Last week’s House vote garnered a lot of attention but changed nothing. We see little room for Speaker McCarthy to maneuver to stay at the top of his conference while simultaneously negotiating a deal that avoids default on our nation’s debt. Prior Republican speakers have cut loose part of their conference to avert catastrophe, but the changes in chamber and party rules tie McCarthy to the maximalists.
A clean bill to avert a debt default should be non-negotiable. Even with negotiations, we don’t see an attainable zone of agreement before there’s a default. Republicans are desperately hoping Democrats will get blamed and cave. A lot of people will be hurt in the process.
Instead of contemplating all this, our attention was captured by an excellent House Administration Committee hearing on the modernization of the Congressional Research Service that called out the elephant in the room: The agency is failing in its core functions, it has been failing for a long time, and the root cause is poor leadership.
Meanwhile, the Capitol Police and Senate Sergeant at Arms called for yet another giant funding increase at their Senate appropriations hearing while a new report from POGO pointed out management failings at the Capitol Police; the Supreme Court snubbed the Senate while springing another ethics leak; and we got word on what appropriations austerity would do to GAO. (It’s not good).
Don’t miss our links to video from the AI in Congress conference last week and an opportunity to RSVP for the next Congressional Data Task Force meeting.
This week the Senate is in session from Monday to Thursday and the House is out. Both chambers return next week.
Save the dates: House appropriations markups will take place on May 17-18 and June 7-8, will full committee markups on May 23-25 and June 13-15th.
As a former staffer and team leader at CRS, Kevin Kosar has strong personal attachments to the organization that he decided to leave a decade ago. He’s written for years about the inherent strengths and unique contributions CRS makes to Congress’s ability to perform its essential functions — and how both it and Congress could improve its performance. But when asked directly by CHA Modernization Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Bice to name the one thing the committee could do to improve CRS’s service to Congress he didn’t mince words: he replied “if you want to affect change in the most immediate way, you change leadership.”
Watch his full answer here. It’s worth 90 seconds of your time.
Kosar’s testimony came after the testimony of CRS’s Director Mary Mazanec, which met with a significant amount of skepticism from the committee. We could bore you with details about what’s failing at CRS: $20 million wasted on failed technology projects, high staff turnover, poor morale, low diversity, and a failure to modernize the agency’s products for today’s congressional users.
Many of these problems existed when the House Admin Committee held a hearing into CRS in 2019. Heck, it was a problem when Daniel hosted a panel discussion on CRS modernization in 2011. Having watched all the appropriations and oversight hearings going back 14 years, CRS leadership keeps saying it’s on top of fixing these problems but nothing ever changes. It’s almost like they’re trying to placate their overseers just long enough for committee membership to turn over. Hence the skepticism.
What was nice about the hearing were presentations from other witnesses: the liaison from the European Parliament who helped build their CRS (check out their website, and podcasts, and social media!) and a representative of USAFacts, which uses dashboards to provide data about America. All of this points to new ways of doing business. The EU conducted a multi-country survey before creating their legislative support office agencies. When was the last time anyone took an across-the-board look and reimagined what support to Congress could become?
As Kosar noted in his testimony, CRS has a quinquagenarian (i.e., 50-ish-year-old) enabling statute, some of which is outmoded. For example, there are no term limits for CRS’s director and only indirect control for Congress (via the Librarian). This means that, unlike other agency heads, bad leaders don’t just automatically exist without Congress acting. CRS’s statute also outlines a heavy support role for congressional committees — a role that has greatly diminished over time — where CRS could be the non-partisan staff that support committees in their tasks. The agency has largely become a helpdesk, and its management is unwilling to let staff use their expertise to provide real analysis to Congress.
The House Administration Committee should make a number of recommendations on how to improve CRS. (Here are ours.) For example:
- it should require regular public-facing reports on staff retention and employee satisfaction;
- collaboration with civil society on technology development, the publication of all its non-confidential work products online in web-friendly formats;
- the development of technologies that support staff and policy analysis; and
- a move to user-centered design.
