Speaker Kevin McCarthy interjected himself into the debate over US Capitol Police openness and transparency in a major way by releasing the entirety of video recorded by its cameras on January 6, 2021 to Tucker Carlson at Fox News. The how and why of this decision are going to distract from the what of the larger problem, which is a lack of a system to allow for proper public access to information that can hold USCP accountable as a policing agency that eats up a ton of Legislative branch funding.
Speaking of funding, the new Congress is starting to dole out money to support its own legislative and oversight capacity.
This week, the House will hold votes Monday through Wednesday. The Senate will reconvene Monday for a reading of President Washington’s Farewell Address by Sen. James Lankford, an annual tradition since 1896. The current Senate calendar has the chamber remaining in session until March 10.
The US Capitol Police have long argued that even the most basic information about their operations should be shielded from public view because of the unique security concerns of the people they protect. They have refused to release detailed arrest reports or summary arrest data in machine-readable format or to release the reports of their IG to the public. They’ve gone to court to prevent the release of security video to the public, including of the January 6 insurrection. USCP even required CHA staff to use a dedicated terminal at the Capitol to view footage when it granted the same access to the committee that the January 6 Committee had.
Certainly, some operational information and campus recordings should be shielded from the public. Potential criminals should not know every nook and cranny of the Capitol nor how members access different parts of the building. The speech and debate clause protects members from having their every utterance recorded and released.
Although the Legislative branch is exempt from FOIA, Congress should establish a FOIA-like process to satisfy the public’s right to know while weighing these real concerns. In 2021, based on extensive research into the agency, Demand Progress Education Fund proposed a set of public records regulations for USCP.
Without as much as alerting the Capitol Police (or Senate Sergeant at Arms), Speaker Kevin McCarthy handed over all 41,000 hours of January 6 video surveillance footage to Tucker Carlson at Fox News last week. So much for having a process.
Even though some Democratic leaders have spun the decision to suggest any video release was wrong, it’s likely necessary at this point (as Rep. Jamie Raskin suggests) that the public be granted the video as well because we know from the Dominion lawsuit that Fox News will broadcast lies even when on-air talent knows better. Carlson himself has spread conspiracy theories about the insurrection before.
Unfortunately, the inevitable deployment of the footage for partisan purposes, which McCarthy already has started fundraising on, has created this binary choice when a rigorous process that considers ongoing security requirements and reserves some material is more appropriate.
The January 6 footage, as significant as it is for the country, is part of a broader issue with USCP secrecy and their ability to shield the agency from accountability on the grounds of security concerns for members of Congress. This mindset, as we saw from now-departed AOC Brett Blanton, was seeping deeper into the Legislative branch. We don’t know how the department’s behavior will change toward the public’s right to know given the Speaker’s actions, nor do we know how Fox News’s purposeful use of the footage may shape or limit congressional action to reform the department. Understanding how effective the Capitol Police are in utilizing resources and managing their considerable policing assets, however, is in the interests of all members.
CHA can play an essential role here. The committee will hold its oversight planning meeting Tuesday. Members on both sides of the aisle have expressed interest in digging into USCP “culture, funding and training as well as to review member security amid increasing violent threats,” according to Politico, as they should. Chair Bryan Steil, who’s been encouragingly energetic about his plans for the committee, can build upon Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s inquiries after the attack on the Pelosi home about how the department is categorizing and responding to threats against members and why such cases have been prosecuted.
The public’s most frequent encounter with video from the Capitol, of course, comes from C-SPAN coverage of floor action. If he’s interested in video as a transparency tool, Speaker McCarthy could grant C-SPAN editorial freedom to control its House floor cameras that it enjoyed during his Speakership election, which Demand Progress Education Fund, Freedom of Press Foundation, and a host of other organizations think should be standard operating procedure going forward.
In two hearings this week, committee leaders will make their allotment request to the Committee on House Administration for their budgets for this Congress. Like the Senate process, which the Rules Committee tackled last week, the process for funding House committees is a two-step dance between CHA and the Legislative Branch Subcommittee of House Appropriations.
It’s worth reminding at the start of each Congress that committee funding in both chambers has stagnated for more than a generation, costing the institution in missing professional expertise. As this CRS report details, House committees receive only slightly more funding in constant dollars than they did in the aftermath of the 1995 Republican takeover: AKA, the big lobotomy.
With the exception of unified party government in 2009, both Republican and Democratic majorities can share the blame of keeping committees locked in austerity budgets that undermine their capacity to legislate and conduct oversight, particularly over the last decade. As we explored previously, within the overall budget pie that has shrunk significantly since the 111th Congress, the pieces for many committees have gotten smaller in constant dollars.
The Senate Rules Committee approved a resolution two weeks ago that added roughly $53 million to its committee funding, about a 19% increase from last Congress. Maybe the House will surprise us.
Senators’ congressionally directed spending requests are on fairly tight deadlines this year. The Appropriations Committee has requested senators to submit their CDS requests and advocate for specific programs between late-March and mid-April based on the subcommittee of authority. Rules for Senate CDS requests are the same as the 117th Congress: Funds still have to go to nonprofits that do not employ a senator’s immediate family members.
House appropriators, as we noted last issue, still are finalizing their (don’t call them) earmarks rules. Caseworkers in both chambers can consult this video resource by the POPVOX Foundation featuring Bipartisan Policy Center’s Franz Wuerfmannsdobler about the post-117th Congress earmark process.
