One of us is back from a trip that included a stop in (no kidding) Indonesia. Unfortunately, the journey, while lovely, was not paid for by a friendly billionaire. We’re reminded during this recess of the unique role Congress holds to preserve our democratic system both by holding the other branches to account and setting clear norms for representative governance. It isn’t living up to either particularly well at the moment.
This week Congress remains in recess. Both chambers return April 17.
Perhaps it will be the komodo dragon, a beast noted for poisonous bites, that finally generates congressional action on the Supreme Court’s toxic lack of ethics. After revelations published by ProPublica that Clarence Thomas and his wife have enjoyed decades of luxury travel to far-flung places like Indonesia paid for by a conservative billionaire GOP donor, FSGG appropriations cardinal Sen. Chris Van Hollen said he would use the annual spending bill to “ensure” the Court adopts a similar code of conduct that binds the rest of the federal judiciary.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin also promised action, but framed holding SCOTUS to an ethics code in the passive voice. So far the only congress-centric Republican responses we’ve seen defend the indefensible. Justice Thomas’s defense reminds us of an episode of Seinfeld. For a person whose career is based upon having sound judgment, it is simply not believable or exculpatory.
The appropriations process may be the only viable route forward. Democratic House and Senate members have reintroduced an ethics bill that flamed out last Congress; House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan was hostile towards it last May because of its potential impact on far right justices like Thomas.
Despite proclaiming his love of RV parks, Justice Thomas could enjoy the lifestyle of the rich and famous because Congress lost its gumption for judicial oversight. In his annual report for 2011, Chief Justice John Roberts tacitly warned Congress off from imposing ethical requirements for the high court, saying the Court may question the constitutionality of Congress imposing standards on Justices. (So much for Congress’s legislative power.) This posturing seems to have worked, despite legal scholars concluding that Congress has plenty of leeway to impose ethical standards in ways that respect the separation of powers.
The Court is awash with questionable ethical behavior, free travel, self-dealing, leaks, and weak recusal standards, including a lack of transparency in how justices’ spouses’ work may create conflicts of interest. It also refuses to adopt ethics standards. Congress must step in to check the abuses of power and office of the other two branches. A conservative being the Court’s biggest known grifter should not be a reason for the Legislative branch to dodge ensuring SCOTUS is not unduly swayed by wealthy patrons or personal connections.
The expulsion by the Tennessee Legislature of two African-American representatives (but not their white colleague) ostensibly for engaging in a gun control protest on the chamber floor has us thinking again about the denial of elected representation and the standards to which representatives hold each other. These concepts seem to be wildly and dangerously in flux, including at the congressional level.
The expulsion of State Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson are reminiscent of the refusal by the Georgia Legislature to seat another young African American, Julian Bond, in 1965. Bond was a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which by the time of his election had pioneered the sit-in protest movement and organized the Freedom Summer voting registration drive. Bond also shared its opposition to the Vietnam War, a position that served as the pretext for his expulsion and eventual reinstatement by the Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds. Of course, Bond’s blackness was the real reason his fellow legislators expelled him.
Like Bond, Jones and Pearson first became political through nonviolent direct action – including, in Jones’ case, at the state capitol before his election to the legislature. Josh Marshall notes that the young black legislators have run afoul of the sense of entitlement felt by older, exurban white GOP representatives even before being elected, who felt they had no place in the legislature to begin with both because of their race and politics.
Making matters worse, the decline of the Tennessee legislature into a far right, antediluvian, reactionary hothouse with supermajority one-party control means the tactics available to the disempowered are treated as fundamentally illegitimate, and thus the individuals themselves are viewed as illegitimate and removable. The legislature now is threatening all of Memphis, the only majority-black metro area in Tennessee, financially if Pearson returns to office.
What the Tennessee House did, unfortunately, fits a pattern of antidemocratic legislative behavior also exhibited by the US House of Representatives. The House majority removed Rep. Ilhan Omar from her committees for having the temerity to express political opinions, too. It went even farther in removing Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from their committee assignments for participating in a legitimate function of the Legislative branch – impeaching Donald Trump.
At the time, conventional punditry wisdom categorized these moves as tit-for-tat payback for Democrats’ removal of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene from her committees. But Greene was stripped in part for endorsing the execution of her fellow House members in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, when members legitimately felt some of their colleagues wished them harm and sought to bring it about. (This also was after House Republican leadership failed to hold Greene to account.) The House could have investigated and expelled those most directly involved in the attack, but Democratic leaders did not let such efforts go forward.
We should see the Tennessee legislature’s actions within a broader context of an increasing level of comfort by some Republicans in using disciplining measures for antidemocratic ends. Standards are shifting back to an era when simply holding specific ideological positions, like Rep. Victor Berger in 1919 and the five Socialists expelled from the New York State Assembly in 1920, rise to the level of invalidating voters’ choice of representation. It falls to the majority to set such standards. This Congress hewed closely to the arbitrary and personalized standards of the Tennessee House in its actions this past January. We are turning back the clock and turning up the heat. As legislatures erode representative government’s norms even further, it’s concerning to think how future congressional majorities may further squash dissenting views within the chamber, particularly as a younger generation of Democrats forged by local activism emerges to challenge those who hold power.
