Money decisions figured prominently in a shortened work week for the House. Committee leaders followed suit with Senate counterparts in requesting more funds for their staff in the coming fiscal year, while appropriators established tighter controls over the earmarks process. CHA, meanwhile, has grabbed the spotlight early in this Congress.
This week … The Senate is in session from Monday to Thursday while the House does the Tuesday-Friday work week.
There are seven — yes, seven — hearings this week that relate to the Legislative branch, many of which are happening inside Legislative branch approps. Here’s what was directed by that committee last year; a guide on how to track House approps markups; and a repository of reports and testimony from the last half-decade. If you want to participate in the member day hearings, the deadlines are coming up FAST. See the calendar below for dates.
CHA will hold a member day hearing on Wednesday, March 8. Such hearings allow members to surface long-standing impediments to better work or new ideas to boost office productivity. The Modernization Committee used them quite successfully during its run in the 116th and 117th Congresses to inform its recommendations. The committee also will hold a meeting on the resolution allocating committee funds for this Congress.
Speaking of, the new Modernization Subcommittee of CHA holds its first hearing Thursday, March 9, and will hear an update from CAO Catherine Szpindor.
HOUSE COMMITTEE FUNDING
Committee chairs and ranking members emphasized the need for higher operational budgets to attract and retain quality staff in CHA’s allotment hearings last week. Most committees requested increases between five and 10% of FY2024 budgets specifically for staffing needs.
The $45,000 floor House leadership established (and the Senate followed) last Congress created upward pressure for committees to keep up, Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chair Frank Lucas told CHA. He requested a 23.5% budget increase for staff. “For us to be competitive in hiring and recruiting staff necessary to enact our agenda, we have to follow suit,” he told the panel.
Congress actually appropriated funds to keep committees in line with personal staff pay increases for FY2022, which amounted to a 21% increase from the previous fiscal year. This increase sounds great, but it would have returned funding to where they were in FY2010. But in the convoluted way the House funds committees, it’s CHA that decides how to divide up the appropriated funds. It decided to make an across the board 10% pay increase for committee staff and reserve the rest of the funds for the January 6 Committee to use.
We highlighted this decision last April, but Congress did not correct giving House committee staff short shrift by finding more money for the Jan. 6 Committee in supplementals. The exact picture of where the $32 million increase went isn’t clear yet because the Jan. 6 Committee is nine months overdue with reports.
Lincoln Network and AEI support Lucas’ view that the 118th Congress needs to continue to invest in Legislative branch capacity, even as it looks for spending reductions elsewhere. The organizations and two other right-of-center groups sent a letter to Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the House Republican Conference last week urging continued reinvestment in congressional staff capacity along with oversight-supporting appropriations to offices like GAO.
Money for more field hearings also emerged as a common reason committees requested increased allotments. If committees really want to tap into the experiences and knowledge of people outside of Washington, allowing remote testimony as the 117th Congress did would be a much more cost-effective and practical method to do so.
SPOTLIGHT ON CHA
With everything on its plate, CHA should secure a larger allotment for itself. It turns out that the “unfettered access” to January 6 footage Speaker McCarthy offered Tucker Carlson will have limits, and it is CHA’s job to set them. Oversight Subcommittee Chair Barry Loudermilk is leading the process.
The committee already requested from USCP access to the same video library the January 6 Committee had last Congress, thereby becoming a de facto committee repository. Carlson’s team already is using a committee workstation to view vetted footage and is not allowed to record or remove the video. Loudermilk said that CHA will figure out how to release the video to other media outlets and the public this spring.
The US Capitol Police had considerable control over what footage the January 6 Committee aired during its public hearings. There’s no word yet on how USCP or Senate Sergeant at Arms will participate in CHA’s process or what kind of assistance staff will receive.
USCP drew extensive attention in the committee’s oversight plan, which it approved early last week and shared with Axios. The most striking provision is a comprehensive review of transitioning the department from a traditional policing force to a protective one.
The committee also will explore reforming the USCP Oversight Board, which we believe is ineffective as currently structured. It oddly includes an ex-officio spot for the Capitol Police Chief and heads of offices selected by House Leadership, the Senate Majority Leader, and the President, spreading responsibility too broadly to generate accountability. CHA also calls for the department’s Inspector General to have more independence from the board, which we think should include public access to its reports.
The oversight plan also calls out the issue of department transparency, stating the intention to require Capitol Police to publish semi-annual reports and regularly post arrest data in detailed and structured formats. We’ve been frustrated with the difficulty involved in analyzing department arrest data and the threadbare quality of arrest reports for some time and cheer improvements that would improve fundamental oversight of the department.
The oversight plan enumerates many ongoing modernization and reform efforts, putting to bed concerns about continuity in the transition between Congresses. It endorses the considerable work in progress by the CAO, including its House Digital Service, and the slate of congressional data projects nearing completion by the Office of the House Clerk. It calls for continued expansion of workplace child care and the building out of comprehensive security and IT support for district offices. It also prioritizes the Modernization Committee’s recommendation to develop collaborative work spaces for members and staff.
EMPHASIS ON “DIRECTED” SPENDING
Earmarks are an inkblot test of congressional culture. Whether they’re good, bad, or irrelevant to congressional productivity and life back in members’ districts, they fundamentally are expressions of power within the institution as are any flows of money through Congress.
The return of earmarks in 2021 broadened power a bit more by allowing members some say in where more than $15 billion in federal spending went. Appropriators, however, still controlled the game. As we noted at the time, earmarks didn’t come in the form of an equal share distributed to all members: they had to be requested, meaning they could be denied if members got out of line. Rules also did not allow members to pool requests to support projects with regional impact or across a common issue, drawing some agenda-setting power away from appropriators.
