Forecast for July 20, 2020

THE TOP LINE

The House Appropriations Committee finished its deliberations this past week, favorably reporting bills from its 12 subcommittees and marking the end of an era with Rep. Lowey’s forthcoming retirement as Chair. As we noted last week, this included much needed investments in the Legislative Branch, reclaiming Congress’ power of the purse, and increased transparency requirements.

The Senate is back and is in session until August 7th, and the House votes this week on the NDAA, confederate statues, and some approps bills. The House district work period in theory starts on July 31, but Speaker Pelosi said the House would absolutely stay in town to pass coronavirus relief and Members were told to plan to be in town the first week of August. Who knows what will be in that bill.

A remote Congress is better than no Congress. The House moved in May to allow proxy voting, but allowing fully remote deliberations (including remote voting) is a much better option, as we’ve been arguing since March. The House Admin Cmte held a hearing on Friday that checks a box to allow remote deliberations; even former Speaker Gingrich, who testified, agreed that secure remote voting is technologically feasible, and he praised the proceedings. As to the wisdom of such a move, see our letter (co-authored with the Lincoln Network’s Zach Graves) to the Committee. Roll Call has an excellent summary of the hearing.

Rep. John Lewis has died. His life exemplified how a principled leader moves the political middle and the value of standing up for what you believe.

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The PLUM Act: Transparency for Political Appointees

by Jason Briefel and Maggi Molina

A president will appoint more than 4,000 individuals to serve in an administration, yet “there is no single source of data on political appointees serving in the executive branch that is publicly available, comprehensive, and timely,” according to the Government Accountability Office in a March 2019 report.

Instead, these positions are compiled and published exactly once every four years in a congressional document known as the Plum Book (officially the United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions). This book is published only in December after a presidential election (before the president even gets sworn in) and includes important data for each position, including title, salary and location.  

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CRS Report: “The Office of Technology Assessment: History, Authorities, Issues, and Options”

CRS issued an updated report on OTA on April 29, 2020, that “describes the OTA’s historical mission, organizational structure, funding, staffing, operations, and perceived strengths and weakness. The report concludes with a discussion of issues and options surrounding reestablishing the agency or its functions.” 

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Presidential Signing Statements: Congressional Actions

(Update, 04/24/20): On April 3, we provided a summary of all the congressional actions related to signing statements. Here is an analysis of the common themes in the legislation: 

  • Requires the Executive to give Congress notice and reasoning for all statements.
  • Bars government entities (including state and federal courts) from using signing statements in interpreting the law.
  • Gives Congress standing to seek declaratory relief, allows Congress to intervene in cases or allows Congress to issue “clarifying” statement.  
  • Requires AG, Deputy AG, White House Counsel to testify before Judiciary at the behest of any single member to explain; can’t invoke executive privilege.  
  • Limits funds made available to the Executive to produce, publish, or disseminate any signing statement.
  • Cuts off funding authorized or expended to implement any law accompanied by a signing statement if Executive doesn’t comply with congressional restrictions on signing statements. 

(Original Article) Following up on our discussion of Signing Statements (triggered by the President’s signing statement on the coronavirus relief legislation), here are the hearings and legislation we found on the subject. If we missed something, please email maggi@demandprogress.org

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Coronavirus Relief: Science and Tech Capacity in Congress

Congress, heal thyself.  

Congressional capacity (or lack thereof) to respond to a global pandemic is on full display.  Members in the House and Senate have tested positive, as have staff. Republicans in the Senate briefly held their majority by one (48-47 with 5 Republican Senators in quarantine).

Members are limited to in-person deliberation and voting at a time of social distancing and self-quarantining.  Congress has historically underfunded its own operations, as well as science and technology assessment.  Federal contracting rules and government systems make it difficult to buy and use commercial, off-the-shelf systems the rest of us take for granted.  

Congressional capacity is “the human and physical infrastructure Congress needs to resolve public problems through legislating, budgeting, holding hearings, and conducting oversight.” As Congress funds millions of individuals and businesses, as well as state and local governments across the country with Trillions of dollars, it must fund its own capacity to respond to this crisis. 

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Congress Can Save Taxpayers Billions By Using Data Science to Stop Improper Payments

By Maggi Molina and Dan Lips

Congress faces major challenges in 2020—including the Coronavirus pandemic and addressing its significant disruptions to our way of life. With the Congressional Budget Office already forecasting trillion dollar federal deficits through 2030, lawmakers may have less flexibility to authorize new spending to address these problems.

One way for Congress to improve the government’s balance sheet would be to stop federal agencies from making improper payments. “Improper payments” doesn’t sound that bad — perhaps you used Paypal instead of Venmo — but they are essentially illegal payments. These are payments that should not have been made or that were made in incorrect amounts.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported that federal agencies made $175 Billion in improper payments in 2019. Of those, $75 Billion (or 42 percent) were reported as a “monetary loss, an amount that should not have been paid and in theory should or could be recovered.” More than two-thirds of the improper payments were concentrated in three programs: Medicaid, Medicare, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. 

GAO warned that the problem could be even bigger: “The federal government’s ability to understand the full scope of its improper payments is hindered by incomplete, unreliable, or understated agency estimates,” among other issues. Indeed, a number of agencies do not accurately report this information.

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