Most of the major improvements in CRS over the last decade have been foisted upon the service, largely through the work of overseers and appropriators in collaboration with civil society. But it’s not possible to drag CRS into modernity. We’ve tried.
CRS needs leaders in the front office that embrace the future. Leadership that wants to modernize, not ice out the modernizers and punish the innovators. We agree with Kosar: CRS needs new leadership capable of devising and executing on a long-term vision for its service to Congress and understands getting the best out of a knowledgeable, highly-educated workforce.
We are having a bipartisan moment right now on what a modern Legislative branch looks like. This is one of the key building blocks. We eagerly await what will emerge from the House Administration Committee.
TRADING BILLIONS FOR MILLIONS
After a locked-down process that included not a single committee hearing and some overnight editing, the House of Representatives passed Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s debt default bill with two votes to spare. The level in the bill will be used to set appropriations levels in the House — levels where many of the individual bills will be unable to pass the House, let alone the Senate. Good job, everyone.
Our particular interest is in having a capable Legislative branch. So, what does this mean for Congress? That question of a return to a FY22 funding level was put to GAO Director Gene Dodaro in a QFR, which we just happen to have.
A 22% cut “would have a devastating effect on our ability to meet the needs of Congress,” he replied, forcing GAO to lay off 570 employees and institute furloughs of nearly two months for the remainder. Not only that, GAO would no longer be able to respond to requests made by committee leaders, with all of its capacity focused on meeting legislative mandates enacted into law.
“In sum, a reduction in our budget of this size severely jeopardizes our ability to adequately support the Congress in a timely manner, now and into the future,” Dodaro concluded.
GAO estimates it returns $145 for every dollar spent on its budget, meaning House Republicans are proposing saving millions to cost the nation billions in waste. “Given the size of the federal budget and the multi-year actions needed to address the seriousness of the government’s fiscal condition,” Dodaro said, “investing resources to restore some of GAO’s staff capacity would be a prudent and wise investment that will produce positive outcomes for the Congress and our country.”
GAO, like the rest of the Legislative branch, has gone through this before. Because of sequestration in the last decade, Dodaro said its FTE level fell by 15% and dipped below 3,000 for the first time since 1935. It did not recover its pre-sequestration staffing level until…FY2022.
Other policymakers in the Legislative branch, from committees to CBO, don’t necessarily have that kind of data. But they are equally important to the proper functioning of Congress.
Check out our updated tracker for House and Senate Appropriations testimony deadlines.
SECURITY PRICE TAG
As we explained in March, the danger to offices like GAO (and anyone who does policy work) is exacerbated by the budget increases for the US Capitol Police and Architect of the Capitol over the last two fiscal years, which have comprised much of the growth in the Legislative branch budget since FY 2022. Last week, US Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger requested an increase of 14% for his department’s budget from Senate appropriators, which would be on top of the 22% hike it received in FY 2023. Because the USCP’s baseline budget is so high, and funding for the Leg branch is so small, we’re talking real money: a $240 million increase since FY22.
We ran across a recent interview with the House Leg Branch Approps Clerk from 1973-2001, Ed Lombard, and he spoke about the security situation arising from the storming of the Capitol. It’s eye-opening. “We gave [the Capitol Police] a lot of money for communications equipment and training…. It was a real surprise to me that they weren’t better prepared.” I’m sure his successors would say the same. The Capitol Police have always been well taken care of financially, but management and training are decades-long problems. (Does this sound familiar?)
We’re wasting our time and money until and unless Congress understands why the USCP continues to underperform and takes corrective action. Unfortunately, the January 6 Committee, at the insistence of former Rep. Liz Cheney, bluewashed its final report and deemphasized managerial and training failures within the USCP.
