Forecast for September 27, 2021

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Hey everyone, welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your regular look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Subscribe here. We had written a lot more but pared it down because that seemed the humane thing to do. Here’s the top things you need to know.

Spending and budget. You already know that we’re in for a bumpy time with the end of the fiscal year, consideration of the physical and social infrastructure bills, and so on. Everything is being made worse by Senate Republicans who not only oppose raising the debt ceiling — a violation of Congressional norms — but will use the filibuster to greatly increase the likelihood of an economic catastrophe. They might profit from the gambit, too, as much of the reporting is focused on politics instead of governance. What’s the timeline on all this? IDK, but here’s your Sunday-night Dear Colleague from the Speaker.

Oversight. A wild story arising from the CIA’s secret “war” on Julian Assange, including the possibility of his assassination and gunfights on the streets of London with Russian agents, raises significant congressional oversight and authorization concerns. Did Congress know about the CIA’s efforts to avoid reporting its activities to Congress by reclassifying Wikileaks as a spy service based on its internal secret law? Or its reclassification of journalists (like Laura Poitras) as “information brokers” in support of allowing greater degrees of surveillance? Or a whole host of unsavory, likely extralegal, and fairly insane potential misadventures? As always on these matters, look to Sen. Wyden, who raised the alarm as best he could in a statement accompanying consideration of the 2018 Intelligence Authorization Act. “My concern is that the use of the novel phrase ‘non-state hostile intelligence service’ may have legal, constitutional, and policy implications, particularly should it be applied to journalists inquiring about secrets. The language in the bill suggesting that the U.S. government has some unstated course of action against ‘non-state hostile intelligence services’ is equally troubling.” I guess this will make Thursday’s mark-up of the FY 2022 IAA more exciting — too bad the proceedings are closed.

Transparency. The infrastructure bill has a huge FOIA carve-out that exempts the $42 billion in broadband deployment from normal transparency requirements — will someone strip that odious provision from the bill? Our friends at OpenTheGovernment are being subpoenaed by ClearviewAI, which apparently is happy gathering your personal information off the internet but is less happy when investigated for their facial recognition tech and how it’s being used. Russ Kick, a well-known transparency activist and author who created the Memory Hole website and published many newsworthy documents, has died.

Legislation. The Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act was signed into law this past week — it requires that all plain-language explanations of how agencies would spend the appropriated monies they’ve requested be available in a central location. (Yay!) Among the many amendments to the NDAA was the PLUM Act, which would modernize the PLUM Book by creating a continuously-updated repository of more than 9,000 executive branch appointees. (Also, yay!) The Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act was introduced by Sens. Portman, Peters, Klobuchar, and Hassan — it would require all reports required to be submitted to Congress from agencies be available on a central website, subject to appropriate redactions — a companion measure introduced by Reps. Quigley and Comer and a score of other members passed the House in July. The humongous Protecting Our Democracy Act (text not yet available) was (re)introduced in the House and contains numerous welcome provisions to rein in out-of-control presidents. (Among its provisions, visibility into apportionments.)

The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held a hearing last week on civilityRoll Call has a good recap, but we think the best way to promote civility is to learn from the SCOMC itself and also look at the incentives that leadership is creating for party members. We are excited for a SCOMC hearing this Tuesday focused on modernizing Congressional support agencies, with testimony from GAO, CRS, and CBO and civil society experts on each.

Operations. House Democrats have weakened chamber rules to restrict the minority’s ability to use resolutions of inquiry to get answers from the executive branch. Rising constituent needs are swamping poorly funded congressional offices. The CBC is pushing Sen. Schumer to remove confederate statues and we wonder why Congress doesn’t charge the Joint Committee on the Library with moving them out of sight in the interim? How will the new “ban the box” law, which prevents consideration of a criminal history in the early stages of hiring, change how the legislative branch operates? A new IG report into the GAO sheds a little light on its detailees. A new Brookings report shows 128 committee oversight letters sent within the first six months of the 117th Congress, 29% of which were bipartisan, the vast majority of which came from the House Oversight Committee! By the way, what’s the odds that spyware only exists on the phones of French ministers and not, say, members of Congress?

Capitol Police. The Capitol Police Board still hasn’t acted on recs from 2017, says House Admin RM Davis. The USCP can not keep secret some surveillance footage from the Trump insurrection despite their efforts to the contrary. Threats against members have increased significantly, to 4,135 in the first quarter per the Capitol Police versus 8,613 for 2020, but they aren’t saying how many threats were substantiated, resulted in prosecutions, or resulted in convictions — or whether they’ve changed how they’re gathering this info.

