Forecast for February 22, 2021

Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. (Was this email forwarded to you? Subscribe here.)

SUPPORTING CONGRESSIONAL STAFF + MEMBERS

The Office of Employee Assistance (OEA) and mental health inside the Legislative branch was the topic of the first Leg branch Appropriations subcommittee hearing for the FY 2022 appropriations cycle, which will have 14 hearings in total, the first three focusing on January 6th. We should note that Rep. Ryan has long made mental health and well-being a focus, and we applaud him and the committee for starting on this topic.

• Capitol Police. The hearing primarily revolved around resources OEA is providing USCP officers, congressional staffers, and essential workers on the Hill. OEA Director Tewsburky said the office currently has a total of 16 counselors, four of whom are professional crisis counselors with backgrounds in law enforcement trauma. Since January 6, OEA began deploying 24-hour counseling services for USCP officers, which have provided approximately 1,150 interactions, including 750 counseling sessions. These on-site counselors are being financed by USCP.

• Staff and essential workers support. OEA Director Tewsburky mentioned that OEA services were provided to over 3,000 people in 2020, and the office continues to work with contract companies to ensure contract workers are receiving the necessary support systems. Rep. Espelliat mentioned the critical need for diversity and representation for employees and officers of all backgrounds. Tewsburky mentioned that 50% of OEA professionals are African Americans, and they continue to connect employees to bilingual services to strengthen support.

• Telephone, not video. OEA is using telephonic services, not video, to hold sessions with staffers and officers. (In non-COVID time, some services would be offered in-person.) OEA said the transition to full telephonic support was seamless since they have used these types of services with district staffers for decades. Rep. Wexton mentioned she would like OEA to have the ability to use video counseling.

• More resources. Throughout the hearing, almost every single Member asked “What do you need from us?” The committee is apparently prepared to provide more resources so mental health and wellness services can be sustained at a higher level. Full Appropriations Chair DeLauro, who participated in the proceedings, echoed this sentiment during her opening remarks. Chair DeLauro and said she plans to attend as many Leg branch hearings as she can.

The experiences of Black staffers during the Trump insurrection — how close they came to violence, what it means for democracy, how they feel towards others — is the focus of an article by Luke Broadwater. In recent years there has been increasing research into the lack of diversity among Congressional staff and how that shapes the environment, with some of the most in-depth research conducted by Prof. James R. Jones of Rutgers, who has spoken about the Capitol’s racial caste system and is finishing up his new book, the Last Plantation, on racial inequality in the Congressional workplace. We have seen some efforts to address the staffer pipeline, such as the House’s creation of an Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the beginning of paid internships in both chambers (but not yet committees), a House study on staff pay and diversity, and a now quite-late Senate study on its staff, but there’s much more work to do.

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The Congressional Budget Office and Disclosure of Conflicts of Interest

The Congressional Budget Office is a Legislative branch agency that supports the Congressional budget process by providing analyses of budgetary and economic issues. CBO makes use of an outside panel of advisers to help inform its work products. Because outside experts can have conflicts of interest, CBO requires the advisers to annually submit forms to disclose “substantial political activity and significant financial interests.” 

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What to do about Congressional Earmarks

We’ve known, at least since December, that congressional earmarks are coming back, and the latest news reiterates that they will return in some fashion. Earmarks are congressionally directed spending — legislative language in an appropriations bill that directs spending for a particular purpose, such as building a bridge or pushing funding to a specific corporation or non-profit. Here’s how we think Congress should address their return.

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Forecast for February 15, 2021

THE TOP LINE

Impeachment Trial. There’s no legitimate question about Trump’s guilt, the Senate confirmed its jurisdiction 56-44 (which is basically what CRS said), and jury nullification is not a legitimate option. What’s at stake for Trump: disqualification from serving again in high office. What’s at stake for America? Whether we suffocate our democracy. Sen. McConnell declared his support for acquittal of Trump prior to the vote and personally blocked the reconvening of the Senate to receive the House’s impeachment message, which would have eliminated the jurisdictional argument on which he says he based his vote. As we all know, actions speak louder than words and votes speak louder than belated floor speeches. The final result, 57-43 to convict — the ayes representing 62% of the US population — with 7 Republican senators worthy of the name of the party: Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and Pat Toomey. Whether we pass legislation to save our democracy will fall on the shoulders of Democrats for the next two years; it is obvious we cannot rely on help from ten Republican senators necessary to overcome a filibuster.

How to keep Congress safe and open? Congress will consider a “security supplemental” appropriations bill, but what should it address? We think the Capitol Police, remote deliberations, and cybersecurity. Our (newly released) recommendations are here. Also, we have a new coalition letter opposing permanent fencing out today; and Reps. Takano and Foster have questions about House cybersecurity. Meanwhile, the Capitol Police union voted “no confidence” in USCP management and ProPublica’s Joaquin Sapien and Joshua Kaplan have a devastating report about management failures.

