Special First Branch Forecast for November 28, 2022: Rules Rules Rules

This week is a big week for party leadership elections and party and chamber rules. We realize we just sent our weekly First Branch Forecast newsletter Monday morning, but this update is both important and timely.

As a reminder, we’ve gathered resources on proposals to update the caucus and conference rules. Also, don’t forget our compilation of recs to update the House chamber rules and the Senate chamber rules.

HOUSE RULES

House Rules. The House Rules Committee meets tomorrow for a Member Day hearing on the House Rules. Presumably, proposals will be published here. Tomorrow morning, Demand Progress and the Lincoln Network will jointly release bipartisan recommendations for updating the House’s rules. Stay tuned.

HOUSE DEMOCRATIC PARTY RULES & LEADERSHIP

House Democratic Leadership. House Dems start holding elections for caucus leadership on Wednesday at 9 a.m., according to BGOV. No competitive races at the top. Punchbowl expects the new triumvirate + Clyburn will be elected by unanimous consent. Down ballot will be decided later, as will committee appointments.

— We continue to ask: why aren’t the Dem Policy and Steering Committee membership list and rules publicly available?

House Democratic Caucus Rules. Dems to vote on proposed changes to caucus rules on Wednesday. The proposals aren’t publicly available (argh!) but Punchbowl has obtained them, which we’ve republished here.

— Demand Progress Education Fund released a detailed list of proposed amendments to the caucus rules to bring needed transparency and accountability.

Proposed amendments go before the secretive Committee on Caucus Procedures on Monday afternoon — chaired by Grace Meng, regarding which there’s no public list of members. The Committee’s purpose is not to propose rules changes of their own, but to review and make recs on the proposed amendments. The full Caucus will vote on Wednesday.

— What are the 11 proposed amendments? The following are my summaries. By the way, the amendments most likely to provide the rank-and-file more of a voice in the policymaking process are amendment #9 and amendment #10, of which the former lessens leadership control and the latter lessens committee chair control & rules committee control.

  • Amendment 1. Implements ranked choice voting for contested caucus elections. (Beyer)
     
  • Amendment 2. Allows the caucus to vote by 2/3s of its members to waive the requirement that the Caucus vote by secret ballot to approve or disapprove the [Steering and Policy Committee chosen] nominee to chair a standing committee (Eshoo)
     
  • Amendment 3. Requires a secret standing committee chair retention election whereby a chair who wishes to serve more than 6 years needs an affirmative vote from a majority of the caucus. (Foster)
     
  • Amendment 4. Democratic Leader nominates the chair of the DCCC by Feb 15; caucus votes on that nomination (and any others made by 5 caucus members) by March 1. (Current rule doesn’t have the leader make a recommendation.) (DelBene, Schneider, Pocan)
     
  • Amendment 5. Creates the position of Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. (Cicilline)
     
  • Amendment 6. Creates another party position akin to the regional reps, the Battleground Leadership Representative, elected by a majority vote of “Battleground Members.” (Lee)
     
  • Amendment 7. Allows members who temporarily serve on a committee to gain seniority over other members who also have temporarily served on the committee. (Kelly)
     
  • Amendment 8. I don’t understand this amendment. I think it allows a member whose bid, made in order of seniority, to serve as a subcommittee chair was rejected by the committee to stand for another election before the committee for that position, this time against everyone who has declared themselves interested in the subcommittee chair spot. (Sherman)
     
  • Amendment 9. Significantly increases rank-and-file influence on the currently-Speaker/leadership controlled Steering and Policy Committee by doubling the numbers of regional representatives and reducing the number of members who get to serve on the committee by virtue of their office. Specifically, it would allow for two representatives from each region instead of one, reduce the number of members appointed by the Speaker to 5 from 15, and eliminate the ex officio appointments of the senior chief deputy whip, all chief deputy whips, a member of the freshman class, and some committee chairs. (Case)
     
  • Amendment 10. Improves the ability of rank-and-file to get legislation considered in committees and on the floor. Requires committee chairs to markup any bill co-sponsored by both a majority of the Democratic Caucus and a majority of Democratic members of the committee of jurisdiction. Also requires Democratic Leadership to bring to the floor any bill cosponsored by two-thirds of the Democratic Caucus. (Larson)
     
  • Amendment 11. Directs the Caucus to provide technical support for Members to participate in hybrid/remote caucus proceedings and also to ensure that the meetings are secure. (Jackson Lee)
Continue reading “Special First Branch Forecast for November 28, 2022: Rules Rules Rules”

First Branch Forecast for November 28, 2022: Stopping by Congress

TOP LINE

The next House will be symmetrical to this one: 222 Democrats becoming 222 Republicans. The incoming coalition, however, is a lot less stable than the outgoing one. How Rep. Kevin McCarthy navigates the complex journey to the speakership could break either way for the institutional health of Congress. Meanwhile, Democrats, like good Thanksgiving guests, are in full conflict avoidance mode within their caucus.

