With impeachment and the election season heating up, I want to talk directly about this newsletter. We focus on building a strong, modern, resilient Congress and stay away from items that are merely partisan or about political advantage.
But questions arising from the operation of the legislative branch have become closely intertwined with the debate over impeachment and presidential electoral politics. I won’t pretend we don’t have an opinion about all that. But, in this space, we will work very hard to stay focused on strengthening Congress, even as some of what we recommend has definite political winners and losers.
If you think we cross a line, or there are items we have missed, let us know. Don’t forget to tell your friends to subscribe.
The first public impeachment hearings are set for Wednesday and Friday in 1100 Longworth before the House Intel Committee. Some closed-door proceeding transcripts have been released; Just Security is compiled the public docs here. Rep. Jim Jordan has joined the committee, replacing Rep. Crawford, and brings along his Oversight Committee investigative counsel Steve Castor, who is now a shared employee and likely will be prominently featured as an interlocutor. It still appears Dems leadership wants to rush the proceedings and be done in the House by the end of the year.
Government funding runs out next week and senior appropriators will meet Tuesday at 5. It looks like there will be a short term CR through December, perhaps expiring just in time for the holiday season. 🙂 They also must reach agreement on the 302(b) allocations—we hope the House will accede to the Senate’s slightly higher Leg Branch number.
The Fix Congress Committee is living up to its name, with a hearing set for Friday on streamlining House operations. The committee has issued 29 recommendations and we hope the House will extend its charter, which runs out at years’ end. 25 orgs asked House leaders to extend the committee as have Members of Congress. We hope leadership decides soon so everyone can plan ahead.
How should Congress get smarter about technology policy? NAPA conducted a study on the need for and viability of a nonpartisan Legislative Branch entity to advise on technology and science issues—like the former Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)—and recently submitted the recs to Congress. We expect the report to be publicly-available soonish. On Nov. 20th, join us, the Lincoln Network, and BPC for a briefing on S&T capacity in Congress. Also, expect an on-the-hill briefing soon.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing last weekon Section 215, a provision of the USA Patriot Act that has been a vehicle for mass domestic surveillance of people who are not targets of criminal investigations. Besides ending the authorization for the shuttered Call Detail Record program, transparency-related reform proposals include publishing all substantive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions. Get up to speed on section 215.
Agencies send Congress an annual road map of how they plan to spend money, but finding those docs can be hard-to-impossible. The Congressional Budget Transparency Act will fix the problem, and was ordered to be reported by HSGAC last week and a companion bill is working its way through the House. See how it works. HSGAC reported a companion measure, the Congressional Reporting Burden Reduction Act, to end a handful of mandated reports.
A former capitol police officer is suing the department for sex discrimination. Details below.
This week’s events can be found in the calendar section at the end of the newsletter.
IMPEACHMENT, OVERSIGHT, & WHISTLEBLOWERS
Who’s the boss? House Oversight is being led by Acting Chair Carolyn Maloney following the passing of Rep. Cummings. The House Democratic Steering Committee will vote on Nov. 18 to recommend who should serve as committee chair, with a caucus vote the following day. Rep. Maloney is keeping her hat in the ring, as are Reps. Stephen Lynch and Gerry Connolly. Rep. Jackie Speier bowed out of the race last week. As mentioned above, RM Jordan has just been appointed to the House Intel Committee, so it is unclear how that might affect his Oversight Committee work.
Some Republicans have threatened to expose the Ukraine whistleblower’s identity. Some Oversight R’s floated the idea of subpoenaing the whistleblower to testify publicly — Rep. Nunes has made an official request that the whistleblower be placed on the impeachment witness list — and Sen. Rand Paul has said he may name the whistleblower. Other Republicans have strongly disagreed with this approach, which is favored by Pres. Trump. Identifying the whistleblower would undermine the willingness of any whistleblower to come forward — which some say may be the point. Incidentally, the right to face your accuser is a constitutional right in criminal proceedings, and does not apply elsewhere (like in House impeachment proceedings.) Also, it appears the whistleblowers’ complaint largely has been corroborated.
What should possible whistleblowers know? TheGovernment Accountability Project’s Tom Devine and Irvin McCullough published a ‘know your rights’ guide to communications with Congress. We should strengthen whistleblower protection laws, not attack whistleblowers. By the way, a study shows that second-hand whistleblowing accounts are more likely to be substantiated than first hand accounts. We are waiting for the House to name its first Whistleblower Ombudsman, a position created at the start of the 116th Congress.
PACER yourself. The Administrative Office of the Court will increase the threshold before fees are charged for using PACER, but many are calling it an inadequate fix to overcharging by the courts for access to court filings.
Senate Budget Chairman Enzi and Committee member Sen. Whitehouse are fed up with the budget process and have introduced a reform bill. It mandates a move to a two-year budget cycle (while appropriations will stay on an annual cycle) and has reporting requirements meant to increase transparency and accountability. The Senate Budget committee advanced the bill last week 15-6. (We have not a chance to review any criticisms.)
What is Congress doing about threats to its constitutionally-provided powers? From defiance of subpoenas to impoundment of funds, to unfounded legal opinions to threats to whistleblowers, why isn’t the first branch pushing back on the executive branch?
We keep waiting for Congress to provide itself sufficient funding, use oversight hearings to make a broad and detailed case concerning abuses, use the power of the purse to push back on executive branch overreach, and engage in across-the-board litigation to vindicate its right to get answers.
