Forecast for October 26, 2020

THE TOP LINE

Pundits, prognosticators, and pols are starting to talk openly about the interregnum between the election and the start of the 117th Congress… and what comes afterward. This NYT opinion piece, for example, outlines a pro-democracy agenda to “end minority rule” and push back on anti-democratic practices undertaken by the Trump administration and its congressional allies. On their checklist: protecting and supporting the right to vote, reducing gerrymandering, eliminating the filibuster, granting DC and PR statehood, and ending the electoral college. On ours: restoring funding to Congress and reinvigorating its powers.

We see a bumpy road ahead with ongoing efforts by the Trump administration and its allies to suppress and undermine the votebias the censusdeny election results, and unleash vigilante violence. But over the next two months there are important questions for our divided Congress, including how to address a possible government shutdown (with the CR ending in early December) and whether there will be a COVID relief bill. The US just reported the highest number of COVID infections in a single day. Had the US handled the pandemic in a similar fashion to South Korea, for example, only 2,800 people would have died thus far. The US is on track for 400,000 deaths in aggregate by the start of February, although the number of anticipated deaths would decrease by 100,000 if everyone wore masks. On the economic front, Sen. McConnell made clear he didn’t want a COVID relief bill before the election because, we think, it would force his senators to take electorally-sensitive votes and could push back the Barrett nomination; we wonder about the human toll of the delay.

Speaking of Judge Barrett, the Senate Judiciary Committee ignored its own rule (Rule III(1)) that requires two members of the minority party to be present to constitute a quorum for transacting business, and Sen. Schumer’s point of order that would have protected the rights of Committee members was voted down on the Senate floor 53-44. We’ve discussed previously the vast irregularities of the Senate proceedings concerning Judge Barrett, which Senate Democrats have highlighted by forcing the Senate majority to work its will without the usual consent granted by the minority. For all intents and purposes, Sen. McConnell has transformed the Senate into a majoritarian institution. Should Democrats take control of the Senate, the big question is whether members of that party will stay as united on protecting their agenda as Sen. McConnell has gotten his members to stay united in protecting his.

How will we know if the Dems are serious? I can’t say for sure, but an early sign will be whether Sen. Feinstein returns as chair of the Judiciary Committee. The alignment of capable committee chairs to Democratic priorities is a significant indicator of their seriousness to move forward an agenda — which will depend on how they structure their (still secret) caucus rules.

Let’s give McConnell the last word on this today. “A lot of what we’ve done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election. They won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”

Continue reading “Forecast for October 26, 2020”

Forecast for October 19, 2020

THE TOP LINE

Thursday. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a meeting to consider the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barret on Thursday. In addition, there’s a growing effort to push Sen. Feinstein out as the Committee’s Democratic leader after she poorly handled the proceedings. I have a lot to say on what’s happened, so please read Barrett, Graham, Feinstein, and de Tocqueville.

COVID deal fake-out. The negotiations are just for show and the upcoming Senate vote is cynical. Speaker Pelosi missed her chance back in the spring to insist on different priorities, and everything has ineluctably followed from that.

House Dem leadership election dates are set for November 18th and 19th, the first week the House comes back in session after the election, with votes for contested committee chairs on the 30th. (Anyone know the dates for the Senate or House Rs?)

House Rules. We hosted a webinar on how the House of Representatives will consider updating its rules and some of the ideas under consideration. Check out the video and the slides from the presentation. We summarized the proposals put forward by Members of Congress before the House Rules committee to modernize the House rules. Here are our ideas.

Party rules. After the election, the parties will hold elections and transact a lot of other business. House DemocratsHouse Republicans, and Senate Republicans now post their party rules; Senate Dems seemingly do not. We ran down (as far as we could) who gets to appoint committee members, i.e., those who are on the House Democratic Steering Committee and Republican Steering Committee, although we don’t have the full list. We don’t know who serves in that capacity in the Senate. And we had no luck at all in obtaining the rules of procedure for the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. More on the chair races below.

Continue reading “Forecast for October 19, 2020”

Forecast for October 12, 2020

Welcome to a shorter-than-normal First Branch Forecast. You might notice that we get more political than usual at parts of this week’s newsletter. Our focus is on a strong and capable legislative branch, and I can’t think of a more honest way to present the material. I hope it still provides useful insights.

THE TOP LINE
The Senate Judiciary Committee holds the first day of its norm-defying SCOTUS confirmation hearing for Judge Barrett this morning. How might it play out? We hosted a discussion late last week with experts on Senate procedure that you can watch here.

No COVID relief. Pres. Trump now says he wants a relief bill coming in above $2.2T while Senate Republicans are below $1T. What this means is that Pres. Trump wants to campaign on non-existent COVID relief (to rally the stock market) and Senate R’s are leery about getting primaried in 2022 for supporting the measure. This might be the start of the post-Trump era in the Senate (but not necessarily post-Trumpism).

