Government accountability requires both structural mechanisms and personal will. By moderately decreasing funding levels for the Legislative branch, House appropriators preserved most of the structural accountability capacity of Congress in their FY 2024 spending package.
Individuals, however, continue to dodge holding peers accountable. The US Capitol Police is allowing former acting chief Yogananda Pittman to no-show her way to a pension in spite of her failures leading up to the January 6 Capitol attack. House Republican leadership found a way to keep Rep. George Santos around while minimizing their own political damage. The majority on the Supreme Court seems intent on kneecapping congressional oversight of the presidency even further. And there’s a lot more to say about white nationalists in Congress.
This week the House is in session Monday through Thursday while the Senate is in recess. The House Appropriations Committee has scheduled the markup of the Legislative branch bill for Tuesday at 10 AM alongside the adoption of interim 302(b) allocations. The Committee on House Administration scheduled a meeting on Wednesday to adopt regulations requiring everyone to complete a training in workplace rights and responsibilities per the CAA.
Senators on the Appropriations Committee said last week they will start their markups in June but have not decided which of the 12 bills to start with. June is a little vague: Congress is in session during parts of four weeks of the month. HASC members, meanwhile, identified mid-to-late July as their target for bringing the NDAA to the floor. At any moment there could be a deal to address the impending debt ceiling disaster. Or not.
LEG BRANCH APPROPS PACKAGE
Twice in recent history new Republican majorities in the House ushered forth crippling cuts to Legislative branch budgets to align with their rhetoric on federal spending. In 1995, the Gingrich House took a hatchet to entire offices and whittled committee staff to the nub. In 2011, Leg branch funding was sliced as performance art.
The 20%+ cuts in 1995 and the 10%+ cuts in 2011 were not matched by cuts elsewhere in government. Their effect was to centralize congressional power in leadership and weaken Congress as a counterweight to the Executive branch and to corporate interests. Cynics would suggest that was the plan. Over the last quarter-century, funding for the Legislative branch has grown at only half the rate of overall non-defense discretionary spending. Cutting Congress is dumb and makes Congress dumb. As its total funding is less than $7 billion out of $1.7 trillion in discretionary spending, and its purpose is to oversee the entire government, cutting Congress is counterproductive to saving money, let alone making good policy.
This time around, Republicans returned to the majority extolling the importance of a robust Congress that can hold the White House accountable. The Legislative branch funding package that the Appropriations subcommittee released last week reflects that governing position, albeit through a lens of parsimony. It holds funding for member and committee offices flat and provides slight increases to most legislative support agencies that will enable them to operate at their current level of performance.
The FY 2024 bill reduces spending on the House by 4.5%. It does not keep up with inflation — more than 4% — so the functional effect is still a significant cut. But it’s not the catastrophic results a return to FY 2022 or earlier funding levels would have had on the capacity of the institution to legislate, conduct oversight, and perform constituent service. Members and the subcommittee staff, as Chair Mark Amodei noted in his statement, worked to achieve prudent results amidst the backdrop of debt-limit budgetary drama.
Our colleague Taylor J. Swift has written up a very helpful summary on the First Branch Forecast blog with the complete funding breakdown, including a spreadsheet with the last three FY funding levels for each line item.
The largest spending increase in the package again is for the US Capitol Police, which has seen tremendous increases over the last four straight fiscal years. Appropriators this year slowed the out-of-control spending, however, approving a still massive 8.6% increase to $780.9 million, or about 40% of the additional funding the department asked for in its budget request. To give a sense of scale of the growth these last few years, Congress allocated $515 million for the department in FY 2021. Oddly, Democrats wanted to increase funding for the USCP further, which seems like throwing good money after bad. Money can’t help when the problems are fundamentally its management, oversight, and training regimes, which must be overhauled from top to bottom.
Appropriators also found additional savings in the AOC budget to spare cuts in places that would have affected congressional governing capacity elsewhere. The AOC actually requested a 14.5% decrease in its budget from FY 23 to reflect completion of security upgrades. Last year’s funding numbers for the AOC were anomalous, bumping the agency to $1.3 billion, compared to the $782 million funding level in FY 22. So it makes sense the subcommittee went beyond the AOC’s request and cut it $332.3 million, to $798.1 million, which is still above FY 22. In their statement, the subcommittee majority notes the AOC’s top 10 most critical infrastructure funding requests were included in this bill.