Much of the blame for the department’s Jan. 6 failure has fallen at the feet of its intelligence division. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Last week, the Project on Government Oversight published an extensive report about counterproductive management decisions made within the division in the lead up to the insurrection that contributed to the department’s failure to anticipate the threat accurately. POGO drew upon Select Committee interviews with Capitol Police officials as part of the sourcing for this report. The Committee’s own report, of course, focused almost exclusively on the role of Donald Trump’s efforts to remain in office.
The Senate Sergeant at Arms Karen Gibsonmade her office’s budget request to Senate appropriators alongside USCP and shared some interesting tidbits. SSA has processed 37 requests by senators for home security assessments and has created a mock-up of a state office within the Russell Building to demonstrate security equipment and design features to adopt. Senators finally can request security updates online instead of through the mail.
SSA is in charge of much more than physical security. The office intends to provide a closed captioning system for all Senate hearings via a bespoke solution by the end of the year. This is great; we hope that the transcripts will also be publicly available. It also wants more money to hire two more mental health care professionals to keep up with demand for services from Senate staff. About three-quarters of staff accessed assistance services in 2022, which was a 30% increase from the previous year. SSA also is working to provide a backstop solution for child care with an outside provider.
See the new report on the Capitol Police entitled “Insurrections’ Eve: Inside the Capitol Police’s Intelligence Dysfunction Leading Up to January 6.”
USING AI IN CONGRESS
It’s not often that Congress takes an emergent technology and starts applying it to its institutional needs. The very first congressional member’s website, created in 1994 by Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office with the help of MIT, launched when there were just a few thousand websites on the entire World Wide Web. Thanks to efforts by the House Digital Service, member offices now can experiment with new AI technologies.
Via its AI working group, HDS provided 40 ChatGPT Plus licenses to member offices for free to test out on member office tasks like text summaries and content generation in exchange for providing regular feedback on how they’re using the tool. Daniel recently joined HDS Director Ken Ward, Marci Harris and Anne Meeker of POPVOX Foundation, and the Foundation for American Innovation’s Lars Schönander for a discussion of the potential for AI tools. (You likely saw invitations for this event in prior issues of this very newsletter.)
Daniel test-drove a few sample functions, like writing a speech or creating bullet points from a bill summary (see the 24:20 mark of this video of the event). ChatGPT performs reasonably well at these tasks and is great for doing technical work like writing spreadsheet formulas. It would not be capable, however, of drafting legislation of suitable quality. The problem, Schönander pointed out in his presentation (at the 14:30 mark), is that models can produce “hallucinations” when they make up fake facts to patch holes in narratives. This happened to Roll Call’s Jim Saksa in trying to get ChatGPT to write a story based on the event’s transcript. POPVOX Foundation’s Anne Meeker focused on how AI could impact constituent casework positively and negatively (at about the 34:00 mark). Slides of the entire event are available at this link. The audio is not entirely clear, so we strongly recommend using captions.
Congressional offices should remember that tools like ChatGPT are not yet approved for official use by the House or Senate and that no constituent or member data should be used in these platforms. If you have an interesting use case to share, please drop us a line. We expect AI to be a topic worthy of discussion for the next Congressional Data Task Force meeting on June 22.
Members of the Supreme Court think we should just trust them. Amidst news that yet another justice, Neil Gorsuch, received financial benefit from someone with business in front of the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts declined a request to testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee this week in a hearing about its code of ethics. The Committee’s request was formulated to show respect to the Court, and it was slapped down. As former House Counsel Mike Stern writes: the declination to testify, and the reasoning why, comprise an “extremely silly argument.”
His conclusion is worth quoting: “Rather than giving Congress the proverbial middle finger, the chief justice could have expressed a willingness to establish a ‘useful dialogue’ in which the justices would seek to address the committee’s concerns in writing and thereby provide it with ‘information needed for intelligent legislative action.’ Why he chose not to follow such a path is a matter of some puzzlement.”