Wait, what? Yeah, certain Senate Republicans are gingerly putting distance between themselves and the president, and we can all speculate why. My cynical view is that the absence of a significant COVID-relief bill; the failure to advance approps, the upcoming CR fight, and possible government shut-down; and a rushed effort to remake the SCOTUS are all tacit recognition by Senate R leadership of a likely Biden administration and Democratic Congress. In short, I think they are setting up time bombs to blow up the transition and sink the incoming administration.

Continue reading “Forecast for October 12, 2020”

Forecast for September 21, 2020.

THE TOP LINE

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died. 93 minutes after the Supreme Court announced her death, Majority Leader McConnell tweeted that President Trump’s nominee — whomever it may be — will get a vote on the Senate floor. Within 24 hours, supporters at a Pres. Trump rally were shouting “fill the seat.” This is indisputably a flip-flop for Sen. McConnell and the GOP compared to their position on Merrick Garland; we note that that voting has already begun in the presidential election and the timing of the announcement is ghoulish.

• I don’t know whether ex nihilo the presumption should be in favor of presidents being unable to fill Supreme Court nominations prior to a presidential election, but Sen. McConnell created that rule, applied it, and will now violate it. This decision blows up what’s left of Senate norms—rules, precedents, and personal relationships—to gain a multi-generational advantage on the Supreme Court for the purpose of changing the Court’s decisions on settled (but politically contentious) issues. The composition of the Senate locks-in these anti-democratic outcomes.

• At the same time, Sen. McConnell is moving the Senate towards a pseudo-majoritarian institution where individual senators have little real say—not that the Senate has been at the forefront of legislating under his leadership, as he has acted largely as an appendage and protector of the Trump administration and an antagonist of the prior Obama administration. (By pseudo-majoritarian, I mean that 51 senators constitute a ruling block while those same senators represent a minority of the American population.) Sen. McConnell’s actions have weakened the legitimacy of the courts and Congress and are collapsing politics into a Manichean fight concerned with helping your friends and hurting your enemies.

• So far, the only semblance of a practical response I have seen for Senate Democrats was proposed by David Sirota, who describes tactics Dems could use to grind the Senate to a halt to block a Trump appointment. Unlike Sen. McConnell, who “shut down the lower court confirmation process” during the Obama administration, Senate Democrats under Pres. Trump have let nominations go through time after time. Norms are real only when everybody adheres to them. What will the Democratic response look like? Will they stop all activity except for essential legislation? According to Roll Call on Friday, their plan is talk, not action. But, last night Sen. Schumer stood alongside Rep. Ocasio-Cortez as she called on Democrats to “use every single available procedural tool available to us” to buy time in the Senate to stop the nomination.

Meanwhile, will the government shut down? 10 more days until the government shuts down or puts a continuing resolution in place. According to CRS, 117 CRs were enacted from FY1998 to FY2019, with an average duration of 39 days; there were only 3 year-long CRs (in FY2007, FY2011, and FY2013). The House Rules Cmte meets today to queue up a vote on a short-term spending bill. According to BGOV, Ds and Rs have all-but-agreed on a December 11th timeline. That seems crazy to us: what incentive would a departing Trump administration have to keep the government open should the Dems take political control? We realize Dems have moved the deadline forward in exchange for a policy win, but this is playing with fire.

Coronavirus relief is a key issue in the waning days of Congress as the number of dead in the U.S. has passed 200,000 and Pres. Trump admitted to lying to the American people about the danger of the illness. A little while back, Senate Republicans put out a political base-covering proposal that quickly failed in that chamber; members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus recently put out their own $1.5B plan. Most committee chairs rejected the latter’s proposal outright, saying “When it comes to bolstering the public health system, supporting state and local governments, and assisting struggling families, the Problem Solvers’ proposal leaves too many needs unmet…. [T]heir proposal also abandons our responsibility to protect the life of our democracy.” It is bad politics to undercut the negotiating position of the House, so of course Pres. Trump rushed to praise the plan without endorsing it. Spkr. Pelosi is not a fan of the Problem Solvers plan, but it did push her to say the House will remain in session until a COVID deal is reached. As the House usually holds pro forma meetings, I’m not sure what that means.

The Senate must modernize; to prepare for the next session of Congress, we released a report with over 80 recommendations to make the Senate more efficient, effective, transparent, and inclusive. They cover six categories, including strengthening floor and committee deliberations, modernizing operations and transparency, improving staff onboarding and retention, increasing ethical practices, improving technology and cybersecurity, and managing Congress as an institution. This parallels our recent recommendations to update the House’s rules.

