The OLC SUNLIGHT Act brings much needed transparency to DOJ legal opinions

The OLC SUNLIGHT Act — which would bring desperately needed transparency and accountability to the often secret opinions of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel — was introduced today.

How often are those opinions secret? No one knows, because there’s no publicly or congressionally-available list of all the opinions. The opinions that have become publicly available reveal that they often have undermined federal legislation and reinterpreted the Constitution in ways favorable to the executive branch and harmful to the framers’ system of checks and balances. This is intolerable.

The OLC Sunlight Act does two things —

  1. It requires a publicly available list of all OLC opinions, including when they are issued and a summary of the legal question presented.
  2. It requires OLC to publish all its final opinions online, with allowances for text to be withheld when it is properly classified, contains materials that impact privacy, and in other limited circumstances.

The original cosponsors are Reps. Matt Cartwright, (PA) Mike Quigley (IL), Zoe Lofgren (CA), Blumenauer (OR), Cardenas (CA), Carson (IN), Clay (MO), Davis (CA), Gomez (CA), Johnson, Jr. (GA), Hill (CA), Holmes Norton (DC), Phillips (MN), Raskin (MD), Tlaib (MI), and Vargas (CA). A bipartisan coalition of 17 organizations from across the political spectrum, including us, issued a letter endorsing the legislation.

Congress has long struggled to provide public and congressional transparency to OLC opinions. We are a nation of laws, not a nation of secret laws. In our system of government, Congress makes the law, not the president, and the president must faithfully execute the law.

We applaud the cosponsors for introducing the legislation. Public access to OLC opinions has long enjoyed bipartisan support, and we urge all Members of Congress to take up the fight for the rule of law.

A modernized OTA is a key step in addressing Congress’s S&T capacity gap

by Daniel Schuman and Zach Graves

Last week, bipartisan bicameral legislation was introduced by Reps. Mark Takano (D-CA) and Bill Foster (D-IL), and Sens. Maizie Hirono (D-HI) and Thom Tillis (R-NC), aimed at strengthening Congress’s ability to understand science and technology policy issues. (H.R. 4426, S. 2509) We welcome these developments and are encouraged to see ongoing bipartisan support for enhancing Congress’s science and technology capacity and expertise. Continue reading “A modernized OTA is a key step in addressing Congress’s S&T capacity gap”

Forecast for September 23, 2019.

This week’s First Branch Forecast is a big one, so here’s your guide to what’s inside:

• Who’s the turkey now? The CR sets up a pre-Turkey-day approps showdown; meanwhile, the Fix Congress committee held a hearing on fixing the budget process.

• Congress’s power of the purse is its greatest weapon against executive overreach; more below on how the leg branch ceded power to the presidency and what lawmakers could do about it.

• OTA 2.0. A new bicameral, bipartisan bill from Reps. Takano and Foster and Sens. Hirono and Tillis would create a Congressional Office of Technology to provide science and technology policy support to lawmakers.

• Can whistleblowers talk to Congress? It’s long been obvious there are significant flaws with how intel community whistleblowers can reach out to Congress. This week it was compounded by an administration that apparently is blocking the ICIG from sharing a whistleblower complaint concerning an alleged presidential effort to induce a foreign country (Ukraine) into reopening an investigation into a political opponent (Biden’s son).

• Should sitting presidents be indictable? Speaker Pelosi called for a new law — possibly to relieve pressure from calls to start impeachment proceedings — but given DOJ’s role as an arm of the president and OLC’s often self-serving guidance, it’s tough to see how this is workable or whether it’s just a distraction.

• Hear, hear. Kevin Kosar suggested the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress should be made permanent. There is no doubt that someone inside Congress must be responsible for taking the big picture perspective on how Congress should grow and modernize. Continue reading “Forecast for September 23, 2019.”

Best Wishes for the Constitution Annotated on the Constitution’s 232rd Birthday

232 years ago today, 38 delegates came together to sign the U.S. Constitution. While there’s a lot of fanfare around the founding document, there’s not much noise about its lesser-known, handy companion, the Constitution Annotated (CONAN). Fortunately, Sens. Portman and King released a letter last week making some noise, calling for CONAN to be available online in an accessible format for everyone to us. Today it appears the Library of Congress has listened. (See their blogpost making the announcement and detailing the new website).

