Members of Congress in the House and Senate, candidates for federal office, senior congressional staff, nominees for executive branch positions, Cabinet members, the president and vice president and Supreme Court justices are required by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 to file annual reports disclosing their personal finances. Compliance and enforcement of this requirement is overseen by the congressional ethics committees, the ethics offices of government agencies and, in the case of executive branch officials, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.
These disclosures include financial forms, gift and travel filings, post-employment lobbying restrictions, and more. It’s a lot of disclosure information, and oftentimes, some disclosures must be filed in person rather than online.
The following outlines the major types of information that must be reported on personal ethics disclosures, as well as if the information is publicly available online, in person, or both.
Demand Progress released 129 recommended updates to the Rules of the House of Representatives and separate orders the House should adopt for the 117th Congress as part of an August 20, 2020 report. The report is the culmination of months of work, reflects significant engagement with experts on Congress, and addresses ten major thematic areas.
We recognize the volume of recommendations in the full report can be overwhelming, so the following document highlights 13 reforms that the House should consider. We chose these particular reform recommendations based on how feasible they are to implement, the extent to which they would strengthen the House of Representatives, their political viability, and their overall significance to Congressional operations.
Each House committee has rules that dictate how the committee will function. These rules govern how many members must be present to take an action (i.e., quorum requirements), subpoenas, and other actions. The committees are (theoretically) the workhorses of Congress — legislation, reports, budgets, appropriations, and oversight all originate in committees.
Committee rules exist under the umbrella of the rules that govern the entire House of Representatives. House and committee rules change every two years as the “new” House takes office after elections. The Congressional Research Service notes: “One of the majority party’s prerogatives is writing House rules and using its numbers to effect the chamber’s rules on the day a new House convenes.”
The House passed a bill last week designed to bring the Franking Commission into the 21st century. The Communications Outreach Media and Mail Standards Act, or COMMS Act (H.R.7512), extends the commission’s authority to regulate mass communications (i.e., to 500 people or more) by Members and Members-elect. The commission’s authority has historically been limited to mailings but the new language refers to a wider range of communications.
On March 10th, which seems like a lifetime ago, the House passed H.Res 756, adopting modernization recommendations of the Fix Congress Committee. The resolution included 29 recommendations that were unanimously reported by the Modernization Committee last year. The resolution calls on legislative support offices to start a number of projects and report back on how to implement others.
On July 10th, the Committee on House Administration released a series of congressional reports that were due in H.Res 756. We continue to catalogue the projects and their due dates into a public spreadsheet, and have them broken down by items.
The Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) serves as legal advisor to the president and executive branch agencies. OLC issues legal opinions and often acts as the final authority on how laws are to be interpreted.
However, these legal opinions and how they are analyzed are often withheld from Congress and the public. In fact, the few OLC opinions that have become publicly available often reveal that they undermine federal legislation and reinterpret the Constitution to expand executive branch power.
When opinions are kept secret, there is no way to know what opinions exist and Congress is unable to determine how the executive branch is interpreting the law, creating an imbalance of power between the branches. In sum, there’s no space for secret law, and OLC opinions can be a gateway to lawlessness.
Congress has struggled to access OLC opinions, and for years civil society has been pushing to make these reports available. However, there are avenues that Congress can take to bring much needed transparency and accountability to OLC opinions.
(This is an update of a 2019 article on how House Committees are funded. It has been updated for the 116th Congress.)
Committee funding in the House of Representatives is accomplished through a somewhat quirky process. Appropriators in the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee set a top dollar amount for the committees — they appropriate the funds — but it is the Committee on House Administration that provides (i.e. allots) the funds to each committee on a biennial basis.
At the beginning of each new Congress, each committee chair and ranking member jointly testifies before the House Administration Committee and requests funds for their committee. For the 116th Congress, the hearing took place on March 12, 2019. Here is the committee notice; the written statements requesting funds; and video.
Total spending on committees is down by more than $115 million from its peak, using inflation adjusted dollars. The House of Representatives put $322,333,439 towards its committees in the 116th Congress, down from $437,680,105 in the 111th Congress, which incidentally was when Democrats last controlled the House. This is a 25% cut in funding. As a point of comparison, spending on the Capitol Police for FY 2020 amounted to $464,341,000.
What’s interesting is that committee spending is down from when Republicans last controlled both the House and the White House, in the 109th Congress. At that time, committees received $408,629,237 in inflation adjusted dollars, which is almost $90m more than the most recent Congress.
