This week will be monumental for Congress not only because of whatever outcome arises from the deadline to fund the government, but also the institutional impact of the ways the factional politics play out in getting there. Although it is the hard-right members of the House urging each other to hold the line on spending, it is the much larger faction of “middle-of-the-road” Republicans, and their potential Democratic partners, that must stand firm in the face of this minoritarian power play.
Meanwhile, there’s also much to say about the state of congressional security both in terms of what members are spending on their own to achieve it and how the US Capitol Police allocates its ample resources. Efforts to modernize the House also continue to make progress on several fronts.
This week both chambers return to work Tuesday after Yom Kippur. There is much to atone for.
The Modernization Subcommittee of House Administration will hold a hearing on modernizing the GAO on Wednesday. Thursday, the House Oversight Committee is scheduled to start its inquiry into impeaching President Biden. As for what happens in the House Rules Committee, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
A TIME FOR CHOOSING
We have thought from the start that the most productive way to understand how the House of Representatives in the 118th Congress operates is as a governing coalition, not a simple Republican majority. Far-right conservatives started preparing for this Congress with exactly that language and used the leverage available during the selection of a Speaker to maximize their faction’s position. They’ve followed that playbook ever since, extracting concession after concession out of that Speaker as a cost of maintaining the governing coalition, knowing they can back out at any time.
Having brought the nation to the precipice of default on its debt, that faction now holds Congress at the edge of shutting down the federal government. Finding a resolution to their demands to avoid one through regular appropriations is quite impossible, let alone in one week, and they’ve declared a continuing resolution dead on arrival.
Political observers and other Republicans in Congress are quick to point out that the political consequences of shutdowns typically have been bad for the party and inconsequential to spending reductions. Members, including those in leadership, are critical of the far-right factions’ showboating.
The spectacle, unfortunately, is entirely the point. This faction’s ascendence is deeply tied to the Trumpist core of the Republican base. A shutdown demonstrates their ideological purity and political dominance over the Speaker of the House — a position we’ve all become so accustomed to seeing as all powerful.
Any eventual resolution that requires Democratic votes, meanwhile, enables the faction to expand its numbers by supporting primary opponents of more traditional republicans in safe districts. Ken Buck, for instance, has become the new Liz Cheney.
The option to unleash primary voters on critics flows from the same structural issues in our electoral system that disproportionately benefit those voters in determining the composition of the Congress. Single-member districts expose incumbents to the wrath of rural and exurban primary voters without the counterbalance of suburbanites often locked in Democratic districts.
Rightist insurgents have been drawing intraparty contrasts since the Goldwater presidential campaign. It has catapulted obscure New Right candidates like Orrin Hatch to decades-long careers, anchored the Christian Right to the center of the Republican Party, and defined the core of Reaganism.
When the Gipper was barely out of the Oval Office, it was the pathway for critics of modernism like Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson to emerge and Newt Gingrich to follow. It also is a potent fundraising mechanism. Several leading McCarthy critics are surveying their next political opportunities.
What’s different this time is there’s barely any ideological daylight on policy between the insurgents and Republicans who publicly recognize the futility of maximalist legislative demands. The difference is in comfort levels in pursuing permanent political power and in doing anything in pursuit of their objectives. Trump restoration is part of that project for this minority because they can come with.
Even though billions of dollars are at stake and millions of lives will be impacted by the cessation of funds for agencies on October 1, there’s a deeper political consequence at work in the shutdown drama as well. The new rightists are moving beyond the old arguments about what ideas and principles constitute being a “conservative” and therefore a “Republican” to the kinds of actions conservatives need to take to achieve their goals.
That’s where the shift toward fascism begins, and has been occurring in states for some time. By remaining wedded to this faction, “mainstream” Republicans (for a lack of a better word here) risk being ground into political dust when they fail to achieve stated policy goals, as they are guaranteed to do because that is the nature of our representative democracy.
Any solution to the shutdown (or the debt limit when that comes back around later this year) should start by acknowledging the presence of (at least) two factions within the thing we call the Republican Majority. Kevin McCarthy leads one of those factions. It and Democrats should think in terms of forging and strengthening a governing coalition of their own.
It doesn’t need to be built on any grand vision of bipartisan compromise or cede governing to the Problem Solvers Caucus. It simply could rest on funding the government at the levels already agreed to in the debt limit deal and providing broader opportunities for coalition members of both parties to participate in the legislative process. We wouldn’t be surprised if bipartisan common areas of interests emerged from this arrangement, which congressional reformers so often set as a goal.
