The 118th Congress is currently a consequences-free zone. Members kicked off committees for various antisemitic/conspiratorial/white supremacist statements are back on, while perhaps the most spectacular fabricator in modern congressional history got assignments like it was no big deal. As the Treasury tap dances to postpone default on the national debt, the instigators of the crisis skate via the “both sides“ news coverage that remains inexplicable and inescapable a decade after the last time this happened.
This week the Senate returns to Washington on Monday and the House is back in session starting Tuesday. The House floor calendar is bo-ring. If you ask me, they should publish each week’s schedule at a permanent URL and include that link in their newsletter (just like Hoyer did). Who knows about the Senate floor schedule, as the website is currently down for maintenance.
Swifties will get their day in the Senate Tuesday when the Judiciary Committee holds a hearing into the ticket sales monopoly. There’s no committee proceedings in the House because they’re not organized yet, and we only see announced Senate hearings in the Judiciary committee. The steering committees in both chambers still have more appointments to recommend to fill out the committees.
Rep. Don Bacon captured the current Beltway dynamics of the debt limit perfectly last week when he told Politico that the Biden Administration’s “initial comment of zero negotiations is a non-starter.” This little turn of doublespeak implies there are two legitimate sides to this crisis and that bipartisan negotiation is the solution. In reality, one side is currently refusing to legitimize what amounts to a hostage taking. In reality, the end of law last Congress had Republicans refusing to lift a single solitary finger to fix this — presumably that’s the counterparty? — but the “both sides” reflex of political reporting ensures that logic won’t get in the way of lazy political tropes beloved by editors.
Hearing his music all the way from Davos, Sen. Joe Manchin suggested that Congress should revive the bipartisan “supercommittee” of 2011 to examine trust fund solvency for several federal programs. Pardon me while I look for the airsickness bag. That effort, which predated the creation of the House Freedom Caucus by four years, surfaced an array of ideas for raising revenue and cutting spending but produced bubkis. Gornisht. Zilch.
Well, even worse than nothing: the supercommittee and subsequent sequester highlights a road that no sane person would ever go down again. Moreover, using the debt ceiling to play thermonuclear hot potato is a level of irresponsible that I lack the words to describe. Sen. Manchin proclaiming that the White House ultimately will have to negotiate its way out of this mess is oil magnate rich given how he and his Davos high-five partner kept us in it — and, given Sen. Sinema’s newly declared independent status, would have constituted a bipartisan agreement that met Sen. Manchin’s previous precondition for a deal.
Being locked into a bipolar narrative of political conflict subsumes the real damage being done to the institution of Congress and American democracy, to say nothing of the damage looming for the economy now that the default clock has started ticking. (When we talk about the economy, it should be understood to mean that nearly all of us are going to get squished when things go south.) The faction forcing the debt crisis is not calling for negotiation like Rep. Bacon: it’s making demands in a tripartite conflict between itself, Democrats, and Republicans. Both political parties are hostages, although one has Stockholm syndrome, and we just watched a few weeks ago as the Freedom Caucus-faction extracted concession after concession in a similar situation. Whatever the Biden Administration could offer would never be enough. But the Republican conference has to keep up the ruse that this is a legitimate and serious policy discussion that can be addressed through negotiation (i.e. one-sided concessions) because it’s what the null faction demands.
As economic foreshocks begin, those who realize that negotiations are actually rope-a-dope will pressure President Biden to take some kind of executive action. Some may call for him to declare unilaterally the illegitimacy of the debt limit. Arguing that two conflicting laws gives the president the option to choose which one to follow is a pathway to unfettered executive power. (That’s bad.) A more legally sound if fanciful-sounding idea would be to mint the trillion-dollar coin, which has the virtue of both solving the problem and being lawful. That approach makes the debt hawks scream because they don’t get to extract their pound of flesh — and also because it’s outside the normal discourse about how to resolve these problems. But, and I’m wincing as I write this, it likely will be the coin of the realm, or in this case, the coin that saves the realm.