Some of the newer Legislative branch support offices had divergent outcomes. House appropriators retained funding for the House Modernization Initiative Fund, which supports projects by the House Digital Service like the long-awaited committee calendar deconfliction tool. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion, however, saw its budget zeroed out. The summary document from the committee suggests its functions will be folded into CAO. We’d prefer an independent office, but this reorganization certainly is workable. We noticed this story about the Minnesota delegation still struggling to hire representative staff as a sign that ODI’s role is still sorely needed.
As we noted, the full committee will mark up the bill on Tuesday morning. We’ll dig into the report language attached to this package when it becomes available. There’s still a long way to go without budget top lines as the debt limit situation continues. The Democrats have a point when they’re arguing that it’s wrong to appropriate without having an agreement on the top line numbers. Nonetheless, the subcommittee placed their marker down on the importance of institutional support, which is a good start. We’ll see what emerges in the full committee and on the floor — including whether there are floor amendments.
A portion of the US Capitol Police budget apparently will provide a pension to former acting chief Yogananda Pittman. The Committee on House Administration learned to its considerable surprise in a hearing with current chief Thomas Manger that she’s worked out a sweetheart deal to go on unpaid leave starting February 1 to accrue enough time to qualify by this summer. Pittman took the oath of office to be UC Berkeley’s new police chief on February 1.
Once again, a CHA hearing provided an unlikely source of high-tension drama. Manger dodged and struggled to explain the special arrangement for someone who was so central to the failures of the department during the Jan 6 insurrection that cost officers life and limb. Pittman was the deputy chief for intelligence, the office which department IG, GAO reports, and the J6 Committee report have pinpointed as one of the weakest links in the federal response to the coup attempt. During the Q and A, Rep. Morgan Griffith quickly scrambled to confront Manger with USCP leave policy, which requires a reasonable assurance of an employee’s return to work. Obviously, she’s not coming back.
News of Pittman’s sweet deal rankled the rank-and-file, whose union has been critical of Pittman’s rise to acting chief since she took the role after the resignation of Steven Sund. In her first meeting with congressional members she admitted the department had intelligence of white supremacists’ plans for violence two days before the attack. We also remember her saying that the USCP reported to the Speaker and Majority Leader — ignoring the committees who actually are charged with oversight. The USCP union issued a scathing statement of no confidence shortly after her admission of warnings about an attack on the Capitol and called for her resignation several times before she finally “retired” last November.
As members mentioned in the hearing, officers have accused her of enabling retaliating against whistleblowers inside the department. Capitol Police union chair Gus Papathanasiou said in a statement the retirement glidepath “is scandalous and indicative of why we have a morale problem at the department.” He called on CHA and Senate Rules to dig deeper, adding “I spoke to many officers and even supervisors, current and retired after the hearing and they’re all livid.”
The hearing also turned up some janky numbers for the department’s current force size and appropriations request to hire more. Chief Manger mentioned the department is at 70% capacity and is about 200 positions behind its current hiring authority. Nevertheless, it has requested authorization to expand its hiring authority 200 more to 2,300 officers, or close to the size of the San Antonio police department. Are these recruitment targets even attainable? Or wise? The department seems intent on throwing more people at the growing challenges it faces, including the possibility of even more serious political violence over the next several years. What is the right size for a shift to a “protective agency” as the department is undertaking? All the money in the world can’t solve what are fundamentally management, oversight, and training problems — and they’ve consistently gotten the money they’ve asked for.
Transparency and oversight are one part of answering those questions — and making sure USCP brass alone aren’t the ones left to answer them. Manger was evasive in responding to committee members’ questions along these lines. He mentioned the USCP board is holding stakeholder meetings, but are not publicly advertised and do not release minutes. If so, that’s not responsive to the question he was asked, which is whether they’re open to the public.
Manger did not object to — but did not endorse — having a FOIA-like process for department records, something we’ve requested for years. He deferred on his authority to implement the policy change. In fact, we think the Chief can set the policy to create a FOIA-like process. Contrary to his testimony, FOIA applies to federal agencies including those involved in law enforcement. He can follow the lead of other Legislative branch agencies who have these processes and create such a FOIA-like process for the USCP, if he so chooses.
On one transparency issue the committee made progress. Asked about making USCP IG reports public, he offered no objection to the board doing so as Congress has asked, but said it’s the IG’s call even though he’s on the Board. In fact, the Capitol Police Board had issued a non-public letter telling the IG that they could not make the reports available.
Nonetheless, the IG office has finally made two reports public. Chair Bryan Steil rightly hailed this as a “huge win” as a result of the hearing. We are glad that House Admin is pushing on this. We note the FY 21 Appropriations bill required the USCP IG to, within 90 days, create a list of IG reports from the last three years that could be made publicly available. In FY 22, the Approps bill “ instruct[ed] the Inspector General to institute procedures to make reports publicly available whenever practicable and to begin publishing reports on its website.” We want to see all USCP IG reports made publicly available, except to the limited extent necessary where information must be withheld for clearly articulated reasons that outweigh the public’s interest in knowing.
