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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
GREENE NEEDS TO GO
Rep. Greene is very troubling. She has continuously pushed baseless claims of election fraud, “promoted an outlandish, QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton cutting off and donning the face of a child,” and believes the Sandy Hook school shooting was staged, among other bizarre beliefs catalogued by Lachlan Markay. A new CNN investigation by Em Steck and Andrew Kaczynski found that in 2018 and 2019, Greene liked a series of social media posts that advocated for the execution of prominent Democrats, including Speaker Pelosi.
Double standard. This behavior by Rep. Greene isn’t new. Even before she was elected, she had a history of racist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic comments. But what is relevant is the House Republican Conference’s response. While the 116th’s Republican Steering Committee voted unanimously to take away former Rep. King’s committee assignments after he made several harrowing comments about white supremacy, it seems like the GOP is bowing to a Trump ally, and is allowing Greene to serve on two powerful House committees — Budget and Education. House Education Chair Bobby Scott questioned why Republicans put her on the panel.
Expulsion. Rep. Gomez is introducing a resolution to expel Rep. Greene from Congress, citing the dangerous behavior and rhetoric she continues to push as an elected official. The resolution would require two-thirds to pass, which means the House GOP will likely hold the line and protect her. (The question of expulsion is a tricky one to begin with.) On Friday, Speaker Pelosi said she would move Rep. Bush’s office after Bush claimed that Rep. Greene and her staff berated her in the hallway where both Member offices are located. As we mentioned above, will Leader McCarthy act?
We’ve had other out-there members of Congress, including another Georgia representative, Larry McDonald, who had views closely aligned with the John Birch Society, which you have to read about to believe. But somehow things feel different now.
Many Senate Republicans have chosen political expediency, with 45 conference members voting to avoid an impeachment trial for Trump because he is no longer in office, a position that the Congressional Research Service has said is contrary to the conclusion of “most scholars who have closely examined the question.” Since Republicans cannot plausibly argue that Trump is not guilty of the charges brought by the House, they instead are (falsely) arguing that Trump is not eligible. Sen. McConnell, of course, prevented the trial from occurring with Trump in office and infamously shortchanged the first impeachment trial. Five Senate Republicans voted to perform their constitutional duty: Collins, Murkowski, Romney, Sasse, and Toomey. Now that the Senate has established jurisdiction, we insist more members face the issue on the merits.
The House transmitted an impeachment resolution to the Senate last Monday. Allyson Waller has an overview of the House impeachment managers. The trial starts on Feb. 9 and is expected to last a week. Sen. Kaine apparently is undercutting the effort by floating a censure resolution that gives politically-sensitive Republicans a potential way out. Senator Leahy will preside.
TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Protecting journalists. Jeremy Scahill opined that journalists should not go to jail for refusing to give up their sources and urged the Biden administration to take this perspective. The AP’s Calvin Woodward and Christopher Rugaber explained in a fact check that “The Obama administration used the 1917 Espionage Act with unprecedented vigor, prosecuting more people under that law for leaking sensitive information to the public than all previous administrations combined. Obama’s Justice Department dug into confidential communications between news organizations and their sources as part of that effort.” Going after the press for doing their jobs is wrong. And as the Trump administration demonstrated, journalists are essential to our democracy and very vulnerable. It’s time for Congress to enact a limited reporter’s privilege law, akin to what exists in 49 states. We think a good starting point is the Free Flow of Information Act, introduced by Rep. Raskin in 2017 and Sen. Schumer in 2013. We look to the RCFP for guidance on the gold standard.
Lugar Center issued its latest report card for congressional oversight. Spoiler alert: Many “A”s were earned in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, while “F”s predominated in the GOP Senate. FWIW, Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal received an “F”. That committee “had a less active hearing schedule than many other influential committees” and “policy and legislative hearings fell to just 21, the fewest in the 12-year period.” We note in particular: “It held no hearings into agency or private sector conduct.”
Drop dead. Overclassification and declassification are major problems for the government. Should there be a date by which documents must be declassified, say 40 years?
The House rules in the 117th Congress were the subject of a panel discussion — the video is available here — that featured remarks by Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA) and included presentations by Matt Hayward of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, Craig Holman of Public Citizen, and me, with a conversation moderated by Sanaa Abrar of United We Dream. Looking for more House rules reform ideas? Check out our complete list of recommendations.
How does CBO keep score? They explain their methodology, mostly in small-ish words, here. (H/T Jack Fitzpatrick)
The Congressional Review Act and Trump. Some late rules enacted by the Trump administration can be reversed under the Congressional Review Act in a way that avoids the Senate filibuster buzzsaw. The Congressional Progressive Caucus Center and Public Citizen have a new explainer that addresses the history and use of the CRA.
Senate operating agreement. Sen. McConnell finally indicated he will not filibuster a Senate organizing resolution, even though Dems still haven’t taken over the committee chairmanships and appointed members to committees. Besides hamstringing Biden’s nominations and policies for the starting week of his administration — undermining Democratic presidents is his speciality — Sen. McConnell also extracted updated commitments from Sens. Manchin & Sinema on the filibuster.
