Forecast for March 29, 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.)

TOP LINE

We made it. The House and Senate are on recess for the next two weeks. With members at home, at fundraisers, or on CODELs, staff will have an opportunity to catch up on deferred work and prep for another burst of action. Everyone is back the week of April 12th. Today marks 68 days since Biden was inaugurated and 82 days since the Trump insurrection. (We note that the House’s innovation of committee-only workweeks has been a success.)

Funding levels for Senate committees is the topic of our newly-released report, which found the Senate has made strides to undo decades of damage to their capacity to legislate and conduct oversight, but much more needs to be done. Specifically, Senate committees received an $18 million or 8% boost over the 116th Congress, but even this higher level of funding is still down by $59 million or 20% from the 111th Congress (2009-2010). The median increase in funding for each committee over the last Congress was $900,000 or 11%, and faithful readers have come to expect that we break out the details for each committee — indicating who got what — in the full article. (Our numbers exclude the Appropriations committee, which funds itself through a separate line item and usually has twice the funding of the next largest committee.)

The House Modernization Committee got organized this past week and held a listening session with 23 witnesses, including our very own Taylor J. Swift. We have more on this hearing below.

GAO is reviewing whether Biden’s freeze on border wall construction is in violation of federal law, Caitlin Emma reports. At issue: whether the freeze violates rules intended to keep Congress’s fingers on the federal purse. The GOP request for the review is here. One smart measure to protect Congress’s prerogatives, the Power of the Purse Act, would remedy many of the abuses we saw in the last administration.

The outer Capitol fence is gone, finally, but the inner fence remains for now — and maybe forever. Sens. Blunt and Von Hollen introduced legislation to ensure there is no permanent fence, which is a companion bill to House Del. Holmes Norton’s legislation. We co-led a civil society letter with the Lincoln Network that opposes a permanent fence.

Congress’s approval ratings have more than doubled over the last three months, from 15% in early December to 36% in March, per a Gallup poll. The last time it was this high was March-May 2009. Per Gallup, 59% of Democrats, 34% of independents, and 9% of Republicans approve of Congress’ performance. We underscore their caveat: “much of the recent increases is a function of partisanship,” which suggests Congressional approval ratings are a partisan indicator and thus a poor way to assess whether Congress is functioning properly.

Continue reading “Forecast for March 29, 2021.”

How Senate Committees Get Their Money

Senate committees are at the heart of the legislative process, but what resources are provided for them to do their work? We reviewed the funding levels for Senate committees this Congress as compared to last Congress and over the decades. Here is what we found: 

Senate committees are funded at $238.2 million for the 117th Congress. This represents an 8.2% or $18 million increase from last Congress’s $220.2 million funding level. There is an average increase of $1 million or 8.7% per committee.

Senate committee funding is down by $59 million or 19.9% from the 111th Congress, where it peaked at $297.3 million. Funding this Democratically-controlled Congress also falls short of the Republican-controlled 109th Congress, when Senate committees were funded at $248 million.

Half of Senate committees experienced cuts in funding levels between the 107th and 117th Congresses. In addition, just one committee received a 20% increase from 2001 to 2021 — the Intelligence Committee.

(Please note this analysis excludes funding for the Appropriations Committee, which is funded through a separate mechanism, and we are using constant 2021 dollars.)

Continue reading “How Senate Committees Get Their Money”

Forecast for March 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.)

TOP LINE

The security supplemental funding bill could reach $2 billion, according to Billy House, and is intended to strengthen security at the Capitol and enhance member protection. To place this number in context: combined funding in FY 2021 for the Capitol Police and the Architect of the Capitol was $1.2 billion; total funding for the entire Legislative branch was slightly over $5 billion; and the AOC & USCP asked for more than a 20% increase in funding this year — and already said their requests will significantly increase in light of the Honoré report.

There are likely billions in “deferred” or otherwise necessary maintenance in the Capitol complex, so an infusion of billions in multi-year funds would be welcome if it addresses these unmet needs. By contrast, throwing money at the Capitol police, unless we first reform its management and oversight structures, likely would squander those funds. Members are terrified about their personal security, but giving money to an incompetently-managed security force without fixing it will only promote the illusion of security.

• We are gravely concerned that the carrying costs for the new personnel — the Honoré report recommends 854 new full-time employees (FTEs) and the AOC wants nearly 100 FTEs — would simply crush Congress’s budget. The Legislative branch is the lowest funded of the 12 appropriations subcommittees — the next smallest subcommittee is 5x larger — and all those costs must be borne somewhere. The last 25 years of growth in USCP & AOC budgets has come at the expense of Congress’s policymaking capabilities, including personal offices, committees, GAO, CRS, and the like. If not addressed, the current trend would result in beautiful, well-protected buildings filled with no one experienced enough to do the policymaking work.

