Forecast for September 20, 2021

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THE TOP LINE

The upcoming 10 days are going to be crazy, but the tick-tock is adequately covered by other newsletters so you don’t need it from us. Here is this week’s House floor calendar, the Senate floor schedulethe combined committee calendar, and the House Rules Committee Monday meeting announcement that includes links to the draft CR and NDAA. (See this great NDAA explainer in advance of what will likely be a fun round of floor amendments.) Looking ahead, Senate Republicans say they will vote to allow a debt default, a cynical position staked out by Sen. McConnell, who “will vote for a policy outcome he says he doesn’t want to occur.”

You might think I’m being unfair in my criticism, but the Washington Post profiled former AP journalist and appropriations expert Andrew Taylor, who has quit covering Congress and the journalism business entirely and is now criticizing Republican leadership, including Sen. McConnell on the very topic of the debt ceiling. Generally speaking, he’s described their “approach to their jobs is too often bad-faith bullshit,” and says the rules of objective journalism “can often obscure the reality of what’s really going on.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee was set to have subcommittee mark-ups this week but BGOV ($) says they were postponed because of Republican opposition, although BGOV is unclear on whether Republicans were going to vote against the bills in the evenly-divided committee or boycott the proceedings. This raises a number of governance questions, and as you know, we are focused closely on the ability of the Legislative branch to do its job, including funding for its operations.

Continue reading “Forecast for September 20, 2021”

Forecast for September 13, 2021

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Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your regular look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Subscribe here.

THE TOP LINE

The fence is (almost certainly) coming back around the Capitol building and Supreme Court in anticipation of an event featuring Trump insurrectionists and their allies. Representatives of white supremacist groups who were promoting the “rally,” such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, now say their membership will not show up because “it’s a government trap,” but we shall see.

Keeping Congress safe includes maintaining a safe working environment. Pres. Biden is requiring COVID shots for Executive branch employees. Will the House and Senate do the same? They should, especially as some legislators and staff are a public health danger: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene will be fined for failing to wear a mask on the House floor — this is the third fine for Rep. Greene — and half of House Republicans in July would not say whether they’ve gotten the shot. I don’t know whether Congress can require legislators to get the COVID shot, but likely it could impose such a requirement on staff.

Toxic congressional bosses, whether literal or metaphorical, often leave staff with little recourse when things predictably go wrong. Why Congress does not have a HR department is the subject of a Business Insider article that explains that, for those at the receiving end of bad behavior, “the odds [are] stacked in favor of members and superiors and against rank-and-file employees.” (Unions are one way employees traditionally respond to this kind of environment, but that requires the House or Senate to act.)

Staff want to leave Capitol Hill and who can blame them? Addressing quality of life issues is essential and the starting point has to be pay. Speaker Pelosi increased the salary cap for top aides last month, but retaining staffers — especially in the face of the private sector’s strategic head-hunting — also means increasing salaries for everyone. The House passed a significant restoration of funding for the Legislative branch at the behest of Reps. Hoyer, AOC, and half the Democratic caucus, but it cannot go into effect without the Senate’s assent.

Pay alone is not enough. A workable HR department, student loan repayment help, support for continuing education, assistance with child care, a safe workplace, flexible leave policies, and much more is necessary in a workplace where pay will never be competitive with the private sector. Telework policies also make sense, as does remote work … including for members who because of emergencies or other exigent circumstances cannot or should not attend in person. Of course, House Minority Leader McCarthy is petitioning the Supreme Court to end proxy voting after losing in lower courts. We prefer truly remote proceedings to proxy voting for a number of reasons, but we cannot agree with the Leader’s logic. Should Rep. Morelle, who announced on Sunday that he has COVID, be forced to choose between returning to the chamber and infecting his colleagues and forgoing the opportunity to cast a vote on behalf of his constituents?

Continue reading “Forecast for September 13, 2021”

Forecast for September 7, 2021

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Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your regular look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Subscribe here.

