CONGRESS IN BRIEF
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.)
The Fix Congress committee will hold a hearing on “Congress and the Frank: Bringing Congressional Mailing Standards into the 21st Century”; House Veterans Affairs will look at protecting whistleblowers in the VA; and House Oversight will delve into the White House’s dysfunctional clearance system. On the Fix Congress committee front, we are keeping an eye on whether leadership will extend its term, which ends at year’s end — they should.
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 The letter from the Council of the Inspectors General expressed their “concern that the OLC opinion, if not withdrawn or modified, could seriously undermine the critical role whistleblowers play in coming forward to report waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct across the federal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.
MAKING CONGRESS SMARTER
ICYMI, see all the ways the Bulk Data Task Force is making Hill staffers’ lives easier.
What were lawmakers thinking? GPO & the Library announced they are digitizing the Congressional Serial Set (i.e., House & Senate committee reports) going back to 1817. Having (almost) all the reports from (almost all) all congressional committees to (pretty close to) the founding, online, for free is a pretty big deal. The serial sets provide insight into what was considered when legislation was enacted and valuable history about legislative oversight efforts.
Drafting legislation is harder than it needs to be in part because the format in which draft legislation is provided to congressional offices from the Office of Legislative Counsel (who do a great job, btw) makes it hard for offices to collaborate. Our new tool, BillToText.com, will help fix that; see how here.
Could the next big idea could come from a high schooler in your district? The Congressional App Challenge is accepting applications through November 1st. There are already 10,000 students from 48 states and 300 congressional districts registered.
Think you have the skills to fix Congress? TechCongress is hiring a new Deputy Director.
ANOTHER SMART IDEA? MAKING CONGRESS MORE ACCESSIBLE.
There are more than 2,500 barriers that people with disabilities have to navigate in Congressional office buildings, according to a report from the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights. Barriers include bathroom stall doors that don’t close on their own, braille characters identifying rooms that are out of reach, and most dangerously, no warnings on the Senate subway platform that can be detected by the visually impaired. According to the biennial report: 10% of barriers from the 114th Congress have been resolved and 94% from the 112th Congress have been resolved.
Outside the OCRW report’s scope is the role technology plays to improve access to people from all walks of life to congress’s proceedings. Publishing information as structured data allows the transformation of that information into formats that can be used by specialized devices — picture PDFs just don’t work. Even more prosaic practices, like publishing video of proceedings on YouTube, allows for people who are deaf and hard of hearing to read an automatically generated transcript of the proceedings. (Better would be for the House to publish an official transcript within 48 hours.) Recommendations 27-29 from the Fix Congress committee cover improving access to congressional websites and floor proceedings for people with disabilities as well as addressing physical accessibility issues.
Accessibility can also mean communicating with the public in a way that makes them want to pay attention. Rick Shapiro suggests solutions like kicking off hearings with a short bipartisan video intro, allowing viewers to submit solutions or questions for witnesses online, and changing “archaic” language used on the floor so average people can engage.
By now you’ve probably heard about the few dozen House Republicans who “stormed” the secure conference room used by the House Intel Committee last week. The political stunt was a multi-hour protest by Rs who say they want access to closed-door testimony only available to the three committees leading the impeachment inquiry; 12 of the protesters have access to the information in question.
Their pleas for transparency would be met more sympathetically by us if they included demands that the White House comply with congressional requests for information and witnesses. We have our own beef with HPSCI, including inappropriately closing proceedings, keeping members from having adequate support from their own staff on classified matters, and operating in violation of House rules regarding who must serve on HPSCI — and we think HPSCI needs significant reform — but the protest looked more likely to intimidate potential whistleblowers and change the news narrative than to push for any consequential reforms. (If we’re wrong, email us.)
There was a lot of concern over violations of security protocols, with members bringing electronic devices into the SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility) and making phone calls and taking videos. This was an unforced political error and an unwise move.
Security is often a concern, and breaches do happen. For example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein had a Chinese spy for a driver when she was serving as Chair of the Senate Intel Committee; the head of security for the Senate Intel Committee had relationships with journalists who covered the committee (although he wasn’t accused of mishandling classified info or leaking to the press); and in the Executive Branch Omarosa recorded her firing in the White House Situation Room (which is supposed to be “the most sensitive single location in US government”) and the objections of security officials were overruled when Jared Kushner was granted a clearance.
On top of all this, there was an unauthorized camera crew in tow using expired House ID badges. This was possible, PopVox’s Marci Harris explains, becausethe House ID system is a “joke.” While the House is blocking 1.6 billion unauthorized scans each month, staffers are using badges with “chips” that are actually just stickers, and many ex-pass holders hold on to their old passes.
While we’re at it: Members’ cell phones are not secure. Case and point:Rep. Gooden probably wants to change his phone password, which appears to be 1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1. (See, e.g., Spaceballs.) POTUS is given two cell phones, one for phone calls and the other for apps, and that phone is rotated every few months (although Trump is breaking these rules). Members of Congress should be afforded this same level of support for all their communications, fwiw.
