Forecast for July 20, 2020

THE TOP LINE

The House Appropriations Committee finished its deliberations this past week, favorably reporting bills from its 12 subcommittees and marking the end of an era with Rep. Lowey’s forthcoming retirement as Chair. As we noted last week, this included much needed investments in the Legislative Branch, reclaiming Congress’ power of the purse, and increased transparency requirements.

The Senate is back and is in session until August 7th, and the House votes this week on the NDAA, confederate statues, and some approps bills. The House district work period in theory starts on July 31, but Speaker Pelosi said the House would absolutely stay in town to pass coronavirus relief and Members were told to plan to be in town the first week of August. Who knows what will be in that bill.

A remote Congress is better than no Congress. The House moved in May to allow proxy voting, but allowing fully remote deliberations (including remote voting) is a much better option, as we’ve been arguing since March. The House Admin Cmte held a hearing on Friday that checks a box to allow remote deliberations; even former Speaker Gingrich, who testified, agreed that secure remote voting is technologically feasible, and he praised the proceedings. As to the wisdom of such a move, see our letter (co-authored with the Lincoln Network’s Zach Graves) to the Committee. Roll Call has an excellent summary of the hearing.

Rep. John Lewis has died. His life exemplified how a principled leader moves the political middle and the value of standing up for what you believe.

APPROPRIATIONS

Chair Lowey finished 27 year run on the Appropriations Cmte, including serving as its first woman chair. The fight over who will succeed her surfaced months ago. Democrats generally but not always follow seniority for these positions (the actual process is hidden within the party caucus). The top contenders, in order of seniority, are Reps. Kaptur, DeLauro, and Wasserman Schultz.

While the House moved forward on appropriations, the Senate is stuck. Roll Call reports that Chair Shelby “has halted further consideration of the 12 annual spending bills because Democrats say they’ll offer virus-related amendments that Republicans oppose.” This likely is tied up with the debate over what to include in the next COVID-19 relief package.

No more war. Three amendments from Rep. Barbara Lee were included in the Defense Appropriations bill to “stop endless wars.” The 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force have “been cited at least 41 times in 19 countries to wage war with little or no Congressional oversight.”

Ranking Member Granger objected to adopting the revised 302(b) allocations, which concern the amount of money available to the 12 appropriations subcommittees to spend, because “these revised allocations still do not reflect hundreds of billions of dollars in so-called emergency spending,” and that violates the spirit of the budget agreement from last year which said any emergency spending levels must be agreed to on a bipartisan basis. Over the next few months we will see how this gets worked out.

COMMERCE, JUSTICE AND SCIENCE APPROPS

The CJS approps bill, which covers the Commerce and Justice Departments, and a bunch more, was favorably reported by the full committee this past week. The overall funding level level is $71.47 Billion, a reduction of $1.7 billion below FY20 (reflecting the completion of the 2020 Census). By way of background, here’s the bill, committee reportpress releasesubcmte markupfull cmte markupour requests, and last year’s FBF coverage.

Access to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel opinions. The report includes language that tasks the Attorney General “to direct OLC to publish on a publicly accessible website all legal opinions and related materials,” except in limited circumstances. The OLC has a history of producing opinions that mis-interpret the law and are kept secret from Congress and the public. The Committee report also requests the A.G. to provide Congress written clarification as to why OLC opinions are either partially or fully withheld. Parallel authorizing legislation, the OLC Sunlight Act, also has been introduced in Congress.

House Appropriators have gone down this road before. The FY20 House CJS report included language on OLC opinions, but the Senate successfully fought to water it down, with the Joint Explanatory Statement superseding the House language and instead “strongly urged” the Attorney General to direct OLC to publish all legal opinions “that are appropriate for publication,” a condition the DOJ can misleadingly argue that it already fulfills.

Sending the Attorney General a message. The CJS Subcommittee bill would block funding to pay for A.G. Barr’s travel of more than 50 miles outside DOJ headquarters in DC. Barr infamously said he was unavailable to testify before Congress because he was so busy traveling. A.G. Barr is scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary on July 28th, having twice cancelled his scheduled testimony and worked to undermine House oversight efforts.

FINANCIAL SERVICES AND GENERAL GOVERNMENT APPROPS

The FSGG approps bill, which has broad jurisdiction over the Treasury, IGs, elections, the SBA, Executive Office of the President, the Judiciary, and more, was favorably reported by the full committee at $24.64 Billion, an increase of $808 Million over FY20. There’s also an additional $67 Billion in emergency spending, including $61 Billion for broadband. By way of background, here’s the bill, committee reportpress releasesubcmte markupfull cmte hearingour requests, and last year’s FBF coverage.

