Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Congress left town as negotiations continue (we hope) on a plethora of should-pass bills. Meanwhile, Pres. Trump is working to undermine the election certification process, thereby increasing the likelihood of a fight in Congress over recognizing President-elect Biden’s victory and further de-legitimizing our political system. Pres.-elect Biden’s unpragmatic genuflection at the altar of bipartisanship and unity in the face of an astonishing unwillingness by leading congressional Republicans to acknowledge his victory for fear of Trump’s wrath suggests the ex-Veep will be unable to avert the further slide into an illiberal democracy.
The next four years will be short on legislation, long on executive actions, and marked by tribalistic strife aimed at tagging Biden with culpability for accomplishing little. The only open question (besides the Georgia elections) is whether Biden chooses the senior governmental staff he wants, which will highlight Congress’s anti-majoritarian dysfunction, or grants his political opponents a veto, which undermines any possibility of reform.
COVID. The House awaits regulations from the Rules Committee to implement remote voting, certified as technologically feasible last week by the House Admin Committee. The Senate, which is often overlooked, continues to do little to address its continuity in the face of an emergency. A dozen Members tested positive for Coronavirus in the last 10 days, with Sen. Loeffler announcing self-isolation and Sens. Grassley and Scott falling ill, temporarily imperiling Republican majority priorities.
The US surpassed 250,000 coronavirus deaths, and more than 150 Hill employees have tested positive for COVID (that we know of); safe practices are honored more in breach than in practice, even as more staff are eligible for testing, with 2,000 tests available per week. It’s hard for policymakers (and the rest of us) to estimate the risks of COVID — ProPublica explains why. Meanwhile, the UK’s Parliament Procedure Committee has a new report urging expanded support for MPs to engage in virtual deliberations.
Leadership. House Republicans and Democrats held their respective leadership elections, which resulted in no change at the top. Republicans met in person (!) and Democrats held their proceedings online and voted by app.
Like a duck. There is a lot of churning under the surface, as leadership and committee elections and selections, drafting of House rules, implementation of caucus and conference rules, appropriations legislation, a COVID relief bill (that won’t happen), and much more occur beneath the surface. The decisions made now on rules and personnel and money dictate what will happen over the next two years — and who the decision makers will be.
Parental leave. One bright spot is a proposed regulation to implement paid parental leave in the Legislative branch was published last week in the Congressional Record. Staff in the House, Senate, and many (but not all?) Legislative branch agencies would be allowed to take 12 weeks of paid parental leave within 1 year of the birth of a child, adoption, or foster care placement. Public comments are due within 30 days; the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights will then release a final regulation, and the House and Senate must pass resolutions to implement. One note: Congress still has yet to implement pending OCWR regulations from 2016 to address FMLA for military caregivers and to update the definition of “spouse.”
LEADERSHIP, THE CAUCUSES, & COMMITTEE CHAIRS
House Republican leadership for the 117th Congress remains largely unchanged with Reps. McCarthy, Scalise, and Cheney elected without opposition for Minority Leader, Whip, and Conference Chair respectively. The full conference results are up on Twitter. (Does anyone have the vote totals?)
• House Republicans also adopted conference rules for the next Congress including a change that will only require censured Members to give up their top spots on committees if the GOP is in the majority, according to POLITICO. (What other changes were there?) The new rules are not yet up on the Republican Conference website. (BTW, Kudos to the Rs for listing the members of their Steering Committee on their website.)
House Democrats held their contested elections virtually via app, with the top 3 positions uncontested: Majority Leader Hoyer and Whip Clyburn will continue on in their positions, and Rep. Pelosi secured the caucus nomination for another term as Speaker of the House (which she says will be her last). We note Speaker Pelosi was approved by voice vote, which allows “front-line” Members to say they did not vote for her. The Speaker race isn’t over; she will need a majority in the House-wide election this January, which could give small factions leverage for concessions or possibly imperil her return.