The non-MAGA Republican faction, regardless of method, needs to summon its inner Jean-Luc Picard and define this as a moment to take a stand. It should do this because it is in its members’ self interest, because failing to act now means that their wing of the party and their jobs as elected representatives will cease to exist if they do not.
Majoritarianism is eroding rapidly in the institution and will take them with it as it collapses. The actual governing majority of the House needs to adjust and start isolating the other institutionally. In other words, the faction interrupting representative governance needs to be ejected from the coalition.
The alternative is to risk being seen as irrelevant to a Republican Party redefined around agitation, conflict, and action against its perceived enemies. The stakes of partisan conflict may be ludicrously exaggerated in right-wing echo chambers, including by members of Congress, but it contributes to Republican voter sentiment.
Supposed conservatives who strike deals with Democrats may be perceived in the same way as Whigs after the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, when a party went from holding the White House to extinction in a few short years because its moderation became intolerable. Either mainstream Republicans must find a way to reshape the governing structure of the House so they can survive or they will cease to exist as a power in the chamber.
The Rules Committee Chair and Ranking Member showed on the floor last week that spirits are willing to work with majoritarian intent and respect for what the institution is supposed to be about. Let’s hope that the instinct for self-preservation outweighs the natural inclination to wait and see.
STAFFING A SHUTDOWN
A government shutdown will have a disproportionate impact on the community for which this newsletter exists. With many people who work on Capitol Hill living paycheck to paycheck or with scant savings, we’re thinking of the stress gripping congressional offices.
The last time this kind of thing happened — during which about 30% of current House members were not in office — the Committee on House Administration issued this guidance for congressional offices and Legislative branch agencies on managing furloughs, office expenses, and staff pay and benefits. A 2019 law secured back pay for furloughed federal employees as well as those required to work, which was not the case last shutdown.
We are looking, and waiting, for guidance from CHA and Senate Rules in guidance in advance of a shutdown.
Adding end-of-the-year bonuses to this month’s paycheck may be the best solution for member offices looking to mitigate some of the financial impact of a prolonged shutdown on staff. The Congressional Management Foundation and Congressional Workers Union are urging offices to consider doing so. CMF also suggests offices declare all workers to be “essential” for morale purposes.
Through rules changes and greater money available, spending by congressional members and candidates on personal security has skyrocketed between 2020 and 2022, according to analysis by the Washington Post. Following the loosening of restrictions by the Federal Election Commission to allow more campaign expenditures towards security, congressional candidates spent nearly $8 million during the 2022 campaign. Members themselves are spending over $1 million each on average. The House allows an additional $10,000 of MRA funds to be spent on security.
As with the US Capitol Police, more money doesn’t necessarily equate to better protection. Nor do we have a clear idea with the information available of what the money is used for. How expensive is it, for example, to implement the recommendations the Sergeant at Arms is giving members for their district offices? Is this spending comparable to what corporate executives or celebrities pay? Committee on House Administration member Barry Loudermilk expressed concerns in the Post piece about accelerating security spending instead of further loosening spending rules. Will members understand what they’re buying, though?
The Capitol Police, for its part in the security puzzle, asserts that threats to lawmakers have accelerated to the extent that the department is stretched very thin. Roll Call cites stats provided by USCP Chief Thomas Manger that agents in the department’s Threat Assessment Section are managing caseloads of nearly 500 a year, an increase of 300% over the past seven years. Internal reports, Roll Call notes, suggest a caseload of closer to 100 per agent, which the department wasn’t meeting seven years ago, either, if we do the math.
It remains difficult to understand what department statistics on “threats” actually mean as they become data to make the case for more department resources. Threats the section investigated actually fell by more than 2,000 cases from 2021 and 2022. As former CHA Chair Zoe Lofgren pointed out to Chief Manger last November, only 217 of 2021’s cases were referred to prosecutors and only 27 of those were pursued — out of a total of more than 9,600 threats. These figures would suggest the current caseload system is either wildly inefficient or the section is drastically understaffed for the needle-in-the-haystack nature of the work.
Something is not adding up in this tale of a perpetually-under resourced police agency. Despite the high caseloads, USCP has added just two members to the Threat Assessment Section over two years, going from 30 to 32 agents. Meanwhile, the department has sought to hire hundreds of more patrol officers and requested $238 million dollars in budget increases from FY 2022 to FY 2024.
