Forecast for June 1, 2021.

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Bring on the out-of-office responses and welcome to this recess edition of the First Branch Forecast, where we look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Now, you’ll have time enough at last to encourage your colleagues to subscribe here.

TOP LINE

The forgotten art of congressional oversight is the topic of a fantastic, extensive article by the American Prospect’s David Dayen. It explores — with smart examples — how congressional oversight has held the powerful to account, the ingredients to make it work, what has changed in Congress over time, and who is making it work even in our current political environment. This is the best kind of long read: it’s one you can use.

Transparency around the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel opinions is a key element of government accountability, which is why Demand Progress coordinated a letter with a bipartisan group of 20 organizations calling on Biden’s nominee to run that office to endorse proactive disclosure for the opinions (with minimal exceptions) and to release an index of all OLC opinions. The often secret opinions constitute a body of law that hides from Congress and the American people how the Executive branch is applying the law. Notably, nominee Christopher Schroeder himself endorsed transparency for the opinions in 2004, and a 2020 statement drafted with substantial assistance from former OLC attorneys described the office as being in “crisis” and endorsed proactive disclosure. Schroeder’s nomination will come before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Demand Progress continues to support appropriations language that directs the OLC to release the opinions, included in the House bills in FY 2021 and FY 2020.

Congressional Republicans killed the January 6th Commission even after Democrats gave them every possible point of leverage to protect their political interests. Luke Broadwater details the many questions that will be left unanswered in the absence of a coordinated and wide-ranging investigation. Meanwhile, many Republicans in state legislatures are stepping up their unrelenting efforts to undermine democracy through attacks on the ability to vote and how those votes are counted and reported, which is part and parcel of the Trump insurrection and will accomplish the same purpose. For those who still believe in bipartisanship as a value, I refer you to this excellent opinion piece by Jack Shafer, that not only declares it long dead, but explains why bipartisanship was neither real nor a political good. (I’d love to have a discussion of how each political party in itself is a multiparty coalition, but that’s a topic for a different time.)

Appropriations Timeline. President Biden’s budget came out Friday — order a copy from GPO — and it provides a starting point for congressional negotiations over top line numbers. If I’m reading it right (I’m looking at table S-7 on page 56): Biden is proposing the Defense Allocation increase from $740.7B in FY 2021 to $752.9B in FY 2022, an increase of $12.2B (or 1.6%); the Non-Defense Allocation would increase from $660.7B in FY 2021 to $769.6B in FY 2022, an increase of $108.9B (or 16.5%). The FY 2021 number does not include $191.0B in off-budget discretionary spending, so apparently total discretionary budget authority would actually decrease from $1,592.3B in FY 2021 to $1,521.0B in FY 2022.

What’s due in June? Congress often requires Legislative branch support office and agencies to submit reports to Congress and we track what’s due when. See our June update, which includes a U.S. Capitol Police report on the cost for creating an arrest summary data system (Demand Progress testified on this issue last year), a CAO report on House-wide leave policy, a report from the Clerk on automated committee roll call voting systems, and more.

House Democrats have upgraded DemCom, the incredibly cool internal website that provides context for legislative information. (More below)

Continue reading “Forecast for June 1, 2021.”

Forecast for May 17, 2021

Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Encourage your colleagues to subscribe here.

TOP LINE

Both chambers are in session this week and getting down to business:

A bill providing for a January 6th Commission likely will be considered in the House this week. The legislation, introduced by House Homeland Security Committee Chair Thompson and Ranking Member Katko, provides for the creation of an independent, bipartisan Commission. (More below).

The Emergency Security Supplemental Appropriations bill is the subject of a House Rules hearing tomorrow and is on the House floor calendar for later this week. It’s not smooth sailing, however: Republican leadership is hesitant and Senate Appropriations Chair Leahy “would be more comfortable pushing through a security supplemental once an independent commission has completed a review,” Jack Fitzpatrick reports. (More below)

The Capitol Police Board will testify at the House Admin hearing on “Reforming The Capitol Police And Improving Accountability For The Capitol Police Board” this Wednesday at 3. The last time the trio (excluding the Police Chief) testified together in the House was in the 1940s.

