Congress’ Power of the Purse

Congress holds the power of the purse. That is, they decide where to spend federal money. The Constitution expressly provides that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” The process is convoluted, opaque, and subject to exceptions and personalities. The purpose of this article is to provide the big picture, show the immense importance of these decisions, and the impact on the Legislative Branch.

Congress controls a massive amount of money. For Fiscal Year 2020 (October 1, 2019 to September 30, 2020), the budget is about $4.7 Trillion. $2.8 Trillion is mandatory spending (legally required, like Social Security payments). $1.4 Trillion is discretionary spending (Congress can spend the money on anything). About $500 Billion is interest on the national debt. And, of course, there’s emergency spending, like the recently enacted Coronavirus legislation totaling trillions of dollars (with more to come). 

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House Rules: How Committees Operate

Each House committee has rules that dictate how the committee will function. These rules govern how many members must be present to take an action (i.e., quorum requirements), subpoenas, and other actions. The committees are (theoretically) the workhorses of Congress — legislation, reports, budgets, appropriations, and oversight all originate in committees. 

Committee rules exist under the umbrella of the rules that govern the entire House of Representatives. House and committee rules change every two years as the “new” House takes office after elections. The Congressional Research Service notes: “One of the majority party’s prerogatives is writing House rules and using its numbers to effect the chamber’s rules on the day a new House convenes.” 

That CRS report provides an overview of House rule changes from 2007 to 2017. CRS also provides a survey of House and Senate subpoena requirements through 2018. Finally, a CRS report describes rule changes affecting committee procedures in the current 116th Congress. 

Current committee rules are compiled in this 400 page document. Here are some highlights:

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What’s the Difference? Senate Committee Quorum Rules and Procedures

Despite the longstanding warnings from the Capitol attending physician and D.C. health official extending the stay-at-home order from May 15 to June 8, the Senate chose to return to Washington DC on May 4 for regular business. This includes voting on voting on nominations on the Senate floor as well as holding various committee proceedings.

But a majority of the committee proceedings have been different since the Senate has returned, with senators often choosing to appear via video conference to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Earlier this year, the Senate HELP Committee hosted a proceeding that included the chairman, the ranking member, and all four witnesses all participating via video conference. 

Given the circumstances, these modified proceedings had us thinking: What are the quorum requirements of each committee and what could potentially need to be changed if virtual proceedings are fully implemented?

Senate Rule XXVI establishes specific requirements for certain Senate committee procedures. In addition, each Senate committee is required to adopt rules to govern its own proceedings. These rules may “not be inconsistent with the Rules of the Senate,” but committees are allowed some flexibility to establish rules tailored to how certain activities can be conducted, which can result in significant variation in the way each committee operates. 

Given the changing circumstances of committee proceedings, we read each Senate committee’s rules and procedures to find trends, gaps, and unusual practices. Our complete spreadsheet on the House and Senate committee rules breakdown can be found here and is embedded below. 

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Capitol Police Release 2019 Complaints Data With Significant Omissions That Reduce Clarity

The U.S. Capitol Police is notoriously opaque; among the limited information they will provide to the public are summary statistics on employee misconduct, published in their Annual Statistical Summary Report. This report provides a high level summary of the number of complaints made against USCP employees.

We requested a copy of the 2019 data in June, and it arrived in August, which is par for the course with USCP. Here is what the statistics show: 

  1. There were 228 complaints filed against USCP employees in 2019, of which nearly 140 charges were sustained.
  1. More than 80% of complaints were filed by department employees; by comparison 14%  were citizen submissions, and 3% were filed by outside law enforcement.
  1. There have been zero anonymous complaints filed in 2019, and the same was true in 2018. This suggests a problem with the way the anonymous complaints process works.
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Forecast for August 17, 2020.


In and Out. The House and Senate were “officially” out until September — officially as of this past Friday — with fewer than a dozen voting days remaining in the House until the government shuts down. Fyi, the Senate has yet to move an approps bill. (Send me what we should call the COVID-CR-Approps-Postal omnibus.)

Just when you thought they were out, they pull you back in! Mid-day on Sunday, the Democratic members in both chambers who lead committees with jurisdiction over the Post Office and elections, plus party leaders, requested the Postmaster General testify before the House Oversight Committee on August 24 at 10 a.m.. They also asked that he provide documents by August 21. Will this be in person, remote, or a hybrid? Will he show? Well… apparently the House now will be in session later this Saturday (to pass a postal bill.)  I hope it’s remote. (Sorry to those who had already left for a well-deserved vacation.)