CBO has requested $7.5 million more for FY24 than it received last year to account for inflation and a lower-than-requested authorization the last go-around. The increase would raise the CBO budget slightly over the $70 million mark, 89% of which goes to staff pay and benefits.
We noticed one interesting legislative request CBO made in its request to House Appropriations: the repeal of superfluous language in the Budget Act that has slowed gaining access to some federal data sources (see page 7 of the request document).
Model USCP Public Records Regs
Nugget from the DPEF archives: our 2021 FOIA-like regulations for the US Capitol Police.
The last time the Senate Ethics Committee issued a “disciplinary sanction” against a fellow senator, Sen. Jon Ossoff was in college. It’s not that senators have been paragons of virtue since 2007: Dave Levinthal and Matt Laslo of Raw Story uncovered more than 1,500 ethics complaints referred to the committee over that time. Only 204 cases even launched a preliminary inquiry by the bipartisan committee. The committee took no action on 92 cases referred last year, and frequently ignores complaints related to senators trading stocks in questionable circumstances.
Members in either chamber simply can’t be relied upon to police their own. The Senate’s 0-for-1,523 batting average reinforces the importance of preserving the only independent ethics watchdog in Congress right now, the House’s Office of Congressional Ethics, and shows why the Senate should create a similar office.
Virginia State Senator Jennifer McClellan won a special election to become Representative of the Commonwealth’s 4th congressional district last Tuesday. She will be the first female African American to serve in Congress from Virginia when she is sworn in to replace Rep. Donald McEachin, who died Nov. 28. She’ll also be female member number 150 of Congress (including the delegates).
The House only will be at full strength until the end of May as Rep. David Cicilline will resign on June 1 to become the President and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.
CONGRESSIONAL DATA TASK FORCE UPDATE
Daniel has published his recap of December’s Congressional Data Task Force meeting (hey, it’s been a busy winter). Part of the meeting covered the process of executing various “change of Congress” tasks, including updating bioguides. Task Force member offices also provided updates on long-awaited projects, including a working demo of the comparative print project, better access to Senate video, and the digitization of House statements of disbursement. As usual, everything from the meeting is available on the Legislative Branch Innovation Hub.
The next meeting of the Congressional Data Task Force will be March 14 from 2 to 4PM ET. Register for the meeting at this link.
ODDS AND ENDS
It looks like Politwoops, the repository of politicians’ deleted tweets started at the Sunlight Foundation based on the Open State Foundation‘s project and code — and now hosted by ProPublica — is falling victim to API changes at Twitter.
Chuck Kieffer, a long-time Senate Appropriations staffer, gets a well-deserved profile as he retires.
One nugget from a recent interview with retired Sen. James Inhofe caught our eye: He retired because of effects of long COVID, and says “five or six” other senators have it but haven’t said so publicly. We know of only Sen. Tim Kaine who has revealed his long COVID symptoms. Many of the medical impacts of long COVID are neurological, so Inhofe’s statement would be significant for the institution.
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Congressional Committee Calendar– Monday, February 27
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries keynotes a program organized by the The House Office of Diversity and Inclusion entitled “Black History on the Hill” from 4-6 PM ET at the CVC. This event is limited to congressional staff. RSVP here.
The National Taxpayers Union and Arnold Ventures will host a discussion on budget reform Monday Feb. 27 from 4-7 PM ET. (You had to RSVP by February 17 to attend.)
– Tuesday, February 28
The House Administration Committee holds its first meeting for House committee budget allotment requests at 10:10 AM ET in 1310 Longworth.
House Ethics holds an organizational meeting at 2:30 PM ET in 1015 Longworth.
The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on “How Congress Can Recognize Ratification and Enshrine Equality in Our Constitution” at 10 AM ET in Dirksen 106.
– Wednesday, March 1
The House Administration Committee holds its second meeting for House committee budget allotment requests at 9 AM ET in 1310 Longworth.
The Brennan Center’s Dr. Maya Kornberg will discuss her new book about congressional committees’ role in the legislative process at Bistro Bis from 5:30-7:30 PM ET. RSVP here. If you can’t make the event, AEI’s Kevin Kosar interviewed Kornberg for his “Understanding Congress” podcast earlier this month.
Down the line
Open Data Day (or Days) will be organized March 4-10 by local groups around the world.
The next meeting of the Congressional Data Task Force will be March 14 from 2-4 PM ET. Register for the meeting at this link.
The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights will host two training sessions on the Congressional Accountability Act on March 21 and April 18, and one session on resilience on March 14. More details and links to registration.
A new note to our readers
As we mentioned last week, Daniel is currently on medical leave. His absence from the team that produces this newsletter is an unfortunate circumstance to use in clarifying its recent authorship. Chris Nehls has taken over as the primary writer of the First Branch Forecast, with Daniel serving as contributing editor. This arrangement, which was in place before Daniel went on leave, will continue after his return.
(Switching awkwardly out of writing about myself in the third person) I take on this role as I wind down my responsibilities at Democracy Fund, where I have been a strategy lead and a program officer on its congressional capacity-strengthening work.
For those wondering where I’ve been, I started working remotely from Japan in early 2020. I also have worked at the company formerly known as CQ Roll Call, where I wrote a blog on digital advocacy, was part of the members research desk, and contributed to CQ Weekly. Before that, I was in academia: I have a PhD in US History from the University of Virginia and specialized in 20th century political culture.