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.
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” →