The Digital File Cabinet: House and Senate File Ethics Disclosures

Members of Congress in the House and Senate, candidates for federal office, senior congressional staff, nominees for executive branch positions, Cabinet members, the president and vice president and Supreme Court justices are required by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 to file annual reports disclosing their personal finances. Compliance and enforcement of this requirement is overseen by the congressional ethics committees, the ethics offices of government agencies and, in the case of executive branch officials, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.

These disclosures include financial forms, gift and travel filings, post-employment lobbying restrictions, and more. It’s a lot of disclosure information, and oftentimes, some disclosures must be filed in person rather than online. 

The following outlines the major types of information that must be reported on personal ethics disclosures, as well as if the information is publicly available online, in person, or both.

Continue reading “The Digital File Cabinet: House and Senate File Ethics Disclosures”

Forecast for September 29, 2020.

Good morning, Congress. This week’s First Branch Forecast is shorter than usual because there’s so much going on that we’re overwhelmed. We’ll catch up on a backlog next week. Here’s the top six things you need to know.


1. MEMBER-DAY HEARING ON THE HOUSE RULES (RSVP TUES)

You know you’ve been waiting for it for two years. The House Rules Committee is holding its Member Day Hearing this Thursday at 1pm to listen to your boss’s ideas to improve the House’s rules, and any Member wishing to testify must submit a request by 5pm today (Tuesday) by filling out this form. If your boss can’t make the virtual hearing, you still can reach out to Rules Committee staff. Looking for ideas? Check out our voluminous recommendations (including our top 13).


2. RUSH TO JUDGMENT

The Judiciary Committee is expected to start four days of hearings on Pres. Trump’s SCOTUS nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, on Oct. 12, with a floor vote anticipated the week of Oct. 26th. The Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham, had pledged he would vote for the nominee without even knowing who it is. Rubber meet stamp. The untimely nomination is moving forward with unprecedented haste. In the meantime, the Intercept published a memo on options available to Sen. Schumer and Senate Democrats should they seek to bring a more stately pace to the proceedings — i.e., let the next President choose, as most Americans prefer, while Senate Republicans are prepping for Dem tactics that would require at least 51 Republican senators to stay in town to bat down any and all concerns. But, as BGov noted, Sen. Schumer hasn’t done much to delay things … so far. A question: some tactics rely on the House staying in town, so are they still planning on closing up shop at the end of the week?


3. PEACEFUL TRANSITION TO POWER

President Trump once again expressed an unwillingness to commit to a peaceful transition of power and is using additional tactics (like undermining vote by mail and vocal support for vigilantes) that are at odds with a free-and-fair election — and a democracy. The Senate passed a non-binding resolution in support of a peaceful transition of power, and a House resolution is on tap for this week, but even with the ongoing (and likely escalating) efforts to undermine the election results, it’s unlikely that the upper chamber would stand up to President Trump now, especially as it hasn’t done so previously. Meanwhile, the Atlantic is gaming out what happens if Trump refuses to be fired, and Politico describes what happens if the election is kicked to the House. The last time this happened, the political deal killed Reconstruction and led to the widespread enactment of segregation and other Jim Crow laws, whose effects are still felt today.


4. KEEPING THE NEXT PRESIDENT IN LINE?

House Democrats have put forth a partial democracy reform package, the Protecting Our Democracy Act, aimed at fixing a few loopholes in the system that allow for presidential bad behavior. The bill contains measures with wide bipartisan support, like making sure the Executive branch follows Congress’s spending decisions, bolstering IG independence, and requiring Congressional approval for presidentially-declared emergencies that last longer than 30 days. It also strengthens Congress’s ability to enforce subpoenas. Is it enough? No, we think it misses some crucial issues, but it’s a good start.


5. SPENDING?

If everything goes right — I cannot believe I wrote that — the Senate will vote Wednesday, the last day of the fiscal year, to adopt a short term CR through December 11th. We think that is too short-term, as it punts hard questions to the same time-frame that Congress may be looking at a very messy election, but what do we know? House Members voting on the CR had only 30 minutes to review the 115 page bill, which is astonishing. The underlying approps bills will be negotiated now even though the Senate has not passed their bills (to avoid taking hard votes before the election). We haven’t followed the minutia around the next COVID relief bill, although our guess is it will either contain too many concessions or serve as a messaging bill.

6. FIXING CONGRESS

The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress unanimously reported another 40 recommendations this past week, bringing the total to 97. This package of recs includes ideas updating the MRA formula, (voluntary) staff pay bands (to address weaknesses in staff pay), restoring OTA, upgrading the Bulk Data Task Force, examining creating a Congressional Digital Service, fixing the House calendar, and more (including congressionally-directed grants). The SCOMC has officially turned into a pumpkin, with only the text of its final report pending, although we hope the House and Senate will find an official way to extend these modernization efforts.


