First Branch Forecast for August 14, 2023: House HR help

TOP LINE

Welcome to an abbreviated First Branch Forecast. We hope you’re on vacation and we’re looking forward to your creative OOO messages.

WHAT WE’RE READING/WATCHING

  • Congress shouldn’t create a new Pentagon slush fund, a commentary by William Hartung arguing that “using war spending to fund unrelated items was a bad idea during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is a terrible idea now.”
  • Planning for the Next Emergencies, a white paper from the R Street Institute’s Jonathan Bydlak that discusses “the expansion of emergency powers and emergency spending” as flip sides of the same overspending coin Congress must address.
  • What does the GAO do? A podcast with Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, hosted by AEI’s Kevin Kosar.
  • Federal agencies often overlook federal territories, but new legislation aims to fix that

CAREER PATHS

The House CAO’s Human Resources Hub announced the launch of new Member Office Career Paths, a career development resource for staff.

“Designed exclusively for House Member offices, this new resource provides career information for 16 Member office positions, organized within four primary career paths (Administrative, Communications, District, and Legislative).

House staff can use this resource as a guide to learn more about common Member office roles, responsibilities, and skills. Additionally, each career path contains helpful links to associated training opportunities and a host of potential career options.

The Office of the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) is dedicated to providing and expanding innovative resources to address all the unique aspects of House staffers’ jobs as we help shape the future development of House staff.

House staff who are connected to the House network may visit the Member Office Career Paths page at CareerPaths.house.gov to learn more. Questions and comments may be submitted to the HR Hub Team” at HouseHRHub@mail.house.gov.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for August 14, 2023: House HR help”

First Branch Forecast for August 7, 2023: Debt, Trump, and the Capitol Police

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It’s still recessThis week, we cover:

  • The credit rating downgrade and how to get out of that hole
  • Lessons from the federal Trump insurrection prosecution
  • The bicameral hearing into problems at the Capitol Police
  • And a smattering of other issues.

CREDIT DOWNGRADE

Our political leaders have managed to talk the markets into downgrading the US credit rating because of the inane debt ceiling.

“The rating downgrade of the United States reflects the expected fiscal deterioration over the next three years, a high and growing general government debt burden, and the erosion of governance relative to ‘AA’ and ‘AAA’ rated peers over the last two decades that has manifested in repeated debt limit standoffs and last-minute resolutions.”

The proximate cause, we suspect, is the far right’s control over McCarthy and the flailing appropriations process. The Speaker is hostage to their whims and they’re using the debt ceiling for a variety of purposes. Some, it appears, may actually welcome the chaos of going over the cliff. Because negotiation with people who keep moving the goalposts is virtually impossible to successfully conclude, the result is a cycle of crisis and self-inflicted injury.

We also note that congressional Democrats, when they had the chance, did not push legislation to eliminate the debt ceiling, despite a range of options. Certainly those who wanted to do more had no help from Sen. McConnell, nor from Pres. Biden. Some of the fault can be laid at the feet of Manchin and Sinema — who did waive it once. There’s also a host of Democrats who are either afraid of the politics because of the public’s misunderstanding of what the debt ceiling is or foolishly welcome it as an austerity measure.

For an example of an austerity framework, look no further than Bezos’s Washington Post editorial board, which proposes that the way forward is to sacrifice the poor and elderly. There’s nary a mention of ending the Trump tax cuts, or the Bush tax cuts, reducing the trillions in tax expenditures, or the nearly a trillion in defense spending.

If you’ve been around for any time at all, you know that funding cuts that happen under a Democratic president are followed by tax cuts under a Republican president. No one is actually serious about cutting the debt, assuming that’s even a policy goal we would want to pursue. One result of this bait and switch dynamic: “19 of America’s biggest companies paid little — or zero — income tax.’” The fight, as far as I can tell, is about who bears the tax burden and what exactly is funded.

Rep. Brendan Boyle has one right answer to addressing the creditworthiness downgrade and the debt ceiling standoff: allow the Treasury to continue paying the debt unless the Congress passes a resolution of disapproval. This is a workable approach, although it still puts too much trust in the president. The best answer, for which Rep. Boyle also has introduced legislation, is eliminate the debt ceiling entirely. Instead of doing that, congressional leaders decided not to force the issue in the 117th, and now, in addition to a ticking time bomb, we have a series of future debt rating downgrades and higher costs to look forward to.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for August 7, 2023: Debt, Trump, and the Capitol Police”

First Branch Forecast for July 31, 2023: What’s done and what’s left to do

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Recess is here, but it’s not an opportunity to breathe easier.

