Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your regular look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Tell your friends to subscribe.
This week. The Senate returns to its regularly scheduled programming (recess) after a busy week and won’t return until Jan. 31; the House is out until Feb. 1. Committee activity is minimal. The February 18th deadline to fund the government looms; Senate Republicans continue to stonewall. Last week, we watched as the Senate upheld its sacred tradition of refusing to protect the right to vote for all citizens through parliamentary maneuvers designed to accomplish the opposite of their stated objectives. Sarah Binder explains what Senate Democrats were trying to accomplish and how a tactical defeat could become a strategic victory for democracy. We fear that it is too late.
In the following sections we talk about additional threats to self-government as well as progress in reforming aspects of House operations. Of particular note is an overlooked but striking report on increasing the number of employees per member office, an excellent Fix Congress Committee hearing on implementation of its reform recommendations, and the announcement (via that hearing) of the standing up of the CAO’s House Digital Service.
The House Modernization Committee held a hearing this past week on implementation of the House’s modernization resolution, with in-person testimony from the House Clerk, the Chief Administrative Officer, and written testimony from the Architect of the Capitol. (Video here). You can safely ignore the Architect’s testimony, which said nothing new and seemed oddly edited, but don’t sleep on the written testimony of the Clerk and the CAO. It’s honestly too much to summarize here, but we tried, anyway.
The House Clerk covered—
• The adoption of standardized formats for legislative documents (which matters a lot because it’s necessary for tools that manipulate that information);
• The upcoming House-wide launch of the comparative print project (which will show you, in real time, how a proposed amendment would change a bill, how a bill would change the law, and generate a side-by-side comparison);
• Its efforts to build a central location to record, process, and share committee voting data entered and verified by committee staff (which is the subject of a forthcoming RFI);
• Its efforts to build a tool to allow the scheduling of committee meetings that avoid conflicting obligations for members (and a forthcoming RFI on that);
• Its efforts to create a modern lobbying disclosure system that allows you to track every single lobbyists (it is waiting for direction from House Admin on how to proceed);
• The modernization of how the Clerk receives from committees their reports and supporting documents;
• Improving how electronically submitted legislation is handled;
• Its ongoing support for the Congressional Data Task Force (which is the proposed new name for the Bulk Data Task Force);
• The Clerk also discussed the importance of sufficient funds to improve staff recruitment, diversity, retention, compensation and benefits, and accessibility, all of which are laudable goals.
The House CAO covered —
• The launch of the House Human Resources Hub (a one-stop-shop of HR best practices);
• The return of the Transition Aide Program, where newly elected members can have staff support before they are sworn in;
• The work of the task force on a diverse and talented House workforce, which is currently examining benefits, staff training, and improvements to data about the workforce;
• The launch and build-out of the CAO Coach program;
• The launch and build-out of a Congressional Leadership Academy for members;
• The expansion of video, technology, and teleworking tools;
• Improving the accessibility of House websites (including efforts to ensure 508 compliance);
• The launch of digital signatures for congressional group letters (via the tool Quill), the online submission of casework and privacy release forms from constituents, and e-signatures for House Administration forms;
• The building of the House Digital Service, discussed in the technology section, below. But first….
WHAT TO DO ABOUT PERSONAL OFFICE STAFF SIZE?
How many staff should work in a personal office? This fascinating topic was the focus of a report requested by the House Modernization Committee, generated by the House IG in October, provided to House Admin in December, and released by the House Admin Committee last week. (I think we’re the first ones to notice it.) We haven’t had the chance to digest it all, but here are the highlights from the Executive Summary (and see Appendix C for a wish list):
• Increase personal office staff numbers: in the short term, increase the permanent staff cap to 25 from 18, and in the long term eliminate statutory limits on staffing.
• Increase staff pay + add a COLA: the House should establish and maintain pay parity with Executive branch salaries, including adjusting the MRA to make this possible. Specifically:
— Build a COLA adjustment into the Clerk-Hire calculation;
— Unlink the staff salary cap from members’ salary (and benchmark it to SES pay);
— Develop pay banding for key member office positions;
— Further increase the Clerk-Hire portion of the MRA (beyond that included in the FY 2022 Leg Branch approps bill, should it be enacted) by an average of $42k to match the federal benchmark.