Who else won? Some results down-ballot were published on Twitter by the Democratic Caucus and Craig Caplan (Day 2). We couldn’t find a consistent source for all the vote totals and we did not see an authoritative one. Here are the highlights:
• No. 4 Assistant Speaker, was clinched by Rep. Clark, who won her election against Rep. Ciciline 135-92. The position is being vacated by Rep. Ben Ray Lujan who is moving to the Senate next Congress. No. 5 Caucus Chair went to Rep. Jeffries who ran unopposed for his second and last (according to caucus rules) term. No. 6 Vice Caucus Chair, was won 148-82 by New-Dem-backed Rep. Aguilar in a race against Rep. Robin Kelly.
• Roll Call has more results. So far we haven’t seen any announcements (or reporting) on elections to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which included regional elections, except for an announcement that Steve Cohen will represent region VII.
The House Appropriations Chair race is coming up. Reps. Marcy Kaptur, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Rosa DeLauro, who has more than 40 colleagues’ support, are vying to replace retiring-Chair Nita Lowey. It looks like whoever the winner is, the House likely will be bringing back earmarks. (They never really went away, but shhhhh.)
The House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair is also up for grabs after Rep. Engel lost his primary earlier this year. A new civil society letter is out in support of Rep. Joaquin Castro, who is competing against Reps. Meeks and Sherman. (There is also a competitive race over the House Agriculture Committee.)
What about the Senate? We are still very curious about whether Sen. Feinstein will retain her perch as ranking member (or possible chair) of the Judiciary Committee.
Omnibus and COVID? An omnibus appropriations bill, which would keep the government from shutting down on Dec. 11th, is still hung up and honestly this is just too dumb to explain. The likely next step is a short-term continuing resolution to February or March and no COVID relief bill until next year (if ever). The result, once again, is paralysis. How regressive is all this? Pundits suggest both chambers will have to pass a continuing resolution by 2/3s to deter Trump from vetoing the bill to keep things as they are, thereby precipitating a government shutdown.
NDAA. Similarly, the National Defense Authorization Act is held up because Republicans appear unwilling to stick to Senate language that would create a commission to remove the names of confederates from military installations within 3 years. That language had passed the Senate with 86-14, but Trump has threatened a veto (which the chambers could easily override).
Will the Modernization Committee be extended? The Committee wrapped up with 97 reform recommendations, but there’s a lot more to do to fix Congress. Last week, 37 organizations (including us) sent a bipartisan letter urging the SCOMC be brought back next Congress. Want to be persuaded? Check out this op-ed by Kevin Kosar.
The fate of the MTR. People love to hate the Motion to Recommit, which allows the minority in the House to offer a last-second germane amendment to a bill that’s about to pass the chamber. In an ideal circumstance, it’d be used to improve the measure, but it’s often used to add unpalatable messages that sink bills. Some Democrats recommend it be abolished; others want to raise the threshold to 2/3s for a motion to be carried; and an expert on Congress suggested it be moved to an earlier stage of the debate. We proposed a transparency requirement: requiring any MTR on final legislation to be publicly available 48-hours in advance of a vote… unless the legislation is amended, and then an MTR could be offered at the last second.
PAYGO? A coalition of civil society orgs (including us) sent a coalition letter calling for the House’s PAYGO rule to end. The rule allows a point of order against legislation unless that bill has offsets to pay for any tax cuts or mandatory spending increases; even if eliminated, statutory PAYGO would remain on the books, and requires balanced spending over the course of a year. The Congressional Progressive Caucus Center and the Roosevelt Institute have an explainer. Some members of the Blue Dog coalition, by contrast, had testified that it should be extended.
The House Rules Committee continues to chug away on drafting the House rules for the 117th Congress. We have some ideas.
No one is above the law. And yet Pres.-elect Biden is signaling he does not want to investigate corrupt and unlawful behavior just because it was committed by Pres. Trump or members of his administration. This is the recipe that incentives misbehavior. Nixon was pardoned; Pres. Obama infamously refused to examine mass surveillance and torture under Pres. Bush. We do not think Pres. Trump should be singled out for investigation, but neither should his apparent misdeeds be ignored.
