Forecast for October 14, 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.

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TECH TALK CONTINUED
Last week, the Leg Branch Capacity Working Group hosted 
Time for an Upgrade: Getting Better Tech for Congress.” Astonishingly, we discussed ideas for fixing congressional tech. (Watch online.)

Among the ideas raised by attendees: creating an online system for adding cosponsors to bills; amending the appropriations process so that signatures can be added online and make an online form for prioritizing requests more intuitive; centralizing the tour and flag request systems; consolidating and simplifying the processes for booking rooms; and offering a one-stop portal for all mandatory trainings.

What’s your pet peeve? Send your (congress-related) frustrations to Daniel@DemandProgress.org or Amelia@DemandProgress.org or come share them at the Legislative Data & Transparency Conference. Your crazy idea might spark a fix.

Speaking of solutions, don’t you just hate receiving a draft bill as a PDF? We’re pleased to announce BillToText.com; it converts Leg Counsel drafts into docx files you can edit, so now you can collaborate on drafts. Let us know what you think — and if you find any bugs. Or build your own; the code is open source.

OVERSIGHT WARS
Demand docs.
 Earlier this year, the House took the fight to the courts over a subpoena for Trump’s financial records; the Federal Circuit held 2-1 that Trump’s gotta hand them over. “Contrary to the President’s arguments, the Committee possesses authority under both the House Rules and the Constitution to issue the subpoena, and Mazars must comply.” The dissenter is a Trump employee, excuse me, appointee, who served as OIRA Administrator and received only 53 votes in favor of her nomination in the Senate to Kavanaugh’s old seat. She argued that Congress must invoke its impeachment power to access the docs, and that somehow its legislative powers are both insufficient and distinct.

When did impeachment start? This, too, seems like an odd question, as the House has plenary power to demand any docs they want and to set their own rules of procedure. But Speaker Pelosi created a political problem by creating confusion about when impeachment “officially” started. My suggestion: hold a vote on a resolution to end the impeachment process. It obviously would fail, thereby acknowledging that impeachment is indeed happening and forcing everyone on the record.

No short circuits. James Wallner cautions Senate Republicans to not cut impeachment proceedings (i.e., a trial) short. “Dismissing the trial before senators render a verdict of guilty or not guilty violates the spirit of the Constitution and makes little sense politically.”

BLERG, MORE IMPEACHMENT-RELATED STUFF
1) Why doesn’t the White House have an Inspector General
? A news story I can’t find talks about how White House staff fed info to the IC whistleblower because their complaints just went to the White House Counsel’s office, which clearly was a dead end. The proposal: why not an EOP IG? It’s an interesting idea — and was also raised in 2017 as H.R. 1016.

2) Would House Republicans leak the name of the whistleblower(s)? That’s the fear: Ds are considering “extraordinary steps” to secure the whistleblower’s testimony such as having them testify from a remote location with their voice and appearance obscured. After Nunes’ secret run to the White House, it’s not surprising that trust is lacking. There’s no right to confront the accuser — this isn’t a criminal proceeding — and the fear of retaliation is enough to chill whistleblowers from coming forward. Still, I am not at all comfortable with this approach because it invites abuse and undermines the theory that it is the Congress and not a party that conducts oversight.

3) Attacking whistleblowers and the journalists who love them: The White House is using the espionage act against reporters; whistleblowers who speak out are putting themselves at risk. Hey Obama, thanks so much for setting this extraordinarily bad precedent that Trump has made worse. Maybe it’s time to dial back the espionage act (which has troubling origins) and enact a journalist shield law.

Incidentally, the House created a Whistleblower Ombudsman’s office to make it safer for those who want to report waste, fraud, or abuse to Congress; the office is currently in the process of getting off the ground. The Senate should follow suit.

ETHICS
Nancy Pelosi’s former chief of staff 
has registered as lobbyist. This is the second former Pelosi COS to register as such. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Rep. Duncan Hunter’s trial has been delayed; Hunter is under indictment for misuse of campaign funds, which included using funds for extramarital affairs.

Did we mention that Rep. Collins is gone? Will he lose his privileges at the House gym?

Weaponizing FARA. Bloomberg reports that the United Arab Emirates has paid Akin Gump nearly $2m to force Al Jazerra to register as a foreign agent, part of an apparent effort to discredit the (apparently) editorially independent but state-funded news outlet. Drawing on lobbying reports, Bloomberg found: Akin Gump “met, called and emailed the staffs of more than 30 members of the House and Senate,” and ”also met with Trump officials, journalists, think tanks and pro-Israel groups.”

TRANSPARENCY
The FISA court found (last year) that the FBI violated the constitution when conducting warrantless searches under section 702
. We told ya so. What’s notable here isn’t just that the FBI failed to follow its own procedures — and searched the foreign intel database for info on Americans without a legal basis to do so — but that the House and Senate Intelligence committees, which shoved through a reauthorization bill and discounted concerns about the misuse of 702, are so in thrall to the intel community that they failed to conduct the necessary oversight to figure this out. This is why they were created — to oversee the IC after a wave of shocking abuses. Here’s how to make the Intel Committee strong, smarter, and more independent.

DOJ released its guidance on the Argus Leader SCOTUS case — an opinion that undermines FOIA — and it’s not good. There are step by step instructions which seem to give guidance to agencies to deny information requests.

The National Archives and Records Administration posted a notice of proposed records schedule for the 2020 Census. Records schedules define how long the government will keep certain types of records and which ones will go to the National Archives for permanent retention. Public comments are due Nov. 25.

The good kind of backtalk: the Law Library of Congress has a chatbot that provides answers to frequently asked legal reference questions.

The GPO Police. We had a weird experience this week attending the 10th anniversary of the FOIA Watchdog, OGIS. (Happy birthday!) Standing outside the GPO building on the public sidewalk property, we were taking a picture of the front doors for a stock photo and a GPO police officer came out and told us we could not take pictures. When we disagreed, and after a conversation, the officer sent out her supervisor, who explained that while we could take photos, we shouldn’t for security reasons. Balderdash. Here’s the photo — we’re publishing it for everyone to use.

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CALENDAR
Wednesday

• The Fix Congress Committee has a hearing on the “House Calendar and Schedule: Evaluating Practices and Challenges” at in H-313 Capitol

• The House Budget Committee will discuss “Strengthening Our Fiscal Toolkit: Policy Options to Improve Economic Resiliency” at 10 in 210 Cannon

Thursday

• The Legislative Data and Transparency Conference will be happening from 9-4:30 in the Capitol Visitor Center Congressional Auditorium.

• The Committee on House Administration has a hearing on “Voting Rights and Election Administration in America” at 10 in 1310 Longworth

• House Judiciary will discuss “Legislative Proposals to Strengthen the Voting Rights Act” at 10 in 2141 Rayburn

• House Homeland Security, Oversight Subcommittee will discuss “The Public’s Right to Know: FOIA at the Department of Homeland Security” at 2 in 310 Cannon

Friday

• The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) is holding a Congressional Oversight Training on “Overseeing Improper Payments,” from 12-1. The seminar is only open to Congress, GAO, and CRS, will be held on the Hill, and is off the record. RSVP here or email Daniel at dvanschooten@pogo.org.