First Branch Forecast for December 19, 2022: Not O.K.?

TOP LINE

The end of this Congress feels like the run up before a high school graduation. Senior leaders are saying goodbye while the next crop waits their turn. Everyone’s rushing to turn in their remaining work, leading to sloppy mistakes. The turnover will lead to something new, but we’re not sure what.

This work week is the final one of the 117th Congress. The House will take up the omnibus spending bill — which it will see for the first time today — after agreeing to a short-term extension until December 23. The NDAA passed the Senate last Thursday, as did who-knows how many riders.

The January 6 Committee will hold its final public meeting on Monday and will vote on criminal referrals based on its findings. It will release its final report Wednesday. The Senate Rules Committee moved back its oversight hearing on the US Capitol Police to today. And it appears that Ways and Means had just scheduled a Tuesday hearing to discuss Trump’s tax returns.

NOT HOW IT’S SUPPOSED TO WORK

Like a student frantically finishing a term paper, congressional appropriators asked for an extension on the omnibus spending package last week after coming to a deal on a longer bill – it helps that they were asking themselves.

What’s striking about the deal announced by appropriators last week is who wasn’t involved: House Republicans. The adults in the room simply went ahead without them, knowing House GOP demands on social spending and Ukrainian aid would be unrealistic and counterproductive. Members’ posturing on picking funding fights in the next Congress likely made it more imperative to strike a long-term deal now.

Members with the ear of leadership are making or have just made one final run this week to insert last-minute provisions into the omnibus and NDAA while leadership plays abracadabra. As we’ve said before, this process is deeply dysfunctional for a representative body and is one of the worst consequences of the concentration of power. All sorts of things will be waived through in these bills because there isn’t enough time to stop and look.

Sometimes, good things move quickly or in unusual ways, like Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s resolution to update overtime regulations for House staff (more on that below). We’re certainly glad to see the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act and Plum Act make it across the finish line. But sloppy and harmful work also gets through, like the unconstitutional judicial security bill that censors information about judges’ familial conflicts of interest from the internet while failing to touch the data brokers it ostensibly targets.

Senators, spooked enough by the antidemocratic tendencies of some House Republicans, apparently will tack on the Electoral Count Act to the Appropriations bill. Last week, Talking Points Memo reported 34 Republican members texted White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows about ways to overturn the 2020 presidential election, including Rep. Ralph Norman’s call for Trump to declare “Marshall [sic] law.”

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for December 19, 2022: Not O.K.?”

House Staff Overtime Pay Approved

Within a week of our action with allies Congressional Progressive Staff Association (CPSA) and the Congressional Workers Union, the House approved overtime pay regulations for House staff to go into effect next year.

Outgoing CHA Chair Rep. Zoe Lofgren introduced a resolution Monday to implement the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR) regulations to update Fair Labor Standards Act overtime provisions for congressional staff with a “nifty procedural move” according to CQ Roll Call’s Jim Saksa.

This is one of many reforms the House has passed this year to improve congressional staff pay and benefits that we have championed.

“This is an incredible investment in the congressional workforce and affirms the House’s commitment to improve workplace conditions, benefits, and pay for congressional staff” said Taylor J. Swift, senior policy advisor at Demand Progress. “This has been a paramount year for improving staffers’ rights in the House, and now it’s time for the Senate to take action to ensure their staff have the same overtime pay rights. We applaud congressional leadership for approving this overtime pay provision, and we laud outgoing CHA Chair Lofgren for her swift action to include it in the Continuing Resolution.”

We will continue to work with our coalition partners on the Hill to ensure Senate staff can enjoy the same rights.

First Branch Forecast for December 12, 2022: Twelve Squared

TOP LINE

No, this is not the most wonderful time of the year for people who care about Congress. The twin must-pass bills that remain for this lame duck session – the NDAA and additional government funding – encapsulate the most dispiriting aspects of current congressional procedure and leadership. Tracking what gets thrown into the vat and what is held out of the pink slime of legislation that oozes onto the floor this week is icky business.

This week, Democrats in the House were planning to release a government funding bill a few days ahead of the Thursday deadline to keep the lights on — but they’ve put that on ice, citing progress in their negotiations this weekend. Their floor schedule is heavy on suspensions but nothing pops out. Senate Republicans sound disinclined to accept it, and the bill needs 60 votes so we’ll see if a short-term alternative emerges instead. The hitch is whether to keep parity between increases in defense and non-defense spending and how to accommodate spending on veterans’ health care.

The full Senate Rules Committee will hear testimony from US Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger in an oversight hearing Tuesday in the Russell Building at 3 PM ET.