We don’t know, either, although as we’re drafting this newsletter there’s yet more news. Here’s the headline: “Jane Roberts, who is married to Chief Justice John Roberts, made $10.3 million in commissions from elite law firms, whistleblower documents show.” The whistleblower is a co-worker who worked alongside Jane Roberts, who said: “When I found out that the spouse of the chief justice was soliciting business from law firms, I knew immediately that it was wrong.” Which firm would risk severing ties with the Chief Justice’s wife?
We talk a lot about the “imperial presidency,” but the Supreme Court and the federal courts are not above the law. The public has the right to know the depth of the rot in the court, and Congress has the right to remedy it when the courts will not. Should the Supreme Court continue in its contumacy, we hope that appropriators on the CJS appropriations subcommittee will use the power of the purse to bring it back in line.
FOR SENATE EYES ONLY
Two years ago, the Senate adopted a rules change that allows one staffer per Senate office to apply for a TS/SCI clearance. The House, however, continues to restrict access to TS/SCI clearances to committee staff. As Daniel told Roll Call, Speaker McCarthy could expand access to clearances by issuing a change to the House Security Manual, which members like Rep. Sara Jacobs have argued would assist all members in legislating and conducting oversight.
With more than a hundred thousand Executive branch staff with a TS/SCI, and many Executive branch activities that are in woeful need of real oversight, surely providing a few staff who already have Top Secret clearance with a SCI would do a lot more good than harm. We understand that some leadership and committee staff aren’t excited about staff being able to do their own homework to support their respective bosses, but that’s the very point.
House Appropriators have published all earmark requests for FY 2024 on the committee’s website, including publishing them as a spreadsheet. This is great and welcome news. For the first time, the appropriations spreadsheet separated member names into different columns and included state, district, party, and recipient address. This makes the information significantly more usable. Thank you.
In fact, it’s so usable, we spent a little time over the weekend making it even more robust. We enhanced their spreadsheet with the bioguide IDs for each member, appropriations subcommittee codes, a standardized recipient address (with help from ChatGPT), and extracted the recipient state and zip code. We have been playing around with using the AI to categorize whether the recipient entity is a nonprofit or a governmental entity. We can imagine a lot of use cases for this cleaned-up data.
Unfortunately, the spreadsheet does not include the request summaries published on the committees website nor a direct link to the request letter. We would also love to see the EINs for the nonprofit requesting entities, because then we could tie that request to their 990 tax form and maybe to their lobbying disclosure records, as well.
Regardless, all in all, this is a significant step forward in improving the transparency of the requests, and we hope it will continue to improve.
The earmarks dataset was a great opportunity for us to play with marrying the new ChatGPT technology with Google Sheets. I think this technology will fundamentally transform how appropriators gather requests from the public and how the committee gathers requests from members. The ability to clean up requests (i.e., moving information from unstructured to structured formats), categorize them, summarize them, and do due diligence on the requesters should be a game changer.
ODDS AND ENDS
The HIRO we need: The FY23 appropriations bill included language establishing a House Intern Resource Office (HIRO) to create a central in-house office that will provide interns with onboarding training, best practices, and additional support. To prepare for the creation of this office, the First Branch Intern Project — which includes Demand Progress Education Fund — created a memo outlining the background and best practices for the creation of the HIRO.The Office of the Whistleblower Ombuds has compiled many of its online resources into a handy one-sheet reference “starter pack.”
OCE is back to full staff capacity and can resume its investigations, including of members who may have assisted the January 6 insurrection and Rep. George Santos.
Our frequent collaborator Lincoln Network has changed its name to the Foundation for American Innovation.
Daniel is on bluesky, a new social media app, at [email protected]. (Chris isn’t cool enough yet. OK, I hadn’t even heard of it until Thursday.) Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the first member we know of who has joined. It appears Maxwell Frost is second and Ilhan Omar is third. ht
~ Tuesday ~
The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on Supreme Court ethics reform at 10 AM in 216 Hart.
~ Down the road ~
The next meeting of the Congressional Data Task Force will be on June 22 from 2 to 4 PM in B-248/B-249 Longworth. Attendees must register here in advance.