All 12 appropriations bills have been reported by the Senate Appropriations Committee, a first for the Senate in five years. Meanwhile, only 10 have made it out of the House Appropriations Committee gauntlet and there’s talk they won’t take up the other two. With the House wildly diverging downward from the debt agreement as the Freedom Caucus and friends push House leadership for un-enactable spending levels and poisonous policy riders, some members are predicting a government shutdown is coming. Even Republican appropriators are publicly disclosing their discomfort.

The FC was given a spreadsheet and asked to point to where they want to see cuts, and reached a $1.4T top line agreement. (McCarthy denies the existence of an agreement as he also denied a side agreement with the FC when taking power.) Meanwhile, the Senate top-line funding level is much higher and pushing for a multi-billion dollar plus-up that, entertainingly, is drawing complaints from the RSC as violating the debt deal.

Even if an agreement is reached among the factions in the House, is there time for the House to pass all of its appropriations bills before the end of September? There wasn’t time for Agriculture, which was postponed to September after being set for a floor vote this past week, leaving only one bill to have passed the House so far. The Senate surely won’t agree to the funding levels or the policy riders for the various bills, but are there enough Senate Republicans who will join with Democrats to move an appropriations bill forward in that chamber? The ability for a minority to block movement in that chamber could mean stagnation, even as Appropriators in that chamber have locked arms in favorably reporting their bills. We will be fascinated to see whether a Senate-led supplemental can work its way to the finish line. Its viability will be linked to parity.

The House has reneged on the idea of an open process around Appropriations but there will be the opportunity to offer amendments for the select few. We imagine August recess will be the time that folks go to legislative counsel to get everything drafted because appropriations bills will have to go quickly in September… assuming they go at all.

The National Defense Authorization Act is in similarly tough shape, with its text studded with far right culture war language. Mike Rogers, the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, pooh poohed the likelihood of the Senate accepting the House’s NDAA amendments. The amendment process in both chambers, but especially the Senate, has been opaque.

Both Appropriations and the NDAA are the major opportunities to move unrelated legislation that otherwise would be caught in the Senate mire, but this year’s process may not have done so to the same extent as in prior Congresses. (You can find some of those unrelated amendments in SA 1087, which amends SA 935, which amends the NDAA. This includes a foreign lobby reform bill, classification reform, and the entirety of the Intelligence Authorization Act. Good luck). This has implications for the amount of legislative proposals to become law.

The Architect of the Capitol was the subject of one Congress-related measure that did move through the Senate NDAA process, and it can be found buried in section 10,001 of the Reed substitute amendment, SA 935. It contains the text of the Architect of the Capitol Appointment Act of 2023, a bipartisan bicameral bill described in this press release and separately introduced as H.R. 3196. The amendment establishes a commission to appoint the AOC, authorizes the commission by majority vote to re-appoint or remove the Architect, requires the Architect to appoint a Deputy Architect within 120 days and allows for the commission to do so if the Architect does not, and allows the commission to designate an Acting Architect.

The measure is necessary because the previous Architect had lost the confidence of Congress through a series of major missteps, necessitating Pres. Biden to step in and remove the AOC. As there was no deputy AOC available, the Chief Engineer, Chere Rexroat, had to step in as the acting Architect of the Capitol. As we discuss in this blogpost, many senior Legislative branch agency heads are oddly appointed by or removable only by the president, or enjoy unlimited terms of office, and this is a first step to begin to rationalize the process.

Meanwhile, the House Administration Committee and Senate Rules Committee held a joint hearing into the Capitol Police Board, the first time all the Board members have testified together in eight decades. Naturally, we released a report into USCP/Board compliance with congressional and GAO recommendations. Surprise, surprise, it didn’t look good.

We found the Capitol Police and its Board have only closed two out of 11 GAO recommendations issued over the last few years. In addition, out of nine directives from Congress, we found non-compliance and or unclear compliance with four directives, full but belated compliance with two directives, and full and timely compliance with three directives.

