We have to hand it to the Committee on House Administration for roaring out of the gate in the 118th Congress. Last week, it garnered reform ideas from members, held the first Modernization Subcommittee hearing, and allotted committee funds with significant increases nearly across the board. The Legislative Branch Subcommittee on Appropriations, meanwhile, has kicked off an approps season that will whiz by this month.
This week the Senate is in session from Tuesday to Thursday while the House is in recess until March 22.
The appropriations process is moving fast. Groups interested in offering written testimony to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch need to submit it by 5 PM Friday, March 17. The subcommittee has not scheduled a public hearing day, only one for members on the following Friday, March 24 at 9 AM.
As always, the Legislative branch package is just as useful in its report language as its funding. We provided this exhaustive summary of last year’s bill, and we maintain a repository of reports and testimony over the last half-decade at this github site. Consult this guide for tracking House approps markups.
Demand Progress has prepared its appropriations requests for FY2024.
Today, Demand Progress Education Fund releases a new report, Unions in the House of Representatives in the 118th Congress, authored by former OCWR Counsel and Demand Progress Education Fund Senior Advisor Kevin Mulshine, explaining how House staff can continue to unionize in the 118th Congress under the Congressional Accountability Act, despite a new House rule aimed at stymying such efforts.
The vaguely worded rule cannot nullify existing unions or prevent forming new ones in personal offices, Mulshine writes, because the House cannot unilaterally suspend OCWR regulations as an independent office. Because Congress waived sovereign immunity with passage of the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995, the House must revoke the rights granted to its employees in clear and unequivocal language. House rules would have to nullify other regulations to proceed with prohibiting staff unionization, which H.Res. 5 does not accomplish.
The Senate still needs to pass its own resolution to permit personal office unionization. In its absence, Senator Edward Markey’s office has begun the process of seeking voluntary recognition of their staff union. Demand Progress’s Taylor Swift applauds Markey’s approval in this blog post.
If your office is interested in learning more about our efforts to expand union rights to Senate and joint staff, please let us know by replying to this email. Thank you!
HOUSE ADMIN HEARINGS
The Committee on House Administration had a very busy week of hearings.
Here are the highlights of its Member Day hearing on March 8, which gave House members a chance to recommend operational changes:
- Stock ban. Representatives put banning members from trading individual stocks back in the spotlight during the member day hearing. Five of the 18 members who submitted testimony urged the 118th Congress to revisit the issue. Rep. Andy Kim proposed including Supreme Court Justices and the President and Vice President in the prohibition.
- More TS/SCI clearances. Reps. Warren Davidson and Sara Jacobs submitted testimony in support of revising the House Security Manual to allow one staffer in every personal House office to receive a TS/SCI clearance and provide for adequate training. As Davidson noted, the Senate made such a change to its chamber rules last November. We cover this issue in this FY2024 Leg branch requests document.
- Access to CRS reports. Rep. Mike Quigley hit on another topic near and dear to our hearts – enabling full digital access to CRS reports (in HTML) for the public, including non-confidential ones in the CRSX archive. Congress already directed CRS to examine how to implement such changes in the FY2021 Appropriations package. Often, CRS reports remain relevant to current issues even when the work was done years or decades in the past. Given the limited institutional memory of the average congressional staffer, publishing all CRS reports digitally is an important component of supporting stronger informational awareness in the Legislative branch. Modernizing the Library of Congress’s legislative information services, as we have outlined, is a key component of progress in that area.
- Staff pay. Rep. Steny Hoyer focused on staff pay and retention, urging the committee to support annual cost-of-living adjustments for staff salaries within the MRA similar to the 4.6% increase included in the FY2023 Omnibus. It bears repeating that MRA levels often have not kept pace with inflation in the recent past. Hoyer also promoted several ideas identified by the CAO Task Force on a Diverse and Talented Workforce, including access to 529 college-savings plans and covering the costs of adoption and fertility treatments.
- Tele-town halls. Rep. Richard Hudson suggested that the committee solicit bids for a single vendor to provide telephone town halls and SMS messaging to constituents, arguing for greater value for those services paid for in bulk.
- Although the current system is inefficient and likely too burdensome on member offices, the bigger issue is the prevailing format of town halls — live or over the phone — that is unsatisfying to members and constituents. Research pilots have demonstrated that technologies that can incorporate deliberative processes and attract a representative sample of district residents encourage participants to become more politically engaged and have greater levels of trust in Congress. One (free) pilot platform at the University of California-Riverside uses AI to filter toxic comments and algorithms to identify areas of consensus within comments. An RFP could surface more.
- The committee followed up this morning session with a meeting later in the afternoon in which it allocated budgets for House committees. Chair Bryan Steil noted it was the first time since the 115th Congress that CHA had allotted committee funding through regular order. CHA raised allotments across the board, with 12 of 21 committees receiving increases between 10% and 21% from the 117th Congress. Judiciary (21.4%), Armed Services (21.2%), CHA (21.1%), and Ethics (20.6%) saw the biggest jumps. Interestingly, the Oversight Committee allotment increased the least – 2.5%. (Use this CRS Report to compare with past allotments.)
