First Branch Forecast: January 18, 2021

THE TOP LINE
The insurrection is not over. The likelihood of violence at federal and state capitals across the country and ongoing organizing by white nationalists means the danger of immediate political violence has not passed even as the national guard and local police forces are on high alert. Meanwhile, the Twitter pundits who tittered that the sacking of the Capitol Building was a mere beer hall putsch have come to acknowledge the attackers were better armed, better organized, and more dangerous than they had ever guessed — and came within moments of decapitating the legislature and murdering the presidential line of succession.

Too many officials in the Republican party, meanwhile, are still giving aid and comfort to the enemies of democracy. Only ten House Republicans voted (232-197) to remove Donald Trump from power. Outgoing Sen. Majority Leader McConnell rebuffed Sen. Schumer’s request to immediately reconvene the Senate, ensuring a removal vote cannot happen while Trump is in office. Sen. McConnell, a political Von Hindenburg who used Trump’s popularity with the base to move his ultra-conservative political agenda, has found his party’s beholdenness to the feckless aspiring autocrat is now imperiling corporate support for his party and slightly slowing the revolving door. Consequently, Sen. McConnell belatedly hinted his openness to Trump’s removal in order to restore corporate support, which is (also belatedly) being cut off to the party and major conservative groups as donors realize the danger to their brands. There’s talk that some Republicans voted against removing Trump out of fear for their physical safety, although many likely were focused on their political well-being; meanwhile Sen. McConnell is using the Trump removal effort to hinder the incoming Biden administration.

The big lie, “stop the steal,” nurtured by many Republicans, is an inversion of reality: the real fraud is the decades-long voter suppression efforts that arise from gerrymandering and efforts to disenfranchise minority, younger, and less wealthy voters. We know this, in part, because we have the secret files of the guy who led this effort. Voter purges, witness intimidation, ID requirements, and gerrymandering are rooted in Jim Crow practices and a long history of American violence aimed at subverting our political institutions. Those who wish to argue #bothsides on this matter need only to consider the 138 House Republicans and 7 Senate Republicans who voted — in the midst of the sacking of the Capitol — to exclude votes by the state of Pennsylvania in determining the presidential winner. The 8 Senate Republicans who voted to ignore the election — Sens. Cruz, Hawley, Hyde-Smith, Kennedy, Lummis, Marshall, Scott, and Tuberville — surely have fellow travelers among their colleagues, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is actively working to undermine Trump’s removal. In the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s former boss and mentor, Rep. Bill Thomas, went on TV to excoriate Rep. McCarthy, calling him a “hypocrite” for supporting “the phony lies the president perpetuated.”

There is a direct line between Charlottesville and #bothsides to “stop the steal” and sedition. Members of the mob had maps, weapons, two-way radios, military and police training, and some say they had inside help… including, potentially, from Members of Congress. We can see they were encouraged — some would say incited — to violence: the unhinged rantings of a handful of particularly vocal Qanon-friendly House and Senate Republicans were buttressed and often echoed by leadership. The willingness to physically contest even the most simple rules, such as mask requirements and gun prohibitions on the chamber floor, suggest some members inside Congress are engaged in agitprop, looking to the mob to elevate their political fortunes.

The city on the hill. And so on Wednesday, Pres.-elect Biden will take the oath of office, surrounded by 1,000 supporters, ringed by 20,000+ security personnel, and that morning Trump will flee the crime scene. Various Inspectors General and congressional committees are spinning up investigations of what happened — we joined a panel discussion on this topic on Friday — and the work to repair our democracy will begin even as 7 in 10 Republicans believe his election was fraudulent and those out of power plot for 2022, 2024, and beyond. For our part, we will continue to focus on improving Congress’s ability to do its job, government accountability, and rebuilding our democracy.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast: January 18, 2021”

First Branch Forecast: January 11, 2020

We are overwhelmed and you are too. If you are feeling like you need to talk to someone, call the national suicide helpline at 800-273-8255. You can call even if you are just feeling powerful emotions. It’s perfectly okay to do so. Congressionals can reach out to the Office of Employee Assistance (there’s a recent Dear Colleague with contact info).

Seriously, friends. I’ve seen the faces of the journalists and the staffers who are on the hill — and those who watched in horror from elsewhere. You look just like those of us who were on the hill for 9/11 and the anthrax attacks. I can see it in the flat affect. Do not try to power through. Do not wait because you think someone else needs help more. Do not push it aside even if you were not there in person. It’s okay to find someone to talk to. Tell them I sent ya.


