Did you miss us? Welcome back to the First Branch Forecast! August was surprisingly busy so we have a pretty robust newsletter for you. Keep your eyes on appropriations, COVID-relief, the NDAA, the upcoming House Rules process, possible reforms in the Senate, and Executive branch efforts to undermine Congress.
We put six months of effort into our House rules recs; we know that Zander and Tim put a ton of effort into their new report on Congressional Brain Drain; and there’s so much more. Don’t hesitate to click on the links and let us know what you think.
THE TOP LINE
Congress is returning: no House votes are scheduled this week; the Senate is voting on a skinny coronavirus relief bill this week — but even if it passes the Chamber it’s not likely to go far ($). The House’s proxy voting emergency period was extended until October 2nd; this was a critical safety move as the number of covid cases on Capitol Hill surpasses 100, and Congress works through must-pass bills.
• The Fiscal Year ends on September 30th, and seeing as there are only 11 House voting days left to enact FY 2021 spending bills and the Senate has held 0 approps markups, a CR is the most likely outcome, followed by a shut-down. Speaker Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin are talking, and have agreed to a “clean” CR, whatever that means. (BGov has the White House priorities.) CRs represent a loosening of Congress’s grip on the purse strings, and affect lawmakers’ ability to hold agencies accountable; there’s, on average, 143 days of government operations funded (at least partially) by short-term bills every year.
• Legislative coronavirus protections expired 40 days ago, and negotiations hit an impasse. Senate Republicans are rolling out a skinny coronavirus relief bill to move the goal posts for negotiations, but some conference Members aren’t on board and Speaker Pelosi called the measure “pathetic.”
Tune in on Thursday for the Library of Congress public forumon the Library’s role in providing access to legislative information; this is your chance to ask questions and request new services from the Library. The event was requested to be held in the FY 2020 appropriations bill. Check out these dozen or so recommendations from civil society that fall into five main categories: (1) Publish Information As Data; (2) Put the Legislative Process in Context; (3) Integrate Information from Multiple Sources; (4) Publish Archival Information; (5) Collaborate with the Public. Submit your questions for the forum here. This is the first Library-wide forum like this ever; we hope they hold more.
Our House Rules Reform Recs for the 117th Congress are out; our team’s report contains 129 recommendations over 10 sections that aim to make the House more inclusive, effective, ethical, and transparent. The recommendations are a result of wide consultation with experts on Congress, people in Congress, and many others. Don’t have time to read them all? We’ve got our top 13 recs here. And we’re happy to brief you, too. Traditionally, the majority on the Rules committee starts thinking about the rules in August, which get worked out by the caucus over the next few months.
Is the NSA maintaining a secret database of Member communications? Rep. Eshoo wants to know, and so do we. Don’t forget there’s a recent history of the NSA spying on Congress. There’s a lot of things Congress can do to protect itself, from using appropriations to prevent the NSA from collecting email addresses that end in @mail.house.gov or @senate.gov to strengthening GAO’s ability to investigate the IC to improving the House and Senate’s cybersecurity.
• The DNI is even boxing out IC-patrons like Reps. Pelosi and Schiff by refusing to brief the House in person on election security, which marks a new play and marks a major departure from the norm of clueing in leadership and intel-allies while keeping rank & file Members in the dark. We have ideas for how to reform IC oversight.
Foresight is a tool that can help Congress consider the big picture and approach policymaking proactively. It is used throughout the executive branch and the world, but its use in Congress has lagged behind even though House Rules have provided since 1975 that each standing committee “shall review and study on a continuing basis… future research and forecasting on subjects within its jurisdiction.”
The Power of the Purse is held by Congress. That is, they decide how to spend federal money, appropriating $1.4 Trillion in discretionary funds in FY 2020. We break down the convoluted and opaque process here.
228 complaint cases were filed against Capitol Police employees in 2019, and up to 60% were sustained according to the department summary statistics. Speaking of the USCP, Roll Call reports the now-police chief may have caused the mishandling of a sexual harassment complaint by sending it to the wrong office.
What’s the Difference Between House and Senate Committee Quorum Rules? We also published two separate articles examining the differences between the House and Senate Committee quorum rules to help answer important questions regarding proxy voting and in-person deliberations during the pandemic. This was a deep dive that turned up some interesting differences.
Intrepid academics Alexander C. Furnas, Timothy M. LaPira have an excellent new report on the Congressional Brain Drain that provides additional support to the thesis that Congress has systematically destroyed its capacity to do its job. They have performed additional research worth reviewing. You should see the graphics of the funding cuts to staff pay; their new approaches to calculating the types of work staff do; a new look at turn-over rates; and how the House has dismantled its MRAs (as compared to the Senate). Some of the recommendations should be familiar to readers of this newsletter, and all are worth a look.