THE TOP LINE

Yesterday was Labor Day, which is as good a reason as any to ask why the House and Senate do not allow staff for elected officials to unionize? (They do in Ohio and overseas.) Labor laws are intended to give employees a voice, and yet congressional staff work in an environment with fewer labor protections than those afforded to other federal and private sector workers. In the mid-90s, Republicans enacted legislation that gave congressional support staff the right to unionize — which I recount here — and the House and Senate set up a process that, much to their chagrin, resulted in regulations allowing political staff to unionize as well. But they wrote the law in such a way as to require a House or Senate resolution to put those regulations into effect, at least as far as we can tell. So why hasn’t either chamber acted?

On the topic of workplace safety, congressional security forces are considering bringing back the fence on an interim basis in anticipation of a rally by Trump insurrectionists at the Capitol on September 18th; rising threats by racial extremists and anti-government extremists who seek to exploit COVID as a rationale for terrorism; and a packed calendar of religious holidays, event anniversaries, and a high-profile legislative calendar. The fence is a band-aid for what’s actually necessary: wholesale reforms of the Capitol Police and security on Capitol hill.

Two new Capitol Police IG reports, which contain the IG’s executive summaries and conclusions but none of the findings or narratives, were publicly released by the Committee on House Administration last week. The first report focused on “deficiencies with the Department’s Command and Coordination Bureau.” The second report addressed “deficiencies with the Department’s Hazardous Incident Response Division (HIRD) and Canine Unit (K-9 or Unit).” Roll Call summarized the findings. It’s the same story as the other reports: the Capitol Police leadership failed; there is inadequate training from the top to bottom, inadequate coordination, and inadequate guidance.

Congressional Technology. The Library of Congress held its second annual virtual forum on legislative data services last week. It was well attended, covered a lot of ground, and we will publish a write-up soon. We congratulate the Library on a successful event. (Video does not yet appear to be publicly available.) One big take-away: while the conversation was productive and included a well-received exchange of ideas and information, the Library — which was required by Appropriators to host forums in 2020 and 2021 — would not commit to holding them in the future. It may require Congress to once again ask the Library to meet with the public; the Library previously has made clear it will not share its evaluation of requests regarding legislative data services (e.g., Congress.gov) with the public without being directed to do so by Congress.

 Many of the substantive announcements regarding Library activities already were covered at the July Bulk Data Task Force meeting, which we wrote about here. However, there was some new information, which we will cover in a future article. While the panelists did a good job with their presentations, as usual, the best part was the live Q&A with the public.

• Public requestsThe Policy Agendas project, a consortium of political scientists that “assembles and codes information on the policy processes of governments from around the world,” organized a letter signed by 18 political scientists to Dr. Hayden in advance of the virtual forum “to advocate for greater publication of documents and data by the Library of Congress on Congress.gov.” Among their requests, the Library should: make historic bill text available online; review and publish CRS reports from the CRSX archive; collect Congressionally mandated Executive branch agency reports; publish all hearing information and committee reports from 1970 forwards; and adopt the Policy Agenda’s project coding system. They also endorsed our letter from 2020 that contained recommendations on how the Library could improve its legislative information sources. The Library was taking feedback through this webform, although it is unclear whether they will continue to do so.

Tracking legislative memes. One idea raised several times at the forum, and which we have been working on for more than a year, is tracking legislative ideas across multiple bills in the same Congress and over multiple Congresses. We have a new tool, BillMap, that allows you to track these legislative memes — we’re still working on it and feedback is welcome. The task of identifying legislation related to a particular bill is more complex than most people would imagine. You can’t simply brute force the process by mechanically comparing legislative text, as much more finesse and understanding of the legislative process is required. One of our developers wrote about how we track legislative memes and assess when bills may be related to one another. We have ideas for additional methods and refinements.

Restoring funding for GAO to address the reconciliation shortfall? The conservative Lincoln Network just released an excellent report that explores how GAO saves taxpayers money. GAO has said repeatedly that taxpayers save at least $100 for every $1 invested in GAO, and yet over the decades Congress has been defunding GAO. If we restored GAO to its 1992 funding level (calculated as a percentage of federal spending), an increase of $400 million or so, that would result in more than $40 billion in savings. I’m not a budget person, but I do wonder whether there’s a way to increase GAO’s funding and use it as a pay-for in the budget reconciliation package?

Continue reading “Forecast for September 7, 2021”

Forecast for August 27, 2021

Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your regular look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. This is an unusual Friday edition; we are hoping to not publish next week. Subscribe here.