THE TOP LINE

A mob whipped up by President Trump, abetted by his allies in Congress and fed with years of lies, sacked the U.S. Capitol. The well-armed insurrection, which included former members of the military, current local law enforcement, and white nationalists, resulted in a handful of deaths and a near miss in an effort to decapitate the Legislative branch. The noose and gallows erected outside the Capitol building makes clear what would have happened had they managed to capture members of Congress.

The House will impeach Donald Trump because a futile effort to get his hand-picked cabinet enablers to invoke the 25th amendment is destined to fail. Senator McConnell is trying to prevent the effort, claiming it will waste a lot of time in the Senate, but that’s just nonsense. Sen. McConnell had no problem speeding through impeachment in 2019. There are no material contested facts now. Any delay would be the height of foolishness.

Accountability. Just this past Monday, a week ago today, in response to calls for impeachment, House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries said “We’re not looking backwards, we’re looking forward.” If only he could have looked forward to Wednesday (or learned from history, where politicians have made the exact same mistake). Friends, accountability is always backward looking. A key job of Congress is accountability! How many committees are focused on oversight? You must learn from the past, hold people accountable, and fix the problems — and only by doing that can you stop those bad things from happening again. In Rep. Jeffries’ defense, he was taking the party line from his leadership, even as the rank-and-file knew that you can’t move on until you clean up the current mess.

Unity. We are hearing the old chestnut that America needs to unify — the siren song of those who want to evade accountability. Despite the catastrophic events, six GOP Senators and 138 House Members voted to object to the state election certifications, which were not in doubt by any fair minded person. A snap poll suggested that 45% of Republicans “approve of the storming of the Capitol building.” If Sen. McConnell had a majority in the Senate, and thus the ability to block measures from going to the floor, what would be the consequences for Pres.-elect Biden’s nominees or any substantive legislation to redress what has happened? Unity can only come after doing the right thing, which starts with impeachment and removal.

No one could have seen this coming? Nonsense. While few in the press (except Roll Call) paid attention, we’ve been focusing on problems with the Capitol Police since 2018. In a July 2019 document outlining our questions for the USCP, we raised the concern that “resources are being deployed away from protecting the Capitol, which could create security vulnerabilities.” There are major structural problems with how Congress manages itself that go far beyond the USCP — as readers of our newsletter know — and in the USCP context, they are compounded by a lack of transparency and accountability. We applaud Chairs Ryan and Lofgren and RM Davis for taking this seriously before it was front-page news, but even they, champions that they are, were limited by political realities outside of their control. Maybe that will change. We stand ready to share what we have learned and observed with any committees of inquiry and with the press. But we will tell you this now: while Congress is woefully underfunded, the problem for the USCP was not insufficient resources. (By the way, if we were to identify entities that have performed badly over the years, the USCP’s Public Information Office is simply the worst we have ever encountered in government, and that is saying something.)

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast: January 11, 2020”

Forecast for January 3, 2021

THE TOP LINE

Welcome back, Congress. It’s like you never left. Did you miss us? If so, make sure you subscribe (and tell your friends.) Our back issues are here.

Tick Tock: On Friday (Jan.1), the Senate overrode the NDAA veto (even as Sen. McConnell killed the boost to COVID relief), and today the House and Senate convene for the 117th Congress. The House is expected to adopt its rules on Monday; the Georgia elections, which decide control of the Senate, are on Tuesday, as are the House’s consideration of several good government bills on suspension (including the Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act); the House and Senate (in joint session) will count the electoral college vote on Wednesday.

So what exactly is a continuing body? The Senate considers itself a continuity body and the House does not. What this means, in part, is that the House must re-establish its rules and committees at the start of each Congress, but the Senate doesn’t. And yet, the House somehow has common-law rules that guide some of its day-one procedures and began operating today, but some Senate committees cannot operate because they are missing their chairs and have yet to reach an operating agreement (pending the results of upcoming elections). Weird.

Continue reading “Forecast for January 3, 2021”

Forecast for December 21, 2020

THE TOP LINE

You gotta be kidding. We prep this newsletter during the week and finalize it over the weekend. Alas, there’s no way we could possibly evaluate what is in the appropriations + COVID bill(s) for you — and there’s no way most Members of Congress could know what they’re voting on, either. It looks like the negotiations took so long Congress will do a 24-hour CR for when the 2-day CR elapses Sunday at midnight. Details will leak out after House leadership informs members as to its contents (which, as of this writing, are sparse.)

There’s no way members of the House or Senate will have any idea of the details of what’s inside the bill (except, in broad strokes, what they’re told), they won’t have enough time to figure it out, and, even if they understood its contents, the political circumstances mean they won’t have the opportunity to amend or object. This is business as usual for leadership-controlled brinkmanship. Create an artificial cliff (like the end of a CR), wait until it is about to expire, put a holiday break on the other side, and jam a bill through.

