First Branch Forecast

First Branch Forecast for August 28, 2023: One more week


With only 12 working days after recess to avert a federal government shutdown, the interfactional dynamics of the House remain unchanged. Last week, the House Freedom Caucus once again saber-rattled about a government shutdown and declared their objection to being jammed in December.

The Senate also has conceded that this year’s farm bill will be late, too, pushing another significant legislative lift into the end-of-year scramble.

Meanwhile, House leadership is talking about the top priority when work resumes: impeachment.

Interested in offering an amendment to the House NDAA? Surprise: the deadline is August 30th.

What’s below:

  • The intersection of committee appointments and political power
  • A week focused on congressional technology
  • Ethics in Congress and the courts
  • The legacies of J6


Appropriations race. A bunch of Republican freshmen are chasing the soon-to-be-vacant appropriations seat of Rep. Chris Stewart, who is retiring from Congress on September 15. Also affected are Stewart’s seats on the Intel Committee and Judiciary Committees. Putting aside the Intel Committee spot, which is chosen by the Speaker but IMHO should not be, the process of how members get chosen to serve on committees is an incredibly important, fascinating, and hidden lever of power.

House Republicans are slightly more transparent than Democrats on this issue, publishing their list of Steering Committee members and the rules of their conference. House Democrats, by comparison, are publishing the rules of their caucus but have not publicly published their Steering and Policy Committee members. (We’ve previously looked at the question of who serves on the steering committee.) Incidentally, according to the House Democratic Caucus rules, there’s a separate set of rules for their steering and policy committee that are supposed to be in writing (see Caucus Rules 10(b)), but no one we’ve spoken with has ever seen those rules. We have begun to wonder whether they exist or are adhered to.

In the Senate, Democrats have published their conference rules here and listed the steering and outreach committee members here. Republicans, who historically have been on top of this, have apparently not re-upped publication of their conference rules — here’s what they had for the 117th — and I don’t know where to find a list of members of their Committee on Committees.

At least in the House, and especially for the Democrats, the steering committees are weighted towards leadership control, who get extra votes and name many members of the steering committee itself. It wasn’t always this way, in fact, at times leadership was largely locked out of the selection process. In the modern era, the Democratic Leader has obtained major control over this process. The Republican Leader, too, has significant control.

Political power in Congress rests on three legs: appointment to committees, control of the floor, and political fundraising. The story of how party leadership emerged and took control of these tools to aggregate and retain power is a fascinating one. (If you’re interested, Galloway’s History of the House of Representatives is a good, book-length place to start.) We have significant concerns that the over-centralization of power in the hands of a few people in the House is making it more unstable and less productive, which is why our sister organization Demand Progress released reports that recommend how to modernize those rules.

Both the chamber and the caucus/conference rules put limitations on who can serve on the various committees. The chamber rules have a light touch, but will say, for example, that committee membership must include someone who sits on another committee. The House routinely waives these requirements. The caucus/conference rules have additional restrictions and lay out a process by which people can self-nominate. The party will balance various factors, such as geographic diversity, seniority, and so on.

The caucus/conference rules are often waived and modified to serve the needs of leadership. They’re used as a discipline tool through which leadership punishes members who don’t toe the line. That’s often couched in terms of a member being in violation of some rule, but the rules in our time reflect the prerogatives of leadership to an extent that is unhealthy.

Naming Stewart’s replacement may rekindle Republicans’ discussion about the conference’s current term limit rules. The Huddle reported that the group may revisit the current rule of three terms as either chair or ranking member when naming Stewart’s successor because a number of current committee chairs would hit the limit after this Congress and would require a waiver to remain. This issue emerged when Rep. Virginia Foxx requested a waiver in January to remain Chair of the HELP committee. Holding firm on the current rules, of course, would benefit less senior members.

At times, what’s really happening with appointments is a fight between the different political factions within the party over whose allies get to serve in powerful positions. This is not necessarily an ideological fight, but rather that members of senior leadership have their own networks and seek to install their friends. Interestingly, the folks who hold senior leadership positions inside the party are often political rivals, although that’s papered over for public consumption. These networks are revealed to the extent you can figure out which members voted for which candidates for a committee, whether in the steering committee or a vote of the entire caucus/conference.

It’s notable that more junior members of the Republican caucus have been the most willing to organize to push back on leadership dominance, meaning reconsideration of chair/ranking term rules would create ripples within the broader dynamics of the caucus. Anyway, it’s interesting to see this process play out with respect to filling the vacant spot on appropriations, which is one of the few places a member can actually move any legislative ideas.


Several notable events connecting technology and democracy are happening the week after the Labor Day holiday: forum from 1-3 PM ET on September 13, hosted by the Library of Congress. RSVP for in-person or online attendance. This is the annual meeting, held at the request of appropriators, where the Library of Congress discusses its role in providing access to legislative information. See our recaps of the 20222021, and 2020 meetings. You can find our story on the announcement here.

Congressional Hackathon 5.0, where technologists, policymakers, and stakeholders in the congressional data ecosystem catch up on what we’re building and have conversations about what to build next, is set for September 14 from 1-6 PM ET in the US Capitol. The bipartisan event, jointly announced by Speaker McCarthy and Leader Jeffries, is well worth your time. RSVP here. What happened at prior hackathons? We’ve got summaries of them all.