So long as Congress is gridlocked — which is a metonym for the fact that it is the Freedom Caucus faction and their conservative Republican allies who view the debt ceiling as an opportunity to mug the Congress — public calls for Biden to act unilaterally (and in some instances extralegally) will grow. Such actions likely would save the global economy, but they reinforce the “Green Lantern” theory of executive power where only a president’s imagination and willpower prevents progress on governing priorities. In a Congress where a political minority holds what is, in effect, an insurmountable veto, people will look for a savior on a white horse, er, in a White House. This is understandable, but it’s a very dangerous game to play with executive branch power and it’s, in part, how we got here in the first place.
The debt limit should be understood not as a crisis of partisanship but as a congressional crisis driven by Republican fracture and the disjunction between what they say and what (some of them) believe. It’s an intraparty flashpoint being framed as something else. As Thomas Edsall explored this week, leading research indicates that what’s driving this fracture is the acceptance of conspiracies linked to broader evil forces in the world as well as the perceived suppression of white Christians and the elevation of racial minorities. This isn’t new in American politics: look to the reaction to the Civil Rights Movement and you’ll see the same stuff. It’s the road from Birchers to birtherism and Obamaphones to groomers. How deeply this fracture goes into the Republican conference is unclear but very relevant. Equally important is the unwillingness of those on the other side of the Republican divide to call it out.
What’s missing — and what we think is new-ish — is an increasing belief by such conservative conspiracists that federal power should be used to reestablish the rightful dominance of white conservatives – the “real” Americans. This would Make America Great Again. The effort largely had been playing out in governors’ mansions and state legislatures, but the changing nature of political geography (which we’ve discussed previously) and the nationalization of partisan politics makes it possible for Christian Nationalists to assert positive power in Congress and not, as was true historically, merely veto power.
The debt ceiling allows these folks to use the organ of government where they are most disproportionately represented — the House — in pushing this positive political agenda. It’s to be noted that New Deal and Great Society programs are the only spending targets insurgents have mentioned by name while taking the greatest driver of spending – defense – off the table. The debt is a stalking horse for enshrining their social agenda into law. In addition, some of this faction, as Edsall explores, are pulling this lever not to create an affirmative agenda, but to sow chaos because chaos serves to undermine the entire political establishment. “Chaos is a ladder” after all, particularly for those who otherwise have limited credentials. When you create anarchy, you can get a new champion on a white horse who will bring order out of the chaos and sweep aside the stumbling block of democracy. You don’t have to look far to see how that scenario plays out.
How Congress Should Operate
The R Street Institute’s James Wallner and I explain why this year’s House Speaker contest is how the House should operate. Really. Check it out.
The climbers: House Republicans decided last week that all of its conference members were entitled to committee positions, including Reps. Majorie Taylor Green, Paul Gosar, and George Santos. The precedent Speaker Kevin McCarthy set all the way back in 2019 that open white supremacists should not sit on committees is over. (I guess that’s a reversion back to the political norm.) As for Santos, what more can we say at this point?
Gosar and Green will join a variety of House Freedom Caucus die-hards – Reps. Lauren Boebert, Andy Biggs, Scott Perry, Jim Jordan, and Gary Palmer – on the Oversight Committee. Although these members will stand out, it should be noted that all but a handful of committee members have cast some level of doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election. (For those in the reality-faction of the party, we salute you.)
Former Republican Rep. David Jolly’s Facts First USA group placed Biggs, Jordan, and Perry in its first tier of members that Speaker McCarthy should avoid naming to the “Weaponization” subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee for their extensive involvement in the January 6, 2021 insurrection, according to a document obtained by Politico. (We note that Facts First USA is run by David Brock, who has a colorful history.) Gosar and McCarthy himself were named to its second tier for having some involvement or making inconsistent statements about their actions.