• How to fix this? There are three big options that we can see. First, we can increase the amount of funding for the Legislative branch. We naively called for a 10% increase in Leg branch funding, but self-evidently we need much more than that. In addition, there should be a firewall that separates funds for policymaking against those for protecting the campus. A second option is to draw funding for the USCP and the AOC for other sources — such as defense discretionary spending (050) — which would be logical because a big portion of the Capitol’s post-9/11 expenses are defense related and this would provide a huge new pot of funding, and are where a few hundred million dollars wouldn’t be missed. A third option is to have the other appropriations subcommittees provide funding for components in the Legislative branch that serve the rest of the government, such as the GAO. (We already have the Judiciary kicking in for the Capitol power plant, so there is precedent.) In this schema, you could imagine a pro-rata assessment of the other 11 appropriations subcommittees to cover GAO’s funding, which would free up obligations from the tiny Leg branch budget.

The outer layer of the Capitol fencing is coming down, according to acting House Sergeant-at-Arms Timothy P. Blodgett. The inner layer around “capitol square” will remain. For how long? Good question. Last month, we led a coalition letter opposing permanent fencing.

The Capitol Police’s misconduct report for 2020 is one page long and raises more questions than it answers, according to Emmanuel Felton. His article draws from our report: from what we can tell, more than 40% of charges against USCP employees were substantiated by department investigations. The report from the USCP is virtually worthless as is, and raises more questions and answers. We note that most people don’t know how to file a complaint concerning the USCP. This is one of many areas where the USCP needs more transparency. Our recs for immediate next steps are here.

Congress’s embrace of technology during the pandemic was crucial for its continuity, according to me and POPVOX’s Marci Harris. Even more importantly, Congress must continue to innovate.

Hearings. We note in particular House Oversight’s hearing on DC statehood on Monday; House Rules & House Foreign Affairs hearings Tuesday on War Powers; Wednesday’s Senate Rules Committee hearing on S.1, the democracy reform bill that mirrors H.R. 1; and the first meeting of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress on Thursday.

Appropriations deadlines. Now that the House has started to release guidance on its deadlines for Members and the public to submit their testimony, we have begun to track it here.

Solidarity. Asian Americans continue to suffer attacks and mistreatment on the basis of race. Our country has a long history of otherization of Asian Americans, and only now is that fact starting to break through into mainstream consciousness. For example, we need only look to the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese Internment Camps. We stand in solidarity.

Continue reading “Forecast for March 22, 2021”

New Capitol Police Misconduct Complaint Report Obscures More Than it Reveals

Complaints about U.S. Capitol Police operations, including accounts of racist misconduct within the department and managerial abuses of power, have recently been elevated in the wake of the January 6th attack on Congress. Hard information is hard to come by as it is nearly impossible to get any official data on employee misconduct from the department. There is, however, one small exception: the USCP Annual Statistical Summary Report on Office of Professional Responsibility Investigations.

The Annual Statistical Summary Report provides top line numbers on complaints made against US Capitol Police employees. The report indicates how many misconduct investigations occurred in a given year and how many total charges or allegations of misconduct were filed. Its data is broken out by the status of the individual filing the complaint: citizen, outside law enforcement, internal, or anonymous. Starting in 2019, USCP began including figures of how many individual charges/allegations of misconduct were sustained in Office of Professional Responsibility investigations. 

Today we are publishing the newly obtained 2020 Annual Statistical Summary Report. (It is generous to call this a report: it is a one-page fact sheet.) We previously published reports dating back to 2009, which is when the first report of this type was published online. We asked for data from prior years, but our request was denied. 

Table of OPR Case Summary Statistics. There are 15 citizen complaint cases and 22 citizen allegations. There are 69 department investigation cases and 83 department investigation allegations. There are 17 internal complaint cases and 25 internal complaint allegations. There are 5 referred by law enforcement cases and 7 referred by law enforcement allegations. There are 106 total cases and 137 total allegations. There are 58 sustained allegations.
Continue reading “New Capitol Police Misconduct Complaint Report Obscures More Than it Reveals”

Forecast for March 15, 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.)

TOP LINE

It’s been a year since we wrote to every Member of Congress on how Capitol Hill should respond to COVID. If I were to grade the response, I’d likely give the House of Representatives a B+, the Senate a D-, and varying grades for the support agencies. The House, after a significant delay, changed its rules: implemented proxy voting on the House floor, remote proceedings in committees, modernized some of its procedures, and implemented inconsistent measures to protect staff. Meanwhile, the Senate failed to change its rules, implemented hybrid proceedings in its committees that didn’t address absences, and staff protections vary by the office. At least 71 lawmakers, or roughly 10 percent of Congress, has tested positive for COVID-19, and an unknown number of staff. We think the House should implement fully remote floor proceedings that do not rely on proxy voting, and the new Senate leadership — which previously committed to a better approach — should do the best it can to make changes over likely obstruction. For more on what’s happened, see continuityofcongress.org.