THE TOP LINE
The House returns for a committee work week on Tuesday; the Senate is out until September 13th.The House’s National Defense Authorization Act markup will start on September 1. There are a number of important deadlines: House and Senate committees are expected to report their portions of the reconciliation package by September 15th; appropriations bills of some kind must be enacted before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30th; and the debt limit will be reached in October or November.

Don’t forget: The Library of Congress has a virtual public forum (which means you!) on its digital services set for Sept. 2nd. This is an opportunity to ask for new tools, features, and information from the Library.

CAPITOL SECURITY
A “rally” by Trump insurrectionists and fellow right wing extremists set for Sept. 18th is alarming Capitol security officials who fear it will be violent; the event is set for a Saturday and reports do not indicate the expected size of the crowd. Earlier in the week is the 20th anniversary of 9/11, which also is raising alarm bells, although news reports provide no real information about what kind of threat, if any, may arise. We cannot tell the extent to which USCP operations have been reformed in the last 8 months, but transforming the agency into a capable security force will take years and we have grave doubts about the ability of its intelligence units to assess the circumstances.

After it was reported in the press, the USCP issued a press release acknowledging it completed its internal investigation into the shooting of Ashli Babbitt. The findings (or a summary thereof) were not released so we do not know what it says except flat assertions in the news release itself; the officer will not face internal discipline; and the officer (who is not being officially named) and their family have been “subject of numerous credible and specific threats.” The twitter thread in response to the USCP announcement apparently includes the name of the officer and a revolting amount of insurrection-related vitriol.

That officer, Lt. Michael Byrd, gave an interview with NBC news where he explained his actions were a last resort to protect members of Congress holed up in the House chamber. Lt. Byrd has received death threats and has gone into hiding for months as Trump insurrectionists and fellow travelers turn the unfortunate but likely inescapable shooting of insurrectionist Babbitt into a twisting rallying cry. We found this coverage provides the best context.

Ring, ring. The January 6th Committee is set to request telephone companies preserve phone records of certain Members of Congress, among other people.

The Capitol Police responded to a new IG flash report with this press statement. Oddly, IG flash report #5 is not publicly available, but the AP reported on it. The headline: “Report details mishandling of police emergency system on 1/6.” The USCP IG does not release reports to the public as a matter of policy (even though it’s routine for IGs across the government), although House Admin has been releasing the IG’s new flash reports, which appear to be designed for public consumption. Appropriators had requested the IG compile a list of reports over the last three years that it could release, and that report is due by September 30th. Maybe the IG should just go ahead and release this one instead of holding it for the likely House Admin hearing.

The August Capitol bomber, Floyd Ray Roseberry, has been “diagnosed with bipolar disorder and needs more medical treatment.” Roseberry, who said he had a bomb but did not have one that functioned, made a number of far right statements during a stand-off with security forces. To my mind, this highlights the danger of violent rhetoric that can activate all sorts of people.

Oddly, but not unsurprisingly, the U.S. Capitol Police’s weekly arrest summary does not include the arrest of Floyd Ray Roseberry. The Capitol Police put out a press release on 8/19 saying they arrested him, so we know they did it, and yet… nothing. This suggests, as we have long suspected, that the Capitol Police’s weekly arrest summaries are not comprehensive or reliable. When we dug into this previously, the USCP gave us a cryptic response about what they exclude from these reports.

7 Capitol Police officers have filed a civil lawsuit against ex-Pres. Trump and others “claiming they conspired to violently overturn the results of the 2020 election.” Josh Gerstein, as usual, does a good job of putting this all in context and links to the filing — bravo. You can follow the docket (including getting alerts) on CourtListener.

TRANSPARENCY
Appropriations requests are published online by Sen. Braun, which is something we don’t recall having seen before. This includes the date a letter was sent, the sender, the dollar amount, and the purpose, but not the text of the letter itself.

How does newly enacted legislation amend prior legislation? The use of technology to answer that tricky question has moved a step forward with GPO’s publication of statute compilations in USLM XML. If that last sentence is confusing, what it means is that we now have modern metadata for laws that are not officially included in the US code so it becomes possible to automate updates of that legislation and also to show how draft legislation would amend those laws.

The Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act has passed the House and Senate, going to Pres. Biden’s desk for signature. It has earned bipartisan praise. It requires the publication of an agency’s current and historical Congressional Budget Justifications in a central place online so it is possible to find them easily.

