Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. The House and Senate are holding floor votes this week; the House is currently scheduled to go into recess in two weeks and the Senate is scheduled to go into recess in three. We shall see. Subscribe here.
THE TOP LINE
House appropriators have favorably reported all twelve appropriations bills and are looking to move seven of those bills as a spending package during the week of July 26th — the last week the House is scheduled to be in before a month-long recess and two months before the fiscal year ends. Majority Leader Hoyer says the House may consider additional appropriations bills that week. Not in the package: the Legislative Branch, Commerce-Justice-Science, Defense, Homeland Security, and State-Foreign Ops. (What about the Senate???)
Transparency in appropriations bills. In the recently reported House CJS and Defense Appropriations bills are several measures to cheer fans of government accountability. The CJS appropriations committee report under the leadership of Rep. Cartwright once again included strong language encouraging the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to proactively release final OLC legal opinions. Here’s why final OLC opinions should be available to Congress and the public. And the Defense Appropriations committee report included language urging the Director of National Intelligence to release all significant opinions by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, not just those from 2015 forward. Here is why FISC opinion should be available to Congress and the public. This comes on top of significant government strengthening and transparency measures in committee reports issued by the Legislative Branch (under Rep. Ryan) and FSGG appropriations (under Rep. Quigley).
The Bulk Data Task Force, the Legislative branch’s working group of internal and external stakeholders focused on the use of technology to cultivate collaboration, foster data standardization, and increase transparency, held its quarterly meeting this past week. You can watch the video or click through the presentations here, but I do promise we will have a comprehensive write-up because a lot of material was covered. Among the news: Deputy Clerk Bob Reeves, who has capably led the task force since its creation in 2012, will retire soon from the House of Representatives; he announced Kirsten Gullickson will be his successor. Everyone has tremendous respect and affection for Mr. Reeves and we will miss him. I would struggle to name an entity within the legislative branch that has been more productive and effective.
Conversations. RSVP for an excellent panel discussion set for this Tuesday entitled “Keeping the Free Press Free.” And ICYMI, watch this panel discussion, hosted by ProLegis, that focused on congressional staff pay and benefits and featured Rep. Kilmer and a motley crew of congressional experts.
Enhancing committee productivity is the topic of a House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress hearing this Tuesday.
The CAO started a new coaching program to provide support to Congressional staff as they navigate Capitol Hill. Professional development is common in the private sector, but creating an internal function to address the unique environment on Capitol Hill is new. The four new coaches are evenly split between the parties and include chiefs of staff and district directors. This is a welcome next step from the Congressional Academy and dovetails with some of the recommendations of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
More than 27% of Senate Democratic Committee offices have zero Black staffers, according to the fifth annual survey on staff diversity conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (a more thorough analysis can be found here). Demand Progress, in concert with others, have often called on the Senate to regularly conduct diversity staff studies; see this testimony urging the Senate to create Office of Diversity and Inclusion and survey staff pay and benefits. (We are still waiting for the Senate study commissioned a few years back, sans demographic data, to be completed and released to the public.)
Former Rep. Mike Barnes was appointed to serve as chair and member of the Office of Congressional Ethics Board after the resignation of former Rep. David Skaggs, who has served since OCE was created in 2008. For those who don’t remember, OCE was created after a host of scandals to serve as an independent watchdog that engages in fact-finding about potential wrongdoing and reports it to the Ethics Committee. What makes it effective is its independence and that many of its reports become publicly available on a pre-set timeframe, which provides helpful encouragement to the Ethics Committee to act on ethics matters and not, as it had in the past, sweep it under the rug. We have recommended reforms to strengthen OCE, including granting it subpoena power and restoring an earlier approach to how Board members are appointed.
The Government Publishing Office implemented an awesome new telework policy that would allow eligible employees to work remotely full-time, following significant increases in productivity via remote work throughout the pandemic. While there can be value in having people work in-person, maximizing flexibility through full-time telework can make for more productive and happy employees, increase retention, more responsive engagement with customers, and attract and retain superior talent. We wonder about FT telework in other components of the Legislative branch.
Rep. Katie Porter’s district town hall meeting had a scary moment when organized Trump-aligned attendees whose leader is affiliated with “a far-right activist who espouses white supremacist rhetoric” turned it into a “confrontation rally” in an attempt to derail the event, resulting in “scuffles.” The danger of this approach, besides the obvious, is that it provides incentives for Members of Congress to avoid holding open town halls and turn them into what Indivisible describes as “sham town halls” or avoid holding them entirely.