Trump insurrection.The White House might decline to assert executive privilege concerning Trump and his aides activities as part of the Trump insurrection. The Select Committee on Jan. 6th issued subpoenas to four Trump aides. Conservative legal notable John Eastman put forward an incredibly dangerous plan to throw out electors and install Trump as president — it took Dan Quayle to dissuade Pence of this approach. The FBI had an informant among the insurrectionists.

Ethics. TikTokers are using member stock disclosures as a basis to make their own trades, counting on the reps using insider knowledge to make quick profits.

Continue reading “Forecast for September 27, 2021”

Forecast for September 20, 2021

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

THE TOP LINE

The upcoming 10 days are going to be crazy, but the tick-tock is adequately covered by other newsletters so you don’t need it from us. Here is this week’s House floor calendar, the Senate floor schedulethe combined committee calendar, and the House Rules Committee Monday meeting announcement that includes links to the draft CR and NDAA. (See this great NDAA explainer in advance of what will likely be a fun round of floor amendments.) Looking ahead, Senate Republicans say they will vote to allow a debt default, a cynical position staked out by Sen. McConnell, who “will vote for a policy outcome he says he doesn’t want to occur.”

You might think I’m being unfair in my criticism, but the Washington Post profiled former AP journalist and appropriations expert Andrew Taylor, who has quit covering Congress and the journalism business entirely and is now criticizing Republican leadership, including Sen. McConnell on the very topic of the debt ceiling. Generally speaking, he’s described their “approach to their jobs is too often bad-faith bullshit,” and says the rules of objective journalism “can often obscure the reality of what’s really going on.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee was set to have subcommittee mark-ups this week but BGOV ($) says they were postponed because of Republican opposition, although BGOV is unclear on whether Republicans were going to vote against the bills in the evenly-divided committee or boycott the proceedings. This raises a number of governance questions, and as you know, we are focused closely on the ability of the Legislative branch to do its job, including funding for its operations.

Continue reading “Forecast for September 20, 2021”

Forecast for September 13, 2021

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

THE TOP LINE

The fence is (almost certainly) coming back around the Capitol building and Supreme Court in anticipation of an event featuring Trump insurrectionists and their allies. Representatives of white supremacist groups who were promoting the “rally,” such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, now say their membership will not show up because “it’s a government trap,” but we shall see.

Keeping Congress safe includes maintaining a safe working environment. Pres. Biden is requiring COVID shots for Executive branch employees. Will the House and Senate do the same? They should, especially as some legislators and staff are a public health danger: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene will be fined for failing to wear a mask on the House floor — this is the third fine for Rep. Greene — and half of House Republicans in July would not say whether they’ve gotten the shot. I don’t know whether Congress can require legislators to get the COVID shot, but likely it could impose such a requirement on staff.

Toxic congressional bosses, whether literal or metaphorical, often leave staff with little recourse when things predictably go wrong. Why Congress does not have a HR department is the subject of a Business Insider article that explains that, for those at the receiving end of bad behavior, “the odds [are] stacked in favor of members and superiors and against rank-and-file employees.” (Unions are one way employees traditionally respond to this kind of environment, but that requires the House or Senate to act.)

Staff want to leave Capitol Hill and who can blame them? Addressing quality of life issues is essential and the starting point has to be pay. Speaker Pelosi increased the salary cap for top aides last month, but retaining staffers — especially in the face of the private sector’s strategic head-hunting — also means increasing salaries for everyone. The House passed a significant restoration of funding for the Legislative branch at the behest of Reps. Hoyer, AOC, and half the Democratic caucus, but it cannot go into effect without the Senate’s assent.

Pay alone is not enough. A workable HR department, student loan repayment help, support for continuing education, assistance with child care, a safe workplace, flexible leave policies, and much more is necessary in a workplace where pay will never be competitive with the private sector. Telework policies also make sense, as does remote work … including for members who because of emergencies or other exigent circumstances cannot or should not attend in person. Of course, House Minority Leader McCarthy is petitioning the Supreme Court to end proxy voting after losing in lower courts. We prefer truly remote proceedings to proxy voting for a number of reasons, but we cannot agree with the Leader’s logic. Should Rep. Morelle, who announced on Sunday that he has COVID, be forced to choose between returning to the chamber and infecting his colleagues and forgoing the opportunity to cast a vote on behalf of his constituents?