Declassification reforms are classified. Yes, the fixes pushed by Sen. Wyden are contained in the classified annex, so we can’t know what they are. What is classified legislation? Well…..

ODDS AND ENDS
Lobbying. Lobbying by an industry increases when there is greater consolidation (i.e., fewer players) in the industry, according to a new report from the American Economic Liberties Project. The tentative conclusion: monopolies seek to acquire political power through lobbying to avoid competition in the open market.

Endless impeachments from here on out is the premise of Paul Kane’s opinion piece, pointing to Republican calls to impeach Biden over all sorts of stuff, including by Republican notables. He quickly pivots to #bothsides, blaming the bases of both parties, so I don’t exactly recommend his analysis. But Republicans do seem more likely to impeach any Democratic president and Democrats are more likely to impeach Republican presidents who follow in the Trumpian model.

You shouldn’t be afraid at work, but congressional staff are becoming resigned to political violence being part of the job.

Rep. Mooney may have used campaign funds for personal use and used gift cards to hide the recipients of campaign funds, which are no-nos and, according to Roll Call, the topic of an OCE report to the Ethics committee.

ERRATA
The Senate Secretary of the Senate, not the Sergeant at Arms, oversees the Office of Senate Security. I know that, having written a primer on it a while back, but I mixed it up in the last issue.

CALENDAR
Down the road…

• The Library of Congress will host a public forum on Congress.gov on September 2nd from 1 to 4pm ET.

• Make Congress Great Again — the Lincoln Network is hosting a reception on Congressional modernization and reform on September 2nd from 5-7 pm ET. RSVP here.
• Internapalooza, a virtual orientation for interns, will take place on September 9th and 10th.

• The 30th annual LegisTech for Democracy Conference will be held online on September 13th and 14th — save the date now.

• The Senate will return on September 13th.

• Constitution Day is September 17th.

Forecast for August 23, 2021

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Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your regular look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Subscribe here.

THE TOP LINE

They’re back? The House of Representatives returns for two days to pass a Budget resolution, a voting rights bill, and 12 suspension bills (including, we hope, the Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act.) The Senate does not return until September 13th. A classified briefing is set for House Members on Tuesday regarding Afghanistan. Except for a House Rules Committee hearing, we don’t see any meetings scheduled.

Don’t forget: The Library of Congress has a virtual public forum (which means you!) on its digital services set for Sept. 2nd. This is an opportunity to ask for new tools, features, and information from the Library.

OVERSIGHT OF CONGRESS

Public access to congressional records is the focus of two lawsuits filed by National Security Counselors on behalf of journalist Shawn Musgrave. The litigation is based upon the legal doctrine known as “a common law right of access” — that individuals have a right to inspect and copy public documents. We have long been frustrated by Congress’s non-disclosure of records it has required itself to make publicly available, although this litigation focuses on records that likely should be publicly available but may not be required to be available. For context, NARA’s FOIA Advisory Committee recently recommended extending FOIA or establishing a FOIA-like process to elements of the Legislative and Judicial branches. A few elements of the Legislative branch already have FOIA-like processes.

The two cases are Musgrave v. Manger and Musgrave v. Warner. You can read the court orders in the cases not because the federal courts make them available to you for free — they don’t and the courts are resisting open access efforts — but because a nonprofit organization created an online tool called RECAP (PACER spelled backwards) to crowdsource public access. But I digress.

Musgrave v. Manger contains four requests in one. The first request concerns U.S. Capitol Police surveillance footage from January 6th. The second request focuses on transparency at the U.S. Capitol Police, requesting records concerning their implementation of Appropriator-requested transparency measures to (a) create a FOIA-like process for the public to request USCP records, and (b) review and identify USCP Inspector General reports that could be made publicly available. The third request goes to the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms and requests the release of their Security Policy Manuals, which governs the handling of national security information. The final request is for a House SAA-prepared report concerning the levels of clearances held by Congressional staff. (An analogous document is released by the IC.)