Roll Call Reports USCP requested hiring 10 additional agents in its FY 2023 budget request and received the funds. So what happened to the other eight? Even if they were onboarded, section agents would still have caseloads well above the department’s own recommendation of about 100 per investigator.
It seems there’s a managerial tension between the different missions of the department, specifically those of managing the physical security of the campus and managing threats to members, which could happen anywhere. It would be interesting to hear why the department didn’t request enough support in a year when its overall budget request increased by 17% from the year before, and then didn’t follow through with the staffing.
If budgets show priorities, it is very odd that the unit responsible for tracking down the kinds of threats members receive most regularly is so chronically underfunded for the scope of its mission. Or is it properly resourced, and the definition of “threat” is convenient data theater for the department to make broader arguments for its resourcing?
More broadly, are we collectively taking what’s happening to elected representatives seriously enough? Members don’t feel any safer despite the aggregate increases in security spending. Judges did not impose remotely close to the maximum sentences most January 6 defendants faced, including the Proud Boys convicted of sedition. With so few cases referred to prosecutors, the overwhelming number of people who make threats to lawmakers get away with it. Who wants to serve in public office if this is the cost?
Meanwhile, a CHA subcommittee heard testimony on a problem that’s already been solved. Former USCP Chief Steven Sund appeared last week to contend that discrepancies between his and former House Sergeant At Arms Paul Irving’s recollections of how National Guard assistance was requested on January 6 should be seen as political meddling by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
This issue already has been “depoliticized.” In December 2021, Congress passed a bill by unanimous consent that granted the USCP Chief unilateral control of requesting National Guard or federal law enforcement assistance during an emergency on the campus. This change extracts the decision out of the convoluted chain of command of the Capitol Police Board, which Sund described during the insurrection. Police Board reform, of course, remains a germane topic for this subcommittee to take seriously.
As for Sund’s claim that his department was “blindsided” on January 6 by a lack of intelligence, well, GAO sees it differently. So do we.
One interesting nugget shook out on an ongoing issue within the department: Rep. Morgan Griffith asked Sund if he’d ever received guidance from department counsel that he could grant someone leave without pay while working another job, as Manger granted Sund’s replacement Yogananda Pittman to allow her to accrue full retirement benefits. Sund’s answer was no.
This week, CHA’s Modernization Subcommittee will hold a hearing on further modernization of GAO. The agency has been a center of institutional capacity-building activity through its STAA office, providing Congress with sorely-missed assessment of emerging science and technology issues. Former STAA director Dr. Tim Persons will testify. We’re looking forward to what he has to say after his experience, as well as the participation of the Foundation for American Innovation’s Dan Lips.
As GAO’s capacity grows, it’s worth revisiting the issue of its resourcing. GAO returns $158 dollars in savings to the American people for every dollar appropriated to fund it. Given its impact, GAO’s size should scale as the size of the federal government increases. As a starting point, we should return it to the funding level it held before the Gingrich regime. Doing so would require additional investment of at least another $150 million annually, which Demand Progress Education Fund has proposed sharing across the 12 appropriations subcommittees given its broad impact on American governance. Daniel examined the office’s funding position and this reform suggestion in this 2021 paper.
Members not having the good fortune of sitting on CHA, meanwhile, can join the congressional reform conversation via a new caucus created by former ModCom Co-chairs Derek Kilmer and William Timmons. The pair launched the Fix Congress Committee last week with three purposes:
- to discuss the current state of institutional capacity in a variety of areas, including staffing, technology, and policymaking;
- tracking the implementation of ModCom recommendations; and
- providing a forum for new reform ideas.
We’ve learned over the years that a lack of forums to discuss capacity building and modernization hindered those inside the institution from generating internal change. Places like the Congressional Data Task Force, Congressional Hackathons, and the old Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group filled gaps. This caucus is a vital step in the further institutionalization of congressional reform, which is key to its success. The caucus has signed up 30 members already, which is very encouraging. (Maybe the Senate will take the cue from the House and do the same?)
AI IN CONGRESS
As we mentioned last week, the Congressional Hackathon and a new flash report issued by CHA are positive signs of how seriously Congress is taking the institutionalization of AI technologies for governing.
POPVOX Foundation’s Marci Harris and Aubrey Wilson provided their assessment of the CHA flash report as an institutional signal in Fedscoop last week. They note that the activities CHA describes indicates that the House is starting to address what Harris has called Congress’s “pacing problem,” in which the legislature’s struggles to grapple with emerging tech worsens over time because the change that technology creates rapidly accelerates. The pacing problem goes beyond Congress’s policymaking capacity when it comes to emergent tech, but also its ability to provide oversight to federal agencies tasked with regulating it.
