What to expect from Congress this week? The House is holding a committee work week before joining the Senate, which is already out on recess. They will return the week of July 11th. We are writing this newsletter before 5pm on Friday, so you’ll have to check the House committee calendar for upcoming hearings, but we know the upcoming week is filled with Approps bills markups. By the end of the week, the appropriations committee process will be complete on the House side — phew — at least until there’s an agreement on the top line numbers, and we can expect the bills to move on the floor soon. The Senate approps timeline is more difficult to divine, but given that the deadlines for public witness testimony wrap up July 1, we could start seeing subcommittee markup notices in July. Or Senate Dems will simply release their draft bills prior to summer recess while leaders negotiate over the top line numbers. Stay tuned.
We’re not going to address the big news out of the Supreme Court on abortion and guns, or what’s happening with the NDAA, or the gun control law, the January 6th stuff, and most of the items that came out of the appropriations process. It’s simply too much for us to manage, but you can expect some of these items — to the extent they fit within this newsletter’s mission — coming up in the upcoming weeks.
Last week saw several big wins for strengthening the Leg branch. On Tuesday, a host of excellent congressional data modernization improvements were announced at the quarterly meeting of the entity formerly known as the Bulk Data Task Force; significant improvements in funding and operations for the Legislative branch were favorably reported by the full House Appropriations committee; and a significant increase in the wage available to interns was promulgated by the House Admin Committee. The House Defense Approps bill contains language to sunset the two AUMFs from 2001 and 2002 that have been abused ever since. We’ve got more below, along with summaries of two hearings that helped define what still needs to be done to modernize Congress: a House ModCom hearing on Congress and Technology and the Senate’s Leg Branch Approps hearing on the GAO & GPO.
Approps status. The twelve House draft appropriations bills are out, but with everything else going on we’ve only gotten around to the Leg branch bill. We’ve published a blog post analyzing what’s in the Leg branch bill. Our first reaction — that there’s a lot of great stuff included — although we also note that 70% of new funding is going to the Capitol Police and the Architect. Other subcommittee bills also contain provisions to strengthen Congress and promote Executive branch accountability, like Power of the Purse provisions in the FSGG bill, but we are still working our way through the bills and report language and will have reports to you later on.
Keeping track of Approps. The House Dems’ proposed 302(b) topline figures for FY2023 are available here; our tracker for House approps hearings & testimony is here; and we’re tracking bill text, report language, and earmarks here.
HOUSE LEG BRANCH APPROPS MARKUP
House Leg Branch Approps markup. Wednesday’s markup of the House Leg Branch Approps bill led to the adoption of the manager’s amendment and three rejected amendments. As usual, it is interesting to see how closely aligned the majority and minority are on most of the issues with respect to strengthening the Legislative branch. This has not always been the case.
