Welcome back to the mess that is the appropriations process. We’re also considering this week how the Senate’s rules contribute to much of the action at the top of the news as Congress returns from recess.
This week, the Senate is in session Monday through Thursday. The House returns from its recess on Tuesday and remains in session through Friday.
The House is scheduled to start consideration of the Defense Appropriations bill on the floor on Wednesday. The Rules Committee will meet on Tuesday to consider that bill and we see 339 amendments on deck. We do not see the Homeland Security Appropriation bills lined up in the people’s chamber this week. Amendments to the Homeland Security package were due last week and Republican members made ample use of the Holman Rule, targeting 12 DHS officials.
The Senate, meanwhile, is moving forward separately, beginning floor consideration of a MilCon-VA, Agriculture, and Transportation-HUD minibus Monday.
Several important events are happening on the Hill this week, too: Monday, POPVOX Foundation will host its Internapalooza event for fall interns. A variety of folks from civil society groups, including our Taylor Swift, will participate. On Wednesday, the Library of Congress will host a public forum on improving Congress.gov. Thursday marks the return of the Congressional Hackathon (with a happy hour afterward).
Speaking of a different kind of hack, don’t forget to update your iOS if you use an Apple device to close a security gap.
ANOTHER FINE MESS
We’re pretty pessimistic at the moment about the House, Senate, and White House finding a way out of the appropriations muddle before the end of the fiscal year. The dynamics that nearly precipitated default on the national debt remain in place and the deal to break that crisis did not attempt to address them. The Senate is attempting to jam a group of House holdouts whose demands continually change.
Although it’s tempting to bemoan the unique dysfunction of this current Congress, the truth is the modern appropriations process has been a mess for our entire lifetimes. Since FY 1977, only four times has Congress enacted all appropriations bills before October 1 – the most recent being 27 years ago. It has enacted an average of a single bill on time since then.
It’s a signal that the current system in place provides too many incentives to break it and that the only current forcing mechanism — the fiscal year deadline — is insufficient to compel any adherence to the process as conceived. Perhaps no other activity that Congress regularly engages in reveals the state of institutional decay present.
Something structurally needs to change. Unfortunately, reform ideas being bandied about at the moment don’t rise to that level. Rep. Donald Beyer and Sen. Tim Kaine last week introduced a bill similar to one introduced in January in the Senate that would generate an automatic continuing resolution if Congress failed to enact spending bills by October 1. GAO actually looked at this idea back in 1986 and concluded that it would disincentivize Congress to take concrete action, forcing agencies to operate under temporary funding over long periods of time. It also may lock in funding levels that were not based on real-world spending needs and provide a preference for the status quo. Changing members’ incentives to encourage more inaction is not what Congress needs more of at the moment.
Another proposal to shift to biennial budgeting doesn’t make sense in a world that has expensive contingencies like armed conflict and natural disasters. Nor does it solve the underlying problem. It also would scramble the agenda-setting power of the presidency during a four-year term, which Congress does enough of already.
More comprehensive appropriations reform deserves discussion on Capitol Hill, particularly to iron out veto points, make it more solidly majoritarian, and align with proper oversight and evaluation of federal programs.
THE MCCONNELL EXCEPTION
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell “reassured” his colleagues and the press that he remains up for the job last week. Most senators, with the notable exception of the other senator from Kentucky, predictably circled the wagons.
James Wallner reminds us that McConnell plays such an oversized role in charting Senate Republicans’ course because his position is exempt from the term limits the conference imposed on other leadership roles in 1995. At that time, committee chairs were dominated by moderate Republicans. Conservatives’ initial reform proposal aimed to limit chair terms, but Sen. John Chaffe included leadership positions, Wallner notes, as a way to scuttle the entire effort. It didn’t work, and McConnell has held his position for 16 years while others are limited to six.
This longevity, Wallner argues, centralized conference leader control and encouraged others to defer when they disagreed because their term limits prevented their ability to cultivate their own base of support to form proper challenges.