Congress wants answers from GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, who is holding up legally-required presidential transition activities. House Appropriations & Oversight Committee Chairs want to be briefed by today.
Senators are attempting to block an arms sale to the United Arab Emirates by the outgoing Trump Administration with a joint resolution of disapproval (that must be passed by Dec. 10); unfortunately, Trump will veto the legislation and it’s unlikely Congress will override. However, appropriate language could be put into the omnibus….
TRANSPARENCY & ETHICS
The House Ethics Committee will continue to defer its investigation into Rep. Ross Spano because of an ongoing DOJ investigation. OCE had unanimously concluded in Nov. 2019 that Rep. Spano “may have received improper loans to support his election to the House of Representatives” and “the amount of the loans may have exceeded federal campaign contribution limits.” BTW, Rep. Spano lost his primary to GOP FL Rep-elect Scott Franklin, which means House Ethics is unlikely to take action before his term expires. Oddly, future ex-Rep. Spano will still have access to the House floor.
Rep. Lance Gooden has apparently reimbursed himself $280K in campaign funds since 2018, according to a Roll Call investigation. Expenditures include trips to New Orleans, Las Vegas, and abroad, as well as money for food and phone bills.
Sen. Loeffler was accused of violating federal law by soliciting campaign donations from a federal office building on Fox News. What will the Senate Ethics Committee do about it?
LOL, Georgia. ProPublica reported Sen. Purdue “privately pushed for a tax break for rich sports team owners” that just happens to benefit campaign donors to him (including Sen. Loeffler), and what’s unusual is he wrote the letter alone and is not on the relevant committee of jurisdiction. I would make a joke about pay for play, but I’m not a sports person.
NEW MEMBER RESOURCES
New Member orientation activities will continue next week. On deck:
• December: Official House Orientation continues November 30 – December 5; the Tech, Science, and Data Cohort presents “First Branch Technology, Science and Data Virtual Orientation Day,” on December 9, 11-5 ET; the Article One Coalition presents “Embracing Article One: Congressional History, Powers and Oversight” on December 10, 12-2 ET; the Congressional Management Foundation presents “Life in Congress: What to Expect for You, Your Staff, and Your Family,” on December 16, 12-1:30 ET.
• January: the Congressional Management Foundation will also host “Setting Up a Congressional Office,” on January 15, 12-1:30 ET; “Hiring a Diverse Staff,” on January 22, 12-1:30 ET; and “Setting Up a Scheduling Operation,” on January 29, 12-1:30 ET.
Congress should be hiring staff that reflect the nation as a whole. Dr. LaShonda Brenson has steps hiring offices can take to address racial discrepancies in Congressional hiring.
• More inclusive government also requires opening the doors to young people who can’t afford the price of admission, Pay Our Interns’s Carlos Mark Vera explains in his USA Today article on how unpaid internships force young people to choose between their professional future and economic survival.
ODDS & ENDS
Capitol Police disclosed three arrests last week. While the arrests were low, reports of officers not adhering to proper safety protocols, including not wearing masks inside Capitol buildings, were rampant. To date, 59 officers have tested positive for COVID. What is the role of USCP leadership in setting an example and enforcing best practices?
Rep. Cedric Richmond resigned from Congress to serve as senior adviser to Pres. Biden and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement last week. Rep. Haaland is currently being vetted for Interior Secretary & has dozens of her colleagues’ support.
A new report from Harvard highlights how Congress, universities, foundations, and more can work together to build and scale pathways for STEM professionals to serve in policy advising roles on Capitol Hill.
Sen.-elect Mark Kelly said he’s likely to be sworn in the first week of December, which will shrink the number of Republicans in the Senate to 52. With COVID, the number of Republicans present may fall below 50.
Burn down Congress. That’s what Guatemalans did this past week amid budget protests.
Down the Line
• Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress is holding their next meeting on Monday, December 7th, 2020 at 1pm. Register here.