We are working on a detailed write-up of the hearing and we will have it for you next week.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for July 31, 2023: What’s done and what’s left to do”

First Branch Forecast for July 24, 2023: The Unbearable Difficulty of Tracking NDAA Amendments

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The last business week before recess arrives with little sense of how the two chambers will come eye to eye on appropriations when they reconvene in September.

For your reading pleasure, we describe below the good news concerning civil liberties coming out of Congress as two important provisions cleared markups last week.

Also, the poor state of the US Capitol Police force’s transparency and accountability came into sharp focus last week when CHA held an oversight hearing with the department’s inspector general. Next up: an incredibly rare joint House-Senate oversight hearing with all members of the Capitol Police Board, the first since before the end of WWII.

This week both chambers are in session Tuesday through Friday. The Senate is scheduled to return from summer recess September 5, while the House is slated to return September 12. Unsurprisingly, the week ahead will be hectic.

Floor approval of the NDAA is the main focus for the Senate this week. How many amendments will be adopted among the hundreds offered? Any guesses?

The House will vote to approve two of the 12 appropriations bills — Agriculture-FDA and Military Construction-VA — this week, leaving it with 10 bills to complete in the 12 working days scheduled before the end of the fiscal year. Will leadership smush some bills into mini packages? Will a promised open floor amendment process melt away? Will far-right members’ in the House make things interesting? In the words of one member, FAFO.

In the committeesSenate Appropriations reminded the House that two chambers can play Calvinball. Senators Patty Murray and Susan Collins tacked on an additional $14 billion in supplemental funding in areas they concluded the House had “underfunded,” including aid to Ukraine. (It wasn’t an even split between defense and non-defense.)

After completing three markups last Thursday, the committee is shooting to complete its slate ahead of recess and wait for the House to come back to the toplines it’s agreed to.

In a measure of how that will go, the House Budget Committee may markup its FY 2024 resolution this week, setting toplines that are congruent with appropriators’ lower spending targets.

Reminder: We’re tracking the progress of appropriations bills in both chambers with this database. We also have a comprehensive listing of the items included in the Senate’s FY 2024 Leg Branch report language.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for July 24, 2023: The Unbearable Difficulty of Tracking NDAA Amendments”

First Branch Forecast for July 17, 2023: Summer of Minoritarian Legislating

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The NDAA is about to burst into flames like an unwatered Christmas tree, having passed the House by a bare 219-210. The appropriations bills have become a Barbenheimer of toplines and messaging amendments. Welcome to the summer of minoritarian legislating.

The Senate Appropriations Committee reported out the Legislative branch appropriations bill 30-0 mid-week, but the bill text and report unhelpfully didn’t come out until Friday morning as is par for the course in the world’s greatest deliberative body. We also discovered a Senate amendment to the NDAA that, if enacted, would allow members of Congress to censor information about themselves that’s published on the internet and would gag those who would publish it.

The demographic composition of Senate staff came into sharper focus through the release of data by Senate Democrats as part of their annual diversity study.

Outside organizations continue to support House progress on implementing Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress recommendations, with particular focus on casework data aggregation that would be exciting.

This week the House is in session Monday through Thursday and the Senate is in session Tuesday through Friday. The Senate may begin its NDAA authorization votes on Tuesday.

There’s quite a lot going on in committees as we dream about August recess:

USCP IG. On Wednesday, the Oversight Subcommittee of House Administration will call US Capitol Police Inspector General Ron Russo to testify. He’s been on the job only since the end of January. He was chosen by the Capitol Police Board, which under the agency’s leadership structure includes its chief of police and two Leg branch leaders in acting roles. Having the chief on the Board that hires the person charged with department oversight creates an obvious conflict of interest.

The IG is of particular interest because it has a new boss, it can provide an update on the series of “flash reports” it issued concerning failures at the Capitol Police, it still has not published its IG reports online as directed by appropriators (except for two), and there are important questions about whether it should have jurisdiction over the Capitol Police Board and independence from USCP Board members. We are continuing to track reports on the failures of the USCP and its Board and to monitor whether the USCP will implement FOIA-like provisions Congress has requested.

The Senate Judiciary Committee intends to vote Thursday on the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act, which would require the Supreme Court to adopt a code of conduct, allow for investigations for violations of the adopted code, and improve disclosure and transparency about Justices’ connections to parties before the court.

