This week. The House and Senate are out until next week. When they’re back it is going to be pandemonium— the next three months everything accelerates and decelerates at the same time — so prep now and remember to spend some time outside.
Appropriations redux. Our calendar of upcoming testimony deadlines is here, with House member requests to committees dues between April 27-29. Public witness testimony deadlines are being announced, with CJS on May 13th. House approps subcommittee and full committee markups are tentatively set for June, with floor votes in July. The Senate likely will have an equally aggressive schedule, but all that depends on whether the two chambers (and two parties) can agree on top line budget numbers. If not, this could be the end of appropriations-not-by-CR for the foreseeable future. We are expecting minibuses and omnibuses unless, of course, everything gets railroaded.
In Case You Missed It. We know, faithful readers, that you endeavor to read each and every newsletter when its bits and bytes are newly minted. But we forgive you if last weeks’ was too much and you were too busy. So, ICYMI —
• Catch up on our summaries of four House Leg branch approps hearings: House officers, GAO, CBO, and OCWR, several of which made news;
• Review what happened at a smattering of hearings on Continuity of Congress, the STOCK Act, and FARA, plus a markup that reported a press protections bill;
• Separate the wheat from the chaff by noticing that the Capitol Police received a citation from the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights for their mismanagement of the Jan 6th insurrection, that committee staff interns can now be paid from a dedicated fund, and that the OCWR apparently didn’t budget to pay for House unionization that would cost about $500k. Read on.
Unions? We are wondering why the House Admin Committee has not held a markup on the House unionization legislation. Speaker Pelosi pledged her full support on February 3rd, 74 days ago, and House Admin held a hearing on March 2rd, which was 47 days ago. The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights Board unanimously endorsed allowing House staff to unionize and 3/4s of Dem House Members co-sponsored Rep. Levin’s resolution. We’re not the only ones who feel this way: the Congressional Workers Union wrote House leadership on April 13th, thanking them for their support for unionization and asking that an implementing resolution be “scheduled and brought to the floor for a vote expeditiously.”
Committee staff pay. We are still scratching our heads on whether House leadership / appropriators will fix the decision to give committee staff only a 10% pay adjustment while personal, appropriations, and leadership offices received sufficient funding to support a 21% pay adjustment. Our friends Tim LaPira and Alexander Furnas wonder whether personal offices will actually pass on the MRA adjustment to personal office staff, and they call on House Admin to adopt binding salary bands and/or mandate that new MRA funds be used for staff pay.
KNOWING WHEN IT’S TIME
Dianne Feinstein’s incapacity to serve in office is the focus of a remarkable San Francisco Chronicle’s story, where four senators and three former Feinstein staffers go on record to describe her faltering mental acuity. Discussing a person’s mental decline is a hard thing to do, but Sen. Feinstein’s incapacity is a tragic and open secret. She may be unaware of her incapacity — that it exists, or its extent — which is not unusual for people with memory problems. Others may evaluate her on a sliding scale for her age, which is another form of denial.
This isn’t the first report of Sen. Feinstein’s decline, which “broke” as a news story by John Bresnahan and Marianne Levine in Politico in September 2020 and was covered best by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer in December 2020. Journalists have a huge disincentive to tell these stories, in part because it restricts their ability to get access and scoops from congressional offices and in part because it defies journalistic conventions that require sources to go “on the record,” which is almost impossible as those individuals would be unwilling to suffer political retaliation. While there are ways to quantify mental decline (such as a mini mental evaluation), it is unlikely any politician would sit for or release the results, depriving journalists of technocratic facts and forcing them to rely on eyewitness statements, which they are often loath to report when it concerns mental acuity. Tal Kopan deserves a lot of credit for telling this story.
Denial, both political and substantive, comes in many forms. Some argue that Sen. Feinstein is being held to a double-standard, as incompetent men are not the subject of similar news reports. Others say this is an unusual circumstance because her husband just passed. In fact, there has been some reporting of other Members who have become incapable, such as Sen. Thad Cochrane, but we have seen with our own eyes Members who are apparently in steep decline. Journalists, who are expert observers and routinely meet with Members over long periods of time, are best equipped to observe such a decline and should be telling stories about what they perceive, even though they are very reluctant to serve as active witnesses and often use journalism conventions to obscure their professional viewpoints. Editors routinely enforce these norms and, in these circumstances, do a disservice to the public. When deciding whether to return a Member to office, the public needs exactly this kind of information. Generally speaking, the press culture is not up to the task, which is a real problem.
