The Recap: Library of Congress Virtual Public Forum

On September 10, 2020, the Library of Congress held a Virtual Public Forum on the Library’s role in providing access to legislative information. The forum was held at the direction of the House Committee on Appropriations pursuant to its report accompanying the FY 2020 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill. Per the legislative language, there will be another forum scheduled prior to October 2021. There was widespread interest in the topic: according to the Library, several hundred people registered for the event. 

Prior to the forum, the Congressional Data Coalition and others sent a report containing more than two dozen recommendations concerning the Library of Congress’ legislative information services. They fell into five conceptual groupings: (1) Publish Information As Data; (2) Put the Legislative Process in Context; (3) Integrate Information from Multiple Sources; (4) Publish Archival Information; (5) Collaborate with the Public. 

The following provides a recap of the three-hour proceedings. The Library indicated it will post video snippets of the conversation.

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Pending Good Government Bills: 116th Congress

The 116th Congress is coming to a close, with Members getting ready to depart to campaign full-time and then return in late-November/December for a lame duck session. Time is running out before bills turn into pumpkins and have to be re-introduced at the start of the next Congress. According to GovTrack, 151 bills have become law so far. By comparison, 12,874 bills have been introduced, or 1.1%, although some of these bills are duplicates of ones that have become law. 

We and our friends in civil society have compiled a non-exhaustive list of pending good government bills that lawmakers should consider pushing across the finish line before time runs out. As legislation that’s further along in the process is more likely to become law, we’ve sorted our list by their status. We’ve further subdivided the list regarding the part of government they would affect.

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Capitol Police Release 2019 Complaints Data With Significant Omissions That Reduce Clarity

The U.S. Capitol Police is notoriously opaque; among the limited information they will provide to the public are summary statistics on employee misconduct, published in their Annual Statistical Summary Report. This report provides a high level summary of the number of complaints made against USCP employees.

We requested a copy of the 2019 data in June, and it arrived in August, which is par for the course with USCP. Here is what the statistics show: 

  1. There were 228 complaints filed against USCP employees in 2019, of which nearly 140 charges were sustained.
  1. More than 80% of complaints were filed by department employees; by comparison 14%  were citizen submissions, and 3% were filed by outside law enforcement.
  1. There have been zero anonymous complaints filed in 2019, and the same was true in 2018. This suggests a problem with the way the anonymous complaints process works.
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House CJS Appropriations Report Calls for Greater Transparency of Office of Legal Counsel Opinions

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. 

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Who Steers the Ship? An Examination of House Steering and Policy Committee Membership

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.

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The Complete Guide to What We Know (And Don’t Know) About the U.S. Capitol Police

The U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) has a critical mission of protecting Congress — Members, employees, and visitors — so constitutionally mandated business can be carried out in a safe and open environment. USCP has a massive $464 million budget for FY 2020 and 2,514 employees, of whom 2,060 are sworn personnel. By comparison, the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) is funded at $556 million and has 3,851 sworn officers.

Unlike the vast majority of local police forces, the USCP provides little public information about its activities. The Capitol Police is part of the Legislative Branch, which means it’s under no obligation to answer records requests and is not subject to Freedom of Information of law. Additionally, the department does not publish annual reports on its activities; does not publish reports from its oversight body, the Capitol Police Board, nor the USCP Inspector General; does not proactively publish its annual statistical summary of complaints drawn from Office of Professional Responsibility records; and only began in December 2018 publishing sparse information concerning its weekly arrests.

To help illuminate the operations and disclosures from the agency, our team has spent significant time over the past several years gathering information, including statements of disbursements, jurisdiction and responsibilities, and arrest report data. We also have written letters to the department requesting further information disclosures and submitted testimony to the Leg. Branch Subcommittee requesting heightened transparency regarding USCP arrest information, press releases, and announcements. 

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The PLUM Act: Transparency for Political Appointees

by Jason Briefel and Maggi Molina

A president will appoint more than 4,000 individuals to serve in an administration, yet “there is no single source of data on political appointees serving in the executive branch that is publicly available, comprehensive, and timely,” according to the Government Accountability Office in a March 2019 report.

Instead, these positions are compiled and published exactly once every four years in a congressional document known as the Plum Book (officially the United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions). This book is published only in December after a presidential election (before the president even gets sworn in) and includes important data for each position, including title, salary and location.  

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Pay Study Data: Relationship of Cost of Living Adjustments & Staff Longevity

Last year the House released a valuable report on staff pay, benefits, and diversity. We took a look at the data to answer the question, are better pay and benefits really correlated with staff staying on board? The short answer is yes.

We’ll be releasing a series of short articles focusing on different variables and their impact on staff longevity. This article, the first in that series, focuses on the impact of cost of living adjustments (COLAs) on staff retention.

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