On that very point, we’ve drawn up model public record request regulations for the department to adopt that bring it more in line with other police departments and the Executive branch. As a reminder, we keep a comprehensive repository of USCP–related material at this hub. Between its modernization subcommittee and rigorous oversight of troubled Legislative branch offices like the Capitol Police, AOC, and CRS, CHA is off to a roaring start in this Congress. You love to see it.
Needing every vote they have, House Republican leadership are intervening in the ethics process to keep Rep. George Santos in place. Republicans voted to refer a motion to expel Santos from Congress to the Ethics Committee after Democrats offered a privileged motion to have him expelled. Everything about this is weird.
The Ethics Committee invariably suspends its investigations when there’s a criminal investigation. In this case, as in many others, the Department of Justice asked the committee to hold off on its investigation. Of course, that information wasn’t publicly available when the chamber voted. But will the Ethics Committee suspend its inquiry, assuming that it has been doing any work heretofore?
Apparently not. McCarthy says he wants the Ethics Committee to move quickly. It’s likely that the Republican members of the Ethics Committee will heed that direction. Indeed, Republican members of the Ethics Committee voted to refer the Santos resolution to the committee, which also is anomalous, as its members usually avoid voting to avoid the appearance of prejudice. All this helps to lift the veil on how Ethics actually works: in part as avatars of leadership, in part as a tribunal that gives the accused every benefit of the doubt.
It is our view that the Ethics Committee should investigate matters referred to it regardless of a criminal probe. Criminal investigations use a higher standard of proof and focus on a limited set of facts and different rules of rules from what the House should consider. Having a corrupt official in Congress is a problem regardless of what the Justice Department decides.
We don’t want a circumstance where popular opprobrium for Santos and his views result in a punishment unrelated to actions that violate the laws or rules of the House. But we also have little doubt that an Ethics Committee review is like having a jury where your brother-in-law is the foreman.
Republicans who find Santos odious should kick him out of the party. Expulsion from the House is a much more consequential decision and it should be guided by a trustworthy ethics process not influenced by politics. The closest structure we have capable of doing that is the Office of Congressional Ethics, which should be strengthened and expanded, while the House Ethics Committee itself should be reformed to speed up its reviews and lessen the influence of politics in its decision-making. But, in the meantime, we will be counting the days for them to act.
Count us among the adherents of the opinion that some political journalism, particularly of the access kind, is locking in a narrative about the debt limit situation being (1) a negotiation and (2) totally normal historically when it is not remotely either. The negotiation narrative and tight timeline to the X-date, both of considerable focus last week, inherently favor the hostage taker and do not represent how out of the norm this process is for what is an argument over the FY 2024 budget, not the federal debt.
Some of the blame, unfortunately, has to fall on the hostage in the White House because of a lack of political will to counter the threat with the powers arguably legislatively granted or otherwise available to the Executive branch in this situation. That hostage was President Obama, who ruled out invoking the 14th Amendment despite the OLC looking into it, ruled out the trillion dollar coin even though the former head of the US Mint thought it would work, and struck a deal on spending caps to appear reasonable. Biden, part of the negotiation in 2011, is stuck in the same box, reinforced by the precedent of 2011 which made this bad-faith effort seem like legitimate politics for right-wing ideologues to engage in.
We understand there are journalistic and business model reasons for media outlets to treat the debt limit crisis as a normal part of partisan politics in divided government, where both sides have to give something up. It’s just disingenuous accounting of what political actors are choosing to do, at great risk to the nation.
The refusal to raise the debt ceiling or use it as political leverage is out-of-bounds. It is appropriate for the President to use the powers available to him — ideally ones already endorsed by Congress — to respond to this threat. And as a matter of smart politics, it is political malpractice for Biden to take viable responses that provide leverage off the table.
From our perspective, any agreement must end the debt ceiling once and for all. And it should be structured so that future Congresses can strike their own bargain on federal spending. The vetocracy in Congress, where a small minority can stop legislation, likely will mean any deal struck now will endure for years. Biden must be willing to use the powers available to him, granted by Congress and the Constitution, to address what in this case is an overstepping by a minority faction inside the Congress.
