What is Wrong with Congress? A New Report from Demand Progress Education Fund and Public Citizen

What is the proper role of the Legislative branch in our system of government? How exactly has Congress been undermined and how might it restore its strength? Demand Progress Education Fund and Public Citizen are proud to announce our new report, “Article One: Rebuilding Our Congress,” which expands upon these questions and outlines what has happened, and why. 

Our purpose is to tell the story—using numbers and data—about the dysfunction of our Legislative branch and the dangers that dysfunction poses to our democracy. We focus on four major areas that relate to the diminishment of Congressional power: (1) Congressional Capacity and Modernization, (2) Executive Branch Oversight, (3) Foreign Policy and National Security, and (4) The Power of the Purse. 

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What Items Are Due to Congress: February 2021

Congress routinely requests reports on modernizing Congress but there’s no great place to keep track of what they’ve requested. So we are keeping track so you don’t have to.

We built a catalog of projects and their due dates that we are maintaining in this public spreadsheet, broken down by item due, entity responsible, and due date.

The catalog covers reforms and requests ordered by the House and Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittees, the Committee on House Rules, and the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. At the moment, the catalog includes major resolutions and measures: H. Res. 8, the House Rules for the 117th Congress, Legislative Branch Appropriations FY 2021, and H.Res. 756 from the 116th Congress.

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Video: The House Rules in the 117th Congress

The new House rules for the 117th Congress were the subject of a panel discussion this past Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA) gave opening remarks. The discussion included presentations by Matt Hayward of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, Craig Holman of Public Citizen, and me, with the conversation moderated by Sanaa Abrar of United

The panel was co-sponsored by the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, the Demand Progress Education Fund, and Public Citizen. Looking for more House rules reform ideas? Check out our complete list of recommendations for the 117th Congress.

First Branch Forecast: January 25, 2021

In just three weeks, we’ve seen an insurrection, a second impeachment, and the emergence of “unified” government. We have not seen Republican leaders in Congress take personal responsibility for abetting Trump’s four-year long power grab, commit to holding Trump and his fellow travelers accountable, or earnestly pledging to work with Pres. Biden to repair our democracy. The autocratic fever has not broken.

The good news just keeps on coming. Tell your friends to subscribe to our little newsletter focused on strengthening the Legislative branch and don’t forget there’s more info at FirstBranchForecast.com.

THE TOP LINE

A new hope? Joe Biden, in his inaugural speech, called for an end to our “uncivil war.” He also swore an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” These two commitments may prove mutually exclusive as many senior congressional Republicans gave aid, comfort, and encouragement to seditionists and authoritarians for years and continue to stoke anti-democratic fires to this very day.

Healing starts with accountability and Trump’s impeachment trial will begin on February 8. Already House Minority Leader McCarthy has performed a volte-face and now falsely claims Trump did not provoke the Capitol riot, adding that every American bears responsibility. (It’s not going over well.) Meanwhile, at least one of the rioters was charged with threatening to kill a specifically-named Member of Congress and the DOJ + FBI are considering not charging some of the mob who stormed the Capitol. Oh, and apparently Trump and a DOJ lawyer plotted to remove the acting AG and install a loyalist who would overturn the election. Without accountability, this is all going to happen again and the result next time may not be favorable to democracy. Incidentally, Anna Massoglia has an excellent report on the shell companies and dark money around the DC protests — hey, isn’t the fight against disclosure of money in politics Sen. McConnell’s signature issue, and concerns about decreasing corporate support to Republicans a potential driver of his political positioning?

Sen. McConnell has frozen the Senate by threatening to filibuster a new organizing resolution, the result of which is Republicans are still chairing Senate committees, staff hiring is frozen, and new Senators cannot be assigned to committees. Sen. McConnell demanded Democrats agree not to further weaken the filibuster against legislation — don’t forget, it already doesn’t apply to certain measures and McConnell himself has weakened its application — to preserve Sen. McConnell’s minority veto against Democratic priorities that could otherwise be realized through unified Democratic control of the House, Senate, and White House. Sen. Schumer rejected that proposal and “negotiations” are continuing. Sen. McConnell, who pushed (and perhaps masterminded some of) Trump’s anti-democratic policies, is now trying to hedge his bets on the out-of-office autocrat as part of his pursuit of Republican hegemony.

Legislation and hearings are not impossible in current circumstances, but are very, very difficult. We are looking forward to appropriations season, which is almost here. The top line spending numbers have to be coming soon, right?, and everyone wants to know about budget reconciliation. Since we have a one-track mind, last June we looked at Leg branch funding versus overall federal discretionary spending (it’s not a pretty picture): Congress is systematically de-funding itself. Also coming up: the House and Senate will soon set committee funding levels for the 117th Congress. Curious about the trends and who gets what? Check out our reports for the House and Senate.