SPENDING PER COMMITTEE
In the 116th Congress, the appropriations committee received far and away the lion’s share of committee funding, more than double the next closest committee. The following two charts show how the last Congress prioritized its committee spending. As mentioned above, it is worth noting that the overall pie has shrunk considerably.
CHANGES IN SPENDING PER COMMITTEE
As the overall spending pie for committees has shrunk, who has come out ahead and who has lagged behind? Ethics, Intel, Financial Services, Veterans Affairs, House Administration, and Ways and Means are all up, but this can be deceiving. Ethics ($6.8m), Veterans Affairs ($8.3m), House Administration ($10.6), and Intel ($12.4m) have comparatively tiny budgets, as compared with quite well funded Financial Services ($17.1m) and Ways and Means ($18.3) committees.
Similarly, Rules, Appropriations, Budget, and Oversight appear down, but this too can be misleading. Rules ($6.6m) and Budget ($10.4m) are comparatively small, whereas Oversight ($18.9m) is the third largest committee, and Appropriations ($47.4m) is the largest.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
House Democrats could increase funding for committees by 20-25 percent and still be within historical norms for committee spending. Indeed, what the data shows is that the House’s committees have been hollowed out in recent years.
The biggest likely constraints on returning to normal allotment levels are that the legislative branch budget is comparatively smaller than historical norms, and it will be hard to find the money. Spending on other items consume a comparatively larger share of legislative branch funds.
First, and not to make things too complicated, but the allotment process (the divvying up of funds among the committees) happens only once, at the start of each Congress, and the allotment resolution covers a two year period. By contrast, the legislative branch appropriations process, which is what okays the spending of money, happens every year. You can imagine the appropriation as Congress spending money to buy a pie, and the allotment process as cutting up pieces for each committee. The appropriation and allotment process run on different calendars, which can make things confusing.
Second, generally speaking, funds for a committee are further subdivided, with 2/3s available to be spent by the majority and 1/3 by the minority. This isn’t always true, such as for the Ethics committee, and there can be other considerations, but that’s generally how it works. One notable exception is the Modernization Committee, which has a bipartisan staff. In addition, the funds are generally allotted in two segments, for each year of the Congress.
Third, in some Congresses there is a separate reserve fund, just in case a committee overspends.
Fourth, while most committees are allotted funding, Appropriators appropriate funding specifically for the Appropriations Committee in a separate line item.
Finally, the last time there was a select environmental committee, back in the 111th Congress (2009-2010), the committee was allotted $4,968,243 (in inflation-adjusted dollars); by comparison the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis created during the 116th Congress was allotted $3,781,500. This report is an update to our January 15, 2019 report “How House Committees Get Their Money,” which analyzed House committee allotments up to and including the 115th Congress.
House Democrats and Republicans use internal party committees to control major aspects of the legislative process, including choosing who gets to serve on legislative committees. As we all know, personnel is policy.
Under the House rules, each party decides committee assignments for its members. As a result, the steering and policy committees are the scene of intraparty jockeying for power. With a large number of members competing for a relatively small number of key committee assignments and leadership roles, the parties’ respective steering committees act as a filter for who will rise and a sorting mechanism among the party’s internal factions. It is also a mechanism by which leadership taxes members to provide financial contributions in support of the party.
On March 10th, the House passed H.Res 756, adopting modernization recommendations of the Fix Congress Committee. The resolution included 29 recommendations that were unanimously reported by the Modernization Committee last year. The resolution calls on legislative support offices to start a number of projects and report back on how to implement others.
The resolution contains five titles: (1) streamlining and reorganizing human resources; (2) improving orientation for members-elect and providing improved continuing education opportunities for members; (3) modernizing and revitalizing technology; (4) making the House accessible to all; and (5) improving access to documents and publications. It also states that, whenever practical, the House Administration Committee will publish any report required under this resolution online.
Accordingly, on July 10th, the Committee on House Administration released a series of congressional reports that were due in H.Res 756. Those reports include:
We applaud the release of these reports to the public to help give a better understanding of the implementation of various recommendations from the Modernization Committee resolution. We continue to catalogue the projects and their due dates into a public spreadsheet, and have them broken down by items due below.