CONAN is a legal treatise prepared by the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service and published by the Government Publishing Office (GPO). The document is a non-partisan and comprehensive analysis of how the Supreme Court has interpreted the U.S. Constitution.

For a decade, we’ve been asking the Library of Congress and GPO to publish CONAN online in an accessible and user-friendly format. Congress shared our sentiments in 2010 when lawmakers authorized the Library to improve public access — “to update the online edition as frequently as possible, and to create new and improved functions on the CONAN site.” Lawmakers also noted “Congress and the public should find this site accessible and user friendly.”  Continue reading “Best Wishes for the Constitution Annotated on the Constitution’s 232rd Birthday”

Forecast for September 16, 2019.

IN BRIEF
We’re in for another busy week and this week’s First Branch Forecast is more wonky than usual.

Here are the highlights:

• Senate appropriators allocated less money for leg branch than their House counterparts, setting up the need to reconcile funding levels. The process in the Senate was unusually partisan.

• Constitution Day is Tuesday, and Sens. Portman and King are trying to make CRS’s legal treatise on the Constitution more easily available to everyone.

• Ambiguity over impeachment may be harming congressional oversight.

• Among the interesting hearings this week are ones on fixing Congress’s spending process, celebrating CIGIE, and making DC a state.

Continue reading “Forecast for September 16, 2019.”

Forecast for September 9, 2019

Recess is over, class is back in session. Let’s get caught up.

CONGRESS IN BRIEF

• Lawmakers have 3 weeks until the start of FY 2020, and both chambers must pass 12 spending bills by October 1. House Majority Leader Hoyer says the House will vote on short-term spending agreements (CRs) next week to keep the lights on. Expect the usual squeeze play at the end, probably around Thanksgiving.

• It’s likely the Senate has similar plans, and the chamber has started scheduling markups for 2020 spending bills. Defense and Labor subcommittee markups are Tuesday, the State subcommittee markup is Wednesday, and full committee markups of Defense, Energy, Labor, and State are happening Thursday.

• On Thursday, Senators are also having a full committee vote on 302(b) allocations. This is a big deal— at least, we think so. These numbers have significant consequences for a capable Congress, and leg branch keeps getting the axe.

• Speaking of spending, DoD is spending unallocated $$ on a border wall and Democratic Senators are not happy about it. The Senators say the project ignores congressional intent and have asked DoD why the project is circumventing standard funding channels. Dems have said they will not “backfill” funds for projects that will be delayed to fund the wall. Will Congress stand up for its prerogatives? Continue reading “Forecast for September 9, 2019”

Forecast for September 3, 2019.

It’s been a quiet week in Woebegone, D.C., our fair city. Uh, nope. It was a dark and stormy night. Nooooooooo. It was a bright cold day in September, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Ah, that feels right. Welcome to the First Branch Forecast.

CONGRESS IN BRIEF

More members announced their retirements, including Sen. Isakson and Rep. Duffy. In the House, departures include 13 Rs and 3 Ds; in the Senate, it’s 4 Rs and 1 D. Keep track here.

Cyber Day on Capitol Hill is this ThursdaySeptember 5th. The focus: training staff to protect themselves. RSVP.

The number of trade reporters covering capitol hill are up and daily newspaper staff are down. The Post cites this 2015 Pew study that specialty reporters outnumber those working at broadsheets. Digging deeper, much Congressional coverage is now done by niche reporters who charge a high premium for their specialty focus. So far unexamined: how does this information flow back to capitol hill, does it reach regular constituents, and what’s the result of inequities in access to in-depth information on the advocacy landscape? (BTW, our little newsletter is intended to fill one of the gaps.)

Russia denied Sens. Johnson and Murphy a visa to visit that country as part of a delegation, claiming Johnson had acted in a “russophobic manner.” Just recently Israel denied Reps. Omar and Tlaib a visa at the prompting of Pres. Trump.

Wow. Data scientist Will Geary made two amazing visualizations of the federal budget. Take a minute and watch these two videos: US discretionary spending from 1963 to present; and federal spending from 1963 to present. Doesn’t this really bring all that data to life? Imagine if the Budget Committee or CBO or even CRS presented material this way. All it takes is structured data and a clever person to analyze and visualize it. There’s more cool stuff on his website. Continue reading “Forecast for September 3, 2019.”