- The new Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the US and CCP received $8.9 million. CHA will also get an increase to cover the creation of the two new subcommittees, from $12.1 million in the 117th to $15.3 million in 118th Congress. Some of the increases will go to supporting more committee field hearings. Most, however, will go to staff pay and technology costs that will improve committee performance. The committee also set aside $2.6 million for committee intern pay.
- CHA also revealed the budget requests of the three largest Legislative branch entities in its views and estimates resolution. The AOC is requesting $1.13 billion, which is a 14.5% decrease in FY2023 enacted funding. The Library of Congress is seeking an 8% increase to $895 million.
- The US Capitol Police, however, are seeking a 14.5% increase to $840.9 million, even after the 22% increase it received in the end-of-year omnibus. In FY2021, the department’s budget was $515 million. Of course, we still have no clue if these numbers will stick in the absence of a 302(b) figure for the Legislative branch. The President’s budget arrived last week more than a month late and the House decided to wait for it.
Unions in the House of Representatives in the 118th Congress
The Modernization Subcommittee (ModSub?) also held its very first hearing
CAO Catherine Szpindor updated on its modernization efforts, revealing:
- The House Digital Service developed a new committee scheduling tool and aims to make it available at the end of this month. The tool will reduce scheduling conflicts for members.
- The new House Intern Resource Office, which received start-up funding last Congress, aims to launch in time for summer internships. (We’ve long supported this effort.) It will assist onboarding and professional development for interns and training for their supervisors.
- Moving to biweekly pay for staff would require an expensive retooling of existing HR payroll systems to accomplish, running in the millions of dollars. CAO is examining replacing that aging system, which could allow a change.
- The CAO’s coaching program, which is less than two years old, has attracted more than 7,000 attendees at its 92 in-person and virtual programs. It also held five district staff conferences that received a near-unanimous approval rating from attendees.
- Per a ModCom request, HIR and the Office of Payroll and Benefits have developed a module new hires can use to report demographic data voluntarily, which will allow the House to move beyond using surveys to gather information on staff diversity.
- HIR has approved more than 140 cloud services including for video conferencing and constituent engagement.
- CAO is installing WiFi in all main district offices, saving an average of $147 a month for some offices.
- Working off another ModCom recommendation, CAO is starting year two of its Congressional Excellence Program to provide strategic leadership development for members. As a pilot, it attracted nearly 25 offices and Szpindor expects it to grow.
Szpindor also addressed the personal data breach at the health care group DC Health Link, which included the release of information about House members, staff, and their families. She said it will take another week or two to understand the magnitude of the issue. Apparently, it’s bad.
CHA AND J6
CHA is going to have to contend with being only one of several nodes of activity for continued investigation of the January 6 insurrection in the House. As the de facto repository of surveillance camera footage of the attack, Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s decision to release it to Tucker Carlson immediately muddied the committee’s role in deciding public access. Roll Call reported last week that the Speaker’s office alone will decide whether other news media outlets beyond Fox will have access to the video, not the committee. CHA will field requests from insurrection defendants for footage.
The House Oversight Committee, too, is interjecting itself into J6-related issues, with all the baggage that entails. Reps. James Comer and Marjorie Taylor Greene are working to set up a visit to defendants awaiting trial in a DC jail by House members, including those not on the committee, to demonstrate some kind of hardship for people they consider political prisoners.
CHA’s Oversight Subcommittee Chair Rep. Barry Loudermilk, meanwhile, is launching a renewed inquiry into the insurrection with a focus on security failures. Because the January 6 Committee focused so much of its attention on President Donald Trump’s role in the attack on the Capitol, this area is still ripe for investigation, especially as the US Capitol Police budget requests passes the $800 million mark. Two years after the event, we’re just starting to learn fundamental aspects of the breakdown in federal agencies’ preparations and responses to the coup attempt.
The politicization of insurrection-related oversight in other corners of the House, however, will make it harder for objective work done by CHA to seem legitimate. That’s a secondary but important impact institutionally of the failure of leadership coming from Speaker McCarthy on the video footage issue, which roiled the Hill last week when Carlson made his first absurd broadcast with it.
We’ve laid out what public records reform for USCP should look like.
(If we may humbly suggest, calling attention to the need for improved public oversight of the Capitol Police is as timely a topic as ever this Sunshine Week.)
Model FOIA Regs for the US Capitol Police
LEG BRANCH HEARINGS
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch crammed three budget requests hearings into last week for OCWR, CBO, and GPO. All three requested more money to provide pay raises for staff to keep up with inflation.
- OCWR requested about an additional $326,000, or a 6.9% increase from FY2023 to cover across-the-board pay increases for its 34 authorized full-time employees.The potential return to FY2022 funding levels, as Republican deficit hawks have proposed, would force a reduction in service, Executive Director Patrick Findlay told the committee. About 40% of its costs are fixed in secure IT systems to uptake complaints and requests, so reductions would come in reduced staffing. Findlay said that site inspections and case processing would be delayed if the office had to cut staff.OCWR has the added challenge of being relatively new, formed in 2019. As awareness of its services has grown, requests have increased considerably, and the office cannot project demand into the future with certainty. Claims and requests for voluntary mediation more than doubled between FY2021 and FY2022, stretching its budget. Because it hires contractors to provide expert mediation, increased demand would further stretch the staffing budget. Findlay asked that $2.5 million remain available through October 2025 to provide some flexibility.
