2020 Legislative Branch Wish List

The passage of the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill for FY 2020 back in December started the clock on a number of projects and reports inside the legislative branch. We took a look at the requests, broke them down by office, and summarized the deadlines, which are drawn from the House committee report, the Senate committee report, and the Joint Explanatory Statement.

2020 Leg Branch Item Check List (1)

Continue reading “2020 Legislative Branch Wish List”

Appropriators Should Provide Adequate Funding to Congress

Congress is significantly underfunded — especially compared to the executive branch — and it has suffered deep staff cuts over the last 25 years. In March and in September, we co-authored letters naming the fact that not only does the Legislative Branch receive the smallest funding level of the 12 appropriations subcommittees, it has received funding cuts (in real terms) over the last decade even as other appropriations subcommittees have received increases.

As we speak, the House and Senate are negotiating over how much in new funding to give to each of the 12 appropriations subcommittees. In play is how to divvy up a significant increase in overall funding: a $27 billion increase in non-defense discretionary spending over the next fiscal year.

According to CRS, in FY 2019 the legislative branch was funded at $4.836 billion. How does the proposed increases in Leg Branch funding from the House and Senate compare to last year’s funding level?

 

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Comparison of proposed changes in the allocation to the Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee for FY 2020, in millions of dollars.

Continue reading “Appropriators Should Provide Adequate Funding to Congress”

The Congress’s Edifice Problem

According to the Architect of the Capitol, it will take several billion dollars to keep the Congress from literally falling apart. This, and much more, was the subject of four legislative branch appropriations hearings this past week.

It’s not just the physical infrastructure of Congress that’s eroding, the power of the institution has taken a hit over the years with budget cuts. The result has been executive branch overreach as well as cyber security and IT practices falling miles behind best practices.

The legislative branch appropriations subcommittee in charge of doling out the funds that keep the branch functioning has the smallest pot of money to work with in the federal government: last year its funding was only approximately $4.3 billion, with overall federal spending about 1000x greater at $4.3 trillion.

To put this in context, $1.244 trillion was allocated to the 12 appropriations committees for FY 2019. The amount for the legislative branch is so small you can’t see it on the chart — it’s the bright green sliver. Here’s the amounts from least to greatest: Legislative Branch ($4.8b), Agriculture ($23b), Financial Services ($23b), Interior & Environment ($35.6b), Energy & Water ($44.6b), State & Foreign Ops ($46.2b), Homeland Security ($49.4b), Commerce & Science & Justice ($64.1b), Transportation & HUD ($71.1b), Military Construction & VA ($97.1b), Labor & HHS & Education ($178.1b), Defense ($606.5b). (There’s an additional $77b for “Overseas Contingent Operations,” of which $67.9b went to Defense.)

Screenshot 2019-03-01 at 5.10.22 PM Continue reading “The Congress’s Edifice Problem”

What’s in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s 2019 Leg Branch Approps Bill

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously adopted the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill for 2019 (committee bill textcommittee report), advancing the measure to the full chamber. The legislation contains provisions concerning the Senate’s ability to do its job, mirroring in some instances provisions contained in the House bill, which was passed by that chamber last week. (As is common practice for Senate legislative branch appropriations, there was no public subcommittee markup and the full committee markup was recorded as audio only — listen to the last 8 minutes here).

Among the highlights of what was included in the bill text or committee report: Continue reading “What’s in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s 2019 Leg Branch Approps Bill”

2019 House FSGG Approps Bill and Transparency

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee favorably reported the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act for FY 2019, which contains a few transparency-related measures and a few omissions. (Bill as reported; Committee Report as reported). I’ll address a few of the items:

  • Central website for Congressional Budget Justifications
  • No direct funding for Oversight.Gov
  • DATA Act/ USASpending.gov Implementation
  • Undermining Civil Liberties Oversight
  • New Technology Investments
  • Pushing SEC and Open Corporate Data
  • Preventing Easy Tax Filing

Continue reading “2019 House FSGG Approps Bill and Transparency”

Transparency Provisions Inside the FY18 Appropriations Law

1_Aq7GuiYrB1MzgkYX19AjbgThe recently-signed omnibus spending law contains transparency provisions intended to make our federal government just a little more open and accountable. They include: creating a hub for the reports that explain each agency’s federal spending request; a first step towards opening up federal court orders for everyone to read without charge; creating a central repository for reports by the federal Inspectors General; and making reports by the Congressional Research Service available to everyone.

While all these measures are important, the hardest fought is public access to CRS reports. CRS provides non-partisan unbiased explanations of policy matters before Congress, and they make it easier for all of us to have conversations based on the facts.

Continue reading “Transparency Provisions Inside the FY18 Appropriations Law”

Staff Designees on the House Appropriations Committee

Earlier today I tweeted a request for evidence that members of the House Appropriations Committee used to be granted staff designees — staffers paid by the committee that are chosen by and serve the individual members of the committee — but that the designees are being phased out. The following is evidence of that practice. Continue reading “Staff Designees on the House Appropriations Committee”

House Appropriators Turn Back Public Access to CRS Reports, but Not Without a Fight

Today the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee debated two amendments that would make Congressional Research Service reports more equitably available to the public. The effort to release the reports was led by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Rep. Scott Rigell (R-VA).

