Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. (Was this email forwarded to you? Subscribe here.)
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.
BUDGETS & APPROPRIATIONS
President Biden is expected to send his FY 2022 “skinny” budget to Capitol hill this week, reported Josh Boak, with the full budget to come later. The receipt of the Budget is the traditional start of appropriations season — and it is supposed to be received the first week in February. But with ex-Pres. Trump’s undermining the transition while challenging the election on a false pretense, the ensuing Trump insurrection, and other factors, the Budget is much later than usual. It is unclear how much this will affect the appropriations process as the budget is ignored at times by Congress — but also that agency priorities shift under new management.
CBO will have to evaluate any proposed spending measures but the agency is drawing attention for making hawkish predictions, Katia Dmitrieva reported in BGOV ($). CBO has raised the alarm repeatedly over the years that too much spending could slide the country into fiscal crisis, but increased spending has not made that happen. In fact, payments on the debt have shrunk even as debt has increased. CBO consistently and erroneously has assumed interest rates would be higher than they are. Dmitrieva quotes a former CBO head as saying the CBO is “fighting the last war about fiscal policy, where they are focused almost entirely on the risks of too much federal borrowing.” CBO posted its 2021 long-term budget outlook last week.
Some of the critiques of the CBO are being raised by proponents of Modern Monetary Theory. I cannot do the theory justice, but at the heart of MMT is the idea that currency issuers (i.e., entities that print their own money, such as the federal government) operate under different fiscal constraints than business and households. Budgeting for the federal government is most decidedly not like budgeting for your family. The way you can tell when the federal government is overspending is by the effect on the inflation rate, not by looking at the deficit (the difference between what you spend and what you take in). Stephanie Kelton explains this at length in her book, the Deficit Myth, which I cannot do justice.
A related critique of CBO is it does not sufficiently take into account social goods. Rep. Meeks introduced legislation to establish a Division of Social and Economic Equity at the CBO. He describes the measure as requiring analyses “on how legislative proposals would impact historically underserved communities, including communities of color and others that have experienced long standing social and economic inequality.”
In practical terms, we are still waiting to find out the topline spending numbers for defense and nondefense spending and how that breaks out among the 12 appropriations subcommittees. And on the subject of our parochial interest, the Legislative branch, we must figure out how to ensure Congress is sufficiently funded to do its job. Earlier this year, we urged a 10% increase in the Leg branch funding, but with the new costs arising from capitol police and infrastructure, we think that number must go higher.
A preview of coming attractions. Republicans boycotted a Members’ Day hearing before the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, Doug Sword reported. The apparent goal of boycott: to prevent Democrats from being able to say Republicans participated in the process. Yes, that’s right, it was a preemptive strike against metaphorically building bridges in a committee responsible for raising revenue to build actual bridges.
The House Modernization Committee’s first hearing of the 117th Congress was a listening session with 22 expert witnesses over five panels. Watch the video here, read the written testimony, and see our handy spreadsheet on who testified on what. There’s too much material to properly summarize below, so we will briefly touch on the focus of each witness. We listened to the testimony and read the statements, so if something interests you let us know and we can point you in the right direction.
Staff capacity was the topic of the first panel. Audrey Henson of College to Congress explained how standardized onboarding for interns would facilitate diversity. Mario Beovides of NALEO addressed congressional workforce diversity. Zach Graves of the Lincoln Network urged support for internal expertise, including more money for the Legislative branch. Alexiaa Jordan of the Center for New American Security addressed barriers to diversity in recruiting. Meredith McGehee of Issue One spoke about improving legislative staff retention. And Kristine Simmons of the Partnership for Public Service covered lowering barriers to a hill career.
Constituent engagement, technology, and transparency was the topic of the second panel. Kathy Goldschmidt of the Congressional Management Foundation spoke to shaping constituent engagement with Members of Congress. Michael Neblo of the Institute for Democratic Engagement & Accountabilityaddressed bringing new voices into policy making. Keith Allred of the National Institute for Civil Discourse engaged with how the public can support an effective Congress. Beth Noveck from the GovLab explained how to restore trust in Congress by providing opportunities to participate in lawmaking. Kevin Esterling of UC Riverside urged the creation of a House Technology Working Group to foster collaboration within the chamber. And Marci Harris of PopVox addressed the importance of modernizing Congress to keep up with the Executive branch it oversees and the society it serves.
