At last, we have a mostly-operational Congress as the Senate finally adopted its organizing resolutions appointing members to committees. (Wouldn’t it be nice if the Senate made its resolutions available to the public online before it adopted them?) So far, the House has oscillated between self-congratulation over tweaks to legislative process, grave pronouncements on the debt limit crisis, and playing in the funhouse mirrors of identity politics like the 8:00 hour of certain cable TV news channels.
All of that is coming out at once on the debt limit issue. Both House Leadership and President Biden struck statesmen-like postures, sitting down to discuss the issue and initiate a dialogue that can be acknowledged by the political press, even as the underlying issue shouldn’t be subject to negotiation. Speaker McCarthy emerged speaking of a “good faith” conversation and confidence in finding common ground. Blue Dog Democrats declared their eagerness to help in the negotiations. Meanwhile, the Republican Study Committee reminded themselves that Democrats were “gaslighting” the public for not swallowing Mises Institute economics whole and daring to pass spending packages by majority rule. Apparently oil and natural gas drilling permits are worth crashing the global economy and Congress should repeal the infrastructure bill many Republicans voted against but repeatedly take credit for back home.
So here we are, with new members of the Oversight Committee insisting a single elementary school in Illinois spent more than the equivalent of three space shuttle launches on diversity training. Everything for public consumption seems like messaging. But what is the message?
This week President Biden will deliver the State of the Union Address on Tuesday at 9 PM EST. The Senate will hold one vote on a judicial nomination Tuesday as well. The House is in session for votes and hearings Monday through Thursday. The House Appropriations Committee will organize on Wednesday and HSGAC will organize on Thursday.
Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton will testify before the Committee on House Administration on Thursday at 9 AM EST. Although Blanton will discuss the AOC’s strategic plan for the 118th Congress, which includes physical security for the campus, it’s an opportunity for committee members to question him about the myriad ethics violations that the AOC inspector general detailed last fall. Don’t forget that Democrats have called for the Architect to resign and bipartisan legislation was introduced to empower Congress to push him out. As we discussed recently, statute does not create a clear path for removing Blanton other than impeachment. The appointment and removal process for senior legislative branch leadership is a much broader and poorly understood issue that our colleague Taylor Swift explored in this report.
Remember that AOC also serves on the US Capitol Police Board, which oversees the most untransparent police force in the US. Yes, I’m a bit surly when it comes to this topic. Would the Architect support giving the USCP IG full independence and jurisdiction over the Board? What about making its reports publicly available, like all other IGs? Does the USCP Board now have more than 1 FTE staffer available to support its oversight work? Is the Board routinely taking minutes and providing them to all members of the oversight committees? Does the Architect believe, as did his predecessor, that the Capitol Police Board is needlessly deeming information as sensitive or classified so as to prevent congressional oversight? How many GAO and IG recommendations are still not fully addressed?
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
Some of the House’s recent actions have been about establishing clear ideological lines that place some outside of acceptable politics, essentially disqualifying certain ideological positions and types of people from serving in a representative democracy. The most glaring example of this activity came when the House majority approved a resolution removing Rep. Ilhan Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee. Instead of amending the resolution naming all members to committees which the House approved Tuesday, Republicans drew up a separate resolution specifically about her the following day. When it comes to retribution for Omar, it’s sentence first, due process afterward (or never). The resolution outlined not only past tweets for which she apologized in 2019, but statements that reflected policy differences on US-Israeli relations and Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories, including a comparison to “apartheid” that a radical named Jimmy Carter also made in 2007.
Setting Omar apart was clear retribution for Democrats removing Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar from their committee assignments in 2021. In their cases, the House majority implicitly declared support for political violence, anti-government conspiracy theories, and white supremacy as the boundaries of legitimate political participation. Gosar, it should be remembered, was removed after he posted an anime video that depicted him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Omar, another woman of color, is the only Muslim on the committee. The removal also did double-duty as validation of offensive, racist far right conspiracy theories about Omar, some of which have been elevated by members like Greene.