Approps season continues as the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights presents its budget to the House Leg branch appropriations subcommittee Thursday at 10. We are curious about whether Congress will implement the legislative recommendations they made in their once-a-Congress report and have some questions about staff unionization. Below we have recaps of last week’s many, many hearings.

It’s sunshine week, which started yesterday and focuses on government transparency. There are lots of events on the calendar. We note that HSGAC will be marking up the Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act on Tuesday at 9:30, a bill we support, and we expect more opengov news as the week goes on. Video is now available on what increased transparency could look like in the Legislative and Judicial branches, discussed at the recent FOIA Advisory Committee meeting. And there’s a new civil society letter in support of court transparency.

Welcome, Ginger McCall. We’re pleased to announce that Ginger McCall is joining us as our first-ever Legal Director. She is an expert on FOIA, transparency, privacy, and much more. Ginger recently was the Deputy Associate Chief Counsel for Information Law at FEMA and before that was the first-ever Oregon Public Records Advocate. Prior to that she served as an attorney in the Office of the Solicitor at the Department of Labor, Associate Director of Electronic Privacy Information Center, and Federal Policy Manager at Sunlight. Her email is ginger@demandprogress.org. Don’t miss her on Thursday as she moderates an Open Government Summit panel focused on transparency in Washington, D.C.

Bipartisan? House Democrats increasingly are unwilling to co-sponsor legislation with Republicans who voted against certifying the Electoral College results, Leigh Ann Caldwell reports. Supporting insurrection, in their view, is a bridge too far. We have a lot to say about this — for and against bipartianship — but we’ll save that hot take for another time.

Continue reading “Forecast for March 15, 2021”

Forecast for March 8, 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.)


THE TOP LINE

General Honoré will brief Congress today in three closed meetings on his “Capitol Security Review” that was conducted out of public view over the last six weeks. The NYT published a draft of his findings on Friday, the fact of which I find irrepressibly funny. I’ve read the assessment: it reads like a report written by a bunch of generals. It re-fights the last war, contains a request for significantly more manpower and spending, and is nebulous about how to address the source of the failures: Capitol Police leadership. Here are our recommendations.

• If Honoré’s recommendations are adopted, and we have every expectation Speaker Pelosi will do so, one major consequence will be the further defunding of congressional policy making. From what source will they draw funding to pay for 874 new employees, which would increase the USCP staff size from 2,450 to 3,300? Our back-of-the-envelop estimate is funding for USCP would increase from $515m to $693m — and we must note that funding for the Leg branch has increased at half the rate of other non-defense discretionary spending. Defunding Legislative branch policymaking has long been a problem. The Honoré report does not address the importance of growing the Leg branch pie or whether they are calling for paying for this outside the Leg branch budget.

• Putting the Capitol Police in context, the USCP is already funded significantly more than all Congressional committees put together. They also were already asking for a 20% increase, or $107 million funding bump, before this assessment came out. We sent Congress a letter back in February calling for a 10% increase in Leg branch funding, and this week the Levin Center, Lugar Center, and Culver Public Policy Center sent their own recommendation for a 10% increase. The assumption, however, was that this money should go towards policymaking.

• The draft report is not a dud. It makes obvious points about the importance of building up a capable intelligence team that tracks threats, shares information, and is connected with elements of the intelligence community. It also encourages better coordination with other entities, a faster response to emergencies (including requesting assistance), and buying necessary equipment. A handful of important matters are given only a brief mention, such as cybersecurity and the structure of the Capitol Police Board. As the failure in management came from the top, we would think this would be the priority — especially as many other problems could be addressed by better leadership and better coordination. We wonder about the value of having a permanent civil disturbance unit platoon and the use of body cameras. We agree that USCP overtime is a longstanding problem, but hiring more officers won’t address the incentives for overtime.The report also missed key problems such as the Congressional oversight mechanisms (above the Capitol Police Board).

Speaking of congressional funding, last week House appropriators held hearings into the Congressional Budget Office and the Library of Congress. Set for this week: GAO and House Officers testify on Wednesday at 10; and the AOC and GPO present their budgets on Thursday at 10. This time we have a welcome (but unusually) long list of House officers testifying: Office of Legislative Counsel (the people who draft the bills); Sergeant at Arms; Clerk; Office of Diversity and Inclusion; General Counsel (the people who represent the House as an institution); House Inspector General; Office of Law Revision Counsel (the people who write the US Code); and the Chief Administrative Officer. As you might expect, we’re excited.