• According to the pleadings: (1) The Capitol Police are claiming that surveillance footage from January 6th used in support of criminal prosecutions are not public records. (2a) The Capitol Police appear to be unaware of the Appropriator-requested FOIA-like transparency process they are requested to implement and (2b) the Capitol Police IG did not respond to the request for its analysis of reports it could release. (3) The House’s General Counsel has (erroneously, in my view) asserted that its Security Manual could only be released by a majority vote of the full House and that the Manual is not a record; the Senate Office of Legal Counsel says the common law does not apply to Senate records and, even if it did, “significant national security interests” implicated by the release would outweigh disclosure. (4) The House’s General Counsel asserts the request should be made to the Appropriations Committee — which seems in tension with their assertion concerning their Security Manual — and that the report is protected by the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution.

Musgrave v. Warner concerns the non-disclosure of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report, which is 6,700 pages long and evaluates in significant detail the CIA’s “detention and interrogation” program, including many “inaccuracies” of claims made by the CIA and the agency’s efforts to mislead the public and the committee. Naturally, the Intelligence Community fought against the release of the damning document and only the Executive Summary was released in 2014 after an arduous declassification process that Senator Feinstein said included the CIA spying on committee staff. The report eventually will become subject to a declassification request in 2029 as part of President Obama’s records after significant shenanigans by Sen. Burr and the Intelligence Community that include Executive branch officials refusing to read the report and destroying the copies they held. The purpose of the report was for the Executive branch to learn lessons from its misbehavior, an effort that continues to be thwarted. The litigation asks for a copy of the report.

What does all this mean? This litigation appears to have two clever purposes. First, it is a good probe of whether courts would recognize a common law right of access to Legislative branch records, what such a right might encompass, and how it would work. Second, all of these records should be publicly available (with redactions in some instances) and this could be a good way to prod the House, Senate, and Capitol Police to address long standing deficiencies. In my view, the further we move from legislative deliberations — the work of member offices and committees — the stronger the arguments become in favor of disclosure of Congressional (and Judicial) records. There’s no good reason to treat the Capitol Police differently from the FBI or Secret Service. Will the courts get involved? IDK. Is it a good thing? IDK, but Congress could preempt this litigation by releasing the records and putting in place reasonable disclosure policies that would deprive journalists of such favorable factual circumstances.

Continue reading “Forecast for August 23, 2021”

Special Forecast for August 13, 2021

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Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. No, it’s not Monday, but with the Congress away, it seemed best to send this lest we get inundated with out-of-office responses. We’re planning on taking a little break with Congress out unless something major happens… or we get bored. Subscribe here.

THE TOP LINE

The pay ceiling for senior House staff has been raised. Speaker Pelosi issued a pay order that increases the maximum potential salaries for many House staff to $199,300, which just happens to be the equivalent of an SES Level II. Staff salaries had been kept below pay levels for rank-and-file members, which themselves have been frozen at $174,000 since 2009 and are down the equivalent of $75k since 1992 (in constant dollars). By decoupling staff and member pay, it becomes possible to address long standing pleas from support offices and members alike that it is increasingly difficult to retain senior staff because of increasing costs of living and the tremendous opportunities to earn more elsewhere. This is a retention issue for support office computer programmers and skilled legislative drafters as well as staff directors and chiefs of staff — and an issue of equity with their Executive branch equivalents.

For non-senior staff, don’t feel left out: the House included in its Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill a 13% overall increase in funding, including funding to increase salaries for personal, committee, and leadership staff by 21%, which would return them to 2010 levels (adjusted for inflation). Thank Steny Hoyer; Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and the 110 Dems who signed her letter; every member of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress; Reps. Ryan, Lofgren, and DeLauro; and a bunch of civil society groups who have been tirelessly pushing this issue. This isn’t a zero sum game, btw: it’s possible to pay all staff significantly more and to increase the top line. The big question is whether the Senate agrees to the House’s proposed funding levels for the first branch of government.

This is one piece of a larger puzzle to strengthen and diversify Congress: paid internships, an Office of Diversity and Inclusion, a central HR hub, proposals to unionize political staff and create pay floors and pay scales, and so on. You can find one of Demand Progress’s proposals to increase the pay staff cap here; and we would be remiss if we did not mention Rep. Graves’ amendment to the Leg Branch Appropriations bill, which was not ruled in order, and would have increased the staff pay cap.