Senator Chris Van Hollen considered offering an amendment to the Senate FSGG appropriations bill to require a code of ethics as well, but withdrew it during the markup. Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin said he would prefer the Judiciary Committee move the issue. What we suspect happened was appropriators wanted to keep their bill bipartisan, and as Senate Republicans are denying the obvious scent of corruption, this was a face-saving way to do that and keep it in the news.

The House Appropriations Committee will hold its T-HUD markup Tuesday. Senate Appropriations will hold markups of Energy and Water, State and Foreign Operations, and T-HUD on Thursday, pushing its work to the three-quarters mark of bills. As a reminder, we are tracking all appropriations bills here.

If you thought the House Appropriations committee bills were going to be considered under an open rule of the House floor, well, that looks like that promise is “not operative.” What they meant by regular order was they regularly include a structured rule to provide order.

SENATE LEGISLATIVE BRANCH APPROPS

The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously (30-0) reported out the Legislative branch appropriations bill textmanager’s amendment, and committee report last Thursday. It appropriates $6.761 billion towards the Legislative branch, a 2% reduction from the $6.899 billion FY23 enacted level. This is slightly higher than the House’s topline number of $6.746 billion. We have a comprehensive examination of the Senate funding numbers, including a side-by-side comparing the House against the Senate, by our colleague Taylor Swift.

Some of the funding highlights include:

  • Senators’ Official Personnel and Office Expense Account (SOPOEA) — the account that pays staff salaries and operations — saw a 4.4% increase from FY23 to $534.5 million. This number is calculated in part based on a formula.
  • The Government Accountability Office saw a slight increase in funding, a $23.6 million increase to $813.9 million (+2.9%), although it is significantly below its historical funding levels when adjusted for inflation.
  • The Capitol Police combined salaries and expenses will receive an additional $57.9 million, or an 7.3% increase, from $734.6 million in FY23 to $792.5 million in FY24.
  • The Library of Congress saw salaries and expenses saw a 2.3% increase to $596.1 million.
  • The Congressional Research Service was also slightly increased to $136 million (+1.8%).
  • The Congressional Budget Office saw a decently large increase to $70.1 million (+10.9%).
Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for July 17, 2023: Summer of Minoritarian Legislating”

First Branch Forecast for July 10, 2023: The Pre-Recess Sprint

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Congress returns from the July 4th holiday and dives into a three-week sprint of work before the longer August recess. Appropriations bills remain the focus, with the Senate set to markup the Leg. Branch, CJS, and FSGG bills on Thursday. Look out for the proposed text perhaps the day before.

The NDAA is slated to hit the House floor this week. As usual, the bill will swell with amendments that couldn’t pass as stand-alone legislation because of the procedural sluice gates of leadership control and the filibuster. It’s a great way to run a country. This year is a bit more complex as social conservatives have drafted a number of amendments affecting military policy on topics like DEI training, abortion restrictions, and transgender service members’ access to healthcare and facilities, sticking Speaker Kevin McCarthy back between the vice of what he’s promised the House’s far right and what the Senate will pass.

Six FY 2024 funding bills have passed the full House Appropriations Committee so far. Four are yet to be introduced. Minority committee staff have pulled together this very helpful update on their status. We’re keeping a bit more detailed record of progress here. The House has a mere three weeks to complete this process before the August recess and is still $119 billion apart from the Senate’s total allocation, leading some in the majority to talk of a short CR to avoid a government shutdown.

Staff diversity writ large is a major issue for this appropriations season, as the House majority plans to fold the Office of Diversity and Inclusion into CAO. As we explore below, although this is preferable to getting rid of it entirely, it’s not clear how core functions of ODI will be retained in the reorganization.

This week the Senate is in session all five days while the House takes an extra day of recess Monday.

SURVIVING JULY

A tremendous amount of work remains to be done before the start of the August recess, after which the appropriations process enters the danger zone of the end of the fiscal year. The four bills that remain to be introduced in the House are usually high-touch affairs, like T-HUD and Labor-HHS. Also to be introduced is funding for the Justice Department, which the MAGA faction has indicated it will be preparing retaliatory strikes for the indictments of Donald Trump. (We still hope the bill will be used for appropriate executive branch accountability measures.)

