Forecast for June 28, 2021

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Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Subscribe here. The Senate is in recess for two weeks until July 12th. The House is in session this week but prepping for the 4th of July holiday; it returns for a committee work week on July 12th and floor votes start the week of the 19th.

THE TOP LINE

Congress to invest in itself — The House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee favorably reported a bill that includes a 13.8% increase in funding for the Legislative Branch. Should it be enacted, this could result in an 21% overall increase for personal, committee, and leadership offices — which would restore them to funding levels from 2010. Hopefully, the result will be significantly improved pay rates for political staff, who are massively underpaid and the focus of letters from Rep. Hoyer and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (+ 109 other House Democrats). The Legislative branch has been underfunded for decades and this is a huge leap towards getting Congress back on track. One key open question: what will the Senate do? More details below.

A House select committee to investigate January 6th is in the works, according to an announcement by Speaker Pelosi. The committee would investigate what caused the insurrection and what measures can be taken to prevent something similar from happening again. Much about the nature of the select committees, whose members are usually chosen by the Speaker and Minority Leader, is TBA. A half-year has slipped by since the Trump insurrection, and the absence of sufficient Republican support for a commission — largely an act of obeisance to the man who incited the insurrection — strongly suggests we may still have dark days ahead.

Senate Foreign Relations delayed the vote on the 2002 Iraq AUMF repeal until sometime after a classified briefing slated for mid-July. This comes after last week’s developments, when the House voted for and the President spoke in support of the repeal. The repeal of this AUMF is an important step forward to re-asserting Congress’s war marking authorities. On Monday, the House will vote (on suspension) to repeal the 1991 AUMF against Iraq that authorized the first Gulf War. But still unaddressed is the 2001 AUMF, enacted in response to 9/11, that has been bent out of shape by subsequent administrations (through OLC opinions) as allowing most military action inside the Middle East.

The Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act passed the Senate by UC on Thursday. The legislation would require all agency congressional budget justifications to be available online at a central website; OMB has largely resisted requests along these lines. The House version passed 412-2 in early January, and the Senate version will ping pong to the lower chamber for disposition. (Civil society strongly supports the bill, which is championed by Reps. Quigley and Comer and Sens. Peters and Porter).

Transparency webinar on freedom of the press. On Tuesday, July 13th, our team is hosting a panel discussion focused on the status of the free press in the U.S., concentrating on surveillance of journalists and their sources. Panelists include Jennifer Henrichsen of Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, Kathy Kiely of Missouri University, and Michael De Dora of the Committee to Protect Journalists. It will be moderated by Sean Vitka, Senior Policy Counsel for Demand Progress. RSVP here. On a related note, Attorney General Garland now appears to be supporting legislation to end subpoenas’ for reporters’ records — civil society has been urging Congress to act — but it is unclear whether Garland’s statement reflects his personal opinion or an administration position.

DOJ Office of Legal Counsel’s opinions were a focus of the nomination hearing for Christopher Schroeder, who is nominated to run that office and largely evaded Senate Judiciary Committee questions on whether he would put in place proactive transparency and be responsive to Congress when asked for the opinions. More below.

The Bulk Data Task Force, a working group of stakeholders inside and outside Congress focused on improving legislative data, announced its next public meeting will be Wednesday, July 14 from 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM. More info, including the agenda, TBA.

Continue reading “Forecast for June 28, 2021”

Funding Bill Takes a Giant Leap to Rebuild Congressional Capacity

Today at noon the House Appropriations Committee’s Legislative Branch Subcommittee will mark up its funding bill for fiscal year 2022. This legislation constitutes a big leap towards addressing the devastating decline Members of Congress have inflicted upon the Legislative Branch over the past quarter century, including a nearly 40 percent staffing reduction at committees and legislative support agencies.

