The contrast of fast and slow continues to stand out to us in this new Congress. The House is prepping its appropriations work with breakneck speed, while the Senate will stretch its process out at a more leisurely pace.
With only themselves to respond to the baking crisis that emerged suddenly, Senators chose to respond with no response at all.
The failure of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank were historically large, and indicate some broader structural issues within the financial sector. Default on the federal debt would blow through the sector and the economy like a volcanic eruption. Nevertheless, the House majority continues its phoney war with the White House on the issue despite the apparent systemic weaknesses. At some point, governance is going to have to start.
This week both chambers are in session Wednesday through Friday. The Senate also is in session Tuesday.
The House Administration Committee will hold a rare hearing on the Office of the Attending Physician on Thursday at 3 PM, and hold an organizational meeting on House Communication Standards on Friday at 9:30 AM.
Four significant House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee hearings are set for this week. Thursday, GAO will present its budget request at 9:30 AM, the Capitol Police will present at 11 AM, and the Library of Congress at 1 PM. Friday, the panel will hold its members day at 9 AM.
Members can submit Legislative branch language until 6 PM on Friday (I apologize for combining the public testimony deadline with this deadline, which was the 17th – I was working off the majority’s website, but this dear colleague has the deadline as the 24th.)
The Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee will hear budget requests of the Architect of the Capitol and Library of Congress Wednesday, March 22 at 3 PM.
Approps resources: We’ve posted a tracker for the appropriations process with testimony and hearing deadlines at this link. (n.b. six of them are Friday.) We’ve also compiled a spreadsheet of Appropriations Committee members by their subcommittee to make life a little easier. There are tabs for both the House and Senate but that may be hard to see on smaller screens.
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.
Senate appropriators have released a hearings schedule for the rest of the FY24 hearings on the committee website with the caveat they are tentative until officially posted a week in advance. This schedule stretches into June.
Retaining MRA levels: Demand Progress and a coalition of other government reform groups and individuals are urging the House Appropriations Committee to retain funding for the MRA at its current FY2023 levels, warning that cuts would force staff from their positions and weaken institutional capacity. Before MRA increases in the last two fiscal years, staff turnover had reached its highest rate in over 20 years.
“Cutting MRAs is a horrible return on investment for the Legislative branch. For decades, Congress underpaid its own staff, self-inflicting a wound of diminished capacity, which undercut its ability to oversee and rein in the federal government’s sprawling administrative bureaucracy,” said Taylor J. Swift, senior policy advisor at Demand Progress.
Last year, the House raised staff pay closer to parity with the Executive branch and set a salary floor. According to a LegiStorm analysis, junior staffer pay rose the most, crossing a median salary of $50,000. Cuts would return these positions to unsustainable compensation rates for young people without deep-pocketed parents or additional employment. Senior staff, meanwhile, once again would fall well below parity with positions off the Hill, restarting a brain drain that impacts legislative and oversight capacity.
As the letter points out, most House committee chairs this month requested budget increases of between 5% and 10% for FY2024 specifically for staff pay in order to attract and retain talented people. Turning around and cutting personal staff pay would be counterproductive to committee function, not to mention the effectiveness of member offices.
Demand Progress-Led Coalition: Keep Funding for Staff Pay
Read the letter we sent today to the House Appropriations Committee to retain funding for the MRA at its current FY2023 levels.
Senate Leg Branch heard FY2024 budget requests from the heads of CBO, GAO, and GPO last Wednesday. This was GAO Director Gene Dodaro’s first appropriations hearing for FY24 as GPO and CBO already made requests to House appropriators. GAO is seeking an 8.8% increase in funds from last fiscal year, which would put its budget at $859.7 million.
Roughly $76 million of that increase would go to hiring another 165 staff to meet surging demand from mandated studies included in the largest spending packages of the 117th Congress, including NDAA, the Omnibus, the CHIPS act, and the infrastructure bill. The NDAA alone contains 158 mandated reports, requiring 40 more defense analysts. Dodaro said defense already eats up about half of its assessment efforts. We have long thought that GAO’s funding should scale with the amount of federal spending.
GAO’s budget request would allow it to expand its Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team to 200 staff, about a 40-person increase from where it will be by the end of the year. Dodaro’s written testimony has a terrific infographic on how STAA employees are assigned to specific topics or responsibilities since its launch in 2019.
GAO estimates that over the last five years it has averaged returning $145 in benefit for every dollar it spent and saved the US Treasury $55.6 billion in FY2022. Given the failure to keep GAO’s funding at parity as a percentage of federal non-defense spending over the decades, this means Congress has inadvertently wasted the opportunity to prevent billions, if not trillions of dollars of waste, fraud, and abuse.
Prompted by a question, GPO Director Hugh Halpern noted his budget request included $500,000 for creating an online portal for congressionally mandated reports that Congress and the public could access, built upon GovInfo infrastructure.
