The House majority is approaching a crossroads. In order to fulfill its aspirations of a strong Congress with more member input, it needs to continue reinvestment in the capacity of Congress. Some deficit hawks, however, are pushing toward shrinking Congress in a way that undercuts these aspirations. The irony is that cutting the Legislative branch’s comparatively infinitesimal budget makes it impossible to counter the overpowerful Executive branch and run a legislature that’s capable of making smart spending (reduction) decisions.
This happened before, in 1995 and 2013, with disastrous results still felt today. But few are around to remember those lessons. All last week, Legislative branch agency directors cautioned House appropriators of the damage cuts would do to their ability to provide adequate service to congressional users. They explained how they were still digging out from sequestration a decade ago. The disappointing thing is that some House conservatives seem unaware of or unwilling to heed the lessons from the recent past: that slashing the capabilities of Congress left the institution in the state they find it in and to which they object.
This week both chambers are in session Monday through Thursday (with the Senate also in on Friday). House Leg Branch Appropriators will hear from House offices and the AOC on Tuesday and the Capitol Police on Wednesday. Senate Appropriators will hear from the Senate Sergeant at Arms and the Capitol Police on Wednesday.
The following two weeks are recess, with everyone back on April 17th. If you’re pondering what I’m pondering, our updated appropriations tracker has public and member testimony deadlines. Nearly all Senator appropriations requests are due in the next two weeks. The House data is more sketchy, but it appears all Representative appropriations requests are due by the end of the week.
Note to readers: we’re taking a hiatus for the next two weeks while Congress is in recess. The next newsletter will arrive April 17.
A handy list of deadlines for Members and the public for when testimony is due.
LEG BRANCH APPROPRIATIONS
Funding priorities for the Legislative branch came more sharply into focus last week with a number of hearings, including a members’ testimony day in the House.
The Library of Congress did double-duty with Senate and House appropriators, requesting a 7.5% increase from FY 2023 to take its budget up to $940.8 million. Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden noted 70% of the additional money requested would go to mandatory pay and pricing increases.
The Librarian of Congress, Dr. Hayden, faced a fiscally skeptical audience in the House, and both hearings felt like a missed opportunity to dig into modernizing CRS and its longstanding problems of envisioning how its products can meet its congressional users. CRS Director Mary Mazanec is requesting a $146 million budget, an increase of 9.7%, which includes an additional $13 million to hire additional staff for current products with which the office is struggling. The hiring of a dozen new analysts is intended to help reduce a backlog of over 2,4000 legislative bill summaries. New staff also would be brought on to focus on the service’s contributions to Congress.gov.
The trouble with this CRS request is that it limits itself to remedying a long-standing issue of the timeliness of one product line by throwing more people at the problem instead of demonstrating it is dedicating resources to where its services are most useful to congressional users while simultaneously figuring out how to use modern tools to address those needs more efficiently.
The House Administration Committee majority, in its oversight plan, describes its goals with respect to CRS as pushing the agency to “better meet the needs of a modern Congress, including shorter reports, more variety of products, thorough internal tracking of activities and product delivery rates, and greater efficiency in work product.”
The House minority also addresses CRS in its plan, pushing for “detailed oversight of CRS operations and consider[ation of] any need to modify management and organizational structure of the service.” Among the elements to consider are staff morale and attrition rates, work environment, and resource allocation.
We’ve been watching CRS for a long time. A 2019 House Admin hearing on CRS pointed out significant flaws in its management, surfacing concerns that “the agency is mismanaged, stifles expert research and results in a lesser work product.” For an inside view, Kevin Kosar’s 2015 article “Why I Quit the Congressional Research Service” is worth a read. For our part, the written statement we submitted for the 2019 hearing remains true: (1) there’s a lack of reliable and appropriate metrics regarding management; (2) CRS needs to explore how staff access expert information; (3) and the agency needs to innovate on technology and collaborate with stakeholders.
The discussion at the hearing was short, but we can only imagine what’s happening behind the scenes. The Library of Congress seems caught between developing a very expensive “visitor experience center,” which is basically a mini-museum planned in the 2010s and set to open in its D.C. buildings in 2025, and addressing its mission, which it describes as “vision-driven efforts to make the Library more user centered, digitally enabled, and data driven.”
In practice, the Library’s expansion is predicated on getting better with technology, for which it was continuously faulted in the 2010w, in significant part as a consequence of the failed leadership of the previous Librarian of Congress. It is requesting new resources to support continuous technology development, enhancing services and expanding access, and strengthening expertise in other key areas — such as addressing substantial attrition of contracting staff around IT acquisition, establishing a Digital Accessibility program to meet the needs for accessibility services, and strategic IT planning.