Capitol safety and the January 6th insurrection were the focus of a House Oversight hearing with the DoD, DOJ, and Metro Police, as well as two House Admin hearings with the USCP IG and the Architect of the Capitol Inspector General. The upshot so far: the people responsible for security don’t regularly update their security protocols and practices, don’t plan together, don’t think ahead, communicate poorly, and engage in turf battles. The IGs have at times made recommendations for fixes, which are routinely ignored. The power to fix many of these problems appears to rest in the hands of the Police Chief and her senior leadership, who have a long history of failing to act. The USCP Board appears to be a mechanism to avoid public accountability for the USCP but does not collectively exercise control or impose accountability, with de facto power residing in the hands of the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms. And DC’s unique status as a non-state combined with the fiction of a cohesive Capitol Police Board create unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles to requesting and receiving aid from the federal government. Money alone cannot fix what is primarily a management problem. (More below)

Marjorie Taylor Greene appears to be unwell and erratic. The most recent example was when she chased down and verbally accosting Rep. Ocasio Cortez, calling the New York congresswoman a terrorist sympathizer and other untruths. Video surfaced of Greene in 2019 acting in a bizarre manner, videotaping herself taunting AOC’s staff through her office mailslot and having a colleague deface her guestbook. Republican leadership does not appear to be taking efforts to rein her in or address the creepy and escalatory behavior. Greene is the poster child for why everyone entering into the Capitol, including members, should be subject to security screenings. Leadership should not sleep on addressing this problem.

Continue reading “Forecast for May 17, 2021”

Forecast for May 10, 2021.

Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Was this email forwarded to you? Subscribe here.

TOP LINE

STOP EVERYTHING. “100% of my focus is on stopping this new administration,” said Sen. McConnell at a press conference. He added: Democrats want to turn America into a “socialist country” and Senate Republicans are in “total unity… in opposition to what the new Biden administration is trying to do to this country.” Does this makes it official?

The Justice Department was castigated for lying to a federal court in an effort to prevent public access to an Office of Legal Counsel Memorandum on whether Trump could be prosecuted. It’s not the first time DOJ has lied to a court about FOIA requests. This also highlights the importance of public access to OLC’s work, which we discuss below. We also note that Attorney General Barr okayed the collection of email contacts by journalists as part of a so-called “leak” investigation, another stab at the heart of government accountability.

Quill, an excellent new tool that allows Member offices to get electronic signatures on their Dear Colleagues, made its House debut; it is already available in the Senate. (More below.)

Kudos to the House Labor-HHS Approps subcommittee, which so far is the only subcommittee to hold public witness hearings. We are appreciative of Chair DeLauro for making it happen. We are tracking appropriations testimony deadlines here.

Earmarks. We also favorably note that the House Approps committee has both published earmark requests on its webpage ~and~ published them as a spreadsheet (downloadable here). We published recommendations on what data elements should be included in the spreadsheet, a spreadsheet being the bare minimum requirement for modern data disclosure. We welcome the appearance of data fields like Membername, subcommittee, project title, amount requested, recipient address, and explanation. However, there are serious deficiencies, such a lack of unique identifiers, missing data fields, and too many data elements in the same field. In addition, it is unclear whether the spreadsheet will be updated as earmarks move through the legislative process or how users would be informed that updates have occurred. I’m hoping this is an alpha release and it will be improved. There is a significant community of civic technologists who would be glad to help.

White House visitor logs will now (again) be made publicly available, but we are cranky about it. Transparency should be required by law and not granted at the sufferance of the sovereign. This illustrates one of the failings of the Obama administration, which repeatedly fought against turning good government norms into law.

This upcoming week will be busy: House Admin will hold hearings on Monday and Wednesday into the Capitol Police and the Architect. On Tuesday, Senate Rules will hold a business meeting on S. 1, which is the Democrats’ democracy reform package. On Wednesday, House Oversight will look into unanswered questions on the Capitol Insurrection (what an anodyne name for what happened). And on Thursday House Modernization will look into recruiting, empowering, and retaining a diverse congressional staff.

Last week on the Hill was busy, too. The House Oversight Committee held a hearing on transparency and accountability legislation; Demand Progress hosted its Advisory Committee on Transparency panel discussion on what’s on Congress’s transparency agenda. The House Modernization Committee looked at congressional staff capacity. And the Lincoln Network hosted an excellent event on GAO at 100. (More below.)

Continue reading “Forecast for May 10, 2021.”

How House Committees Get Their Money

Our 2019 and 2020 articles on how House committees are funded have been updated for the 117th Congress.

Committee funding in the House of Representatives is accomplished through a somewhat obscure process. Appropriators on the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee set a top dollar amount for the committees — they appropriate the funds — but it is the Committee on House Administration that provides (i.e. allots) the funds to each committee on a biennial basis.