What’s a pay order? Uhh, I don’t really want to talk about it right now, but the Speaker’s authority to do this in the House is set out in statute, although finding the actual orders can be challenging. As an aside, some members of Congress earn more than the base rate: according to CRS, the Speaker earns $223,500 and the President Pro Tempore and Leaders earn $193,000.

Caveats. I should add that some Legislative branch staff — according to CRS, anyway — already earn more than rank-and-file members of Congress, such as the Comptroller General, the Librarian of Congress, and so on. I can’t tell what they are actually paid, however, because there is a pay free for certain senior officials — political appointees? — which includes some members of the Legislative branch who are appointed by the president. (Why they are appointed by the president is another issue entirely.) In addition, this year’s Leg Branch Appropriations Bill sets the AOC and USCP Chief’s salaries at Executive Schedule II, leaving the potentially anomalous result that some Legislative branch agency chiefs will be subject to the freeze (and thus paid less) while others would not. It also could create anomalous pay levels for politicals versus non-politicals. You know, this would be a great question for CRS.

Continue reading “Special Forecast for August 13, 2021”

Forecast for August 9, 2021

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Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Subscribe here. A preview of coming distractions: if Congress takes a break, we may take one, too. Wouldn’t that be nice.

THE TOP LINE

Members of Congress can force policy change without moving a bill. Rep. Bush made that clear last week in a successful effort to extend the eviction moratorium. There were a lot of unusual circumstances, and we are highlighting her efforts only to make the point that moving the nature of the debate — which can’t be measured by counting up co-sponsored bills — can be just as meaningful as getting a bill enacted. In this case, she prompted Pres. Biden to act, which also highlights how much responsibility Congress has ceded to the Executive branch.

It’s critical to avoid the trap that a powerful Congress necessitates in-person Congress. In last week’s Slow Build newsletter, Nancy Scola connects Rep. Bush’s success with an argument around Congress operating in-person. We note (as Scola does) that the House was out. In our opinion, what helped Rep. Bush was that the Senate was in — and not much else was happening — which prompted reporters stuck on the Hill to tell other stories, i.e. Bush’s. In other words, it was the ability to get attention. In a fully remote House, Rep. Bush would have had legislative options available to raise the matter on the floor instead of having to sleep upright on the Capitol steps.

America unmasked too quickly — or failed to mask at all — that much is clear. The House will extend its emergency proxy voting stop-gap measures through the fall and potentially through the end of the year. 20 House Members declared “Congress should be considering a vaccine requirement for Members and staff of the U.S. Capitol complex or, at minimum, twice per week testing for those who are unable to verify positive vaccination status,” an issue which Speaker Pelosi dodged. We are unsure how a mandate could be enforced against Members, but it is a reasonable step; there’s an open question about whether the Senate would agree to extending a requirement to support agencies. Universal vaccination is the sine qua non of in-person deliberations — alongside mandatory mask wearing — while COVID infections increase, and may be insufficient should new highly-transmissible variants be vaccine resistant. Our own Taylor Swift, who has testified before Congress on its continuity, has some tough-love advise for the Senate.

House Admin’s hearing on renovating the Cannon House Office Building, which we detail below, prompts us to consider: What does a modern congressional office building look like? The changing nature of work demands accessible, safe facilities, ones that can accomodate our hybrid remote/IRL activities.

The debt ceiling still loomsUgh.

The Library of Congress will host a public forum on Congress.gov on September 2nd from 1 to 4pm ET. You can read what we wrote about the last one here — come with your recommendations on what you’d like to see them take on.

Continue reading “Forecast for August 9, 2021”

Forecast for August 2, 2021

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Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Subscribe here.

THE TOP LINE

Congress enacted the Security supplemental with a 98-0 vote in the Senate, a 416-11 vote in the House, and a signature from the President. Six House Dems voted no. (The amended bill text is here.)The $2.1 billion bill includes significant non-congressionally related funds, such as $1.2 billion to help Afghan nationals resettle and to provide aid to neighboring countries; $521 million to reimburse the national guard for its deployment to the U.S. Capitol; $300 million to harden the Capitol Complex; $70 million for the Capitol Police for overtime, bonuses, new equipment, and training; and $42 million for employees and contractors who otherwise would have been laid off during the pandemic.