Continue reading “Forecast for September 13, 2021”

Forecast for September 7, 2021

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

THE TOP LINE

Yesterday was Labor Day, which is as good a reason as any to ask why the House and Senate do not allow staff for elected officials to unionize? (They do in Ohio and overseas.) Labor laws are intended to give employees a voice, and yet congressional staff work in an environment with fewer labor protections than those afforded to other federal and private sector workers. In the mid-90s, Republicans enacted legislation that gave congressional support staff the right to unionize — which I recount here — and the House and Senate set up a process that, much to their chagrin, resulted in regulations allowing political staff to unionize as well. But they wrote the law in such a way as to require a House or Senate resolution to put those regulations into effect, at least as far as we can tell. So why hasn’t either chamber acted?

On the topic of workplace safety, congressional security forces are considering bringing back the fence on an interim basis in anticipation of a rally by Trump insurrectionists at the Capitol on September 18th; rising threats by racial extremists and anti-government extremists who seek to exploit COVID as a rationale for terrorism; and a packed calendar of religious holidays, event anniversaries, and a high-profile legislative calendar. The fence is a band-aid for what’s actually necessary: wholesale reforms of the Capitol Police and security on Capitol hill.

Two new Capitol Police IG reports, which contain the IG’s executive summaries and conclusions but none of the findings or narratives, were publicly released by the Committee on House Administration last week. The first report focused on “deficiencies with the Department’s Command and Coordination Bureau.” The second report addressed “deficiencies with the Department’s Hazardous Incident Response Division (HIRD) and Canine Unit (K-9 or Unit).” Roll Call summarized the findings. It’s the same story as the other reports: the Capitol Police leadership failed; there is inadequate training from the top to bottom, inadequate coordination, and inadequate guidance.

Congressional Technology. The Library of Congress held its second annual virtual forum on legislative data services last week. It was well attended, covered a lot of ground, and we will publish a write-up soon. We congratulate the Library on a successful event. (Video does not yet appear to be publicly available.) One big take-away: while the conversation was productive and included a well-received exchange of ideas and information, the Library — which was required by Appropriators to host forums in 2020 and 2021 — would not commit to holding them in the future. It may require Congress to once again ask the Library to meet with the public; the Library previously has made clear it will not share its evaluation of requests regarding legislative data services (e.g., Congress.gov) with the public without being directed to do so by Congress.

 Many of the substantive announcements regarding Library activities already were covered at the July Bulk Data Task Force meeting, which we wrote about here. However, there was some new information, which we will cover in a future article. While the panelists did a good job with their presentations, as usual, the best part was the live Q&A with the public.

• Public requestsThe Policy Agendas project, a consortium of political scientists that “assembles and codes information on the policy processes of governments from around the world,” organized a letter signed by 18 political scientists to Dr. Hayden in advance of the virtual forum “to advocate for greater publication of documents and data by the Library of Congress on Congress.gov.” Among their requests, the Library should: make historic bill text available online; review and publish CRS reports from the CRSX archive; collect Congressionally mandated Executive branch agency reports; publish all hearing information and committee reports from 1970 forwards; and adopt the Policy Agenda’s project coding system. They also endorsed our letter from 2020 that contained recommendations on how the Library could improve its legislative information sources. The Library was taking feedback through this webform, although it is unclear whether they will continue to do so.

Tracking legislative memes. One idea raised several times at the forum, and which we have been working on for more than a year, is tracking legislative ideas across multiple bills in the same Congress and over multiple Congresses. We have a new tool, BillMap, that allows you to track these legislative memes — we’re still working on it and feedback is welcome. The task of identifying legislation related to a particular bill is more complex than most people would imagine. You can’t simply brute force the process by mechanically comparing legislative text, as much more finesse and understanding of the legislative process is required. One of our developers wrote about how we track legislative memes and assess when bills may be related to one another. We have ideas for additional methods and refinements.

Restoring funding for GAO to address the reconciliation shortfall? The conservative Lincoln Network just released an excellent report that explores how GAO saves taxpayers money. GAO has said repeatedly that taxpayers save at least $100 for every $1 invested in GAO, and yet over the decades Congress has been defunding GAO. If we restored GAO to its 1992 funding level (calculated as a percentage of federal spending), an increase of $400 million or so, that would result in more than $40 billion in savings. I’m not a budget person, but I do wonder whether there’s a way to increase GAO’s funding and use it as a pay-for in the budget reconciliation package?

Continue reading “Forecast for September 7, 2021”