1/ Speaker Pelosi’s husband was violently assaulted in their San Francisco residence.
• At the time of writing, we do not know the motives of the assailant. However, it would not be surprising if the ultimate aim was to harm Speaker Pelosi. In this newsletter we have previously discussed the concept of stochastic terrorism, which is “the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted.” We condemn all acts of violence, and incitement to violence, against elected officials and their families. We wish Paul Pelosi a speedy and full recovery.
• Political violence is sometimes used as a reason to overreach and curtail political speech. We acknowledge the importance of allowing for criticism of the policies advanced by a politician. Bad political actors have demonstrated a remarkable facility with the use of dog whistles, however. They generate veiled calls for or support of violence that increases the likelihood of violence in such a way as to create some doubt about what they are doing. The traditional media has largely been unable or unwilling to cover this appropriately, and partisan media and partisan actors have amplified these calls.
• We wonder about the role of the extraordinarily well-funded U.S. Capitol Police in this incident. It seems plausible that one of their most visible protectees was a target regardless of whether she was actually present. What does it say about security for other Members of Congress in their homes, workplaces, and elsewhere? What does it say about the USCP’s ability to detect, deter, and address threats? We stand by our concerns that structural problems with the leadership and oversight of the USCP create a fundamental risk to the safety of Congress, a problem that cannot be resolved by throwing money at the problem. We have yet to see any real reforms at the USCP or its oversight board.
• We realize that Congress’s most likely reaction will be to shovel more money at the Capitol Police. The overall funding level for the Legislative branch can’t handle these hundred-million-dollar annual increases for the USCP without undercutting the ability of the Legislative branch to function by constraining funds for all other purposes. (There’s a $100 million increase in the works when the delayed appropriations bill becomes law.) We’d suggest that some of the USCP’s funds start coming from another appropriations subcommittee, like Defense or CJS, because their work includes responding to terrorism and crime threats.
2/ Working side-by-side. After years of dogged work on seemingly endless challenges, the House launched a long-awaited tool for congressional staff that allows them to see at the push of a button how an amendment would change a bill, how a bill would amend the law, and compare two bills side-by-side.
3/ Behind the scenes and largely unreported in the media are the internal congressional debates over the chamber and party rules as well as who will move up as leaders of each chamber and committee. ICYMI, here’s the Freedom Caucus new member guide.
4/ This week the House and Senate remain in recess.
COMPARATIVE PRINT IS HERE
The House Clerk’s office and Office of Legislative Counsel crossed off a major chamber wish list item last week when they announced the release of the Comparative Print Suite of tools that are now available House-wide (the link only works for Capitol Hill IP addresses). The applications allow users to view how a bill would change current law and differences between proposed legislation.
All House staff will be able to use the “bill to bill differences” and “bill viewer” tools immediately. Staff are required to take a training course on the CAO’s Congressional Staff Academy website to use the suite of advanced tools. Advanced users also will be able to upload files to generate comparative prints. (It’s worth getting the training.)
We’ve watched as this tool has been developed over the years, with demos at the Congressional Bulk Data Task Force meetings and the Congressional hackathon. In addition to the use of very clever technology to execute instructions contained in the legislative language, the project is also notable for a strong emphasis on user design and user experience.
Development of such tools has been aspirational for decades. When he arrived in Congress from the Florida Legislature in 2009, Rep. Bill Posey introduced a resolution requiring a comparative print of bills be made that year. When the bill stalled, he pushed the Republican Conference over the next several congresses to include the creation of a comparative print in the House rules package. Speaker John Boehner, however, wasn’t interested at the start.
Posey’s rule was adopted by the House in the 115th Congress, calling for an online version of tools to determine how bills and amendments changed current law. Developing such tools, however, was a major data, standardization, and technological challenge. Unlike the states, federal positive law is not all published in the U.S. Code, which can make it hard to show how a bill would change the law. Worse, as GPO’s Hugh Halperin has explained, the language used to draft legislation — written as directions to an unseen drafter in many instances — can be tricky to parse and implement. Current legislative data like bill text and amendments had to be put into data formats that supported modern computing tools. Even the variations in the meanings of words in English had to be accounted for through natural language processing.
Offices in the Congressional Data Task Force and vendors worked collaboratively for years on these challenges, launching a short-term solution to the House request in 2017 that output PDF files. A bipartisan set of Members have encouraged further development — with support from civil society and the House Select Committee on Modernization of Congress, which endorsed a robust comparative print tool in its very first set of recommendations. It was a topic I addressed in my testimony before that committee in May 2019.
The Comparative Print Suite is a testament to the importance of establishing strong collaborative relationships between legislative branch offices and civil society. Congressional data used to be siloed for each other and the public. Those of us on the outside who wanted to develop civic tech tools eventually connected with allies on the inside who wanted to develop better Congressional tools to prompt the creation of the Bulk Legislative Data Task Force (now the permanent Congressional Data Task Force), which helped break down barriers and facilitated improved access to legislative data.
