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.

SENATE LEG BRANCH APPROPRIATIONS

Will the Senate support funding for Congress at the same level that passed the House? House Appropriations approved legislation that increased overall funding for the legislative branch by 13.8%; groups on the left and on the right are calling for the Senate to meet or exceed the House’s levels. The conservative Lincoln Network coordinated a letter encouraging the Senate to restore Congress as an “institutional powerhouse capable of defending our Republic in the years to come;” Demand Progress and progressive organizations urged the same in order to strengthen Congress’ policymaking and infrastructural capacities and increase staff diversity and retention. The House’s proposed top line increase would allow for a 21% increase in funding levels for personnel in personal, committee, and leadership offices, bringing that chamber back to the (still low) funding levels in 2010.

Senate Leg Branch Appropriations specifically has the opportunity to address the Senate staff pay gap and increase staff diversity, among other important issues. It also could prompt the establishment of an Office of Diversity and Inclusion, as the House did in 2019, to address both these issues and oversee studies on staff pay — like the one requested a few years back to be produced by the Secretary of the Senate but still has not emerged publicly. CRS looks at this from time to time, as do Senate democrats, but they don’t have access to the data or the broad mandate to address retention and diversity on an institutional scale. Heck, just directing the semiannual Senators’ Official Personnel and Official Expense Account (SOPOEA) Report be published as data, just like its House equivalent, would be a useful step forward.

Leg Branch Approps could also create a Whistleblower Resource Center, a parallel institution to the House’s Office of Whistleblower Ombuds, established in 2019. A Whistleblower Resource Center would assist Senate offices in receiving and properly handling whistleblower communications from the public and agency officials. It is not unheard of for staff to need guidance on how to best manage whistleblower communications and this office has been a tremendous success in the House.

The lion’s share of funding for the Legislative branch, 40% of the House’s proposed top line increase, would go to the Capitol Police and the Architect of the Capitol. No one doubts the necessity of a properly-funded USCP, although we have our doubts that the huge sums they’ve received over the decades — more than half-a-billion in the last fiscal year — have been properly managed, and we can easily see how they’ve exerted downward pressure on the funds available for legislating, the very activity the USCP exists to protect. Nevertheless, with a huge infusion of new funds, Demand Progress’s recommendations for the FY 2022 Security Supplemental contains a lengthy list of options for improving USCP operations, including management and oversight thereof.

CONGRESSIONAL SECURITY

September 18 is behind us. A handful of Trump insurrectionists showed up and were met with overwhelming force, a fence, and an army of journalists. We’re glad to see the fence being taken down. Top Republicans hedged on the rally instead of condemning the false premise that imprisoned insurrectionists are “political prisoners.”

I don’t know what to make of this:the “Capitol Police chief dropped request for armed National Guard members to be on standby for Saturday’s rally after Pentagon discussions.” The article covers the readiness of the police force, how it is overseen, and how it responds to emergencies, but all it shows to me is a lot of confusion about what’s going on.

A member of the House Select Committee on January 6, who was serving at DHS at the time, restricted the flow of intelligence reports just months before the January 6th riot, a memo obtained by CREW reveals. The member, DHS official Joseph Maher, changed the agency’s protocols regarding “election-related threats” among law enforcement agencies. He is not the only staffer to have drawn negative attention; the Project on Government oversight called for the removal of staff director David Buckley because of a substantiated complaint that he retaliated against a whistleblower when leading the CIA’s IG office.

The specific nature of USCP’s disciplinary actions against six officers found in violation of USCP policies around the January 6th riot are detailed in internal documents obtained by the Miami Herald. We now have another piece of the puzzle previewed by USCP’s koan-like press release. Three officers allegedly posed for photographs with the rioters; another, an agent in the USCP Protective Services Bureau, allegedly disclosed to a friend the (formerly) secure location to which he evacuated legislators on January 6th and was described as an adherent to Trump’s election conspiracy theories.

Congress still isn’t adequately prepared for continuing to govern through disasters such as terrorist attacks, but the House’s Modernization Committee may address Continuity of Congress concerns including succession and remote operations in late 2021 or 2022. Former members of Congress and a coalition of watchdog groups suggested that the long-overdue Congressional response involve a “new body — either a bipartisan, bicameral joint committee or a commission of distinguished former members.” More info about the Continuity of Congress can be found at continuityofcongress.org.

