A Small Step Towards A Better House of Representatives

Today the Committee on House Administration took a small but important step to restore the House of Representatives as an effective legislative and oversight body. It voted unanimously to increase funding for each permanent committee — with four committees receiving a double-digit percentage increase.

The legislative branch is appropriated 0.1% of the federal budget to oversee the entire federal government, with much of that going towards non-legislative functions like security and facilities. Congress is woefully underfunded to perform its legislative, oversight, and representational duties, and that has undermined its ability to serve as a check on the executive branch. Continue reading “A Small Step Towards A Better House of Representatives”

Strengthening Congressional Oversight of the Intelligence Community

Today 33 organizations called on the House of Representatives to strengthen its oversight of the intelligence community. Concurrently, a bipartisan quartet of organizations made in-depth recommendations on how the House should update its intelligence oversight rules.

The letter and white paper are the culmination of nearly two years of work. Their release comes on the heels of the commemoration of 9/11 one day prior to a House hearing on updating the lower chamber’s rules. Continue reading “Strengthening Congressional Oversight of the Intelligence Community”

Will Sen. McConnell Finally Close the Presidential Library Golden Parachute for Ex-Presidents (and a Future One)?

Yesterday the Clinton Foundation announced it no longer would accept donations from corporate or foreign entities should Hillary Clinton be elected president, responding to criticism for “potentially allowing donors to seek special access through [Clinton’s] government post.” Unremarked upon is the danger of having a foundation linked to a president accepting any donations during his or her term of office, a circumstance that led to major scandals in the last three administrations.

Over the last 70 years, every outgoing president raised money for a presidential library. George W. Bush hauled in a Texas-sized $500 million, and Barack Obama expects to reach a cool billion in his already-underway efforts, though the president himself promised he personally will not fund-raise in office. With the existing Clinton Foundation, potential president Hillary Clinton may have a head start. The libraries aren’t just a repository for presidential papers; they are an attempt at telling the story of a presidency from the president’s perspective. Continue reading “Will Sen. McConnell Finally Close the Presidential Library Golden Parachute for Ex-Presidents (and a Future One)?”

Tracking Lobbying by Foreign Governments

In the next few months, the Justice Department’s Inspector General will release a report on lobbying by foreign powers aimed at the federal government. Unlikely lobbying by American citizens and companies, tracked by the House of Representatives and Senate, lobbying by agents of foreign powers is monitored by the Department of Justice.

The law requiring reporting by foreign lobbyists — known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA — originated in the 1930s and grew out of the concern that it’s important to know when foreign governments are trying to influence U.S. policy. It differers from domestic lobbying reporting in three important ways. Continue reading “Tracking Lobbying by Foreign Governments”

Is The House Intelligence Committee Out of Balance?

Yesterday’s appointment of representative Joaquin Castro (D-TX) to the House Intelligence Committee may push the Committee’s membership out of balance — it no longer has a member who also serves on the Judiciary Committee, as required by the Rules of the House of Representatives.

Because of its coordinating role, House Rules require the Committee to include at least one member who also serves on the following committees: Appropriations, Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, and Judiciary. Rep. Castro replaces Illinois representative Luis Gutierrez, who resigned on May 26th and was the only member of the Committee cross-seated on Judiciary. The House of Representatives apparently waived the rules’ requirement when it agreed to his appointment. Continue reading “Is The House Intelligence Committee Out of Balance?”

11 Simple Things to Improve Senate Accountability

Democratic members of the U.S. Senate recently announced “We the People,” a legislative package the New York Times describes as intended to “hit campaign contributions, lobbying laws and other accountability issues.” Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton hailed the legislation, which is unlikely to pass under Republican control, as “ a strong package of reforms to help restore our democracy and break the grip of wealthy special interests in Washington.”