Leg Branch Approps passed the House on Wednesday, which included a top line funding increase of 13.8% and a lot of good stuff in the report language. All the appropriations bills passed the House except Defense, Homeland Security, and CJS. CJS was set for a floor but was delayed because police unions objected to tying grants to taking steps to end chokeholds, end ‘no-knock’ warrants, eliminate racial profiling, and eliminate sexual contact between officers and people in their custody.” This appears to also have an election-related dimension.

Senate Appropriations start this week, with the chamber aiming to hold markups on Agriculture, Energy and Water, and MilCon.

The Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act passed the House and is now up for Senate consideration; the Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act was brought up on the House floor but was delayed by Rep. Greene, who requested a roll call vote — part of an effort this past week to delay legislative proceedings. These bills embody significant wins for Congressional transparency. Democrats and Republicans praised the bipartisan work that went into the CBJTA prior to the objection; and had similar praise for ACMRA prior to its passage.

The House Modernization Committee favorably reported 20 recommendations — a literal score — that aim to strengthen staff benefits and diversity, provide more opportunities for interns and fellows, and increase Capitol Hill accessibility. More on this below.

Masks are back at the Capitol after the Office of the Attending Physician required House members and encouraged senators to wear masks on the floor and in the hallways. At the White House, staff will now be required to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. Winter is coming.

Continue reading “Forecast for August 2, 2021”

Forecast for July 26, 2021

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Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. Subscribe here.

THE TOP LINE

Former Maryland police chief Tom Manger was sworn in as the US Capitol Police Chief. The Capitol Police are in disarray, with a dysfunctional and inadequate oversight structure, a poorly designed administrative structure, a well-founded absence of confidence in its senior leaders, a funding cliff that prompted the USCP to hold off on purchasing protective equipment like ballistic helmets, and have been pursuing the wrong mission — policing instead of protection — in an accountability-free environment that snubs committee oversight, the press, and the public and has left many police officers suffering with their trauma.

• A torrent of new money will eventually cascade on the well-heeled but financially depleted agency, just as it always has. The Chief spoke to Politico in a short interview — unusual in of itself because ex-acting police chief Pittman did not view it as part of the USCP mission to talk to the press — where he expressed a non-committal willingness to hold briefings and a desire for Pittman, who is reviled by the rank and file, to stay on his leadership team.

Meanwhile, the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the Capitol, which I guess we’re not supposed to call the Trump Insurrection Committee, will hold its first hearing on Tuesday. They don’t seem to yet have a website and the official meeting announcement has little info, but Reuters has their statement that the hearing will include testimony from USCP & MPD officers, which we found mirrored on Speaker Pelosi’s website. I won’t #bothsides our analysis, which is that Minority Leader McCarthy is just as opposed to allowing this committee to go forward as he was opposed to the commission — and for the same base political reasons — which is why he suggested two uncongenial members in the hopes of blowing it up when Speaker Pelosi declined to concur with the appointments. Minority Leader McCarthy gets to make his political point, I guess, but step-by-step he has moved into very dangerous territory for our democracy. With the appointment of Reps. Cheney and Rep. Kinzinger, he will lose the “bipartisan” talking point that has always been a reductivist and unhelpful way to talk about a pluralist political system.

COVID. Some Republican leaders are stepping up to encourage their members and staff to get COVID vaccines and even — gasp — to wear masks. Can you believe Minority Leader McCarthy didn’t get a first COVID shot until last week? It’s too soon to consider ending remote deliberations when we hear there are long lines and extended hours to accommodate staff (and members) who have yet to get the vaccine. Even if you wish to make a rhetorical point about this being a personal choice, you still have to exercise personal responsibility in actually getting one. Scientific modeling suggests a steep rise in COVID deaths, peaking in the middle of October, at 60,000 cases and 850 deaths per day under the most likely scenario, with a worst case for the most likely scenario of 240,000 cases and 4,000 deaths per day.

The House will consider up to ten appropriations bills next week, including this minibusState & Foreign ops, and of more interest to us: Leg branch approps and CJS. More below on the 37 Leg branch floor amendments. The minibus will be considered by the Rules committee on Monday, and the rest on Tuesday.