COVID RELIEF? This entire COVID relief process has been madness. And the Washington Post’s report that White House staff talked outgoing Pres. Trump from proposing $2,000 stimulus checks while House Dems negotiated themselves down from $3T to less than $1T is ::chef’s kiss::. Political analysts suggest the main reason Sen. McConnell finally was willing to entertain any relief legislation was to avoid undermining elections in Georgia, in which Republican control of the Senate is at stake. If we were in Congress, it would be inappropriate to speculate on motives, but we are not. Our guess is Senate Republicans will block any future relief measures, at the strong encouragement of Sen. McConnell, banking on his belief that making things worse for Americans means that Pres.-elect Biden will get the blame.

Like an iceberg. The process by which Members are selected for committees is one of the most important — and opaque — processes in Congress. As that has been happening right now, we explore it down below.

Rules, rules, rules! We are very excited to see what emerges out of the House Rules Committee process, which will generate new rules for the 117th Congress. By now you know we have our wish list. We suspect our friends on the Rules Committee will be working right up until the deadline to get everything drafted. (Good luck!) While we’re at it, are any changes in store for the Senate?

Continue reading “Forecast for December 21, 2020”

Forecast for December 14, 2020

THE TOP LINE

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. I really don’t want to talk about the totally avoidable train-wreck that is the CR, approps omnibus, and COVID relief efforts, which are as infuriating as they are predictable. The latest contretemps are the natural consequence of institutional design and political incentives, shaped by those in power to maintain their power. It is not a story of political polarization; it is not a story of earmarks; it is not a story of a broken budget process; and it is not a story of #bothsides. The final result will be insufficient to the moment, directed by those at the top, and designed to preserve leadership’s control over the chambers, with the anti-governance folks having a veto over those who want to help people in the face of a pandemic claiming 3,100 lives daily. (Maybe I shouldn’t write these newsletters before drinking coffee?)

Intrigue. Behind the scenes, the deck chairs are being re-arranged with respect to the internal power structures in both chambers —

• House: We’ve already seen leadership elections and chair selections in the House (check out our leadership list), with committee appointments to come. The evaporating Democratic majority means a very close call for Speaker Pelosi — a(n unlikely) challenge might destabilize her re-election by the full chamber — and very tight margins over the next two years to move legislation (which likely will happen on a party-line basis). Meanwhile, the House is working to update its rules, which had important reforms last Congress and may contain additional welcome improvements; they may also reflect mechanisms to sustain majority control.

• Senate: Senate Democrats have been working to create a few more opportunities for members to serve as committee chairs (including two unusual but welcome updates to their (secret) caucus rules.) We don’t know what the Senate will look like until the outstanding Georgia elections are resolved. A shift from Sens. McConnell to Schumer, while unlikely, could unlock the possibility of much overdue reforms to that chamber and would make it possible to address aspects of our democracy that Sen. McConnell has worked for decades to unbalance.

Continue reading “Forecast for December 14, 2020”

Forecast for November 30, 2020.

THE TOP LINE

Agreement? House and Senate appropriators reached a bipartisan agreement last Tuesday on the 302b numbers — the amount of funding available for each appropriations subcommittee — but LOL, we won’t know these numbers until the bill is released. Is there a path to completing the omnibus on time? Kevin McCarthy announced he will oppose the deal ($) because it does not follow the (pre-COVID) 2019 budget cap agreement. So much for a veto-proof vote?

Committee vacancies and waivers — i.e., who can serve on which committee — can be a touchy subject, which is why we’re glad the CPCC has put together this handy compilation of expected House chair vacancies. This week will see movement in the House on who will fill the big chairs on AppropriationsForeign Affairs, and Agriculture. (How do they get chosen? We cover what we know of the House process, but we still don’t know all the members of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, who do the winnowing.) We’re also keeping our eyes on how the appropriations cardinals are chosen, but we don’t know when that will happen.

Senate committees are in limbo, including the ratio of majority to minority staff, awaiting the resolution of two senatorial elections in Georgia. WaPo’s Paul Kane described the consequences of three headless committees that can’t hold confirmation hearings, a senator who may lose his job for two days, and the potential for a lot of confusion. We previously wrote about how Senate committees get their funding and their funding levels, and CRS has more on historic ratios of Senators on committees.

Continue reading “Forecast for November 30, 2020.”

Forecast for November 16, 2020.

