Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your regular look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Tell your friends to subscribe.
THE TOP LINE
This week. The House is back Monday evening with a quorum call to start the second session of the 117th Congress; the Senate is back on Monday as well. The floor and committees look fairly quiet, but watch out for Tuesday’s Leg Branch Approps hearing with 3/4s of the Capitol Police Board and a Senate Judiciary hearing on domestic terrorism; a Wednesday House Defense Approps subcommitte hearing on the negative consequences of the CR on defense readiness and a SSCI hearing on a DHS intel nominee. Senator Reid will lie in state on Wednesday — the Nevada Independent summarized his life and linked to video from this weekend’s services.
Trump insurrection. Last week was the one year anniversary of the Trump insurrection. Many of those criminally responsible are at large and uncharged; those who are politically responsible continue to downplay, deny, or shift responsibility — or counterprogram with misinformation. We will not pass over those who remain silent with the purpose of evading responsibility and encouraging the media to move its attention elsewhere. You can tell a lot by those who skipped out on the commemoration. The denial and downplaying of these terrible events have particular relevance for those on the hill. If you are a staffer and have not yet done so, please respond to the Congressional Progressive Staff Association’s survey on your attitudes toward the congressional workplace one year after January 6th.
COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on Congress, too. The Office of the Attending Physician indicated an astounding 13% positivity rate at the Capitol testing center last week, up from less than 1% the week before. (This information should be routinely disclosed.) Whether it is COVID, the Trump insurrection, or even a snowstorm, Congress must be able to work fully remotely for an extended time, but that issue has only been partially addressed in the House and not at all in the Senate, as my colleague Taylor J. Swift explains.
Steve Aftergood, the scholar who authored the amazing Secrecy News newsletter for two decades, gathered and published tens of thousands of CRS reports over the decades, was responsible for publishing the Intelligence Community’s top line budget number, and successfully brought a scientific bent to questions of government policy — especially around government secrecy — has discontinued his program at the Federation of American Scientists, where he was first hired in 1989. Steve assures me he has not retired and merely is in transition. His essay on his experiences are worth reading, he still replies to emails, and we owe a debt of gratitude for Steve’s long service towards advancing government transparency and accountability and his collegiality towards all of us who have spent our careers learning from him.
Capitol Police Chief Manger testified last week before the Senate Rules Committee; his written testimony is here. From that testimony: “January 6 exposed critical deficiencies with operational planning, intelligence, staffing, and equipment.” Unmentioned, but equally important: deficiencies with the Capitol Police Board (of which Manger is a member) and how Congress oversees and holds the USCP/Board accountable. See here for a list of civil society recommendations for reforming the USCP as well as this letter on USCP IG report transparency and these model public records request regulations. Politico obtained, and we haven’t seen from official sources, this 10-page Board report on improvements to the Capitol Complex, much of which mirror Manger’s testimony down to turns of phrase and ordering of contents, making me wonder why it is not public. There is a tacked-on section on the Capitol Police Board not present in Manger’s testimony… on page 9.
The absent section expresses the Board’s full support for Manger. It says the Board has streamlined its policies for approving requests from the USCP. The Board approved an updated Manual of Procedures, “codifying the Board’s new commitment to transparency with Congressional stakeholders.” What exactly does that mean, and does it cover transparency to the public? Will the Manual be made publicly available? In apparent response to IG criticism, the Board says its members will regularly review its policies and procedures and “streamline” its review and approval process. It also mentions the creation of new meetings with “Congressional Oversight” to allow for “direct information sharing… so long as it does not infringe on the protection of sensitive and classified information.” Uh, what? The USCP lacks the authority to classify info, many staffers hold clearances, and oversight is their job. Further, “the Board’s meeting minutes will be available to the same Congressional Oversight stakeholders upon request.” First of all, upon request — how about automatically? And second, who constitutes “Congressional Oversight stakeholders?
