THE TOP LINE
Congress may finally have begun investing in itself — House appropriators favorably reported a 5% increase in funding for the Legislative Branch. That’s half of the 10% increase sought by good government types (like us), and while Congress is still significantly below its funding level from a decade again, we are starting to dig out of the hole. Read Zach Graves on the conservative case for increased policy capacity, and please thank your nearest appropriator, especially those on Leg. Branch.
Money isn’t everything (but it’s really important). Approps bills and reports set policy and direct agencies, and in the Leg. Branch approps bill, the House took a major step towards reclaiming its power of the purse by strengthening GAO and putting in place scores of improvements to congressional operations. More below.
The rules behind the power. Party rules and customs determine committee chairs, policy, and which legislation gets a vote. House Dems finally released their caucus rules (thanks! even if it took 500 days from our request). We’re going to keep digging into the caucus rules, who serves on the steering and policy committee, and the secret rules under which it operates.
Power switch. The House continues to use proxy voting, which some view as having the effect of consolidating power in the hands of leadership while avoiding the worse fate of a defunct Congress. This Friday, House Admin will hold a hearing on remote voting, which could be a step towards turning on the power of the House to deliberate fully in virtual session. Given what’s happening in the world, this is a wise course of action.
More than $1.6 Trillion in discretionary spending was allocated by House appropriators, if you include off-books spending in the totals. They published the 302(b) allocation table for the 12 subcommittees, which totals approximately $1.3 Trillion, but does not include the emergency, special, and OCO numbers. $1.6T is our best guess at total spending numbers based on what we could cobble together. This Wednesday will have a mark-up of the revised 302b allocations; for now, this chart show how we think the money breaks out.
We are struggling to make sense of where the money is going and placing it in context compared to prior years. Regardless, all these numbers are notional until we see where the Senate lands, and it’s looking more and more like a CR is in our future. As you’re counting the cash, don’t forget the Trillions that have gone out the door as part of the emergency COVID bills.For full disclosure, we closely track and/or make requests to 4 of the 12 subcommittees: Legislative Branch, CJS, FSGG, and Defense.
LEG BRANCH APPROPS
Overview. This year’s House Leg. Branch approps bill and committee report are phenomenal from the perspective of improving Congress’s functioning. The reforms they include are a significant step toward restoring Congressional capacity and would fix a number of long-standing problems.
Funding highlights include an extra $50K+ for each House office with the $25m increase to the MRA, plus the creation of a $2m modernization fund to implement Fix Congress Committee and House Admin recommendations for improving Congress. There’s significant funding increases for most leg support offices and agencies, which can start to undo the major budget cuts they’ve suffered.
Reforms in the report cover everything from paid family & medical leave and child care, to technology improvements, to diversity & inclusion, to creating a central HR capability, to access to legislative documents, to oversight powers, to staff clearances, to historical CRS report availability, to — it’s probably easier just to review our spreadsheet of 82 improvements (and counting) contained in the report. Also, don’t forget removing confederate statues and employment for Dreamers.
Meanwhile, the Capitol Police, which have enjoyed significant funding and personnel growth over the last two decades, will finally be held to a standard of transparency and accountability, as we discuss below.
More approps. We will have a lot more to say about Leg. Branch approps, and appropriations in general, but the bill was just favorably reported by the committee on Friday, we’re tired, and there’s more mark-ups this week. Consider this a down payment. 🙂
POWER OF THE PURSE
The FSGG approps bill includes new provisions requiring executive agencies to provide information to GAO. This follows through on the March House Budget Committee hearing.
GAO is Congress’ watchdog, and their success depends on getting information from Executive Branch agencies. GAO returns $338 for every $1 invested in it. At a House Budget Cmte hearing in March, GAO’s general counsel testified GAO has had “difficulty getting timely responses from agencies, and, in some cases, we have not received responses at all.”
The FSGG billrequires the Executive Branch to respond to GAO within 20 days, grants the GAO access for interviews, and imposes administrative discipline for noncompliance. Congress shall be notified of any lapses and if apportionments are not made in the required time. That is, if the Executive doesn’t spend money as directed, it has to tell Congress.
GAO is also empowered, “through attorneys of their own selection, to bring a civil action in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.” This means GAO, a legislative branch agency, won’t have to rely on the executive branch. These reforms are an important step in reclaiming congressional power.
The Democratic Caucus released their rules. That’s huge, and it only took four letters from us and 500 days. The rules truly do matter. Party leadership and structure is an unknown parallel power structure within Congress. The GOP has published their rules for some time. Party leadership and rules steer the congressional ship.