Congress’s unfinished business, at least from our perspective, includes at least 30 good government bills we think should cross the finish line. So far 13,107 bills have been introduced this Congress and 158 have been enacted into law. We helpfully broke our list down by bill status.

The Library of Congress held its legislative information access virtual forum on September 10th. If you weren’t able to attend, we have a comprehensive recap of the presentations, panels, and Q&A. We were impressed by the panelists willingness to engage and the thoughtfulness of many of their answers. As you might expect, we had our list of issues we hope will be addressed. One take-away for bill-drafters out there: in some circumstances the Library will not act without the direction of Congress, including improving public access to CRS reports and providing an API for legislative data.

Continue reading “Forecast for September 21, 2020.”

Forecast for September 14, 2020

THE TOP LINE

More should be happening. We are 16 days away from the end of the fiscal year; COVID-19 is everywhere and not going away any time soon; wildfires are burning on the west coast; the Executive branch is unabashedly flouting the law; and senior congressional leaders are raising concerns Pres. Trump will not peacefully transition power should he be defeated and is working to undermine elections. The skinny Senate COVID-19 bill was defeated — its major purpose was blame-shifting and incumbent protection — and Senate Rs are saying no deal is possible until after the election (if then).

The House & White House are working towards a “clean CR,” with one big open question as to when it will expire. The “clean” description is an acknowledgement that it won’t address any of the aforementioned problems and that House Dem Leadership miscalculated around the first (and subsequent) COVID-19 relief bills. Should Dems agree to let the CR expire in December, they could be setting up a government shutdown that could last a month or longer, undermining what they hope would be the start of the Biden administration.

In the House this week, the Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act of 2020 (HR 4894) is one of 31 bills on suspension, with a few additional bills set for floor debate. There are 18 committee meetings scheduled, including a House Oversight markup that should advance the PLUM Act (HR 7107). The former requires all agency Congressional Budget Justifications to be online in a central location; the later would transform the Plum Book into a living, digital document.

The Senate floor, meanwhile, will spend Monday focused on another judicial nomination. 17 committee meetings are currently scheduled.

For your calendar: Tuesday is the International Day for Democracy, and Brazil’s Bussola Tech is holding an international conference (with English translation) on the experience of 20 parliaments in transforming their legislatures during COVID-19. House Deputy Clerk Bob Reeves will be representing the U.S. House of Reps. RSVP here. Thursday is Constitution Day. Friday is the start of Rosh Hashana.

Transitions. Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) will resign in October; he is the co-chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. While waiting for a new member to take office, the House Clerk will be responsible for keeping the lights on. House Parliamentarian Tom Wickham is retiring, and will be succeeded by his deputy, Jason Smith.

Continue reading “Forecast for September 14, 2020”

Forecast for September 9, 2020.

Did you miss us? Welcome back to the First Branch Forecast! August was surprisingly busy so we have a pretty robust newsletter for you. Keep your eyes on appropriations, COVID-relief, the NDAA, the upcoming House Rules process, possible reforms in the Senate, and Executive branch efforts to undermine Congress.

We put six months of effort into our House rules recs; we know that Zander and Tim put a ton of effort into their new report on Congressional Brain Drain; and there’s so much more. Don’t hesitate to click on the links and let us know what you think.

THE TOP LINE

Congress is returning: no House votes are scheduled this week; the Senate is voting on a skinny coronavirus relief bill this week — but even if it passes the Chamber it’s not likely to go far ($). The House’s proxy voting emergency period was extended until October 2nd; this was a critical safety move as the number of covid cases on Capitol Hill surpasses 100, and Congress works through must-pass bills.

Continue reading “Forecast for September 9, 2020.”

Forecast for August 17, 2020.

THE TOP LINE

In and Out. The House and Senate were “officially” out until September — officially as of this past Friday — with fewer than a dozen voting days remaining in the House until the government shuts down. Fyi, the Senate has yet to move an approps bill. (Send me what we should call the COVID-CR-Approps-Postal omnibus.)

Just when you thought they were out, they pull you back in! Mid-day on Sunday, the Democratic members in both chambers who lead committees with jurisdiction over the Post Office and elections, plus party leaders, requested the Postmaster General testify before the House Oversight Committee on August 24 at 10 a.m.. They also asked that he provide documents by August 21. Will this be in person, remote, or a hybrid? Will he show? Well… apparently the House now will be in session later this Saturday (to pass a postal bill.)  I hope it’s remote. (Sorry to those who had already left for a well-deserved vacation.)

There are no remote deliberation measures in place in the Senate, so we led a coalition letter urging leadership to implement remote measures, you know, just in case.