• Making matters more complicated is that the Senate Armed Services Committee decided that the House’s proposed increase to defense spending, which constitutes nearly half of the $1.5 trillion in total discretionary spending for everything, is not enough. They proposed to increase overall defense spending to $777.9 billion, including $740 billion for DOD, which is a $25 billion boost for the department over Biden’s already generous proposal which is on top of decades of generous funding. This places Armed Services numbers way out of line with the top line numbers proposed by Pres. Biden and those approved by House Appropriators. And of course they did it all essentially in secret, so only Lockheed Martin knows the nature of their deliberations. As a useful point of comparison, vaccinating the entire world would cost $50 to $70 billion, and paying for that would contribute mightily to improving global security. And, unlike a lot of Pentagon programs, the vaccine actually works.

The Senate plans to hold markups on FY 2022 Agriculture-FDA, Energy and Water, and Military Construction-VA bills before breaking for the August recess. The rest comes after? And sometime between now and then, the debt limit must be raised or suspended — it expires on August 1st — and Sen. McConnell is urging Republicans to oppose this effort in what some deem hostage-taking, which risks destroying the U.S.’s ability to borrow money on favorable terms.

In some good newstwo of my favorite bills are on suspension in the House this week. The Congressional Budget Justification Transparency ActS 272, which is the Senate companion to HR 22, would put all agency congressional budget justifications online in a central place so you can actually find them. It will go to the president. And the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports ActH.R. 2485, would require all non-confidential legally-required agency reports to Congress be published online at a central website, and also for Congress to maintain a full list of these reports. The House has passed ACMRA many times before, and it enjoys bipartisan support and has been favorably reported by HSGAC several times. But, you know, the Senate….

Several right-of-center organizations and former Republican Members of Congress wrote to Senate Appropriators in support of strengthening Congress and restoring the balance between the executive and legislative branches, favorably citing funding increases included in the House appropriations bill. The letter underscores the need for lawmakers to assert congressional authority, leverage the power of the purse, and pare back excessively broad executive orders. This is a strong conservative case for why we need a strong Congress.

Continue reading “Forecast for July 26, 2021”

Forecast for July 19, 2021

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Welcome to the First Branch Forecast, your weekly look into the Legislative branch and government transparency. The House and Senate are holding floor votes this week; the House is currently scheduled to go into recess in two weeks and the Senate is scheduled to go into recess in three. We shall see. Subscribe here.

THE TOP LINE

House appropriators have favorably reported all twelve appropriations bills and are looking to move seven of those bills as a spending package during the week of July 26th — the last week the House is scheduled to be in before a month-long recess and two months before the fiscal year ends. Majority Leader Hoyer says the House may consider additional appropriations bills that week. Not in the package: the Legislative Branch, Commerce-Justice-Science, Defense, Homeland Security, and State-Foreign Ops. (What about the Senate???)

Transparency in appropriations bills. In the recently reported House CJS and Defense Appropriations bills are several measures to cheer fans of government accountability. The CJS appropriations committee report under the leadership of Rep. Cartwright once again included strong language encouraging the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to proactively release final OLC legal opinions. Here’s why final OLC opinions should be available to Congress and the public. And the Defense Appropriations committee report included language urging the Director of National Intelligence to release all significant opinions by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, not just those from 2015 forward. Here is why FISC opinion should be available to Congress and the public. This comes on top of significant government strengthening and transparency measures in committee reports issued by the Legislative Branch (under Rep. Ryan) and FSGG appropriations (under Rep. Quigley).

The Bulk Data Task Force, the Legislative branch’s working group of internal and external stakeholders focused on the use of technology to cultivate collaboration, foster data standardization, and increase transparency, held its quarterly meeting this past week. You can watch the video or click through the presentations here, but I do promise we will have a comprehensive write-up because a lot of material was covered. Among the news: Deputy Clerk Bob Reeves, who has capably led the task force since its creation in 2012, will retire soon from the House of Representatives; he announced Kirsten Gullickson will be his successor. Everyone has tremendous respect and affection for Mr. Reeves and we will miss him. I would struggle to name an entity within the legislative branch that has been more productive and effective.

Conversations. RSVP for an excellent panel discussion set for this Tuesday entitled “Keeping the Free Press Free.” And ICYMI, watch this panel discussion, hosted by ProLegis, that focused on congressional staff pay and benefits and featured Rep. Kilmer and a motley crew of congressional experts.

Continue reading “Forecast for July 19, 2021”