Forecast for March 9, 2020.

TOP LINE

There’s more news than can fit in our little newsletter.

The House Rules Committee did its part to encourage the Article I Renaissance (to steal a phrase from Lorelei Kelly) with a nearly four-hour hearing spiced with thoughtful expert testimony examining how Congress’ role has been diminished over decades and how to reassert congressional authority. (How, you ask?)

Members and outside experts testified before the House Leg. Branch Approps Subcommittee, covering greatest hits like Congress needs more resources to do its jobhow to restore Congressional capacity, and the fan-favorite let’s rebuild in-house science and tech expertise. We cover the entire album, or you can watch the live-to-tape Member testimony and Public Witness testimony. If you tune in to nothing else, check out Rodney Davis’ written statement.

House Officers — the Clerk, the SAA, the CAO, and others — had their day before leg branch approps. We cannot help but highlight questions raised by Rep. Ruppersberger on providing sufficient clearances for congressional staff. We note that the CAO’s funding request contains a notional $10m to fulfill Modernization Committee recs, but the Clerk’s funding request would need a plus-up. Rep. Clark asked excellent questions on the value of increasing the student loan repayment cap to $80k, and whether Leg Counsel can provide draft legislation as Word files in addition to PDFs (so offices can make their own edits). I couldn’t make heads or tails of the testimony by Congress’s Attending Physician, but I think he said the question of whether to close Congress would be made by leadership.

GPO’s new director testified before House Admin this past week (written testimonyvideo), and we were impressed with the agency’s desire to fundamentally rethink Congressional documents so they are user-friendly, easy to generate, and designed for a modern legislative process. We also were interested in the new GAO IG’s efforts to transform that office after recent lapses.

Pay staff better. That’s the simple message of a bipartisan letter, organized by the R Street Institute, and sent to appropriators.

Lots of reports about Congressional operations are due, and we’ve got this month’s list. If anyone has the unclassified report on how long it takes staffers to receive their clearances in the House, which was due on March 1, send it my way. 🙂

If you’re looking for a little light reading, check out our 65-page list of approps requests, plus our House Leg. Branch testimony on congressionally-mandated reportscongressional clearances, and Capitol Police arrest data.

ON YOUR RADAR: ON THE FLOOR

Surveillance legislation — i.e., a potential extension of part of the USA PATRIOT Act — must receive House and Senate action this week if it is to avoid a March 15 sunset. Recall that HPSCI Chairman Schiff tried to stiff-arm Judiciary Chairman Nadler into passing a weak bill while simultaneously pushing Nadler to prevent the consideration of any substantive privacy-strengthening amendments. This resulted in the last second cancellation of the markup when committee members made clear they would offer real amendments.

The Modernization Committee’s first resolution to strengthen the HouseH. Res. 756, is expected to receive a suspension vote on Tuesday.

An Iran War Powers Resolution will be considered by the House Rules Committee on Monday, which suggests floor action is imminent. S.J. Res 68 was already passed by the Senate.

ON YOUR RADAR: IN COMMITTEE AND ELSEWHERE

Next week is Sunshine week, a nationwide celebration of access to public information. Festivities kick off early with a panel this Thursday at 2.

OMB is testifying before the House FSGG Approps Subcommittee Tuesday at 10. Anyone gonna ask about how they’re undermining Congressional prerogatives on the budget?

House Oversight has a hearing,“Constitutional Checks and Balances: Improving Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch” Tuesday at 10. Tom Davis and Henry Waxman are the witnesses!

An FEC nominee will be considered by the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday at 10. The Campaign Legal Center has described Trey Trainor’s nomination as an “example of how the current nomination process continues to produce commissioners who are opposed to the mission of the agency.”

House Budget has a hearing on Congress’ Power of the Purse Wednesday at 10. Among the witnesses is GAO’s General Counsel — we flagged his testimony last week before Leg Branch Approps concerning a non-public GAO memo on steps the House should take to vindicate its spending oversight authority.

The Article I Initiative of the Federalist Society is co-hosting the Second Annual Legislative Branch Review Conference: Modernizing the First Branch with Issue One on Thursday.

House Leg Branch Approps will hear from the AOC & GPO at 1 & 2 respectively on Wednesday.

CORONAVIRUS

Congress enacted a $8.3 billion coronavirus supplemental bill last week. The vote was (almost) unanimous in both chambers. The House eased restrictions on franked mail to allow Members to send coronavirus information to constituents. GAO also has reliable information on coronavirus in last week’s Science and Tech Spotlight. It appears a stimulus bill may be in the offing.

Is Congress ready? Coronavirus is in the DMV. Friday’s House Dear Colleague allowing member offices to use 2019 funds to purchase teleworking equipment and supplies is a step in the right direction, and we applaud House Admin for doing so, but we fear this is not enough. Last week’s spending bill should have included money to outfit every office for telework; to authorize and financially support remote committee and floor deliberations; to provide for better science and technology advice to Congress to understand this pandemic; to support contract employees in Congress who likely will be laid off soon; and provide assistance to paid and unpaid staff. Maybe it will be in the stimulus.

