Congress is open for business, but for how long? The Capitol Complex and Library of Congress are not allowing visitors through April 1st, although there are some loopholes for business visitors. The House put out telework guidance for offices — but no uniform telework requirement — and went into its district work period; the Senate cancelled its district work period to consider the emergency Coronavirus funding bill passed by the House, which it will take up only after a surveillance bill. Meanwhile, we urged both chambers to allow remote voting (editorial, letter); so did Norm Ornstein; so did Rep. Katie Porter; and we put out a statement on remote voting in federal and state legislatures.
The House passed a resolution implementing recommendations from the Fix Congress committee. This is the first time in recent history a modernization committee has issued recommendations at all, let alone had the bipartisan recommendations be adopted.
A warrantless surveillance program is on deck for Senate consideration, after being rammed through the House by leadership and circumventing the committee process. It’s fate (like its policies) are murky at best.
Continuity of Congress Briefing. We have tentatively scheduled an online briefing for tomorrow, Tuesday, March 17, at 11:30 AM ET on Continuity of Congress, which will focus on remote voting and the issues at play. RSVP here so we can send you a link to the online briefing.
CONTINUITY OF CONGRESS
The rapid spread of Coronavirus has made it unsafe and unwise for Members of Congress (and their staff) to convene in person. We published a special mid-week First Branch Forecast with civil society recommendations to keep Congress safe and operational. (We extended those recs to state legislatures.)
Members of Congress are not permitted to vote & deliberate remotely, not even in an emergency. Our argument for remote voting in an emergency setting is that it’s the only way Congress will be able to function should it be unable to convene in person. Opponents of remote voting argue that standing in the well of the chamber and casting your vote “is the most elemental responsibility of a member of Congress,” and it is a slippery slope to tribalism where members vote from home and don’t interact with each other; besides, Congress can always convene elsewhere in an emergency. We agree that there’s a strong argument against Rep. Swalwell’s desire to normalize remote voting, but we’d rather guarantee that Congress can function in an emergency to pass legislation and check the executive branch than cede that option.
Amendments to allow for remote voting must be done in person in advance of the emergency. Our preference? A temporary suspension of the rules that prohibit remote voting; the determination made by the Speaker/Majority Leader; and the suspension lapsing after 30 days unless renewed by the chamber at the Speaker/Majority Leader’s request.
WHAT DOES CORONAVIRUS MEAN FOR CONGRESSIONAL OPS?
There’s no blanket policy dictating whether offices move to teleworking only. Some are voluntarily moving to telework, but others are requiring in-person attendance. We already know members have been exposed to Coronavirus, and at least two current or former staff have come down ill. Some Hill staffers will be forced to go into the office despite their concerns, even at the executive branch goes (belatedly) to maximum telework. We don’t know the status of support offices and agencies. CMF has a list of questions for offices to consider as they adjust operations for the Coronavirus outbreak.
Is Congress’s tech infrastructure ready for mass telework? Lorelei Kelley argues no. Certainly Congress is behind on setting up electronic means to complete work largely conducted by paper, such as co-sponsoring bills. This is partially because Leg. Branch has underinvested in itself for years. We also have concerns about adoption of appropriate cybersecurity measures, where the institution also lags.
In the meantime, the CAO established a House Telework Readiness Center to provide staff technical assistance to work remotely. The Center is open daily from 9 am to 3pm for any troubleshooting and training. House Admin also permitted personal offices to access any remaining unspent LY2019 funds to purchase teleworking equipment and supplies such as laptops or cellphones. CAO is also helpfully providing pre-configured laptops.
The House is also rolling back in-person harassment training requirements and moving the seminars online, Roll Call’s KTM reports.
What about non-salaried staff? Contract workers who provide custodial and food services for the Capitol who comply with self-quarantine and social distancing measures will have to navigate serious financial hardship from lost wages. BTW, contractors for the Leg. Branch aren’t covered by Congressional Accountability Act wage protections. There could also be a major intern shortage (in the hundreds) post-recess.