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The U.S. Capitol Police: Demand Progress and Article One Video Briefing

Demand Progress and the Article One Coalition hosted a webinar with congressional experts on the U.S. Capitol Police on Friday, January 15th, 2021. Panelists included Daniel Schuman, policy director for Demand Progress, the only organization that has spent years looking into the budget and operations of the USCP, and Nicole Tisdale, Founder and Principal for Advocacy Blueprints, who spent 10 years on the House Committee on Homeland Security. The event was moderated by Chris Marquette, a congressional ethics and leadership reporter for Roll Call and the lead beat writer on the USCP. 

Watch the discussion below.

First Branch Forecast: January 18, 2021

THE TOP LINE
The insurrection is not over. The likelihood of violence at federal and state capitals across the country and ongoing organizing by white nationalists means the danger of immediate political violence has not passed even as the national guard and local police forces are on high alert. Meanwhile, the Twitter pundits who tittered that the sacking of the Capitol Building was a mere beer hall putsch have come to acknowledge the attackers were better armed, better organized, and more dangerous than they had ever guessed — and came within moments of decapitating the legislature and murdering the presidential line of succession.

Too many officials in the Republican party, meanwhile, are still giving aid and comfort to the enemies of democracy. Only ten House Republicans voted (232-197) to remove Donald Trump from power. Outgoing Sen. Majority Leader McConnell rebuffed Sen. Schumer’s request to immediately reconvene the Senate, ensuring a removal vote cannot happen while Trump is in office. Sen. McConnell, a political Von Hindenburg who used Trump’s popularity with the base to move his ultra-conservative political agenda, has found his party’s beholdenness to the feckless aspiring autocrat is now imperiling corporate support for his party and slightly slowing the revolving door. Consequently, Sen. McConnell belatedly hinted his openness to Trump’s removal in order to restore corporate support, which is (also belatedly) being cut off to the party and major conservative groups as donors realize the danger to their brands. There’s talk that some Republicans voted against removing Trump out of fear for their physical safety, although many likely were focused on their political well-being; meanwhile Sen. McConnell is using the Trump removal effort to hinder the incoming Biden administration.

The big lie, “stop the steal,” nurtured by many Republicans, is an inversion of reality: the real fraud is the decades-long voter suppression efforts that arise from gerrymandering and efforts to disenfranchise minority, younger, and less wealthy voters. We know this, in part, because we have the secret files of the guy who led this effort. Voter purges, witness intimidation, ID requirements, and gerrymandering are rooted in Jim Crow practices and a long history of American violence aimed at subverting our political institutions. Those who wish to argue #bothsides on this matter need only to consider the 138 House Republicans and 7 Senate Republicans who voted — in the midst of the sacking of the Capitol — to exclude votes by the state of Pennsylvania in determining the presidential winner. The 8 Senate Republicans who voted to ignore the election — Sens. Cruz, Hawley, Hyde-Smith, Kennedy, Lummis, Marshall, Scott, and Tuberville — surely have fellow travelers among their colleagues, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is actively working to undermine Trump’s removal. In the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s former boss and mentor, Rep. Bill Thomas, went on TV to excoriate Rep. McCarthy, calling him a “hypocrite” for supporting “the phony lies the president perpetuated.”

There is a direct line between Charlottesville and #bothsides to “stop the steal” and sedition. Members of the mob had maps, weapons, two-way radios, military and police training, and some say they had inside help… including, potentially, from Members of Congress. We can see they were encouraged — some would say incited — to violence: the unhinged rantings of a handful of particularly vocal Qanon-friendly House and Senate Republicans were buttressed and often echoed by leadership. The willingness to physically contest even the most simple rules, such as mask requirements and gun prohibitions on the chamber floor, suggest some members inside Congress are engaged in agitprop, looking to the mob to elevate their political fortunes.

The city on the hill. And so on Wednesday, Pres.-elect Biden will take the oath of office, surrounded by 1,000 supporters, ringed by 20,000+ security personnel, and that morning Trump will flee the crime scene. Various Inspectors General and congressional committees are spinning up investigations of what happened — we joined a panel discussion on this topic on Friday — and the work to repair our democracy will begin even as 7 in 10 Republicans believe his election was fraudulent and those out of power plot for 2022, 2024, and beyond. For our part, we will continue to focus on improving Congress’s ability to do its job, government accountability, and rebuilding our democracy.

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Capitol Police Fire Arm Regulations

The Capitol Police Board has regulations governing firearms, explosives, incendiary devices and other dangerous weapons which specify that no person shall carry any firearm inside the chamber or on the floor of either House.

The full regulations can be seen in the following image, which has been transcribed as text at the end of this article.

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U.S. Capitol Police: Past, Present and Future Panel Discussion Set for Friday

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol has thrust the U.S. Capitol Police into the spotlight. They failed to adequately protect lawmakers, staff, essential workers, and journalists against a mob-led insurrection, despite an abundance of resources. 

Demand Progress and the Article One Coalition are hosting a webinar with congressional experts who have covered USCP for years to discuss its opaque history and how Congress must reform the USCP. 