NO PENALTY FOR HOLDING
The central place that the Senate grants unanimous consent in its rules, however, still allows backbenchers who coached their teams to 1-7 records in the American Athletic Conference ample veto power. The rest of the chamber is left waiting for Senator Tommy Tuberville to relent on his holds on military promotions because in the Senate, voting is a reward for bad behavior.
As Fred Kaplan notes, senators have used holds on military promotions before, including on a much grander scale, as a method of cajoling the Pentagon to take much more limited actions, like releasing Vietnam War-era documents. Tuberville is pursuing reactionary House demonstration goals via the power of Senate rules, which simply don’t allow the time (absent a blanket resolution) for the floor votes necessary to overcome his impediments, even if Senate leadership were inclined to do so.
One thing left to do is bludgeon Tuberville politically, which is difficult for some Republican senators to do because he represents the MAGA base in many Deep South states. Or the Senate could *cover your ears, children* change its rules. (This can be accomplished through reinterpreting those rules.) Senator Angus King mentioned last week that changing the rules on military promotion nominations should be an option. Are there the votes to do so?
Senate enshrinement of unanimous consent goes far beyond nominations: objections slow other regular business like appropriations to a crawl, too, to say nothing of the legislative filibuster. The argument against changing Senate rules to minimize UC typically argues it would make the Senate another version of the House. In this case, the rules are doing exactly that — rewarding maximalist political demonstrations and limiting options to extinguish them.
Related Resources: Read our recaps from previous Congressional Hackathons, dating back to 2011. See you Thursday at the event and subsequent happy hour?
THEY FOUND OUT
The most significant defendants connected to the January 6 insurrection were convicted in federal court last week. Notably, former Trump Advisor Peter Navarro was found guilty of two counts of contempt of Congress for failing to comply with a subpoena from the House select committee investigating the attack. Navarro’s conviction is notable for how rare it is. Fellow Trump ally Steve Bannon was convicted under the same circumstances last October, but that was the first conviction since the 1970s. Elliott Abrams pled guilty to contempt of Congress during the Iran-Contra affair.
It’s been a long, strange trip for Navarro: Bloomberg reporter and trivia ace Greg Giroux dug up this video of him speaking as a House candidate at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. He lost by 11 points to incumbent California Representative Brian Bilbray.
Multiple leaders of the Proud Boys, meanwhile, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for their role in the insurrection. Nine members of the group have been sentenced to at least 10 years in jail.
Perhaps more than just the foot soldiers and low-level officials responsible for the insurrection will be prosecuted successfully. There isn’t great precedent for that in American history, but one can hope.
But don’t hope too much. The Fulton County grand jury recommended criminal charges against Sens. Lindsey Graham, David Perdue, and Kelly Loeffler, but so far the Fulton County DA has not indicted them. Will the Senate Ethics Committee take notice? (No, no they will not.)
Nearly nepotism: the AOC IG has urged the agency to update its outdated and vague policy about the hiring of employees’ relatives after investigating an instance where someone was hired in the same jurisdiction where their spouse also worked.
Red revolving door: Republican offices hired a much larger proportion of former lobbyists than Democrats during this Congress. Legistorm found 61 of the 96 former lobbyists working on the Hill were working in GOP member offices, and were a smaller majority of former staffers who are registered lobbyists.
Sen. Tim Scott disclosed owning stocks in 2022 that he did not report the year before in his congressional financial disclosures. He also did not report the transactions, but denies violating the STOCK Act.
Can public officials bar insurrectionists from federal office? POGO and CREW have a new report arguing that ballot exclusion is common enough and “the Constitution offers a clear pathway for accountability.” We are interested, but wary. We are well aware of longstanding efforts to prevent voters from voting and are concerned about state officials using their power to pretextually bar candidates from the ballot. OTOH, this provision of the Constitution exists for a very good reason.
ODDS AND ENDS
The authors of How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, write in The Atlantic about a peculiar form of American exceptionalism: its deep reluctance to reform its constitutional system of government when compared with other democracies. It’s a good read, especially the tl;dr bullet points toward the end about how unusual and unrepresentative America’s system of presidential election, first-past-the-post electoral rules, malapportioned upper chamber, and lifetime judicial appointments are in global context. These structures, they argue, contribute to minority rule. It’s why everything looks like it’s breaking.
