First Branch Forecast

First Branch Forecast: Democratic slippage, court accountability, and the mother of parliaments 11/29/2021



Welcome back. The Senate is in today; the House is in on Tuesday, with the Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act on suspension and further appropriations bills possible. We’re curious about House Oversight’s Wednesday hearing into the Future of Federal Work and Thursday’s Senate Judiciary markup that includes a judicial security bill with some concerning language and a much less fraught bill to modernize PACER.

Omicron, which you may know as a planet from Futurama but is now the COVID variant du jour, is the latest (awful) reminder of the necessity of the House and Senate being capable of working fully remotely. Yes, we’ve been making this point for a while. While we’ve seen some progress, proxy voting on the House floor is an imperfect solution and the Senate still has not grappled with the shifts in power that could occur if a single member becomes ill and cannot attend in person. We continue to track all this on On that final point, isn’t it time for the House and Senate to impose both mask and vaccination requirements for persons who work in-person?

ICYMI, there was big news last week on providing clearances for Senate staff. The House Diversity Office released two important new reports on House compensation & benefits and demographics and diversityRep. Gosar was censured and removed from his committees for tweeting a video he made depicting his murder of a House colleague, which he promptly RT’d after his censure. And serial fabulist Rep. Boebert is bucking for attention after she made up a story that suggested a House colleague is a suicide bomber because she is a Muslim.

We’re not sure what to do. There’s a constant stream of unacceptable and bizarre behavior from certain members of Congress that is both an effort to move the Overton Window of what’s normal and an effort to fundraise. We don’t want to ignore it, and thus normalize it, nor do we want to draw attention out of fear of the Streisand Effect. For example, what do you do with Rep. Greene’s introduction of a resolution to give Kyle Rittenhouse a Congressional Gold Medal? Denver’s Channel 9 News has it right.

Democratic slippage. For the first time, the US was listed as a “backsliding democracy” in the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s 2020 global democracy report, described as falling victim to authoritarian tendencies. “A historic turning point came in 2020–2021 when former President Donald Trump questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election results in the United States. Baseless allegations of electoral fraud and related disinformation undermined fundamental trust in the electoral process, which culminated in the storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021.”


Clearances. Each senator can now designate one personal office aide as eligible to apply for a TS/SCI clearance, as we noted in this blog post and in last week’s newsletter. This important policy change opens the door for the nearly 2/3s of senators who do not have any staff cleared at that level to finally be afforded a modicum of support as they legislate and conduct oversight on highly classified matters. Up until now, select Senate personal office staffers could obtain a TS clearance at most.

• Background. Demand Progress and POGO submitted testimony in 2020 to the Senate Approps Committee on how expanding clearances for select Senate staffers improves Congressional capacity with minimal costs and released a primer explaining the Congressional security clearances process in detail. We note the policy change came through the direction of leadership at the behest of an effort led by Sen. Murphy.

• The House. The House still has not modernized its policies and continues to restrict members from allowing any personal office staff to apply for TS/SCI clearances. (The entire process needs reform.) Making matters worse, the House does not even provide staff designees to members of HPSCI, Armed Services, or HAC-D — the Senate has provided staff designees to SSCI for years. House leadership can address clearances simply by sending a letter or the issue can be addressed through a House resolution or even committee report language (in the right bill).

The Leg branch currently maintains 28 revolving funds, the statutory bases and history of which are discussed in this CRS report.

FAQs about the CRA. The Congressional Review Act, a tool that allows Congress to disapprove federal agencies’ rules and regulations, is the subject of an updated CRS explainer. A few weeks back, we noted ACUS’ new draft recommendations for expediting the CRA process.


Lawsuit alleges racial discrimination at USCP. lawsuit filed last week by former Capitol Police sergeant Juan Cobbin alleges a culture of racial discrimination and retaliation within the department, specifically its K-9 division. Follow the docket here.

Senate ethics? We’ll assume Senate Ethics investigations into Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz’s claims of election fraud on January 6th are still ongoing until we hear otherwise — but ten months on, neither senator has been contacted by the committeePolitico reports. The Senate Ethics Committee is known as a graveyard for Member accountability; its House companion is viewed as somewhat more functional in part because of the pressure provided by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

An Arizona man was convicted last week for making a death threat against Speaker Pelosi. The same individual was previously interviewed by the FBI regarding alleged threats made to another member.

USCP’S Statement of Disbursements from April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021 was transmitted to the House on November 16th. The reports are supposed to be printed as House documents (per 2 USC § 1910), but the most recent one we could find was from 2018.

Incumbent USCP Union Chair Gus Papathanasiou was re-elected for a two-year term, defeating challenger Harry Dunn.


PACER fee settlement. Three nonprofit groups and the US government have reached a settlement for a lawsuit regarding the judiciary’s use of PACER fees, the terms of which are not yet public. This suit helped expose one aspect of the PACER racket: the judiciary’s improper use of PACER fees to pay for various expenses other than running its case management system.

The Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act was endorsed by a coalition of organizations that urged Senate leadership to promptly bring the bill to the floor for a vote. ACMRA would create a public online repository for Congressional reports. The bill was favorably reported by HSGAC earlier this month.

GAO should review whistleblower protections for FBI employees per a letter from Sens. Grassley, Peters, Portman and Reps. Maloney and Speier. Congress enacted GAO’s recommendations to protect FBI whistleblowers but the Justice Department “still has not promulgated regulations to implement Congress’s changes” while the whistleblowers are the continued recipient of retaliatory measures and there’s no independent appeals process. The Federal News Network has more.

The importance of whistleblowers and the pending legislation to protect them (PODANDAA) are discussed in this recent GovExec podcast episode featuring Dana Gold of the Government Accountability Project.


The US is due to participate in the 2021 Open Government Partnership Summit, a global initiative focused on government transparency and accountability. The Biden administration will use this as an opportunity to tell other countries what to do while avoiding deep engagement with and commitments to domestic civil society partners. More from Alex Howard.

The House Democracy Partnership, a bipartisan commission that works with parliaments internationally to improve legislative institutions, just had eleven members appointed.

The Canadian House of Commons reconvened last week. After a five-month hiatus, the parliament returned to the question of whether to implement a hybrid Parliament model with some MPs present and others working remotely, CBC reports.

The mother of parliaments prohibited a parliamentarian from taking her baby into the House of Commons. Per the BBC, “MPs are entitled to paid maternity leave for six months and a proxy vote.”

Reports from two Inter-Parliamentary Union conferences held in September — the Fifth World Conference of Parliamentary Speakers and the 13th Summit of Women Speakers of Parliament — are now available.


DomeWatch. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer updated his excellent Dome Watch app, which now includes up-to-date House schedule info, committee videos, archival footage from every House committee, and a new interface. Maybe the Library of Congress should look into implementing this on an institution-wide basis.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s career is the subject of a recent profile of the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair in the Christian Science Monitor.

Congratulations Shalonda Young, who was just nominated to run OMB. We remember when she ran House Leg Branch approps.


TechCongress is accepting applications for its 2022 Congressional Innovation Scholars program, an “early-career pipeline” for technologists interested in shaping tech policy. Apply here.

ModCom. The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is hiring a clerk. Apply here.

Applications for College to Congress’ funded Capitol internship program for low-income college students open December 1st. More info here.


The path forward on earmarks, which were reintroduced this year in the House and Senate appropriations after a decade-long moratorium, will be discussed in a panel hosted by AEI on December 3rd at 1PM. RSVP here.

Do you have an event you want to share? Let us know. Email [email protected]

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