Based on the hearing, both CRS and the Library as a whole are in for a rough ride, with at least one member openly discussing whether to reduce funding levels to that in FY19, $696 million, which is a far cry from the FY23 enacted at $828 million and the request for $895 million. In our view, the Law Library of Congress provides a significant return on investment to Congress, as does the OCIO, and even the CRS (although it is underperforming), and we are not in a position to assess its collections and support for the blind and those with visual impairments.
Cuts in funding to the Library, which provides analytic and research capacity for the Congress and the public, would be disastrous from the perspective of building a strong Congress. The requested increase in funding is likely necessary, with a caveat. Are the different divisions capable of meeting their mandate to support Congress and the public? If they are failing, perhaps it is time to explore more rigorous oversight, including whether different leadership or leadership structures would be more capable of attaining those ends.
The Architect of the Capitol, meanwhile, requested a $1.13 billion budget, a $191 million or 14.5% decrease from FY23, which was about $1.32 billion. These billion dollar numbers are significantly higher than the $774 million it received in FY22, the significance of which we will discuss below. Much of the swelling of the AOC’s funding comes as a consequence of the decades-long underinvestment in physical security at the Capitol combined with the agency’s utter inability to properly scope and manage projects.
Senators did not seem happy with the $1.13 billion request. They spent most of the time asking Acting Architect Chere Rexroat about the lack of coordination across AOC on different projects and its struggles to manage projects to keep them on time and budget. Rexroat acknowledged siloing and an inefficient managerial process that duplicates work.
Rexroat noted physical security projects were the top priority of this year’s budget, with the need to replace a variety of protective measures and structures around the Capitol campus.
Neither the AOC or the Library published a congressional budget justification document online, meaning written testimony alone gives specifics on where the money will go until filing and publishing a congressional report. (Last year’s is not yet available in the House and the Senate does not publish an equivalent document.) AOC claimed last year that its budget has classified portions and withheld it in its entirety, which is balderdash.
THE SHRIVELING OF CONGRESS
Hanging over all appropriations discussions is the cloud of uncertainty about the ultimate size of the top line for non-defense bills, which Speaker Kevin McCarthy apparently agreed to dial back to FY22 levels during his search for speakership votes. If applied equally across the Legislative branch AOC would need to find $356 million in additional reductions, which, given its deferred maintenance and project backlog and connection with congressional security, seems unlikely. Although its hearing was delayed to this week, the US Capitol Police’s request will be close to $240 million higher than FY22.
To put in context, the cuts required of those two offices would be roughly the budget increase for the entire Legislative branch between FY21 and FY22. Appropriators still would need to shed more than $680 million to get to FY2022. This isn’t feasible when the total budget for the Leg branch is nearing 6 billion. If the cuts to AOC and USCP are negligible, member and committee offices, the Library of Congress, and legislative support offices would have to absorb more than a billion dollars in required cuts. In practice, this would at best mean hiring freezes and likely firings of essential personnel. In effect, you’d see significant delays in responses from GAO, the Library, CBO, and the support offices, the quality of the work would suffer, and staff in member offices and committees would shrink, driving out expertise and enfeebling the Legislative branch. It’s happened before and it was bad.
The House majority came into office proclaiming it would shrink the size of government while also reigning in the power and authority of the Executive branch. But a reduction in federal spending is not the same thing as a reduction in the “size of government.” The House majority has not put specific government programs on the chopping block. Instead, programs simply will have less money to do the same mission. What that really means is a procrustean reduction in the quality of services provided everywhere, which the minority on House Appropriations has cataloged across every federal department. Executive branch agencies, conveniently, will be the ones having to decide what programs to cancel. The public will expect the same services, but get something increasingly useless to their lives without major disruptions to the federal government’s most valuable contractors – the enshittification of government.
The Legislative branch is unique in this process in that it’s the only part of the federal budget that helps conservatives actually accomplish what they say they’re after. Congress provides itself with the ability to understand the effectiveness of federal programs, the knowledge about issues that may or may not require government intervention, and the impact of regulatory regimes on parts of the economy. The capacity of the Legislative branch exists to help members of Congress manage the decisions they have to make about Executive branch power.
During the mid-1990s, Newt Gingrich enfeebled Congress as a weapon to consolidate power in the office of the Speaker and pave the way for his big business allies to displace legislative expertise with special interest factoids. It was great performative politics. He decided to eliminate significant parts of the Legislative branch support apparatus and impose a budgetary culture where members demonstrated their own virtue by slashing spending on themselves. The end result, of course, was to significantly weaken rank-and-file’s ability to participate in legislative or oversight processes and to weaken Congress’s ability to oppose the president.