At the beginning of each new Congress, each committee chair and ranking member are given the opportunity to jointly testify before the House Administration Committee and request funds for their committee. In recent years, few committees have testified, and most but not all chairs and ranking members agree upon a common request. This year, most committees introduced their individual committee funding resolutions, then the Committee on House Administration considered a funding resolution (H. Res. 316) on April 14th, and held a markup on April 15th; the resolution passed the House on April 20, 2021.

During the markup, Chair Lofgren noted that each committee would receive an increase in funding of roughly 5% over the last Congress. While this is a notable increase, House committees are still significantly below their funding levels from a decade ago. What does this look like in context? We reviewing decades of funding for House committees, excluding the Appropriations committee — see the un-adjusted committee spending data and the inflation-adjusted committee spending data covering 1995-2021 — and found:

Continue reading “How House Committees Get Their Money”

Forecast for March 29, 2021.

Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. (Was this email forwarded to you? Subscribe here.)

TOP LINE

We made it. The House and Senate are on recess for the next two weeks. With members at home, at fundraisers, or on CODELs, staff will have an opportunity to catch up on deferred work and prep for another burst of action. Everyone is back the week of April 12th. Today marks 68 days since Biden was inaugurated and 82 days since the Trump insurrection. (We note that the House’s innovation of committee-only workweeks has been a success.)

Funding levels for Senate committees is the topic of our newly-released report, which found the Senate has made strides to undo decades of damage to their capacity to legislate and conduct oversight, but much more needs to be done. Specifically, Senate committees received an $18 million or 8% boost over the 116th Congress, but even this higher level of funding is still down by $59 million or 20% from the 111th Congress (2009-2010). The median increase in funding for each committee over the last Congress was $900,000 or 11%, and faithful readers have come to expect that we break out the details for each committee — indicating who got what — in the full article. (Our numbers exclude the Appropriations committee, which funds itself through a separate line item and usually has twice the funding of the next largest committee.)

The House Modernization Committee got organized this past week and held a listening session with 23 witnesses, including our very own Taylor J. Swift. We have more on this hearing below.

GAO is reviewing whether Biden’s freeze on border wall construction is in violation of federal law, Caitlin Emma reports. At issue: whether the freeze violates rules intended to keep Congress’s fingers on the federal purse. The GOP request for the review is here. One smart measure to protect Congress’s prerogatives, the Power of the Purse Act, would remedy many of the abuses we saw in the last administration.

The outer Capitol fence is gone, finally, but the inner fence remains for now — and maybe forever. Sens. Blunt and Von Hollen introduced legislation to ensure there is no permanent fence, which is a companion bill to House Del. Holmes Norton’s legislation. We co-led a civil society letter with the Lincoln Network that opposes a permanent fence.

Congress’s approval ratings have more than doubled over the last three months, from 15% in early December to 36% in March, per a Gallup poll. The last time it was this high was March-May 2009. Per Gallup, 59% of Democrats, 34% of independents, and 9% of Republicans approve of Congress’ performance. We underscore their caveat: “much of the recent increases is a function of partisanship,” which suggests Congressional approval ratings are a partisan indicator and thus a poor way to assess whether Congress is functioning properly.

Continue reading “Forecast for March 29, 2021.”

How Senate Committees Get Their Money

Senate committees are at the heart of the legislative process, but what resources are provided for them to do their work? We reviewed the funding levels for Senate committees this Congress as compared to last Congress and over the decades. Here is what we found: 

Senate committees are funded at $238.2 million for the 117th Congress. This represents an 8.2% or $18 million increase from last Congress’s $220.2 million funding level. There is an average increase of $1 million or 8.7% per committee.

Senate committee funding is down by $59 million or 19.9% from the 111th Congress, where it peaked at $297.3 million. Funding this Democratically-controlled Congress also falls short of the Republican-controlled 109th Congress, when Senate committees were funded at $248 million.

Half of Senate committees experienced cuts in funding levels between the 107th and 117th Congresses. In addition, just one committee received a 20% increase from 2001 to 2021 — the Intelligence Committee.

(Please note this analysis excludes funding for the Appropriations Committee, which is funded through a separate mechanism, and we are using constant 2021 dollars.)

Continue reading “How Senate Committees Get Their Money”

New Capitol Police Misconduct Complaint Report Obscures More Than it Reveals

Complaints about U.S. Capitol Police operations, including accounts of racist misconduct within the department and managerial abuses of power, have recently been elevated in the wake of the January 6th attack on Congress. Hard information is hard to come by as it is nearly impossible to get any official data on employee misconduct from the department. There is, however, one small exception: the USCP Annual Statistical Summary Report on Office of Professional Responsibility Investigations.