There are no remote deliberation measures in place in the Senate, so we led a coalition letter urging leadership to implement remote measures, you know, just in case.

Appropriators requested the Library of Congress meet with public stakeholders in last year’s House Leg. Branch Appropriations report; the Library announced the public forum will take place September 10th. RSVP.

Senate cafeteria workers are facing layoffs.

Continue reading “Forecast for August 17, 2020.”

Forecast for August 10, 2020.


The House and Senate are basically out — with a skeleton crew staying in DC until a Coronavirus deal is struck or they give up. Members have been told they have 24-hours notice to return for a vote. Talks have apparently failed; this weekend the president took executive actions of dubious utility and questionable legality in an effort to make law. Sen. McConnell endorsed those actions, further undermining the Senate as an institution.

Senators want federal employees to be safe and are pushing agencies to offer maximum telework, but does that apply to Legislative Branch employees? Staff and employees are reporting to work in person — sometimes against their will — which is unsafe and unwise. Worse, the cleaning supply budget ran out a month ago, we don’t know how the Architect is managing ventilation, and until this month masks weren’t required anywhere. It’s a mess.

• The disregard for safety by some Members and staff is sufficiently egregious that staff are talking to the press, and Capitol Hill residents are worried about COVID exposure from proximity to Congress. Like we’ve said since March, remote Congress is the safest option.

COVID accelerated some Congressional modernization, but what’s next? Can it be that the House will go back to paper processes when the pandemic is over? We’ve seen some reports suggesting exactly that. House leadership should make clear they won’t backslide.

Senate Appropriators decide where billions of dollars will be spent. Markups, like hearings, should be open to the public and press. With restricted access to the Capitol and tight quarters in meeting rooms, the only way that’s possible is through live video — at least that’s what we (and our friends) think. Appropriators are resisting that call, in contradiction to direction from Senate Rules. As you might recall, Foreign Relations got a tongue-lashing on this topic, too.

Proxy voting won big in federal district court, which held the Speech or Debate clause does not permit a lawsuit against that practice. The result is good news. BUT the legal theory could create problems down the road. More immediately below.

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House Advances Franking Modernization Bill

The House passed a bill last week designed to bring the Franking Commission into the 21st century. The Communications Outreach Media and Mail Standards Act, or COMMS Act (H.R.7512), extends the commission’s authority to regulate mass communications (i.e., to 500 people or more) by Members and Members-elect. The commission’s authority has historically been limited to mailings but the new language refers to a wider range of communications. 

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Forecast for August 4, 2020.


Safety first? Rep. Gohmert’s positive COVID-19 test sparked outrage across the Hill, prompting a belated mask mandate in the House, inaction (what else!?!) in the Senate, a possible member-to-member transmission, and countless staffers and aides telling reporters about a backlash from senior staff/Members for wearing masks in their offices or requesting to work remotely. We wrote a letter on March 12 to Congress that included a recommendation to prioritize the health and safety of the public, staff, press, and lawmakers. For now, chamber rules should require remote work unless you absolutely have to be there; chamber and committee proceedings should be remote; Congress should use tech to substitute for paper processes; limited occupancy + masks should be mandated; social distancing is a must; and expanded testing seems prudent. This can’t be a dead letter, either: there needs to be real enforcement.

Appropriation bills continue to move forward in the House, with 10 of 12 passing the lower chamber. Homeland Security was pulled from the mini-bus. Meanwhile, the Senate has yet to schedule its approps markups. (BGOV)

Supplemental funding for Legislative Branch operations was included in the Senate COVID response bill. But the Leg Branch Approps bill has yet to get a House vote.

The Fix Congress Committee released its fourth round of recommendations aimed at improving congressional operations. Several recommendations were created to address the challenges that Members and staff are facing while teleworking during the pandemic.

Frank no more. The COMMS Act, H.R.7512, championed by Rep. Susan Davis, which changes how the Franking Privilege works, passed the House on Thursday. It contains a number of significant reforms. Earlier this year, the House began publishing advisory opinions online and updated the communications standards manual.

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August Update: What Items are Due in the Modernization Committee Resolution?

On March 10th, which seems like a lifetime ago, the House passed H.Res 756, adopting modernization recommendations of the Fix Congress Committee. The resolution included 29 recommendations that were unanimously reported by the Modernization Committee last year. The resolution calls on legislative support offices to start a number of projects and report back on how to implement others. 

On July 10th, the Committee on House Administration released a series of congressional reports that were due in H.Res 756. We continue to catalogue the projects and their due dates into a public spreadsheet, and have them broken down by items. 

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