The emergence of AI in parliaments is the subject of a series of virtual panel discussions hosted by Bussola Tech, a Brazilian-based parliamentary technology company. The panels will take place between September 11-15 and have participants from parliaments (and parliamentary monitoring organizations) from all over the world, including us. Information about the panels is available here. On that page, scroll down and open “click to subscribe” to RSVP. They will send the final agenda and zoom information a few days before the discussions start.

If you’re curious about what these panels look like, Bussola Tech has graciously made videos from hundreds of panels available online here, ranging from building a modern digital legislature to changes in drafting tools to handling multiple languages in your parliament.

We also expect the scheduling of a Congressional Data Task Force meeting and a happy hour after the Hackathon.


The Office of Congressional Ethics released its second quarter report. During the second quarter the House ethics watchdog received 3,214 communications from private citizens. Since the start of the 118th Congress, OCE started a preliminary review of 8 matters. Of those, two investigations have been terminated, one was referred to the Ethics Committee with a recommendation it be dismissed, and one was referred to the Ethics Committee for review.

Working vacation: George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School may have easy Metro access going for it, but it’s not in the most exciting location (and we say this as Arlington residents). The school has solved this issue by hosting several “judicial education events” in luxury resorts in nearby locales like Yellowstone National Park; Bar Harbor, Maine; the Ritz in Naples, Florida; and Alaska. Fix the Court found 31 appellate judges attending privately-funded seminars in five-star accommodations far afield from the sponsoring organization. The topics of the seminars, furthermore, did not comport with the nonpartisan requirements of the code of conduct for federal judges.

Compliance with mandatory financial disclosures remains a problem with at least two branches of government. Fix the Court reported last week that only a mere 14% of federal judges had posted 2022 reports in a public database as required by federal law.

It’s not so bad in the House, but 11 members still have not filed their financial disclosure reports this year, blowing through the August 13 extended deadline. Rep. Ami Bera and Del. Stacey Plaskett didn’t even ask for extensions. You will not believe who another of the 11 is. Gold star for the Senate: all members made the deadline.

The fine for exceeding the original or extended deadline in the House or Senate is a whopping $200.


Our colleague Taylor Swift recently appeared on Federal New Network’s Federal Drive program on the topic of reforming the US Capitol Police in light of the January 6 insurrection. If you’re just getting up to speed on the issue, it’s a great summary of the connections between a more transparent police force and the accountability needed to keep reforms, including those recommended by GAO, moving forward. It remains far too difficult for Congress and the public to understand how the department is using its enormous budget or amending its managerial and training practices.

The efforts of the January 6 Committee of last Congress, as we’ve noted for some time, purposely focused on the role of Donald Trump and not support for the broader insurrection plot, including by sitting members of Congress. Rep. Scott Perry in particular continues to be connected to the perpetrators. The Keystone reports that he is renting two district offices from a man arrested this August on felony charges that he used a flagpole as a spear against police officers on January 6. He also was arrested in 2021 for walking around his neighborhood pantsless. The rent will amount to about $68,000 of Perry’s MRA.

Related Resources: ICYMI – Read Taylor’s report on the US Capitol Police and its lack of accountability.


The Packard Foundation is hiring a program officer for its Democracy Rights and Governance initiative. You’d get to work on all the issues that we cover in this newsletter and possibly fund orgs like ours. What’s not to like? It pays $173-245k and you’d be based in California. Learn more

The Knight First Amendment Institute is hiring an inaugural policy director where you’d get to identify the org’s long-term policy goals and develop a strategy to achieve them. (I’ve been a founding policy director and let me tell you, it’s a lot of fun). It pays $170-210k and you’d be based in New York. Learn more.

Georgetown’s Knight-Georgetown Institute is hiring an executive director to lead its work on “research in media and democracy.” The preferred deadline to apply is August 21, so get in your resume. I have no idea what the pay is and I presume the location is in DC. Learn more.

OpenSecrets, the organization focused on bringing transparency to money in US politics, is hiring an executive director. They’re a fully remote organization and the pay is $170-180k. Learn more.


Congressional Committee Calendar

~ Down the road ~

FOIA Advisory Committee meeting is set for September 7. More info here.

Internapalooza, a free, non-partisan orientation and welcome event for all interns, scheduled for September 11RSVP. forum from1-3 PM ET on September 13, hosted by the Library of Congress. RSVP for in-person or online attendance.

Congressional Hackathon from 1-6 pm ET on September 14, taking in place at the U.S. Congress building. More info here.

AI in Parliaments, a series of panel discussions hosted by Bussola Tech between September 11-15RSVP here.

Constitution Day, September 17th, will be celebrated by the Library of Congress on September 14 with a talk by University at Buffalo School of Law Professor Samantha Barbas about her book Actual Malice, which tells the behind-the-scenes story of segregationatists who tried to suppress journalists reporting about the civil rights movement through the use of libel lawsuits.

Attorney General Merrick Garland is scheduled to testify in front of the House Judiciary Committee on September 20.

The Ridenhour Prizes, which celebrate whistleblowers, documentarians, and authors in support of government transparency and accountability, will hold its annual gala on October 25 at 6 PMSubscribe to this link for ticket information.

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