Notable also from the report was a lack of precise data about district office employees. The report also has useful information on the average size of a congressional district (2,148 square miles) and staffing information.
Now that we have this report, further increases to the MRA (and to non-MRA funds that support staffing), an increase in the number of personal staff, and a build-in COLA should all be factored into the upcoming Legislative branch appropriations bill.
New digital services team in the House. The House of Representatives’ Chief Administrative Office will soon have an in-house team of developers responsible for prototyping software serving Members’ needs, the House Digital Service, CAO Szpindor announced Thursday at the ModCom hearing. The goal: to “leverage fellows from other agencies and the private sector – as appropriate – and expand the House Digital Service team over time.” The CAO is responsible for providing support for non-legislative House operations, as contrasted with the Clerk who provides support for technologies concerning the movement of legislation. (The Sergeant at Arms also provides services ranging from identity management to parking garages to, um, oversight of the Capitol Police.)
The inspiration for creating a Congress-wide digital service, of which this is a variation, arose with the standing up of the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, the former of which works on high profile technology services and was created in the wake of the healthcare.gov failure, and the latter is focused on transforming agency culture and operations by helping agencies buy and build technology. (They were inspired by the UK Digital Government Service.) There has long been a desire to create a USDS/18F for Congress. Watch Seamus Kraft, a former House digital staffer who became the executive director of the now defunct OpenGov Foundation, explain the value proposition of a Congressional Digital Service at the National Archives. Creating such a service has long been a bipartisan dream in the House: Reps. Steny Hoyer and Kevin McCarthy released draft legislation on this topic in 2016 and published it online for public comment. (Rep. Hoyer hailed the creation of the House Digital Service and testified before the ModCom on creating such a service.) Travis Moore, of TechCongress, has been placing technology fellows inside the legislative branch to work on technology and policy matters since 2016, including supporting a congressional digital service fellowship.
We at the Forecast are fans of the idea of creating a congress-wide digital service and (some of us) have been steadily working towards improved technology inside the legislative branch for more than a decade. (I work on this nowadays in my Demand Progress hat and, before I joined DPEF, was policy counsel at the now-defunct Sunlight Foundation where I pushed for improved digitization of legislative & non-legislative information, improved technology services, and building technology that works across the legislative branch siloes.) Two outgrowths of that effort are the Congressional Bulk Data Task Force, a cross-silo working group formed inside the Congress in 2012, which continues to meet quarterly on legislative data issues, and the Congressional Data Coalition, a coalition of non-governmental stakeholders also formed in 2012 that collaborates with the coalition of the willing inside the legislative branch. You can see these efforts continuing to bear fruit.
The HDS is not the end of these efforts, not even close. First, the intention to create a service is not the same as growing the organization (although it is a welcome step!). It needs funding. The CAO’s House Digital Service pertains to House operations and would not address other parts of the people’s chamber (such as legislative information). There is a need for a Congress-wide service, reaching the Senate and also its support offices and agencies. There is also a need to reform the political structures so that permission to innovate is assumed, funding is readily available, and coordination across silos occurs without waiting for the slowest and most recalcitrant component to agree. Demand Progress has various recommendations on how to continue this stepwise effort to improve technology development and coordination inside the Legislative branch, which has been a drawn out process slowed down by opposition in some quarters at some of the support agencies. But we remain hopeful, albeit much older than when we started.
The list of dangers at the Capitol complex isn’t short. Among them: outdated firearm regulations, a lack of Covid-19 regulations, rising death threats, inaccessible infrastructure, and unhinged rhetoric (that increase the odds of stochastic terrorism).