The Senate is expected to vote on a war powers resolution that directs the President to stop providing support to Saudi Arabia for its military intervention in Yemen absent congressional approval.

MAD SCRAMBLE

In principle, the NDAA would be the blueprint for arming a global superpower. It’s become so much more than that in the hands of modern House leadership, who determine what other pieces of legislation that would die on their own get to piggyback onto it. This year’s version arrived at more than 4,000 pages, including provisions never seen before. Once found by civil society or members, some disappear back into the ether.

Technology should provide a workaround to the “read the bill” mantra for a bill this size. The comparative print project the House Clerk has launched for congressional users at least in theory allows staff to track what is appearing and disappearing through different leadership drafts.

The NDAA (and to some extent the government funding omnibus) are tools for House leadership to maintain caucus discipline by creating an artificial pressurized environment and by tacking on bills to reward good team players and favored donors and interests. It forces members who want their provisions included or object to amendments conjured by leadership to play chicken with bringing the entire bill down. Progressives did so with Sen. Joe Manchin’s permitting reform proposal, for example. It’s a vote-free spectacle, not representative governance.

The Senate is far from blameless in this absurd practice as the preservation of the legislative filibuster and the control of precious floor time has made passage of small, single topic bills virtually impossible. Fixes that don’t make it through the sluice have to wait for next time.

Some good government reforms made it into in those 4,000 pages:

  • The PLUM Act, which would require OPM to modernize its directory of senior federal officials
  • The ACMRA, which establishes an online portal for congressionally mandated reports
  • Counterintelligence assessment of foreign-owned spyware and prohibition of use by intelligence agencies
  • The Financial Transparency Act, which would require consistently formatted data from all federal financial regulatory agencies
  • Strengthen Inspector General independence and accountability
  • America’s Taxpayers Act, which would require GAO to explain how much money the government would save if its recommendations were adopted by the federal government.

The version released last week also includes an unwelcome internet censorship provision that allows for the removal of information about federal judges, shielding them from oversight for ethical lapses. The ACLU says the provision “could impose unconstitutional restrictions on speech.” Organizations that conduct judicial oversight have expressed grave concerns that it will cause them and others to censor basic information about judges, such as their birthdays and where their spouses work. The bill also initially added a reference to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that would have held websites liable like Google for not removing such information, but that provision disappeared overnight.

(On the topic of judicial transparency, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the SCERT Act, which would create a code of conduct for SCOTUS and require disclosure of dark money support or gifts to justices.)

It’s also notable that the NDAA did not include a repeal of the 2002 Authorization of the Use of Military Force. Nor does the bill include two anti-authoritarian measures. It did not take up blocking implementation of Schedule F, which President Trump proposed to use to fire federal civil servants en masse and shield policy roles from competitive hiring. The House also did not attach the John Lewis Voting Rights bill to the NDAA.

At this point in the lame duck session, Democrats have set at least one government finance trap for themselves. A short-term government spending bill creates a government shutdown opportunity for the hard right almost immediately into the new term. Without the time (and votes because of SineManchin) to pass debt limit expansion in reconciliation, the Republican hostage raid may hit before summer recess.

The Senate still has time to take up bills to make access to PACER free and establish a reporters’ shield law. Majority Leader Schumer simply needs to put them on the floor. CBO recently estimated that making PACER free through the Enacting the Open Courts Act would slightly reduce the federal deficit over 10 years.

An important institutional reform also remains: enacting new overtime rules for congressional staff. Demand Progress, the Congressional Progressive Staff Association, and the Congressional Workers Union last week reminded House and Senate leadership to pass resolutions adopting the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights’ suggestions for updating congressional workplace rules on overtime, which haven’t been revised since the 1990s. A majority of Hill staff work more than 50 hours a week, according to a CPSA survey. New regulations would pay non-managers time-and-a-half for time over 40 hours a week. Given their hostility to the unionization drive currently underway in member offices, the changeover to a Republican majority makes the issue urgent in the House.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for December 12, 2022: Twelve Squared”

Demand Progress, Congressional Progressive Staff Association, and Congressional Workers Union Urge Congress to Approve Congressional Staff Pay Overtime Regulations

Demand Progress Action joined forces with the Congressional Progressive Staff Association (CPSA) and the Congressional Workers Union to implore leaders from both chambers to enact Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR) regulations to update Fair Labor Standards Act overtime provisions for congressional staff before the lame duck session ends. Demand Progress sent letters today to House and Senate leaders. The CPSA letter endorsed by the Congressional Workers Union and more than 220 congressional staffers is here.