This week, The Senate returns on Monday and will vote on cloture for the Respect for Marriage Act. The House returns on Tuesday. It looks like a light legislative week in the people’s chamber even as the clock ticks down on many important legislative efforts, big and small.

The House Rules Committee will hold a Members’ Day hearing Tuesday to gather rules change proposals for the 118th Congress. House and Senate Democrats will vote on their caucus rules Thursday.

IN THE WOODS: PARTY FACTIONS

We’ve been focused on the House Freedom Caucus and the rest of the hard-right faction as it positions itself for greater influence in the 118th Congress. It’s hardly the only faction, or even the largest, in the GOP conference, however. Politico last week reported on how party “moderates” and some Democrats are considering utilizing their own leverage, particularly as Rep. Kevin McCarthy plays 17-dimensional chess to secure enough votes for the Speakership. They may be looking for potential rules or committee structure changes, which is intriguing.

The story is a reminder that the tactical posturing of establishing the 118th Congress represents real rifts developing between some key constituencies in the Republican Party and for some Democratic “moderates.” Republicans who see themselves representing white Christian conservatives have broken with corporate America over companies becoming “woke” on social equity issues that affect both public reputations and employee satisfaction. Their constituents, especially the wealthy mega-donors and grassroots donors, want control of the party for their decades of commitment as its activist base. But they’re running up against very powerful and wealthy (corporate) interests that are used to political dominance.

Perhaps the first problem the Problem Solvers Caucus might end up solving is the HFC.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for November 28, 2022: Stopping by Congress”

First Branch Forecast for November 21, 2022: Twilight of the Idols

TOP LINE

Last week, the transition of leadership in the Democratic caucus of the House grabbed the spotlight even as control of the House finally flipped. Off stage, we started tracking whether an institutional transition is underway from the current party/leader management structure.

Splinter groups of Republicans in both chambers are dissatisfied with their subordinate positions and could be driving towards a different model of power sharing and deliberation within their conferences, beginning in the next Congress. Similarly, many Democrats — progressive and otherwise — share a similar frustration, if not the same tactics, and we will see in the coming weeks whether their calls for institutional change will be implemented within the caucus.

For our part, today we’re publicly releasing a report containing recommendations for House Democrats to update their caucus rules. Most of these recommendations are common-sense, heck, if you like this newsletter you’ll like most of the ideas, although somehow leadership has managed to overlook some of our prior efforts to nudge things in a better direction. House Democrats are expected to vote in a week on their caucus rules, with draft amendments due by the end of this week.

We also published a list of House rules adopted in the 116th and 117th Congresses that should continue on to the 118th. The Freedom Caucus has talked about reverting the House rules to before Democratic control, which would be a mistake in many instances. It would also be a political blunder. We’ll soon be releasing a comprehensive list of what Republicans should include in their chamber rules.

Sorry, friends, but you know we love the rules stuff. In fact, we’ve put together this wiki page that has all the caucus and conference rules we could find plus the text of the 24 proposed amendments to the 118th Republican conference rules. (Confidential to Sen. Schumer: it’s time for Senate Dems to publish their caucus rules.) ICYMI, FreedomWorks hosted this excellent event last Monday with many of the leading lights in the effort to decentralize power in the Republican party — we loved the statement that there are now three parties in the House: Democrats, Republicans, and Freedom Caucus. And I enjoyed serving as a panelist for the Lincoln Network’s look at modernizing the House on Thursday, which, alas, was not recorded.

Some of why we’re optimistic about the potential for a Congress that shares power more widely was on display last week in several committee hearing rooms, where members demonstrated mutual respect and an interest in understanding complex issues collaboratively at hearings before the Rules Committee and the House Modernization Committee.

