2019 Bulk Data Task Force meeting, it was announced that witness disclosure forms were available in standardized PDF form. The naming convention is “TTF”; if you’d like to look up witness truth in testimony forms you can go to Docs.House.Gov and search for “TTF.”
We testified on this matter. While we welcome the intermediate step of moving from hand-filled reports to PDF forms, the ultimate goal should be to use a webform to collect all the information from all the committees in one central location and make that information available as data.
Update Member Bioguides
Member Bioguides are a series of websites that contain information about members of Congress; they also contain a unique ID to identify every single members of Congress who has ever served. These webpages have only been published in an HTML format and on an insecure (HTTP) website. For entities that wish to use this information, the current publication method poses a problem.
The House Clerk has been working toward publishing the data in a machine readable format since 2018. In addition, the Clerk is planning to move the website from HTTP to HTTPS, which would provide for encrypted access to the information contained on the website. Originally, the project deadline was the end of 2018. Now the office anticipates that the upgrade will be completed by the end of 2019.
In the FY 2019 Leg Branch Bill report lawmakers encouraged the effort to update Member Bioguides.
Government Accountability Office (GAO)
Plan for a New Science and Technology Office within GAO
GAO was directed to create a “detailed plan and timeline” describing how a new office would expand and enhance GAO’s capabilities in scientific and technological assessments, and send it to Congress by Wednesday, March 20, 2019. GAO complied; read the submitted report here.
On January 29, 2019 GAO launched its new Science, Technology, Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team; lean more about its work here.
People who blow the whistle on government waste, fraud, and abuse frequently do so at a great personal cost. It is important that Congress protect whistleblowers; to that end, end, GAO was directed to produce a report on congressional whistleblowing .
The report had to include information such as the avenues for whistleblowers to communicate with Congress, best practices for Congressional staff who interact with whistleblowers, and how best to get the information to the proper entity of jurisdiction.
The report, which was due on June 18, 2019, was turned in early and released in May of 2019. The House established an office of Whistleblower Ombudsman as part of the House rules. (We hope the Senate will also make use of this report and consider creating their own Whistleblower Ombudsman.)
Report on Senate Child Care
Child Care options for Hill staff are inadequate. Appropriators originally directed the Senate SAA to convene a working group with representatives from the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) to review the current operations of the Senate Employees’ Child Care Center (SECCC) so they could expand services.
The Joint Statement changed specifications to direct the GAO to conduct the study, which was directed to look at issues like current operations costs, creating a revolving fund that can receive tuition payments, personnel practices, and more.
The GAO study is late — it was due on March 20, 2019 — as was noted in this year’s Senate Leg Branch Approps Committee report. Accordingly, the Senate has directed additional funds be available for the AOC to use to spec out additional improvements to the day care facility upon release of GAO’s recommendations. The Senate should be commended for continuing to push on this issue.
Government Publishing Office (GPO)
Convert Statutes at Large into United States Legislative Markup XML (USLM) Format
GPO has been taking positive strides to make the US code more accessible; just this Fall the agency announced it will publish the 2018 main edition of the United States Code through XPub, the agency’s new digital technology for XML-based publishing. Appropriators asked GPO to assess the costs associated with converting Statutes at Large from 1789-2002 into the USLM XML format as well. We are unsure of the status of this request.
Secretary of the Senate
Review of Senate Staff Compensation
The U.S. Senate needs high quality staff to function well as a legislative body. Attracting and retaining these staffers is virtually impossible without competitive pay and benefits. For this reason, appropriators directed the Secretary of the Senate to review, or hire a contractor to review, the salaries and benefits of personal and committee Senate staff. The study must evaluate, among other factors, whether staff receive similar pay for similar work, both internally and in comparison to the Executive branch and the private sector.
The study was required to be contracted out by September 21, 2019 and to be submitted to Congress by March 21, 2020. A request for proposal for the project with a June 27, 2019 deadline was posted on May 29, 2019 and archived on September 30, 2019. This is another example of the Senate pushing to improve the quality of Senate staff.
Senate Sergeant at Arms (Senate SAA)
Office of Member Outreach and Security Coordination
In light of increasing risks against members of Congress and the 2017 shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, Appropriators directed the SAA to establish an Office of Member Outreach and Security Coordination. The office would facilitate better communication with and serve as a liaison to Senators’ offices.
The Senate SAA testified it has created an office named the Office of Member Outreach and Security Coordination.
Senators’ Personal Cybersecurity Working Group
Report on Senators’ Personal Cybersecurity
Senators are major targets for hacking and cyberattacks, especially via their personal devices and accounts. In response to that reality, the FY 2018 Legislative Branch Appropriations Act established a bipartisan Senators’ Personal Cybersecurity Working Group to identify, develop, and recommend options to provide enhanced cybersecurity for Senators’ personal communications devices and accounts.
The FY 2019 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill encouraged the working group to continue, and to provide a comprehensive report on options to improve Senators’ personal cybersecurity by the required deadline of September 19, 2018.
The working group completed its work in November of 2018. As appropriators noted, the working group did not provide a recommendation, but did present “five options for consideration, along with analysis of the benefits and limitations of each option, and described any statutory, ethics, rules, or appropriations changes that may be required for each option.” That report is not publicly available.