THE TOP LINE
Congress’s science & tech policy agency was defunded in the 90s; this week, Harvard’s Ash Center published Zach Graves and my road map to building a modern congressional technology assessment office. (More below)
The House moved to reassert congressional war powers authority when it passed two measures that limits the spending of money on war with Iran and repeals the Iraq AUMF. (More below)
Congress has turned to the courts to enforce its oversight authority, but what happens if the Legislative Branch loses standing to sue? (More below)
This week: The Fix Congress Committee set a hearing on deliberative process for Wednesday; House appropriators will start oversight hearings for the FY 2021 appropriations cycle; and we posted the results of the first ever First Branch Forecast reader survey — they might surprise you!
Memory Hole:The Library of Congress nixed, at the last minute, a “mural-size photograph of demonstrators at the 2017 Women’s March” — which would have been featured in a prominent exhibition on women obtaining the right to vote — because “of concerns it would be perceived as critical of President Trump,” i.e., what a library spokesperson cited as “vulgar language and political content.” (To wit, the right to vote is inherently political content and the march was prompted in part by “vulgar” language.) According to WaPo, Dr. Hayden supported the decision to exclude the photo.
CONGRESSIONAL SCIENCE & TECH POLICY
Zach and I have a new acronym for the legislative branch — the Technology Assessment Service (TAS) — which is what we propose to establish to help Congress improve its science and tech policy capacity. We’re working on a one-page summary, but don’t hesitate to skip to the end of the report for our very down-in-the-weeds discussion on how to make this work. Our key points:
• Congress must overcome political obstacles to invest in its own S&T capacity, which includes the creation of a new technology assessment capability modeled in part on OTA, as well as the creation of additional senior S&T policy positions on committees, in personal offices, and in legislative support agencies like CRS and GAO.
• A new technology assessment office needs to update the original structure of OTA to adapt to the needs of today’s Congress
• A new office should expand its scope to cover non-technical values such as ethics, adapt elements from participatory models developed by technology assessment offices abroad, improve the timeliness of its reports, make itself more accessible to rank-and-file members of Congress, adjust its oversight structure to empower its director, and put greater emphasis on economic analysis and market-oriented approaches, as well as other reforms.
• GAO’s STAA unit is good and should continue to take on a significant portion of OTA’s original mission. Congress should consider new authorizing legislation that gives STAA greater autonomy as well as increased resources to support its planned increase from 70 to 140 FTE staffers, and potentially beyond.
• An optimal strategy is for STAA to continue to take on the bulk of OTA’s original mission but focus on issues primarily concerning federal programs and expenditures. A new, more narrowly focused version of OTA (i.e., the Technology Assessment Service) should be created to complement STAA. This office could engage in more nimble (and long-term) proactive thinking and horizon scanning about emerging technologies and other S&T issues, while simultaneously side-stepping potential complications that could arise from GAO’s bureaucracy and culture.
• Beyond technology assessment, Congress should expand its S&T expertise and capacity at CRS, in committees, and in personal offices. However, in a resource-scarce environment, building up technology assessment appears to have the greatest return on investment.
For more discussion, check out the House Science Committee hearing from December; the NAPA report and our white paper and one-pager analyzing that report; this Belfer Center report on creating a congressional futures office; a round-up of recent legislation; and our one-pager that summarizes everything.
LEG CAPACITY & PROCESS
The House voted to assert congressional authority over acts of war by approving amendments from Reps. Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna that repeal the 2002 AUMF and ban use of military funds for attacks on Iran without Congressional approval.
Some Republican lawmakers complained about the procedural posture.The resolutions were introduced as amendments to a House bill that has already passed the Senate, which are not subject to a Motion to Recommit under House rules.There seems to be increasing interest to reform the MTR so it is more deliberative and less of a gotcha vote.
LET CONGRESS BE CONGRESS
Congress has ceded power to the Executive Branch for decades, which has undermined the system of checks and balances. The FreedomWorks Foundation issued a fascinating new report on this topic, replete with recommended fixes.
The Senate’s decision to not hear from witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial, and the House’s reluctance to push the issue of subpoenas through the various mechanisms available to it, suggests Congress has further acquiesced its oversight role in the face of executive branch stonewalling.
DOJ is taking an expansive view and is arguing in court that Congress does not have standing to sue anybody. Former House counsel Mike Stern analyzes “the history of DOJ’s gradually expanding positions against congressional standing and suggests why it might have chosen this moment to unveil its broadest attack yet.”
It’s official. The MRA $62k/office pay bump is in effect and the staff pay cap is being (slightly) raised. The MRA is still way below historic norms — ditto for member pay — and top staff pay is oddly compressed. By the way, can anyone share a public source we can cite?