Back in September, the OCWR described the current regulations as “woefully outdated” when it issued new guidelines that would bring congressional overtime pay to parity with the executive branch and private sector. The newly proposed regulations cannot go into effect until approved separately or collectively by each chamber of Congress. 

Continue reading “Demand Progress, Congressional Progressive Staff Association, and Congressional Workers Union Urge Congress to Approve Congressional Staff Pay Overtime Regulations”

First Branch Forecast for December 5, 2022: The Second Triumvirate

TOP LINE

Congress had some of its most substantive conversations about its rules in years last week. Although the results mostly fiddled around the edges of larger institutional problems, time and opportunity remain to continue the negotiations, at least in the House. The stasis within the Democratic caucus, however, was notable.

Meanwhile, things that need to be done — and done well — remain with little time to accomplish. Democrats continue to play small ball about the risk posed by the debt ceiling, while several House committees have weeks to sift through evidence of various Trump-related malfeasance.

This week, the lame duck session continues, with votes scheduled Tuesday onward in the House. Looking at the Weekly Leader, we see the NDAA, Respect for Marriage Act, a bunch of minor bills, and the reminder that “additional legislative items are possible.” Per Politico’s Olivia Beavers, Monday through Wednesday this week the House Republican Steering Committee will fill in committee chairs. We hear the House Democratic Caucus may continue to consider conference rules on Tuesday, including some that get at the distribution of power. The Georgia senatorial run-off is Dec 6, after which Republicans may become publicly serious about addressing the approps omnibus. The Senate floor schedule is unrevealing. Go here for the committee schedule.

TALKING ABOUT CHANGE

The process for establishing the rules of the House of Representatives is different this time. House Freedom Caucus members succeeded in forcing a conversation within the Republican conference, which continued last week in another round of closed-door meetings on member-proposed amendments to existing rules.

Freedom Caucus members did not secure their biggest objective, which was more member control of the Steering Committee through additional elected seats (although the House GOP does have new regional maps). They also failed to prevent the continued existence of earmarks, which most members see as a useful tool even if most of the gravy falls on appropriators. (There is a better way….) But HFC forced a serious and significant discussion within the conference about member power and leadership control. Such a discussion is healthy for the institution. It’s also one that will continue over the upcoming weeks and perhaps during the first meeting of the committee of the whole of the 118th Congress.

Democrats in both chambers, meanwhile, so far have chosen to freeze the status quo in place. After ratifying the generational shift in leadership, members of the House caucus are in the process of granting the Second Triumvirate the same ironclad control the last generation enjoyed. Accordingly, today’s rank-and-file and their successors may not get another chance to exercise power until another generation has passed. The pending transition will be about continuity rather than change and is a missed opportunity for a reform conversation like the one happening across the aisle. Of most significance, after a concerted leadership push, the caucus tabled Rep. Ed Case’s amendment to rebalance some of the power within the caucus through creating a more representative Steering and Policy Committee that has more member input. That measure could be brought up again on Tuesday, and other significant amendments have yet to be considered. (The concern here is not with the members of the Second Triumvirate, but with how broadly power is distributed.)

Senators, meanwhile, rejected Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s renewed effort to disallow top leadership from also holding A-level committee gavels. Although Whitehouse’s efforts might have been personally motivated, the principle of giving a few more Democratic senators an opportunity to lead is well taken. There is late word that the Senate Democratic Caucus will now begin to publish its caucus rules online, joining the other three party caucuses.

By the way, the fact that we only could learn about the outcomes of these party meetings through an amalgamation of reporters’ tweets and stories is frustrating. The parties should publish the proposed amendments, as well as the vote outcomes, because they are critical to understanding how the chambers will operate.

Also, to make your lives easier (and ours), we’re keeping track of proposed House Democratic and Republican amendments to their caucus rules, including the disposition of those amendments. This is hard to do because the information is all non-public, which is why we’ve been closely following the tweets and reporting of a handful of congressional reporters who have ferreted out some of the text and vote results. If we missed something or got something wrong, please let us know.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for December 5, 2022: The Second Triumvirate”

Proposals for Modernizing House Rules — Summary of Committee Members’ Day Recs for 118th Congress

Written by Taylor J. Swift

At the start of the 118th Congress, the House of Representatives will adopt new procedural rules that govern nearly every aspect of how it conducts business. In preparation, the House Rules Committee held its Member Day hearing (announcement, video) on Tuesday, November 28, 2022, to provide members of the House an opportunity to propose new Rules changes for the 118th Congress. 