The bill includes a top line funding increase of 13.8 percent over fiscal year 2021; a 21 percent increase for personal, committee, and leadership offices; a 10.3 percent increase for the government’s watchdog, the Government Accountability Office; new funding for IT modernization initiatives; and many other important provisions. In recent historical terms, the legislation does not constitute an increase in funding to the Legislative Branch, but rather a restoration of funding levels from a decade ago. Moreover, the Legislative Branch has only grown at half the rate of the Executive Branch over the last few decades, and the lions’ share of those funds have gone towards security and infrastructure, not policymaking. This legislation begins to remediate those deficiencies.

These newly restored resources will be used to provide for better services for constituents, to support oversight work to root out waste, and to hire expert staff to help our elected representatives fulfill their Article I duty to lead in federal policymaking.

Building capacity in Congress is a sound investment. A stronger Congress can reduce opportunities for regulatory capture by lobbyists, mitigate the risk of unintended negative policy outcomes through stronger staffing, and increase accountability of the federal government through expanded and knowledgeable oversight. It also provides an opportunity to save taxpayers money: the Government Accountability Office consistently reports a savings of over $100 for each dollar of its budget and yet it has been consistently underfunded, leaving billions of dollars on the table.

This appropriations bill is a monumental break from decades of dysfunctional politicization of congressional funding, which undermined the legislative branch’s ability to fulfill its constitutional role under Article I. “Both Republicans and Democrats increasingly recognize that Congress has been unable to live up to the role envisioned for it by the Founders,” said Lincoln Network policy head Zach Graves. Adding that, “while there hasn’t always been agreement for how to fix Congress, we’ve seen a real shift in how both sides talk about Congress and a growing recognition that strengthening Congress should be an issue that everyone from across the political spectrum can agree upon.”

This new push for congressional capacity also comes after years of bipartisan coalition work by Lincoln Network, Demand Progress, the American Enterprise Institute, the Congressional Management Foundation, FreedomWorks, and other groups to reframe the conversation on Capitol Hill and educate stakeholders about this institutional challenge. “This important bill is the result of a decades’ hard work from a bipartisan cohort of reform-minded Members, working together with civil society, to strengthen Congress and create a new culture of institutionalism,” said Demand Progress policy director Daniel Schuman. Adding that, “while restored resources won’t fix all of Congress’s challenges, it will make it possible to gain traction on the remaining issues and move us closer to a healthier democracy.”

Lincoln Network and Demand Progress enthusiastically support these efforts to restore funding to Congress, congratulate members of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee for their leadership, and look forward to consideration and passage of the legislation.

Further reading:

Written by Daniel Schuman and Zach Graves

First Reactions to the Draft House Leg Branch Approps Subcommittee Bill

The House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee today released its draft appropriations bill accompanied by a press release. The subcommittee markup is tomorrow, and we won’t know what it in the committee report until the full committee markup on Tuesday. We reviewed the legislation and compared the proposed funding to the enacted levels from last Congress. (If your interested in the documents from prior Congresses, we have compiled them here.)

At first glance, this looks like a very, very good proposal. Congratulations to Chair Ryan, members of the Leg Branch Approps subcommittee, Chair DeLauro, and all the members and staff from both sides of the aisle that have worked long and hard to restore the Legislative branch’s strength.

Appropriators have proposed $4.802 billion, which is a $589.1 million increase over FY 2021, or a 13.8 percentage increase. Roughly 40% of the increase will go to the Capitol Police and Architect. We note that this proposal does not include the costs for the Senate, and we will not know their numbers until they do their own markup later this year and then the chambers reconcile the numbers.

Among the major funding features of this legislation:

  • A 21% increase in funding to personal, committee, and leadership offices, which will go a long way to help restore staff funding levels to where they were in 2010. This should make significant inroads in addressing Congress’s brain drain and making it possible for staff to afford staying on the hill instead of decamping to lobbying shops.
  • A 20% increase in internship funding, including funding for committee interns, which should help broaden pathways for students (and veterans) from all walks of life to experience working for Congress. Also the doubling of funding for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion means that this newly widened pathway will make it possible for more people to get their foot on the first rung of the Congressional ladder.
  • Real increases in funding for the support offices, like the Clerk (+14%), Sergeant at Arms (+19%), and Whistleblower Ombuds (+25%). The Clerk needed the funds to support its technology modernization, and the SAA has significant security components. We also note real increases for the important but often over-looked Office of General Counsel (+5.3%), Legislative Counsel (+5.8%), and Law Revision Counsel (+3.8%). The General Counsel is often busy protecting the prerogatives of the House; Leg Counsel drafts the bills and is overwhelmed; and Law Revision Counsel codifies the law. There’s also another $2 million for technology modernization under the CAO, which is very nice.
  • Increases for the legislative support agencies, like CRS (+5%), CBO (+6.4%), OCWR (+6.7%), GAO (+10%), and GPO (the actual amount is unclear because of how the revolving door fund works).
  • The Capitol Police will receive an additional 15%, or $88 million, which will pay for hundreds of new sworn officers and “civilians,” not counting the additional +35% of $16 million for USCP buildings, grounds, and security. There’s also language that would have the costs of basic training be paid for out of Homeland Security funding for use of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center; I don’t know if this is new, but we know that training is a major cost for the USCP and could provide significant additional value to Congress.
  • Without the Senate side we cannot see how much the Architect will increase. The press statement suggests a $152.8 million over FY 2021, to $603.9 million, which looks like a +34% increase. This doesn’t include whatever comes in the security supplemental.

There are also some policy changes in the bill.

  • We are glad to see that confederate statues would be removed from public view and put into storage within 45 days. (This was in last years’ bill as well, but had been blocked by the Senate).
  • DACA recipients would become eligible to work for Congress.
  • It looks like the Capitol Police Chief and the Architect or Deputy Architect of the Capitol would have their pay raised beyond that available to congressional staffers or Members of Congress, somewhere in the SES level. The Capitol Police Chief, for example, would be paid at an SES level II, which looks to be around $199,300.
  • There are new provisions on how the Library of Congress takes gifts, particularly gifts of securities.
  • The Open World Leadership Center will become the Congressional Office of International Leadership.

I would expect that we will see many more policy changes in the committee report language, which won’t become available until 24 hours before the full committee markup.

What’s next?

  • Subcommittee markup tomorrow Thursday, July 24th
  • Full Committee markup scheduled for Tuesday, June 29th.

Here is our spreadsheet comparing FY 2021 and FY 2022. It’s a working document and subject to change. Here are the Leg branch line items over the last quarter century.

How to Track House Approps Markups

Tracking House appropriations markups can be more art than science. We’ve compiled this timeline to help everyone follow along.

Meeting notice

Public access to the proceedings

Subcommittee markups

  • Draft bill text, resolutions, and reports must be available to committee members (but not the public) at least 3 calendar days in advance of the date it is expected to be considered (although this language can be waived) — Committee Rule 6(j).
  • Draft bill text must be publicly available at least 24 hours in advance of the proceedings — House Rule XI(g)(4), Committee Rule 4(d)(4). (In practice, this is a literal 24 hours, so bill text may become available online on the Sunday before a Monday markup.)
  • Amendment text, if adopted, must be made available within 24 hours of adoption; if withdrawn or otherwise not adopted, must be made available within 48 hours — House Rule XI(e)(6), Committee Rule 4(e)(1).
  • Record votes at the markup must be publicly available in electronic form within 48 hours of the vote — House Rule XI(e)(1)(B). This includes a description of the amendment/motion/etc. and how members voted.
  • The draft committee report is not required to be made publicly available prior to its adoption by the full committee. However, as a matter of practice, the draft committee report is made publicly available 24 hours prior to the full committee markup.