Harris and Wilson also pull up something we missed: GAO has lended out a detailee from its STAA team to work with CHA. As they note, “bringing in-house nonpartisan subject expertise is a notable capacity builder, resulting in a more agile Congress that can get smarter, faster on emerging issues.”
FAI’s Samuel Hammond recently discussed how Congress could utilize AI for its legislative work, particularly in pulling information from multiple data sources and working through multiple kinds of tasks at once. The event was sponsored by POPVOX Foundation, with assistance from the Foundation for American Innovation and Demand Progress Education Fund, and is part of a regular series on the topic. Check out the video of the presentation here.
As Harris and Wilson note in their op-ed, people inside Congress are starting to tinker with ways to use AI in their workflow, too. Harris tried her hand at using the AI platform Claude to summarize a hearing she couldn’t watch herself — on AI usage in federal agencies, in fact. The results were encouraging and likely could be tuned to be more responsive to congressional user needs. These tools require better access to data, such as timely hearing transcripts, so there’s more work to do.
As a reminder, we’re curious how readers are trying out AI in their congressional offices. Drop us a line if you can share interesting trials or adoptions.
Congressional staff: How are you using AI in your work? Please hit reply and let us know! Thank you.
The Senator Bob Menendez indictment details are just too much, even for Jersey natives. Per Senate Democratic Caucus rules, Menendez is temporarily stepping down from his Foreign Relations Chairmanship, although it’s unclear how this will affect his hand-picked staff. It is encouraging that (as of this writing) four members of the New Jersey delegation and numerous figures back home have called for his resignation, plus the New Jersey governor. Ethics organizations, such as CREW, have called for him to resign, as have center-left establishment groups like the Center for American Progress.
Former Rep. Tom Malinowski shared an eyebrow-raising detail: that several amendments he inserted into defense bills that got tough on Egypt for antidemocratic behavior were stripped out of Senate language. That’s something worth running down.
The Senate Ethics Committee, for its part, remains unshakable in its commitment to do absolutely nothing. You’ve heard us rail against the practice of the ethics committees in refusing to investigate once an indictment is announced. While the House has taken some steps to address this problem with the creation of the Office of Congressional Ethics, there is no equivalent body in the Senate. There have only been two public admonitions of members in the Senate in the last decade. They did announce a preliminary investigation into Sen. Franken, which is the exception that proves the rule.
The equities of the chambers in having a corrupt member are fundamentally different from criminal justice issues. Having a compromised member who is in apparent violation of federal law and chamber rules is a good reason to quarantine that person, if not remove them entirely.
Article I, § 5 provides that: “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.” The due process protections available to a criminal defendant, by contrast, arise in the Fifth Amendment, and are entirely different. It is interesting watching as some senators conflate them.
ODDS AND ENDS
Bill McFarland has been sworn in as the new House Sergeant at Arms, after serving in an acting capacity in the role for the last nine months.
The GAO and its employees’ union have agreed to a new labor contract for the 2,500 who work for the agency. The new agreement provides employees with flexible work options after a collaborative examination of best practices in the public and private sectors by the union and management.
The Library of Congress officially removed the beta label from its Congress.gov API a year after its launch. (We mentioned this in our report last week.) Congrats to the team involved in this incredibly useful advance for current and future congressional data products.
Video of the Congressional Management Foundation’s annual Democracy Awards is available to view on C-SPAN’s website.
Digital services for Members of Parliaments is the topic of a fascinating video from the Inter Parliamentary Union for an event they held last week. Their next panel will be on the application of AI in the legislative process, and is set for Oct. 30th. RSVP here.
Clarence Thomas is unfit to serve as a Supreme Court justice. This isn’t news, but this ProPublica story on him helping the Kochs to fundraise is. Needless to say, he didn’t report the travel and this kind of behavior is prohibited for all federal judges (except the Supreme Court).
~ Tuesday ~
Representatives from the Chief Administrative Officer, the Modernization Staff Association, and the Capitol Hill Intern Association will host a virtual panel for House interns and intern coordinators to discuss the new intern resources page on the House HR Hub. The event begins at 11 AM ET. Registration at this link.
~ Wednesday ~
The Committee on House Administration’s Modernization Subcommittee will hold a hearing on GAO modernization at 10:30 AM in 1310 Longworth.