THIS WEEK Congress takes a week-long break for Thanksgiving, with a few hearings scheduled.

Oh, and the number of Members of Congress on Mastodon has grown by 300%, to 3. If your boss/committee/office is setting up an account, please let me know.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for November 21, 2022: Twilight of the Idols”

First Branch Forecast for November 14, 2022: Who’s the Boss?

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TOP LINE

We still don’t know many things after Tuesday’s congressional elections, including who will control the House of Representatives. It appears at the moment that Republicans can do no better than a two-seat majority in the House, and winning control is not guaranteed. Democrats will retain control of the Senate, and, pending a run-off, may be able to exit the power-sharing agreement with McConnell and take charge (to the extent the filibuster lets them do so).

One thing we do know is the current status quo is over. Congressional majorities haven’t been this slim in both the House and Senate since 1931-32 (which, of course, didn’t last long). This election is bizarre in historical terms. As James Fallows points out, “Every first-term president since World War II (except one) has suffered midterm election losses,” with an average loss of 30 House seats. By those metrics, this was a modest blue wave, albeit one tempered by the structural disadvantages in how districts for House members are constructed. It also suggests something new is happening within the plate tectonics of our political system.

The resulting razor thin margin in this era of high partisan polarization leaves us thinking of the myriad unknowns going forward in the near and longer term for Congress and the federal government. Rifts between hard-line conservatives and Republican leadership in both chambers already have opened up, as has Democratic infighting over messaging and resourcing of candidates.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for November 14, 2022: Who’s the Boss?”

First Branch Forecast for November 7, 2022: The Longest Weekend

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TOP LINE

The fallout from the attempted murder of Paul Pelosi reverberates as Americans go to the polls. Those charged with protecting Members of Congress have asked for even more money while the proximate cause of security failures — bad leadership, bad management, bad oversight — remain unaddressed. As some on the new right escalate and make light of political violence, its likelihood increases.

This week Americans elect a new Congress.

Staff pay. The House Chief Administrative Officer circulated a new analysis of pay for congressional staff, comparing average annual salary ranges for 2022 v. 2021 based on third-quarter pay rates. For the positions compared, the average salary increased by 23%, from $67,420 to $82,849. This significant increase reflects a tremendous House commitment to restore pay levels for staff to their 2010 levels, as they had been cut mercilessly in the intervening years. We also note that no staffer in a House personal office surveyed is paid below the floor of $45,000 annually, which was not true previously. The analysis only covers personal office staff and does not include committee or leadership positions. The details are here.

Mastodon. The great #TwitterRapture, or perhaps #ElonExit, is taking place, with Mastodon now hosting 4.5 million accounts and 1.3 million active users and growing at a fast pace. When will Members of Congress, committees, leadership, and non-partisan offices open up accounts? Will there be an official congressional “instance,” such as mastodon.congress.gov? So far the only congressional account we saw was for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and that retweets her Twitter account. Know any congressional offices on Mastodon? Let us know here. The unofficial tally is here. I’m online here. Is this all a good idea? I’m old enough to have worked at the Sunlight Foundation when it ran a campaign called “Let Our Congress Tweet.” There’s definitely a lot of lessons learned. OTOH, at least one government has jumped in.

Down the line, Congress will reconvene on Nov. 14, with the Senate scheduled to take up the NDAA. House Republicans will hold conference rules and leadership elections through the week of the 14th. The House Modernization Committee will vote on its final set of recommendations Nov. 17. Democratic leadership elections look likely at the end of the month, or perhaps later.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for November 7, 2022: The Longest Weekend”

First Branch Forecast for Oct. 31, 2022: Improving Congressional Tech

Top Line

1/ Speaker Pelosi’s husband was violently assaulted in their San Francisco residence.

At the time of writing, we do not know the motives of the assailant. However, it would not be surprising if the ultimate aim was to harm Speaker Pelosi. In this newsletter we have previously discussed the concept of stochastic terrorism, which is “the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted.” We condemn all acts of violence, and incitement to violence, against elected officials and their families. We wish Paul Pelosi a speedy and full recovery.

Political violence is sometimes used as a reason to overreach and curtail political speech. We acknowledge the importance of allowing for criticism of the policies advanced by a politician. Bad political actors have demonstrated a remarkable facility with the use of dog whistles, however. They generate veiled calls for or support of violence that increases the likelihood of violence in such a way as to create some doubt about what they are doing. The traditional media has largely been unable or unwilling to cover this appropriately, and partisan media and partisan actors have amplified these calls.