Full committee markup

  • Draft bill text, resolutions, and reports must be available to committee members (but not the public) at least 3 calendar days in advance of the date it is expected to be considered (although this language can be waived) — Committee Rule 6(j).
  • Draft bill text must be publicly available at least 24 hours in advance of the proceedings — House Rule XI(g)(4), Committee Rule 4(d)(4). Note that if the subcommittee bill text was not amended, it will be the draft full committee text. (Although it can still be amended by the full committee.)
  • The draft committee report, as mentioned above, is not required to be made publicly available prior to its adoption by the full committee. However, as a matter of practice, the draft committee report is made publicly available prior to the full committee markup, usually at the same time as the draft bill text.
  • Amendment text, if adopted, must be made available within 24 hours of adoption; if withdrawn or otherwise not adopted, must be made available within 48 hours — House Rule XI(e)(6), Committee Rule 4(f). For the last two years, largely driven by the COVID pandemic, House Appropriators have distributed amendments to press as they are offered.
  • Record votes at the markup must be publicly available in electronic form within 48 hours of the vote — House Rule XI(e)(1)(B), Committee Rule 4(e)(1). This includes a description of the amendment/motion/etc. and how members voted.

Final bill text

  • There is no deadline by which the final bill text and committee report must be made publicly available after adoption by the committee. Rather, it is the duty of the Chair to file the bill and report “promptly.” Committee Rule (6)(a)(1). They become available after they are filed with the House of Representatives (being filed in the House (which occurs after the submission of minority, dissenting, additional, and supplemental views). Members who give notice they wish to file dissenting, additional, or supplemental views are entitled to two additional calendar days to file those views. Rule XI(2)(l), Committee Rule 6(i)(1).

Forecast for June 21, 2021

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Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Subscribe here. We hope you had a good Juneteenth holiday weekend. The Senate is back on Monday and the House is back on Tuesday.

THE TOP LINE

Follow the money. The House deemed top line discretionary spending as part of an unrelated bill — avoiding a tough vote — and Appropriations Chair DeLauro communicated her views on top line funding levels to the 12 approps subcommittees chairs, which they will use in marking up their bills. The public won’t know those numbers in full until June 29th, when Appropriators vote to formally adopt those numbers. We are excited for subcommittee markups, the first of which are Leg branch and FSGG this Thursday. Keep an eye on Congressional staff pay levels, the subject of multiple member letters. (We’re tracking them here.) Rep. Clyburn expects floor votes on the bills by the end of July. Will the Senate cut short its August recess given the legislative pile-up?

The House voted to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF 2002 by 268-161. Presidents often twist AUMFs into a general license for military force and overseas intervention. Should the Senate agree, this repeal would mark a major first step toward restoring Congress’s authority over war, long undermined by the presidency and the Supreme Court. However, the 2001 AUMF repeal remains, which will be a harder fight; all war authorizing legislation should contain expiration dates and all administration legal interpretations of their scope should be available to Congress.

The Trump insurrection was the focus of three hearings this past week, by House Admin, House Oversight, and Senate Rules. Details below.

Improving the culture of Congress was the focus of a House Modernization Committee hearing. More below.

The Senate needs to ensure its continuity in times of crisis. Demand Progress and the Niskanen Center organized two coalition letters — one to Senate leadership and one to the Senate Rules and Admin Committee — commending Sens. Portman and Durban on S.Res. 201, a bipartisan resolution to amend the Senate Standing Rules to allow absent senators to participate during a national crisis. Under this resolution, senators would have access to the necessary technology to cast votes outside the Senate chamber when the situation calls for it. Building the infrastructure for senators to do their jobs when unforeseen or dangerous circumstances arise is a critical piece of protecting our democracy, as the events of this past year have hopefully made evident.

Senate Judiciary Committee has a nominations hearing scheduled for Wednesday. The committee has not yet publicly announced who is on the schedule, but we are keeping a close eye for Christopher Schroeder, nominated to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Demand Progress led a bipartisan 20-organization letter calling on Mr. Schroeder to endorse proactive disclosure for OLC opinions, something he supported as a private citizen. This would help address an office that experts say is in “crisis,” effectively promulgating secret law with an undue bias in favor of the presidency. Transparency might help counter the pressure to decide in favor of its political masters. (Demand Progress also submitted appropriations testimony on OLC.)