What exactly? Marianne Levine reported Sen. Manchin as saying “busting the filibuster under any conditions is wrong.” Sen. Sinema reportedly said she is “not open to changing her mind.” There’s a lot of reportial commentary, but I didn’t see a clear statement as to the lines around these commitments. Would they be opening to reinterpreting the Byrd rule, which keeps some measures out of reconciliation? Would they apply the filibuster to matters it has never been applied to? We’ll see. Sen. McConnell’s goals, as always, were to create political vulnerabilities and to delay actions by a Democratic administration at the height of its power.
False equivalence. The contretemps around the Senate’s operating agreement also had a potentially negative impact on Sen. McConnell. The press almost always writes these kinds of stories from the perspective of the president’s inability to persuade Republicans to unify and a lack of bipartisanship in the Senate. In other words, “Washington is broken.” But this behavior was so blatantly egregious that some reporters used the active voice, identifying who — Sen. McConnell — was responsible for the impasse.
USCP heightens security, literally. The acting Capitol Police chief suggested permanent fencing around the Capitol grounds on Thursday. (This is a bad idea.) USCP is also working with TSA and air marshals to ensure safe traveling for Members in and out of their home districts. More than 5,000 National Guard troops are staying on the Capitol grounds until at least March.
Talking USCP. Our team’s Amelia Strauss spoke to Tom Temin on the Federal Drive podcast to discuss the documented issues we found with the USCP well before the events of January. Erin Mansfield and Carlie Procell of USA Today have an excellent visualization of the Capitol Police’s budget and jurisdiction.
USCP Chief briefed the House Approps Committee in a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, apologizing for the security failures and lack of preparation by the department. Chief Pittman, who testified via video conference, noted in her testimony that the USCP Board denied a department January 4th request for support from the National Guard, two days before the insurrection. That claim was promptly disputed by USCP board member J. Brett Blanton, who is the Architect of the Capitol, who said the department did not reach out to AOC about the matter. Other claims made by the Chief also were subject to push-back.
More resources and fortifying Congress were also requested in Chief Pittman’s testimony. The day after Chief Pittman testified, the USCP Labor Committee released a statement saying its officers and union feel “betrayed,” and it was the leadership’s lack of preparation that led to such a failure to secure the Capitol and protect its officers. (We agree.) Union Chairman Papthanasiou claimed that many officers were not given the proper gear or helmets, resulting in injuries to over 140 officers. Note: the gear likely was available, but it was not provided to officers.
More transparency. While USCP continues to brief lawmakers, oversight committees, and caucuses about the operational failures on January 6th, the department has still not given briefings to congressional staff or the public. While we understand there is so much the department is doing during this time, it’s critical to be transparent to the public in order to be worthy of trust.
Our condolences. We are also saddened by the death of officer Jeffrey Smith, who is the second officer to take his life after the attack. A reminder, the national suicide helpline is 800-273-8255. Late US Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick will lie in honor in the rotunda next week.
The psychological effects of the attack take a major toll on staffers. Katherine Tully-McManus has an excellent, in-depth article where she talks to more than a dozen congressional staffers about what they have been feeling since the day of the insurrection. WRC TV Reporter Scott McFarlane — a former Capitol Hill staffer — also reported on this growing trauma for staffers. For Capitol Hill staffers of color, response to riot fits into larger pattern of racial tensions
Long-term support. We want to make sure that resources continue to support as many staffers as we can. The House Office of Employee Assistance provides free and confidential resources to staff (must be logged into HouseNet for access). The Congressional Management Foundation maintains an updated Crisis Preparation and Response center with resources for all staff, including managers on supporting front-line staff in a crisis. For staffers of color, see Lifeline’s page on mental health resources for the African-American community; also see provider referrals through the Black Mental Health Alliance and the American Association of Hispanic Psychiatry. We also helped launch CapitolStrong, led by the Partnership for Public Service and several leading civil society orgs.
Greater support for all Capitol Hill staff. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House wrote to the Office of Employee Assistance to provide additional support and resources for non-Congressional employees who may have been affected by the attack.
Over 200 House staffers have signed on to a letter calling for the Senate to convict former President Trump, citing the actions that lead to the violent insurrection on their place of work.
The U.S. Capitol Historical Society held an event titled “How Do We Move Forward?” examining the historical, societal realities, and geopolitical impacts of the Jan. 6th attack.
NoTube. Sen. Ron Johnson is complaining that YouTube “removed two videos of doctors testifying under oath at my Senate hearing on early treatment of COVID.” There are several complex matters wrapped up here. The doctors were touting the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID, which is ineffective at best and dangerous at worst, and the hearing was an apparent and ill-founded political attempt to shore up the Trump administration’s false claims. On the other hand, should YouTube be in the business of making Congressional videos disappear, even when they contain obvious untruths that are dangerous? The obvious answer is that Congress should make videos of all official proceedings directly available from Congressional sources in addition to sharing it via third-party platforms so that there is always an official source. There’s a lot more here to unpack.
