Forecast for May 26, 2020

THE TOP LINE

The Senate is out for Memorial Day recess; the House will be in for votes tomorrow and Thursday. (Yes, today is Tuesday. Welcome back.)

Speaker Pelosi triggered a 45-day emergency period for remote committee and floor deliberations on May 20th; we calculate the end-date as July 4th, unless it is extended. Members can opt to vote by proxy or in person; proxy designations are here. Hopefully the House will quickly move to remote floor voting; we’re tracking everything here. Cheers to retiring Rep. Rooney for endorsing remote deliberations.

The House will vote on the domestic-surveillance bill known as the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act, with leadership reportedly agreeing late on Friday to allow consideration of an amendment to require the FBI obtain a warrant prior to searching an American’s Internet search and browser histories. This is an interesting instance where rank-and-file pressure re-opened a bill that leadership had previously jammed through without a markup or amendments.

Senator McConnell is attacking the House for proxy voting, suggesting (at least in POLITICO’s summary) that he wouldn’t take up House bills enacted this way. Given that the Senate wasn’t taking up House bills anyway; that the Senate is in recess while the House is at work; that some senators stand accused of violating the STOCK Act; that appropriations bills originate in the House; and the pace of Senate public-facing activity has slowed to a crawl; this seems more like an effort at distraction than a serious charge; perhaps he should focus on the Senate.

House Dems intro’d a bill to protect Inspectors General from arbitrary removal, with some prominent Democratic sponsors. The Project on Government Oversight’s Executive Dir. explained why protecting IGs is important (and what else should be done) in this op-ed. WaPo takes a look at Sen. Grassley, who historically has defended IGs, and POLITICO describes how unitary executive theory — the extreme political view that the president controls everyone in the executive branch — is being used to undermine IG independence.

We’ve added new international resources to our twitterbot @OpenAtAGlance, which tweets primary sources on legislative operations + actions.

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Continue reading “Forecast for May 26, 2020”

Forecast for May 18, 2020

What a week. On Friday, the House adopted a remote voting resolution (H. Res. 965) that provides for proxy voting on the floor, remote committee hearings, and creates a pathway for remote voting on the floor and remote mark-ups in committees. In other words, the House can function for the foreseeable future despite the COVID-19 pandemic, creating the possibility of a legislative check on the executive branch. The Senate, meanwhile, continues to play Russian roulette with its members, staff, and the ability of that chamber to function.

Just a few months ago, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader McConnell spoke out in opposition to remote deliberations, and Minority Leader McCarthy denounced it from the House floor. It is unusual, to say the least, for a rules change to pass over the opposition of the leaders of both parties in the House, but intense political pressure and the political reality prompted Speaker Pelosi to do a 180, and she put her own stamp on the rule to protect (and possibly aggrandize) her power vis-a-vis the rank-and-file. (Full disclosure: we support remote voting.) The final vote was partisan, but I suspect many House Republicans welcome the move to keep the House functioning even if they wish it had come about differently.

When the House comes back on May 27th, it will vote on a surveillance reauthorization bill, which will be the first major legislation voted by proxy in the House. What’s notable about the Orwellian-named “USA Freedom Reauthorization Act” is (1) the underlying law stayed lapsed in part because of no remote deliberations; (2) the bill was recently amended in the Senate to allow outside experts to weigh in on FBI surveillance requests, and (3) that an amendment failed 59-37 to prohibit the government from warrantlessly-surveilling your website browsing information and search history, but two of the absent Senators would have voted for it had, say, remote voting been in place. Will Speaker Pelosi — who is a hard-liner for national security issues trumping civil liberties — allow the House to consider a pro civil-liberties amendment that has 60+ votes in the Senate? If she does not, what mechanisms are available to House members in a proxy-voting environment to force a vote on that amendment? How do the new processes affect their leverage?

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Initial Thoughts on the House’s Remote Deliberation Resolution

This morning, House Rules Committee Democrats introduced a resolution (H. Res 965) that would provide for some remote deliberations for House committees and on the floor. Accompanying that resolution was a Dear Colleague from the Rules Committee that explains how the resolution would work, a one-page explainer, and a statement from the Democratic members of the Virtual Task Force on the resolution.