Washington Monthly shone a spotlight on the creation and accomplishments of GAO’s Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team, which has assisted Congress on major legislation like last year’s CHIPS Act. Demand Progress Education Fund and the Lincoln Network have been at the forefront of pushing for more tech policy capabilities, which has been a bumpy road.
It’s also worth remembering that STAA is only one part of the reason that congressional policy knowledge on science and tech is improving. Kevin Kosar at AEI takes a broader view of the landscape for congressional tech policy knowledge in this podcast with WNYU.
The House Digital Services office has formed an AI working group to explore using the latest crop of tools to satisfy offices’ needs. Congressional staff, member offices, and support offices and agencies are invited to sign up for updates at this Congress-only link and learn more at this Congress-only link. We have thoughts about how AI could impact the Legislative branch.
Hopefully, fewer members will be sleeping in their offices. The House finalized reimbursement policies for some significant out-of-pocket expenses while Congress is in session, including meals, rent and utilities at DC apartments, and hotel stays. The new system, outlined in the updated member handbook, is voluntary for members and is drawn from MRA accounts, which will require members to decide how to weigh their own compensation against other office costs like staff salaries. (Contrary to the news article, the Member’s primary duty station is now their Congressional District.)
The move has bipartisan support and was promoted by the modernization committee. Here is a FAQ on how it is expected to work. We note that because of an unfortunate change in the law in 2017, explained in the linked CRS congressional distribution memo, Member reimbursements will be taxed. (Someone should fix that). That aside, this new policy fixes a system where Members of Congress were required to pay out of pocket for significant expenses arising directly from their work, which effectively reduced their salaries by thousands of dollars. Now eligible Members can be reimbursed for work expenses like every other federal employee.
Given the lateness of top line appropriations numbers for FY24, the new compensation policy may create more downward pressure on staff salaries depending on the levels for the MRA inside the Leg branch approps bill. (We would suggest reimbursement funds be drawn from a separate account dedicated to this purpose.) Our colleague Taylor Swift argues in The Hill why Congress is on the precipice of another brain drain if it follows through in reversing recent pay raises for overworked and undercompensated staff.
Scores of House members also sent a letter to appropriators asking them to maintain the $46,800 pool available to all offices for intern pay. That current funding level allows offices to pay one full-time and one part-time intern $15 an hour during the fiscal year. Members warned that the prohibition against shifting MRA funds into the intern fund makes it impossible to compensate for any cut to the allowance.
House Member reimbursements
Read the new House Member Handbook and FAQ on what expenses can now be reimbursed. The reimbursements have tax consequences.
Two stories caught our eye last week – they happen to be in Politico, but are indicative of a broader challenge within the political press to use and define political labels that convey actual meaning. The first charted political alliances being forged between members of the Progressive Caucus and Freedom Caucus on national security and government surveillance issues, which the author took as a surprise (and, naturally, a challenge to House leadership). The other took the emerging primary field for Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat in California to grasp the slippery meaning of “progressive” as a political label.
Both pieces, like many political analyses, treat ideology as existing on a linear continuum and place elected officials on the line based on their proximity to the most notable exemplars of the extremes of both parties – typically Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left. Members closer to Sanders are “progressive,” “liberal” if closer to Nancy Pelosi. “Centrists” simply exist between the two ideological poles.
The California primary piece contends that all three major candidates are “progressive” because they support significant government spending programs like the Green New Deal. But this is a misnomer. It flattens the significant distinctions between Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee on national security and policing issues, where the two have very little in common, and Schiff and Katie Porter, who are vastly different on corporate power.
These distinctions hold true among factions that exist between and within the parties in Congress, too. Members align themselves on several different ideological dimensions at once, depending on policy areas. Democrats and Republicans who are wary of the commanding national defense apparatus required of a robustly-interventionist foreign policy often come together to limit its power, either abroad or domestically. These members have a shared understanding that a powerful security state routinely violates individual rights. The same members see state power in other areas of American life very differently, requiring different language and understanding for those differences.
Similarly, there are significant inter-party distinctions on government spending and economic issues. Progressives generally are more concerned about corporate power and seek its alternative through a larger welfare state. New Democrats and Neo-Liberals, meanwhile, spend to create individual opportunity within the general socioeconomic status quo and are much more favorably inclined to unrestricted global trade and corporatism. The same distinctions exist within the Republican party, especially when it comes to protecting domestic corporations and the local jobs they create.
Because of their style guides and editorial caution, news outlets rarely make such distinctions clear and tend to paint “liberals” and “conservatives” very broadly. We end up with inscrutable reporting that claims liberal Speaker Pelosi is being attacked by liberals, hardly a model of clarity. When you lack the language to name the factions properly, the underlying political differences become garbled.