- CBO requested a larger increase of 12% from FY2023, or $7.5 million to hire 11 new FTEs and fulfill technology purchases postponed because of higher labor costs. Staff earning $100,000 or less would receive a 5.3% pay increase. The new hires, Director Phillip Swagel (AKA Swaggy P) testified, would bring the office up to 290 FTEs. They would plug holes in analyzing climate change and infrastructure, defense and homeland security, income security, and immigration legislation.When asked about potential budget cuts, Swagel said it would force CBO to focus service more heavily on committee chairs and ranking members at the expense of requests from rank-and-file members. It also would force layoffs and the hiring of less-experienced staff.The CBO budget justification mentioned needing assistance in receiving data from federal agencies in a more timely manner. Swagel specifically named a statutory change Congress needed to make to allow CBO to access federal student loan data and lags by Treasury and OMB in delivering data on bills funded by rescisions.
- GPO requested a modest increase of 2%, only its third ask for an increase in the last decade. The office generates nearly 90% of its own revenue, but needs additional funds to cover increased labor and materials costs. Director Hugh Halpern also flagged that half of GPO’s workforce will be eligible for retirement within the next four years.
These three leg branch agencies will make their pitches to Senate appropriators this week.
Rep. Darin LaHood has concluded that it was he that was inappropriately queried by the FBI in a search of Section 702 information. Demand Progress discovered the use of the name of a member of Congress in recently declassified documents from 2019-20. LaHood said he came to this conclusion after viewing classified details of the incident.
LaHood is a member of HPSCI and House Republicans’ point on Section 702 reauthorization. FBI Director Christopher Wray says the bureau has subsequently made changes to its practices and that all searches involving elected officials now require a deputy director’s approval.
The First Amendment is for everyone, including Matt Taibbi. During last week’s “Twitter Files” hearing, Rep. Sylvia Garcia and Del. Stacey Plaskett pressed Taibbi to reveal if Elon Musk had provided him with internal company emails. Taibbi refused and Judiciary Chair Rep. Jim Jordan defended his constitutional right not to.
The episode is a reminder that the Senate failed at the end of last Congress to pass the PRESS Act, which would shield journalists or their technology providers from disclosing sources except in cases of national security emergencies. The bill passed unanimously in the House, but the Senate failed to include it in the final omnibus, despite broad support from civil society organizations that included Demand Progress. Perhaps Jordan could lead on its reintroduction.
CHA would like to create clear guidelines for when temporary fencing could be erected around the Capitol Building, as it was during the State of the Union Address. The Capitol Police Board ultimately has the authority but in practice responds to requests from House or Senate leadership. Formal guidelines would need buy-in from Senate Rules.
Temporary fencing remained in place for weeks after the January 6 insurrection at the direction of Speaker Pelosi, which led many in civil society to push back at a proposal to make the installation permanent.
The Senate Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing on funding OMB, GAO, and GPO Wednesday, March 15 at 3 PM in 138 Dirksen.
Down the road…
The House Administration Subcommittee on Oversight will hold a hearing on the Office of the Attending Physician Thursday, March 23 at 3 PM ET in 1310 Longworth.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch will hold a member day hearing Friday, March 24 at 9:00 AM ET in HT-2 Capitol.
This week is Sunshine Week and several events will be held around town and virtually:
- Throughout the week, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation will publish short essays daily that discuss the transformative value of government transparency and FOIA’s continuing positive impact on civil society. Daniel will contribute one of these essays, as will other government transparency and accountability experts from civil society and academia. AFPF will assemble contributors for a virtual webinar on Thursday, March 16 at 2 PM ET. Register for it here.
- The Department of Justice will host a celebration Monday, March 13 from 10 AM to noon in the Robert F. Kennedy Building’s Great Hall. Attendees must register for the event by Friday, March 10 at 4 PM.
- The National Archives and Records Administration will hold a panel discussion on FOIA with senior staff Monday, March 13 at 1 PM, which will be streamed on its YouTube Channel. More details about the event here.
- American Oversight is hosting two events. The first is an online panel on careers in government transparency and accountability Wednesday, March 15 at 3 PM. Register for the event at this website. The event is geared toward college and graduate students.The second is a FOIA seminar led by its legal and research team on Friday, March 17 at 11 AM to noon. Register here.
- The Society of Professional Journalists and MuckRock co-host a webinar on the fundamentals of using FOIA for investigative work and strategies that veterans have used to make effective public record requests. The training is Wednesday, March 15 at 1:30 PM ET.
The next meeting of the Congressional Data Task Force will be March 14 from 2-4 PM ET. You must register to attend 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 Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosts a roundtable on women working in Congress to commemorate Women’s History Month on Wednesday, March 15 at noon in 2060 Rayburn. RSVP here.