Santos seems like an indispensable embarrassment at this point and received the customary two committee assignments. All the same, former Rep. Peter King held nothing back in saying what colleagues must be thinking.
An aside to the Republican members who care about this: you can expel Santos from the Republican conference. He’d still caucus with Republicans, which is what McCarthy cares about, and you can disavow association with him, he’d lose his committee assignments, and you’d still allow the voters their choice in representative, which is what the Constitution cares about.
Also, the House must approve a resolution that names members to most committees. If members object to serving with Santos, will the appointment resolution be brought under an open rule and allow floor amendments? If so, how about moving to strike his name? And if the House uses a closed rule — tsk, tsk — why not defeat the resolution?
Steil to chair CHA. Speaker McCarthy has selected Rep. Bryan Steil to be chair of the Committee on House Administration. He was the ranking member of the CHA subcommittee on Elections last term.
For those keeping score, Speaker McCarthy and Minority Leader Jeffries agreed to very similar majority/minority ratios for the “A” committees (Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services and Ways and Mean). E&C changed the most – shrinking three seats a side. Appropriations added one seat each.
Democrats plan on settling their committee assignments in both chambers this week. Included in that discussion is newly-independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who would like a seat on Appropriations. Ow, we just rolled the eyes right out of our heads. Can you imagine her giving the ability to give the thumbs down to doom a subcommittee bill? (Yes, yes we can: Sen. Manchin is on that committee.)
Folks like Santos with ethical issues may benefit from some of the changes made in the House rules package that interfere with the Office of Congressional Ethics operations. These new rules concerning OCE were included in that package. They are poorly written to the degree they’ve caused significant confusion, obscuring what we think is really going on.
Bloomberg’s Emily Wilkins reported last week that the intent of the language creating a 30-day hiring window was to allow the (newish) OCE Board to fire staff at the start of the new Congress. Mostly notably, she reported Majority Leader Scalise suggesting that the changes were made in part to address “a high-level OCE staffer that ‘a lot of people had concerns about and it was being swept under the rug.’” This is really bad.
The Republican Majority Leader is saying that Republicans changed the House Rules Package intentionally to interfere with staffing at the non-partisan Ethics Watchdog whose Board was designed to prevent exactly this kind of interference because it would undermine their independence. Instead, every staffer will have to watch their back and avoid irritating leadership lest their job be next.
The incoming Chair of the Rules Committee, Rep. Cole, was quoted by Wilkins saying: “We have an Ethics Committee and I’d rather expand their power and budget than an outside group that I’ve seen used inappropriately before.” Any student of the House Ethics Committee understands how the Committee leans over backwards to give members every benefit of the doubt, how the ethics process can be undermined by detente between the parties, and how previous such circumstances led to the creation of the independent OCE in the first place.
Warm up the e-hopper: for the first time in nearly seven years, the House this week will consider a bill on the floor under a (modified) open rule. Members will have to submit their amendments to the Strategic Production Response Act in advance and when the House is in session – which likely translates to Tuesday.
The demise of open rules is a common lament among Congress nerds, and you don’t have to go too far back into congressional history to find when they were pretty regularly a thing. Speaker McCarthy has promised truly open rules on appropriations bills as part of his bargain for the gavel. With a very slim majority (now down to three in the absence of Rep. Greg Steube), we’ll see if any substantive legislation or resolutions receive open rules.
Politico’s Katherine Tully-McManus and friends have a great summary of how closed rules became a norm and the current state of play.
Threats to members of Congress. The US Capitol Police’s Threat Assessment Section investigated roughly 7,500 cases, down more than 2,000 from last year but still nearly double what was reported five years ago. What do these numbers mean? Not much and you shouldn’t rely on them. Unless you know how many identification of threats lead to investigations, how many investigations led to prosecutions, to convictions, they’re meaningless. Even the growth rate is unreliable because the Capitol Police has increased its capacity for the purpose of seeking out and finding threats. Every time I see the press uncritically quote the numbers, usually from a terse press release or statement from the USCP Chief, I think about why it’s so important that the press engage in journalism and not stenography.