Policy provisions include greater autonomy for DC, federal employment for DACA recipients, and blocking the OPM merger with GSA. The bill creates a Commission on Federal Naming and Displays to identify and recommend federal property that is “inconsistent with the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.” We joined a letter to remove confederate statues from the Capitol, and the House will vote on a measure this week. The FSGG Report contains quite a few transparency provisions and measures to strengthen Congressional power of the purpose. For example —

Congress is finally pushing back to regain control over its power of the purse by requiring information and giving the GAO greater power and access to spending data, as well as requiring improvements to USASpending, the online federal spending database.

Congressional budget justifications, the plain-language explanations of how an agency proposes to spend appropriated money, are the subject of report language requesting they be published online “in a searchable, sortable, and machine-readable format.” We testified last year on why this is a good idea; FSGG has included similar language for the last several years. As an aside, there’s great bipartisan authorizing legislation on congressional justifications embodied in S. 2560 and H.R. 4894. We’ve done a ton of research into the failures of the agencies to reliably post them online pursuant to OMB regulations. More on that from GovExec. Thank you in particular to Rep. Quigley, who has been pushing this matter in the House.

White House Visitor Logs contain a list of everyone who visits the White House and were routinely published online by the Obama administration in a giant database, totalling nearly 6 million records by December 2016, after it reached an agreement with members of civil society who were suing for access. The Trump administration stopped their publication. The Approps committee report contains clever language requesting a report every 90 days to appropriators that contains the visitors logs, and the method of reporting is online publication. Rep. Cicilline has a parallel authorizing bill.

Who’s the boss? The Trump administration has record agency vacancies and temporary appointments but they’re pretty much impossible to track. Appropriators included report language requesting the White House design an online dashboard that tracks the status of all positions that require Senate confirmation.” This has significant similarities with the PLUM Act (H.R. 7107 and S. 3896), which are authorizing bills to require an online list of presidentially-appointed positions and their status; the PLUM Act is being marked up in HSGAC this week.

CONGRESSIONAL OPS

Who steers the ship? Last week, the House Democratic Caucus released their caucus rules publicly after taking a vote to add a rule that promotes greater diversity for hiring practices in congressional offices. Besides the new rule addition, were there any other significant changes to the caucus rules? We did a side-by-side; take a look for yourself.

We also did a deep dive into both parties’ steering committees, so we put together a comprehensive list of members of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and Republican Steering Committee over the last decade and published an analysis of the findings. Read more about how the party caucus and conference work in the House.

The Senate Filibuster may be eliminated, says Joe Biden, shifting his prior position.

A Staff Work From Home Guide was put together by the Modernization Staff Association, “a bipartisan group that focuses on internal reform issues that primarily affect junior Hill staffers.” It is excellent and incredibly practical. More of this, please.

Staff are slammed helping constituents navigate coronavirus relief.

Who’s next? A 3-way fight is developing to replace Rep. Engel as chair of Foreign Affairs, with the news report that Rep. Joaquin Castro will join the race against Reps. Sherman and Meeks. 70 progressive orgs (including us) signed a letter on the foreign policy principles any chair of Foreign Affairs should embrace. The race will be interesting because of how the Democratic party manages its chair selection processes.

FIX CONGRESS

The House Modernization Cmte (SCOMC) has started a blog. First up, a recap of their work on the importance of congressional staff and issues with the House not having a centralized HR office.

What reports are still missing? Last week, the Committee on House Administration and the SCOMC released a number of reports aimed to improve Congress. (Thank you!) We have been cataloguing all of the legislative support office projects and their due dates into a public spreadsheet. We also published a blog on the reports that are not yet publicly available and what projects are due next month. It appears that a half-dozen CAO reports are past due but not yet online.

The feasibility of remote voting was considered in a hearing held on Friday by House Admin. Chair Lofgren’s opening statement provided useful context — and some fun history, including the fact that Thomas Edison had tried to persuade Congress to adopt an electronic voting tool, for which he received his first patent in 1869. At the end of the hearing, everyone had agreed that it was feasible from a technological perspective to hold secure remote voting.

• Interesting factoids: Per Rep. Lofgren: Since the e-Hopper was created, 1,307 measures were filed electronically, and only 51 by the old process. 897 extensions of remarks were filed by email and signed with an electronic signature. The House has held 29 proxy votes; House committees held more than 86 hearings and markups, of which 49 were fully remote and 29 were hybrid; 226 individuals have testified in remote or hybrid proceedings.

Not everyone agrees a remote Congress is a good idea. Mark Strand argues that if Burger King figured out how to work in person, so can Congress. Speaker Gingrich, when testifying before the committee, talking about Members’ biological need to be present in person. Ranking Member Davis talked about the need to return to normalcy on the Federal News Network podcast. We are not unsympathetic to a desire to be physically present, merely the wisdom of doing so now and the absence of a backup process.