Continue reading “Forecast for June 21, 2021”

Senate Must Address Its Continuity in an Emergency

Bipartisan Coalition Supports Efforts To Keep the Senate Operational in an Emergency

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

June 14, 2021

CONTACT: Daniel Schuman, policy director, Demand Progress, daniel@demandprogress.org, 240-237-3930

Washington, DC — The Senate must act to ensure its continuity in a national crisis, according to a bipartisan coalition of 18 organizations and six congressional experts in two letters sent today to Senate leadership and the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. The signatories commended Sens. Portman and Durbin for their bipartisan efforts as embodied in S.Res. 201, a resolution to amend the Senate Standing Rules and enable the participation of absent senators during a national crisis. The letters were organized by the progressive organization Demand Progress and the moderate organization the Niskanen Center.

“The Senate is operating without a safety net and must act now to ensure it can function in a future emergency,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director for Demand Progress. “We are encouraged by the bipartisan efforts of Sens. Portman and Durbin to plan for the future and we commend their bipartisan efforts to ensure our democracy endures,” Schuman added.

“It’s high time to implement policies that reflect the realities of our lawmaking bodies and the incredible capabilities of America’s technological and security advancements, ” said Kristie De Peña, Niskanen’s vice president of policy. “We are proud that so many prominent organizations joined us in this effort to encourage pragmatic changes at this critical juncture,” De Peña added. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and attack on the Capitol are two recent illustrations of the importance of the Senate being ready to implement new ways to conduct its business, as were 9/11 and the Anthrax attacks 20 years ago. We can never know when the next danger will come out of the clear blue sky and we must get ready in advance. S.Res. 201 is an important bipartisan measure that sets aside partisanship to ensure that our republican can continue its legislative and oversight responsibilities even in a time of crisis. 

You can read the full letter from Demand Progress, the Niskanen Center, endorsed by XX bipartisan organizations, here and here and below:

Continue reading “Senate Must Address Its Continuity in an Emergency”

Forecast for June 14, 2021

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Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Subscribe here.

THE TOP LINE

Justice Department surveillance. The Justice Department surveilled at least two Members of the House Intelligence Committee, some committee staff, and family members in 2017-8 as part of a  “leaks” investigation. Apple and an unidentified Information Service Provider were directed to provide information to the DOJ and were gagged from telling the targets of the surveillance that the DOJ had demanded their records. This follows on the heels of Justice Department surveillance of the press, which included obtaining email and phone call records and gagging the third party communications providers. Both the surveillance and how it came to light is highly irregular and dangerous to our democracy. More details below.

HSGAC/Senate Rules report on the Jan. 6th attacks. We read and review the 128-page bipartisan document and offer our key takeaways. 3 hearings on that topic are scheduled this week. More details below.

That the Senate must address its continuity in an emergency is the subject of two letters (one to the Senate Rules Committee and one to Senate leadership) by us, the Niskanen Center, and a coalition of 24 organizations and congressional experts.

The FOIA Advisory Committee unanimously adopted a recommendation to extend FOIA-like processes to Legislative branch support offices and agencies.

Repeal of the 2002 AUMF for Iraq will be considered next week by the House of Representatives, which is a first step towards repealing the many AUMFs that give too much power to the Executive branch to decide matters of war and peace. The CPCC has an explainer on the various AUMFs.

THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT SPYING ON CONGRESS

The Justice Department seized Apple metadata on House Intelligence Committee members, aides, and family members, including a minor. Prosecutors subpoenaed Apple for material from the accounts of at least two lawmakers, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California and Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California. This seizure happened during 2017-2018 while prosecutors hunted for sources behind media reports about contacts between Trump associates and Russia; Trump was known to have held a vendetta against Rep. Schiff, who, ironically, has long been an advocate for relaxing standards for surveillance. (We note that Trump’s vendetta is not necessarily the cause of the inquiry.) Upon becoming Attorney General under the Trump administration, William P. Barr revived leak investigations in 2020 that had lost steam under A.G. Sessions and he rebooted the investigation of Schiff and others. The Justice Department secured a gag order on Apple and at least one Internet Service Provider. This could suggest that these lawmakers may have been unaware until last month that their information was being sought, although it is equally plausible they had been notified or had reason to suspect this at an earlier date. At least one staffer was notified last year by the ISP, and there may be more. It is now being reported a focus of the inquiry was Michael Bahar, the Democratic Staff Director for the House Intelligence Committee; per the NYT the case concerning him was closed and no charges were brought. The circumstance of this investigation and its targets are particularly troubling.

