Forecast for December 21, 2020

THE TOP LINE

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Forecast for December 21, 2020”

Forecast for December 14, 2020

THE TOP LINE

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Forecast for December 14, 2020”

Who Steers the Ship in the 117th Congress? An Examination of House Steering and Policy Committee Membership

House Democrats and Republicans use internal party committees to control major aspects of the legislative process, including choosing who gets to serve on legislative committees. Who serves on these committees and how are they chosen? Read on. (If this seems familiar, we looked at internal party committee makeup for the 116th Congress here).

Under the House rules, each party decides committee assignments for its Members. As a result, the steering and policy committees are an integral piece to secure intraparty power. With a large number of Members competing for a relatively small number of key committee assignments and leadership roles, the parties’ respective steering committees act as a filter for who rise and fall, creating a sorting mechanism among the party’s internal factions. It is also a mechanism by which leadership taxes Members to provide financial contributions in support of the party. 

Continue reading “Who Steers the Ship in the 117th Congress? An Examination of House Steering and Policy Committee Membership”

2021 Congressional Budget Priorities: House vs. Senate

Senate appropriators released their Fiscal Year 2021 Legislative Branch spending bill proposal back in November — more than a month into the fiscal year. How does their pitch stack up against the House numbers released in July?

To find commonalities and differences in funding, we created a side by side comparison, including dollar and percent differences, available online here and embedded below. Please note the below data does not factor in continuing resolutions keeping the lights on until a final FY 2021 spending agreement is enacted.

Continue reading “2021 Congressional Budget Priorities: House vs. Senate”

Forecast for November 30, 2020.

THE TOP LINE

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

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

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

Continue reading “Forecast for November 30, 2020.”

Why isn’t the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights protecting Congress during the Pandemic?

Wouldn’t it be good to have an independent office that had the authority to impose a uniform set of mandatory safety and health standards across Capitol Hill? Such an office already exists and Congress is giving them a pass.

The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR) is the independent, centralized workplace safety and health agency for the House, the Senate, and other Capitol Hill offices, including the Architect of the Capitol, Capitol Police, the Library of Congress, and even the Government Accountability Office. This office has strong enforcement powers. The OCWR also handles employment cases in a separate process.

Almost twenty-five years ago, this office, originally called the Office of Compliance, opened its doors. In 1997, the Office of Compliance Board of Directors, a panel of five private sector appointees, adopted regulations to implement the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, as required by law. Congress ignored them.

In the intervening years, this office has dropped the ball on pressing Congress to approve its OSH regulations. Now, there is a call for immediate action. The OCWR has the legal authority to develop standards for employees. Will it exercise its OSH authority to mandate enforceable standards?

Without regulations, the custodians and craftspeople, congressional staffers, and other essential workers are left without effective protection. One House member was reported to compel his staff to come to work without masks to show support for the Administration. The law requires OSH regulations, issued by the OCWR, because the federal OSHA rules don’t apply directly to the legislative branch. 

There is precedent for emergency standards to be imposed without advance congressional approval. For permanent standards to apply, Congress would need to approve OCWR-adopted regulations, but the OCWR must make the first move.

In the midst of a pandemic, one would think that the OCWR Board of Directors might take the initiative. Instead, it reflects the branch that created it. The OCWR is infected with congressional dysfunction.

Isn’t it time for congressional employees, Senators, or Representatives to demand action? Don’t hold your breath. And wear a mask!

Kevin Mulshine served as a Senior Advisor and Counsel to the Congressional Office of Compliance from 1995 to 1997. Subsequently, he served as Inspector General for the Architect of the Capitol. He is a cum laude graduate of the Howard University Law Center.

Forecast for November 23, 2020.

TOP LINE

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Congress left town as negotiations continue (we hope) on a plethora of should-pass bills. Meanwhile, Pres. Trump is working to undermine the election certification process, thereby increasing the likelihood of a fight in Congress over recognizing President-elect Biden’s victory and further de-legitimizing our political system. Pres.-elect Biden’s unpragmatic genuflection at the altar of bipartisanship and unity in the face of an astonishing unwillingness by leading congressional Republicans to acknowledge his victory for fear of Trump’s wrath suggests the ex-Veep will be unable to avert the further slide into an illiberal democracy.

The next four years will be short on legislation, long on executive actions, and marked by tribalistic strife aimed at tagging Biden with culpability for accomplishing little. The only open question (besides the Georgia elections) is whether Biden chooses the senior governmental staff he wants, which will highlight Congress’s anti-majoritarian dysfunction, or grants his political opponents a veto, which undermines any possibility of reform.

Continue reading “Forecast for November 23, 2020.”

Forecast for November 16, 2020.

TOP LINE

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Forecast for November 16, 2020.”

Forecast For November 9, 2020.

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

THE TOP LINE

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

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

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

Continue reading “Forecast For November 9, 2020.”

November Update: What Items are Due in the Modernization Committee Resolution

In early March, the House passed H.Res 756, adopting modernization recommendations of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. The resolution included 29 recommendations that were unanimously reported by the Fix Congress Committee in 2019. The resolution called on legislative support offices to start a number of projects and report back on how to implement others. 

Last week, the Committee on House Administration released a series of congressional reports that were due in H.Res 756. We continue to catalogue the projects and their due dates into a public spreadsheet, and have them broken down by items. 

Continue reading “November Update: What Items are Due in the Modernization Committee Resolution”