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First Branch Forecast: January 11, 2020

We are overwhelmed and you are too. If you are feeling like you need to talk to someone, call the national suicide helpline at 800-273-8255. You can call even if you are just feeling powerful emotions. It’s perfectly okay to do so. Congressionals can reach out to the Office of Employee Assistance (there’s a recent Dear Colleague with contact info).

Seriously, friends. I’ve seen the faces of the journalists and the staffers who are on the hill — and those who watched in horror from elsewhere. You look just like those of us who were on the hill for 9/11 and the anthrax attacks. I can see it in the flat affect. Do not try to power through. Do not wait because you think someone else needs help more. Do not push it aside even if you were not there in person. It’s okay to find someone to talk to. Tell them I sent ya.


THE TOP LINE

A mob whipped up by President Trump, abetted by his allies in Congress and fed with years of lies, sacked the U.S. Capitol. The well-armed insurrection, which included former members of the military, current local law enforcement, and white nationalists, resulted in a handful of deaths and a near miss in an effort to decapitate the Legislative branch. The noose and gallows erected outside the Capitol building makes clear what would have happened had they managed to capture members of Congress.

The House will impeach Donald Trump because a futile effort to get his hand-picked cabinet enablers to invoke the 25th amendment is destined to fail. Senator McConnell is trying to prevent the effort, claiming it will waste a lot of time in the Senate, but that’s just nonsense. Sen. McConnell had no problem speeding through impeachment in 2019. There are no material contested facts now. Any delay would be the height of foolishness.

Accountability. Just this past Monday, a week ago today, in response to calls for impeachment, House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries said “We’re not looking backwards, we’re looking forward.” If only he could have looked forward to Wednesday (or learned from history, where politicians have made the exact same mistake). Friends, accountability is always backward looking. A key job of Congress is accountability! How many committees are focused on oversight? You must learn from the past, hold people accountable, and fix the problems — and only by doing that can you stop those bad things from happening again. In Rep. Jeffries’ defense, he was taking the party line from his leadership, even as the rank-and-file knew that you can’t move on until you clean up the current mess.

Unity. We are hearing the old chestnut that America needs to unify — the siren song of those who want to evade accountability. Despite the catastrophic events, six GOP Senators and 138 House Members voted to object to the state election certifications, which were not in doubt by any fair minded person. A snap poll suggested that 45% of Republicans “approve of the storming of the Capitol building.” If Sen. McConnell had a majority in the Senate, and thus the ability to block measures from going to the floor, what would be the consequences for Pres.-elect Biden’s nominees or any substantive legislation to redress what has happened? Unity can only come after doing the right thing, which starts with impeachment and removal.

No one could have seen this coming? Nonsense. While few in the press (except Roll Call) paid attention, we’ve been focusing on problems with the Capitol Police since 2018. In a July 2019 document outlining our questions for the USCP, we raised the concern that “resources are being deployed away from protecting the Capitol, which could create security vulnerabilities.” There are major structural problems with how Congress manages itself that go far beyond the USCP — as readers of our newsletter know — and in the USCP context, they are compounded by a lack of transparency and accountability. We applaud Chairs Ryan and Lofgren and RM Davis for taking this seriously before it was front-page news, but even they, champions that they are, were limited by political realities outside of their control. Maybe that will change. We stand ready to share what we have learned and observed with any committees of inquiry and with the press. But we will tell you this now: while Congress is woefully underfunded, the problem for the USCP was not insufficient resources. (By the way, if we were to identify entities that have performed badly over the years, the USCP’s Public Information Office is simply the worst we have ever encountered in government, and that is saying something.)

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A Primer on the Capitol Police: What We Know From Two Years of Research

Today armed Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an apparent and temporarily successful effort to disrupt the vote to certify the 2020 presidential election results. Members, staff, and journalists were forced to hide throughout the terrifying ordeal and many took to Twitter asking the fundamental questions: Where are the Capitol Police and how could this happen?

The U.S. Capitol Police is the security-force/police-department hybrid tasked with keeping Congress safe and open for business. The little-known department has a budget that exceeds $515 million for FY 2021— constituting almost 10% of Legislative branch funding — and nearly 2,450 employees, around 2,000 of whom are sworn officers. The size of the Capitol Police’s budget can compete with major municipal police forces such as San Antonio’s, which is responsible for a population of 1.5 million, and USCP’s workforce size eclipses that of major city departments like New Orleans and Miami. Notably, their extended jurisdiction covers less than 2 square miles, and there are many other police and security forces in Washington, D.C.

How is the department using those resources to enforce the law and protect the Congress? It is difficult to say because the Capitol Police are infamously opaque. Only in response to significant outside agitation did we obtain any details about their operations. For example, the department started posting weekly arrest summaries in December 2018, following prodding from civil society and congressional overseers. These summaries are among the limited information the department shares publicly — although we have reason to suspect they are not complete, among other shortcomings

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