The end of appropriations? Punchbowl reported Senate Republicans are threatening to “see [stop-gap spending bills] forever — maybe for Biden’s entire presidency” in response to Dems moving the COVID-19 relief bill through reconciliation without Republican support. Let’s be clear about what this means. Right now, appropriations and the NDAA are the big remaining “must-pass” legislative vehicles besides budget reconciliation (which is limited!), and they carry much of the work Congress would normally do through other mechanisms if it were healthy. Regular appropriations are also the major remaining mechanism by which Congress establishes its priorities and restrains the Executive branch. Moving to permanent Continuing Resolutions because you lost fair-and-square on the COVID-19 relief bill in a political landscape already over-protective of a political minority is legislative arson. With this threat on the table, and the ongoing efforts to undermine the right to vote, there’s no remaining reason for Democrats to avoid eliminating the filibuster. In fact, if they wish to move the reforms necessary to save our democracy, they really shouldn’t wait. Could there be change in the offing?

Appropriations requests. As usual, we’ll be publishing our appropriations requests, but in the meantime you can find historical info about Leg branch appropriations here and our Approps Twitter bot has been active. Don’t forget this Friday’s House Admin hearing on funding for (most) House Congressional committees.

Continue reading “Forecast for March 8, 2021”

Forecast for March 1, 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.)

TOP LINE

Officials tasked with keeping the Capitol safe and open testified before Congress last week — see the video & written testimony from the HSGAC/Senate Rules hearing with all the former security leaders and from the House Leg branch Approps hearings into the Capitol Police/ SAA (written testimony) and employee health and wellness + Capitol physical damage (written testimony). I shared my thoughts with the Bulwark on the testimony by the former security chiefs. We have more analysis below.

RE: the Jan. 6 insurrection, this upcoming week will feature a joint HSGAC/Rules hearing on Wednesday at 10 into the Executive branch response, with witnesses from DOD, DHS, and the FBI. At the exact same time, the Capitol Police will return to House Leg branch Approps to testify in support of their budget request for FY 2022. The House’s proceedings will go beyond Jan. 6 and may delve into all operations of the USCP. You can find last year’s USCP Budget Justification here (on page 225) and here is our primer on the agency. Don’t forget there’s a supplemental security funding bill that will emerge at some point — no hearings or markup into that so far — our recs for that bill are here.

H. Leg branch Approps budget hearings also are scheduled for this week —- this is where the Legislative branch support agencies sing for their money. On the schedule: the Open World Leadership Center and CBO are testifying Tuesday at 10 & 2, the Capitol Police and the Library of Congress are testifying Wednesday at 10 and 12:30, and the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights is testifying Thursday at 10.

• The Office of Congressional Workplace Right’s biannual report to Congress was just released and contains a half-dozen recommendations to update the Congressional Accountability Act. They include providing whistleblower protections to the Legislative branch, providing subpoena authority to aid in tracking safety and health investigations, requiring records be kept of of workplace injuries, adopting federal workplace record-keeping requirements, and approving the Board’s FMLA and Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) Regulations when they are resubmitted, and more. (An easier-to-read version is available on their website.)

• As a reminder, we keep track of Leg branch approps bills & documents here and also track requests and requirements put into the Leg branch approps bill. (See the graphics far below.) Also, full disclosure, we routinely request bill text and report language regarding Leg branch agencies — see, e.g., last year’s requests. A final note: these hearings can move around at the last moment, so double-check docs.house.gov.

The $5 Billion question: how much money will be available for the Legislative branch? We know Congress and its support offices are significantly underfunded, which is why we and a bipartisan coalition called for a 10% increase in Leg branch funding. One historical problem is that even as funding for Congress has lagged behind the rest of government, 2/3s of any new funding has gone to the Capitol Police and the Architect of the Capitol. We expect Congress will dump a ton of money into the Capitol Police via the supplemental to address decades of mismanagement, even though the USCP has a huge budget and has always gotten its giant requests, which likely will further undermine non-USCP congressional ops in the out-years. Watch leadership + the budget committees as they determine the top line defense vs non-defense spending numbers, and see how the new Approps chairs divide that money among the 12 approps subcommittees.

Continue reading “Forecast for March 1, 2021.”

What Items Are Due to Congress: March 2021

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

We built a public spreadsheet that maintains a catalog of projects, 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.

We continue to update this list each month for what’s due and what’s outstanding. Here is the February edition. Scroll down to see March’s.

Continue reading “What Items Are Due to Congress: March 2021”