Congress had some of its most substantive conversations about its rules in years last week. Although the results mostly fiddled around the edges of larger institutional problems, time and opportunity remain to continue the negotiations, at least in the House. The stasis within the Democratic caucus, however, was notable.
Meanwhile, things that need to be done — and done well — remain with little time to accomplish. Democrats continue to play small ball about the risk posed by the debt ceiling, while several House committees have weeks to sift through evidence of various Trump-related malfeasance.
This week, the lame duck session continues, with votes scheduled Tuesday onward in the House. Looking at the Weekly Leader, we see the NDAA, Respect for Marriage Act, a bunch of minor bills, and the reminder that “additional legislative items are possible.” Per Politico’s Olivia Beavers, Monday through Wednesday this week the House Republican Steering Committee will fill in committee chairs. We hear the House Democratic Caucus may continue to consider conference rules on Tuesday, including some that get at the distribution of power. The Georgia senatorial run-off is Dec 6, after which Republicans may become publicly serious about addressing the approps omnibus. The Senate floor schedule is unrevealing. Go here for the committee schedule.
TALKING ABOUT CHANGE
The process for establishing the rules of the House of Representatives is different this time. House Freedom Caucus members succeeded in forcing a conversation within the Republican conference, which continued last week in another round of closed-door meetings on member-proposed amendments to existing rules.
Freedom Caucus members did not secure their biggest objective, which was more member control of the Steering Committee through additional elected seats (although the House GOP does have new regional maps). They also failed to prevent the continued existence of earmarks, which most members see as a useful tool even if most of the gravy falls on appropriators. (There is a better way….) But HFC forced a serious and significant discussion within the conference about member power and leadership control. Such a discussion is healthy for the institution. It’s also one that will continue over the upcoming weeks and perhaps during the first meeting of the committee of the whole of the 118th Congress.
Democrats in both chambers, meanwhile, so far have chosen to freeze the status quo in place. After ratifying the generational shift in leadership, members of the House caucus are in the process of granting the Second Triumvirate the same ironclad control the last generation enjoyed. Accordingly, today’s rank-and-file and their successors may not get another chance to exercise power until another generation has passed. The pending transition will be about continuity rather than change and is a missed opportunity for a reform conversation like the one happening across the aisle. Of most significance, after a concerted leadership push, the caucus tabled Rep. Ed Case’s amendment to rebalance some of the power within the caucus through creating a more representative Steering and Policy Committee that has more member input. That measure could be brought up again on Tuesday, and other significant amendments have yet to be considered. (The concern here is not with the members of the Second Triumvirate, but with how broadly power is distributed.)
Senators, meanwhile, rejected Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s renewed effort to disallow top leadership from also holding A-level committee gavels. Although Whitehouse’s efforts might have been personally motivated, the principle of giving a few more Democratic senators an opportunity to lead is well taken. There is late word that the Senate Democratic Caucus will now begin to publish its caucus rules online, joining the other three party caucuses.
By the way, the fact that we only could learn about the outcomes of these party meetings through an amalgamation of reporters’ tweets and stories is frustrating. The parties should publish the proposed amendments, as well as the vote outcomes, because they are critical to understanding how the chambers will operate.
Also, to make your lives easier (and ours), we’re keeping track of proposed House Democratic and Republican amendments to their caucus rules, including the disposition of those amendments. This is hard to do because the information is all non-public, which is why we’ve been closely following the tweets and reporting of a handful of congressional reporters who have ferreted out some of the text and vote results. If we missed something or got something wrong, please let us know.
Last week also highlighted the contrast between how both parties manage ideological diversity within their own ranks, at least in the current context of very narrow majorities. As he hunts for votes for the Speakership, McCarthy has handed out not just promises but actual places where the MAGA rump can express itself. An adopted rules amendment will require an entire conference meeting before the passage of major legislation. Also, noted public policy wonk Lauren Boebert won a spot on the Republican Policy Committee, surely raising the level of discourse there. Even if few legislative wins actually materialize for them, Trumpy voices still will be able to argue for the mantle of “true” “conservatism” in the conference, which is also what the primary voters who vaulted them to Congress believe.