In addition, the House (at least) can pass marker legislation right now to strengthen whistleblower protections, protect the press, cut away the OLC’s undue assertions of legal authority, broaden transparency legislation like FOIA, provide additional mechanisms to vindicate its subpoena authority, reorganize itself into a more effective institution, and generally say how it would restrike the balance of powers between the branches. Why not lay the groundwork now?
War Powers are Congress’s domain, too: learn about how Congressional capacity affects Endless War in Afghanistan & Syria at the R Street symposium on Tuesday, Nov. 12.
BUILDING A STRONGER CONGRESS
What if there’s a national emergency? Lorelei Kelly and Marci Harris describe what Congress should do to ensure continuity of government … and of democracy. We agree with everything that they are saying, and only caution that all these new tools should work all the time, not just in emergencies and not only for people who have clearances. The regular course of business should allow for decentralized communications, legislating, and voting.
Reschedule? Rep. Katie Porter has joined calls to change Congress’s schedule, calling for two consecutive five-day work weeks in DC followed by two consecutive five-day district work weeks. This plan would significantly reduce travel time and increase work time for many Members.
Which schools provide the most Congressional staffers? Aren’t you curious?
Defense Appropriations Chair Pete Visclosky will not be seeking re-election in 2020. He is the third appropriations chair to announce retirement this year (after Committee Chair Nita Lowey and CJS Subcommittee chair José Serrano). You may remember that, in December 2009, the Office of Congressional Ethics referred complaints regarding seven members (including Rep. Visclosky) to the House Ethics Committee concerning suspicious earmarks that benefited clients of a lobbying shop that had donated to their respective campaigns; in February 2010 the House Ethics Committee released a 305-page report closing all the investigations.
It’s worth reviewing the findings. While the committee found no evidence the Members or their staff considered campaign contributions as a factor when requesting earmarks, it did find the lobbying firm PMA used “strong-arm” tactics, “threatening to withdraw financial support or encourage businesses to relocate out of a Member’s district if Members did not reverse policies opposing earmarks.” In addition, PMA pushed company executives to maximize contributions to Members and attend specific fundraisers while pursuing earmarks. Corporations and lobbyists were acting under a widespread belief of pay-to-play.
Freshman Democrats in the House are looking to fill the leadership spot vacated by Rep. Katie Hill when she retired last week.
Senate Republicans had a two-day retreat last week to discuss strategies for holding on to their majority in the Senate.
Rep. Peter King will not run for re-election. He is the 20th House Republican to make that decision.
The UK added new features to its legislation editing tool. Watch this video on their progress.
GPO digitized 1,300 Congressional hearings going back to 1958, or approximately 230,000 pages. This is part of a project to digitize nearly 15,000 hearings going back almost to the founding of the country. See the newly published hearings here.
The House of Representatives held a successful cybersecurity fair this past week.
ETHICS & TRANSPARENCY
The US Capitol Police are the defendants in a civil lawsuit for sex discrimination. (Filings.) Roll Call’s Chris Marquette has great coverage of the proceedings: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3. On the stand, former USCP Chief Vederosa admitted systematic failures to supervise probationary officers pre-2016, and the department routinely failed to complete quarterly reports that would form the basis for dismissal. The USCP was the subject of a House Admin hearing earlier this year that raised additional questions about their operations.
The House Ethics Committee is extending its initial investigation of a complaint against Rep. Lori Trahan submitted by the Office of Congressional Ethics, reportedly for not making timely disclosure of a personal loan to her campaign. The committee will announce its course of action on the matter by December 17th.
Rep. Jim Jordan is referred to in a new civil lawsuit against OSU as having known about but failing to act upon notice that an assistant coach engaged in sexual misconduct aimed at scores of students. Rep. Jordan denies knowledge of the incidents. The case is Khalil v. OSU, and court documents are available here. (Jordan is mentioned on page 82 of the complaint.)
Congratulations to Walter Shaub, who received the Paul H. Douglas award for ethics in government on Nov. 6.
• R Street is hosting a symposium on Congressional Capacity and Endless War in Afghanistan & Syria in the Capitol Visitor Center at 12:30. The event will feature expert discussion of this constitutionally anomalous situation and congressional capacity over war powers and foreign affairs.
• Issue One is hosting the inaugural Teddy Awards in Longworth 1310 at 5. The off-the-record event will recognize four lawmakers for their dedication to bipartisan political reform and election security.
• The House Appropriations Military Construction & VA subcommittee has an oversight hearing on Whistleblower Protection’s Failures at the VA, happening at 10 in Rayburn 2362-A.
• POGO is hosting an oversight training seminar titled, “Agency Objections: From Deliberative Process to Legislative Purpose” at 12. The off-the-record event is held on the Hill and open to Congress, GAO, and CRS. RSVP by emailing email@example.com.
The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is holding a hearing on streamlining congressional operations.
The International Conference on Legislative and Law Reform takes place on Thursday and Friday here in Washington, D.C.
Down the Line
• Tuesday, November 19th at 9:30 the Open World Leadership Center is hosting “Women in Leadership & Legislative Diplomacy in the Modern Congress.”
• On Wednesday, November 20th experts will discuss the NAPA report on Congress’s science and technology needs, as well as strategies for reinvigorating the Legislative Branch’s capacity moving forward. The event will take place at the Bipartisan Policy Center from 10 to 12.
• The FOIA Advisory Committee will hold a public meeting on December 6 from 10-1. You must register to attend by December 3 by clicking this link, the proceedings will be live-streamed and the agenda will be here.