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”

Do 218 Co-Sponsors Make a Difference? Apparently, Yes.

Recent proposals to reform the rules of the House of Representatives included measures to make it easier for legislation that has the support of a majority of the chamber to advance to the floor or prompt committee consideration. If implemented, would this make a difference in how legislation plays out? Apparently, yes.

To find out, we reviewed all House bills that had 218 or more sponsors between 1999–2016, i.e., the 106th-114th Congresses. In the House, 218 members constitutes a majority, so for simplicity’s sake we’ll refer to this set of bills as “popular House bills.”

During the 106th-114th Congresses, 108,086 bills were introduced, but only 3.5% were enacted, or 3,728 bills. In the same period, 450 popular House bills were introduced, with 22% enacted, or 102 bills.

In other words, a bill with 218 co-sponsors is six and a half times more likely to be enacted than any particular bill. Continue reading “Do 218 Co-Sponsors Make a Difference? Apparently, Yes.”

CRS Publishes Some of its Reports, With Promises of More to Come

A subset of current CRS reports was published online by the Library of Congress on Tuesday. While federal law mandated the Library publish by September 18 any non-confidential final written work product of CRS containing research or analysis in any format that is available for general congressional access and that was published after the date of enactment of the legislation on the CRS Congressional Intranet, CRS published only the R series reports, totalling in the low six hundreds. As longtime CRS watcher and report publisher Steven Aftergood noted, “other CRS product lines — including CRS In Focus, CRS Insight, and CRS Legal Sidebar — are not currently available through the public portal.”

The Librarian of Congress implicitly addressed this gap in her blogpost, writing “we worked closely with Congress to make sure that we had a mutual understanding of the law’s requirements,” hinting at a behind-the-scenes agreement with appropriators. It could also be a response to criticism leveled by us (with R Street and GovTrack) concerning problems in the Library’s implementation plan. Continue reading “CRS Publishes Some of its Reports, With Promises of More to Come”

Coming Soon: A Unified Congressional Meetings Calendar

Unnoticed elsewhere but celebrated here, the Library of Congress must update its website to include a unified calendar for Senate and House of Representatives committee hearings and markups. The deadline is 90 days after enactment of the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill, which was on September 21, which means it must be up by Friday, December 21st.

Continue reading “Coming Soon: A Unified Congressional Meetings Calendar”

Time to Reform the House Rules

Improving the House’s rules is the focus of a new letter and white paper released today. It’s no secret that Congress is struggling; these reforms are aimed at making it easier for Members to legislate, conduct oversight, and address constituent concerns.

The letter sets out 10 principles for reforming the House rules, endorsed by 20 organizations and 8 experts on Congress. The white paper contains scores of specific reforms: from addressing staff retention to improving the committee process, from giving Congress access to first class technology to rethinking the ethics process. It reflects more than a year of soliciting and synthesizing ideas from members of congress, staff, and experts on Congress.

On Thursday the Rules Committee will hear Members testify on what rules reforms they would like to see adopted, and in a few short months the House will vote. Process determines policy, and this is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to level the playing field.

The white paper is here: https://s3.amazonaws.com/demandprogress/reports/House_Rules_Reform_Recommendation_2018-09-12.pdf

The letter is here (and reproduced below): https://s3.amazonaws.com/demandprogress/letters/Rules_Reform_Letter_2018-09-12.pdf

Continue reading “Time to Reform the House Rules”

What Does Rep. Collins’ Exit Say About the Speaker’s Power to Police Member Behavior?

Rep. Collins was arrested for insider trading every news outlet on earth reported, but that’s not the most interesting part. Immediately after his arrest, Speaker Ryan released a statement that said, in passive voice, “Until this matter is settled, Rep. Collins will not be serving on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.” Multiple news outlets described what happened as Ryan stripping Collins of his committee membership. At least in a technical sense, that’s not possible. Continue reading “What Does Rep. Collins’ Exit Say About the Speaker’s Power to Police Member Behavior?”

Library Plan to Publish CRS Reports Falls Short of the Law, Is Unduly Expensive

Civil society, students, librarians, and the general public were elated when Congress decided to make the non-confidential non-partisan reports issued by the Congressional Research Service publicly available. These reports are often referred to as the gold standard for information concerning the issues before Congress.

We have obtained the Library of Congress’s implementation plan to make CRS reports available to the public, as required by 2018 Omnibus Appropriations Law. Unfortunately, it does not comport with the law or best practices for creating websites and is unusually expensive.

Today we release the Library’s May 22, 2018, CRS website implementation plan and civil society’s June 6, 2018 memo that responds to that plan. We hope that in doing so we will bring to the surface some of the problems with the CRS reports website’s proposed implementation so they can be fixed in time for the statutory deadline. (The Federation of American Scientists published on Friday a memo to congressional staff about the Library’s plans, but this is different from the implementation plan.) Continue reading “Library Plan to Publish CRS Reports Falls Short of the Law, Is Unduly Expensive”