Appropriate Appropriations: In the background of this fiscal year’s appropriations discussions, like so much suddenly in American governance, is the courts. The Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that challenges the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because it is not funded by direct congressional appropriations. The 5th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled last year that because CFPB draws funding from the Federal Reserve, which itself is outside of the regular appropriations process, Congress violated its own constitutional appropriations power by not directly funding the agency. CFPB, it ruled, inappropriately operates outside of congressional or Executive branch control.
Plenty of other federal agencies (and, as just mentioned, the GPO) are funded through fees, sales, or other methods. By ruling that drawing on non-appropriated funds means CFPB skirts the congressional power of the purse, the Supreme Court immediately would implicate the Federal Reserve’s funding scheme as well.
Corporate Members and the Banks
It’s impossible to mention the Fed without thinking of the banking crisis it may have forestalled this week and the congressional response. A fair amount of coverage has been retrospective, grilling Senate Democrats on their support for a 2018 bill that watered down Dodd-Frank. It’s another opportunity to trot out the label “centrist” or “moderate” to describe these members of the conference, distinguishing them from “progressives” like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is out front calling for the 2018 bill’s repeal.
Words like moderate or centrist demonstrate a paucity of language available to describe the power dynamics of our current politics in a meaningful way. Looser or tighter industry regulations do not exist on a continuum upon which one could fall in the middle: they are reflective of how responsive representatives are to corporate interests that advocate for their adjustment.
No powerful countervailing political force exists to throw itself against the power of the finance sector and force compromise or moderation. Members simply decide their own level of comfort with corporate policy preferences, even when the CBO warns that they could result in the outcome that just happened. Naturally, that level of comfort is informed by personal needs and goals.
We think a better way to describe such members is corporatist or corporate because they ultimately are comfortable with corporate political power and see political benefit from the relationship. Voting constituencies driving such calculations to “moderate” simply don’t exist.
Former Representative and current insolvent bank board member Barney Frank was characteristically blunt about the personal needs part when he told the Financial Times he joined Signature Bank because “I need to make money.” He made $2 million as a member of its board, during which he publicly argued for lowering the regulatory trigger of his own signature bill.
We can be cynical about the revolving door, but it’s rational behavior for people leaving an extremely demanding job that pays short of $200,000 a year in an expensive metro area who have in-demand experience. An alternative would be to set the salary of members high enough where the promise of a lucrative landing spot after government service isn’t enticing.
Singapore, for example, benchmarks some of its government ministers’ salaries to the median income of the top 1,000 Singaporian citizens’ earnings, which works out to over $1 million annually. Top elected representatives like the Prime Minister twice that.
Back in the here and now, the House will start digging into the banking failure issue on March 29, when the Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing with the chair of the FDIC and vice chair of the Fed.
ICYMI: Unions in the 118th Congress
CONGRESSIONAL DATA TASK FORCE
Daniel is working on a more comprehensive blog post about the latest meeting of the task force. The most notable tidbits of the day included:
- CAO has completed updating statements of disbursement to include data that makes it easier to track expenditures over time. They are available on House.gov.
- The Secretary of the Senate, Library of Congress, and GPO have collaborated to automate embedding Senate amendment text on Congress.gov, which eliminates opening up the text in a separate link. The same capability is available for House amendments.
- The Secretary of the Senate continues work on making videos of Senate committee and floor proceedings available online, including at Congress.gov.
- The House Clerk’s comparative print project is not yet ready for release to the public, but the office intends to do so. They’re still working on finishing the remaining modules for internal use.
- CAO is working on scheduling another congressional hackathon. With the rapid development of LLM tools, it’s definitely a good idea to hold one.
LINES IN THE SAND
The Senate held the first procedural vote last week on repealing authorizations for the use of force against Iraq approved in 1991 and 2002. Nineteen Republicans joined with all Democrats on the vote, including anti-interventionists like Sens Josh Hawley and Rand Paul.
Sponsoring Sen. Tim Kaine told Politico he’d like to revise the 2001 authorization that enabled the “global war on terror” as well but was left out because it is more controversial than the Iraq-related ones. Potential floor amendments to the repeal likely would allow the use of military force only in certain contexts.
With the American military pulled out of Iraq, it’s a positive sign to see Congress claw back some of its warmaking power from the Executive branch. Finding limits to the 2001 AMUF would be a daunting but worthwhile activity for Congress. The fact that members haven’t mustered up the fortitude to repeal the Persian Gulf AMUF even after authorizing re-invading Iraq points to the need for these resolutions to have automatic expiration dates.
Demand Progress FY24 Approps Requests
Demand Progress’ Legislative branch-related requests are available at this link.
PRIVACY ON THE HILL
Lawfare recently published a comprehensive review of a US District judge’s decision this January to allow evidence gathered through a geofencing warrant of the Capitol complex in the prosecution of a January 6 insurrectionist. The Department of Justice used Google data from that afternoon to pinpoint David Harles Rhine’s location and charge him with four misdemeanors related to rushing the Capitol.