— Guns. Majority Leader Hoyer once again pinged the USCP Board to review the current firearm rules for the Capitol complex; he had written mid-December about guaranteeing that committee rooms and elsewhere where the public gathers to be free from firearms. He notes the USCP Board will be meeting within a week of his letter — presumably it’s happened already. The USCP Board doesn’t announce its meetings or release its minutes, so we’ll have to wait for an update from Hoyer.
— Covid archipelago. The vaccine requirement for certain DC establishments went into effect last week, but apparently will not be applied to Capitol complex eateries. The issue of whether the Capitol complex restaurants are public or private facilities is a rabbit hole with a sordid history of racism and it hurts my brain to think about regulations that apply to the contractors who now provide those services. (There’s also a long history of underpayment of the food workers.) This seems like an issue for House Admin and Senate Rules.
— Accessibility. Rep. Jim Langevin’s retirement announcement got us thinking about the accessibility problems in the Capitol complex, something on which he testified last year. Addressing these issues means modernizing Congress, training staff on accessibility issues, and addressing infrastructure problems: for example, heavy doors and narrow hallways still exclude people with disabilities. It appears that the agency in charge of policing accessibility, the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, either has not completed or has not published its biannual ADA inspection reports for the 116th and 117th Congresses, but the report from the 115th Congress found 1,996 barriers to access, with the plurality of the problems arising in multi-user bathrooms. Rep. Langevin’s amendment to spend $3.5 million in FY 2022 on making the Capitol more accessible was included in the House Leg Branch Approps bill. Senate Democrats’ draft bill provides slightly less funding, but it’s a moot issue if Senate Republicans refuse to allow the regular appropriations bills to move forward and insist on a continuing resolution.
ODDS AND ENDS
The FBI paid Rep. Henry Cuellar visits at home and at work last week. The details remain unclear, but a “senior law enforcement official” said the investigation concerns “the country of Azerbaijan and a group of U.S. businessmen,” according to ABC. The Public Integrity Section led the raid and, per the Intercept, as “an Azerbaijani organization Cuellar has had close ties with over the years was previously the subject of an FBI investigation, with its president pleading guilty to charges of wooing members of Congress by serving as a front for the nation’s wholly owned oil company.”
Incentivizing oversight. Dan Lips of the Lincoln Network has some recommendations on strengthening committee oversight, focusing on expanding statutory requirements for agencies to respond to letters from groups of members of Congress.
Presidential transitions. The Partnership for Public Service marked one year of the Biden presidency with a new report on presidential transitions. We note in particular two recommendations pertaining to Congress’ role: first, clarifying OMB’s role as a “service provider” to transition teams and second, eliminating the GSA’s current ability to stonewall transitions until the agency officially recognizes the new president.
Democracy Awards nominations are open. The annual Congressional Management Foundation’s Democracy Awards recognize extraordinary public service in Congress across four categories: Constituent Service, Workplace Environment, Transparency & Accountability, and Innovation & Modernization. More information is located here, and the deadline to apply is this Friday, February 28th.
Put a face to the name. GPO’s Congressional Pictorial Directory for the 117th Congress is now online. We note that these photos are not subject to copyright — let us know the most innovative use you’ve seen. One example: the New York Times uses facial recognition tech to recognize members of Congress. Here’s looking at you.
Transparency talks for Sunshine Week. Transparency experts will discuss FOIA, whistleblowers, press freedom, and more at the Advisory Committee on Transparency’s upcoming virtual conference on March 16 at 12PM. We’ll have the Zoom link for you soon.
A NOTE ABOUT THE FORECAST
We love writing this newsletter for you and we think you like it, too. But it is time consuming to draft and write and edit — and it does not have specific financial support in a time where institutional funders are paying attention (and voting with their dollars) on other issues. Without specific support, it becomes increasingly hard to carry. Don’t worry, we’re not going away. But we will be reworking the content of the newsletter to try to decrease the workload. What that means, in practice, is that we’ll hit the highlights at the top and then delve into one topic in depth. We might change the publication time so we’re not working on the weekends. We’ll still be reading everything, but we don’t have the time to write it all up and place it into context. So if you wanna know more about something, please call, email, or DM.