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.)

What makes us sick is the foreseeability of these problems. We wrote in 2019 about a lack of preparation for a pandemic and were the first out of the gate (with our friends at PopVox) pushing for remote deliberations. The House belatedly changed its rules but the Senate still has not. You know, as do we, that the Members who refused to wear their masks while holing up in secure locations, cheek-to-jowl, may have helped turn the evacuation into a super-spreader event. (Not to mention harming support staff, including custodians and food preparation workers.) It’s horrifying. And there are other major problems that still are unaddressed. (If you want to share observations or concerns about Jan. 6, our friends at PopVox would love to hear from you. There’s an anonymous option.)

So, what to do? As the Senate gets organized, we have 83 recommendations for improving that chamber’s operations. Because Sen. McConnell has been the key opponent of necessary democracy reforms, the Senate should consider prioritizing passage of DC statehood and Puerto Rican statehood (immediately after the impeachment trial), to get out of what is, in effect, a joint-custody agreement with a deadbeat parent. Because statehood is grounded in a separate provision of the Constitution than other activities (Article IV versus Article I), we would argue that a modern application of Senate precedent should be understood as precluding the filibuster from applying to statehood, just as it does not apply to judicial nominations and budget reconciliation.

All hope is not lost. We focus on building a modern Congress and strengthening the Legislative branch, so we would be remiss if we did not highlight that the House did manage to approve five bills with broad political support on Tuesday, getting a quick legislative start for the 117th Congress. The measures covered more CBJ transparency (we’ve been pushing for this one), updates to agency recordkeeping and settlement agreements, new rules about the termination and replacement of IGs, government cloud computing, and a correction to the latest funding bill. More information on a few of these bills below. We hope that some more symbolic measures, like getting rid of the Confederate statues in the Capitol building, is also on the docket.

Workers’s rights. There has been reporting that Capitol food service workers remained working during the invasion. Many of these workers are contractors and don’t have access to health benefits or mental health services. How are these individuals supposed to cope with this trauma? Are they able to even take time off to deal with it? Rep. AOC is working on measures to administer additional resources, benefits, and hazard pay for all Capitol Hill custodial, food service, and support staff. We hope everyone understands the importance of making sure we extend support to everyone connected with Congress.

The next days, weeks, and months, will be extraordinarily challenging. Commentators on Congress need to rethink the value of the word “bipartisan” when we see so many Members of Congress willing to demonstrate a profoundly anti-democratic strain. We strive to be fair and work with everyone, but as we saw this week, there clearly is a line. Please make sure you subscribe (and spread the word) about our little newsletter so we can help you navigate what’s happened and what is to come. (We apparently are the only Congressional newsletter not sponsored by Facebook, so maybe that’s worth something?) And your thoughts and comments, whether you agree or disagree, are always welcome. Our back issues are here.


CAPITOL POLICE

Pickett’s last charge. What we witnessed was one of the greatest failures in American history. Everyone knew the demonstration was coming. The president tweeted about it days beforehand and it was on thedonald.win long before that. The joint session of Congress has always been a monumental moment that brings massive security threats. Yet, FBI and DHS officials did not produce an assessment ahead of the protest while USCP twice turned down assistance from DOD. We welcome the departures of the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms and USCP Chief Sund, but there is so much more to do.

We told you so. Since 2018 we have been pushing deeper investigation into the Capitol Police. We wrote reports, sent letters, testified before Congress, and lobbied. Here is a public accounting of just some of what we did and where you can learn more. Some offices, like Reps. Lofgren and Ryan and RM Davis, were responsive to us and pushed to inquire further. Rep. Lofgren, for example, is responsible for the publication of arrest information, and Rep. Ryan successfully pushed for many transparency and accountability provisions in the recently-enacted appropriations bill. Other offices pushed back or did nothing. (With the exception of Roll Call and WAMU, we couldn’t interest the press, either.) We tried to talk to the USCP, who generally refused to talk to us. We have a special ire for their public affairs office, led by Communications Director Eva Malecki, which is in our opinion the worst we have encountered in the federal government.

There are long standing problems inside the Capitol Police, which include inappropriate secrecy (as compared to other police forces) that undermines reform; a lack of public reporting for its IG (other IGs make public reports); an unaccountable, untransparent, and unrepresentative Capitol Police Board; persistent complaints of mistreatment of the rank-and-file by management; disparate treatment of rank-and-file as compared to management; complaints of racial and sexual misconduct by officers against employees and guests; concerns of racial and sexual discrimination by management; massive organizational bloat; the apparent refusal to properly prioritize resources around protecting the campus; the failure to reach a union contract over the last decade; insufficient workforce development; problems inside the intelligence unit; and the obvious leadership failures that led to the sacking of Congress. There are also additional structural disincentives, such as the fairly rapid rotation of Members off the relevant appropriations and authorizing committees, which can undermine the development of expertise.