Here is the bill considered by the committee and the committee report. We submitted testimony to the committee with a number of recommendations for action and we strongly support public access to CRS reports. Continue reading “House Appropriators Turn Back Public Access to CRS Reports, but Not Without a Fight”

A Guide for Appropriators on Opening Up Congressional Information and Making Congress Work Better

For the fifth year in a row, today members of the Congressional Data Coalitionsubmitted testimony to House Appropriators on ways to open up legislative information. The bipartisan coalition focused on tweaking congressional procedures and releasing datasets that, in the hands of third parties, will strengthen Congress’ capacity to govern.

The testimony took note of notable successes:

We commend the House of Representatives for its ongoing efforts to open up congressional information. We applaud the House of Representatives for publishing online and in a structured data format bill text, status, and summary information — and are pleased the Senate has joined the effort. We commend the ongoing work on the Amendment Impact Program and efforts to modernize how committee hearings are published. We look forward to the release of House Rules and House Statement of Disbursements in structured data formats.

We would also like to recognize the growing Member and Congressional staff public engagement around innovation, civic technology and public data issues. From the 18 Members and dozens of staff participating in last year’s nationwide series of #Hack4Congress civic hacking events to the Second Congressional Hackathon co-sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, there is a growing level of enthusiastic support inside the institution for building a better Congress with better technology and data. Moreover, the House Ethics Committee’s recent approval of open source software and the launch of the Congressional Open Source Caucus means good things are in store for 2016.

This groundswell of support cuts across all ages, geographic areas and demographics, both inside and outside Congress. We are excited for the House’s 2016 legislative data and transparency conference and appreciate the quarterly public meetings of the Bulk Data Task Force.

And made recommendations on where the House should focus next or what kinds of data should be released:

Extend and Broaden the Bulk Data Task Force
● Release the Digitized Historical Congressional Record and Publish Future Editions in XML
● Publish all Congress.gov Information in Bulk and in a Structured Data Format
● Include All Public Laws in Congress.gov
● Publish Calendar of Committee Activities in Congress.gov
● Complete and Auditable Bill Text
● CRS Annual Reports and Indices of CRS Reports
● House and Committee Rules
● Publish Bioguide in XML with a Change Log
● Constitution Annotated
● House Office and Support Agency Reports

Signatories included: Center for Data Innovation, Data Coalition, Demand Progress, Free Government Information, GovTrack.Us, New America’s Open Technology Institute, OpenGov Foundation, OpenTheGovernment.Org, R Street Institute, and the Sunlight Foundation.

Read the testimony here. A primer on the work of the Congressional Data Coalition and its testimony over the last half decade is here.

— Written by Daniel Schuman

It’s Federal Budget Day. (Groan)

How to make sense of the President’s spending proposal.

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Photo Credit: Ryan McFarland

Today is the day the White House sends the President’s budget to Congress. The proposal — dead on arrival — is an unintelligible mishmash of happy talk, legislative language, and columns of data.

Buried in the pablum is something useful: explanations of what the government does. Imagine, if you can, a plain language description of what each agency does or plans to do, replete with just enough detail to give a good idea of what’s happening. That, in short, sums up agency-produced documents known as “Congressional Budget Justifications” (or CJs, pehaps named after former White House communications director C. J. Cregg.)

In its CJ, an agency provides Congress a rationale for why the legislative branch should make money available for an agency to spend. It says what they’ve done and what they’re planning to do.

The White House’s consigliere, an agency known as the Office of Management and Budget (or OMB, pronounced Oh Em Bee), makes sure the budget proposal and its explanation reflect White House priorities.

OMB sets the rules for how agencies write the budget in a really tedious document known as OMB Circular A-11. Among many other things, it directs agencies to release the full congressional justification materials available to the public and to post them on the internet within two weeks of sending the stuff to Congress. (I’m paraphrasing section 22.6(c)).

There are a couple of problems with this approach to making budget information available to the public.

  1. Unless you stay as home as much as I do, there’s probably no way to know the CJs exist.
  2. The CJs are scattered across the internet. You have to know exactly what you’re looking for. And even when you do, mighty Google still can lead you on a wild goose chase.
  3. Agencies publish the CJs inconsistently. Some departments publish all agencies justifications together as one giant PDF file — which can be so large it crashes your browser. And it’s not possible to do a track changes on PDFs to show how a CJ has changed from year to hear.
  4. Over time, the CJs can be lost as agencies update their pages.
  5. The White House has a central page for information about the federal budget — this one — filled with everything you’d want to know about the proposal except the Congressional Budget Justifications.

An association of people even nerdier than myself, the American Association for Budget and Program Analysts, usually compiles links to all the CJs. This should be a job for OMB, especially since it already is publishing everything else. Not everyone will find the AABPA website, it may not be complete or timely, and you have to know what you’re doing.

One purpose of open government is to make government accessible and understandable to everyone. OMB should publish explanatory information on the federal budget where the public, journalists, advocates, and policy experts would expect to find it. (The open government community has been asking them to do this for several years.)

Congress could get into the act, too.

The Budget or Appropriations Committee could gather up the documents — they are Congressional Budget Justifications, after all — and publish them on their websites, or encourage a legislative support agency like the Congressional Budget Office to do so. It would be a little weird, as why would Congress publish the White House’s public relations documents, but it would address the disclosure problem.

The Appropriators could also direct (i.e. require) OMB to update its regulation to publish the CJs on OMB’s website. It shouldn’t take an act of Congress to get OMB on the job, but what’s a little nudge between coequal branches of government?

— Written by Daniel Schuman