Rules and norms were the focus of the third panel. Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institution spoke to reforming floor procedure as a means to encourage bipartisanship. Mark Strand of the Congressional Institute also addressed procedural changes to help Congress run smoothly. Pete Weichlein of the Association of Former Members of Congress spoke to enhancing Member development and the ability of former Members of Congress to provide assistance. And John Richter of the Bipartisan Policy Center explained BPC’s views on the importance of prioritizing bipartisanship.
Improving congressional oversight capacity was the focus of the fourth panel. Jonathan Bydlak of the R Street Institute covered using the budget process to re-assert congressional power. Elise Bean of the Levin Center at Wayne State University elucidated reforms to lower barriers to oversight, as did Liz Hempowicz of the Project on Government Oversight. And Soren Dayton of Protect Democracy argued that prior Congressional abdication of power means that Congress can also regain those powers.
Continuity of Congress, or keeping the Legislative branch functioning in emergencies, was the focus of the fifth and final panel. Lorelei Kelly of the Beeck Center at Georgetown University addressed best practices to support Congressional Continuity. Demand Progress’s very own Taylor J. Swift, who co-authors this newsletter from time-to-time, spoke to the importance of remote voting procedures to ensure continuity of Congress. And finally the Hon. Brian Baird spoke to the urgent need for Congress to create a constitutional continuity of Congress plan.
Major General William J. Walker was appointed by Speaker Pelosi (presumably subject to House confirmation) as the new House Sergeant-at-Arms. He is the first Black American to serve in that role, previously serving as a Major General in the District of Columbia National Guard. Timothy Blodgett had served as Acting House Sergeant at Arms, and we appreciated his candor in answering questions from Congressional Committees. The prior House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving “resigned” after the Trump insurrection. As a member of the Capitol Police Board it was clear that Members of Congress lacked confidence in Irving’s ability to continue in that role. We mentioned previously that the new Senate Sergeant-at-Arms team was installed in the last few weeks.
Emergency preparedness training should be mandatory for all lawmakers, staff, and journalists, and Katherine Tully-McManus reported on efforts by lawmakers to put that requirement in place.
The House chamber installed bulletproof doors last week according to Kadia Goba. No word on whether the doors were reinforced or countless other security problems have been fixed.
House Dems have started their own investigation into the Trump insurrection after Republicans balked at Democratic proposals and sought to diffuse culpability by including unrelated matters. This past week, several House committees requested the White House, National Archives, Capitol Police, Pentagon, and others turn over documents and materials related to the insurrection. An open question is whether the administration will fight some of those efforts through the assertion of executive privilege.
D.C. statehood was the focus of a House Oversight hearing on Monday. H.R. 51 has 215 cosponsors in the House and a Senate companion bill has 41 cosponsors. The measure would provide congressional representation to the nearly 700,000 people who live in Washington, D.C. and begin to redress disproportionate underrepresentation of urban voters in the Senate. The filibuster looms large as the linchpin of a regressive effort to protect minority rule, and one wonders whether Democrats will decide that the filibuster should not apply to votes on statehood, which otherwise only require a majority vote and are rooted in a different section of the Constitution than most legislation.
Rep. Gomez was named Assistant Whip for the 117th Congress; Gomez held the same position in the last Congress.
We are not covering the House debate over the IA02 race because we generally stay away from election-related matters.
Merrick Garland must issue guidance on FOIA, according to Just Security’s Dan McGrath, who argues the current administration “should take swift action to reaffirm the executive branch’s commitment to transparency.” McGrath outlines several ways Garland’s DOJ can improve FOIA implementation, prevent unreasonable withholdings, and discourage politicization and unlawful recordkeeping practices.
