First Branch Forecast: January 18, 2021

THE TOP LINE
The insurrection is not over. The likelihood of violence at federal and state capitals across the country and ongoing organizing by white nationalists means the danger of immediate political violence has not passed even as the national guard and local police forces are on high alert. Meanwhile, the Twitter pundits who tittered that the sacking of the Capitol Building was a mere beer hall putsch have come to acknowledge the attackers were better armed, better organized, and more dangerous than they had ever guessed — and came within moments of decapitating the legislature and murdering the presidential line of succession.

Too many officials in the Republican party, meanwhile, are still giving aid and comfort to the enemies of democracy. Only ten House Republicans voted (232-197) to remove Donald Trump from power. Outgoing Sen. Majority Leader McConnell rebuffed Sen. Schumer’s request to immediately reconvene the Senate, ensuring a removal vote cannot happen while Trump is in office. Sen. McConnell, a political Von Hindenburg who used Trump’s popularity with the base to move his ultra-conservative political agenda, has found his party’s beholdenness to the feckless aspiring autocrat is now imperiling corporate support for his party and slightly slowing the revolving door. Consequently, Sen. McConnell belatedly hinted his openness to Trump’s removal in order to restore corporate support, which is (also belatedly) being cut off to the party and major conservative groups as donors realize the danger to their brands. There’s talk that some Republicans voted against removing Trump out of fear for their physical safety, although many likely were focused on their political well-being; meanwhile Sen. McConnell is using the Trump removal effort to hinder the incoming Biden administration.

The big lie, “stop the steal,” nurtured by many Republicans, is an inversion of reality: the real fraud is the decades-long voter suppression efforts that arise from gerrymandering and efforts to disenfranchise minority, younger, and less wealthy voters. We know this, in part, because we have the secret files of the guy who led this effort. Voter purges, witness intimidation, ID requirements, and gerrymandering are rooted in Jim Crow practices and a long history of American violence aimed at subverting our political institutions. Those who wish to argue #bothsides on this matter need only to consider the 138 House Republicans and 7 Senate Republicans who voted — in the midst of the sacking of the Capitol — to exclude votes by the state of Pennsylvania in determining the presidential winner. The 8 Senate Republicans who voted to ignore the election — Sens. Cruz, Hawley, Hyde-Smith, Kennedy, Lummis, Marshall, Scott, and Tuberville — surely have fellow travelers among their colleagues, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is actively working to undermine Trump’s removal. In the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s former boss and mentor, Rep. Bill Thomas, went on TV to excoriate Rep. McCarthy, calling him a “hypocrite” for supporting “the phony lies the president perpetuated.”

There is a direct line between Charlottesville and #bothsides to “stop the steal” and sedition. Members of the mob had maps, weapons, two-way radios, military and police training, and some say they had inside help… including, potentially, from Members of Congress. We can see they were encouraged — some would say incited — to violence: the unhinged rantings of a handful of particularly vocal Qanon-friendly House and Senate Republicans were buttressed and often echoed by leadership. The willingness to physically contest even the most simple rules, such as mask requirements and gun prohibitions on the chamber floor, suggest some members inside Congress are engaged in agitprop, looking to the mob to elevate their political fortunes.

The city on the hill. And so on Wednesday, Pres.-elect Biden will take the oath of office, surrounded by 1,000 supporters, ringed by 20,000+ security personnel, and that morning Trump will flee the crime scene. Various Inspectors General and congressional committees are spinning up investigations of what happened — we joined a panel discussion on this topic on Friday — and the work to repair our democracy will begin even as 7 in 10 Republicans believe his election was fraudulent and those out of power plot for 2022, 2024, and beyond. For our part, we will continue to focus on improving Congress’s ability to do its job, government accountability, and rebuilding our democracy.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast: January 18, 2021”

First Branch Forecast: January 11, 2020

We are overwhelmed and you are too. If you are feeling like you need to talk to someone, call the national suicide helpline at 800-273-8255. You can call even if you are just feeling powerful emotions. It’s perfectly okay to do so. Congressionals can reach out to the Office of Employee Assistance (there’s a recent Dear Colleague with contact info).

Seriously, friends. I’ve seen the faces of the journalists and the staffers who are on the hill — and those who watched in horror from elsewhere. You look just like those of us who were on the hill for 9/11 and the anthrax attacks. I can see it in the flat affect. Do not try to power through. Do not wait because you think someone else needs help more. Do not push it aside even if you were not there in person. It’s okay to find someone to talk to. Tell them I sent ya.