The Captain of the Ship (Speaker Pelosi’s recent label) may be charting a course to nowhere, argues the American Prospect.Speaker Pelosi may not be thrilled about their characterization of her as capable of accumulating power within her party but unable or unwilling to wield it effectively against Republicans and the Executive Branch, but it’s nowhere as harsh as the Holocaust historian who, in the New York Review of Books in 2018, called Mitch McConnell “the gravedigger of Democracy.” And yet, the Prospect article has resonance, especially in light of this weekend’s commutation of Roger Stone’s sentence in furtherance of obstruction of justice and the ongoing fight over the Coronavirus response.
Oh Captain my Captain. We don’t like the metaphor of a ship’s captain in part because every member should chart the course that’s best for their district. Alas, just recently, six major bills were stowed away in a single rule promulgated by the Rules Committee. As The Hill reports, the bills “ran the gamut from policing reform, health care amendments and D.C. statehood, to credit scores, community reinvestment regulation disapproval and a ban on home evictions.” The health care bill originally reported was 10 pages long and replaced with a 154 page committee print that included bills that had not been reported by any committee. This really isn’t how legislating is supposed to happen.
More rule changes in the future? Caucus rules on selecting committee chairs are being called into question thanks to a shuffle at the top. We wanted to do a deeper dive into both parties steering committees, so our team is putting together a comprehensive list of members of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and Republican Steering Committee over the last decade and will publish an analysis of the findings soon.
House Democratic Caucus Diversity Rule. The Dem Caucus voted to encourage Members to prioritize diversity and inclusion in hiring practices, essentially passing the “Rooney Rule” (the NFL required teams to interview diverse candidates for certain positions). The rule provides to “the extent practicable, offices shall” interview diverse applicants for all vacancies.
The Senate Diversity Initiative yearly report provides diversity numbers for Senate Democrats and committees. Republican offices do not report these numbers.
Meanwhile, this Old Senate recently restored the Commerce hearing room in the Russell Building as “a pilot for an extensive room renovation program planned in the Senate buildings over the next 15 years.” Very pretty, but let’s remember the remodel of Cannon had $100 Million in cost overruns and Members complaining of vermin.
Senate food workers are under layoff threats. Most spared until September.
The Senate page programfall semester was cancelled. We hear the average page costs $80k per year; we’re digging into the numbers.
The health of a country’s democracy determines its ability to work during the coronavirus according to study on COVID-19 and global legislative activity. The study found the severity of the virus alone does not impact legislative activity, but the governments of countries that were lower scoring on the freedom index (where democratic protections are less stable) were more likely to use COVID to justify silencing legislatures.
Two House Committees, the Committee on House Administration and the House Select Committee on Modernization, released a series of reports to improve Congress. We are glad that the reports were conducted and pleased to see them made publicly available. We recognize the effort put in to producing the reports by the relevant offices. They are:
• Operations Plan for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion: It summarizes the various positions in the office.
• Adopting Standardized Formats for Legislative Documents(House Clerk): Provides a history of the development of standards for electronic documents in Congress and a roadmap to upcoming projects.
• Legislative Comparison Project (House Clerk): Discusses efforts to show electronically, in real time, how a bill would change the law and an amendment would change a bill. The Clerk hopes to deploy the tool to House Committees by the end of this year and to personal offices some time during the 117th Congress. It appears that funding may be a constraint on deployment.
• Assignment of Unique Identifiers for Reports Filed by Lobbyists (Clerk): Congress is unable to properly track lobbyists to determine whether someone filing as a lobbyist has previously filed; some lobbyists have multiple IDs. The report poses the question of whether the Clerk + Senate SAA should clean up their database (which would be imperfect) or overhaul the system and require validation with PII like driver’s licenses (which would be overkill). They punt on how to resolve this issue to appropriators. We think they should talk to the Center for Responsive Politics on how they track lobbyists, and improve their data entry systems to validate information and ensure a single identifier per person. There are other problems with their data that they could fix at the same time by improving the data-entry systems.
• Database of votes taken in committees (Clerk): Committees report votes taken in committees in a number of ways, but there’s no standard reporting method and no central database of votes. This report suggests some approaches to fix that. (It could overlap with an examination of electronic vote recording in committees).
• Information on Expiration of Authorizations of Programs (Clerk): CRS and CBO identify “significant challenges to creating a complete, authoritative list of programs and their expiration dates.”
• Feasibility of Establishing a Congressional Staff Academy Needs Assessment (CAO): We were confused by this, as the title of the report is on a Congressional Staff Academy but the subject matter was on an academy for members of Congress. Nonetheless, the upshot of the report is that they haven’t had a chance to do much except start to draft a survey.
