Forecast for September 14, 2020

THE TOP LINE

More should be happening. We are 16 days away from the end of the fiscal year; COVID-19 is everywhere and not going away any time soon; wildfires are burning on the west coast; the Executive branch is unabashedly flouting the law; and senior congressional leaders are raising concerns Pres. Trump will not peacefully transition power should he be defeated and is working to undermine elections. The skinny Senate COVID-19 bill was defeated — its major purpose was blame-shifting and incumbent protection — and Senate Rs are saying no deal is possible until after the election (if then).

The House & White House are working towards a “clean CR,” with one big open question as to when it will expire. The “clean” description is an acknowledgement that it won’t address any of the aforementioned problems and that House Dem Leadership miscalculated around the first (and subsequent) COVID-19 relief bills. Should Dems agree to let the CR expire in December, they could be setting up a government shutdown that could last a month or longer, undermining what they hope would be the start of the Biden administration.

In the House this week, the Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act of 2020 (HR 4894) is one of 31 bills on suspension, with a few additional bills set for floor debate. There are 18 committee meetings scheduled, including a House Oversight markup that should advance the PLUM Act (HR 7107). The former requires all agency Congressional Budget Justifications to be online in a central location; the later would transform the Plum Book into a living, digital document.

The Senate floor, meanwhile, will spend Monday focused on another judicial nomination. 17 committee meetings are currently scheduled.

For your calendar: Tuesday is the International Day for Democracy, and Brazil’s Bussola Tech is holding an international conference (with English translation) on the experience of 20 parliaments in transforming their legislatures during COVID-19. House Deputy Clerk Bob Reeves will be representing the U.S. House of Reps. RSVP here. Thursday is Constitution Day. Friday is the start of Rosh Hashana.

Transitions. Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) will resign in October; he is the co-chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. While waiting for a new member to take office, the House Clerk will be responsible for keeping the lights on. House Parliamentarian Tom Wickham is retiring, and will be succeeded by his deputy, Jason Smith.

BUILDING A BETTER CONGRESS

We’re thinking about the House Rules in the 117th Congress. Recently, our team released 129 recommendations for rules modernization for the 117th Congress. Don’t have enough time to read the full report? No sweat. Here are our top 13 recommendations.

Sen. Sasse had some ideas for improving the Senatepublished by the WSJ. While we applaud any attention on the issue, the proposal could use some refinement. We hear a conservative response is coming; meanwhile, we hope to publish our list of recs soon.

Improving Congress.gov. The Library of Congress announced improvements to Congress.gov, including publishing the full text of hearing transcripts when available, a tool to have the transcript read to you; improvements to how CBO scores are displayed; and new links to archived committee webpages.

CONGRESSIONAL OPS

The race for party leadership is heating up. While the top spots are likely a lock (Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn), Members are jockeying for positions like Assistant Speaker, Caucus Vice Chair, Policy and Communications Committee Chair, and Congressional Campaign Committee Chair. As we’ve reported, this unseen party power structure steers the congressional ship.

The Congressional Black Caucus faces upheaval, reports Politico, as a new group of progressives are expected to take office. The “roughly 50-member CBC could usher in a half-dozen or more members, a stark generational shift for an institution that is skewing younger and more liberal.”

TRANSPARENCY

The Library of Congress held a virtual public forumon the Library’s role in providing access to legislative information (as requested by the FY 2020 appropriations). Check out these two dozen 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. We are working on a detailed write-up of the three-hour event.

We’ve upgraded everycrsreport.com, which now contains about 17,700 reports. Compare this to the official CRS website which has 8,500. See what we did and why.

CLASSIFICATION AND DECLASSIFICATION

The process for declassifying records is outdated. Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee, held a rare open hearing last week on declassification, with a focus on a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Sens. Moran and Wyden, the Declassification Reform Act of 2020 (S. 3733). The measure would put into effect many of the recommendations by the Public Interest Declassification Board contained in the report A Vision for the Digital Age, Modernization of the United States Classification and Declassification System. More than $18.5 billion is spent annually to maintain the classification system, with much of that information no longer requiring classification.