ETHICS

Ethics reforms were stripped out of Democrats’ voting rights billbut why? That question may be best directed at Sen. Manchin, The New Republic speculates. What’s missing? Provisions to “require presidential and vice-presidential candidates to disclose a decade’s worth of tax filings; prevent presidents from spending federal funds at businesses they, their families, and Cabinet members own; and empower the Office of Government Ethics to meaningfully investigate public officials, including the president and vice president. They take aim at the insane nepotism we witnessed during the Trump years and end the practice of providing federal contracts to businesses owned by the president or vice president.”

The revolving door is alive and well — the New York Times covers how the accounting firms have a nice little business of encouraging (*wink*) their employees to work for the government, craft favorable rules that save their clients billions during their short tenures in public service, and then return as partners at the accounting firms earning a cool million or more. The Times didn’t list all the revolvers, but they did mention the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation as one place where this happens. Treasury, of course, is another.

New guidance on FARA, that’s the Foreign Agents Registration Act, was released by the Department of Justice. The Politico Influence newsletter summarizes the advisory opinions, essentially describing them as providing a more forgiving interpretation of the law. They appear to carve out registration requirements for political consultants, attorneys doing certain work for foreign clients, etc. We and POGO have filed comments and submitted testimony on improving transparency and accountability at the FARA Unit, but have not seen much progress on the issues we have raised.

Former House Speaker and serial child molester Dennis Hastert settled a lawsuit over payments to his victim for an unknown sum. Hastert had stopped paying his previous settlement of $3.5 million to the victim in 2014 when the FBI began questioning him for illegally withdrawing large sums of cash; Hastert was ultimately found guilty of “structuring” and spent time in prison. It wasn’t that crime that led to the downfall of the longest-serving Republican Speaker, but rather the use of earmarks for personal benefit and a long history of covering up the dirt of his colleagues. This era of scandal led to the creation of the Office of Congressional Ethics — in part because Hastert stymied an Ethics Committee investigation by removing its chair — which is an independent ethics watchdog that should be strengthened further by being granted certain subpoena powers.

Dark Money, Kevin McCarthy, and MAGA is the focus of a Rolling Stone article that includes this very helpful recap: “The grassrootsy-named State Tea Party Express ran a bunch of ads to salvage Kevin McCarthy’s standing with the MAGA faithful just before McCarthy ran to become the new House GOP leader. Despite the name and branding, that tea-party group got most of its money from a D.C. outfit run by a veteran corporate lobbyist with extensive ties to massive power-utility companies and a taste for fine wine. And one of those firms just paid nearly a quarter­billion dollars related to an alleged racketeering and bribery scheme using the same kind of dark-money groups that were used to boost McCarthy.” Is this MAGAWashing?

In Vogue. A conservative group asked OCE to open an investigation into Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for possibly violating the gift rule by accepting an invitation to attend the Met Gala as a guest. (Guests of the fashion houses do not pay for admission to the charity event.) It is not unusual for members of Congress to attend: Rep. Carolyn Maloney attended this year, although she didn’t draw a complaint from this group.

TRANSPARENCY

What the Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act will look like after implementation was the subject of a Data Foundation panel last week (video here). The legislation increases public access to agency spending proposals, which provide constituents and Members alike critical insight into the federal budget by establishing a central online repository.

Who’s the boss? There apparently is no centralized list of the VP’s staff, Business Insider reports in a roundup of Vice Pres. Harris’s aides. The president is required to submit a Report on White House Office Personnel annually (see the note accompanying 3 USC 133), but the same is not true of the VP’s office, which is split between the executive and legislative branches. If true, this seems like a good idea for a bill.

TECHNOLOGY

New Library of Congress IT leadership. After the retirement of Bud Barton, the Library of Congress announced Judith Conklin will serve as chief information officer and John Rutledge as deputy information officer. Over a number of years, the Library had come under criticism for its IT management practices, including in this 2015 GAO report, but in recent years the Library has taken steps to address these problems.