The Justice Department’s Inspector General said it will investigate, but the focus will be on whether the DOJ followed its policies and procedures and will “not substitute the OIG’s judgment for the legal and investigative judgments made in the matters under OIG review.” Surely Congress should investigate; the House has given no indication it would launch an inquiry, though Rep. Schiff has said he has been in touch with the DOJ, which he said has not been forthcoming. Rep. Schiff called on the DOJ to investigate — and applauded it after the IG’s announcement — and Speaker Pelosi issued an unusually worded statement supporting Schiff’s call for an OIG investigation, which starts: “recently, it has become public that….” Surely an inquiry is a job for the House Judiciary Committee or a panel that can looks more broadly into activities of the Intelligence Community. Sens. Schumer and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Durbin have called for Barr and Sessions to testify before the Senate and Speaker Pelosi called for them to testify before Congress.

This whole thing is odd. Rep. Schiff and others certainly found out about the investigation in May, potentially sometime last year (which is when at least one staffer received notice), or maybe even earlier, but the first news report was June 10th. There was no press conference or release from the House Intelligence Committee, but instead a unnamed staffer was quoted by both the New York Times and the Washington Post, which gives rise to the question of whether the disclosure was authorized by the committee — if it was, why would these papers not name the staffer? The Post said the staffer “spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains politically sensitive,” but how does that make any sense and why didn’t the Committee speak officially and for attribution? The delay in releasing this news meant that Attorney General Garland could not be questioned on the matter when he testified before the Senate on Wednesday or in the House last month.

This could be explained, at least in part, in that it is a job of the House Intelligence Committee (of which Speaker Pelosi is the longest serving member in history) to address matters of surveillance, especially those politically driven and aimed at Members of Congress and the press. There is a sordid history of the President using the Justice Department to go after his political enemies; the misuse of surveillance authorities was one reason HPSCI was created. Did HPSCI know this was happening? It seems that some members may have been aware. Why didn’t they push to put in place sufficient controls? Why haven’t they pushed for legislation to protect the press and public? As Reps. Schiff and Pelosi are surveillance hawks, perhaps this is politically awkward for them. Is it possible they did not share this information with their colleagues — maybe not even other members of the House Intel Committee?

The Senate did include a provision in the omnibus appropriations bill enacted in December to protect itself from this very circumstance. If you look on page 1953, the Senate Sergeant at Arms Cloud Services provision covers Senate electronic communications stored off-site. If someone (e.g. the DOJ) wants to obtain Senate records held by a third party (like Apple or Google), they must show up with a warrant and the third-party must tell the Senate and cannot be gagged from doing so; and the Senate has the right to intervene in court. Clearly there should be a provision that applies across the entire Legislative branch, including the House and support offices and agencies, but there is not. (There also are repeated legislative efforts to protect information stored by third parties for everyone.)

Is this is the tip of the iceberg? The House Intelligence Committee has long been a stronghold for increasing Executive branch surveillance powers  — and the Intel Community is less than straightforward — so HPSCI must itself be reformed to align its interests with the rest of Congress, the public (see this report and coalition letter), and strengthened to do so effectively. So too should every personal office be eligible to have at least one staffer with a TS/SCI clearance so they can better advise their bosses on matters the Executive branch deems classified (see this report on how Congressional clearances actually work). Congress should consider enacting a reporter shield law, which would protect the press against having their records seized, such as the Free Flow of Information Act. Because the DOJ has a history of secretly reinterpreting laws passed by Congress to the advantage of the Executive branch, final opinions by the Office of Legal Counsel should be proactively disclosed except when not possible and all opinions should be published online in an index. Data brokers should be unable to sell your information to law enforcement as part of an end run around the 4th amendment. The provisions protecting Senate information should be expanded to the Legislative branch and also cover personal devices used by members. And Congress should establish a modern Church committee to investigate whether there have been additional abuses by the intelligence agencies, including the DOJ.