The majority’s actions are evocative of the House refusing to seat Socialist Rep. Victor Berger in 1919 for his opposition to American entrance into World War I. In both cases, differing views on foreign policy were deemed to be “un-American.” Berger saw intervening in a war between imperial powers as not worth thousands of American lives. Omar has questioned how the human rights records of all of America’s Middle Eastern allies square with its democratic values. She framed the resolution exactly this way on the floor, asking, “Who gets to be an American? What opinions do you have to have to be counted as American? That is what this debate is about.” No one understands more than her that much of the GOP doesn’t see her as an American.
Berger, also an immigrant, advocated for domestic policies like old-age pensions and unemployment insurance along with fundamental labor standards – as well as the enticing idea of a Constitutional amendment to abolish the Senate. Socialists of that era like Berger tried to reimagine how the economies of scale of modern industry could be organized for maximum societal benefit, including public ownership of the anticompetitive bogeyman of the day — trusts. Within a dozen years, the New Deal would embrace elements of these proposals and enshrine them within American Liberalism.
The Bolshevik Revolution, however, allowed conservatives to conflate the policy goals of social democracy with the authoritarian methods of Marxist-Leninism. Although Berger briefly returned to Congress, the Red Scare had smashed socialism by equating it with bomb-throwing revolutionaries and undesirable foreigners. During his first term as a sitting member, Congress all but prohibited immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, in part under the guise of keeping foreign “isms” out. (Reps. Greene and Gosar, it should be noted, have introduced bills suspending immigration into the United States.) Conflating anything they don’t like with “socialism” has been a conservative standard operating procedure ever since to delegitimize the Left.
It’s not ironic in the least, therefore, that the House also approved a resolution condemning socialism at home and abroad this week. The resolution, introduced by Cuban-American freshman María Elvira Salazar, connects “socialism in all its forms” to Marxist butchers like Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot. It puts the cherry on top of a massive explosion of the use of “socialism” in Republican constituent messaging since the 2018 midterms. Never missing a trap to run into or an opportunity to punch left, New Democrats eagerly rejected socialism in a pre-vote statement. But what does socialism in all its forms mean to the majority? Progressive members noted it could also mean the governments of American allies, or programs like Social Security and Medicare. By connecting public housing to the famine of the Great Leap Forward, conservatives are attempting to narrow the range of ideological possibilities of politics through a redefinition of American identity that leaves a widening circle of Democrats out. The socialism of this resolution means whatever you can be made afraid of. It’s about identity, not ideology.
We are reminded of Strom Thurmond’s speech about why Hawaii should never become a state. You have to read it to believe it. The peroration is worth quoting: “the mental attitudes resulting from the different heritages of East and West are fundamentally different; and while the two mental approaches and the resultant diffused societies are capable of co-existence, they are at the same time impossible to fuse with harmonious results.” He didn’t want Asian-Americans serving side-by-side with whites in the Senate.
His attitudes, reflected in his Congress and in our Congress, had disastrous results for Americans of Japanese heritage, resulting in the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII for no reason other than racism. We were pleased on Monday to endorse a letter along with 84 other organizations in support of legislation to create a federal Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution and two other measures to honor and remind ourselves that we cannot give any quarter to bigotry in our midst.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
Republican identity politics oozed out off the House floor, too. When asked a question about the continued removal of Confederate statues from the Capitol complex, Speaker McCarthy deflected and pivoted instead to blaming the Democratic Party for the Civil War and for sending the offending statues in the first place that he has no interest in removing. He also suggested the party rename itself to expunge the taint that the statues he’s not removing represent. Several members of Congress, meanwhile, were spotted wearing AR-15 lapel pins in the Capitol handed out by gun store owner Rep. Andrew Clyde. Last week, by the way, was National Gun Violence Survivors Week.
