First Branch Forecast

First Branch Forecast for February 21, 2023: Help Wanted: AOC


The lights are off and no one is home as Congress takes an extended break for the Presidents’ Day holiday (which the newsletter also observed). When they return, the Senate committees have a clear path to staff up now that the Rules Committee has allocated budget allotments for each as it does at the start of each Congress.

Fortunately, committees can hire directly and not navigate the convoluted and interminably long process of installing a new Architect of the Capitol, which Congress now will have to do.

This week, both chambers are out of session. The Senate may hold votes on nominations. The House Judiciary Committee will hold a field hearing Thursday in Yuma, AZ about the US-Mexican border.


Senate committees will have significantly more money to hire staff and conduct oversight in the 118th Congress thanks to across-the-board increases. Last Monday, the Senate Rules Committee approved a resolution allocating an additional $53.2 million for committees for this Congress, excluding the Appropriations Committee (which sets its own funding in the Legislative branch appropriations bill.)

The total package for 18 standing and select committees is $291.4 million. (To put this in context, that’s ~41% of the funding level for the Capitol Police.)

All committees received increases of at least 15% over the 117th Congress in constant dollars, likely in response to inflation, unified party control, and the general underfunding of committees in Congress across the board.

The Agriculture Committee received the biggest bump, nearly a 25% increase to $14.4 million, perhaps because it has some responsibility for overseeing the cryptocurrency market. The Banking Committee, which may get a piece of that action as well, received a 20% increase.

We have put together Senate committee budget data dating back to the 104th Congress in this spreadsheet and will update the inflation-adjusted data shortly. We also have a guide for the complicated process the Senate uses to fund its committees.

Hopefully, these allocations by the Rules Committee augurs broader reinvestment in institutional capacity on the Senate side, which is lagging behind the House on things like information technology and increases in personal staff pay.

New Appropriations ranking member Susan Collins recently named Sen. Deb Fischer, the ranking member of Rules, as the Legislative Branch Subcommittee’s ranking member. Sen. Jack Reed will remain the subcommittee’s chair.


Members of Congress are responding to the discovery by Demand Progress Education Fund that the FBI had wrongly and illegally used the name of a fellow member to conduct warrantless searches. Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Warren Davidson expressed concern about a WIRED story based on our findings, and Rep. Andy Biggs wrote a letter to FBI director Christopher Wray last week to account for the incident.

And don’t miss former Sen. Udall and former Rep. Goodlatte on four ways to curb America’s emerging surveillance state.

Ideally, congressional committees would develop a robust oversight plan to investigate federal surveillance agency abuses ahead of 702 reauthorization this year. FISA grew in part out of the Church Committee of the late 1970s, which spent nearly two years uncovering a wide swath of domestic spying along with other shocking conduct by intelligence agencies abroad at the height of the Cold War.

More than 20 years after 9/11, Congress easily would be justified in re-establishing a Church-style special committee into the intelligence community’s response to a different security paradigm built on the institutional foundations of the old one.

Veteran staffers of the Church Committee explained what made their work so effective in converting unimpeachably credible oversight work into federal action in a remarkable letter to House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan they shared last week. They identify three key similarities their committee shared with other effective congressional investigations: genuine bipartisan cooperation, effective committee leadership, and commitment to objectivity in pursuing the truth. This is a model for any committee, including Chair Jordan’s, to follow.


With all of our focus on the floor of its two lawmaking chambers, it’s easy to forget how decentralized and byzantine the Legislative branch is as an institution. Some department heads are chosen by chamber leadership, while others are selected by small commissions or the president. The Navy simply sends over staff for the Office of the Attending Physician.

In terms of budgetary authority, the Office of the Architect of the Capitol is one of the largest pieces of the Leg branch bureaucracy. The hiring and removal of its head officer, however, is perhaps the most convoluted and time consuming of all Leg branch agencies.

Fresh off a testimony performance one long-time Hill watcher declared the worst he ever saw, the White House fired Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton Tuesday. If the Biden Administration hadn’t acted, no one in Congress had the authority to remove him. Now, a 14-member congressional panel, President Biden, and the entire Senate will have a role in installing his replacement. In the meantime, Chief Engineer Chere Rexroat has become interim AOC.

Because the AOC rarely is a top priority for congressional leadership, hiring an agency head takes far, far too long. The position was open for more than a year before Blanton was confirmed in 2019. It was vacant for more than three years after Alan Hantman retired in 2007.