The bill text and accompanying report expanded upon the Leg Branch Appropriations subcommittee’s efforts in prior fiscal years to rebuild Congress’s strength as an institution. They significantly increase its investment in its staff, technological modernization, and diversity. From creating a new intern resource office and supporting a living wage for interns to adjusting staff salaries and improving staff benefits, from investing $10 million in a technology modernization fund to expanding the capacity of the Government Accountability Office, the bill is a big step towards building a modern Legislative branch capable of meeting the needs of all Americans. Beyond the bill text, which we’ve written about previously, the report language (described in greater detail here)…
For staff and interns:
• Explores creating a needs-based stipend for interns
• Calls for a report on providing a child care stipend to House staff with children and also a report on the current state of childcare offered across the legislative branch
• Directs a report on expanding employee benefits to cover reimbursing staff for the costs of adoption and fertility treatments; providing staff access to a tax-advantaged college-savings benefit; and providing support to staff for 60 days after an office closure
• Requests a new compensation and diversity study and to continue doing so on a routine basis; also to allow for voluntary reporting of demographic information when staff onboard
Technology and Accessibility of Congressional Information:
• Supports the translation of official communications material into other languages and evaluate creating a new Office of Translation Services to help members translate official materials into other languages
• Supports the ongoing comparative print project, which shows how an amendment modified a bill or a bill would change the law
• Requests a report on ways to collaboratively draft legislation among members, committees, leadership offices, and the Office of Legislative Counsel
• Makes recommendations on creating a Legislative branch-wide staff directory, including the issue areas on which staff work
• Supports the Law Library of Congress’s digitization efforts, especially around making historical committee records available online
• Reports on improving Congress.gov, including making it easier to track member contributions to legislation
Legislative branch administration and accountability:
• Requests GAO to look for gaps in IG coverage in the Legislative branch
• Supports overhauling the lobbyist tracking system, so it becomes possible to track individual lobbyists
• Expands science and technology capabilities inside the legislative branch
• Publishes Capitol Police arrest information as data and directs the Capitol Police IG to publish their reports online
There were some items not included in the House bill or report that we had hoped for — here’s our list — but taken as a whole, it’s a really good bill. The Dems and Republicans did have some points of disagreement, which came up as amendments before the full committee:
• Unions. Ranking member Herrera-Beutler proposed reducing funding for OCWR by $500,000 because she opposes unions for congressional staff, arguing that it creates a conflict-of-interest. The 5 member OCWR Board had urged the House to adopt the resolution allowing for Congressional staff to unionze. I assume RM Herrera Beutler was referring specifically to conflicts arising w/r/t political staff, as non-political policy staff, like those at CRS and GAO, have been unionized for some time and no concerns regarding them have been raised. The recent House effort also allowed non-political staff to unionize, and reducing OCWR funding for unionization would negatively affect them, too. I do not see the conflict-of-interest argument around political staff — surely members will hire staff who will implement their policies — with the big difference now that staff can organize to make sure that employers treat staffers properly, a goal totally in alignment with a strong and capable Congress. But it is a point of contention.
• Capitol complex. Ranking Member Herrera-Beutler also called for a pause on implementing the policy provisions in the committee report language until the Capitol complex is fully open. I am sympathetic to the goals of reopening the Capitol complex — the delay is attributed to a lack of police personnel, although I have concerns about large crowds while the pandemic continues — but I don’t really see the connection. It seems like a way to make the point about displeasure concerning a partially-open Capitol complex.
• Magnetometers. There was much angst from members concerning the magnetometers to get onto the House floor, which makes me think at times that members are unfamiliar with the indignities hoisted upon the general public in the name of security, let alone the hoi polloi who have to have nude photos taken of them as they enter through the CVC. Nevertheless, Rep. Calvert offered an amendment to get rid of these symbols of distrust — because surely no member of Congress would bring a firearm onto the House floor or act in a menacing fashion — but Rep. Cole suggested moving the magnetometers to the entrance of the congressional buildings and requiring members to go through them. This is a good idea. If everyone in the Capitol complex must go through a magnetometer, and no one can bring in firearms (with appropriate and limited exceptions), and all the firearms in the Capitol complex kept by members in their offices are removed from the premises, then it would stand to reason that the magnetometer at the chamber door would become unnecessary. Quick, someone call Rep. Cole and co-sponsor a concurrent resolution!
MODERNIZING CONGRESS: The ModCom
ModCom on Tech and Congress. The priorities and structure of congressional modernization were the focus of Thursday’s hearing on Technology and Congress before the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (video, testimony). In their opening statements, Co-chairs Reps. Kilmer and Timmons emphasized that modernization requires small, incremental change over time. Rep. Kilmer spoke about the origins of the House Digital Service (ICYMI, FNN had a great recent article on the HDS); Rep. Timmons spoke about increasing congressional efficiency through big-picture changes to Congress’s schedule. The three witnesses included Steve Dwyer, advisor to Majority Leader Hoyer, who advocated for the use of digital technologies in Congress across the board; Melissa Medina, CEO of TourTracker, who spoke about the coordination between the tech industry and Congress; and Reynold Schweickhardt of the Lincoln Network, who addressed big-picture concerns around the development of congressional tech.