We wonder about the role of the extraordinarily well-funded U.S. Capitol Police in this incident. It seems plausible that one of their most visible protectees was a target regardless of whether she was actually present. What does it say about security for other Members of Congress in their homes, workplaces, and elsewhere? What does it say about the USCP’s ability to detect, deter, and address threats? We stand by our concerns that structural problems with the leadership and oversight of the USCP create a fundamental risk to the safety of Congress, a problem that cannot be resolved by throwing money at the problem. We have yet to see any real reforms at the USCP or its oversight board.

We realize that Congress’s most likely reaction will be to shovel more money at the Capitol Police. The overall funding level for the Legislative branch can’t handle these hundred-million-dollar annual increases for the USCP without undercutting the ability of the Legislative branch to function by constraining funds for all other purposes. (There’s a $100 million increase in the works when the delayed appropriations bill becomes law.) We’d suggest that some of the USCP’s funds start coming from another appropriations subcommittee, like Defense or CJS, because their work includes responding to terrorism and crime threats.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for Oct. 31, 2022: Improving Congressional Tech”

First Branch Forecast for October 24, 2022: Adults in the Room

TOP LINE

Member and committee office staff on Capitol Hill work in an environment with very little incentive or opportunity for their employers to compensate them fairly for their abilities. Committee budgets are uncertain from term to term and Members pay staff out of a fixed allotment that has declined year-over-year until recently. The prestige of working for Congress – and for many staff, the promise of a much larger pay day in the private sector because of the experience – means that despite low pay, a steady stream of applicants is ready to fill any vacancies. Members, meanwhile, try to score small points with constituents by touting their frugality even as they undercut their policymaking and constituent service capabilities.

As a result, Congressional staff remain significantly underpaid while being asked to live in an expensive municipal area. The median House staffer salary is $59,000, more than $5,000 lower than the median private sector salary nationally. It’s the equivalent of a mid-grade GS-7 position in the executive branch in the Washington metropolitan area. The starting salary for a US Capitol Police officer is nearly $74,000 – only requires a high school diploma – and they’re eligible for a signing bonus.

One major difference for the Capitol Police is they have a union, which advocates for greater funding and benefits for the agency. (Most non-political congressional employees are on the Congressional equivalent of the GS scale.) Unionization levels the playing field with employers significantly by making workers part of the management discussion. Across the American labor market, nonunion workers make 83 percent of what unionized ones do.

Unionization, therefore, is one of the few forces that can push Congress as a whole toward pay equity with the private sector and executive branch by addressing the underlying structural problems. It also allows employees to turn improved resources at the office level into wins for employees. Within the nascent staffer organizing movement, we saw the first green shoot of impact last week when staff in Rep. Andy Levin’s office tentatively agreed to the first union contract in a Member office. The new contract raises median junior staffer pay to $76,000, or the equivalent of a bump to GS-9, and gives everyone a $10,000 raise. The figure well exceeds the $45,000 minimum salary set by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in May that came into effect in September. It also surpasses the $52,000 salary minimum Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez voluntarily set when she came to office in 2019, which was long before the MRA bump was passed into law — a bump AOC advocated for.

Even though Rep. Levin will be leaving Congress, the successful negotiation of the contract is an important demonstration of how Member offices can navigate this process going forward and negates the argument that the unionization process inherently will be contentious. Setting a median salary well ahead of the current minimum, meanwhile, creates a solid target for other offices to shoot for and provides appropriators a rough idea of how much further to expand the MRA.

Because of Members’ preference to handle their own political staff hiring, it will take much more time for unionization to impact salaries across the House. For now, the half-dozen Democratic offices that have started unionization can use Levin’s office as a benchmark. Eventually, disparities in pay will push Democratic offices to close pay gaps to remain desirable workplaces. Perhaps the comparison will prod Republican offices to keep up as well. If Republican members hold out both on unionization and on wage increases, over the years the Hill may evolve into a workplace where tens of thousands of dollars separate staffers doing the same work in one party than the other.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for October 24, 2022: Adults in the Room”

First Branch Forecast for October 17, 2022: Looking Ahead

TOP LINE

Abby Livingston has had enough. After carving out a successful career as a Capitol Hill journalist – becoming a one-woman DC bureau for the nonprofit Texas Tribune – she quit. The trigger, she shared last week, was realizing a corridor in the Capitol that had felt like the safest place in the world to her 15 years earlier had been the same spot where January 6 insurrectionists mercilessly beat Capitol Police officers. Even though she wasn’t there that day because of the pandemic, the ghosts of the mob were everywhere. Meanwhile, Members of Congress reinforced the mob’s message or focused on becoming internet famous.