In short, the resolution:

  • Provides for proxy voting on the House floor, which would be turned on, extended, and turned off at the direction of the House Speaker. Members would send a letter to the House Clerk to designate their proxy, and no such designee can cast more than 10 proxy votes. The Clerk would publish the proxy designation on its website. The proxy is revocable, and must provide specific direction as to how to vote. Members voting by proxy would count towards a quorum.
  • Provides a mechanism for the Chair of the House Administration Committee (in consultation with the RM) to advise on whether secure technology is available to allow for remote voting on the floor. The Chair of the House Rules Committee would then promulgate regulations to put it into effect (to be published in the Congressional Record), and the Speaker would notify the House that remote voting is now possible. Presumably, the Speaker would be able to choose whether to provide this notice.
  • Provides for remote deliberations for hearings and markups for committees. Many of the details of how this would work have been pushed to the Rules Committee, whose chair (in consultation with the RM) would issue regulations on remote deliberations that would be published in the Congressional Record. To conduct business meetings (which presumably means markups), a majority of Members of the Committee would have to certify they will follow the regulations and that the committee is ready for remote deliberations.
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Remote Deliberations: Terms of the Trade

Congress is beginning to innovate around how it deliberates in committees and on the floor. These changes are driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made in-person meetings unsafe and unwise, although many of the proposed modifications require rules changes. We have seen various terms used to refer to how Congress could deliberate — e.g. remote hearings, virtual hearings, remote voting, etc. — but they are used inconsistently.

Here are our proposals to add some meat to these terms. 

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Continuity of Congress: A Timeline of Remote Deliberations and Voting

Congress has been mostly absent as the country fights against the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic began, many lawmakers, outside organizations, and former Members of Congress encouraged the legislative branch to instantiate remote deliberations and voting measures in the event of an emergency. 

The following is a timeline of many of the recent key events concerning Continuity of Congress during a pandemic. More information can be found at continuityofcongress.org

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Forecast for May 5, 2020.

You may have noticed that you didn’t receive this week’s First Branch Forecast on Monday. This newsletter takes a team to write, and with so much happening last week and over the weekend, I ran out of time to finalize it on Sunday. Here is an abbreviated version.

COMING UP THIS WEEK

Wednesday at 2 join our roundtable on Lessons learned from Remote Committee Proceedings. Speakers include the congressional staff who held the committee roundtables, former members of congress, and experts from civil society and academia. Also, we spoke to Civic Hall last week on continuity of Congress.

Congress needs tech help fast; think you’re up to the challenge? TechCongress launched a Congressional Digital Service fellowship to help get Congress functioning amid pandemic; the deadline to apply is Sunday.

We’re keeping an eye on the Senate Rules Committee, which is meeting on Thursday. Maybe they’ll say something about moving the Senate towards working remotely? (Maybe they should call the Supreme Court, who actually broadcast audio of oral arguments yesterday.)

Continue reading “Forecast for May 5, 2020.”

Can Online Presence Count Towards A Quorum?

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a fantastic report last week analyzing the constitutional rules governing quorum requirements to coincide with last week’s virtual hearing on Continuity of Senate Operations and Remote Voting in Times of Crisis.

If you’re not a policy wonk who finds quorum requirements inherently interesting, consider this: Determinations around remote quorum partially dictate whether Congress can hold official proceedings and votes remotely. In other words, this analysis impacts how Congress may or may not work remotely.

So where did the committee fall on the issue? The short answer is, it’s complicated.

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New Bill Reclaiming the Congressional Power of the Purse

Chair Yarmuth of the House Budget Committee partnered with House and Senate chairs (Chair Lowey of House Appropriations, Chair Maloney of House Oversight and Reform and Senate Appropriations Vice Chair Leahy) to introduce the bicameral (but not bipartisan) Congressional Power of the Purse Act (H.R.6628).  

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Continuity of Congress Play-By-Play For The Week Ending May 2, 2020.

CONTINUITY OF CONGRESS: House of Representatives

Activity on remote proceedings for the past week fills two pages on our ongoing timeline.  Sunday was not a day of rest, as the New Dems Coalition sent a second letter to House Leadership, urging them to bring a remote voting resolution to the floor no later than May 4 (today).  

Continue reading “Continuity of Congress Play-By-Play For The Week Ending May 2, 2020.”