House Leg Branch Approps, which has a USCP oversight hearing set for Tuesday, may wish to inquire publicly about who constitute “Congressional Oversight stakeholders,” why this information is not provided automatically to them, and why the Board is not increasing its staff per the criticisms in the HSGAC/Rules report. While they’re at it, they should consider asking the Board why they still have not implemented the appropriations language included in the FY 2021 approps bill on release of IG reports — the Board is actively blocking the release of all IG reports— as well as the creation of a records request process for USCP documents. They should also inquire about the stronger language that the House passed for the FY 2022 bill. Also the ongoing USCP failure to publish arrest information in a structured format. We also wonder whether the Board is implementing the 2017 GAO recommendations.
We watched most of the Senate Rules hearing. 30ish of the more than 100+ IG recs have been closed — none of which dealt with the USCP Board — and the Chief suggested an additional 60 recs are “in progress.” (We don’t know what that indicates.) There was much discussion on staff numbers — the USCP has 1600-1700 officers to deploy on any given day — which is a lot! — and another 175 out regularly, many due to COVID. (Are they vaccinated?) The USCP hopes to hire 280 people a year for the next three years and may look to annuitants and contractors to fill the gaps. We were struck by claims about poor information sharing and we point you to this thread by Mike German, a former FBI agent who went undercover with white supremacists and is an expert on law enforcement and intelligence oversight, who explains that this is a head fake. There wasn’t a lack of information available to indicate the attacks were coming, as there were plenty of warnings and it was obvious, but rather the problem is a combination of bias and a lack of imagination (arising from bias). German suggests the claim of poor information sharing is often used to leverage providing agencies more powers and resources. He holds FBI management accountable for these lapses, just as Congress has held (a few) members of the USCP accountable. So far, I am not convinced that the necessary reforms to the USCP/Board are being made to provide for greater security at the capitol complex. Specifically: where is the reform of the Capitol Police Board and strengthening its accountability to Congress and the public? If anything, the absence of the Senate Sergeant at Arms before House appropriators at Tuesday’s hearing and the USCP Board policy to provide records “upon request” to “Congressional Oversight stakeholders” suggests we are a long way from good.
The Trump insurrection and the Capitol Police failings lead us to turn for succor to historians. Alas, historian Angie Maxwell reminds us what we are seeing now — rising militancy, one party control (or at least a permanent veto), destruction of voting rights, packing of the Supreme Court — marks the triumph of the Long Southern Strategy.
ODDS AND ENDS
Former USCP Chief Steven Sund, who served as chief on January 6th, has a new Twitter account and says he will be telling his story soon.
Former Member of Congress Brian Baird launched his ‘Democracy Not Violence’ pledge campaign last week, asking Americans to condemn violence against government officials. At the same time, “1 in 3 Americans say violence against the government can be justified,” per the Washington Post.
What did working in Congress mean to staffers a decade ago? The Congressional Management Foundation surveyed 650 staffers with this open-ended question back in 2011 and republished the responses here. (H/T KTM)
Lorelei Kelly has published a case study of how “how members of Congress can employ newly available communications technology to invite policy-adjacent communities to be producers of information that help shape the content of legislation.”
Parliamentary responses to countering terrorism and violent extremism is the subject of the Commonwealth Parliament Association’s virtual workshop scheduled for this Tuesday, January 11th from 9 – 10:30 PM. Register here.
ModCom’s work over the past year is the subject of a presentation hosted by the OpenGov Hub this Wednesday, January 12th 12:30 – 1:30 PM. RSVP here.
A panel of historians will discuss landmark Congressional investigations this Thursday, January 13 at 12 PM, kicking off the Levin Center at Wayne Law’s new Portraits in Oversight series: profiles of the key figures in the history of US legislative oversight.
Project On Government Oversight is hosting a congressional training program titled “Working with the Media on Oversight and Investigations” this Friday, January 14th at 12:00 pm ET. RSVP here.
FYI, Pres. Biden’s State of the Union address is set for Tuesday, March 1.