During its organizational meeting the House Judiciary Committee got in a patriotism walk-off over reintroducing the Pledge of Allegiance. It then renamed its subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, dropping the last two phrases for “Limited Government.” The Oversight Committee decided to eliminate its subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties, which examines issues like voting rights and police brutality, a few days before the funeral for Tyre Nichols in Memphis. Rep. Greene spent her first moments on a congressional committee asking why the shooting of a white January 6 insurrectionist by Capitol Police wasn’t a civil rights issue. Recent Republican leaders used to signal their lack of interest in civil rights-related issues by appointing Rep. Steve King to chair that Judiciary subcommittee the last time they were in the majority. Now, with Greene and Gosar coming back on committees, what message are they sending?
Oversight of the Capitol Police
My February 2022 testimony before the House Admin Committee on Capitol Police Oversight identifies two major structural problems that must be fixed.
SENSES OF SECURITY
Perhaps nothing encapsulates the different conceptions of reality between some members of the majority and minority in the House than their perceptions of firearms. During the organizing meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee, Democratic members asked chair Bruce Westerman to clarify if he would interpret House rules to ban guns from committee meetings. Westerman refused to, and the new majority defeated Rep. Jared Huffman’s rules proposal to do so.
Some Republicans on the committee said they wanted to carry guns around the Capitol complex out of fear of confrontation with a member of the public. Apparently 2,000 Capitol Police covering a mere 60 acres aren’t enough to provide a feeling of safety. Democrats, meanwhile, continue to wonder if other members directly assisted the mob that was trying to kill them on January 6, 2021. Some of the responsibility for that concern rests on the January 6 Committee, which refused to take up the question in its findings. The judiciary also is screening some members’ roles from public view. Rep. Andy Harris heightened concerns when he set off a metal detector near the House floor with a gun a few weeks after the insurrection.
Citing that incident and broader knowledge that members carry firearms around the Capitol complex, Rep. Huffman wrote a letter to House leaders last week asking for heightened security for the State of the Union Address this week because of vulnerabilities to the chamber “to multiple fronts of attacks from both inside and outside Congress.”
History suggests keeping guns off the floor and out of committee hearings is pretty basic to the democratic function of Congress. Members routinely carried firearms onto the floor in the antebellum era, as historian Joanne Freeman has documented, and regularly threatened each other during debate.
Between 1830 and 1860, there were more than 70 violent incidents between congressmen in chambers or nearby streets and dueling grounds, including group fights and meles. In 1850, one credible witness said a third of the House came to the floor armed. Witnesses also faced direct intimidation from armed members during closed-door committee hearings. Freeman wrote that closed-door committee hearings were extraordinarily dangerous, “filled with guns, threats, insults, and bullying,” and committee reports at times were the result of threats and intimidation.
The presence of guns chilled speech in Congress during the past, and their presence threatens to do the same again (to say nothing of the risk of accidental discharges). Members should be unafraid to speak their minds and confident in the collegiality of their colleagues. Guns poison the debate.
By the way, GAO has completed a report on the January 6 insurrection that examines how federal agencies failed to process or share threat information effectively before the event. I requested the report under GAO’s FOIA-like process, which GAO has denied, but informed me they will publish a public version in late February. We are compiling those reports here. We know already, through New York Times reporting this week, that the FBI in particular did not take the threat posed by the right-wing organizations that perpetrated the attack seriously, focusing instead on amorphous threats from “the Left” on the direction of Attorney General William Barr.
We were pleased to see the House Admin Committee follow through and vote unanimously to create a subcommittee on modernization to continue the work of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, one of the three subcommittees. This fulfills a priority we and the Lincoln Network included in our bipartisan rules recommendations late last year. The new subcommittee will follow the ModCom model with equal representation of Republicans and Democrats. Rep. Stephanie Bice will serve as chair with former ModCom chair Derek Kilmer as ranking.
One of the challenges that faced the Modernization Committee during the last two congresses was it had to work with the committees of jurisdiction to secure implementation of its 200-ish recommendations. It found pre-existing modernization advocates, fortunately, at CHA and the Legislative branch subcommittee of House Appropriations. Only about a quarter of ModCom’s recommendations have been fully implemented, so the subcommittee will be enormously helpful in seeing the rest through. Bice also is on the Legislative Branch Subcommittee of Appropriations.