Now in the majority, Republican appropriators have restarted the game with a loaded deck. They’ve reportedly asked members to prioritize infrastructure, water, economic development and policing requests. They then shrunk the overall pool of funds available by about $7 billion but limited requests to having a “federal nexus,” or a need for a federal agency to take action on a project. They also granted eligibility to rail safety programs and rural water projects.
The new rules would benefit rural and exurban districts that Republicans represent. The committee then went a step further and defunded what Democratic members disproportionately had requested last Congress by prohibiting earmarks in the Labor-HHS-Education bill. Democrats secured more than $1.5 billion in earmarks from that subcommittee in FY2023 according to data compiled by the Bipartisan Policy Center, compared to roughly $400 million for Republicans.
Conversely, Republicans requested over $1 billion in the Energy and Water subcommittee bill compared to roughly $300 million by Democrats.
We never bought into the legend of earmarks facilitating legislative dealmaking in the halcyon days of the congressional past. What they could do is allow a bit of power to flow downward to the rank and file, especially if members simply received an equal pool of money and were allowed to combine earmark requests. Doing so would open up the opportunity for members to forge new alliances outside of the control of leadership. In this Congress, unfortunately, it looks like earmarks are just about power consolidation and the prioritizing of some constituencies over others through written and unwritten rules.
Open season for earmark requests begins Friday when the committee turns on its submission portal. Unfortunately, as the BPC report notes, guidance and coordination between Appropriations Committee staff and member offices already needed improvement before the change in majority. Appropriations also may be understaffed, which the committee itself can allocate more money to correct. It also should set aside resources to support making earmark data available in machine-readable formats and include geolocation data. Mapping approved projects seems like a pretty basic idea.
BPC collaborated with POPVOX Foundation last Congress on a suite of congressionally-directed spending resources that remain relevant as the fundamental requirements and mechanics of earmark requests remain in place from last Congress.
What To Do About Earmarks
An oldie but goodie from our archives — all about earmark bans and our recs on how to earmark
In findings that are frustratingly similar to those of the 9/11 Commission, the GAO concluded that federal law enforcement agencies did not take the threat of violence seriously enough before the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol nor share information that would have helped secure the compound. GAO singles out the FBI and DHS for not following procedures in processing threat tips. It also faults DHS and Capitol Police leadership for not sharing information about potential violence, including within USCP with frontline officers. The entire 122-page report is available here.
In a timely blog post, the Project of Government Oversight reminds us that USCP fired or attempted to fire at least five employees who flagged intelligence failures within the agency, including for participating in the Jan. 6 Committee’s investigation.
The risk of workplace violence remains top of mind for Rep. Jared Huffman and other Democrats. He and 13 colleagues have sent a letter to President Biden urging him to appoint a new Architect of the Capitol who would enforce rules against members bringing firearms onto the House Floor.
ODDS AND ENDS
Diversity in the top office personal staff positions is static according to updated hiring data compiled by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. With only about 100 positions remaining to be filled, the freshmen classes in both the House and Senate actually have hired fewer people of color for the four highest-ranking roles than the freshmen of the 117th Congress. Much of the drop off is the fault of Democratic freshmen: a majority of hires in new Democratic offices in the 117th Congress were people of color, while only about one-third are in the 118th.
Former TechCongress fellow Anna Lenhart shares how bringing tech policy expertise to two congressional offices was essential to evaluating lobbyist pitches with Tech Policy Press editor Justin Hendrix. She also explains her perspective on what happened last Congress with key antitrust legislation.
The Office of the Whistleblower Ombuds has developed a new guide to working with whistleblowing employees associated with the VA.
Twitter is removing SMS/text two-factor authentication for users who do not subscribe to its Twitter Blue service on March 20. The company notified congressional offices of the change last week and urged offices to start using authenticator apps or security keys.
Rep. George Santos has won the ethics complaints version of the EGOT: He’s added a House Ethics Committee investigation to local, state, and international inquiries.
The Administrative Office of the US Courts reported to the Electronic Public Access Public User Group that the Judicial Conference recommends that PACER searches be made free in updated versions.
CAO has produced 50 bite-sized orientation videos for new congressional hires on YouTube.
The Library of Congress recently updated its FEDLINK directory of 1,400 federal agency libraries nationwide and popped them into a nice map.
For the House’s approps calendar, go here. Note that the Leg branch approps submission deadline is March 24th. Member day is set for March 24th, but per the instructions, your boss must request to testify by the 17th.
Congressional Committee Calendar
— Tuesday, March 7
The Senate Banking Committee will hold a hearing on the economic and financial consequences of a federal debt limit default at 2:30 PM ET in 538 Dirksen
– Wednesday, March 8
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch will hold a budget hearing for the FY2024 request of OCWR in H2-T Capitol at 9:30 AM ET.
It also holds a budget hearing for CBO at 11 AM ET in the same room.
The Committee on House Administration holds a member day hearing at 10:30 AM ET in 1310 Longworth. (Livestream here)
CHA then holds a full committee meeting for the resolution allocating funds to House committees at noon. (Livestream here)
The Joint Committee on the Library and Joint Committee on Printing hold their organizational meetings in Mikulski Room, S-115 at 2:30 and 2:35 PM. (Livestream here)
– Thursday, March 9
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch will hold a budget meeting for GPO at 9:15 AM in HT-2 Capitol
The House Administration Subcommittee on Modernization holds its inaugural hearing with CAO Catherine Szpindor at 3:10 PM ET in 1310 Longworth. (Livestream here)
Down the line
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.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch will hold its members’ day hearing on Friday, March 24 at 9:00 AM in HT-2 Capitol. The deadline to request to testify and to submit testimony is Wednesday, March 17 at 5 PM. See this guidance from the subcommittee to participate.