USCP routinely cites TAS caseloads to justify budget increases, including an additional $132 million in the last omnibus. But as CHA Chair Zoe Lofgren pointed out to Chief J. Thomas Manger in November, the number of cases referred to prosecutors out of these complaints is miniscule and only 27 were picked up. Hopefully, the new CHA majority will continue to dig into how often those threatening members are prosecuted as a way to understand the true seriousness of the problem and effectiveness of the USCP unit.
So long as the Capitol Police lack a truly independent Inspector General and a Board capable of doing its job, we would urge everyone, and especially the press, not to take any of their press releases at face value.
The USCP is an area to monitor if the House goes forward with calls to reduce all 12 appropriations bills to FY2022 levels for FY 2024. Increases in the USCP budget contributed significantly to the overall $975 million increase in legislative branch appropriations between FY2022 and 23. The USCP budget currently stands at $734.6 million, which would be 12% of the FY 2022 budget if left untouched in a leg branch funding rollback. That extra $132 million would be a much larger slice of a smaller pie.
Violent threats are not limited to members of Congress: Albuquerque police arrested a losing Republican candidate for a New Mexico legislature seat last week for organizing an effort to terrorize four Democratic officials. Solomon Peña allegedly hired four people and provided guns to shoot into the officials’ homes. Bullets passed through the bedroom of one target’s 10-year-old daughter.
Peña, who lost his election by a 2-1 margin, complained the results were rigged. He also claimed to have attended the Jan 6 insurrection in Washington. Democrats had tried to have him thrown off the ballot before the election because he had spent seven years in prison for a smash-and-grab robbery.
Cameras on the Floor
Read the civil society letter urging the House to allow C-SPAN to have control of cameras on the House floor.
Two technologists writing in the New York Times caught our eye last week in discussing how ChatGPT could be used in lobbying to influence Congress without targets of campaigns realizing petitioners were not human. The authors are not experienced Congress hands, so some of how they describe lobbying and advocacy is off. Some capabilities they say AI could develop, like network relationship analysis and predictive analytics, have been standard parts of digital advocacy platforms for years and don’t rely on AI. (Friends, AI isn’t magic, and much of what people describe as AI is just marketing.) Still, the idea that AI could flood congressional inboxes with competently written yet inauthentic constituent communications is something we’ve been thinking about and playing with. For example, it makes a really, really good first draft of an advocacy letter. No chatbot, however, could be induced to write this newsletter, no matter how much we begged.
Volume, and sorting through the volume, is a constant challenge for staff managing congressional CRMs. Digital advocacy like the kind the piece describes already has reduced the value of individual constituent correspondence practically to zero years ago, although (personal) offices do conduct rudimentary sentiment analysis through the sheer volume of opinions received. AI tools’ most likely impact on issue advocacy (which the authors conflate with lobbying) is to improve the quality and variety of form letters sent in by mass advocacy campaigns — not exactly democratizing stuff as the authors claim.
AI probably has much more value to congressional offices if integrated into CRMs to batch incoming traffic and respond more efficiently. AI could write constituents back in a more sophisticated way than a set of form letters pulled from a file folder. But how will constituents respond? How did they respond to the autopen?
Significant value will be realized as the Congress continues to publish information about its activities online, especially as structured data. That has been our theory for the last decade in running the Congressional Data Coalition and participating in the Congressional Data Task Force. Congress leads a lot of value when some of its institutions fight efforts to make information available in bulk, which can then serve as a substrate to build more sophisticated alerting and analytical tools. And yes, it can also be helpful for casework, too, including turning casework into another form of data analytics.
We’d love to convene a conference on the intersection of AI and Congress to improve legislating, oversight, and constituent service, but that would require finding someone who cares about technology and the Legislative branch to help support that work. There’s great potential in putting tech, congressional/government, and civic engagement experts in dialogue with one another to explore productive uses for AI. Funders interested in tech and society issues should stretch themselves a bit and consider governmental-centered explorations, too.