Provides for proxy voting on the House floor, which would be turned on, extended, and turned off at the direction of the House Speaker. Members would send a letter to the House Clerk to designate their proxy, and no such designee can cast more than 10 proxy votes. The Clerk would publish the proxy designation on its website. The proxy is revocable, and must provide specific direction as to how to vote. Members voting by proxy would count towards a quorum.
Provides a mechanism for the Chair of the House Administration Committee (in consultation with the RM) to advise on whether secure technology is available to allow for remote voting on the floor. The Chair of the House Rules Committee would then promulgate regulations to put it into effect (to be published in the Congressional Record), and the Speaker would notify the House that remote voting is now possible. Presumably, the Speaker would be able to choose whether to provide this notice.
Provides for remote deliberations for hearings and markups for committees. Many of the details of how this would work have been pushed to the Rules Committee, whose chair (in consultation with the RM) would issue regulations on remote deliberations that would be published in the Congressional Record. To conduct business meetings (which presumably means markups), a majority of Members of the Committee would have to certify they will follow the regulations and that the committee is ready for remote deliberations.
I am still thinking through the implications of this resolution, which will be considered on Thursday before the House Rules Committee and on Friday on the House floor. Generally speaking, it is a welcome step towards restoring the functionality of the House of Representatives during the COVID-19 pandemic. The choice is stark: a remote House or no House, and this belated move will begin to restore the power of the legislative branch, at least in the people’s House.
I have to applaud the Members of the Virtual House Task Force, Reps. Hoyer, McGovern, and Lofgren, who worked hard to find a solution that met the dire circumstances and made efforts to protect minority rights. I am concerned that Republican members of the Task Force (McCarthy, Cole, and Davis) did not support the final product — and I remain concerned about protecting the ability of the minority to be heard — but given the political circumstances, the position of the minority is not surprising. Hopefully additional accommodations can be made to meet the needs of the majority and the minority, leadership and rank-and-file, as regulations to implement this are promulgated.
I have some reactions to the resolution that are worth sharing. I haven’t fully thought this though, but here are some initial reactions:
(1) A lot of eggs are being put in the basket of the regulations that McGovern will promulgate. The strength and weaknesses of those regulations will go a long way to determining whether this is a workable and fair solution.
(2) The resolution does not yet turn on remote committee markups. Rather, they’re pending both McGovern regulations and certification from the committees. I wonder how long this will take and how many committees are ready to act. It seems like some of them are ready to lead.
(3) The power to go to remote proceedings on the floor and in the committees is placed solely in Pelosi’s hands. She can declare, she can extend. Members of the House are non-entities for this purpose. It would have been preferable for the House to have a role in voting to confirm, extend, and cancel these proceedings.
(4) After House Admin issues report on feasibility of remote voting on the floor, McGovern would issue new regulations on how it works, but Pelosi still has to give notice to the House to turn it on. Power is put in the Speaker’s hands (and not shared with the House).
(5) I don’t see anything beyond remote voting and counting for quorum on the House floor. Specifically, I don’t see anything about how members can participate in debate remotely. Is this an omission? An oversight? Something else? What about the ability to make motions, to object, etc.?
(6) There’s no requirements for transparency, which will be issued by McGovern later. This is a big deal, as it has to do with how public and press can see what’s going on. It makes me nervous to turn off the House Committee’s transparency requirements with a TBD in their place.
(7) Committees cannot hold executive session remotely (except for Ethics committee). Will the NDAA be a more open process? What about Intel oversight?
(8) To turn on remote voting on the House floor, it requires: (1) House admin study + certification that operable and secure tech exists; (2) Rules Cmte Chair submitting regulations, published in the congressional record, that provide for implementation of remote voting; (3) Speaker must provide notice to the House before it’s turned on.
9) There’s lots of interesting technology changes/ improvements, some of which are long overdue.
Publication of list of proxy voting designees by the Clerk on the website
Committee reports may be delivered to the Clerk in electronic form, including views of minority
Electronic motions, amendments, measures, and documents is good enough — don’t need it to be printed
Don’t need recorded vote records to be available in committee offices
Oath can be given remotely
Subpoenas can be signed by electronic signature and attested by the Clerk by electronic signature
Can do subpoenas both for hearings and for depositions
There’s a lot more the House should and could be doing from a technology perspective. Unfortunately, the HEROES Act (i.e., CARES 2.0) does not provide for technological modernization in the legislative branch, and it’s likely that there will be no money available through the legislative branch appropriations process. This is a huge missed opportunity that could undermine the ability of the House to modernize in the way that’s necessary to meet this challenge.