Can Rep. Mo Brooks be sued by Rep. Swalwell for directly inciting the attack on the U.S. Capitol or does he have immunity because he was acting within the scope of his employment as a Member of Congress? The federal judge hearing this dispute asked the House General Counsel to opine on the matter. You can track the litigation in Swalwell v. Trump through the free online tool CourtListener.
TRANSPARENCY + ACCOUNTABILITY + ETHICS
The Government Accountability Office turned 100 years old, an occasion marked by some proposed changes to improve the nonpartisan watchdog agency. The Legislative Branch spending bill increasing the GAO’s funding by $68 million this year to a total of $729 million — still below what is likely appropriate but a welcome increase nonetheless — and included language mandating that the comptroller general report to Congress the financial cost of agencies’ delays in implementing the GAO’s recommendations; GAO recommendations have managed to save more than $1.1 trillion since 1999.
Speaker Pelosi issued a statement in support of the en banc DC Circuit’s ruling that Congress should have the authority to enforce subpoenas and perform oversight.
Ethics reform isn’t exactly a Biden administration priority and they are missing a golden legislative opportunity for reform, leaving the door open to escalating abuses after an administration that followed an avaricious version of the golden rule: he who has the gold, rules.
Why can’t journalists audiotape court proceedings? Why indeed.
ODDS & ENDS
Jerry Lewis, an old-school appropriator, has died. Roll Call’s Peter Cohen has an elegant pinpoint profile of the man that encapsulates the transitions that occurred in the appropriations committee in the 2000s, including the decline and fall of earmarks, a backlash against staff who some thought were too powerful, an odd reshuffling of appropriations subcommittees that make it difficult to track spending trends going back more than 15 years, and a brief mention of the little-known Surveys & Investigations team that would make an amazing topic for a book.
The Hewlett Foundation’s Democracy Program is investing in the executive branch, an expansion of its earlier approach focused primarily on grantmaking concerning Congress. In a thoughtful blogpost, they explain their evolving efforts. “Much polarization and failure is the result of decades of ideological opposition to ‘big government’ from both sides of the aisle. As a result, our democracy’s core institutions are suffering from underinvestment, hollowed-out expertise, demoralized staff, outdated technology and operations, and deeply eroded public trust.” What to do? “Reverse this and ensure both branches have the high quality and diverse workforce, technological sophistication, expertise, and funding needed to fulfill their responsibilities in the 21st Century and earn the confidence of the American people.”
Former VP Pence’s aides continue to receive federal salaries. The Presidential Transition Act allows outgoing presidents and vice presidents to keep their staff on payroll and maintain office spaces for the six months following White House departure, which expires July 21st. It’s worth noting that until 2018, former Speakers of the House received even more generous benefits, including allowance for office operations and staff assistance. Former presidents also receive office allowances from the GSA, effective six months after leaving office.
Katherine Tully McManus just joined Politico as a congressional reporter and now writes Huddle. Congrats!
Rules for Appropriations. Appropriations bills are brought to the House floor under resolutions that control debate and amendments. How have those rules changed over time: from being open to more structured? CRS has a new report examining those special rules over the last three Congresses and how many amendments have been successfully offered on the floor.
Defense authorization and appropriations bills are commonly the subject of CRS reports — this one goes back at least to the year 2000 and the data it contains goes back to 1961. Because “the passage of the Department of Defense (DOD) authorization and appropriations bills through Congress often does not follow the course laid out in textbooks on legislative procedure,” CRS has generated a report that is a “research aid that lists the DOD authorization bills and appropriations bills for FY1961-FY2021.”
• The House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s 10am markup will include H.R. 4124, the Keep the Watchdogs Running Act.
• Keeping the Free Press Free, a panel discussion hosted by the Advisory Committee on Transparency and the 4th Amendment Advisory committee, at noon. RSVP
• House Modernization Committee hearing on enhancing congressional productivity, at 1:30.
Down the road…
The 30th annual LegisTech for Democracy Conference will be held online on September 13th and 14th — save the date now.
The International Conference on Legislation and Law Reform is holding its 2021 International Conference from October 21st to 22nd. Deadline to register is October 13th. RSVP here.