Appropriations. The Leg branch appropriations subcommittee, which typically goes first, set a hearing on House Wellness and Office of Employee Assistance (Thursday @10). Other House appropriators also are starting to hold hearings this week. In the Senate, the new Murphy rule (Murphy’s law?) has led to an approps subcommittee chair shuffle. We’ve summarized the changes in this spreadsheet; for our purposes, the big news is Leg branch’s new leaders: Sen. Reed as chair and Sen. Braun as RM.

Rep. Wright died as a consequence of contracting COVID. He is the first sitting Member of Congress to die from the illness (Rep.-elect Letlow passed in December), although we do not know how many staff have died or how many people will suffer long term consequences. More resources on continuity of Congress during COVID are here.

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An Open Congress Cannot Be Fenced Off

Demand Progress, the Lincoln Network, and a coalition of organizations wrote to legislators this week to express our concern and strong opposition to the proposed permanent fencing surrounding the U.S. Capitol.

On January 6th, insurrectionists successfully breached security and stormed the U.S. Capitol with lawmakers, employees, essential workers, and journalists inside. In the aftermath of this attack, Congress began evaluating what needs to be done to ensure this type of attack never happens again. While it is clear security at the Capitol must be reformed, solutions must not come at the expense of open government; the Capitol must remain open to the public.

Acting U.S. Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman released a statement recommending the U.S. Capitol complex be fitted with permanent fencing. To enclose the Capitol campus with permanent security fencing would be a grave error. While there may be times where temporary fencing is necessary, to erect permanent barriers between Congress would be a blow to open democracy.

The safety and security of our legislators and the people who make their work possible is paramount; however it was not an absence of funding or fencing that allowed for the January 6th insurrection. Rather, the success of the attack was a result of mismanagement and poor communication by the entities tasked with keeping the Capitol safe. 

The Capitol stands as a symbol of fair and open democracy — closing the Capitol to the public and militarizing Capitol Hill is a sign of weakness and contrary to our democratic ideals as a nation.

The letter can be found here and is also available below:

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Recommendations for the FY 2022 Security Supplemental (including on the U.S. Capitol Police)

Congress is expected to enact a “security supplemental” appropriations bill to address the aftermath of the Trump insurrection on January 6. In advance of that legislation, we compiled recommendations for items to include in the supplemental. They are informed by our experiences studying Legislative branch operations over the last decade, including several years of research into the U.S. Capitol Police (USCP). 

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First Branch Forecast: February 8, 2021

The Senate finally is organized, budget reconciliation is prioritized, and impeachment has materialized. Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Please tell your friends to subscribe.

THE TOP LINE

Dems took control of Senate committees on Wednesday, two weeks late, when the chamber adopted its organizing resolution after Sen. McConnell withdrew his objections.

A security supplemental appropriations bill is in the worksaccording to Speaker Pelosi, who said Congress needs to strengthen security for Members. She also called for a 9/11-style commission to examine the security failures that led to the insurrection.

A strong Congress is essential to a strong democracy. With 3 dozen organizations, we sent a bipartisan coalition letter endorsing a 10% increase in funding for Congress, or a comparatively paltry $500ish million, to mitigate decades of damage to the Legislative branch. More here from us; and here’s Chris Marquette’s story.

House Dems will begin to craft a relief bill this week after a budget resolution was adoptedto allow the Senate to move the bill through reconciliation. No floor votes are scheduled this week or next, but House committees have a February 16 deadline to submit legislation for inclusion in the package. Budget reconciliation is a byzantine and lengthy process that can weaken legislation, but it is necessary so long as Sen. McConnell retains the ability to filibuster, blocking more productive legislative avenues.

Impeachment begins tomorrow; both sides filed their briefs last week.

Rep. Greene was stripped of her committee assignments after House Republicans refused to hold her accountable. The resolution was adopted with the support of 11 GOP Members. Rep. Babin, perhaps at the behest of leadership, offered an amendment to replace Rep. Greene’s name with Rep. Ilhan Omar. By choosing to substitute one member for another, these Republicans signaled they did not believe Rep. Greene’s behavior was worthy of punishment, for if they were serious about articulating a standard then Rep. Greene’s name would surely have stayed in place.

COVID-19 is mutating, spreading quickly, and possibly re-infecting people. The House should stop holding drawn-out floor votes and move to fully remote proceedings; the Senate should make it possible to remotely deliberate and vote in committees and on the floor.

Busy today? I’ll be speaking about “Creating and Improving Pathways for STEM Professionals to Advise Congress,” alongside Harvard’s Laura Manley and UMD’s Joan Burton, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference today at 3pm. Come to watch us, stay for Dr. Fauci.

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25+ Years of Legislative Branch Appropriations: Data Spanning from 1994-2021 All In One Place

Every year Congress determines exactly how much money will be made available to the Legislative Branch and the purpose for which it can be spent. The Legislative Branch Appropriations bills directs congressional spending, line-item by line-item — but, alas, the instructions are published as prose, can run for dozens of pages, and it is difficult to see how appropriations spending has changed over the decades.