BUILDING A BETTER CONGRESS
Staff diversity. The Joint Center report on racial diversity of Senate personal offices found people of color make up only 11% of top staff, despite comprising 40% of the U.S. population. More data is needed to determine whether white and black staffers who do the same work are paid equally, (read more from the NYT); there’s reasons to think BIPOC are comparatively underpaid because of their likely underrepresentation in senior positions.
Staff are pushing leadership to act on racial justice issues; the Joint Congressional Staff Task Force on Racial Justice and Reform highlighted concerns like the racial wealth gap and access to education in a report sent last month.
What’s the future of Congressional Modernization? FedTalk on the Federal News Network hosted a conversation with SCOMC co-chairs Reps. Kilmer and Graves; Kevin Kosar and I joined the program, too. (Congrats to Kevin on his new gig at AEI; and to Jonathan Bydak as interim governance director at R Street.)
Unpaid Congressional interns aren’t allowed to access the equipment necessary for working remotely. In other words, if interns aren’t collecting a paycheck, they’re missing out on opportunities their paid peers have. Remote-internships should be a chance for interns to gain experience without paying exorbitant DC cost of living prices.
Working from home? Check out the excellent updated “work from home” guide for staff assistants and LCs from the modernizing congressional staff association.
Filibuster Fight. Democratic Senators would be smart to scrap the filibuster if they retake the majority, a recent NYT op-ed on partisanship argues. Counterpoint from James Wallner: the filibuster does not constitute veto power.
POWER OF THE PURSE
New OMB protocol requires political appointees’ sign off on dollars going out the door, increasing opportunity for interference with Congressional spending directives. The process of OMB doling out federal funds is already notoriously opaque; the House included a number of fixes in 2021 FSGG appropriations.
• Transparency is critical here: if Congress doesn’t have sufficient information about how the Exec. branch is spending money, it’s easy for bad actors to dodge oversight.
Couldn’t make it to the panel on the Pentagon’s runaway hosted by R Street? Watch it here.
The House can’t sue to enforce subpoenas without a legislative fix, according to an appeals court panel opinion. (Umm, what? This seems crazy.) The ruling, if upheld, is a major blow to oversight authority and leaves the question of “absolute testimonial immunity” at the center of the Judiciary Committee v. McGahn case unanswered.
How can Congress reclaim its power to overrule the Executive? A 1980’s SCOTUS opinion nixed Congress’s legislative veto power; Mort Halperin and Soren Dayton offer several workarounds, like automatic sunsetting and rapid judicial review, in the Monkey Cage.
Contempt of Congress isn’t a tool that’s taken out of the box very frequently — with fewer than 10 House floor votes on contempt resolutions between 1980 and 2017 — which makes it all the more noteworthy the House Foreign Affairs Chair Engel has moved to start proceedings against Sec. Pompeo for defying authorized subpoenas. Good Government Now has resources to learn more.
The FBI is withholding information from Senate Dem overseers that the agency has provided to Republican counterparts, according to a letter from Sen. Wyden.
GAO found DHS Acting Secretary Wolf’s installation was invalid, and yet the president has nominated Wolf to be Secretary of Homeland Security. DHS has almost 20 Senate-confirmed positions that are vacant or occupied by appointees who don’t have a Congressional seal of approval.
IGs won’t be able to hold more than one position with the federal government, if a bill introduced by Rep. Keating in August is enacted.
The Progressive Talent Pipeline is accepting applications through September 30th for the 2020 cohort. The program identifies, endorses, trains, and recommends a diverse slate of committed progressives for staff roles in Congress and the executive branch. We encourage you to share this announcement with your network.
ODDS & ENDS
USCP reported three arrests during the month of August.
Rep. AOC’s laser-focused oversight questions aren’t improvised, and that’s a good thing. The Congresswoman walked followers through what effective hearing prep looks like. (This is brilliant.)
Rep. Gaetz was admonished by the House Ethics Committee for conduct unbecoming a Member of Congress, but not for witness tampering.
Who are the House Dem. caucus online all stars? Rep. AOC was the overall winner, with most new followers during the competition; sub-category winners included Rep. Porter for best gif and Rep. Crist for best franked mail.
• Senate Intel is meeting at 3 to discuss declassification policy.
• HSGAC is holding a nomination hearing for OPM Director pick John Gibbs at 3:30.
• The Library of Congress is holding the public forumrequested by Appropriators from 10-12.
• The first FOIA Advisory Committee meeting for the 2020-2022 term is happening (virtually) from 1-4.
• Code for America is hosting the 8th Annual National Day of Civic Hacking starting at 12 EST.
Down the Line
• BussolaTech, a Brazilian NGO, is holding a conference next week with members of more than a dozen parliaments (including the U.S.) on how they’ve used technology to transform their legislative processes during the pandemic. Learn more.
• Thursday, September 17th & Friday September 18th the Democratic Digital Staff Association is hosting the fourth annual “Digital Day on the Hill“ where Democratic staff can learn best practices for capturing their Member’s voice