TOP LINE

The next two months will be a legislative train wreck. On deck are the FY 2021 spending bills, COVID relief, the NDAA, and a ton of pent-up legislation. Notably, Republican Senators finally released draft text for the FY 2021 spending bills with less than a month until a shutdown. In addition, new Members are in the middle of orientation, Senators just voted on leadership rosters and House Dems will be voting remotely on theirs, disputed Committee Chairs and party rules will be decided in short order, and on the horizon are a new House rules package and legislative planning for the 117th Congress… assuming any legislation moves.

Well, that’s settled. President Trump backhandedly recognized Pres. Biden’s election in a tweet this weekend that simultaneously falsely contested the election results as a “rigged.” He reversed himself in a subsequent tweet. Elections rumble on in Georgia while the incoming Biden administration is blocked from engaging with the agencies and getting classified briefings; also congressional Republican leadership still won’t publicly acknowledge Pres.-elect Biden.

Amid the COVID tsunami, the House Admin Committee certified the existence of secure tech tool for remote voting; the next step is the House Rules Committee promulgating regulations. The report is worth a read: it acknowledged problems with proxy voting; outlined steps the House took to support electronic processes; and covered the tremendous amount of work that’s happening remotely. It outlines a welcome process change: public reporting of floor votes in real time. Speaker Pelosi has not been a huge fan of remote voting, but maybe the increasing tempo required for legislating and the metastasizing pandemic will change her mind. We’ve been all over this issue: check out our resources page on Continuity of Congress and our many reports. In the meantime, the emergency proxy voting period has been extended through the end of the year.

Dinner theater. I probably shouldn’t highlight this, but House leadership had planned a nice dinner for new Members in Statuary Hall before receiving blowback because having Members eating together inside is not only poorly advised, it’s bad messaging. Please stay safe, everyone.

Before we jump in, if you’re new to our newsletter or are reading a forwarded email, why not subscribe? Also, don’t hesitate to drop us a line.

Continue reading “Forecast for November 16, 2020.”

Forecast For November 9, 2020.

Congratulations on making it through Election Week. We’re going to walk through what to expect during the interregnum and beyond, but first, if you’re new to our little newsletter or are reading a forwarded email, why not subscribe?

THE TOP LINE

In an unusual election cycle, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris have yet to be acknowledged as the winners of the presidential race by congressional Republican leaders (e.g. Sen. McConnell and Rep. McCarthy) amid Pres. Trump’s intentionally false claims of voter fraud and that he won the election — and Pres. Trump’s long standing unwillingness to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Somehow Democrats appear to have lost seats (largely more conservative Democrats) in the House despite massive fundraising and winning the presidential tally by 4 million votes; Dems also managed to narrow control in the Senate without taking over (with two races — in Georgia! — outstanding).

But you know all this. The apparent Democratic failure to take control of the Senate is unusual in historical terms, as an incoming president usually has a majority. While some say Senate Republicans will largely acquiesce to President-elect Biden on his nominees in light of a long history of Senate deference, others argue that Biden will need to pick folks who meet Republican litmus tests and should narrow his vision accordingly. There’s a third option: Biden can use recess appointments and the Vacancy Act to circumvent a Senate buzzsaw. With our majoritarian Senate, option 3 is the path of least resistance, although it reinforces historic trends of undermining Congress’s powers.

But that’s a fight for January 20th and there’s a lot that must happen in the next 72 days. There’s new member orientation, leadership elections, committee assignments, appropriations expiring on December 11th, a possible COVID economic relief bill, the NDAA, dozens of bills that are ready to become laws, and the adoption of House rules. Oh, and Congress has to certify the election results. LOL.

Continue reading “Forecast For November 9, 2020.”

Forecast For November 2, 2020.

THE TOP LINE

With so much attention on what will happen when voting wraps up tomorrow, our little newsletter will stay focused on what comes next. (But we will cover implications for Congress if, as Axios suggests is already in the works, Pres. Trump prematurely claims victory and tries to undermine vote counting.)

Money problems. Sen. McConnell said there won’t be a COVID deal during the lame duck, which comes after he told the White House he wouldn’t support a deal before the election. He’s likely protecting his members from taking tough votes that could hurt them in 2022 and trying to set up the next administration for failure. None of this bodes well for when the CR ends on December 11th. What will Sen. McConnell be focused on instead… do you have to ask?

Musical chairs. AFAICT, leadership races and chair elections are set for November. House Dems will hold caucus elections on Nov. 18-19, with contested committee races on Nov. 30. We don’t know the timing for everyone else, but we expect our journalist friends to cover that shortly in their curtain-raisers.

Fixing Congress. House Admin published a handful of Clerk and CAO reports on efforts to modernize the House. More below. Here are our ideas for fixing the House and Senate.

Continue reading “Forecast For November 2, 2020.”

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”