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 civility; Roll 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.
Improving solidarity among Legislative branch workers was 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. You can still attend the final event: a conversation with Sara Nelson, international President of Flight Attendants-CWA, on September 27th at 4PM.
GAO’s 100th birthday is an opportunity for the watchdog to hold a series of wonky oversight conversations. Don’t miss Ensuring Compliance with Appropriation and Procurement Laws and Regulations on September 29th at 10AM.Zoom link here.
Congressional Baseball Game will be played September 29th at Nationals Stadium. Buy tickets here.
The OCWR’s webinar on implementing the Congressional Accountability Act will be held Thursday, September 30th, at 12 PM. Register here.
Library and Research Services for Parliaments is the title of an upcoming conference hosted by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. Events run October 6th – 8th. Register 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 the Levin Center at Wayne Law and POGO, and you can RSVP here.
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