The GSA is finally moving away from DUNits outdated, expensive, and monopolistic identification system for federal contractorsSlow Build’s Nancy Scola reports. The change is long overdue: a 2012 GAO report concluded that Dun & Bradstreet, the proprietary owner of the system, is “a monopoly that has contributed to higher costs.”

Redacted? Are you sure? Our friends at CourtListener have built a neat little tool to let you know whether you’ve botched the redactions in your PDFs. The GitHub repo is here.

Witness diversity is important, which is why (in part) the House Rules Package for the 117th Congress directed the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion to submit a report by this past July on how to implement a survey; this was also the subject of ODI’s testimony before Appropriators earlier this year and both Demand Progress’s request to update the House rules and our approps requests. The climate justice group Green 2.0 told E&E News that Congress shouldn’t wait and explained how they’ve launched a campaign to encourage committees to do better.

Staff turnover in Rep. Jayapal’s office and the work environment was the focus of a lengthy Buzzfeed article that argues there is “a serious disconnect between how she talks about workers’ rights and how she treats her own staff.”

Intern-a-palooza videos. The First Branch Intern Project — which held the first ever Intern-a-palooza orientation for new and prospective Congressional interns two weeks ago — posted several of the information session videos on its website. You can find videos for the sessions our team took part in on the website, including “Approaching Your Internship For Success” and “Orienting to the Political, Physical, and Digital Capitol.” A few more video sessions will be uploaded this week.

Senate Pages are back and vaccinated this week. We are pretty grumpy about the cost, utility, and equity issues raised by the pages, and also jealous of the birds-eye view.

Filibuster reform? The two norms, Norm Eisen and Norm Ornstein, explain there are seven reasons to think Dems will reform the filibuster, although I suspect last night’s announcement around a pathway for immigration reform and McConnell’s statements on the debt ceiling may add eight and nine. Their Washington Post editorial is just a teaser for their new Brookings report on the six ways to reform the filibuster.

State Secrecy and the War on Terror was the focus of a Project on Government Oversight-hosted panel discussion. It’s focus: the government’s persistent effort to shield from the public vital information about its conduct in the war on terror. Watch the video here.

The Speakers. Speaker Pelosi participated in the G7 Heads of Parliament Meeting held this year in the UK. The focus of this year’s conference was “Open vs. Secure Parliaments,” which is ironic because the majority of the summit took place behind closed doors — although there is a picture of them grabbing a pint. The summit was held in the Speaker’s constituency of Chorley, which suggests that all politics are local after all. As of Sunday a statement, if there is one, of any commitments made are expected to be released, but I have not seen any. There is video of a panel discussion at Cambridge and (hilariously) at Chatham House… you know, the place of the non-disclosure rules.

CALENDAR

Improving solidarity among Legislative branch workers is the focus of a series of events hosted by the Congressional Progressive Staff Association this month. Association members have received invites; others can email CPSA.Info@mail.house.gov with inquiries. Events include:

• Labor Activism in Action with Saru Jayaraman on September 20th at 4PM

• Ask-Me-Anything with a Fiduciary Progressive Financial Advisor on September 22nd at 3PM

• A conversation with Cindy Estrada, VP of UAW on September 24th at 2PM

• A conversation with Sara Nelson, international President of Flight Attendants-CWA on September 27th at 4PM.

Civility, Collaboration, and Leadership is the subject of a House Modernization Committee hearing on Thursday, September 23.

GAO’s 100th birthday is an opportunity for the watchdog to hold a series of wonky oversight conversations. Don’t miss —

• Managing Complexity across Public Policy Challenges (on using tools and technologies to do good public policy in the face of overlapping environmental, financial, and health crises) on September 21st at 1PM Zoom link here.

• Ensuring Compliance with Appropriation and Procurement Laws and Regulations on September 29th at 10AM.Zoom link here.

The Freedom of Information summit, hosted by the National Freedom of Information Coalition, is September 28th – 30th. Schedule available here; registration here.

Congressional Baseball Game will be played September 29th at Nationals Stadium. Buy tickets here.

“Life after McGahn,” a discussion on the legacy of Trump aide Donald McGahn’s dismissed subpoena, will be held October 8th from 12-1:30 PM. It’s hosted by Wayne Law and POGO, and you can RSVP here.

Do you have an event you want to share? Let us know. Email capacity@demandprogress.org