The collaborative working environment the task force created a decade ago laid the necessary groundwork for Congress to start developing in earnest its own robust technology capacity, of which this project is a very important milestone. This suite of tools took years of hard work by multiple offices, informed along the way by an open and productive feedback process from Congressional staff and other stakeholders.
The comparative print tool suite, however, won’t be available to the Senate or the public. The Senate will first have to maintain its legislation and amendments in U.S. Legislative Markup format, made available prior to consideration, for it to implement the comparative print suite. As for the public, we have been encouraging that these tools be made available to the public and the code published as open source. Much will depend, I think, on the successful roll out in the House and whether those who have a belief that the public should better understand what its Congress is doing win the debate over those who are afraid of what happens when the public starts to use this information.
The gerontocracy that leads Congress is starting to age out of leadership positions they’ve held for decades. Depending on the outcome of the midterm elections, House Democrats may have entirely new leadership in the top three positions of the 118th Congress. Some of these potential new leaders are in their mid to late 50s, garnering the adjective “young” from the political press even as they’ve spent years angling for promotion. Although one 89-year-old Senator has decided becoming third in line to the presidency was not for her, another 89 year old has decided otherwise.
Because congressional leaders hold power for so very long, the institutional politics have become practically feudal. This is true even beyond top conference leadership circles. In the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sens. Patrick Leahy and Richard Shelby are trying to bestow seats on the committee to their likely successors as they vacate committee leadership through retirement. Shelby would like to anoint one of his former staffers, Katie Britt, who won the primary to replace him.
Members’ relationships with leadership distorts the institution in several directions. At 40, Britt immediately will have a leg up on advancing in the Senate early in her career because of the importance of that committee assignment secured through a former boss. She and Leahy’s likely successor, Rep. Peter Welsh, also will maintain Alabama and Vermont’s presence on a committee steering hundreds of millions of dollars in economic benefit their way. Vermont is 50th in state gross domestic product, while Alabama is 27th – or 7 percent the size of California’s.These distortions, of course, aren’t new. They do result, however, from decisions that Members make collectively in organizing their chambers. The two-party system limits how much power can be distributed across the institution as the parties have to maintain discipline to get anything they want done and the dealmaking possible in parliamentary systems cannot materialize. But Members ultimately are the ones who must be willing to exercise their latent power and choose how they will select their leaders and how much authority they will hand over. If Republicans take control of the House, the Freedom Caucus has proposed reforms that claw some of that power and authority back from conference leadership. Whatever we think about the FC gaining power, the House and Senate are long overdue to reshare power more equitably across their members.
Rep Cori Bush’s staff voted last week to unionize, becoming the fifth House office to do so. Five more personal offices have filed petitions with OCWR to hold elections.
Roll Call quoted me about how unionization benefits staff not only through the potential to negotiate higher pay but in setting better workplace protections against harassment and abuse. We believe that OCWR is empowered to recognize unionization petitions by federal law and a House resolution would not suffice in repealing that authority.
ODDS AND ENDS
The Justice Department codified and expanded a policy that “formally banned the use of subpoenas, warrants or court orders to seize reporters’ communications records or demand their notes or testimony in an effort to uncover confidential sources in leak investigations.” Across multiple administration, the DOJ has sought this information for political purposes — plugging leaks that the administration did not like — and to deter the proper functioning of the press. While we welcome this new policy, it could just as easily be suspended, ignored, or secretly altered. The Press Act, which passed the House and is pending in the Senate, would add the all important imprimatur of law to this prohibition, making it real and permanent.
We try to keep the job postings to a minimum, but two caught our eye this week:
- The House Office of the Whistleblower Ombuds is hiring a manager for Member and committee office relations.
- The Hewlett Foundation is hiring a program officer for its National Governing Institutions strategy, which includes congressional-related work. (Full disclosure: we are a Hewlett grantee.)
The Office of the Whistleblower Ombuds has new guidance available for whistleblowing related to equal employment opportunity laws.
Now that Twitter is loosening its already low standards, are you moving to a new platform? Let us know where to follow you.
Down the line
Law reform. The Seventh International Conference on Legislation and Law Reform, a conversation about how laws are written in the US and around the world, will be held November 3 and 4 in-person in DC. Register here.
Election day is November 8th.
Legal research. The Legal Research Institute of the Law Library of Congress will hold a webinar on recently published reports in its Foreign and Comparative Law Webinar Series November 17 from 2:00-3:00 PM. Register here.
The next Congressional Data Task Force meeting will be December 13 from 2:00-4:00 PM online. No registration is available yet.