The First Amendment took a beating in a dissent opinion by D.C. Senior Judge Laurence Silberman. He made a number of outlandish assertions, such as all the major news outlets are Democratic-leaning and Silicon Valley also filters the news in a way favorable to the Democratic party. Then he digs deeper: “It is fair to conclude, therefore, that one-party control of the press and media is a threat to a viable democracy. It may even give rise to countervailing extremism.” That’s true, but not in the way that he thinks.
A bill to provide testimonial subpoena authority for IGs was introduced by Rep. Gomez.
Issues for Congress during Sunshine Week was the subject of a brief by CRS.
BILLS & REPORTS OF INTEREST
A resolution requiring each Member, officer, and employee of the House to complete a program of training in workplace rights and responsibilities each session of each Congress was introduced by Rep. Lofgren. Interns, fellows and detainees would also be required to complete this training.
A bill creating an Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel was introduced by Sen. Murphy. The legislation enables the panelto review classification decisions, provides expedited reviews for members of Congress, and provides protection for those who choose to challenge those decisions. A similar bill was introduced last Congress.
A resolution to expel Rep. Greene from the House was introduced by Rep. Gomez; it has 72 cosponsors.
Earmarks are really boring to write about, but there is some news here. We are still focused on the question of transparency around the earmarking process, which we wrote about a few weeks back.
The GOP is divided on earmarks. House Appropriators voted to revive earmarks, but the Senate appears divided. It is not surprising that many members view this as a useful wedge issue because earmarking practices have been so unsavory. Sen. Graham indicated during a Republican closed-door Approps meeting that ex-Pres. Trump supports earmark revival according to Jonathan Swan and Alayna Treene, although we’re sure he’ll simultaneously make arguments around draining the swamp. The Senate will proceed with earmarks regardless of whether the Republican conference updates its rules.
Extension. House Appropriators have extended by two weeks the deadlines by which earmarks must be requested. They are also providing training sessions and shared other guidance.
Listening in. A GOP-aligned opposition research & PR group gained access to a House training, posed as staffers, asked questions to try to entrap or embarrass the briefers, and posted them online, according to Scott Wong. The controversial advice: if you’re unsure of what’s appropriate to ask, talk to the Ethics committee.
ODDS & ENDS
A measure to repeal the 2002 AUMF (against Iraq)was favorably reported by House Foreign Affairs on Thursday— it garnered support from both Republicans and Democrats. There is a similar effort in the Senate.
MAD and the filibuster? Our friend and procedural scholar James Wallner talks through the politics of whether Sen. McConnell’s threats to blow up the Senate if the filibuster is curtailed will slow down or incentivize its removal.
Speaking of the filibuster, Sen. McConnell wrote an op-ed describing the filibuster as Kentucky’s veto and also wrongly described the filibuster as having no racial history. Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institute who has testified on the history of the filibuster, corrected the record in an article. “Historians know the filibuster is closely intertwined with the nation’s racial past and present. To be sure, senators have filibustered issues other than civil rights over the Senate’s history. But it is impossible to write that history without recognizing the centrality of race.” At the end of her testimony, she wrote: “Short-term, pragmatic considerations almost always shape contests over reform of Senate rules.” IMO, the filibuster is the key to minority rule — and Republican dominance — of policymaking in our country for generations by allowing the rigging of our political system and preventing its reform.
Congress.gov released its Spring 2021 updates, which include enhancements to hearing transcripts, adding Statutes at Large that contain the text of public laws, revamping the Help Center search capabilities, and increasing accessibility.
The House and Senate committee calendars are aggregated here. Should there be House floor activity, it will be here. Information about the Senate floor schedule is here. Select events and proceedings are listed below.
• NYU is holding a virtual webinar on “Entering the 117th Congress: A Bipartisan Conversation with Congressional Chiefs of Staff” at 12:00 pm ET. RSVP here.
DOWN THE LINE
• Brookings is holding a webcast on “Filibuster 101: An explainer of the Senate rule and reform” on April 6 at 2:00 pm ET. RSVP here.
• Hack the Capitol 4.0 hosted by R Street Institute, the Cyber Bytes Foundation, and the National Security Institute is happening May 4th 9:00 am – 5:30 pm ET. Deadline for papers is April 16.