Close Call? I was on Capitol Hill for 9/11 and for the anthrax attacks. Coronavirus is a danger of a different sort, but with Congress as the cross-roads for millions of people, and at least two Members already exposed to coronavirus, leadership should take additional steps right now to mitigate the likely harm. That starts with immediately cancelling all outside events that take place on the hill, strongly discouraging in-office meetings in favor of video-chats, limiting in-person attendance at hearings and floor proceedings to credentialed press (who should keep full access to the campus), moving all possible support office and agency staff to telework, and passing resolutions to permit remote deliberations by committees and on the floor and purchasing software and hardware to accomplish this. In addition, all the paper processes (like how bills are passed between the chambers or go to the White House) need to become electronic to the maximum extent possible. By the end of the week, all staff should have received mobile computers with telework capability, appropriate cybersecurity protection tools, and committee and floor deliberations should become virtual (with a live feed for people to observe). Immediate consideration should be given to address how to handle deliberations should many members fall ill or worse.

Congress must not close, but it cannot stay as it is. This administration needs oversight and accountability and cannot be trusted, a problem exacerbated if Congress is away indefinitely. At the same time, pressure is building because members know that what we are seeing in the news reflects what happened last week. The most practical solution is a distributed Congress that operates virtually, with a bare-bones crew in DC keeping the infrastructure running and manage the legislative tasks that require paper instead of photons. For this to work, that technology process needs to be spun up immediately. With the long-term under-investment in Congress, this is a huge challenge. I also realize that I’m going out on a limb in calling for this. But, as a non-staffer, I have the freedom to say what many of you have said to me.

LET CONGRESS BE CONGRESS

The DC Circuit Court ruled that Congress lacks standing to seek judicial enforcement of subpoenas in federal court. William Murphy and Mort Rosenberg explain how detrimental this ruling is to Congressional oversight authority in The Hill last week. It’s a must read. They believe the solution to systemic obstruction of oversight efforts from the Trump Administration officials is establishing credible threat of personal punishment for defying Congressional subpoenas.

Senate Republicans, including Judiciary Chairman Graham, are preparing bills to create more positions on circuit & district courts for the president & Senate to fill.

Get your testimony in on time using our deadline tracker.

Speaking of deadlines, our March edition of Leg Branch FY 2020 approps due dates is live. Use it to keep track of what items are due, broken down by entity.

TRANSPARENCY

The Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act (H.R. 4894S. 2560), which we are big fans of, was marked up and reported last week by both House Oversight and HSGAC, respectively. This common-sense transparency bill will make it much easier to track government spending.

Reps. Quigley, Nadler, and Hank Johnson introduced the 21st Century Courts Act (H.R. 6017), which promotes transparency in the federal court system. This is an excellent bill. Fix the Courts has a fact sheet on what it does: it “provides for a long overdue code of conduct for Supreme Court justices, public explanations for judicial recusals, online access to judicial financial disclosures, increased broadcast access to the Supreme Court and other appeals courts, and free access to PACER.”

How did the DOJ answer the Senate Judiciary Committee’s questions on FOIA? Funny you should ask. DOJ never published its answers, but a senate office passed along DOJ’s answers.

How can you tell when transparency is helpful? Jonathan Bydlak tells the story of building his spending tracker.

FOIA FOIBLES

The FOIA Advisory Committee approved recommendations that could dramatically improve public access to public information, says Alex Howard. Particularly noteworthy, the committee may recommend Congress expand FOIA to “include a statutory foundation for disclosure and access for the federal legislative and judicial branches.”

SCOTUS granted cert in FOIA Exemption 5 case (Sierra Club v. Fish and Wildlife Service). This case could affect when and how agencies may apply the “deliberative process” FOIA exemption, which is used at times to block disclosure of critical documents that explain agency decisions.
ODDS & ENDS

U.S. Capitol Police arrested 4 individuals who were demonstrating during a committee hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Friday, February 28 around 9 am. Here’s the complete weekly arrest round-up.

The UK Parliament staff approved a £20 million budget increase that will allow 650 MPs to put more than £25,000 towards their staffing costs; funds will go towards training, health, and security. It wouldn’t be bad for Congress to follow suit.

The FEC is investigating claims that Rep. Steve Watkins’s father funneled illegal donations into his son’s 2018 congressional campaign.

Tech Congress announced the placements of their 2020 class of Congressional Innovation Fellows.

UPCOMING EVENTS

• Not sure how to obtain Intelligence Community records? OGIS, the ISOO, and the National Declassification Center are giving a primer on Thursday, March 12th at 1.

• TechCongress fellow apps are due March 15th.

• DC Open Government Coalition’s Sunshine Week event will take place on March 18 at 6:30 pm. Here’s more information about the agenda and speakers. Please RSVP to rsvp@dcogc.org if you plan to attend.

• NARA’s Sunshine week event is set for March 16th.

• House of Code, Capitol Hill’s Computer Science Fair will be on March 24th in the Rayburn Foyer.

Did we miss something? Let us know at capacity@demandprogress.org.