Forecast for October 21, 2019

ELIJAH CUMMINGS

Elijah Cummings has died. He rightly has been lauded for his many achievements and common decency; we remember him as a champion for open and accountable government and his tireless efforts to build a more perfect union. He will lie in state in the rotunda on Thursday; his funeral is Friday. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

CONGRESS IN BRIEF

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.

LEGISLATIVE DATA AND TRANSPARENCY CONFERENCE 2019

Last week, nearly everyone who is anyone (in congressional technology) came together for the 7th annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. The conference has always been bipartisan — and that important fact did not change with the switch in party in the House. We thought it was an excellent conference, with engaging and well-executed conversations, and the bicameral team that put it together deserve kudos for their hard work (with a special shout-out to the House Clerk).

There was strong turn out from the community, including House Admin Chair Lofgren, Ranking Member Davis, ‘Fix Congress’ Committee Chair Kilmer, Vice Chair Graves, and House Clerk Cheryl Johnson. In attendance were representatives from just about all the support offices and agencies as well as the relevant committees of jurisdiction. The reforms that will make the First Branch first-rate don’t happen without the internal stakeholders who champion these reforms. (We did miss the presence of former House Admin staffer Reynold Schweickhardt.)

Below are some highlights, get event descriptions and panelist bios herewatch the conference here. Alright, here we go:

• The Clerk demo’d ‘track changes’ for legislation (aka the Posey rule project). This is an unbelievably big deal. The software reads amendatory language in legislation and shows how it would change the underlying law — in real time. There’s more to do, but wow!

• Let’s be Frank: The House Admin Committee/Franking Commission announced it would soon begin publishing all franked mail online. No longer do you have to go to the LRC and pay $0.10 a page to see what a member is sending to constituents.

• Who’s that staffer? Majority Leader Hoyer’s tech impresario Steve Dwyer unveiled a new DemCom tool that provides a customizable list of congressional staff that you can sort by policy area. This Dem-only tool means congressional staff can find the staffer (or staffers) who care about their issue and email them directly; no longer do they need to get an intern to call 50 offices to build a list of the person working on your issue. Rep. Davis’s COS Lisa Sherman guesstimated that half the calls coming into offices are from outside services gathering this info.

Steve did mention that, unfortunately, the underlying data had to be purchased from a private vendor. The hope was expressed that perhaps the House could update its systems to generate this data internally for all staff.

• While we’re giving Steve Dwyer kudos, Dome Watch — which provides tons of useful info about what’s happening on the floor — now pulls floor vote data directly from the Clerk, so it’s even faster than what you see on TV. The data feed is available to Rs, too.

• GPO will digitize the Statutes at Large from 1789–2002 and is planning a pilot project to see how difficult/expensive/fun it would be to turn the digitized files into structured data. The Statutes at Large are all the laws enacted by Congress; if they are available as structured data, it becomes possible to use technology to instantaneously show how every bill has amended every other bill. This would provide a significant boost for the Posey project, described above.

• Member Bioguides — biographical info for all MoCs, including unique IDs — will be updated and available as data by the end of 2019.

• We asked whether CRS will continue to post a backlog of reports online: In a written response they indicated their belief that they’ve fulfilled the statutory requirement and don’t have plans to publish the reports as data. (That’s too bad: CRS publishes the reports as HTML, but for congressional eyes only; publication as HTML would make the information significantly more useful. We’re using their data to do it, so why not cut out the middle man, i.e., us?) As of Friday, there were 7,301 on crsreports.congress.gov and 15,145 on EveryCRSReport.com. There was no answer to whether CRS will publish any of its historical reports currently unavailable on CRS’s internal website but available for a fee from third-party data providers.

• Data governance and digital government expert Dr. Anne Washington gave a phenomenal talk on the value of transparency and why it’s different in the legislative context. Short version: transparency allows you to understand the past, and the past is what gives context for legislation and oversight. We have asked for a copy of her talk and will post it in a future issue. Not only is she brilliant, but she’s funny.

• Lightning talks on tools to make our lives easier were a highlight, but there were too many to summarize here. More to come. 🙂

POWER OF THE PURSE

Shutdown? The CR runs out exactly one month from today. House Approps Chair Lowey says there have been offers and counter-offers but no consensus on the 302b allocations.

Senate Approps Chair Shelby & RM Leahy want to advance non-controversial bills to the Senate floor before reconciling with the House (as a reminder 8 of the bills were approved with unanimous support). Originally Majority Leader McConnell didn’t want to move forward without a defense bill included, but on Thursday he set up a vote for a package of domestic funding bills.