PRESS Act: We’re pleased to see Sen. Lindsay Graham sign on as a co-sponsor. Notably, he’s the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
J6: A federal appeals court partially reversed a decision to allow the DOJ access to Rep. Scott Perry’s phone, but provided no reasoning.
The Commonwealth Association of Legislative Counsel has two fascinating new articles in its quarterly newsletter, the Loophole, on the topic of rules as code. The first article, by Matthew Waddington, is about Jersey’s (the British Crown Dependency, not the state) efforts to transform legislative language into a logical structure. This would allow computers to follow the logical structure of the draft, “with the aim of being able to check and explain legislation rather than automate its enforcement.” Adrian Kelly, a solicitor in New Zealand, writes about the evolution of digital law with a focus on the use of algorithms in the law itself.
The Sunwater Institute has named former Rep. Daniel Lipinski, former CAO Phil Kiko, and former House Legislative Counsel Sandra Strokoff to its Congressional Reform program’s advisory council.
Long-time Congress reporter Katherine Tully McManus is ending her run as author of Politico’s Huddle newsletter. (She’s staying on the Congress beat.) Her reporting is the first thing we read every morning and she has covered the Legislative branch with humor, grace, and a deep interest in why things work as they do. Oftentimes, she’s the only reporter present at some of the wonkier Hill proceedings — and still manages to get a good story out of it. (Assignment editors: take note.) In the meantime, we’re looking forward to the new evening Huddle authored by Daniella Diaz and all the “assists” from contributors that you’ve come to expect.
Philip Wallach is apparently the amanuensis for a writer from the future with some guidance on how to save Congress. The suggestions boil down to increasing party loyalty among the members, eliminating the filibuster, and further empowering the president to get votes on his legislation.
How’s your Outlook? The Senate email system melted down over an all-Senate security email that apparently told recipients to reply-all, which they did. It also apparently included a number of blackberry email addresses. It appears the lower chamber has the upper hand on this one.
Former Speaker Pelosi is running for reelection. I have so many questions. Will she be assigned to committees next Congress? Will she be able to attend leadership meetings? Serve on the steering committee?
~ Monday ~
Internapalooza, a free, non-partisan orientation and welcome event for all interns, scheduled for September 11. RSVP.
~ Wednesday ~
The Capitol Visitors Center is hosting a series of online talks on Wednesday afternoons this month at 2 PM. The next one this week will focus on inventors depicted in art in the Capitol. Registration is at this link. Learn more about the talks on September 20 and 27 here.
~ Thursday ~
Congressional Hackathon happy hour at 6:30 PM ET on September 14, hosted by ProLegis, Demand Progress Education Fund, and Georgetown’s Democracy, Education + Service (GeoDES) project. More info about the happy hour here.
Constitution Day, September 17th, will be celebrated by the Library of Congress on September 14 with a talk by University at Buffalo School of Law Professor Samantha Barbas about her book Actual Malice, which tells the behind-the-scenes story of segregations who tried to suppress journalists reporting about the civil rights movement through the use of libel lawsuits.
~ Down the road ~
The Bipartisan Policy Center will host a debate between Senators Chris Coons and Marco Rubio beginning at 5:30 PM at George Washington University on September 18. Learn more about attending in person or virtually here.
The House Republican Steering Committee will vote on September 18 to fill the vacant seat on the Appropriations Committee.
The AGORA Parliamentary Development Community of Practice – based in the UK and EU – will host the “Mapping and connecting parliamentary research services around the world” online workshop on September 20 from 7-10 AM EDT. Register for the event here.
Attorney General Merrick Garland is scheduled to testify in front of the House Judiciary Committee on September 20.
The Committee on House Administration’s Modernization Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing on GAO modernization on September 27 at 10:30 AM in 1310 Longworth.
The Ridenhour Prizes gala has been postponed until March 28. Subscribe to this link for ticket information.