Foresight: A Tool for a Proactive Government

Someone on the Hill once told me that Congress was “constitutionally reactive.” That is, Congress and the law would always lag behind society, and the system was intentionally designed that way. The current rapid pace of change — in our culture and particularly with technology — only makes the gap between policy and our lives more glaring. 

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Foresight in the Federal Government

In “Strategic Foresight in the Federal Government: A Survey of Methods, Resources and Institutional Arrangements,”[1] authors Joseph Greenblott, Thomas O’Farrell, Robert Olson, and Beth Burchard analyzed foresight activities in 19 federal agencies (18 in the Executive Branch and 1 in the Legislative Branch). This article summarizes the findings (all numbers and quotes are from that article).

While approaches varied by agency, some common themes emerged.[2] Overall, Defense and Intelligence agencies seemed to have the strongest (and best funded) foresight practices.[3] Foresight in the Executive Branch is much further developed than in the Legislative Branch. 

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Congress’ Power of the Purse

Congress holds the power of the purse. That is, they decide where to spend federal money. The Constitution expressly provides that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” The process is convoluted, opaque, and subject to exceptions and personalities. The purpose of this article is to provide the big picture, show the immense importance of these decisions, and the impact on the Legislative Branch.

Congress controls a massive amount of money. For Fiscal Year 2020 (October 1, 2019 to September 30, 2020), the budget is about $4.7 Trillion. $2.8 Trillion is mandatory spending (legally required, like Social Security payments). $1.4 Trillion is discretionary spending (Congress can spend the money on anything). About $500 Billion is interest on the national debt. And, of course, there’s emergency spending, like the recently enacted Coronavirus legislation totaling trillions of dollars (with more to come). 

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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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