THE TOP LINE

A mob whipped up by President Trump, abetted by his allies in Congress and fed with years of lies, sacked the U.S. Capitol. The well-armed insurrection, which included former members of the military, current local law enforcement, and white nationalists, resulted in a handful of deaths and a near miss in an effort to decapitate the Legislative branch. The noose and gallows erected outside the Capitol building makes clear what would have happened had they managed to capture members of Congress.

The House will impeach Donald Trump because a futile effort to get his hand-picked cabinet enablers to invoke the 25th amendment is destined to fail. Senator McConnell is trying to prevent the effort, claiming it will waste a lot of time in the Senate, but that’s just nonsense. Sen. McConnell had no problem speeding through impeachment in 2019. There are no material contested facts now. Any delay would be the height of foolishness.

Accountability. Just this past Monday, a week ago today, in response to calls for impeachment, House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries said “We’re not looking backwards, we’re looking forward.” If only he could have looked forward to Wednesday (or learned from history, where politicians have made the exact same mistake). Friends, accountability is always backward looking. A key job of Congress is accountability! How many committees are focused on oversight? You must learn from the past, hold people accountable, and fix the problems — and only by doing that can you stop those bad things from happening again. In Rep. Jeffries’ defense, he was taking the party line from his leadership, even as the rank-and-file knew that you can’t move on until you clean up the current mess.

Unity. We are hearing the old chestnut that America needs to unify — the siren song of those who want to evade accountability. Despite the catastrophic events, six GOP Senators and 138 House Members voted to object to the state election certifications, which were not in doubt by any fair minded person. A snap poll suggested that 45% of Republicans “approve of the storming of the Capitol building.” If Sen. McConnell had a majority in the Senate, and thus the ability to block measures from going to the floor, what would be the consequences for Pres.-elect Biden’s nominees or any substantive legislation to redress what has happened? Unity can only come after doing the right thing, which starts with impeachment and removal.

No one could have seen this coming? Nonsense. While few in the press (except Roll Call) paid attention, we’ve been focusing on problems with the Capitol Police since 2018. In a July 2019 document outlining our questions for the USCP, we raised the concern that “resources are being deployed away from protecting the Capitol, which could create security vulnerabilities.” There are major structural problems with how Congress manages itself that go far beyond the USCP — as readers of our newsletter know — and in the USCP context, they are compounded by a lack of transparency and accountability. We applaud Chairs Ryan and Lofgren and RM Davis for taking this seriously before it was front-page news, but even they, champions that they are, were limited by political realities outside of their control. Maybe that will change. We stand ready to share what we have learned and observed with any committees of inquiry and with the press. But we will tell you this now: while Congress is woefully underfunded, the problem for the USCP was not insufficient resources. (By the way, if we were to identify entities that have performed badly over the years, the USCP’s Public Information Office is simply the worst we have ever encountered in government, and that is saying something.)

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast: January 11, 2020”

House Rules for the 117th Congress

The House of Representatives adopted a new rules package on Monday. Here is the text of H. Res 8, a section-by-section summary, a press release that highlights some of the major changes, and a decent overview of activities of the House Rules committee. We have put together a guide to rules reform proposals over the last decade, and, as you know by now, we have advocated for a number of improvements and closely followed the Member-day hearing. Roll Call’s Lindsey McPherson has a good high level summary of the contents. Please note: the House made minor changes to the draft rules, previously called H. Res 5, between Sunday and Monday.

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Forecast for January 3, 2021

THE TOP LINE

Welcome back, Congress. It’s like you never left. Did you miss us? If so, make sure you subscribe (and tell your friends.) Our back issues are here.

Tick Tock: On Friday (Jan.1), the Senate overrode the NDAA veto (even as Sen. McConnell killed the boost to COVID relief), and today the House and Senate convene for the 117th Congress. The House is expected to adopt its rules on Monday; the Georgia elections, which decide control of the Senate, are on Tuesday, as are the House’s consideration of several good government bills on suspension (including the Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act); the House and Senate (in joint session) will count the electoral college vote on Wednesday.

So what exactly is a continuing body? The Senate considers itself a continuity body and the House does not. What this means, in part, is that the House must re-establish its rules and committees at the start of each Congress, but the Senate doesn’t. And yet, the House somehow has common-law rules that guide some of its day-one procedures and began operating today, but some Senate committees cannot operate because they are missing their chairs and have yet to reach an operating agreement (pending the results of upcoming elections). Weird.

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Forecast for December 28, 2020

You shouldn’t be at work and neither should I. But since we’re here, this is the latest on the decline and fall of the American republic. Happy holidays!

THE TOP LINE
The COVID/Omnibus bill has been hung up by Pres. Trump and the circumstances could mean a government shutdown lasting two weeks or more… and there’s little Congress can do. Update: As of 8pm Sunday, Pres. Trump has now signed the bill, apparently flipping his position, albeit with the result of undermining a week’s work of unemployment benefits for millions of people.