The big picture of congressional modernization was a significant focus of the hearing. There’s a strong need to break down silos inside the Legislative branch to support innovation, which could be addressed by strengthening the Congressional Data Task Force, looking at creating a Leg branch wide CIO (or a coordinating body or even a singular entity in the House); and the use of common data standards to allow interoperability and collaboration. With respect to developing technology, it is important to differentiate between general technology products that are bought off-the-shelf and those that need to be developed in-House (so to speak) because they are Congress specific. It’s also important to understand where multiple congressional entities are involved in technology development, such as in committees, where there’s little coherence in the development process and no one who manages product life cycles.
There is an ideas bottleneck, not for a lack of ideas, but for the lack of an institutional mechanism to gather and collate and move forward on those ideas. Many institutional offices have good ideas, but are risk averse to sharing them. For others, there’s no obvious place to bring those ideas. For many, there’s a feeling of being disempowered which must be addressed.
There’s a rules bottleneck. The House needs to address rules and processes that inhibit collaboration. One obvious example is a lack of clarity from the Ethics committee around open source collaboration. Another is a rule that apparently limits the use of the MRA to jointly develop open source technology projects. And for people on the outside developing technology, there’s no easy point of contact to get those products reviewed to get ATO, and the process that exists is very slow.
What does maturity look like? One example could be finding ways for stakeholders to share data. Imagine, for example, if you could share anonymized aggregated data about constituent concerns across multiple members so that you could identify when there’s a spike in requests about a particular issue? Or if there’s a different way to hire tech friendly staffers, whether by offering tours-of-service or addressing other pipeline issues? Or what a mature congressional digital service might look like as it provided Legislative branch wide support for technology development and management?
Not as discussed at the hearing was the role of civil society collaboration happening behind the scenes all these years. Where would we be without GovTrack.us, which has been providing significant services since 2003? Or the Congressional Data Coalition, which brings together nearly all the civil society, business, academic, and other stakeholders for more than a decade as a counterpart to the Congressional Data Task Force, a connector between the outside and inside, and (at times) an instigator of policy change? Or individual organizations that build and model technology that is then brought inside the congressional ecosystem? This aspect of the congressional ecosystem — the persistent actors that act as institutional memory but are independent of the institutional silos — would have been interesting to explore in greater depth.
The Unsung House Admin Committee
Intern pay raise. We would be remiss if we did not mention, highlight, and underscore that the House Admin Cmte increased the annual salary limit for House interns in personal, committee, and leadership offices to $38,500 effective June 1st. There was no public press release, but this is a big deal. The change effectuates a significant increase from the previous intern salary limit of $21,600, and it means that all interns can be paid above the D.C. minimum wage. This policy change is supported by increases in the Leg Branch appropriations bill, which includes $24.3 million for paid interns, or enough for $46,800 for each member’s office.
The dance between authorizers, appropriators, investigators, and commentators is not well understood, but this is a great example of all the pieces of the congressional community working in sync to solve a problem.
SENATE LEG BRANCH APPROPS
Are you getting tired of reading the newsletter yet? Sorry, I’ll be brief. The Senate Leg Branch Appropriations Committee held a rescheduled hearing with GAO and the Library on Wednesday. (So far the oversight hearing with the Capitol Police has not been rescheduled.) The written testimony is not online. There wasn’t a lot new if you watched the testimony in the House, but two things caught my eye.
The Capitol Police Board still has not met with the GAO concerning the oversight agency’s outstanding recommendations. Why? The USCP Board has a long history of ignoring the GAO, but haven’t they learned their lesson? I surely hope that someone is following up on this.