Establishing a modernization subcommittee was one of the recommendations Former Special Assistant in the White House Office of American Innovation Matt Lira and Lincoln Network Executive Director Zach Graves made last week in a letter to Speaker McCarthy. They also have strong ideas for modernizing House technology infrastructure that the subcommittee could take up with the CAO and other legislative branch support offices. They also suggest allowing House officers to conduct innovation prize competitions for Leg branch operations, which we think would produce an enthusiastic response from Congressional Data Task Force members.
Beyond CHA-related proposals, Lira and Graves also call on Speaker McCarthy to boost staffing and technological capacity of committees to conduct oversight, particularly to follow up on GAO recommendations. They also urge the House to expand its regulatory review capabilities to shift some balance of power back from the executive branch.
These proposals, along with ModCom implementation and future modernization subcommittee work, will require continued reinvestment in the Legislative branch. If the House again wields the blunt tool of budget sequestration, it may make pennywise and dollar dumb decisions once again with Legislative branch capacity. We all know how this played out in the Gingrich era, and our democracy cannot afford a repeat.
At its organizing meeting, House Admin also unanimously adopted seven committee resolutions, including promulgating regulations on mandatory anti-harassment training, a statement of rights and protections for House employees, and the parking policy.
By the end of March, we expect the House Committees to come before House Admin to sing for their funding. How do House committees get their money and how much do they get? Glad you asked. (A reminder: approps is funded separate from all other committees and some committees, like the former Jan 6th Committee, got whatever funds they wanted.)
With the retirement of Rep. Jackie Speier, shift to the Senate by former Rep. Peter Welch, and blockages of Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from appointment, the number of experienced hands for Democrats on HPSCI has dwindled. Rep. Mike Quigley had requested a waiver to serve on the panel again as its ranking member, which is commonplace, but was bumped by Minority Leader Jeffries for Rep. Jim Himes. Quigley had initially supported Schiff instead of Jeffries. Quigley learned of the decision via press release and was not pleased about it.
It’s an early unforced error for Jeffries in making a potential friend an adversary. It’s also symbolic of the absurdity of allowing leadership to select some committee assignments and for members in general not to have a say on which members’ expertise is best used on what committee. Political payback is not uncommon, even when leadership is supposed to decide based upon fitness and expertise. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell simply shivved Rick Scott.
House Democrats announced a new regional council to manage messaging on legislative accomplishments going into the 2024 election. Although many of these accomplishments were achieved via progressive pressure, they are absent from the dozen members named. Of the 12, only three have DW-NOMINATE scores in the top 100 of the caucus, with Rep. Robin Kelly coming as the most progressive at number 50.
House Admin’s Cmte Resolutions
The seven committee resolutions unanimously adopted by the House Admin Committee at its organizing meeting are available here.
ODDS AND ENDS
Question: How can the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hold its organizing meeting in the SCIF, where the public cannot attend, where you cannot move to hold meetings closed to the public without first holding a public vote? I don’t know, but HPSCI is organizing Tuesday at 10 AM EST and someone should remind them. They’ll say it’s long-standing committee practice, but misbehavior is not justification for further misbehavior.
In the spirit of “Dear White Staffers,” which was instrumental in elevating the congressional staff unionization drive last Congress, the Congressional Progressive Staff Association has created “Humans on the Hill” on Instagram to share the struggles of staff to make ends meet on a congressional salary. Dear White Staffers is partnering on the project.
Why are there 435 voting members of the House? Congress voted to cap the chamber at that number in 1929, when the population of the country was 122 million people. Rep. Earl Blumenauer has introduced legislation to expand the House to 585 members after the 2030 Census. The legislation would also serve to rebalance the Electoral College. Here’s an initial stab at how seats in a 585-seat House would be divided among states, with California being the clear winner. IMO, the most likely outcome of increasing the number of members of Congress is making each member less important, with the power going either to the leadership or, if members are smart, to their factions.