CORONAVIRUS: WHAT’S CONGRESS DOING ABOUT IT?
The House passed H.R. 6201, an emergency supplemental spending bill late last week after negotiations between Speaker Pelosi and the White House. WaPo covers what’s in the bill plus what the president’s declaration of a national emergency means in practice. We don’t want to talk about whether anyone had time to read the bill. Congress will have another bite at the apple in terms of funding telework and continuity of Congress measures in the FY 2021 Leg. Branch approps bill, and there may be another emergency bill on the way.
Several additional bills have been introduced to address Coronavirus, LegBranch’s Philp Wallach rounded them up here.
ON YOUR RADAR: USA “Freedom” Reauthorization
Warrantless government surveillance of US citizens was forced through the House last week 278-136 through leadership pressure and a circumventing of the committee process, and will get a cloture vote in the Senate this evening. The bill re-authorizes three provisions of the Patriot Act, which sunsetted over the weekend, while making modest changes that many (including the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, who is listed as the bill author) say do not go far as they would have wanted to protect civil liberties. If it fails, it’s likely that Congress would consider legislation with stronger civil liberties protections.
Senate Appropriations posted instructions and deadlines for public witness testimony on each subcommittee’s page. Mark your calendars; FSGG is due March 26th and Leg. Branch is due May 1st. Keep up with the deadlines using our tracker.
New Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton testified before House Leg. Branch Approps last week. The committee asked about the AOC’s large deficit, issues with discrimination against employees of color, and plans for deep cleaning amid Coronavirus at a budget request hearing last week; the Architect’s responses could have been more specific.
GPO’s new director Hugh Halpern testified before Leg. Branch Approps last week (written testimony, video), and reiterated positive changes included in his recent testimony before H. Admin. This includes GPO’s push to heighten its use of XPub, a new document markup and publishing tool that creates Congressional documents that are easier to generate and are designed for modern legislative use. GPO is also working with the House & DHS to secure its digital information against cyber threats.
At last week’s Senate Leg. Branch Approps hearing on GAO and CBO’s FY 2021 budget requests, Chair Hyde Smith told Comptroller Dodaro and CBO Director Swagel that “we’re almost certainly facing flat budgets for FY 2021.” Without additional funds, GAO & CBO would have to stop hiring new people and replacing departing employees; GAO would also have to furlough employees for two weeks. This would be a devastating hit to the agencies’ capacity and productivity; e.g., GAO would have to halt implementation of its Science & Technology plan. Comptroller Dodaro & Sen. Van Hollen both strongly emphasized that protecting the GAO’s STAA team’s ability to serve an OTA-esque function is critical.
Comptroller Dodaro also urged Congress “to step up its oversight requests,” and gave anecdotal evidence of agencies shirking congressionally-mandated reporting obligations. It’s not just GAO having this issue; other Leg. Branch agencies (like CBO) have trouble getting Executive Branch data; see Kel McClanahan’s testimony for more info. GAO provided more concrete guidance on what it needed before the House Budget Committee.
LET CONGRESS BE CONGRESS
The Article I Renaissance continued at the House Budget Committee’s hearing on Protecting Congress’ Power of the Purse. Ranking Member Womack noted budgeting is fundamental to government but the current process doesn’t work. (He noted the lack of progress with the recommendations on the issue from the recent Joint Committee on Budget Reform.) Members and witnesses engaged in a multi-hour conversation that featured serious discussion and concrete reform ideas. We break it all down here.
Congratulations! On Tuesday, the House took a great step towards making the people’s chamber more efficient and responsive with the passage of a resolution 395-13, adopting modernization recommendations made by the Fix Congress Committee (H. Res. 756). (The resolution does not apply to the Senate or support offices, but it will have a big impact on House operations.)
The resolution included 29 recommendations that were unanimously reported by the Modernization Committee last year. The resolution contains five titles: (1) streamlining and reorganizing human resources; (2) improving orientation for members-elect and providing improved continuing education opportunities for members; (3) modernizing and revitalizing technology; (4) making the House accessible to all; and (5) improving access to documents and publications.