Livingston didn’t go into Hill journalism to become internet famous: she did it because she found Congress to be a challenging puzzle she wanted to understand. We certainly can relate to that. If you’re reading this newsletter, you probably do, too. When word of her resignation spread, Livingston said that her fellow Hill rat journalists and staffers shared their own “private stress of finding their own paths through whatever it is this country is going through.”

Such folks, she writes, “came to Washington out of patriotism and wanted to devote whatever God-given gifts they had to the country’s business. They don’t make the big salaries or receive the kinds of validation that make the terrible days manageable. And the fact that so many of them are at the end of their rope should worry every American about what comes next.”

This feeling of exhaustion within the institution has bubbled for years, rising even to touch a Speaker of the House who quit Congress entirely rather than deal with ideologues in his own party one more time. (That former Speaker, it should be noted, first came to Congress at the head of a wave of bomb throwers who thought Reagan-style conservatism wasn’t ideologically pure or combative enough.) But we worry at the close of this Congress that what will come next will be a further exodus of people attached to the institution for all the right reasons who are sick of the bullying and the possibility of violence and are tired of political theater designed to extract one more dollar out of a MAGA constituency living in a closed feedback loop of their own fears and desires.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for October 17, 2022: Looking Ahead”

First Branch Forecast for September 19, 2022: Fixing Congress

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TOP LINE

The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held its final hearing last Wednesday, aptly on how Congress should continue its work.

The Committee has issued 177 recommendations over its three-and-a-half year tenure and likely will surpass the 200 mark before its work concludes at the end of this Congress. By its own count, only 37 of those recommendations have been fully implemented. In advance of the hearing, Roll Call provided this excellent preview of what’s done and what’s yet to be done.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for September 19, 2022: Fixing Congress”

First Branch Forecast for September 13, 2022: And We’re Back

TOP LINE

A pre-midterm cram session is emerging as the Senate tries to squeeze in votes on same-sex marrige protections, reforms to the Electoral Count Act, insulin pricing, energy permitting reform, FDA user fees…oh, and avoiding a government shutdown Oct. 1. So here we are, less than two months before a very consequential midterm election with the prospect of a variety of major legislation heading to the President’s desk – and with significant bipartisan support. Weird, huh?

Finalizing the government spending package sounds much more like a when than an if, as both parties were seeking a continuing resolution that carried well past the midterms. The Biden Administration’s request of an additional $13.7 billion in military aid for Ukraine and more COVID spending may slow that down. Democratic leadership also has several tactical decisions to make on what measures to attach to the CR.

Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Susan Collins are continuing to seek out Republican co-sponsors of their marriage bill to get it over the filibuster threshold. On the ECA (S. 4573), Senator Charles Grassley’s office confirmed he will sign on to be the 10th Republican co-sponsor, joining Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and others critical of President Trump’s role in the January 6 insurrection.

The shifting political environment is providing a spark for reviving the ECA before the lame duck session. After President Biden’s speech in Philadelphia denouncing the “MAGA” faction of the GOP as a direct threat to democracy, 58% of poll respondents agreed with his assessment. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed by CBS News at the end of August predicted an uptick in political violence in the coming years, up from 51% in Jan. 2021. On the question of democratic decline, 54% agreed that the country would be less democratic a generation from now.

A ban on stock trading by sitting Members of Congress also may sneak in under the election wire. Progressive and moderate sponsors of a bipartisan House bill have asked for a vote by Sept. 30. Reps. Jayapal, Rosendale and Senators Warren, Blackburn, Daines, and Stabenow have introduced their own bill. The House Administration Committee was expected to release a stock ban framework in early August, but if they have, we must have missed it.

This week on the floor. The House begins three weeks of votes starting Tuesday. Don’t miss Wednesday’s ModCom hearing on a roadmap to the future and the Transparency Caucus’ panel discussion on what’s next in transparency across the government.

Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for September 13, 2022: And We’re Back”