New Congress? The House of Representatives will convene on Sunday, January 3rd, when it will adopt rules and vote on the Speaker. The Senate will also meet, but absent the results of the Georgia elections — set for January 5th, although it may take time to certify the results — it will likely do little.

Who is going to object to the electoral college vote? The counting of that vote is set for January 6th. Here’s a letter from 18 House Republicans suggesting they will object. CRS has a report on counting electoral votes by Congress.

Continue reading “Forecast for December 28, 2020”

Why isn’t the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights protecting Congress during the Pandemic?

Wouldn’t it be good to have an independent office that had the authority to impose a uniform set of mandatory safety and health standards across Capitol Hill? Such an office already exists and Congress is giving them a pass.

The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR) is the independent, centralized workplace safety and health agency for the House, the Senate, and other Capitol Hill offices, including the Architect of the Capitol, Capitol Police, the Library of Congress, and even the Government Accountability Office. This office has strong enforcement powers. The OCWR also handles employment cases in a separate process.

Almost twenty-five years ago, this office, originally called the Office of Compliance, opened its doors. In 1997, the Office of Compliance Board of Directors, a panel of five private sector appointees, adopted regulations to implement the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, as required by law. Congress ignored them.

In the intervening years, this office has dropped the ball on pressing Congress to approve its OSH regulations. Now, there is a call for immediate action. The OCWR has the legal authority to develop standards for employees. Will it exercise its OSH authority to mandate enforceable standards?

Without regulations, the custodians and craftspeople, congressional staffers, and other essential workers are left without effective protection. One House member was reported to compel his staff to come to work without masks to show support for the Administration. The law requires OSH regulations, issued by the OCWR, because the federal OSHA rules don’t apply directly to the legislative branch. 

There is precedent for emergency standards to be imposed without advance congressional approval. For permanent standards to apply, Congress would need to approve OCWR-adopted regulations, but the OCWR must make the first move.

In the midst of a pandemic, one would think that the OCWR Board of Directors might take the initiative. Instead, it reflects the branch that created it. The OCWR is infected with congressional dysfunction.

Isn’t it time for congressional employees, Senators, or Representatives to demand action? Don’t hold your breath. And wear a mask!

Kevin Mulshine served as a Senior Advisor and Counsel to the Congressional Office of Compliance from 1995 to 1997. Subsequently, he served as Inspector General for the Architect of the Capitol. He is a cum laude graduate of the Howard University Law Center.

Forecast for November 23, 2020.

TOP LINE

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Congress left town as negotiations continue (we hope) on a plethora of should-pass bills. Meanwhile, Pres. Trump is working to undermine the election certification process, thereby increasing the likelihood of a fight in Congress over recognizing President-elect Biden’s victory and further de-legitimizing our political system. Pres.-elect Biden’s unpragmatic genuflection at the altar of bipartisanship and unity in the face of an astonishing unwillingness by leading congressional Republicans to acknowledge his victory for fear of Trump’s wrath suggests the ex-Veep will be unable to avert the further slide into an illiberal democracy.

The next four years will be short on legislation, long on executive actions, and marked by tribalistic strife aimed at tagging Biden with culpability for accomplishing little. The only open question (besides the Georgia elections) is whether Biden chooses the senior governmental staff he wants, which will highlight Congress’s anti-majoritarian dysfunction, or grants his political opponents a veto, which undermines any possibility of reform.

Continue reading “Forecast for November 23, 2020.”

Barrett, Graham, Feinstein, and de Tocqueville

I watched a little of this past week’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings and can’t say I enjoyed — or was enlightened — by it very much. Alexis de Tocqueville observed 185 year ago that “there is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one.” While members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a certain Supreme Court nominee might publicly contend otherwise, there’s hardly a question about the fitness of a judicial nominee that isn’t actually a political question. That is what judicial confirmation hearings are all about: the judgment of the person nominated to become a Justice. 

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How will the House adopt rules for the 117th Congress?

We hosted a webinar on October 14th, 2020, on the process by which the House of Representatives will consider its rules for the 117th Congress and some of the big ideas that have been proposed to modernize those rules. We are pleased to make the video available online as well as publish our slides from the presentation.

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What Happened at the House Rules Committee Member Day Hearing

At the start of the new Congress, the House of Representatives will adopt new procedural rules that govern nearly every aspect of how it conducts business. In preparation, the House Rules Committee held a Members’ Day hearing on October 1, 2020, where it heard testimony from 16 Members in person over more than 3 hours, and received written comments from another 5 members.

The following is a high level summary of the requests from each Member. Demand Progress has its own recommendations on what rules should be updated, which are available here.

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