Leaving the fitness decision to constituents alone is another form of passing the buck. At the recent ModCom hearing on Continuity of Congress, witnesses noted the need for a succession plan in the event of a national emergency that kills or incapacitates Members of the House, and called for a Constitutional amendment to that end. But that begs the question: what does it mean for a member to be incapacitated? It is not only a function of age, so the sometimes-raised idea of an age limit (i.e., a retirement age) is a poor fit to the problem. Should members be required to have a mental acuity test every two years (or after a major illness?) that is made publicly available? One can imagine the outrage that might result from such a rule. We also can see the dangers — especially in a seniority system where the odds of incapacity are correlated with age — where staff end up making decisions instead of the Members and, even more uncomfortably, have an incentive to keep obviously incapable Members in office for their own benefit. This creates significant instability at the top.
We are in dark territory here. This is not just a decision left to voters. The Constitution provides each chamber the ability to expel a Member by a 2/3s vote, although that is rare. One would imagine that in most circumstances a determination could be made that a Member should resign, although our failing ethics process suggests its lack of fitness for such a role. A Member could be removed from committees and discouraged from voting, although we can imagine the political reluctance to do so. (Would leadership remove a loyal ally when they falter?) There are other incapacity issues beyond a decline in mental acuity, such as sociopathic behavior, which recently have convulsed our political system. I guess we have a lot more to talk about, friends.
ODDS AND ENDS
The wave of COVID-19 cases within Congress continues, writes Chad Pergram for Fox News. By Fox’s count, 135 members of the 117th Congress have reported testing positive for COVID-19 in total. We continue to worry about the non-requirement for public reporting of positive tests by Members and the threat it poses to staff in each chamber. We also worry about the long-term effects on Members.
Transparency weak link. The Secretary of the Senate still hasn’t posted senators’ expense reports in more than a year, Axios reports. Getting the disclosures online in the first place took a significant civil society effort, and there have been problems with the Secretary’s filings from the start (as I noted over a decade ago). This marks the first time since the disclosures went online in 2009 that two reporting periods have passed since the last report. What is going on over there?
On Democrat successions, Punchbowl ran a roundup of possible Dem leadership arrangements for the 118th Congress.
Member Pilot Project. Rep. Kai Kahele has largely avoided Washington for the past four months, Honolulu Civil Beat reports: he voted by proxy on all but three voting days in 2022. Members of the House routinely have voted by proxy for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. We would impose a different arrangement in place of proxy voting, proxy rules are too narrow, and many members voted by proxy in circumstances that did not comply with the rules. Nevertheless, the scope of proxy voting here is unusual. Rep. Kahele also continues to fly for Hawaiian Airlines on a limited basis, perhaps to maintain flight accreditation or airline seniority; nevertheless, the pay raises conflict of interest issues.
Congress.gov updates include better legislation search functionality and new options to get alerted when Members sponsor legislation.
Streamlined process for applying to House jobs. The CAO’s new House Resume Bank “provides job seekers with a simple way to submit their resumes for jobs in House offices in Washington, D.C. and across the nation’s congressional districts.” The resume bank was one of the ModCom’s recommendations for attracting and retaining congressional staff; now, candidates for jobs and internships can create profiles and apply automatically to several jobs at once.
• Research Analyst to work on Hill diversity and other issues for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Apply by May 9 here.
• Chief of Staff for NARA’s Information Security Oversight Office. Apply by April 20 here.
#HouseOfCode. The Congressional App Challenge will celebrate student winners of its app competition with two public events: the kickoff and keynotes, scheduled for April 20 at 6 PM, and student app demonstrations, scheduled for April 22 from 4:30 – 7 PM. Register here.
Legislative tech throughout the Americas is the subject of an upcoming Bússola Tech conference on May 5 and 6. Stay tuned for registration info.