A cautionary note: It must be terrifying to have the powers of the Executive branch aimed at you for the apparent purpose of political retribution. Whether you are an average person with an opinion or the Chairman of a powerful committee, undue scrutiny can have a chilling effect and raise the specter of the weaponization of your private life against you. Our sympathy lies with those every innocent person who finds themselves at the wrong end of a microscope.

When we place all these powers in the hands of Executive branch agencies we create tremendous risks for our democracy. In the hand of an autocrat, they could mean the end of our republic. Absent meaningful, wide-ranging, and adversarial oversight, power will accrete to the presidency and the intelligence community. Surveillance hawks have underestimated the risks over the decades. We have to act now before the political wheel turns again.

Continue reading “Forecast for June 14, 2021”

Forecast for June 7, 2021

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Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, our weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Don’t miss an issue: subscribe here (it’s free).

THE TOP LINE

This week. The Senate is back and the House is holding a committee work week. Attorney General Garland will testify on Wednesday and the approps process is heating up.

Strengthening Congress. We look at the different avenues available to strengthening the Legislative branch, and who must do what. The clock is ticking.

Freedom of the Press. Journalists continue to be squeezed by the Executive branch with several new spying scandals in the last few weeks. We give the run-down.

The Capitol Police will hold a training exercise on Monday involving emergency vehicles and low flying helicopters.

STRENGTHENING CONGRESS

Congressional staff are significantly underpaid, thereby depriving Congress of the talent and policy expertise needed to make good legislative decisions, Business Insider’s Kayla Epstein reports ($). The starting salary range is laughable in the face of skyrocketing DC housing prices, and low pay rapidly pushes many staff out of the Legislative branch and into the private sector that pays two to three times as much for their legislative expertise. Our analysis suggests pay in the Executive branch for the same work can result in a 20%+ bump and that personal and committee offices are in steep decline. Meager congressional salaries most severely hamper efforts to hire and retain staffers of color, who are most likely to lack a financial support structure to subside their government employment.

What to do about it? In April, Rep. Steny Hoyer urged a 20% increase in funding for House salaries and expenses, which would return those funding levels to their 2011 baseline. Demand Progress and the Lincoln Network organized a bipartisan 30 organization letter in May endorsing a 20% increase in funding for personal offices and committees; it follows a February letter, also coordinated by Demand Progress and the Lincoln Network, that included 38 organizations + congressional experts endorsing a 10% or $530.9 million increase in funding for the Legislative branch. (This was before we knew hundreds of millions of dollars would have to be spent on Capitol Police and infrastructure.) Both the Chair and Ranking Members of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress have noted significant underfunding of Congressional staff and called for significant increases in resources, and the Committee last Congress detailed many of the deficiencies and endorsed modernizing funding levels. We also understand that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez sent a Dear Colleague requesting members endorse an excellent letter in support of a 21% increase for MRAs, committee funding, and leadership office budgets, with signatories due Thursday at 11 a.m.

How this could work: House Budget Chair Yarmuth says the top line defense and nondefense appropriations numbers likely will mirror the President’s proposal, which is $1,521.0 Billion in discretionary spending, split between defense at $752.9 Billion (+1.6%) and non-defense at $769.6 Billion (+16.5%). We would imagine the Senate will come out in a similar spot and both will “deem” these numbers instead of passing a budget resolution. That leaves Chair DeLauro and Chair Leahy (in consultation with leadership and committee members — although the evenly divided Senate makes this even more complicated) to allocate these funds between the 12 appropriations subcommittees, including the perpetually underfunded Legislative branch appropriations subcommittee.