Fifteen years later, sequestration compounded this mistake. The Legislative branch is just now starting to crawl back from the impact of the last round of arbitrary austerity measures more than a decade ago. GAO Director Gene Dodaro told House appropriators that his budget request would put his agency’s staffing level back to where it was in 2010. To deal with the sequester, GAO laid off about 12% of its staff and halted IT modernization to save more jobs in an attempt to preserve its expertise, creating a technology backlog it’s still trying to clear.
GAO is the textbook example of how rank-and-file enthusiasm for lower top-lines for the sake of appearance is a form of self-sabotage. How does GAO pick what to work on? Dodaro said, with congressional leadership’s approval, his agency first prioritizes analysis required in the laws Congress passes, like the most recent NDAA. It then considers work requested by chairs and ranking members of committees, finally considering requests from individual members after those priorities are cleared. GAO hasn’t had the staffing resources to get to that third tier of prioritization – individual members – in 15 to 20 years. There’s a eight months backlog before the agency can start on committee requests. Nevertheless, its work over that time has had a $1.3 trillion benefit to the nation. Investing in GAO saves taxpayers money at a rate of return of $145-to-$1, and cuts to its budget have left billions on the table.
Recent increases in GAO’s budget and its FY24 request do not restore bandwidth for the rank-and-file. More than 350 congressionally mandated reports included in laws last year require more than 100 additional full time employees. Congressional reinvestment in science and tech assessment capacity within GAO by creating STAA runs parallel to this three-tiered prioritization scheme.
Dodaro and other Legislative branch agency heads said repeatedly in these hearings that because their funding overwhelmingly goes to personnel costs, budget cuts lead directly to cuts in service to Congress. Dr. Hayden said CRS would be “severely damaged” in a return to 2019 funding levels.
As our colleague Taylor Swift told Roll Call this week, cuts to the MRA similarly have low salience for constituents but outsized impact on the institution’s ability to function. Demand Progress and an ideologically-broad coalition of groups warned of the potential harm looming to the MRA last week in a letter to House leadership and appropriators. Increased staff turnover driven by lower pay creates further downward pressure on legislative support agencies like CRS, as inexperienced staff require greater levels of service. CRS fielded 73,000 congressional requests during FY22. It likely would face more, but with a smaller staff.
The very structure of Congress deprioritizes expertise in making the institution work. Members generally do not want to serve on the Legislative Branch Appropriations subcommittee in either chamber, leading to high turnover. In fact, we saw complete turnover in the House’s membership this Congress and partial turnover in the Senate. In the absence of longevity, many members are not fully aware of the context for recent budget increases against decades of flat or lower appropriations that have held institutional function back.
The last few Congresses have asked Legislative branch offices to provide greater services in areas of acute need and appropriated money to do so. The drive to return to regular order, broader member participation, and robust oversight require adequate investment. Offices certainly should be asked about what their return is on the investment Congress makes in them. But across-the-board cuts make it certain that Congress receives lower quality, slower service from the people it depends on. This decision will cost taxpayers billions to save millions while undermining the founder’s system of checks and balances.
The House Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee held its annual member day hearing on Friday. Rep. Derek Kilmer was the lone member to testify. He spoke on the work of the former Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which is now a subcommittee inside House Administration, and made a plea for level funding for the House Modernization Account as well as asking for the SCOMC’ report language to be included in the appropriations bill. When asked about his top three priorities, it was building a new calendar tool to reduce conflicts for member attendance at hearings, creating a committee feedback tool to solicit member feedback, and finding a way to gather data from constituent communications to serve as an early warning tool.
While Leg Branch Approps did not permit public witnesses to testify in person this year, which they have at times in the past, it did allow the submission of public witness testimony. We’ve summarized the excellent ideas below.
Kel McClanahan, National Security Counselors – Urged Congress to validate GAO’s jurisdiction to investigate intelligence-related matters.
Zach Graves, Lincoln Network – Urged key reforms to help advance capacity and modernization of Congress: (1) establish an AI working group; (2) elevate the House Digital Service within the CAO; (3) Establish a Chief Science and Tech Advisor; (4) Ask CAO to create a HouseNet help desk for accessing expert policy resources
Dan Lips, Lincoln Network — Urged support for GAO’s budget request
J. D. Rackey, Sunwater institute – Urged an improved casework management system that aggregates anonymized data across the institution to improve Congress’s ability to engage in evidence-based oversight activities
Daniel Schuman, Demand Progress – Urged public availability of historical CRS reports and publication of current reports in HTML
Michael Stern – Urged an enhanced public-facing role for the House Office of General Counsel and greater transparency for the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group
Taylor Swift, Demand Progress – Urged public availability of final reports from the House of Representatives Office of the Inspector General
As an aside, it is interesting to watch which House subcommittees invite the public to testify in person and which ones only allow written testimony. (The Senate only allows written testimony.) In-person testimony adds a lot because it allows members to engage with the suggestions of witnesses, creating a better synthesis of ideas. (Full disclosure: all of Demand Progress’s appropriations requests are here.) After the hearings end, and it appears that there’s a few more still scheduled for leg branch, staff will draft the bill and we will quickly move to mark-ups. That’s assuming, of course, that there’s some guidance on a top line number. Check out our guide to tracking House approps markups.