OVERSIGHT AND THE COURTS
The Supreme Court seems poised to take another chunk out of congressional oversight power by taking up Carnahan v. Maloney, a suit by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee in the 116th Congress to secure documents about Donald Trump’s purchase of the Old Post Office building from GSA. In 2020, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that members could turn to the courts to force the Executive branch to release documents requested under Section 2954 of federal law, which allows seven members of the House Oversight Committee (and five in the Senate) to make such requests. The law gives the minority party at least a modicum of ability to conduct oversight.
If (when) the Supreme Court reverses the finding that members have standing to sue when the Executive branch does not comply with the law, lawmakers are left to pound sand. As it stands, this suit involves oversight of a property Trump doesn’t even own any more, two-and-a-half years after he left office. Congressional oversight power is a perpetual heads I win, tails you lose situation in the courts.
The Courts, dominated by Executive-branch chauvinists, have picked away at Congress’s long standing authorities, from the old Chadha decision to recent instances of limiting its oversight authority. We fear that will continue.
THE FULL PICTURE
It’s funny how these things keep happening: members of Congress express appreciation for segregationists, white supremacy, foreign neo-fascist parties, antidemocratic domestic militias, and antisemitic conspiracies. State and local officials are caught doing the same. Yet these incidents are treated as one-offs rather than an indication of the depth to which these ideas penetrate parts of the Republican Party.
During the last few weeks, Senator Tommy Tuberville asserted that the US military – about half of which is composed of people of color – should not be discharging white supremacists from its ranks because they’re “Americans.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene compared being called a white supremacist to being called the N-word, even though she self-identified as a white Christian nationalist.
Most strikingly, the digital director for Rep. Paul Gosar was unmasked as a key figure in the Groyper movement and major supporter of neo-Nazi Nick Fuentes. Wade Searle has 20,000 followers posting on fascist websites. Gosar, of course, was kicked off his committee assignments along with Greene last Congress for behavior that included posting a video depicting the killing of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Searle’s neo-Nazi affinities are reflected in Gosar’s digital content, including linking to a Holocaust denying website in his constituent newsletter and posting of an antisemitic meme on Holocaust Remembrance Day last month.
In response to the Searle story in Talking Points Memo, five Jewish members of the House wrote Speaker McCarthy asking for the censure of Gosar for continuing to “legitimize antisemitic and white supremacist views through the employment of a neo-Nazi supporter.” We’ll get to discussing the appropriate penalty in a moment, but the letter leaves a sliver of plausible deniability open for Gosar by saying he’s associated with people who believe in neo-Nazi ideas. Former colleagues certainly remember his open white supremacy.
Elements of the center-left continue to assert that it’s important not to call people neo-Nazis directly because it alienates a portion of the Right that needs to be led away from fascist demagoguery and back to more respectable politics. This is a view of politics as a contest of ideas, some of which – like Holocaust denial or white supremacy – are clearly out of bounds. This places an emphasis on degrees of discourse, the meanings of statements, and the unknowable intents of people who know enough to say they still support political boundaries when caught violating them.
Thinking instead, as political science does, of politics as the contestation of interests and power among groups, we can see white supremacists and neo-Nazis not only as people with terrible biases but as people who want to be in charge of things because of their identity. This was, after all, the fundamental basis of politics in the South (and plenty of places beyond) until the Civil Rights movement. Presence in congressional offices, party activist wings, on the staff of cable news programs, or in state legislatures, is a method of seizing power.
The work of building power on the fascist Right might stall out as it did in the 1930s. A Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden, after all, did not keep the nation from smashing the Third Reich. But taking contemporary fascism and white supremacy’s penetration of a major political party seriously is urgent. It’s particularly urgent as the generation that ushered forth the partisan realignment of the South after the Civil Rights Movement gives way to younger ones raised on the anti-government, white supremacy conspiracism of the late 20th century, paramilitary and millennialist movements of the aughts, and the openly fascist “alt-right” online culture of the last several decades. As John Ganz noted this week, we won’t know how significant resurgent fascism is in contemporary politics until we start taking it seriously and not as an endless series of one-offs by cranks, which is astonishing to say after the presidency of Donald Trump, who has dined with Fuentes after all.
Threatening a colleague with violence should rise to the level of expulsion. Representing or saying hateful things, absent incitement, however, should be up to the Republican conference to handle. It could choose to expel Gosar, for example, as not being representative of its values and ideals. But that move would disassociate the party with a group of voters that have some significance to its electoral prospects both in Arizona and nationally.
If we had a more representative electoral system, where fringe views could coalesce in minor parties and larger parties could choose not to tolerate racist factions of conservatism, it would be a different story. Similarly, allowing the two major parties to be more tolerant and fluid in the ability of their internal factions to express themselves could have the counterintuitive effect of weakening those who represent those fringe views. But for now, vote margins demand acknowledging, if not outright catering to, the fascist fringes. It’s a logical choice for traditional conservatives in the power game, but a risky one, as history has demonstrated.
