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”