Where does the money go? 85% of GAO’s costs are personnel, with the remainder going to IT and building maintenance. 90% of CRS costs go towards pay (it’s 65% for the Library as a whole). For GAO, having remote work and other flexible work options allows them to retain a highly capable workforce, with a 6% annual attrition rate. We note that the House’s Leg Branch Bill contains language requesting a look at “hiring practices at CRS,” including implementation of the Merit Selection Plan and use of special hiring programs — and whether CRS is effective at recruiting a diverse workforce. Hmmm. Makes me think of that House Admin hearing on CRS a few years ago.
Beg your pardon. At least five Republican Members of the House sought preemptive pardons from Trump, a former aide of Mark Meadows alleged at Thursday’s hearing before the Select Committee on Jan. 6th. They are: Reps. Gaetz, Brooks, Biggs, Gohmert, and Perry. Paging OCE and the House Ethics Committee: these are alarm bells you’re hearing.
Ron Johnson revelations. Sen. Ron Johnson’s staff delivered a slate of fake electors to former Vice President Pence, the Select Committee on Jan. 6th revealed last week, while Sen. Johnson, well, dissembled and dodged. A functional Senate ethics committee should be looking into this, but we expect to see vigorous inaction.
Panic buttons for UK MPs. Last week, the UK Parliament announced that Members will soon receive “mobile duress alarms,” a.k.a. panic buttons, following the Public Safety Minister’s revelations that he’s been receiving death threats. Other MPs are now coming forward with the death threats they’ve received.
Revolving door revolving. A former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms has taken a job with a Chinese surveillance video company whose products are currently banned by the US government, LegiStorm reports.
ODDS AND ENDS
Good stuff in the Senate Intelligence approps bill. Several provisions secured by Sen. Wyden for the FY 2023 Homeland Security approps bill include strengthening whistleblower protections, improving cybersecurity in the Intelligence Community, and ending restrictions on security clearances for previous cannabis use. (Question: if members of the IC would be allowed to use cannabis, would that extend to congressional staff clearances or those at the White House?)
Visitor logs. Did anyone else notice the FSGG draft bill and report solves a longstanding issue and requires the White House to disclose its visitor logs (sec. 205) and requests a briefing on creating virtual visitor logs? That’s really, really good. 🙂
NDAA timeline. The Senate Armed Services Committee completed its markup of the FY2023 NDAA earlier this month; the House Armed Services Committee completed it this week. The Senate bill added $45 Billion to President Biden’s request for a total of $847 Billion; it looks like the prevailing HASC proposal will increase the topline $37 Billion above the president’s request. We have been unable to follow the NDAA process closely.
Earmarks are in the appropriations mix this year. Despite the Republican Study Committee’s efforts to hold the party line in opposition to the practice, over half of the group’s members have submitted requests for “community project funding” of their own, per Roll Call.
The impact of the FY 2022 MRA increase on staffers’ lives is the subject of an ongoing survey from the Congressional Progressive Staff Association. All congressional staff—not just CPSA members—can respond here!
TechCongress is recruiting fellows for 2023; interested early- and mid-career technologists are encouraged to apply to partner with Congress here. We note this year’s cohort will likely include 24 fellows, up from 16, thanks to a recent $2.25 Million philanthropic grant.
TechCongress also just announced its 2022 cohort — congrats to all! Check out their bios here.
Proxy voting has been extended until August 12, Speaker Pelosi announced Friday.
The Power of Unions in Congress: Save the date! Demand Progress is hosting a virtual event on the House union drive and the power of congressional unions on Tuesday, July 12 at 11 am featuring remarks from Rep. Andy Levin, labor experts, and former staff from the OCWR. We’ll have joining info for you soon.
A PROGRAMMING NOTE
We’re taking next week off from the newsletter. Also, we’re taking the weekend off from this newsletter, so if it’s a little less complete and polished than usual, or a little rushed, well, I’m now on vacation and am not even thinking about it. At all. Not one bit. No sireee.