Traditionally the Budget Committee plays a role in setting top line numbers but they’ve been sidelined; it looks like Chairman Yarmuth is making the most of it.

CHECKS & BALANCES

Two thirds of House Republicans broke from Trump to rebuke the president’s actions in Syria. It’s interesting to see that the conference is splitting and it’s a reminder that the parties are not monoliths. McConnell says he wants an even stronger measure in the Senate.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney will temporarily take over the gavel for the House Oversight Committee. We’re hearing it might be a competitive race for the gavel.

Stuck: GovExec has an interesting story on executive branch staff caught between being responsive to Congress and efforts by the executive branch to shut them up.

A MORE REPRESENTATIVE CONGRESS

Of the 200 Republicans in the House & 53 in the Senate only 2 of those members are African American according to the CRS profile of the Members of the 116th Congress—BTW there have only been 10 African American US Senators in all of US History.

Student loan repayment programs help make working on the Hill manageable for those who aren’t independently wealthy. Whether you can participate and how much money you can access is up to the discretion of the Member you work for. We’ve even heard stories of Members (unlawfully) threatening to clawback loan money from departing staff.

The Fix Congress committee looked at scheduling reform last week. Making the most of legislative days is critical, and scheduling conflicts make doing so all but impossible; for example, a single day in September had 19 conflicting committee meetings. Members spend 65 days a year traveling and have only 66 full work days, but the consensus at the hearing seemed to be that making changes will be difficult because there’s no clear win-win. One of the fears: a more consolidated calendar would create more district work days, which the press deems “recess” and the public hears as “vacation.” (Perhaps if Members published their daily calendars that fear would be lessened?)\

BILLS TO TRACK

DOJ’s internal watchdog can’t investigate allegations of misconduct by federal attorneys; a common-sense bill, the Inspector General Access Act will fix the problem (House companion here).

$200 million of the $920 million collected in PACER fees between 2010 and 2016 were ruled in violation of the E-Government Act. Access to court records shouldn’t be contingent on your income; a new bill has been introduced to fix the issue.

23 organizations sent a letter of support for Senate bill that will make it MUCH easier to find and analyze plain-language federal spending info.

The SHIELD Act (H.R. 4617), a bill to crack down on foreign influence in U.S. elections, was favorably report during a House Admin markup last week and is set for a vote on the House floor this week. The bill would make it a crime for campaigns to give a foreign national non-public information related to an American election. CHA Ranking Member Rodney Davis voiced strong objection to the bill, saying it would have a chilling effect on free speech and that the bill adds poison pills to the bipartisan Honest Ads Act.

The Criminal Antitrust Anti-Retaliation Act (S. 2258), legislation introduced by Sen. Grassley to protect whistleblowers who report anti-trust violations (e.g., price-fixing, bid-rigging), unanimously passed the Senate.

GET SMART ON CONGRESSIONAL PROCEDURE

Memo: Legislators advance more (and more significant) legislation when they retain a more experienced staff.

CRS explainer on the powers of the delegates to the House.

CRS explainer of how one or both chambers can express opinions, known as “Sense of” Resolutions and Provisions.

CRS explainer of Congressional Budget Office’s policies on appointment and tenure of the Director and Deputy Director.

ODDS & ENDS

Do term limits increase party polarization? This paper on state-level behavior says yes.

The UK celebrated 40 years of select committees. This is pretty cool.

Hillary’s emails. The State Department determined Hillary Clinton did not deliberately mishandle classified information when she set up her home brew email system. Putting aside the weird post facto up-classification of the emails she received, Secretary Clinton (1) used the system to circumvent FOIA requests by establishing a private email address for work-related communications that were not made available to (and apparently kept secret from) agency staff responding to FOIA requests, and (2) made the determination on her own to delete records without consulting the government after her private server was uncovered. When FOIA’d for her emails, the State Department would respond it had no responsive records. HRC’s deliberate effort to shield her communications from FOIA is unacceptable behavior from any person holding a position of trust inside the government.

Romey’s secret twitter account. Apparently, Sen. Romney has a (formerly) secret Twitter account. If nothing else, this illustrates the value of metadata to unveil information about a person. Were I a data journalist, and I thought this were valuable, I’d be diving into the social media accounts of family members of politicians to find more of their hidden accounts. If I cared, that is, which I do not.