Remote proceedings are needed with increasing COVID-19 cases.GOP Rep Griffith (VA) tested positive, although he was one of the few masked Republican members. 30 legislators and 11 workers tested positive in the Mississippi capitol. In a sign of shifting norms, Leader McCarthy is requiring masks at this week’s party meeting.

Unauthorized access to remote proceedings? Sort of, but that’s not as scary as it sounds. A lobbyist joined a hearing using the staff and Member WebEx platform (likely through a shared link). It may be more concerning that the lobbyist is a former long-term staffer who was convicted of federal crimes (failing to file taxes).

NDAA

750 amendments to the NDAA were filed with the House Rules Cmte, who met on Friday, to set the stage for an NDAA vote this week.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus said it will formally oppose the NDAA “unless significant action is taken to eliminate wasteful Pentagon spending.” House Democratic Leadership’s plan seems to be to cut out progressives and embrace Republicans to pass the bill.

OVERSIGHT

We don’t need no stinkin’ oversight. Four months into the CARES Act, the Congressional Oversight Commission responsible for monitoring $500 Million (of the $2 Trillion) in relief still has no chair or full-time staff. In April, only one member had been appointed, and he was essentially monitoring via twitter. Four of the five members are now appointed, but that’s about it. Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, who was the leading contender to serve as chair, has bowed out.

None of the three oversight bodies are functioning. POGO has a great overview, including their budget, purpose, and highlights. Listen to POGO’s Tim Stretton for the latest.

Is a law passed by Congress only “advisory and nonbinding”? President Trump said so in a presidential signing statement when he signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act. Read our prior research on signing statements here.

National emergency declarations can be used to circumnavigate congressional checks on Executive power. In yet another sign of life and reclaiming power for Congress, the Article One Act would require Congress to confirm a president’s declaration of a national emergency within 30 days.

TRANSPARENCY

The Third Branch (that is, the Supreme Court) was encouraged to join the 21st Century by taking “steps to permit video and live audio coverage of all open sessions of the Court unless the Court decides that allowing such coverage in any case would violate the due process of one or more of the parties before the court.” Fix the Court advocates are pushing for this and other reforms in the courts.

The FOIA Advisory Committee issued its 2018-2020 Final Report with 22 recommendations, including stronger oversight and increased funding from Congress.

ETHICS

Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass) was cleared by the House Ethics Cmte of “allegations that her campaign accepted illegal personal loans during her contested primary in 2018.” The report noted her “good faith effort to comply” and correct errors, as this was “not uncommon” since “between 20 percent and 30 percent of all Financial Disclosure Statements reviewed by the Committee each year contain errors or require a corrected statement.” Um, maybe that means it’s not a great system. Also, we note that Rep. Trahan, her husband, and her campaign did not cooperate with the OCE investigation.

Rep. Steve Watkins (R-KS) has been charged with three felonies, including voter fraud. He initially refused to give up his committee posts, flouting GOP rules, but changed his mind on Friday.

ODDS & ENDS

Capitol Police disclosed one arrest this past week after an individual was arrested for driving under the influence after they were found parked on the wrong side of the road near the 200 block of Independence Avenue, SE. The argument about funding USCP is described here.

We accidentally found this Member Handbook from 2011. It has great info. If anyone knows of handbooks from other years, please let us know at capacity@demandprogress.org.

“Almost everything went wrong, and almost everything that did go wrong had been foretold,” argues Paul Light. He reviews 200+ government breakdowns since the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. Definitely worth a read and considering how Congress can address.

A Wicked Problems Agency may help tackle tough problems by “providing the means to share data, training researchers in how to use new analytic techniques, and then applying these techniques.”

The Technologists are coming! TechCongress announced its new class of tech savvy fellows.

EVENTS

Monday

• House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations is holding a hearing on “Federal IT Modernization: How the Coronavirus Exposed Outdated Systems” at 1:30pm in 2154 Rayburn.

• OGIS’s Annual (Virtual) Open Meeting is today from 10am – 12pm.

Tuesday

• House Oversight and Reform Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus is holding a hybrid hearing on “The Urgent Need for a National Plan to Contain the Coronavirus” at 9am in 2154 Rayburn.

• Senate Budget Committee is holding a meeting to “Consider the Nomination of Derek Kan, of California, to be Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget” at 12pm in 325 Russell.

Wednesday

• Senate Rules Committee is holding a hearing to “Examine 2020 General Election Preparations” at 10:30am in 301 Russell.

• HSGAC is holding a “Business Meeting” at 10am that will include the PLUM Act (see our coverage and coalition letter).

Down the line:

• Tuesday, July 28th at 11am the Library of Congress is hosting an Orientation to the Law Library Collections where they will give an overview of their wide range of online resources as well as their print collections.