We’ve gone through  all of the spending bills for the last quarter-century and lined up the spending items in a downloadable spreadsheet. Now you can see how spending on each line-item has changed from 1994 forward.

Peruse the Legislative Branch budget line items from fiscal years 1994-2021 below, or download the data set here

Questions, comments, concerns? Drop us a line at Amelia@DemandProgress.org 

Increase Congress’s Funding by 10% Says Bipartisan Coalition of Good Government Organizations

For decades, Congress has undercut its ability to meet its Constitution obligations by providing itself inadequate resources to meet its legislative, constitutional, and oversight responsibilities. Discretionary Executive branch resources, and power, on the other hand, have grown at more than double the rate of the Legislative branch. In addition, Congress has been driven to rely on lobbyists for expertise because it lacks the in-house expertise.

Today a coalition of nearly 70 individuals, good government advocates, and businesses have sent a message for appropriators: it’s time to reinvest in Congress. The letter was organized by Demand Progress and the Lincoln Network.

Less than 1% of all discretionary federal funds go to Congress and its support agencies, and while non-defense discretionary spending has increased 55% over the last 25 years, the Legislative branch budget has grown just 30% in that same period. And the vast majority of those funds have gone for non-legislative purposes, such as the Capitol Police and the Architect of the Capitol.

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Forecast for February 1, 2021

The Senate still has not organized, COVID is spreading like wildfire, the impeachment trial clock is ticking, unemployment benefits will expire soon, and white nationalists remain an active threat. Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Please tell your friends to subscribe.

THE TOP LINE

The no deal deal. Sen. McConnell is continuing to delay efforts by the Senate to enact an organizing resolution — the 117th Congress is 12 days old — and committees remained chaired by GOP members or no one at all. Burgess Everett reports Senate leaders are close to a deal, modeled on the 2001 power sharing agreement, with the remaining fight over an “open process.” They should make like an amendment tree and leave. (Sorry.)

The majority’s fragility was highlighted by the brief hospitalization of Sen. Leahy on Tuesday and Sen. Warner’s exposure to COVID on Wednesday and subsequent quarantine. Sen. McConnell almost lost his operating majority last Congress when a half-dozen Republicans had to quarantine. As you know, we think the Senate should be able to operate even if Members cannot attend in person; check out our continuity of Congress website for more.

The House plans to bring a FY 2021 budget reconciliation resolution directly to the floor, which, once passed, would help the Senate avoid filibuster drama (at the expense of certain provisions) but is procedurally complex, as Paul Krawzak and David Lerman explain. The House updated its schedule and Members are expected to stay in town some weekends to pass a relief package in time to extend benefits before they expire. Some Senate Republicans are complaining that the relief legislation is not bipartisan even as Senate Republicans block the Senate from organizing, the COVID pandemic and economic destabilization accelerate after insufficient Congressional action last Congress, and Democrats say they are willing to collaborate. My free advice: ten Senate Republicans should vow to unconditionally stop any filibuster of a COVID relief measure — which is why reconciliation is being used — as a gesture of goodwill.

Security supplemental. Congress is preparing to move a supplemental Legislative branch appropriations bill to address security issues relating to Congress, Lindsey McPherson and Katherine Tully-McManus report. We have done a ton of work watchdogging the Capitol Police, investigating cybersecurity issues, and delving into Continuity of Congress, and our FY 2021 appropriations recs are online and address these issues. More to come on this from us. In the meantime, security is being heightened at Congress. We are troubled by the USCP Chief’s closed-door recommendation for a permanent security fence, which we believe is both inappropriate for an open government and a distraction from the real causes of the attack of the Capitol, many of which center around major problems at the Capitol Police. (NB: The NYT has the USCP chief’s written testimony at a closed-door proceeding, which is most revealing for what it does not address.)

Inside threat? Comity between Democrats and Republicans has deteriorated even further in light of Republican anti-democratic rejection of the election results, the so-far unwillingness of Republican leadership to discipline radical right Republicans who are tied to the insurrection (some of whom espouse bizarre Qanon conspiracy theories and had previously threatened to physically harm lawmakers), other Republican members defying long standing rules prohibiting firearms on the House floor, and so on. As former Rep. Amash reminded us, “I was once stripped of a committee assignment for voting differently from Paul Ryan on a budget resolution.” It is past time for Republican leadership to put Qanon-believers and white supremacist allies off of congressional committees and out of the party. We will closely watch this week’s meeting between Leader McCarthy and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

We published a new white paper with Public Citizen entitled Article One: Rebuilding Our Congress that explains how Congress has weakened itself from the inside and the steps it can take to regain its power. Spoiler alert: It starts with Congress investing greater resources to strengthen and modernize its operations while also rebuilding its oversight and power of the purse authorities.

Getting credit? Has your boss had a bill become law but hasn’t gotten credit for it on Congress.gov because it was included as part of another bill? We’re making a list. Email and tell me about it at daniel@demandprogress.gov.

What’s due: February 2021 edition. We published our latest article on what reports are due from support offices and agencies. See the graphic below.

Continue reading “Forecast for February 1, 2021”