In addition to Rhine’s geolocation data, the government hoovered up identifying data of members of the press, members of Congress, and congressional staff who were there as well. Given how we’ve seen the Justice Department query Rep. Darin LaHood’s name in a section 702 search, we have reason to be concerned about how federal law enforcement may store and utilize this trove of geolocation data in the future.
The personal data of 21 members of Congress, meanwhile, are in the hands of hackers of D.C. Health Link, according to CyberScoop. The information contained in an unsecured database included entries for 1,800 people associated with Congress, including the family members and staff.
CHA held a members-only meeting on the data breach with the US Capitol Police, CAO, and House Sergeant at Arms Tuesday.
OCWR Director Patrick Findlay made no comments in last week’s Leg Branch Appropriations Subcommittee that indicated his office is backing off supporting overseeing congressional staff union elections. Seven offices are at different stages of the unionization process, he noted, and his office has provided an electronic election system.
Our colleague Kevin Mulshine argued in a report last week that the new House rule seeking to undo member office unionization is not valid because it simply tries to wave away OCWR authority engaged through a House resolution last Congress.
ODDS AND ENDS
As Daniel told Vox for Sunshine Week coverage, witnesses routinely evade the House’s truth-in-testimony rule by filing as an “individual,” not as a representative of an organization. Witnesses can avoid disclosing being funded by a foreign government simply by checking a box.
Several ideas for reforming the witness disclosure process are floating around, including a bill introduced last Congress by Rep. Jim Banks. One option would be to have GAO randomly audit witness statements.
Medically-related absences, which now include Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are slowing the chamber’s already deliberative pace to glacial. Such contingencies are exactly the proper usage of remote voting protocols. Deployment of remote voting, of course, wouldn’t speed up Senate processes any.
We also noticed that hundreds of members of Congress joined an emergency Zoom meeting with the Treasury Department to be briefed on the SVB collapse last weekend. We assume Treasury did not have to run the request to brief members remotely past the House Majority Leader’s office, as committee chairs do for remote witnesses.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute is launching a new bicameral Latino Hill Staff Academy to support professional development at all experience levels. Its first class will have 24 slots. General Motors is providing funding.
Allowing staff to carry firearms onto the Capitol campus, as Rep. Greg Steube has proposed in a new bill, would dramatically increase the number of weapons floating around congressional workplaces. When Congress was awash with weapons in the antebellum era, instances of violence were unfortunately common and speech was chilled. As we’ve said before, guns pose too much of a risk to the institution to allow them to proliferate in Congress.
ProPublica published a fascinating study of how corporate executives made huge bank by trading their competitors’ stock at particularly opportune times, suggesting they were skirting the letter of insider trading laws using information not available yet to the public. Perhaps some members of Congress are engaging in similar practices, which stock trading ban proposals would clean up.
Building off of a Modernization Committee recommendation, Rep. Derek Kilmer is introducing a bill to convene an evidence-based policymaking commission to make recommendations on how Congress could incorporate data into the legislative process.
Why aren’t there more women chairing congressional committees? It’s the money (to get onto the steering committee).
DC “nepo-babies”? Inside Elections breaks down dozens of members’ familial connections with other officeholders, including 11 whose parent served in the House.
Jobs. ICYMI, it appears that both the House Clerk and the CAO are hiring for a number of interesting technology-related positions, including this senior business analyst. And if you’re a technologist interested in embedding with the federal courts to improve the usability of their services, Georgetown has a fellowship for you.
~ Wednesday ~
Modernization Staff Association, Demand Progress, Pay Our Interns, and R Street will host a listening session on “How to Modernize Congress for Junior Staffers” on Wednesday, March 22 from noon to 1 PM ET in CVC 217. Our colleague Taylor J. Swift will participate. Register for the event here.
The Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee will hold an oversight hearing on the Architect of the Capitol and the Library of Congress Wednesday, March 22 at 3 PM in Dirksen 192.
~ Thursday ~
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch holds a hearing for the Government Accountability Office’s budget request on Thursday, March 23 at 9:30 AM in HT-2 Capitol.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch holds a hearing for the U.S. Capitol Police’s budget request on Thursday, March 23 at 11 AM in HT-2 Capitol.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch holds a hearing for the Library of Congress’s budget request on Thursday, March 23 at 1 PM in HT-2 Capitol.
The House Administration Subcommittee on Oversight will hold a hearing on the Office of the Attending Physician Thursday, March 23 at 3 PM in 1310 Longworth.
~ Friday ~
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch will hold a member day hearing Friday, March 24 at 9 AM in HT-2 Capitol.
The Committee on House Administration holds its House Communications Standards Commission organizational meeting Friday, March 24 at 9:30 AM in 1309 Longworth.
~ Down the Line ~
The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights will host two training sessions on the Congressional Accountability Act on March 21 and April 18. More details and links to registration.
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch holds a hearing on the Senate Sergeant at Arms and the U.S. Capitol Police on Wednesday, March 29 at 3 PM.