The Annual Statistical Summary Report provides top line numbers on complaints made against US Capitol Police employees. The report indicates how many misconduct investigations occurred in a given year and how many total charges or allegations of misconduct were filed. Its data is broken out by the status of the individual filing the complaint: citizen, outside law enforcement, internal, or anonymous. Starting in 2019, USCP began including figures of how many individual charges/allegations of misconduct were sustained in Office of Professional Responsibility investigations. 

Today we are publishing the newly obtained 2020 Annual Statistical Summary Report. (It is generous to call this a report: it is a one-page fact sheet.) We previously published reports dating back to 2009, which is when the first report of this type was published online. We asked for data from prior years, but our request was denied. 

Table of OPR Case Summary Statistics. There are 15 citizen complaint cases and 22 citizen allegations. There are 69 department investigation cases and 83 department investigation allegations. There are 17 internal complaint cases and 25 internal complaint allegations. There are 5 referred by law enforcement cases and 7 referred by law enforcement allegations. There are 106 total cases and 137 total allegations. There are 58 sustained allegations.
Continue reading “New Capitol Police Misconduct Complaint Report Obscures More Than it Reveals”

Forecast for March 1, 2021.

Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. (Was this email forwarded to you? Subscribe here.)

TOP LINE

Officials tasked with keeping the Capitol safe and open testified before Congress last week — see the video & written testimony from the HSGAC/Senate Rules hearing with all the former security leaders and from the House Leg branch Approps hearings into the Capitol Police/ SAA (written testimony) and employee health and wellness + Capitol physical damage (written testimony). I shared my thoughts with the Bulwark on the testimony by the former security chiefs. We have more analysis below.

RE: the Jan. 6 insurrection, this upcoming week will feature a joint HSGAC/Rules hearing on Wednesday at 10 into the Executive branch response, with witnesses from DOD, DHS, and the FBI. At the exact same time, the Capitol Police will return to House Leg branch Approps to testify in support of their budget request for FY 2022. The House’s proceedings will go beyond Jan. 6 and may delve into all operations of the USCP. You can find last year’s USCP Budget Justification here (on page 225) and here is our primer on the agency. Don’t forget there’s a supplemental security funding bill that will emerge at some point — no hearings or markup into that so far — our recs for that bill are here.

H. Leg branch Approps budget hearings also are scheduled for this week —- this is where the Legislative branch support agencies sing for their money. On the schedule: the Open World Leadership Center and CBO are testifying Tuesday at 10 & 2, the Capitol Police and the Library of Congress are testifying Wednesday at 10 and 12:30, and the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights is testifying Thursday at 10.

• The Office of Congressional Workplace Right’s biannual report to Congress was just released and contains a half-dozen recommendations to update the Congressional Accountability Act. They include providing whistleblower protections to the Legislative branch, providing subpoena authority to aid in tracking safety and health investigations, requiring records be kept of of workplace injuries, adopting federal workplace record-keeping requirements, and approving the Board’s FMLA and Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) Regulations when they are resubmitted, and more. (An easier-to-read version is available on their website.)

• As a reminder, we keep track of Leg branch approps bills & documents here and also track requests and requirements put into the Leg branch approps bill. (See the graphics far below.) Also, full disclosure, we routinely request bill text and report language regarding Leg branch agencies — see, e.g., last year’s requests. A final note: these hearings can move around at the last moment, so double-check docs.house.gov.

The $5 Billion question: how much money will be available for the Legislative branch? We know Congress and its support offices are significantly underfunded, which is why we and a bipartisan coalition called for a 10% increase in Leg branch funding. One historical problem is that even as funding for Congress has lagged behind the rest of government, 2/3s of any new funding has gone to the Capitol Police and the Architect of the Capitol. We expect Congress will dump a ton of money into the Capitol Police via the supplemental to address decades of mismanagement, even though the USCP has a huge budget and has always gotten its giant requests, which likely will further undermine non-USCP congressional ops in the out-years. Watch leadership + the budget committees as they determine the top line defense vs non-defense spending numbers, and see how the new Approps chairs divide that money among the 12 approps subcommittees.

Continue reading “Forecast for March 1, 2021.”

Forecast for February 22, 2021

Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. (Was this email forwarded to you? Subscribe here.)

SUPPORTING CONGRESSIONAL STAFF + MEMBERS

The Office of Employee Assistance (OEA) and mental health inside the Legislative branch was the topic of the first Leg branch Appropriations subcommittee hearing for the FY 2022 appropriations cycle, which will have 14 hearings in total, the first three focusing on January 6th. We should note that Rep. Ryan has long made mental health and well-being a focus, and we applaud him and the committee for starting on this topic.

