Special Forecast for August 13, 2021

First Branch Forecast Logo

Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. No, it’s not Monday, but with the Congress away, it seemed best to send this lest we get inundated with out-of-office responses. We’re planning on taking a little break with Congress out unless something major happens… or we get bored. Subscribe here.

THE TOP LINE

The pay ceiling for senior House staff has been raised. Speaker Pelosi issued a pay order that increases the maximum potential salaries for many House staff to $199,300, which just happens to be the equivalent of an SES Level II. Staff salaries had been kept below pay levels for rank-and-file members, which themselves have been frozen at $174,000 since 2009 and are down the equivalent of $75k since 1992 (in constant dollars). By decoupling staff and member pay, it becomes possible to address long standing pleas from support offices and members alike that it is increasingly difficult to retain senior staff because of increasing costs of living and the tremendous opportunities to earn more elsewhere. This is a retention issue for support office computer programmers and skilled legislative drafters as well as staff directors and chiefs of staff — and an issue of equity with their Executive branch equivalents.

For non-senior staff, don’t feel left out: the House included in its Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill a 13% overall increase in funding, including funding to increase salaries for personal, committee, and leadership staff by 21%, which would return them to 2010 levels (adjusted for inflation). Thank Steny Hoyer; Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and the 110 Dems who signed her letter; every member of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress; Reps. Ryan, Lofgren, and DeLauro; and a bunch of civil society groups who have been tirelessly pushing this issue. This isn’t a zero sum game, btw: it’s possible to pay all staff significantly more and to increase the top line. The big question is whether the Senate agrees to the House’s proposed funding levels for the first branch of government.

This is one piece of a larger puzzle to strengthen and diversify Congress: paid internships, an Office of Diversity and Inclusion, a central HR hub, proposals to unionize political staff and create pay floors and pay scales, and so on. You can find one of Demand Progress’s proposals to increase the pay staff cap here; and we would be remiss if we did not mention Rep. Graves’ amendment to the Leg Branch Appropriations bill, which was not ruled in order, and would have increased the staff pay cap.

What’s a pay order? Uhh, I don’t really want to talk about it right now, but the Speaker’s authority to do this in the House is set out in statute, although finding the actual orders can be challenging. As an aside, some members of Congress earn more than the base rate: according to CRS, the Speaker earns $223,500 and the President Pro Tempore and Leaders earn $193,000.

Caveats. I should add that some Legislative branch staff — according to CRS, anyway — already earn more than rank-and-file members of Congress, such as the Comptroller General, the Librarian of Congress, and so on. I can’t tell what they are actually paid, however, because there is a pay free for certain senior officials — political appointees? — which includes some members of the Legislative branch who are appointed by the president. (Why they are appointed by the president is another issue entirely.) In addition, this year’s Leg Branch Appropriations Bill sets the AOC and USCP Chief’s salaries at Executive Schedule II, leaving the potentially anomalous result that some Legislative branch agency chiefs will be subject to the freeze (and thus paid less) while others would not. It also could create anomalous pay levels for politicals versus non-politicals. You know, this would be a great question for CRS.

WHAT ELSE

It’s notable that the infrastructure bill passed the Senate by a 69-30 vote, but as this op-ed warns, don’t get too carried away. Think of it as a long con to preserve the filibuster + satisfy part of the base. And on the vote-a-rama, why doesn’t the Senate make the text of the amendments publicly available like the House does?

The House will be back beginning August 23rd to take up the budget resolution as well as H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

The House has a new Human Resources Hub in an effort to strengthen the support system for staffers responsible for hiring, developing, and retaining the workforce. The Hub is a product of a recommendation made in H. Res. 756 on modernizing Congress.

The National Archives and Records Administration will host a public town hall to solicit comments and questions on its draft 2022–2026 Strategic Plan. The event will take place virtually on Tuesday, August 17th from 1–2pm ET, and you can join the meeting using this link. In the meantime, check out and submit feedback on the draft Strategic Plan here.

The Library of Congress will host a public forum on its legislative information services on September 2nd from 1 to 4pm ET. You can read what we wrote about the last one — and our recommendations — come with your ideas on what you’d like to see them take on.

CAPITOL SECURITY

The new staff director for the January 6th committee, David Buckley,is a former CIA Inspector General who has a history of retaliating against whistleblowers. And now a second aide hired by the committee has been accused of retaliating against whistleblowers. Civil society orgs are calling for their resignations. The committee’s credibility is on the line.

The GAO put out a series of reports alleging that the Department of Homeland Security failed to give the January 6th Congressional session and the day’s anticipated protests and rallies the escalated security designation they warranted. The DHS, and everyone else affiliated with the day’s security planning, claims it wasn’t their job. Well. There are two more GAO reports on the way: (1) How social media was used to plan the attacks and the degree to which law enforcement and intelligence agencies were clued in, and (2) how well state, local, and federal officials complied with intelligence-sharing procedures and policies.

TRANSPARENCY + ACCOUNTABILITY + ETHICS

The DC District Court upheld the Oversight and Reform Committee’s subpoena for eight years of Trump’s financial records from Mazars, which you can read more about in Chairwoman Maloney’s statement. But, as you can see, the federal courts are interfering in Congress’s subpoena powers, which is not good.

The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights’ latest report is missing key data points on how well the Capitol complex adheres to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The report significantly undercounts the number of barriers in each office building and inventories fewer facilities than previous reports. OCWR’s website does not have last Congress’s report publicly available.

Sen. Paul was 16 months late to disclose that his wife bought stock in a COVID treatment company in February of 2020, just before the first wave of the pandemic hit the US.

Public ethics waivers issued to WHO and OVP employees are now available on the White House website, as are its visitor logs.

ODDS & ENDS

The Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, appointed three new leaders— Jason Broughton as director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, Aslihan Bulut as the Law Librarian of Congress, and Robin Dale as the Deputy Librarian for Library Collections and Services.

Andrew Fois was nominated as the new Chairman of the ACUS for a five-year term, taking the place of Paul R. Verkuil.

Biden will host a global democracy summit on December 9th and 10th with the intention of bringing together leaders of established and “emerging” democracies to strategize against authoritarianism and corruption. During the Obama administration, a focus on global democracy was used to shift focus away from domestic accountability and transparency efforts, which were then starved; we hope the Biden administration will focus on building democracy at home.

Watch this video to find out how to ask for a raise in Congress. Part 1 to be found here.

CALENDAR

Down the road…

• The House will return the week of August 23rd.

• The next Law Library of Congress webinar on August 26th at 2pm ET will provide a basic overview of using the congress.gov search features.

• The Library of Congress will host a public forum on Congress.gov on September 2nd from 1 to 4pm ET.

• The 30th annual LegisTech for Democracy Conference will be held online on September 13th and 14th — save the date now.

• The Senate will return on September 13th.

• Constitution Day is September 17th.