We applaud any effort to address undue influence and the role of money in politics. (We also think the package of ambitious proposals should have included public financing.) While the provisions in the legislation may prove hard to move even in a Democratic-controlled Senate, we offer eleven ideas to which nearly every senator should be able to say yes. Continue reading “11 Simple Things to Improve Senate Accountability”

Report from the 2016 Legislative Data & Transparency Conference

Today the House of Representatives’ Committee on House Administration hosted its fifth annual Legislative Data & Transparency Conference in the U.S. Capitol. The Conference brought together staff from House and Senate and legislative support offices, civil society advocates, technologists, overseas legislatures, and featured a speech by House Speaker Paul Ryan. More than 150 people attended, with more participating online.

There’s too much to recap from the conference — my notes, taken in real-time, are online, as is a video of the proceedings — but this blogpost will focus on the highlights. Once again, the most important aspect of the conference was that it brought together all the internal and external stakeholders to work together, announce progress, celebrate advances, and educate one another. It was a tremendous success. Continue reading “Report from the 2016 Legislative Data & Transparency Conference”

House Passes Historic FOIA Bill, Obama Expected to Sign

Today the House of Representatives passed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, which passed the Senate in March; President Obama indicated through a spokesman he will sign the measure. [Update: President Obama signed it into law on June 30.] The legislation is the second major transparency bill of the Obama administration — the other is the DATA Act, a federal spending transparency bill. The legislation will become law before July 4th, 2016, the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the original Freedom of Information Act.

The FOIA bill has four major provisions. First, it writes into law a presumption of openness, so future Dick Cheney’s cannot use implausible excuses to withhold information. Second, the bill establishes a 25-year sunset on the administration’s ability to invoke the “deliberative process” privilege to withhold information. Third, it strengthens the FOIA ombudsman. Finally, it pushes FOIA into the digital age through the creation of an online portal. Continue reading “House Passes Historic FOIA Bill, Obama Expected to Sign”

Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Blog Published an Article Measuring Legislative Effectiveness. It’s Wrong and They Should Withdraw It.

Photo source: Ted McGrath

Dear Professor Lazarus:

I just read your post on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, the headline of which declares “Hillary Clinton was a more effective lawmaker than Bernie Sanders.” Respectfully, there is insufficient data to make such a comparison and the conclusion cannot be supported by the available evidence. You should withdraw or amend the blogpost. Moreover, there is no good way to (quantitatively) measure legislative effectiveness. Let me explain why. Continue reading “Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Blog Published an Article Measuring Legislative Effectiveness. It’s Wrong and They Should Withdraw It.”

Civic Organizations Warn White House on Failing Transparency Legacy

In an unusually strongly worded letter, today Demand Progress and twelve civic organizations warned President Obama that his legacy on transparency issues is in danger. After identifying serious failings on the part of the administration — including its efforts to undermine FOIA legislation, federal spending transparency legislation, and the stalling of its ethics agenda — the organizations issued this warning:

[W]hat troubles us is that it appears your White House team lacks the will and interest to undertake the challenge of this transformative work, and in some instances actively undermined forward progress. Indeed, in some areas that appear well within the administration’s control, there has even been backsliding — for instance, novel uses of the state secrets privilege and the unprecedented number of Espionage Act prosecutions for disclosures to the media.

There is a very real danger that instead of leaving the legacy of transparency that you intended, you risk leaving with a very different legacy: one of betrayed promises. Circumstances may force us to rate your administration as one that failed to fulfill its goals.

In this last year of your presidency, you have the opportunity to revive your legacy for open and transparent government.

The organizations recommended a series of remedial actions that, if taken in concert, may salvage the administration’s reputation. They include:

  • Endorse the FOIA bill that has passed the Senate. (The Administration reportedly recently did so.)
  • Proactively disclose agency visitor logs.
  • Release and declassify the torture report that originated in the Senate.
  • Shed light on our rigged campaign finance system through an Executive Order on federal contractor political spending and other means.
  • Protect whistleblowers (including contractors) in the national security context.
  • Fight to slow down the revolving door.

There is no doubt there still are good people in the administration fighting for open government and transparency. There are many amazing people in the agencies. But they need an ally at the top — one who, even in the waning days of the administration, can set priorities and cut through the bureaucracy.

The president has reminded us in another context that he’s still in office and is still working. Let’s hope he will reengage on open, accountable, and transparency government.

— Written by Daniel Schuman