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.

A modernized OTA is a key step in addressing Congress’s S&T capacity gap

by Daniel Schuman and Zach Graves

Last week, bipartisan bicameral legislation was introduced by Reps. Mark Takano (D-CA) and Bill Foster (D-IL), and Sens. Maizie Hirono (D-HI) and Thom Tillis (R-NC), aimed at strengthening Congress’s ability to understand science and technology policy issues. (H.R. 4426, S. 2509) We welcome these developments and are encouraged to see ongoing bipartisan support for enhancing Congress’s science and technology capacity and expertise. Continue reading “A modernized OTA is a key step in addressing Congress’s S&T capacity gap”

Forecast for August 19, 2019.

The House and Senate are out but we’ve got a brief First Branch Forecast for you to hold you over. Here’s what you need to know:

ON YOUR RADAR
Acting AOC is out. The Acting Architect of the Capitol’s resignation was effective on Saturday (surprise?!) and Tom Carroll is the new Acting Architectwhile the search for a permanent AOC continues. Unrelated, but also notable in AOC news: a new AOC IG report is out (looks like they found some problems).

The BLAG? Everyone’s heard of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, but the House of Representatives has a legal office that articulates the institutional view of the people’s chamber: the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group. The BLAG decides when the House General Counsel should intervene, but not much is known about its work. Fourteen civil society organizations wrote to the General Counsel and Members of the BLAG to encourage the adoption of some basic transparency measures. (We had recommendations in our House rules recs, too.) Also, wouldn’t it be fun to rename it the BLAWG?

We are experimenting with a new Twitter account, @CongressRadar, which we will hand curate to provide First Branch-y news all week long. It joins our automated accounts @AppropsTracker@EveryCRSReport@LeadershipFlack@OpenAtAGlance & @CongressRFP. Continue reading “Forecast for August 19, 2019.”

The Crystal Ball on Funding for the Office of Technology Assessment

Earlier this year, the House’s Appropriations Committee favorably reported a Legislative Branch Appropriations bill for FY 2020 that contained $6m in start-up funds for the Office of Technology Assessment spread out over two years. Now that the House and Senate have agreed upon top line spending numbers for the federal government, where does all this stand?

As you might recall, the House of Representatives passed 10 out of 12 appropriations bills, but the Legislative Branch bill was not among them. It got hung up on the House floor over an unrelated fight over providing members of Congress with a cost of living increase. Continue reading “The Crystal Ball on Funding for the Office of Technology Assessment”