Members made several laudable recommendations during the proceeding:

  • Rep. Davidson’s proposal to grant one staffer from each House office the ability to apply for TS/SCI clearance.
  • Rep. Timmon’s recommendation to fix committee scheduling by creating an online portal for committee chairs to pick and choose hearing and markup times to help reduce scheduling conflicts.
  • Rep. Griffith’s idea to have proportional representation on committees.
  • Rep. Joyce’s proposal to establish a bipartisan ethics task force to study ethics rules and regulations.
  • Del. Radewagen’s support for keeping the rule to allow delegates and resident commissioners to vote in the committee as a whole

At the end of the Member Day hearing, multiple members, including Chair McGovern, urged the 118th House Rules to retain the ability for remote committee proceedings, a proposal we support. Reps. Jackson Lee and Grijalva submitted statements for the record supporting remote committee proceedings while Chair McGovern said he has heard from many members that remote committee proceedings have been helpful in obtaining witness testimony without the worry of travel or cost of the taxpayer. 

Demand Progress and the Lincoln Network issued our own bipartisan recommendations package on what Rules should be updated in the 118th Congress in anticipation of this hearing. 

The following is a high-level summary of each member’s requests and their justifications (with corresponding timestamps from the video). Please note that at the time of this writing, any submissions in writing by the members were not publicly available.

Continue reading “Proposals for Modernizing House Rules — Summary of Committee Members’ Day Recs for 118th Congress”

Members of Congress on Mastodon

Fourteen years ago, an organization I was involved with pushed to change congressional rules to allow members of Congress onto Twitter. Like many of the starry-eyed democracy and technology efforts of that era, we saw the potential upside — closing the gaps between elected officials and the people they represent, allowing movements to push their governments to liberalize their policies — but we did not anticipate the potential downside, especially how Twitter would weaponize its algorithms to elevate the worst in people in pursuit of “engagement” and money.

Twitter became, in part, the crossroads between politicians, journalists, civil society, and notable individuals in our society. But it has become a toxic cesspool that aided the rise of authoritarianism.

For many years social entrepreneurs have sought to elevate the virtues of micro-blogging platforms while ameliorating the downside. The Fediverse, and Mastodon most notable, is one such example.

A forthcoming blogpost will address some of the many lessons we’ve learned since the early days of “let our Congress tweet,” especially how the Congress — and the federal government writ large — should support engagement on those platforms.

For now, we’re tracking as Members of Congress, congressional committees, leadership offices, and non-partisan legislative branch offices make the plunge onto Mastodon.

Our spreadsheet listing elected officials on Mastodon is below and available at this link. We are working to verify congressional offices so that we can confirm it is an official account. We verify the account either by receiving an email from an official congressional address to my email account, [email protected], or if they’ve updated their Twitter bio to include their official Mastodon email address.

Demand Progress and Lincoln Network Issue Bipartisan House Rules Recommendations Calling for Rebalancing Power in the 118th Congress

The progressive grassroots policy advocacy organization Demand Progress and the right-leaning technology nonprofit Lincoln Network have joined forces to urge the House of Representatives to adopt modern rules that improve congressional transparency, oversight, technology, and more. The bipartisan recommendations issued today by the two groups emphasize changes to House Rules that give more power to the rank-and-file members to shape legislation. 

The recommendations are timely, as the House Rules Committee hears today from members concerning the Rules they want adopted at the start of the 118th Congress in January. 

“There’s too much concentrated power in congressional leadership, which distorts the legislative process and stifles collaboration by members who share common interests,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress. “These common-sense recommendations restore balance in the House so that all members can meaningfully engage in policymaking.”

“The Rules the House enacts will shape how Congress will function and who will have power,” said Zach Graves, executive director of Lincoln Network. “It’s important to democratize the House so more rank-and-file members have a say in the legislation that gets considered and so that committees don’t have their roles usurped by leadership. All members are elected to Congress and each one has a duty and obligation to represent their constituents.”

The package of bipartisan Rules recommendations identifies improvements the House should adopt to improve transparency of legislative information, internal operations and scheduling, congressional efficiency and oversight, congressional security, congressional capacity and staff, and ethics, as well as which Rules to retain from the previous two Congresses. 

Continue reading “Demand Progress and Lincoln Network Issue Bipartisan House Rules Recommendations Calling for Rebalancing Power in the 118th Congress”

Recs on Making GovInfo More Transparent, Useful, & Accessible

In response to the White House’s announcement of an open government engagement session on increasing federal data access and utility, Demand Progress Education Fund submitted these recommendations for making government information more transparent, useful, and accessible.