What to watch: First, will Chairs DeLauro and Leahy bump the approximately ~$5 Billion funding level for the Legislative branch by enough to cover the huge new anticipated costs for the Capitol Police and the Architect as well providing funding to remediate the decimation of staff? If the discretionary spending increase of 16% is spread evenly, we should see another $800m for the Legislative branch, although it needs more than this. Second: will some spending inside the Legislative branch, such as for the Capitol Police and Architect, be treated as defense discretionary spending and thus come from a different pool of funds? Third, will other sources or mechanisms of funding be found for Legislative branch items? And finally, what recommendations will Leg branch approps — chaired by Rep. Ryan and Sen. Reed — make in terms of allotting the money inside each chamber. Remember: the Senate will defer to the House on its internal funding arrangements and the House will defer to the Senate on its internal funding arrangements.

Continue reading “Forecast for June 7, 2021”

Forecast for June 1, 2021.

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Bring on the out-of-office responses and welcome to this recess edition of the First Branch Forecast, where we look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Now, you’ll have time enough at last to encourage your colleagues to subscribe here.

TOP LINE

The forgotten art of congressional oversight is the topic of a fantastic, extensive article by the American Prospect’s David Dayen. It explores — with smart examples — how congressional oversight has held the powerful to account, the ingredients to make it work, what has changed in Congress over time, and who is making it work even in our current political environment. This is the best kind of long read: it’s one you can use.

Transparency around the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel opinions is a key element of government accountability, which is why Demand Progress coordinated a letter with a bipartisan group of 20 organizations calling on Biden’s nominee to run that office to endorse proactive disclosure for the opinions (with minimal exceptions) and to release an index of all OLC opinions. The often secret opinions constitute a body of law that hides from Congress and the American people how the Executive branch is applying the law. Notably, nominee Christopher Schroeder himself endorsed transparency for the opinions in 2004, and a 2020 statement drafted with substantial assistance from former OLC attorneys described the office as being in “crisis” and endorsed proactive disclosure. Schroeder’s nomination will come before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Demand Progress continues to support appropriations language that directs the OLC to release the opinions, included in the House bills in FY 2021 and FY 2020.

Congressional Republicans killed the January 6th Commission even after Democrats gave them every possible point of leverage to protect their political interests. Luke Broadwater details the many questions that will be left unanswered in the absence of a coordinated and wide-ranging investigation. Meanwhile, many Republicans in state legislatures are stepping up their unrelenting efforts to undermine democracy through attacks on the ability to vote and how those votes are counted and reported, which is part and parcel of the Trump insurrection and will accomplish the same purpose. For those who still believe in bipartisanship as a value, I refer you to this excellent opinion piece by Jack Shafer, that not only declares it long dead, but explains why bipartisanship was neither real nor a political good. (I’d love to have a discussion of how each political party in itself is a multiparty coalition, but that’s a topic for a different time.)

Appropriations Timeline. President Biden’s budget came out Friday — order a copy from GPO — and it provides a starting point for congressional negotiations over top line numbers. If I’m reading it right (I’m looking at table S-7 on page 56): Biden is proposing the Defense Allocation increase from $740.7B in FY 2021 to $752.9B in FY 2022, an increase of $12.2B (or 1.6%); the Non-Defense Allocation would increase from $660.7B in FY 2021 to $769.6B in FY 2022, an increase of $108.9B (or 16.5%). The FY 2021 number does not include $191.0B in off-budget discretionary spending, so apparently total discretionary budget authority would actually decrease from $1,592.3B in FY 2021 to $1,521.0B in FY 2022.

What’s due in June? Congress often requires Legislative branch support office and agencies to submit reports to Congress and we track what’s due when. See our June update, which includes a U.S. Capitol Police report on the cost for creating an arrest summary data system (Demand Progress testified on this issue last year), a CAO report on House-wide leave policy, a report from the Clerk on automated committee roll call voting systems, and more.

House Democrats have upgraded DemCom, the incredibly cool internal website that provides context for legislative information. (More below)

Continue reading “Forecast for June 1, 2021.”

What Items Are Due to Congress: June 2021

Congress regularly requests reports on strengthening Congress but there’s no central place to keep track of what they’ve requested.

To help keep track of things, 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 are the February, March, April, and May editions.

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