A failure to respond. It took the department almost 24 hours to respond with a shallow statement defending the department’s action — saying they will be conducting an internal investigation. Don’t hold your breath. This lack of communication and accountability is not a new phenomenon. On Thursday, Gus Papathanasiou, chairman of the Capitol Police Officers’ Union, said, “the lack of communication with officers on January 6th was not an anomaly,” and called for the resignation of the leadership team at USCP.

Our condolences. We are saddened to hear about the passing of USCP officer, Brian Sicknick, who died in the hospital Thursday. We are also saddened by the death of officer Howard Liebengood, who killed himself this weekend. A reminder, the national suicide helpline is 800-273-8255

It’s still early. We don’t have clear answers as to why USCP was so unprepared in this specific instance.Nor do we know the cybersecurity consequences of access to the complex and what was stolen. Press coverage elsewhere has a lot of details, but we are so overwhelmed it’s hard to piece it together right now.

Released. All of the people who were arrested during the riots have been temporarily released until their trials. Very few people were arrested at the time. There’s a real risk soon-to-be ex-Pres. Trump will pardon them for federal crimes.

Race matters. Racism and discrimination inside the USCP is not new. Police often treat white protestors differently than black, and left-leaning protestors much more harshly than those on the right.


CERTIFICATION

Congress certifies Biden. After the delay, both chambers resumed their count of the electoral votes, with the majority of Republican lawmakers still objecting to several states, including 121 for Arizona and 138 for Pennsylvania. House GOP lawmakers also objected to the electoral votes in Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin, but no senator would join in those objections. All the objections were meritless and for political purposes.

House GOP leadership stayed the course. Despite the violence erupting inside the House, many GOP Members remained committed to their votes of objecting to the electoral votes of several states, including McCarthy and Scalise. (News reports call claims of electoral fraud “baseless,” but we would use a stronger word starting with b.) Rep. Cheney, who is third in line, voted to certify the results.

McConnell’s biggest vote. During the initial election certification before the siege, McConnell said his vote was the most important one he will ever cast and overturning the election would “damage the republic forever.” While we appreciate that he has properly enunciated the problem, it does not erase all the work he did to bring us to this point.

Fight club. During the two-hours debate on the certification of Pennsylvania, GOP Rep. Harris and Dem. Rep. Allred were involved in a scuffle on the House floor. (We remember Rep. Harris making an apparently false complaint to Capitol Police against pro-pot activists.)

Market correction. During the swearing in of Members on last Sunday, Rep. Roy objected to the House Members of AZ, MI, WI, PA, and GA to be sworn in, arguing that if those states faced election results at the presidential level, so too should their congressional results. All but two GOP Members voted against the objection. I guess we shouldn’t expect consistency in voting.


A NEW ERA

Winner winner. Georgia Democratic Senate candidates Warnock and Ossoff both won their runoffs elections last Tuesday. Dems and Pres.-elect Biden now have the ability to push big(ger) legislation, including addressing spending via budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority. The Senate also can push through nominees if they stay united.

Sergeants at Arms. As the House and Senate will soon need to appoint new Sergeants at Arms — and the Senate one is particularly powerful, with very large responsibilities — this is an opportunity to find people who can expand and strengthen the Senate’s information technology and security systems.

Remote voting and deliberations in the Senate can now become a reality once Schumer takes over as majority leader. Last year, Sens. Durbin and Portman introduced a resolution to enable remote voting on the Senate floor for continuity of government purposes during the pandemic.

Just a word on “domestic terrorism.” The federal government has more than enough legal authority to go after the insurrectionists and to catch them should they plan future attacks. The creation of a new law concerning domestic terrorism will put further at risk minority groups that already are overly-surveiled and vulnerable to the misuse of state authority without adding any meaningful additional consequences for wrong-doers. The danger to America is having a president like Trump without meaningful limits on his power and allowing him to staff the government with sycophants and white supremacists. The proper role for Congress is to conduct meaningful oversight of the Executive branch and hold the agencies to account for their failures and improper allocation of efforts. Former FBI agent Mike German has written about this authoritatively in his new book “Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: how the new FBI damages democracy.” Mike used to go undercover inside white nationalist groups and he knows what he’s talking about.


CONTINUITY OF CONGRESS

COVID spread incoming? Members had to seek refuge together during the storming of both chambers. We saw a video, courtesy of PunchBowl, of many Republicans lawmakers refusing to wear masks while bunkering down in close quarters. GOP Reps. Kay Granger and Kevin Brady tested positive last week after taking a Curative test. Both were administered the first of two doses of the coronavirus vaccine in December.

Staff eligibility. Senators are allowed five staffers per office to be eligible for the vaccine; each House office is allowed two while each committee is allowed four.

Faulty tests? Early last week, the OAP informed Congress that the COVID tests that have been used to screen Members and staff are prone to faulty results. The test, made by Curative, typically takes 12 hours to receive results, but the FDA warned OAP that these particular tests have seen a higher number of false negative results.