QUICK ITEMS

 The House can sue the President for building a border wall with funds appropriated for other purposes, the DC Court of Appeals held last week.This is a huge win for Congressional authority.

• Yech. The U.S. Capitol Police disciplinary reports show a disturbing pattern of misconduct. As we’ve said before, the USCP is a nightmare from a government transparency and accountability perspective, especially in light of the more than 2,000 employees and nearly $500m budget.

• Protections for intelligence whistleblowers need improvement, a GAO investigation found.

• The White House blocked the FDA Commissioner from testifying before the House about the pandemic response. Obviously, they shouldn’t be able to do this.

• Federal judges wenttoo far when they requested Congress ban the publication of certain personal information about judges: they want to make it illegal for journalists to publish key information needed for transparency, oversight, and accountability.

SUNSET

After 15 years, the Sunlight Foundation has officially closed its doors. Many of you know that I was their policy counsel for almost 5 years. The transparency, accountability, and technology work lives on with us and many of the organization’s alumni, who are spread out across civil society, government, the press, and the private sector.

Forecast for September 21, 2020.

THE TOP LINE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Forecast for September 21, 2020.”

The Recap: Library of Congress Virtual Public Forum

On September 10, 2020, the Library of Congress held a Virtual Public Forum on the Library’s role in providing access to legislative information. The forum was held at the direction of the House Committee on Appropriations pursuant to its report accompanying the FY 2020 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill. Per the legislative language, there will be another forum scheduled prior to October 2021. There was widespread interest in the topic: according to the Library, several hundred people registered for the event. 

Prior to the forum, the Congressional Data Coalition and others sent a report containing more than two dozen recommendations concerning the Library of Congress’ legislative information services. They fell into five conceptual groupings: (1) Publish Information As Data; (2) Put the Legislative Process in Context; (3) Integrate Information from Multiple Sources; (4) Publish Archival Information; (5) Collaborate with the Public. 

The following provides a recap of the three-hour proceedings. The Library indicated it will post video snippets of the conversation.

Continue reading “The Recap: Library of Congress Virtual Public Forum”

Pending Good Government Bills: 116th Congress

The 116th Congress is coming to a close, with Members getting ready to depart to campaign full-time and then return in late-November/December for a lame duck session. Time is running out before bills turn into pumpkins and have to be re-introduced at the start of the next Congress. According to GovTrack, 151 bills have become law so far. By comparison, 12,874 bills have been introduced, or 1.1%, although some of these bills are duplicates of ones that have become law. 

We and our friends in civil society have compiled a non-exhaustive list of pending good government bills that lawmakers should consider pushing across the finish line before time runs out. As legislation that’s further along in the process is more likely to become law, we’ve sorted our list by their status. We’ve further subdivided the list regarding the part of government they would affect.

Continue reading “Pending Good Government Bills: 116th Congress”

The Constitution Annotated in 2020

For the first time since 2009, I don’t have to write a blogpost or letter calling on the Library of Congress to make its legal treatise, the Constitution Annotated, available online in a usable format. Last year, the Library finally published that document online as HTML. For those unfamiliar, the Constitution Annotated is a legal treatise, prepared by the Congressional Research Service, that explains the U.S. Constitution as it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court. Continue reading “The Constitution Annotated in 2020”

Forecast for September 14, 2020

THE TOP LINE

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Forecast for September 14, 2020”

Forecast for September 9, 2020.

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

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

THE TOP LINE

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

Continue reading “Forecast for September 9, 2020.”

Select Recommendations for Updating the House Rules 117th Congress

Introduction

Demand Progress released 129 recommended updates to the Rules of the House of Representatives and separate orders the House should adopt for the 117th Congress as part of an August 20, 2020 report. The report is the culmination of months of work, reflects significant engagement with experts on Congress, and addresses ten major thematic areas. 

We recognize the volume of recommendations in the full report can be overwhelming, so the following document highlights 13 reforms that the House should consider. We chose these particular reform recommendations based on how feasible they are to implement, the extent to which they would strengthen the House of Representatives, their political viability, and their overall significance to Congressional operations.

Continue reading “Select Recommendations for Updating the House Rules 117th Congress”

Foresight: A Tool for a Proactive Government

Someone on the Hill once told me that Congress was “constitutionally reactive.” That is, Congress and the law would always lag behind society, and the system was intentionally designed that way. The current rapid pace of change — in our culture and particularly with technology — only makes the gap between policy and our lives more glaring. 

Continue reading “Foresight: A Tool for a Proactive Government”