The legislation, which is endorsed by the PIDB, would direct the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to “promote programs and systems relating to declassification of classified information, including the development of solutions for automating declassification review.” The measure would empower the ODNI to oversee implementation of new policies and processes across agencies, including precise declassification guidance and metadata standards; to organize research into advanced technology solutions; ensure interoperability across the federated enterprise system; and coordinate technology acquisition.

Declassification reform isn’t just the pet project of transparency advocates and fiscal hawks; the Pentagon wants to be able to publicly make the case for its programs, and productivity of federal employees working on IC matters would be significantly improved during COVID (and beyond) if they can work remotely. A representative from the PIDB testified, as did a representative from the ODNI. The ODNI rep agreed with the need for reform while trying desperately trying to avoid the ODNI becoming the office responsible for its implementation by pushing it off onto the 18-person Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archive.

The PIDB, represented by former Rep. Tierney, had the better of the argument. “There are so many things that the ODNI has that the ISOO and the National Declassification Center don’t have, in terms of experience in developing and deploying and managing multi-agency cloud-based enterprise systems; securing a communications network like JWICS [The Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System]; protecting sources and methods. And the ISOO doesn’t have the statute that the ODNI has. It doesn’t have the ability to corral agencies. It also has an oversight mission that would be in direct conflict…”

As a recent example with huge implications, the President’s War Powers Act notification to Congress for the drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani was classified in its entirety (which is unusual).

Senator Murphy asked the White House to reconsider, arguing “It is critical that decisions regarding the use of force consistent with the War Powers Act be provided in unclassified form to the American people.” After no response, Sen. Murphy turned to the Interagency Security Classifications Appeals Panel, “a group of executive branch agency representatives that is authorized by executive order to decide appeals of challenges to classification.”

That panel said it would not consider such an appeal from Senator Murphy or from any other member of Congress. But, perhaps, a staffer would have standing to make the request. The Federation of American Scientists article on this is a must read with implications for war powers, legislative-executive branch balance of powers, clearances, and access to classified info.

OVERSIGHT + TECHNOLOGY

Speaking of protecting images, a DHS whistleblower complaint alleges top “officials interfered with intelligence gathering to safeguard the president’s political image.” The Hill reports “House Democrats are moving quickly to investigate.”

GAO recently issued report on facial recognition technology and reiterated its suggestion from a 2013 report “that Congress consider strengthening the consumer privacy framework to reflect changes in technology and the marketplace.” The GAO analysis includes how accuracy differs across demographic groups. GAO also has recent recommendations for CBP’s use of facial recognition.

ODDS & ENDS

USCP reported two arrests last week.

The President’s SCOTUS shortlist includes three current US Senators: Cruz, Hawley and Cotton. 15 Senators have served on the Supreme Court in our history, but no Senators have been appointed since the 1940s. It seems like they all run for President instead.

Speaking of judges, the Senate took three votes last week to confirm the 206th207th and 208th federal judges during this administration and will vote on more this week.

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.

EVENTS

Monday

• BussolaTech, a Brazilian NGO, is holding a conference 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.

Tuesday

• The Mzalendo Trust and Parliamentary Network Africa are holding a virtual forum “International Day of Democracy 2020: Parliaments and Pandemics, Which Way Forward for Parliamentary Monitoring Organizations.

Wednesday

• HSGAC is meeting at 10:15 to consider John Gibbs’s nomination to be OPM Director, as well a motion to authorize subpoenas related to conflicts of interest with US-Ukraine policy.

Thursday

• Today and tomorrow 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.

Friday

• The two-day event Digital Day on the Hill“ hosted by the Democratic Digital Staff Association continues today.

Down the Line

• The Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress’s semi-annual meeting is set for September 24, from 1-3. RSVP here.

• September 24th – October 1st the National Freedom of Information Coalition is holding a virtual FOI summit with seven sessions over seven days. Learn more here.

• The Federal Depository Library is holding its annual conference October 20th – 23rd.