The promise of open floor amendments from Speaker McCarthy still stands, and the far right faction that extracted it intends to hold him to it. The Senate will have its own vote counting to do when bills potentially ping-pong over if Republicans hold together.

Congressional leaders also intend to move forward with FAA reauthorization and the farm bill on top of the NDAA and appropriations packages during July. With the GOP united in negative agenda setting, particularly on food security programs, there’s not a policy goal here beyond how low can you go. Right now, this process is still being driven by the maximalist faction of the GOP coalition. McCarthy just hopes to survive, but they can precipitate a floor strike at any moment as they did immediately after the debt limit deal.

The contours of this summer’s factional battle are becoming evident off the floor. In late July, Freedom Works will release a hagiographic look back at the speakership fight with a documentary featuring interviews with the leaders of the McCarthy hostage takers. It will attempt to set that faction as the conservative standard.

Meanwhile, the House Freedom Caucus ejected Marjorie Taylor Greene this week, nominally for calling Rep. Lauren Boebert a mean word but really because she has allied with McCarthy, part of his (or perhaps her?) divide-and-conquer strategy. The move will get hoots from the audience, but traditional Republicans still are not on the playing field.

DIVERSITY AND CONGRESSIONAL FUNDING

Intern pay stability

Pay Our Interns, Demand Progress, and a coalition of other organizations requested Senate appropriators include at least $7 million for committees for intern compensation. The House provides transparency and certainty through such a pool available to its committees. In its absence, our colleague Taylor Swift explains, Senate committees themselves carve pay for interns out of existing budgets, which may run out and leave interns in the lurch. Intern and staff pay should not be in competition. This uncertainty affects Senate offices’ ability to attract talent that cannot work for free, undermining the diversity of entry-level staff.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for July 10, 2023: The Pre-Recess Sprint”

First Branch Forecast for 6/26/23 – Teeing Up a Busy July

TOP LINE

This week Congress starts its two-week Independence Day holiday. We’re hoping to take next week off from writing our little newsletter, but we’ll be back.

Among the highlights from this past week:

  • Senate Appropriators adopted 302(b) allocations that are very different from the House’s untenable numbers, but with many Republican defections
  • the National Defense Authorization Act got a full committee markup in the House
  • the Leg Branch Approps bill was reported by the full Appropriations Committee with a few culture-war amendments
  • a resolution to allow for unions in the Senate was introduced by Sen. Brown
  • the Congressional Data Task Force discussed significant efforts to modernize congressional technology
  • the PRESS Act was introduced in both chambers
  • OMB released guidance for the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act.
Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for 6/26/23 – Teeing Up a Busy July”

First Branch Forecast for June 20, 2023: Approps Heats Up

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After a House Administration Subcommittee hearing focused on the personal rather than the institutional aspects of the Office of Congressional Ethics, we take a deeper look at why that office is vital to an ethical Congress.

Congressional unions scored an historic win for committee staff and others.

This week both chambers are in session through Friday after the Juneteenth holiday.

The full Senate Appropriations Committee plans to complete markups for the Agriculture and MilCon/VA bills at the funding levels set by the debt ceiling agreement, teeing up a conflict with House Republicans who are reneging on the deal. Meanwhile, House Appropriators will have a full committee markup on Wednesday for Leg Branch and Homeland Security, and on Thursday a full committee markup for Defense and Energy & Water.

Senate Armed Services Committee will have a series of closed hearings on the NDAA while the House will hold its markup of the bill Wednesday morning.

The Congressional Data Task Force will hold a quarterly meeting on Thursday from 2-4 PM in B-248/B-249 Longworth. If you care about congressional data, this open meeting is for you. RSVP and catch up on what happened in March.

A bipartisan quartet of members have circulated a Dear Colleague letter inviting cosponsors for the PRESS Act, an important journalist shield law, which the House passed unanimously last Congress but was blocked by a lone senator on a spurious basis. In light of the recent death of American hero Daniel Ellsberg, who told the truth about Vietnam at the risk of his freedom, we should make sure that the government cannot compel the press to spill on their sources.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for June 20, 2023: Approps Heats Up”

First Branch Forecast for June 12, 2023: Who’s the boss?

TOP LINE

This week. The House and Senate are in and we will see whether Republican House leadership regains control of the floor. (We discuss the power struggle in more detail in the next section.)