Restoring science and tech in Congress continues to be an uphill battle, but continuing to strengthen the STAA is a winning strategy, writes Zach Graves of the Lincoln Network.
The Modernization Staff Association released its Staff Assistants/Legislative Correspondents “Best Practices Guide” to help junior level staffers with essential onboarding and constituent correspondence tips.
APPROPRIATIONS AND COMMITTEE APPOINTMENTS
Regrading the supplemental Leg Branch approps security bill,on Wednesday, a group of bipartisan lawmakers wrote to House leadership and House Admin requesting increasing investment and greater flexibility to use MRA funds for security, increased briefings from USCP and House SAA, and best security and safety guidance for Members, their families, and staff.
The big enchilada, the regular appropriations process, will start soon, and we’re about to be neck deep in budget reconciliation as well. We will be keeping a close watch on committee fundings levels in both chambers and decisions about spending levels for the 12 appropriations subcommittees. More on this soon.
The House Budget GOP membership leans far right and are very green: 8 of the 12 Members are in their first term, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
GOP House Rules Committee announced its membership, with Rep. Cole returning as Ranking Member. Cole’s long time deputy chief of staff left the office after nearly ten years; Olivia Beavers reports it’s due to his vote objecting the election certification.
Speaker Pelosi announced several committee assignments that were approved by the House Dem Caucus, including Budget, Ethics, House Admin, the select committees, and more.
Three new Dems were appointed to the Modernization Committee: Reps. Perlmutter, Phillips, and Williams. Last session, the Modernization Committee issued 97 recommendations, 27 of which were passed by the House in H.Res. 756. We have a slew of recommendations to help create a more inclusive, efficient, and stronger House.
There are zero Black women in House Dem leadership. Rep. Chisholm was the last Black woman elected to House leadership — 44 years ago. Rep. Lawrence wants that to change.
Sen. Hawley has reportedly filed an Ethics counterclaim against seven Democratic senators who properly requested an investigation into whether the Missouri senator’s actions violated ethics rules by ‘fail[ing] to “[p]ut loyalty to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons, party, or Government department.” Hawley argues that the Dems ethics complaint is a “direct assault on democratic debate,” but he does not address the actual direct assault on democracy. Burgess Everett reports “the probe into whether the two senators played a role in inciting the violent Capitol attack will unwind over an interminable timetable with little hint of where it is going.” Senate Republicans, like Sen. Collins, are saying they (now) oppose using Ethics to probe what they deem “electoral objections” and others might call incitement to overturn an election.
Rep. Andy Harris has earned himself a complaint, filed by the Campaign for Accountability, with the DC US Attorney, for transporting a gun to the U.S. Capitol without a valid gun permit. While not filed here, an accountability organization could also file a complaint with the House Ethics Committee and the Office of Congressional Ethics for violating federal law.
The death gratuity. One of the weirder congressional behaviors is giving the family of a Member of Congress who dies in office the equivalent of a year’s salary, or $174k. This may harken back to a time when Members of Congress did not buy life insurance, but its time has long since passed. Rep. Bill Posey has introduced H.R. 412, which would prohibit the gratuities, at least in theory: they’re regularly included in the approps bills.
The U.S. slid to its lowest Corruption Perception Index score since 2012, according to Transparency International’s latest indicator.
Presidential ethics orders? Our friends at POGO helpfully compared Biden and Obama’s ethics pledges. (Of course, we think these should be legal requirements.)
BILLS OF INTEREST
DC Statehood. Sen. Carper introduced legislation on Wednesday to make the District the nation’s 51st state, mirroring Del. Norton Holmes bill in the House that currently has over 200 cosponsors. Remember that adding states to the Union used to be very common, and that strategy paid dividends for the GOP years later.
Paid Family Leave. On Thursday, the House Oversight and Reform Committee reintroduced the Comprehensive Paid Leave for Federal Employees Act, a bill that would provide all federal employees 12 weeks of paid leave relating to personal illness, illness of a family member or military deployment. The FY 2020 NDAA included 12 weeks of paid parental leave for federal employees, but not family leave.
ODDS AND ENDS
Sen. Portman announced he will not run for the Senate in 2022. The incoming-Ranking Member of HSGAC is notable for his leadership on many transparency and accountability bills, including the DATA Act, and his vacant seat may result in significant changes in the House lineup.
GPO’s Executive Lyle L. Green retired after 30 years at the agency.
House Committee on Oversight and Reform is holding an “Organizational Meeting” at 2:00 pm.
Bipartisan Policy Center is hosting a webinar on the “Modernization Committee” today at 12:15 pm ET.
R Street is hosting a panel titled “Congress Overwhelmed: The Decline in Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform,” tomorrow at noon ET.
The Levin Center at Wayne Law is hosting a “Training Workshop for House and Senate Committee Clerks on Handling Oversight Investigations” on Friday from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm.
Down The Line
The Brookings Institution is hosting “A conversation About Domestic Governance Reform” on Wednesday, February 10th at 2:00 pm ET.
The Congressional Management Foundation is hosting a new Member orientation on “Setting Up a Scheduling Operation” on Friday, February 12th at 12:00 pm ET.