Wither CBO. Congress tends to conflate “fiscal cost with overall worthiness,” argues a thoughtful American Prospect article, which opines that CBO scores have too much power to shape the legislation that Congress is willing to enact. CBO was created as a counterweight to OMB, in part to push against the president’s use of impoundment and in part because OMB was known to cook the books. Has CBO acted like gravity to weigh down progressive legislation? “What needs to be understood is that CBO scores are just data points, not obstacles.” ICYMI, CBO’s director ably testified this past week before the H. Budget Cmte on CBO’s baseline and economic forecast.
The 2021 appropriations cycle is starting up in the House.Oversight hearings are starting this week, and some appropriators are reaching out to stakeholders for approps requests.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Shelby says no to earmarks.
A recent GovExec survey found that roughly one third of feds are now less likely to report wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities due to political attacks on the whistleblower whose filing kicked off the impeachment proceedings. This chilling effect was just one of the issues raised at last week’s House Oversight hearing on protecting whistleblowers (video here). POGO’s Liz Hempowicz reminded the panel that motive for disclosing does not negate whistleblower protections.
Two federal agencies that mitigate whistleblower cases are in conflict over what constitutes a protected disclosure. If the narrow interpretation wins, it could discourage future whistleblowers from speaking up.
TRANSPARENCY & TECH
The new GPO Director wants the agency to meet staff where they are, in terms of how they access Congressional documents. Director Halpern wants to make sure that you can access documents in whatever format you need — which is music to our ears. Also, watch this behind-the-scenes tour of how the bookbindings get made.
Making your job easier: the Free Law Project compilednearly a century of court opinions on U.S. tax law in a central digital location.
The winners of the Congressional App challenge have been announced.
MuckRock is absorbing Outlier Media, a Detroit-based team known for their text-for-housing-information program. MuckRock has absorbed other struggling transparency & information access ventures recently, including Document Cloud.
Freedom of the press. On Capitol Hill, reporters were roped-off during the impeachment trial in the Senate, and now over in Foggy Bottom the State Department has removed an NPR reporter from covering a trip.
PACER. A federal appellate court will hear argument today regarding free public access to federal court records.
OVER THE HILL
Rep. Doug Collins will step down as Ranking Member of House Judiciary as he gears up for a run for the Senate; Rep. Jim Jordan wants to replace him as chair, and Rep. Mark Meadows would fill Jordan’s seat on the Oversight Committee.
A former Congressional staffer filed a defamation suit against a Daily Caller reporter and the publication itself for publicly and falsely accusing the staffer of hacking and espionage. To read the complaint, go here and enter case number 2020 CA 000652 B. (The DC Superior Court URL breaks if you link directly.)
Audio of voicemails received by Sen. Collins were published online by News Center Maine. Regardless of the content, this strikes us as very odd — were they provided by her office?
ETHICS & MONEY IN POLITICS
Senate Ethics released its annual report for 2019. Astonishingly, not a single of the approximately 250 allegations resulted in a public or private letter of admonition or disciplinary action. I guess the upper chamber is located near Lake Woebegone.
ODDS & ENDS
An individual was arrested for injuring both a Senate staffer and a Capitol Police officer after attempting to enter the Senate Gallery while it was in session. Check out the complete weekly USCP arrest breakdown.
D.C. Statehood? For the first time since 1993, Congress will consider D.C. statehood when the House Oversight Committee marks up HR 51 on February 11th.
Working on the Hill is hard, memes can help.
• The State of the Union will air at 9pm. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitermer and TX Dem. Rep Veronica Escobar will give the Democratic party response. Get ready with this CRS primer on the History, Evolution, and Practices of the President’s State of the Union Address.
• The Helsinki Commission will discuss The Power and Purpose of Parliamentary Diplomacy: Inter-Parliamentary Initiatives and the U.S. Contribution at 9:30 in 210 Cannon.
• The Modernization Committee is holding a hearing on “Article One: Fostering a More Deliberative Process in Congress” at 2 pm in 210 Cannon.
• House Judiciary will be holding a hearing on “Citizen United at 10: The Consequences for Democracy and Potential Responses by Congress” at 10 am in 2141 Rayburn.
• House Financial Services is holding a hearing on “Astroturfing to Manipulate Regulators, Disenfranchise Consumers and Subvert the Rulemaking Process” at 2 pm in 2128 Rayburn.
Down The Line
• Tuesday, Feb. 11th at noon, R street is hosting a panel where experts will discuss Reforming Presidential Emergency and War Powers.
• Learn about GAO’s expanded capacity on cyber, data analytics and foresight on February 19 at 3pm in 2168 Rayburn.