We expect to see top-line appropriations numbers in the House, a few (big) appropriations markups, and NDAA subcommittee markups in that chamber; the Senate will be holding appropriations hearings. There’s also a notable Tuesday House Administration Oversight Subcommittee hearing on the Office of Congressional Ethics, a Wednesday Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on providing a code of conduct for Supreme Court justices, and a Wednesday Senate HSGAC hearing on reducing duplication.

The Congressional Research Service has a new interim leader, Bob Newlen, after the ousting of Dr. Mazanec by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. People following CRS closely, like us, have been aware of major deficiencies in senior management for years. This transition provides an opportunity for that agency to better serve Congress. More on CRS below.

We have more to say on the topic of ethics and the Office of Congressional Ethics below, but first here’s a new, bipartisan letter from 35 civil society organizations and individuals released this morning concerning OCE and its upcoming hearing. Read all about it.

The Congressional Transparency Caucus is holding a coffee hour Tuesday morning from 8:30-9:30 at CVC 217. Hear from Rep. Quigley and friends from civil society while you munch on breakfast pastries. RSVP here.

FWIW, we expect Tuesday will be a great day, no, a huge day — the best day — to bury bad news.

THE HOUSE’S POWER STRUGGLE

Washington is so accustomed to command-and-control congressional leadership that it sometimes forgets there are other protagonists in the story of legislative sausage-making. By voting down a rule for the first time since Dance Punk was a thing, 11 MAGA faction Republicans brought the work week to an end on Wednesday, reasserting their prerogatives and underscoring their procedural power. A faction waved off as subdued last week hasn’t gone anywhere, and sticking together deprives Speaker Kevin McCarthy the control he musters only through party unity.

There are different definitions of “unity” at work among the conference. Rep. Dan Bishop said it was McCarthy that blew up GOP unity over the debt limit deal by swapping “one coalition partner for another.” Bishop’s statement suggests a view of equal partnership between a distinct MAGA faction and mainline GOP cemented last January over an agreement on hard-right policy positions. Bishop’s crew reportedly are particularly angry that successfully placing Rep. Thomas Massie on the Rules Committee did not achieve those results on the debt limit because he dared to choose governing over factional loyalty.

So far in his tenure, McCarthy has acted much like any other modern Speaker, although we know little about the side deals he made in return for his high position. The MAGA faction reasserted itself, ironically enough, on a messaging bill about an appliance that produces hot air. More substantive bills will follow, as will the appropriations package with much higher toplines (at the moment) than the faction aimed for. This obstructionism could continue.

While leadership loathes this kind of behavior, these members don’t seem to care. Nor should they: Procedural power is real power and they shouldn’t be willing to cede it, even though most members do. So again, we’re in a situation where a faction is behaving in ways that theoretically benefit the institution by creating more member agency and breaking through dictatorial leadership, but with extreme minoritarian intent. (Do they think they are senators?) The MAGA folks want to dictate the terms and vote no when they don’t get everything. So long as McCarthy thinks in terms of party unity, he will be squeezed hard.

Procedure, of course, could be used just as well to isolate the obstructors and move issues where there is majority of member support but perhaps not unity inside the majority. Acting in unison, center-right Republicans have the same veto powers, as well as mechanisms like discharge petitions. Democratic leadership, again prioritizing unity and personal interests, seem content to let Republicans collectively twist. It’s a missed opportunity for Democratic members to gain some positive political power in the House.

There is space for creative politicking around the McCarthy-MAGA binary on things that actually would pass the Senate. Or McCarthy could redefine unity to exclude the MAGA faction and reinterpret them as a coalition partner, but not the only one. (Yes, that’s highly unlikely in an overt way.)

As mentioned above, the immediate challenge is restarting appropriations work post-debt limit with the MAGA faction still stewing about not rolling back spending to FY 2022 levels. Note, however, that their role is not necessarily to reach a legislative goal, but to move the Overton window for this and future negotiations. They may never be “satisfied.”

Four bills that were marked up before the debt limit deal are ready to go, including Leg branch. Indeed, it appears we can anticipate a full committee markup on June 13th for MilCon-VA and June 14th for Agriculture, with Subcommittee markups on June 15th for Defense and Energy & Water. (More full committee markups are expected for June 21-23.) Some House members and the Senate are posturing for even higher defense spending than the debt limit agreement set. The MAGAs want to come in below the caps for non-defense spending, which will create drama in both chambers. Sen. Collins said she wants to move the supplemental soon to support defense “needs.”