On stage left, progressives push for cuts in defense spending. While there was a unanimous vote at the HASC markup (and even a standing ovation), Roll Call reports “some real policy disagreements linger,” and the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee report “reveals enormous ill will” between appropriators and DoD.
Like Approps, the NDAA is also full of policy decisions. Federal News Network provides a great overview of the NDAA (and other) legislation, including a fix to the recent expansion of federal paid parental leave that will provide coverage to congressional staff (and other federal employees who were left out of the original legislation).
DATA and CIVIC TECH
Kudos to the Library of Congress for continuing to enhance congress.gov. The improvements include links to committee reports for House amendments and the addition of committee prints! Review of updates for the year here.
CBO Access and Use of Data. The Leg Branch approps report requires information on CBO’s access to Federal agency data (both data sources and data sets), and recommends CBO use new technology, like Artificial Intelligence, to improve analysis (versus relying on legacy technology like spreadsheets and manual processes).
The Capitol Police Department is notorious for its opacity and inscrutability, but House appropriators took steps to address the problem by including several much needed transparency directives in the 2021 Leg. Branch spending bill. Capitol Police have been instructed to compile a report on department diversity, develop a FOIA-like process so the public can request information and records, review whether and how to publish IG reports, create a report on racial profiling that inclues arrest information disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and gender, publish arrest information as machine-readable data, and report on the scope of their jurisdiction. Several of these reforms were included in testimony from our team’s Amelia Strauss, as well as a letter our team sent to Congress last month.
The Capitol Police Advancement Act was introduced by Ranking Member Davis “to increase transparency, improve accountability, and strengthen personnel decision capabilities within the force.” This bill would publish Ig reports online, report arrest information to the DOJ, and more.
A president is not above the law. In Trump v. Vance, the Supreme Court ruled the president has to respond to a state subpoena like anyone else. That has been true of federal subpoenas for 200+ years (great history lesson in the opinion), but this was the first case analyzing a state subpoena.
But there are limits on Congress seeking information from a President. In Trump v. Mazars, the Supreme Court showed great reluctance in getting involved in the power struggle between two elected branches: “Congress and the Executive have nonetheless managed for over two centuries to resolve these disputes among themselves without Supreme Court guidance,” and the Court had “a duty of care to ensure that it does not needlessly disturb.” The Court outlines a 4-part test for courts to consider the separation of powers issue.
The bottom line. Both cases will be remanded to the lower courts where both the President and Congress can make additional arguments. Law professor Josh Chafetz (who also testified at the House Budget Cmte Power of the Purse hearing) writes an insightful piece on the ramifications of both decisions. In essence, the decision is CYA for Trump to avoid answering tough questions until after the election.
OCE ends Gaetz probe. The Office of Congressional Ethics sent a letter to Rep. Gaetz’s office on July 1st to inform him they were ending the investigation. Politicoreported in April that Rep. Gaetz rented an office below market price from a longtime friend, donor, and legal client.
House lawmakers use campaign funds for membership to plush clubs, an expenditure the Federal Election Commission automatically deems as prohibited personal use.
ODDS & ENDS
Capitol Police disclosed two arrests last week; an individual turned themselves into USCP Headquarters for theft of a cell phone while another individual was charged with simple assault after knocking over a USCP officer near the Capitol Rotunda steps.
Agencies can fire employees who improperly burrow in (related to OPM’s push to oust Obama appointee holdovers). Gov Exec reports on the court ruling.
A new kind of inauguration. Jean Bordewich proposes we have “an opportunity to create a decentralized, technology-driven event that reflects our national values and highest ideals and engages people from across the country.” The Joint Congressional Cmte on Inaugural Ceremonies met for the first time on June 30, so now is the time to discuss.
Took the last train for the Coast: Tortilla Coast has closed.
• House Appropriations is holding a full committee markup on “FY2021 Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies, and Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bills” at 1pm in 1100 Longworth.
• House Appropriations is holding a full committee markup on “FY2021 Defense, Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies and Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bills” at 10am in 1100 Longworth.
• House Appropriations FSGG Subcommittee is holding its markup on “FY 2021 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies” at 9am in 2118 Rayburn.
• House Appropriations is holding a full committee markup on “FY 2021 Homeland Security, Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bills, and the Revised 302bs” at 10am in 1100 Longworth.
• House Administration Committee hearing on remote voting at 1pm.
Down the line:• OGIS’s Annual (Virtual) Open Meeting is on Monday, July 20 from 10am – 12pm.