These labels, in turn, reflect back onto the electorate, creating the impression of a vast “centrist” or “moderate” constituency within this bipolar political model. We’ve known for years that what really makes a moderate is inconsistency between left and right positions on a variety of topics, not preference for a compromised middle ground between extremes on every one, and that the “moderate” voter accordingly is a myth.
We think a more meaningful way to describe American politics is to write about it from the perspective of power, both within society and governing institutions. The factions that comprise parties seek to empower specific constituencies – and we should accordingly use clear names for them. For “moderate” politicians, it would be more clear to speak of their representation of business interests, whether in the context of economics or the security state. The political press needs to move beyond treating politics as a manichean struggle between two poles.
ODDS AND ENDS
The Select CCP Influence Committee will use stricter witness disclosure requirements for its hearings, requiring witnesses to share funds paid to their employers from entities connected to the Chinese government. Typically, committees only require disclosure of direct payments from foreign governments greater than $10,000.
Relatedly, Demand Progress and the Lincoln Network had called for strengthening witness disclosure rules relating to who compensates witnesses along these lines in proposed House rules for the 118th Congress.
By congressional rule, CBO cannot account for the potential impact that a policy change may have on other parts of the budget, leaving it to report simply on the cost of a program. Senator Elizabeth Warren writes in the American Prospect that this type of budget modeling and under-resourced capacity to do macroeconomic analysis of policy lead Congress routinely to make poor policy choices.
As the Prospect notes, Warren’s own tax plan as a presidential candidate fell victim to budget modeling forecasting within academia, which also profoundly overrated the positive impact of the Trump tax cuts.
The AOC’s general counsel, CFO, CAO, and CEO for visitor services were fired late last week in the wake of two inspector general reports that noted misconduct by AOC executives. One report faulted several senior leaders for not notifying OIG of a tip that former AOC J. Brett Blanton was abusing his government vehicle privileges, while another cited an affair with a subordinate. This follows on congressional hearings with the AOC pledged to clean up that agency’s act.
Federal investigators have requested DHS OIG Joseph Cuffari provide records related to the deletion of texts by the Secret Service during the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. CIGIE is currently evaluating whether Cuffari’s actions warrant further investigation as well. Our friends at the Project on Government Oversight have called on Pres. Biden to fire Cuffari.
The line of presidential succession is far from clear and requires congressional action, writes Continuity of Government Commission member Jean Parvin Bordewich.
Congressional scholars Casey Burgat and Kevin Kosar discuss what the job description of members of Congress should be on an AEI podcast. This conversation reminds us of a similar project by the Congressional Management Foundation a few years ago.
Did Kevin McCarthy move into the Speaker’s Office too early? Kinda, but AOC has no written policy governing such moves, its IG office found. The Speaker-elect is different from party leaders and it’s not right to measure the drapes before the election is held.
CRS has brought on a small army of interns converting older bill summaries from PDFs to machine-readable formats. The eventual outcome of making those summaries available online will be welcome, but it leads us to ask if these folks are doing this work by retyping them? Maybe there’s a better way.
Should Congress subsidize the news like it did in the Early Republic and Antebellum Era? Probably, but this article only tells part of the story. In that era, Congress subsidized local newspapers because they explicitly were partisan mouthpieces. Inexpensive mailing costs for newspapers and the use of hand-picked press to publish legislation, government forms, and executive branch notices was a major party patronage engine of the House, Senate, and White House. It yielded 50% profits and allowed the publications to survive when advertising and subscriptions were woefully inadequate. Corruption and maladministration ultimately led to the creation of GPO in 1860 and the end of presidentially affiliated papers in the 1970s.
We forget that the modern press looks nothing like its historical antecedents. For around 100 years, many reporters were party-affiliated, often held government jobs, and speculated on the news they covered. It was the telegraph, faster mail (via railroads), and population growth supporting most robust local papers that allowed some press to become non-partisan, but only because the reporters writing those articles wanted to sell to more newspapers, and being partisan limited the market of who would buy your news.
Should the House use the discharge petition to bypass House leadership and allow a clean debt ceiling increase to come to the floor? File this under better late than never (but late may be tantamount to never). The discharge petition exists to get round the tyranny of concentrated power in the House, especially the House Rules Committee. Historically, the number to move a discharge petition was much lower, and transparency was added to the sign-on process to get around dixiecrats who were killing civil rights legislation for decades. Yes, it is long past time to get a discharge petition going, and I fear it’s too late because of how the calendar works.
Congressional Committee Calendar
~ Tuesday ~
A number of staff associations host a panel entitled, “Navigating Capitol Hill as a Woman of Color” at noon in HVC-215. RSVP at this link.
~ Down the Line ~
The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights will host two training sessions on the Congressional Accountability Act on April 18. More details and links to registration.
The Committee on House Administration will have a hearing on the House Sergeant at Arms’ strategic plan for this Congress on April 18 at 10:00 AM in 1310 Longworth.
The House Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosts a virtual resume workshop April 24 from 1:00-2:00 PM. Register here.
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