Speaking of, we came across this astonishing accounting of defense spending from the Watson Institute at Brown University. An enormous amount of money ends up in private hands, as more than half of the “defense” budget — roughly $400 billion of the $800+ billion — goes to contractors. And out of that $400ish billion, because of industry consolidation, $114 billion went to just five firms. War is big business. In addition, more than a third of the federal civilian workforce works for the Defense Department, while another 20% works at the VA. Anyone remember Eisenhower’s warnings about the defense-industrial complex?

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for June 12, 2023: Who’s the boss?”

First Branch Forecast for June 5, 2023: A return to normalcy

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The debt limit crisis mercifully is over, for now, without the Senate as much as cutting into its three-day weekend. The institutional conditions that enabled the drama, however, remain. For now, it’s back to business on the urgent matters of the day like messaging bills about appliances.

We’ll be waiting for the stalled appropriations process to restart soon. There’s already dissatisfaction in the Senate, however, with the deal’s level of defense spending and top lines generally that may mean for some interesting supplemental funding tug-of-war across the chambers.

This week the House is scheduled to be in session Monday through Thursday and the Senate Tuesday through Friday.

SCOREBOARD WATCHING

The climax of the debt limit drama last week obviously was a big sigh of relief considering the alternatives, but was an indication that a lot of what we were watching was simple posturing over decisions that nobody really wanted to make. The results, which at least by the vote tallies looked like previous divided-government debt ceiling lifts, have led to an all’s well that ends well spirit to break out amongst the punditry, or even cheers for responsible governance.

Once again, we’re the skunks at the garden party reminding everyone that a small faction of the House was able to wrest control of its agenda away for half this session and lead it out of bounds for democratic governance. A minoritarian faction may have fallen short of its maximalist demands in the end because too many colleagues were unwilling to go for broke.

Still, MAGA conservatives still got to take their shot, force the government to spend less on Democratic priorities, and further complicate the lives of some working-class Americans. These are some of the same crew that led the effort to overturn the last presidential election, and signs of their continuing commitment to democratic majoritarianism, nor that of their very online constituents, are not apparent. The structural dynamics of the House, meanwhile, will remain unchanged until January 2025, in time for this group to manufacture another crisis if they choose.

Ultimately, the extreme cost of following through on the default threat split even this faction. Many members had skin in the game in the case of a financial meltdown. Political scientists Christian Grose and Jordan Carr Peterson note that MAGA Republicans who voted for the deal owned significant stock, while opponents like Reps. Andy Biggs and Lauren Boebert did not, findings consistent with the previous debt limit crisis.

Personal portfolio exposure doesn’t explain everything, particularly given the political incentives that go along with supporting leadership’s agenda. For example, Speaker McCarthy has granted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene access to January 6 security footage, which she will provide to fellow right-wing conspiracy theorists. No doubt this will help her ability to fundraise from small donors.

It’s difficult to tease out the extent to which political actions are driven by ideology, expedience, and avarice. That’s why reducing non-representative motivations, such as prohibiting members from owning individual stocks, is a good idea.

Other contingencies, as always, matter a great deal to this episode. They tell us that the MAGA forces had hit the wall in the Rules Committee vote when Rep. Thomas Massie stood down. His vote could have complicated the process that came perilously close to the x-date as is, while his presence on the committee was one of the aces the MAGA folks held from their McCarthy speakership strike. What happened there is intriguing. We’re also interested in the reported side-deal for bolstering Democratic earmarks that Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries may have wrangled for delivering his reserve of votes.

So this is probably it for big legislative accomplishments for this Congress. We will see an appropriations deal and likely an NDAA or two, but largely along the lines of this settlement. Bipartisan rumblings from the Senate indicate it might not be that sticky, as leadership immediately expressed concern about the House sequestration plan, especially for defense, but we suspect MAGA Republicans will be more careful to avoid getting the lower chamber rolled.

Related Resources

The House Administration Oversight Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing on the Office of Congressional Ethics on June 13th. OCE is the House’s independent ethics watchdog and one of the best innovations in Congress in the last quarter-century.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for June 5, 2023: A return to normalcy”