House Legislative Branch Appropriations: Member Day & Public Witness Testimony Recap

Members and outside experts testified before the House Leg. Branch Appropriations Subcommittee last week. Don’t have a few hours to watch Member testimony and Public Witness testimony or read all the testimony from Members and Public Witnesses? We’ve got the highlights below.

Member testimony indicated Congress needs more resources to do its job properly.

Rep. Rodney Davis explained that “Members feel our lack of resources in all aspects of our job, from not being able to hire and retain the few talented staff we are allowed to keep, to not being able to adopt modern technologies to best serve our constituents and to not being able to conduct effective oversight.” Rep. Davis has spent considerable time thinking about how to make Congress work better. He sits on the the Fix Congress committee with Reps. Kilmer, Graves, and Newhouse, who also testified last week in support of reform measures included in the SCOMC’s recommendations. 

Public Witnesses shared recommendations on how to restore Congressional Capacity.

These ideas largely related to 4 main categories:

Reasserting Congressional authority

Building in-house science & technology policy expertise

Bolstering staff capacity — in other words, making it possible for good staff to work (and stay) on the Hill.

Improving data management and sharing systems, to promote public access to information and government accountability

Reasserting Congressional Authority

Lorelei Kelly discussed the importance of the Fix Congress Committee as we experience an “Article I renaissance,” a phrase we’ll surely be borrowing in the future.  Lorelei and Marci Harris argue that modernizing Congress is a national security imperative, and Congress must be able to work remotely in emergencies (e.g. Coronavirus). Right now, Congress can’t vote or conduct business remotely.

Persistent vacancies in the 1,200 offices that require nomination by the president and confirmation by the Senateforce taxpayers to settle for opaque, unaccountable, and ineffective leadership in the highest levels of government,” according to POGO’s Becca Jones. A GAO public database of all such Exec. Branch offices with the names of the current officers or acting officers with dates of service would help track the problem.

Building in-house science & technology policy expertise

Lincoln Network’s Dan Lips emphasized rebuilding GAO (closer) to its former capacity by giving the Science & Tech (STAA) team necessary resources, and urged Members to use the power of the purse to empower GAO to hold federal agencies who are not implementing GAO recommendations accountable. He also highlighted the issue of improper payments – the federal government paid about $175 Billion in FY 2019 that it should not have paid

Maurice Turner of The Center for Democracy and Technology spoke about Congress’ inability to keep up with rapid technological innovations. To combat this issue, Turner advocated for more resources for additional positions for technologists and scientists in congressional offices so they can offer better expertise on the issues. 

Harvard’s Laura Manley suggested 3 action steps to bolster science & tech expertise in Congress: (1) restore OTA, (2) create a STEM staffing fund as the current structure of relying on STEM fellows funded by outside groups can’t keep up with demand, and (3) make funds available to pay science & tech salaries that are closer to being competitive with the market rate. 

Bolstering staff capacity

Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee emphasized that the lack of resources and capacity in Congress has hindered the branch’s ability to legislate. McGehee advocated for stronger staff training and onboarding, a stronger human resources hub, and further management training for more seasoned employees. 

Audrey Henson of College to Congress proposed lowering financial barriers to working for Congress by establishing an HR office in the House, providing permanent funds to pay interns, and raising the cap on the student loan repayment program for House employees.

Mr. Angel Silva advocated for getting rid of language that explicitly prohibits DACA recipients from being paid to work for Congress. The archaic rule prevents Congress from reflecting the constituency it represents. 

Improving data management & sharing

How many reports has Congress required of federal agencies? When are they due? Who was required to submit the report? No one knows. We asked appropriators to give the Clerk’s office the resources necessary to track and consolidate congressionally-mandated reports

Capitol Police publish arrest summaries that shed light on how they spend their almost half-a-billion dollar budget. We asked for that data to be published in a usable format

R Street’s Kevin Kosar advocated for better access to CRS reports, noting that while current reports are published as PDFs, they should be posted in HTML or a mobile friendly format and the database of reports should include the historic reports from the CRSX Archive. 

National Taxpayer Union’s Andrew Lautz recommended that CBO cost estimates be made available before legislative markups; currently almost 90% of these estimates are made available after a bill has been reported out of committee. 

Michelle Cosby, President of the American Association of Law Libraries urged full funding for GPO, the Library of Congress, and Congress.gov to support public access to legal information and data.