• Capitol Police. The hearing primarily revolved around resources OEA is providing USCP officers, congressional staffers, and essential workers on the Hill. OEA Director Tewsburky said the office currently has a total of 16 counselors, four of whom are professional crisis counselors with backgrounds in law enforcement trauma. Since January 6, OEA began deploying 24-hour counseling services for USCP officers, which have provided approximately 1,150 interactions, including 750 counseling sessions. These on-site counselors are being financed by USCP.

• Staff and essential workers support. OEA Director Tewsburky mentioned that OEA services were provided to over 3,000 people in 2020, and the office continues to work with contract companies to ensure contract workers are receiving the necessary support systems. Rep. Espelliat mentioned the critical need for diversity and representation for employees and officers of all backgrounds. Tewsburky mentioned that 50% of OEA professionals are African Americans, and they continue to connect employees to bilingual services to strengthen support.

• Telephone, not video. OEA is using telephonic services, not video, to hold sessions with staffers and officers. (In non-COVID time, some services would be offered in-person.) OEA said the transition to full telephonic support was seamless since they have used these types of services with district staffers for decades. Rep. Wexton mentioned she would like OEA to have the ability to use video counseling.

• More resources. Throughout the hearing, almost every single Member asked “What do you need from us?” The committee is apparently prepared to provide more resources so mental health and wellness services can be sustained at a higher level. Full Appropriations Chair DeLauro, who participated in the proceedings, echoed this sentiment during her opening remarks. Chair DeLauro and said she plans to attend as many Leg branch hearings as she can.

The experiences of Black staffers during the Trump insurrection — how close they came to violence, what it means for democracy, how they feel towards others — is the focus of an article by Luke Broadwater. In recent years there has been increasing research into the lack of diversity among Congressional staff and how that shapes the environment, with some of the most in-depth research conducted by Prof. James R. Jones of Rutgers, who has spoken about the Capitol’s racial caste system and is finishing up his new book, the Last Plantation, on racial inequality in the Congressional workplace. We have seen some efforts to address the staffer pipeline, such as the House’s creation of an Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the beginning of paid internships in both chambers (but not yet committees), a House study on staff pay and diversity, and a now quite-late Senate study on its staff, but there’s much more work to do.

Continue reading “Forecast for February 22, 2021”

Forecast for February 15, 2021

THE TOP LINE

Impeachment Trial. There’s no legitimate question about Trump’s guilt, the Senate confirmed its jurisdiction 56-44 (which is basically what CRS said), and jury nullification is not a legitimate option. What’s at stake for Trump: disqualification from serving again in high office. What’s at stake for America? Whether we suffocate our democracy. Sen. McConnell declared his support for acquittal of Trump prior to the vote and personally blocked the reconvening of the Senate to receive the House’s impeachment message, which would have eliminated the jurisdictional argument on which he says he based his vote. As we all know, actions speak louder than words and votes speak louder than belated floor speeches. The final result, 57-43 to convict — the ayes representing 62% of the US population — with 7 Republican senators worthy of the name of the party: Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and Pat Toomey. Whether we pass legislation to save our democracy will fall on the shoulders of Democrats for the next two years; it is obvious we cannot rely on help from ten Republican senators necessary to overcome a filibuster.

How to keep Congress safe and open? Congress will consider a “security supplemental” appropriations bill, but what should it address? We think the Capitol Police, remote deliberations, and cybersecurity. Our (newly released) recommendations are here. Also, we have a new coalition letter opposing permanent fencing out today; and Reps. Takano and Foster have questions about House cybersecurity. Meanwhile, the Capitol Police union voted “no confidence” in USCP management and ProPublica’s Joaquin Sapien and Joshua Kaplan have a devastating report about management failures.

Appropriations. The Leg branch appropriations subcommittee, which typically goes first, set a hearing on House Wellness and Office of Employee Assistance (Thursday @10). Other House appropriators also are starting to hold hearings this week. In the Senate, the new Murphy rule (Murphy’s law?) has led to an approps subcommittee chair shuffle. We’ve summarized the changes in this spreadsheet; for our purposes, the big news is Leg branch’s new leaders: Sen. Reed as chair and Sen. Braun as RM.

Rep. Wright died as a consequence of contracting COVID. He is the first sitting Member of Congress to die from the illness (Rep.-elect Letlow passed in December), although we do not know how many staff have died or how many people will suffer long term consequences. More resources on continuity of Congress during COVID are here.

Continue reading “Forecast for February 15, 2021”