The Congressional Budget Office just published guidance on Wednesday on its website for how the public may request financial disclosure forms for members of its panel of advisers. (Email email@example.com; they’re available in CBO’s offices for inspection). A coalition of organizations had made a number of transparency asks, including access to the forms, in a July letter. We applaud CBO for providing clarity on how this process works. Coincidentally, the online magazine Sludge published an article on Thursday raising concerns that CBO’s panel of health advisers “is stacked with health care executives and directors, including several who are on the payroll of pharmaceutical, health insurance, and hospital companies.” CBO’s disclosures will make it possible to more easily evaluate Sludge’s claims and whether CBO’s vetting process is working properly.
Email server déjà vu: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is being investigated by the National Archives for using his private email account for official business. In 2016 the US Court of Appeals DC Circuit court ruled that government officials’ emails kept on a private server aren’t out of FOIA’s reach. See also the 2016 presidential election.
CHECKS & BALANCES
Will impeachment empower the First Branch? Clashing with the president could be the shove Congress needs to rebuild its capacity. Congressional expert Philip Wallach argues that Watergate gave a push to fix the First Branch, resulting in Senators now having their own committee staffer for each of their three committee assignments, House committee staff sizes tripling, and Congress created Inspectors General. (Many post-Watergate reforms have been rolled back or weakened.) To take advantage of the post-impeachment window, Members should be introducing legislation, building a record, and assembling coalitions for when it will be possible to pass sweeping reforms.
How can Congress keep the Executive branch in check? One idea: federal paychecks come with strings attached, and lawmakers can withhold them if employees interfere with communications to Congress. (This makes me nervous.)
Trump has tread on the congressional power of the purse by using his emergency declaration to drum up funds for a border wall. A new bipartisan bill would make it so emergency declarations expire after 30 days and can only continue if a joint resolution is enacted. The default is that the emergency continues and Congress can vote every 6 months to end it (which it has) but the president has the power to veto the result of that vote (which he has).
The House Ethics Committee opened two investigations last week. The committee is evaluating allegations that Delegate Michael F.Q. San Nicolas of Guam improperly used campaign funds for personal use, accepted excessive campaign contributions, and engaged in a sexual relationship with one of his staff.
The committee is also evaluating allegations that Rep. Katie Hill engaged in a sexual relationship with one of her staff; Rep. Hill says the accusation is false and it was raised by her abusive estranged husband. Very troubling to us is the use of revenge porn against Rep. Hill and the fact that people are both publishing the intimate pictures and pointing to where it’s published. Not to bury the lede, but Politico reports Rep. Hill will resign from Congress this week.
Revolving door: Former Rep. Royce (R-CA) registered as a first-time lobbyist on behalf of the Credit Union; he was known as a champion of credit unions before retiring from Congress in December.
ODDS & ENDS
“Can he do that?” Paul Kane talks the Washington Post through how a Senate impeachment trial would work.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard won’t run for reelection in Congress in 2020.
Coffee time: CRS has an updated report on House and Senate restaurants — current operations and issues for Congress. One notable item: “Since the restaurants have been run by private contractors, many business records are not subject to the same public disclosure requirements that government entities would be. This ambiguity has sometimes led to incomplete reports about restaurant finances.”
Impeachment. We didn’t talk much about impeachment in this week’s newsletter, but I did want to point you to a new CRS report on Congressional Access to Information in an Impeachment Investigation. This dovetails, in part, with a recent court opinion that the House is indeed engaged in impeachment proceedings (opinion) and ordered DOJ to hand over grand jury evidence from the Mueller investigation.
Former Rep. John Conyers Jr. has died. He is being lauded for his many accomplishments — Dean of the House, champion of civil rights, author of major legislation — but also remembered for harassing and mistreating female staff members as well as other instances of misconduct.
A final word from Chairman Cummings: we are in the fight for the soul of our democracy.
One more week until the House breaks for recess; the Senate has another 2.
• House Veterans’ Affairs has an oversight hearing on “Protecting Whistleblowers and Promoting Accountability: Is VA Doing Its Job?” at 2 in US Capitol 210.
• House Oversight will be “Examining the White House’s Dysfunctional Security Clearance System” at 2:00 in 2154 Rayburn.
• Senate Budget committee “Hearings to examine the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990” at 2:30 in 608 Dirksen.
• Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management, “Hearings to examine the unauthorized and unaccountable government” at 2:30 in 342 Dirksen.
• The Fix Congress committee will hold a hearing on “Congress and the Frank: Bringing Congressional Mailing Standards into the 21st Century” at 10 in 210 Cannon.
Down the Line:
• Wednesday, November 13th at 5 Issue One is hosting the inaugural Teddy Awards. The off-the-record event will recognize four lawmakers for their dedication to bipartisan political reform and election security.