The bill calls for reforms like establishing a centralized HR hub, streamlining approval for outside technology, an authorizations database, a measure (previously raised by Rep. Kathleen Rice) that calls for cybersecurity training for all members, and much more. We testified in support of some of these measures last year. The resolution also orders a long list of reports. This upcoming week we will publish a list of when all the reports are due.
Speaking of making Congress better, Congratulations to Kemba Hendrix, the first leader of the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Learn more about that office.
Courts rule in favor of Congressional oversight authority: The DC Federal Court of Appeals vacated the McGahn ruling that said White House Counsel Don McGahn couldn’t be forced to testify before Congress and agreed to rehear the matter; and the DC Circuit held the House Judiciary Committee may have access to redacted portions of the Mueller Report.
The Commerce Dept. defied Congressional authority by refusing to turn over a required report. A cohort of bipartisan Senators, led by Sen. Pat Toomey pushed back by filing an amicus brief for Cause of Action’s FOIA suit aimed at getting Commerce to turn over the report.
A masterclass in oversight. Rep. Katie Porter shows how oversight can force an administrator to do something they wouldn’t do otherwise, in this case, using emergency powers to pay for Coronavirus testing.
Congress Checks Trump’s war powers. The House passed (227-186) an Iran war powers resolution limiting US military action against Iran without Congressional authority. The Joint resolution passed the Senate last month. President Trump has said he plans to veto it.
Rep. Mark Meadows is leaving Congress for the White House, which means colleagues are vying for his spot as Ranking Member on the Oversight committee.
TRANSPARENCY & ETHICS
The White House may use a Reagan-era OLC opinion to avoid document disclosure on Coronavirus. Just a reminder, there are limited bases on which items can be properly withheld.
The Office of Congressional Ethics can’t issue subpoenas, so some Members of Congress are stonewalling their investigations, ProPublica reports.
CBO has published a transparency report on future plans and a review of 2019 efforts. The report was requested in the FY 2020 Senate Leg. Branch appropriations bill report. H/T to BGov’s Jack Fitzpatrick for flagging the report.
House Admin. Ranking Member Rodney Davis advocated for a measure requiring Members of Congress to disclose unpaid taxes.
Video of last week’s (virtual) Open Government State of the Union in honor of Sunshine Week is up here.
SCOTUS should allow real-time audio & video streaming of proceedings; House FSGG Appropriations Chair Quigley pressed the matter in an oversight letter to Chief Justice Roberts.
ODDS & ENDS
The Cyberspace Solarium Commission released its report to overhaul government’s approach to cybersecurity. It advocates a new strategy of “layered cyber deterrence” and 75 recommendations, including establishing Permanent Select Cyber Committees in the House and Senate, a National Cyber Director and a Continuity of the Economy plan to ensure critical functions of the economy continue after a significant cyber disruption.
Increased technology capacity. The report notes “Congress should reestablish and fund the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), or another similar agency, to advise both chambers on cyber and technology policy.” We agree.
U.S. Capitol Police arrested an individual for throwing a piece of paper at a Member of Congress during a committee hearing in room 342 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building last week. Read the complete Capitol Police round-up here.
CRS has a report on Congressional staff duties & qualifications, plus a shorter 5-pager on staff tenure & duties.
House Majority Leader Hoyer introduced legislation to remove the bust of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, who wrote the majority opinion in the infamous Dred Scott case, from the Capitol and replace it with a bust of Justice Thurgood Marshall. We wrote about removal of confederate statues with R Street a few years back.
Former Member of Congress John William “Jack” Buechner passed away. He founded Congress to Campus, which aims to educate students about the government by getting former lawmakers to share their firsthand knowledge of the legislative process.
House Democrats postponed their April retreat until further notice, via BGov.
The Senate is in this week, with a FISA vote and emergency supplemental appropriations vote both on deck.
With Coronavirus, everything is in limbo a bit; most events have moved to virtual proceedings or been postponed.
Senate appropriations posted public witness testimony instructions; check for upcoming deadlines here.