At nearly every opportunity, meanwhile, Democratic House leadership tamped down opportunities for members farther to the left to break ranks in the 117th Congress. They kept Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other younger progressives off of the Ways and Means Committee at the start of the Congress and then denied her an Energy and Commerce seat a year later. Leadership denied Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s waiver to join Ways and Means as well. They also bumped Rep. Katie Porter off of the Financial Services Committee in early 2021, where she had been lighting up banking executives in oversight hearings. And there’s the “Team Blue” PAC.
We’ll see if being in the minority changes some of the political calculus. Incoming Minority Leader Jeffries has pledged not to “bend the knee” to the left flank of his party. Surely that’s a good sign of a thoughtful inter-party conversation.
We’ll be watching how Democrats fill the House Admin Committee Chair if Zoe Lofgren shifts as she’s requested to the Science, Space, and Technology Committee. The next member up would be Rep. Jamie Raskin for the leader-”nominated” committee chairmanship, but he’s interested in becoming the ranking member of the Oversight Committee. Rep. G.K. Butterfield retired, and Rep. Pete Aguilar just joined the leadership team, leaving two members with three terms between them. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon apparently has expressed an interest. Because of the importance of the committee in implementing the recommendations of the Modernization Committee and the potential creation of a modernization subcommittee under the chair, this is an important transition for congressional reform to continue moving forward.
IDEAS STILL IN BLOOM
It’s important to remember the conference meetings are not the end of the rules formulation process for the next Congress and, like the Speakership, nothing is finalized until January 3. Democrats, actually, likely will take up Rep. Bill Foster’s caucus proposal for retention votes for committee chairs on Tuesday. Rep. Larson’s idea to move more legislation through committees and onto the floor is also set for a vote.
Plenty of ideas are buzzing around for additional reforms, including at a member day hearing held last week by the Rules Committee for the chamber rules. Our colleague Taylor Swift has summarized the testimony of the 10 members who participated on our blog. (There may be more who submitted written comments, but that info is not online at the time of writing.) We’ve been supportive of several raised in the hearing, including Rep. Warren Davidson’s bipartisan proposal to give one personal office staffer of every member the ability to secure a TS/SCI clearance and Rep. Morgan Griffith’s suggestion to use proportional representation to divide out House committee seats. Modernization Committee Co-Chair William Timmons raised modernizing the committee scheduling system to reduce overlaps, which his committee has recommended as well.
Last week, Demand Progress and the Lincoln Network issued a joint set of bipartisan recommendations for the rules package of the 118th Congress. The organizations share the perspective that leadership has too much control over the House and that members need to be empowered to represent their constituents effectively. There are also a host of housekeeping changes that would make everything work better for everyone. The suggestions are practicable changes that would improve members’ situational awareness, access to impartial information, and productivity when they’re in Washington. Access the full slate of recommendations at this link. Don’t want to read a huge brief? There’s a top 10 on page four.
The Levin Center has also developed rules change language focusing on improving congressional oversight. Their document does an excellent job in explaining current problems facing committees and gives clear guidance on how their proposed language would provide relief.
TICK TICK TICK
It’s not just us who feel like we’re taking crazy pills: Greg Sargent at the Washington Post had an excellent column last week about Democratic leadership’s quizzical misreading of the politics of eliminating the debt ceiling issue as soon as possible. Defusing the bomb just isn’t a priority in the lame duck because, Sargent argues, leaders are using the playbook from the Obama Era and do not understand how serious Republicans are in extracting real cost in hostage taking this time around. (They also misread it last time, which is how we got the budget caps.) Last week, Sen. John Thune outright endorsed the hostage-taking strategy to demand cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Democrats are strategizing themselves into a real Kobayashi Maru scenario.
There’s a great summary of the debt ceiling issue from the Progressive Caucus. Speaker Pelosi should be preparing a reconciliation resolution just-in-case, and Majority Leader Schumer should be readying that chamber to work over Christmas. It doesn’t matter if the ceiling is raised to eleventy-bazillion dollars, suspended, or eliminated — all of which require different legislative vehicles — but it is wishful thinking to do any less because this will come around to blow up the world’s economy.
TRUMP TAX RETURNS
Speaking of egregious mistakes, Rep. Richard Neal finally has six years of Donald Trump’s tax returns and two weeks to use them. After wasting months probably because he was trying to strike a deal with Trump on an unrelated issue that was of interest to his donors, he’s not even saying if he’s read them. It’s a complicated legal situation for the committee, which is why simply reading them into the Congressional Record is the best option before Republicans bury them.
