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 requests. The 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?
ODDS & ENDS
No Cheneys. Rep. Andy Biggs and sixteen Republicans are pushing to change Republican conference rules to “remove members who accept committee assignments or serve on a committee without recommendation from the Republican Steering Committee or the Republican Leader.” Among the signatories are Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, Andy Harris, Madison Cawthorne, Louie Gohmert, and Marjorie Taylor Greene. (One signatory, Rep. Greene, was removed from her committee assignments by a House vote “following uproar over her past incendiary comments and apparent support of violence against Democrats;” she described the removal as “being freed.”) The targets are Reps. Cheney and Kinzinger, appointed by Speaker Pelosi (Cheney, Kinzinger) to the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection pursuant to H.Res 503. Party leaders normally defer to one other on appointments, but Rep. McCarthy’s unwillingness to act regarding Rep. Greene — unlike the removal of inveterate racist Rep. Steve King in 2019 — prompted Pelosi. Last week Cheney was elevated to Vice Chair of the committee. Rep. McCarthy has tripled-down, threatening political retaliation against telecom companies should they comply with information requests from the committee.
Send me in, coach. The CAO has a new podcast hosted by two former chiefs of staff focused on “management, best practices for navigating the Hill, and resources available to Chiefs of Staff and District Directors.” Episode 1 is an introduction to the CAO coach program; Episode 2 is on staff retention and best practices; Episode 3 is on the importance of long term relationships; Episode 4 is on MRA tips and best practices; and Episode 5 will focus on how to ask your COS questions.
COVID, Capitol Hill, and in-person collaboration is the topic of this excellent Chad Pergram essay on life in the legislative branch during the pandemic.
Follow the money. I took a closer look at how the House proposes to spend its appropriations. Spoiler: Defense continues to receive the lion’s share. With Armed Services agitating for even more money, it’s useful to understand where we are now.
Declassifying some 9/11 information is the focus of a new EO from President Biden. “Information collected and generated in the United States Government’s investigation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks should now be disclosed, except when the strongest possible reasons counsel otherwise.” This reminds me that Congress has the power to require declassification of records, too.
Protecting whistleblowers is not a partisan issue and Congress should advance the Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act, argues Andrew Lautz of the National Taxpayers Union and Melissa Wasser of POGO.
The statue of confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith was hoisted and rolled out of the U.S. Capitol, according to a tweet by Rep. Kathy Castor. Florida passed legislation in 2018 to replace it with a statue commemorating Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. This is a reminder, of course, that a number of other confederate statues are making their last stand in the Capitol, awaiting action by the Joint Committee on the Library or the chambers themselves.
NDAA. I don’t know how anyone follows the markup process and amendments, but I think it is one of the under-covered stories about Congress, especially in the non-specialized press. Between the NDAA and Appropriations, tons of legislative ideas are rolled into a gigantic package that’s passed every year. People have the impression that Congress is doing nothing, but there’s a whole lot of something that’s happened here.
• The Future of Citizen Engagement is the topic of a new Congressional Management Foundation report. Its main point: Congress must be more proactive in seeking and responding to citizens.
• House of Representatives Staff Levels in Member, Committee, Leadership, and Other Offices, 1977-2021 is the title of an updated report from CRS. I wish they released these data tables as spreadsheet files.
• The convoluted process by which the Architect of the Capitol is appointed, and how it got that way, is the focus of an updated report from CRS.
Um, Rep. Markwayne Mullin. “Oklahoma congressman threatened embassy staff as he tried to enter Afghanistan, U.S. officials say.”
• Internapalooza, a virtual orientation for congressional interns, will take place on September 9th and 10th. Register here.
• The annual LegisTech for Democracy Conference will be held online on September 13th and 14th. 20 Parliament Houses from different countries will share how they implemented digital transformation projects that helped them to keep the legislature functioning. RSVP here.
• The Senate will return on September 13th.
• Constitution Day is September 17th. Happy birthday.
• “How to Conduct Oversight of Afghanistan: A Conversation with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction,” POGO’s virtual training on how to conduct oversight of recent developments in Afghanistan, will be held on September 17th at 12 noon. This event is only open to staff in Congress, GAO, and CRS. Register here.
• State secrecy and the war on terror is the topic of a town hall discussion set for September 17th. RSVP.
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Saturday is the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It also marks the start of my congressional career. Over that time I have watched Congress fail to grapple with the demands of keeping the Congress secure and open, thwart efforts to ensure its continuity, weaken its ability to oversee national security crises both real and imagined, and fail to counteract an executive branch that has grown overpowerful and capricious. While there is time left, I hope we can learn from the last two decades and restore both the capacity and incentives for Congress to reverse these trends and avoid the storm that we can already see is brewing.