THE RULES RULE

Small victories. Lost in the shuffle, the House adopted its rules package on a 217-206 party-line vote early last week. ICYMI, here’s a quick rundown of everything our team worked on that made it into the House rules package.

PAYGOing forward? Progressives scored a major victory in the rules package with the exemption of the PAYGO rule for bills relating to COVID-19 response and climate change. Not only are Republicans upset with the provision, but Blue Dogs were as well. The small, but powerful 18-Member group wrote a letter to Budget Chair Yarmuth in support of exempting COVID-19 legislation from PAYGO, but oppose any further exemption of PAYGO, including bills related to climate change.

Faked out. The initial version of the House Rules package included a provision to crack down on Members who sent altered photos, videos, or audio. Opposition to the measure resulted in it being changed to a study of the issue.

New Rules Committee Members were welcomed by Chair McGovern on Friday.


CONGRESSIONAL OPS

The new Congress is the most diverse in history, with a record number of women, Black and Latino, and LGBTQ+ Members.

Pelosi wins a fourth—and likely final term—as Speaker. Five Democrats refused to vote for Pelosi: Golden, Lamb, Slotkin, Sherrill, and Spanberger, all Dems in solid Trump districts. Pelosi’s 216 vote nomination was the smallest number for a Speaker since John Boehner won 216 in 2015.

Committee assignments. Pelosi announced the Policy and Steering Committee nominated Members for new committee assignments. The full caucus is expected to approve the nomination. Interested in who sits on the Policy and Steering Committee for the 117th Congress? We wrote about it a few weeks back.


GOOD GOVERNMENT

Hip hip hooray, CBJ. On Tuesday, the House passed H.R. 22, legislation to make congressional budget justifications available online in a central location managed by OMB. Huge shout out to Rep. Quigley, who has been working on this bill for years and continues to be a strong advocate of transparency in government. We look forward to Senate HSGAC to take up the legislation and report it out favorably.

IG Protection Act also passed the House, which requires the Executive branch to notify Congress 30 days prior to an IG being placed on leave as well as provide an explanation for failing to fill an IG vacancy within 210 days.

Cloud computing. The House also passed H.R. 21, a bill that would facilitate agency reuse of cloud technologies that have already received authorization to operate. It also requires GSA to establish a Federal secure cloud advisory committee between agency cybersecurity and procurement officials and industry representatives to ensure effective and ongoing coordination.

Federal agency settlement agreements. H.R. 27, a bill that brings clarity and accountability to the litigation of federal agencies, passed the House by voice vote on Tuesday. Currently, most of the public’s access to federal settlement agreement information is primarily through agency press releases, leaving lawmakers and the public often in the dark regarding costs and outcomes. H.R. 27 establishes a centralized, public database that contains basic information about settlement agreements and consent decrees entered into by federal agencies.

More work to be done. While the 117th Congress has already passed several pieces of government transparency legislation, there are still dozens of good bills that need re-introduced from the last Congress. Our rundown of good government bills.


ETHICS

Rep. Ted Deutch will remain Chair of the House Ethics Committee.

Rep. Jackie Walorski will serve as Ranking Member of the House Ethics Committee, replacing former Rep. Kenny Merchant, who chose not to seek re-election in 2020.

Former Rep. Duncan Hunter would have reported to jail last week if Trump did not pardon him.


ODDS & ENDS

GPO earned a clean audit of all of its FY2020 financial statements.

The story must be told. Neil Sheehan, the reporter who obtained the Pentagon Papers, has passed away, allowing a 2015 story on how he came to possess the documents to be released to the public.

Truth tellers and justice seekers. Read this Boston Globe profile of Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who just began her second term in Congress.

Cool beans. Here is a good look at Member pins (front and back).


CALENDAR

The Brookings Institution is hosting a webinar titled “A Conversation About Domestic Governance Reform” on Tuesday, January 19th at 10 am ET.

R Street is hosting a panel titled “Congress Overwhelmed: The Decline in Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform,” on February 2nd at noon.

The Congressional Management Foundation is holding the following new member orientations:

• Friday at 12:00 pm – “Setting Up a Congressional Office”

• 1/29/21, 12:00 pm – “Hiring an Effective and Diverse Staff”

• 2/12/21, 12:00 pm – “Setting Up a Scheduling Operation”

Additional resources from CMF:

• Webinar: “Managing Staff While Under Attack with former Rep. Brian Baird, Ph.D.” Thursday, January 14, 1:30-2:30pm Eastern/10:30-11:30am Pacific. Register here. This webinar is part of CMF’s “Life in Congress” series, produced in collaboration with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Rep. Baird conducted a similar webinar in April on managing stress in staff, and it was unquestionably one of the best and most important training sessions CMF has ever conducted.

“Congressional Crisis Preparation & Response Center.” This center includes recordings and articles on managing stress in employees, dealing with distraught and difficult constituents, and a variety of resources on managing staff remotely.