Continue reading “Recs on Making GovInfo More Transparent, Useful, & Accessible”

Special First Branch Forecast for November 28, 2022: Rules Rules Rules

This week is a big week for party leadership elections and party and chamber rules. We realize we just sent our weekly First Branch Forecast newsletter Monday morning, but this update is both important and timely.

As a reminder, we’ve gathered resources on proposals to update the caucus and conference rules. Also, don’t forget our compilation of recs to update the House chamber rules and the Senate chamber rules.

HOUSE RULES

House Rules. The House Rules Committee meets tomorrow for a Member Day hearing on the House Rules. Presumably, proposals will be published here. Tomorrow morning, Demand Progress and the Lincoln Network will jointly release bipartisan recommendations for updating the House’s rules. Stay tuned.

HOUSE DEMOCRATIC PARTY RULES & LEADERSHIP

House Democratic Leadership. House Dems start holding elections for caucus leadership on Wednesday at 9 a.m., according to BGOV. No competitive races at the top. Punchbowl expects the new triumvirate + Clyburn will be elected by unanimous consent. Down ballot will be decided later, as will committee appointments.

— We continue to ask: why aren’t the Dem Policy and Steering Committee membership list and rules publicly available?

House Democratic Caucus Rules. Dems to vote on proposed changes to caucus rules on Wednesday. The proposals aren’t publicly available (argh!) but Punchbowl has obtained them, which we’ve republished here.

— Demand Progress Education Fund released a detailed list of proposed amendments to the caucus rules to bring needed transparency and accountability.

Proposed amendments go before the secretive Committee on Caucus Procedures on Monday afternoon — chaired by Grace Meng, regarding which there’s no public list of members. The Committee’s purpose is not to propose rules changes of their own, but to review and make recs on the proposed amendments. The full Caucus will vote on Wednesday.

— What are the 11 proposed amendments? The following are my summaries. By the way, the amendments most likely to provide the rank-and-file more of a voice in the policymaking process are amendment #9 and amendment #10, of which the former lessens leadership control and the latter lessens committee chair control & rules committee control.

  • Amendment 1. Implements ranked choice voting for contested caucus elections. (Beyer)
     
  • Amendment 2. Allows the caucus to vote by 2/3s of its members to waive the requirement that the Caucus vote by secret ballot to approve or disapprove the [Steering and Policy Committee chosen] nominee to chair a standing committee (Eshoo)
     
  • Amendment 3. Requires a secret standing committee chair retention election whereby a chair who wishes to serve more than 6 years needs an affirmative vote from a majority of the caucus. (Foster)
     
  • Amendment 4. Democratic Leader nominates the chair of the DCCC by Feb 15; caucus votes on that nomination (and any others made by 5 caucus members) by March 1. (Current rule doesn’t have the leader make a recommendation.) (DelBene, Schneider, Pocan)
     
  • Amendment 5. Creates the position of Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. (Cicilline)
     
  • Amendment 6. Creates another party position akin to the regional reps, the Battleground Leadership Representative, elected by a majority vote of “Battleground Members.” (Lee)
     
  • Amendment 7. Allows members who temporarily serve on a committee to gain seniority over other members who also have temporarily served on the committee. (Kelly)
     
  • Amendment 8. I don’t understand this amendment. I think it allows a member whose bid, made in order of seniority, to serve as a subcommittee chair was rejected by the committee to stand for another election before the committee for that position, this time against everyone who has declared themselves interested in the subcommittee chair spot. (Sherman)
     
  • Amendment 9. Significantly increases rank-and-file influence on the currently-Speaker/leadership controlled Steering and Policy Committee by doubling the numbers of regional representatives and reducing the number of members who get to serve on the committee by virtue of their office. Specifically, it would allow for two representatives from each region instead of one, reduce the number of members appointed by the Speaker to 5 from 15, and eliminate the ex officio appointments of the senior chief deputy whip, all chief deputy whips, a member of the freshman class, and some committee chairs. (Case)
     
  • Amendment 10. Improves the ability of rank-and-file to get legislation considered in committees and on the floor. Requires committee chairs to markup any bill co-sponsored by both a majority of the Democratic Caucus and a majority of Democratic members of the committee of jurisdiction. Also requires Democratic Leadership to bring to the floor any bill cosponsored by two-thirds of the Democratic Caucus. (Larson)
     
  • Amendment 11. Directs the Caucus to provide technical support for Members to participate in hybrid/remote caucus proceedings and also to ensure that the meetings are secure. (Jackson Lee)
Continue reading “Special First Branch Forecast for November 28, 2022: Rules Rules Rules”