The Undermining of Congress

The Legislative branch plays a central role in our democracy, but for decades Congress has systematically underfunded congressional operations as compared to the rest of government.

The chart below shows discretionary non-defense discretionary spending from 1995-2020 (in constant dollars). During that quarter-century, non-defense discretionary spending increased by 58%, but spending for the legislative branch increased only by 27%.

Discretionary Appropriations Spending from 1995-2020
Percentage Change in Non-defense appropriations discretionary spending 1995-2020
Continue reading “The Undermining of Congress”

Forecast For February 10, 2020.


Shedding light on the Justice Department’s OLC Opinions is the topic of today’s Transparency Caucus briefing, set for 2pm in 1310 Longworth. RSVP to Here’s why we think OLC opinion transparency is important plus a refresher on legislative efforts concerning OLC opinions. Also, read Mike Stern’s latest on OLC.

Oversight hearings on Leg Branch agencies before House appropriators start this week. Tuesday’s hearings include the Open World Leadership Center at 10 and the US Capitol Police at 11; Wednesday it’s the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights at 10 and CBO at 11. Coincidentally, we have a new report out today on what a year’s worth of data tells us about the Capitol Police.


Ever wonder how congressional clearances work? We did, and spent several years (with the Project on Government Oversight) to write this new report. The upshot: as a consequence of overclassification and undue deference to the executive branch, Congress’s capacity to oversee classified matters has eroded, with access to information unduly limited to a smattering of staff in a handful of offices.

Congress isn’t subject to FOIA, but many of its offices and agencies have a public records request process. How does it work — and does it work well? Alex Howard took a close look: read his excellent article and look at our data that evaluates each agency and component.

The US Capitol Police is one of the least transparent and accountable legislative branch agencies, which we know because we spent a year looking deeply into their behavior. They have 10% of the legislative branch’s budget, a 2-square mile primary jurisdiction, and a staff the size of Atlanta’s police department (seriously!), but they disclose little information and are often non-responsive to questions. In addition, a non-trivial amount of their work is not closely tied to protecting the Capitol complex and its visitors.

What’s on the Leg Branch’s to-do list? We went through the FY 2020 approps bill and tracked every request and deadline related to congressional modernization. You’re welcome. 🙂

The Library of Congress is publishing some CRS reports, but they should do better: 25 organizations urged the Library to publish current CRS reports as HTML and release important archived reports. (By the way, we appreciate the Library fulfilling our public records request for CRS’s annual reports to Congress for 1981-1994; we made that request last August.)

Interested in Congress’s ability to formulate science and technology policy? You can read our new report, published by the Ash Center, but why not come to our Feb. 21st briefing in 2044 Rayburn? RSVP here.

Is there something we missed in this week’s forecast? Let us know — send us your articles, news, press releases, and angry tweets. Also, encourage your friends to subscribe.

Continue reading “Forecast For February 10, 2020.”

Update on CRS Annual Reports

On Halloween we posted a spooky story on the disappearance of CRS’s Annual Reports. The annual reports to Congress explain what the agency has been doing the past year — and what it plans to do — and, for our purposes, contain some useful statistical data that we want for a report we are writing on how usage of CRS’s services have changed over time. The reports contain other information, such the priorities for the components inside CRS, management’s focus, and a list of all CRS reports issued that year.

The thing is, we were able to find CRS’s Annual Reports from 1971-1980, and from 1995 to present, but a huge tranche of the reports were missing. The October blogpost details everywhere that we (unsuccessfully) looked, including our efforts to go through unofficial and semi-official channels to obtain copies. Finally, we submitted this public records request to the Library on August 8, 2019. This Friday would have marked six months since our request. (Six months for documents that likely were originally publicly available, at least at the time of submission!) Continue reading “Update on CRS Annual Reports”

Improving Congress and Public Access to OLC Opinions: An Update on Congressional Activity

This blogpost summarizes some recent legislative developments concerning opinions issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. By way of background, OLC interprets the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes, and federal regulations. For many (but not all) matters within the executive branch, the opinions are considered authoritative. For example, the Department of Justice, as a matter of policy, will not prosecute people who violate the law so long as they are following OLC guidance, and OLC opinions are used to resolve legal disputes between agencies.

Continue reading “Improving Congress and Public Access to OLC Opinions: An Update on Congressional Activity”

Appropriators Should Provide Adequate Funding to Congress

Congress is significantly underfunded — especially compared to the executive branch — and it has suffered deep staff cuts over the last 25 years. In March and in September, we co-authored letters naming the fact that not only does the Legislative Branch receive the smallest funding level of the 12 appropriations subcommittees, it has received funding cuts (in real terms) over the last decade even as other appropriations subcommittees have received increases.

As we speak, the House and Senate are negotiating over how much in new funding to give to each of the 12 appropriations subcommittees. In play is how to divvy up a significant increase in overall funding: a $27 billion increase in non-defense discretionary spending over the next fiscal year.

According to CRS, in FY 2019 the legislative branch was funded at $4.836 billion. How does the proposed increases in Leg Branch funding from the House and Senate compare to last year’s funding level?


Screenshot 2019-10-31 at 11.57.43 AM
Comparison of proposed changes in the allocation to the Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee for FY 2020, in millions of dollars.

Continue reading “Appropriators Should Provide Adequate Funding to Congress”

The OLC SUNLIGHT Act brings much needed transparency to DOJ legal opinions

The OLC SUNLIGHT Act — which would bring desperately needed transparency and accountability to the often secret opinions of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel — was introduced today.

How often are those opinions secret? No one knows, because there’s no publicly or congressionally-available list of all the opinions. The opinions that have become publicly available reveal that they often have undermined federal legislation and reinterpreted the Constitution in ways favorable to the executive branch and harmful to the framers’ system of checks and balances. This is intolerable.

The OLC Sunlight Act does two things —

  1. It requires a publicly available list of all OLC opinions, including when they are issued and a summary of the legal question presented.
  2. It requires OLC to publish all its final opinions online, with allowances for text to be withheld when it is properly classified, contains materials that impact privacy, and in other limited circumstances.

The original cosponsors are Reps. Matt Cartwright, (PA) Mike Quigley (IL), Zoe Lofgren (CA), Blumenauer (OR), Cardenas (CA), Carson (IN), Clay (MO), Davis (CA), Gomez (CA), Johnson, Jr. (GA), Hill (CA), Holmes Norton (DC), Phillips (MN), Raskin (MD), Tlaib (MI), and Vargas (CA). A bipartisan coalition of 17 organizations from across the political spectrum, including us, issued a letter endorsing the legislation.

Congress has long struggled to provide public and congressional transparency to OLC opinions. We are a nation of laws, not a nation of secret laws. In our system of government, Congress makes the law, not the president, and the president must faithfully execute the law.

We applaud the cosponsors for introducing the legislation. Public access to OLC opinions has long enjoyed bipartisan support, and we urge all Members of Congress to take up the fight for the rule of law.