CONNELLY DISTRICT INCIDENT
Like the mass shooting that gravely wounded Gabby Giffords, the violent attack at Rep. Gerry Connolley’s district office turned out to be perpetrated by someone with severe mental illness. We are glad to hear the staff who were injured are recovering and are relieved a gun wasn’t involved. We’re also saddened that the father of the man involved has struggled to find his son appropriate care.
Despite all the money spent on congressional security, the people inside the institution are always going to be vulnerable like the rest of us to what cannot be anticipated. The House Sergeant at Arms offers guidance to member offices for improving district office security and USCP has suggested moving offices inside government buildings that have existing protections. It’s a delicate balance between access and protection in the districts (and in the Capitol campus) and all the more reason to have functional, well-managed protective services at the Legislative branch’s disposal that can work with elected officials on the right balance.
As for immediate steps, the POPVOX Foundation developed this guidance on what congressional staff can take from social workers to improve workplace safety.
ODDS AND ENDS
Feinstein: The details of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s physical health have become all the more dispiriting, particularly because her continued presence in the Senate seems engineered for political purposes connected in part with Rep. Pelosi’s legacy. This is a tragedy for Sen. Feinstein and for the country.
Unionization: Because a Senate resolution to enable staff unionization would have to clear a filibuster, it appears the issue is not top-of-mind for even labor stalwarts in the chamber. While a unionization resolution would turn on legislation that protects those who seek to unionize, offices can voluntarily recognize and bargain with unions.
CBO’s requested legislative fix to access data from federal agencies more quickly was favorably reported by HSGAC Friday. The bill provides CBO an exemption from the Privacy Act to access information like student loan data.
The GAO IG Inspector General Parity Act also was favorably reported by HSGAC. Congress.gov still doesn’t have a summary, but the legislation appears to be aimed at ensuring the independence of the GAO’s IG.
Senate Stonks: Four senators have revived Sens. Warren and Daines’ prohibition on stock trading from last Congress. The continued divide between members and congressional leadership on this issue is remarkable, and the momentum for action may be shifting in the House.
Is this helping? Democrats in the Problem Solvers Caucus have told Speaker McCarthy they have his back in a motion to vacate situation if a debt crisis bill hits the floor. This play would have made a lot more sense when the House was organizing, but only if it suggests more fluid governing coalitions.
Despite prohibitions on funneling money to projects involving family, at least four members have secured earmarks for organizations employing their spouses since 2021.
The Joint Center has launched the Data in Black America project to provide policy makers and researchers with new sources of information about challenges facing Black communities. The project aims at making up for implicit biases in current data collection methods.
We got a peek behind the curtain of the Office of Legal Counsel at DOJ, which has published an index of its unclassified opinions from 1998 to 2019. We continue to believe that the secret opinions issued by the OLC should be publicly available and this testimony for FY 24 is a good (and short) primer on the issue.
The House Intelligence Committee has released a transcript of a meeting with NARA about how classified White House records are archived for historical purposes. It is inadvertently hilarious at times. Here’s the key testimony: in “every [Presidential Records Act] administration from Reagan forward, we have found classified information in unclassified boxes.” Also discussed was this Washington Post story, which was news to the Intel Committee members, that classified records are often inadvertently provided to university archivists who receive papers from former government officials — 80 different instances since 2010.
The Congressional Management Foundation has announced the finalists for its Democracy Awards.
The Library of Congress has completed digitization of bound copies of the Congressional Record dating back to 1873.
Fun fact: the US Capitol building “is so radioactive, due to the high uranium content in its granite walls, it could never be licensed as a nuclear power reactor site.”
~ Tuesday ~
The House Appropriations Committee will markup the FY 2024 Legislative branch bill at 10 AM in 2359 Rayburn.
~ Wednesday ~
The House Administration Committee will hold a full committee business meeting at 4 PM in 1310 Longworth
~ Thursday ~
The POPVOX Foundation will host a training session for involving interns and fellows in casework from 3 to 4 PM EDT. Register for the event here.
~ Down the road ~
Levin Center Fellows will present their research on congressional oversight on May 30 from noon to 1:15 PM via webinar, which you can RSVP for here.
The Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress will hold its biannual meeting on June 5 from 10 AM to noon in room SVC-209 at the US Capitol. To attend the open meeting, you must RSVP by June 2.
The FOIA Advisory Committee will meet (virtually) on June 8 from 10 AM to 12:30 PM. More information and a link for registration is available here.
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.