ODDS AND ENDS
The House Office of the Whistleblower Ombuds has opened its certification program for the 118th Congress. Offered through the Congressional Staff Academy, the program guides staff on the fundamentals of working with whistleblowers safely and awards a certificate upon completion.
Demand Progress Education Fund joined 43 organizations in requesting House leadership grant C-SPAN independent control of cameras covering the floor. C-SPAN was able to act in a journalistic manner during the Speaker vote process earlier this month only because the House rules package that includes camera controls was not agreed to yet.
Parliaments around the globe have become more resilient and innovative out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Just over half held a virtual plenary during the pandemic and 77% held remote committee meetings. If the new remote hearing regulations the House has adopted stay in place, in other words, the US Congress will be moving in the opposite direction.
Former House General Counsel gave an extensive interview to Kyle Cheney at Politico where he said something flabbergasting. “I just feel like the Biden administration and future administrations are not going to act like the Trump administration…. They’re not going to show such ignorance of our system and think that the executive branch can ignore the legislative branch. That’s not the way it works.” He may be a good lawyer, but this is naive and pollyannaish. The Executive branch is always pushing to expand its power. One approach to strengthen Congress’s hand with respect to encouraging the courts to understand its legal perspectives is for more transparency around the secretive group — the BLAG — that oversees the OGC. Former House Counsel Michael Stern has the best explanation of why this is incredibly important. It would be very easy to do.
Some 30-odd members of Congress – almost entirely Democrats – can’t quit TikTok, despite security concerns.
I told ya so. Speaker emerita Pelosi was “interviewed” by Maureen Dowd and used the opportunity to collaborate with the columnist to stick a few stilettos in her political adversaries and frenemies. But most inadvertently telling was her description of Rep. McCarthy’s efforts to become Speaker: “What they were seeing, whether they realized or not, was an incredible shrinking speakership.” Yes, correct, the Speakership has become way too powerful, particularly in her hands, and the FC-faction learned their lesson and pushed to allow other members of the House to share in the power. Concentrated power in anyone’s hands is dangerous.
The Supreme Court ended its shambolic inquiry into who leaked the abortion decision and unsurprisingly found nothing given the ineptitude of the investigators and the inconvenient likelihood that the leaker was a Supreme Court justice. Ironically, the leak investigation seemingly prompted a former abortion foe to reveal a well-funded covert effort to influence the justices themselves on abortion and the existence of a prior leak of a SCOTUS opinion by people close to Justice Alito. (Congress, as you may recall, was also trying to move ethics and transparency legislation concerning the federal courts but instead gave them them power to demand information about federal judges be yeeted off the internet.) Close observers of leak inquiries remember the sage advice of the best show on politics, Yes, Minister, and this video clip is a good way to refresh your memory. It explains how the most important scandals are covered up, I mean over, I mean covered.
The deadline to apply for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s inaugural Latino Hill Staff Academy is approaching – January 23. Training courses will run from March to June. Apply at the CHCI website.
Bússola Tech will host LegisTech: the Commonwealth Community of Parliaments from 8:00 AM to noon EST on January 23 and 24. Access the event here.
Lincoln Network hosts Realignment Live, an event about trends in tech policy and politics January 25 from 9:00 AM – 7:30 PM EST at AutoShop Union Market. Register here
The Levin Center and Georgetown Law Center for Congressional Studies co-host a roundtable with two staffers of the January 6 Committee on how the committee’s work can shape future congressional oversight on January 30 from 12:00 to 1:30 PM. Register here
The Women’s Congressional Staff Foundation will hold a welcome reception for the new Congress on February 1 from 5:00-7:00 PM in the Rayburn Building. RSVP here.
The House of Representatives has invited President Biden to deliver the State of the Union Address on February 7.