Appropriators requested the Library of Congress meet with public stakeholders in last year’s House Leg. Branch Appropriations report; the Library announced the public forum will take place September 10th. RSVP.

Senate cafeteria workers are facing layoffs.

Continue reading “Forecast for August 17, 2020.”

Forecast for August 10, 2020.

THE TOP LINE

The House and Senate are basically out — with a skeleton crew staying in DC until a Coronavirus deal is struck or they give up. Members have been told they have 24-hours notice to return for a vote. Talks have apparently failed; this weekend the president took executive actions of dubious utility and questionable legality in an effort to make law. Sen. McConnell endorsed those actions, further undermining the Senate as an institution.

Senators want federal employees to be safe and are pushing agencies to offer maximum telework, but does that apply to Legislative Branch employees? Staff and employees are reporting to work in person — sometimes against their will — which is unsafe and unwise. Worse, the cleaning supply budget ran out a month ago, we don’t know how the Architect is managing ventilation, and until this month masks weren’t required anywhere. It’s a mess.

• The disregard for safety by some Members and staff is sufficiently egregious that staff are talking to the press, and Capitol Hill residents are worried about COVID exposure from proximity to Congress. Like we’ve said since March, remote Congress is the safest option.

COVID accelerated some Congressional modernization, but what’s next? Can it be that the House will go back to paper processes when the pandemic is over? We’ve seen some reports suggesting exactly that. House leadership should make clear they won’t backslide.

Senate Appropriators decide where billions of dollars will be spent. Markups, like hearings, should be open to the public and press. With restricted access to the Capitol and tight quarters in meeting rooms, the only way that’s possible is through live video — at least that’s what we (and our friends) think. Appropriators are resisting that call, in contradiction to direction from Senate Rules. As you might recall, Foreign Relations got a tongue-lashing on this topic, too.

Proxy voting won big in federal district court, which held the Speech or Debate clause does not permit a lawsuit against that practice. The result is good news. BUT the legal theory could create problems down the road. More immediately below.

Continue reading “Forecast for August 10, 2020.”

Forecast for August 4, 2020.

THE TOP LINE

Safety first? Rep. Gohmert’s positive COVID-19 test sparked outrage across the Hill, prompting a belated mask mandate in the House, inaction (what else!?!) in the Senate, a possible member-to-member transmission, and countless staffers and aides telling reporters about a backlash from senior staff/Members for wearing masks in their offices or requesting to work remotely. We wrote a letter on March 12 to Congress that included a recommendation to prioritize the health and safety of the public, staff, press, and lawmakers. For now, chamber rules should require remote work unless you absolutely have to be there; chamber and committee proceedings should be remote; Congress should use tech to substitute for paper processes; limited occupancy + masks should be mandated; social distancing is a must; and expanded testing seems prudent. This can’t be a dead letter, either: there needs to be real enforcement.

Appropriation bills continue to move forward in the House, with 10 of 12 passing the lower chamber. Homeland Security was pulled from the mini-bus. Meanwhile, the Senate has yet to schedule its approps markups. (BGOV)

Supplemental funding for Legislative Branch operations was included in the Senate COVID response bill. But the Leg Branch Approps bill has yet to get a House vote.

The Fix Congress Committee released its fourth round of recommendations aimed at improving congressional operations. Several recommendations were created to address the challenges that Members and staff are facing while teleworking during the pandemic.

Frank no more. The COMMS Act, H.R.7512, championed by Rep. Susan Davis, which changes how the Franking Privilege works, passed the House on Thursday. It contains a number of significant reforms. Earlier this year, the House began publishing advisory opinions online and updated the communications standards manual.

Continue reading “Forecast for August 4, 2020.”

Forecast for July 27, 2020

THE TOP LINE

CODA — Covid, Defense, and Approps — are the “must pass” summer blockbuster legislation (we miss movies) that lurched forward in both chambers. Sort of. But how does it end? We’re betting there will be sequels.

11 of the 12 appropriations bills passed or are scheduled for a vote in the House. The Senate has made no apparent progress: senate bills have yet to be considered in committee and the fiscal year ends September 30. A continuing resolution is pretty much inevitable, and CRs themselves incur significant costs to agencies.

Congress did not fund itself. The Legislative Branch approps bill was the only approps bill (so far) not set for House floor consideration

The NDAA passed the House and Senate (each chamber considered about 750 amendments), but those two versions now have to be reconciled. Plus the President indicated he may veto because of renaming bases.

The Senate failed to release its latest coronavirus relief package. House Dems are pushing to pass by July 31, i.e., this Friday, when the enhanced federal unemployment payments end, to which Leader McConnell laughed. As of this writing, 146,000 Americans have died.

Congressman John Lewis will lie in state at the Capitol. Details here.

Continue reading “Forecast for July 27, 2020”