Tracking Leg Branch Approps?
We are compiling agency and public witness testimony for House and Senate Leg Branch Approps here.
Last week, Congress apparently did something it never had done before: it had the Attending Physician, an office created in 1928, testify before a congressional committee. CHA held a hearing with Rear Admiral Brian Monahan Thursday to discuss his office’s response to the COVID pandemic and how operational and leadership differences between the House and Senate led to different responses in each chamber.
The hearing was a window into an often unseen corner of Congress. The Office of the Attending Physician has an incredibly broad mission. It provides comprehensive medical care to Members of Congress and the Supreme Court 365/7, including preventive care, vaccinations, and first aid. It monitors air and water quality, food safety, workplace comfort and safety, responds to injuries, and provides a range of medical services to members including physical therapy. During the pandemic, it administered more than 32,000 vaccinations and performed about 160,000 tests.
Dr. Monahan said that at the initial stage of the pandemic, Congress had limited campus-wide capacity to respond. His office compiled a 10-page document in March 2022 with guidance for both the House and Senate based on information from the CDC. It was House and Senate leadership from then on that operationalizing that advice. Because the floor of the House reflected the highest risk level environment characterized by the CDC, its response hewed much more closely to CDC guidance. Monahan did not feel pressured to provide preferred guidance. When pressed as to the difference in implementation by the chambers, he said Speaker Pelosi simply decided to act more closely to his guidelines than did the Senate, which generally declined to make guidance mandatory.
Communications issues further compounded what looked like (but was not in fact) different medical guidance in the House and Senate. Monahan said he did not have access to the e-dear colleague system in the House to distribute guidance initially, and the Senate lacks a similar mechanism for him to access. His guidance had to go through the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, which required multiple rounds of consultation.
We thought that Dr. Monahan did an excellent job of answering largely Republican allegations about politicization of how COVID was handled in the chambers. It will be interesting to see what reforms, if any, would be appropriate going forward.
Demand Progress FY24 Approps Requests
Demand Progress’ Legislative branch-related requests are available at this link.
ODDS AND ENDS
Demand Progress Education Fund Special Advisor Kevin Mulshine joined the Natasha Explains it All podcast to discuss congressional employee unionization and the role of the AOC.
Some advice from national hero Daniel Ellsberg on the importance of whistleblowing and the epidemic of overclassification. If you missed last week’s HSGAC hearing on modernizing the classification system, it’s worth watching.
Lists of members with the worst turnover rates held some familiar names. LegiStorm released its latest staff turnover data from 2022 and from FY 2001.
Rep. Pascrell and Mark Greenbaum published an academic article on how to re-empower the legislature and make congress great again.
Getting executive branch officials to testify before Congress is hard to enforce because of how subpoena power is currently structured. Let me just mention that the Benghazi report, on page 413, also raised the problem with subpoenas, recommended amending the criminal contempt statute to include a special counsel; amending civil enforcement to provide for timely enforcement; and addressing classification. We also remember a hearing in the House Rules Committee when Democrats led efforts to examine whether to bring back the House’s inherent contempt powers.
The Senate Ethics Committee slapped Sen. Lindsey Graham on the wrist with a public admonition letter for again soliciting campaign contributions in a federal building. The Senate Ethics Committee is best known for its restraint in punishing members for misbehavior.
Senator Sinema trashed her colleagues.
The Washington Post has an interesting look at the five families — the five major factions in the House Republican conference, but muddles what is otherwise an interesting discussion by trying to put them on a spectrum of left to right, more moderate to more hardline, which makes little sense.
~ Tuesday ~
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch holds a hearing for the budget request of the House Clerk’s Office, House Sergeant at Arms, and CAO Tuesday, March 28 at 11:30 AM in HT-2 Capitol.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch holds a hearing for the budget request of the Architect of the Capitol at 1:00 PM in HT-2 Capitol.
~ Wednesday ~
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee holds a markup, including a number of bills that relate to government transparency and accountability, on Wednesday, March 29 at 10:30 AM.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch holds a hearing for the Senate Sergeant at Arms and the U.S. Capitol Police’s budget request on Wednesday, March 29 at 11 AM in HT-2 Capitol.
~ Down the Line ~
The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights will host two training sessions on the Congressional Accountability Act on April 18. More details and links to registration.