Has the Equal Rights Amendment been ratified? A joint resolution says yes. But the Archivist, on legal advice, has said no.
Senator John Fetterman will use assistive technology on the job to manage auditory processing issues related to his 2022 stroke. The Office of Congressional Accessibility Services within the AOC has provided Fetterman with a live captioning display monitor.
After appearing on the floor with his baby in a sling during the prolonged Speaker vote, Rep. Jimmy Gomez has founded the Congressional Dads Caucus to highlight working dads issues. A good place to start would be Congress, where staffers endure long waitlists for access to workplace child care. While it’s gotten better, it’s far from good.
Team of rivals. Rep. Mary Peltola has hired a Republican state senator she defeated for her seat, Josh Revak, to be her state director.
The Supreme Court’s whitewash report on the leaking of its anti-abortion opinion points to SCOTUS justices using personal emails for work, unattended burn bags, and staff afraid to confront the justices on their lax security practices. Also, it appears that staff at times told their spouses about the results and votes on opinions before they were released. Don’t forget the author of the report is hardly independent and the report doesn’t really address the behavior of the justices, who don’t even have binding ethical rules. Politico has the story.
Speaking of court secrecy, military court records continue to be withheld from the public despite a 2016 law requiring transparency, with the minimal progress since its issuance spurred by a ProPublica lawsuit. Some at Armed Services or Approps should give them a kick in the tailpipe.
Don’t task off those masks just yet. Seriously.
George Santos. It’s reported that he’s temporarily stepping down from his committees, but I don’t know what that means. Is he resigning? Not showing up? Will there be a House resolution? Why is McCarthy keeping him in the Republican conference?
Speaking of Santos, this weekend a former job-seeker who volunteered in Santos’s office while waiting for a job offer from the Rep. to be finalized filed a complaint with the House Ethics Committee because, in the New York Times’ reporting, “Santos invited him to karaoke and touched his groin, assuring him that his husband was out of town.” Lucky for the House Ethics Committee, they now have jurisdiction to receive the complaint from the now-former staffer. (Did Santos pay him as an intern? Or was this unpaid work entirely?) Will McCarthy act now?
Hybrid sittings in the Canadian parliament should continue, according to a new committee report summarized here by the CBC. It recommends “allowing MPs to Zoom into question period and committee meetings, and use an app to vote on motions and bills when they aren’t present in the House.” Read the 94-page report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
It’s easy to take Rep. Greene to task for her complaint that she’s earning less money now that she’s in Congress, but smart Congress watchers should desist from the impulse to suggest that members of Congress are overpaid or that they should be paid less until they accomplish “X”. That type of framing is counterproductive, especially because paying members well enough serves anti-corruption and retention interests, with the alternative that only rich people will be able to serve in Congress.
Congressional Committee Calendar
Tuesday, February 7
— House Intel will hold a public organizing meeting in the SCIF where the public and journalists cannot attend. 10 AM EST in HVC-304.
— The House of Representatives has invited President Biden to deliver the State of the Union Address on February 7 at 9 PM EST.
Wednesday, February 8
— House Appropriations Committee will hold its organizing meeting at 10:40 AM EST in Rayburn 2359
— The Levin Center will host a webinar titled “How Courts Are Shaping Congress’ Power to Investigate.” 12:00-1:30 PM EST. RSVP here.
Thursday, February 9
— The Architect of the Capitol will be the focus of a House Admin Hearing at 9 AM EST. in 1310 Longworth.
— HSGAC will hold its organizing meeting at 11:00 AM EST in 342 Dirksen
Down the line
TechCongress has extended its application deadline for its Congressional Innovation Fellowships to Thursday, February 16. The fellowships for early-career professionals begin in June. Apply here.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus Center will offer a webinar on the appropriations process on February 16 at 1:00 PM EST. Register at this link.