If I were one of the peeved members of the committee annoyed by Chair Neal’s slow-walking this issue, I would look to Rule XI, Clause 2(c)(2) that allows three members of a standing committee to request a special meeting of the committee within three calendar days that, if denied, can be overridden by a majority of committee members who can then set the date of a meeting and the measure to be considered. Further, should the committee vote to cause a report made to the House, and Chair Neal not act, I would look to Rule XIII(2)(b)(2) that would direct the clerk of a committee to discharge the report to the House so long as it is signed by a majority of the committee members and seven calendar days have elapsed since the filing of the request for the measure or matter to be reported. Tick tock, people, time is running out.
Such behavior would also make me start to think about how committee chairs/ranking members are chosen and who might be the best fit.
J6 COMMITTEE RECORDS
The January 6th Committee also started with a plodding pace and now faces a similar hard deadline for conveying what it has learned. The committee, Chair Bennie Thompson noted this week, likely will dump its trove of transcripts into the public record around the holidays. What should be more useful is the committee’s report, if it synthesizes what the committee has learned. However, according to recent reporting, the report will focus overwhelmingly on the role Donald Trump played in the insurrection. (Not for nothing: this weekend he engaged in a little light treason and called for the suspension of the Constitution.) Rep. Liz Cheney is making the editorial decision to leave out critical aspects of the investigation, however, most notably the connection between white supremacy and hardcore support for Trump, financing and organizing the attack, and the failures and problems inside the law enforcement and security apparatus. Cheney is a notable hard-line booster of the security state, and this significant omission is bad news for those who don’t want history to repeat itself.
Even if the final report is streamlined for public consumption, the committee should publish the reports of its investigative teams in full, particularly on police and intelligence failures. The environment that promoted violence as an alternative to electoral victory remains in place. As we’ve said before, simply throwing more money at the policing problems is not a solution.
The public also does not know very much about the strength and capabilities of the various paramilitary groups and white supremacist organizations that menace democratic institutions from county election boards up to Congress. Juries have convicted some of the perpetrators of political violence of felonies, like the Oath Keepers’ Stewart Rhodes last week. But how does this network respond to prosecution? How large is it, and how connected to political power beyond Trump himself is it? To what extent are they inside the security apparatus or are those who serve in that capacity sympathetic (or blind) to the danger of white nationalism? If the committee’s work can shed light on these questions, it’s vitally important to release it in full.
ODDS AND ENDS
Incoming Majority Leader Steve Scalise released the 2023 House calendar last week, frustratingly only as a PDF. It would be much more useful if also published in a digital file format. (No, an iPhone wallpaper doesn’t count.) We would prefer Congress adopt a three weeks on, two weeks off approach to the calendar to maximize work and minimize time wasted in travel.
Senator Durbin was asked to hotline bipartisan reporter privilege legislation, the PRESS Act, before time runs out.
GovInfo. Demand Progress Action has released a set of recommendations for improving how federal agencies provide open access to datasets they generate. These recommendations are in response to an event hosted last week by the White House on federal data openness and transparency.
The new herd. As congressional offices migrate over to Mastodon for their social media needs, we’re keeping track. We will have a lot more to say about how government officials should engage the public via social media platforms soon.
Rep. Robert McEachin died last week of complications from colon cancer treatment. The 61-year-old Richmonder had been elected to his fourth term in Congress.
The Congressional Management Foundation is hiring a manager to lead its ongoing congressional modernization efforts.
The Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress announced its bi-annual meeting is set for today, December 5th, and published information on how to RSVP. We encouraged them to create a virtual component, but currently you must attend in person.
Casework. The POPVOX Foundation hosts a webinar on the future of congressional casework December 9 at 1PM ET. Register here.
Need a new professional headshot? The House Office of Diversity and Inclusion is hosting a photo session for Hill staff as part of its new LinkedIn Recruiter pilot program from 10 AM to 2 PM on December 9. RSVP here
The next Congressional Data Task Force meeting will be December 13 from 2 -4 PM online. No registration is available yet.
The current appropriations Continuing Resolution will expire on December 16.