The Legislative branch needs someone in the role much, much sooner to handle the burgeoning managerial and security responsibilities of the office. The new AOC will be tasked with deploying an additional $402 million for campus and member security that Congress added at the end of last session. AOC management of its current top project, renovations of the Cannon House Office Building, is well over budget and behind schedule. The AOC also is part of the governing structure of the US Capitol Police, which faces serious management and oversight questions.

The current legislative fix to congressional authority over the role only focuses on procedures for dismissal. The last time Congress considered the appointment of the AOC, bill authors proposed expanding the number of people involved even more.

It may be wise for CHA and Senate Rules to take a fresh look across the Leg branch at this moment and consider comprehensive reforms not only to hiring and firing the AOC role, but other agencies with unclear or muddled chains of authority. CHA Chair Bryan Steil’s suggestion that his committee refocus on the USCP board is a good start.


The Congressional Budget Office started the debt limit clock last week, announcing the US government would run out of the ability to borrow between July and September 2023 according to its latest projections.

One senator floated a reasonable plan to avoid recurring debt limit crises during the last major showdown in 2011: Mitch McConnell. Senators Jeff Merkeley and Tim Kaine have revived the McConnell plan, which would allow the president to increase the debt limit when necessary but reserve congressional power to stop it by passing a joint resolution.

Given the president could veto the resolution, the measure would need a two-thirds majority. While we’d like Congress to eliminate the debt ceiling, this would not be unreasonable.

The only other country with a hard-money debt limit is Denmark, which has an economy roughly the size of Wisconsin’s. The limit is also so high that the country has little danger of hitting it. When the Danish government started spending to support Ukraine militarily in the spring of 2022, it temporarily suspended the limit just to be extra safe. Nothing bad happened, and the country’s per-capita GDP remains comfortably in the top 10 globally.


Congressional Hispanic Caucus members are sticking with Rep. Nanette Barragán as their chair after a meeting to understand her firing of its top staffer after less than a month on the job.

How many African Americans occupy a top committee staff position in the US Senate? The answer is zero. Less than six percent of top staffers in the personal offices of new senators are people of color. Paul N.D. Thornell of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies shares these astonishing statistics in a call for a renewed focus on diversity in hiring in the chamber.


Factions: We admit, we’re fascinated by how different factions within the parties emerge and are in turn defined by Congress-watchers. Although we quibble with describing moderate Democrats as “centrist firebrands” because neither word makes much sense, this taxonomy of the four factions within the party’s House caucus is better than most because it gets into the issue of factional power.

For our part, we’d avoid Samuel’s loaded terminology and refer to the factions as progressives, liberals, neo-liberals, and new dems.

On the Republican side, where ideological differences are smaller, the Main Street Caucus is differentiating itself in terms of governing style. The choices in language members use on the record in this piece to contrast with other GOP factions is worth the click.

It’s conventional wisdom that serving in a competitive district forces members to moderate their positions ideologically. It turns out that this assumption is also the victim of asymmetric polarization between the parties.

Historically, Philip Bump found in an analysis he did dating back to 1976, Democrats in more competitive districts have become only slightly more liberal over time when compared to those in non-competitive districts. But within the Republican party, all members have become significantly more conservative, regardless of their margin of victory.

Republicans’ geographic advantages have allowed them to hold the Senate half of the time since 2000 despite not winning a majority of national votes cast in congressional elections. Last year, Democrats won more than 58% percent of the national vote and a one-seat Senate majority, according to Daily Kos.

Home Rule. The House has overruled a DC City Council provision overhauling the District’s criminal justice code. If the Senate follows suit, it will be the first time since 1991 that Congress has interceded in District governance. The Senate only needs a simple majority to overturn the bill, but President Biden has threatened a veto. I guess the principles of federalism go out the window when DC is on the receiving end.


Trailblazing: In the wake of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s announcement that she will not seek re-election, this tidbit caught our eye: when she first ran for Senate in 1992 the chamber only had two women. Twenty five women serve in the Senate now.

House Appropriations Chair Kay Granger is circulating new rules for earmarks among the Republican conference. Members may be limited to 10 or 15 specific requests with similar restrictions on for-profit entities Democrats established last Congress. We have recommendations about how earmark transparency should be handled.

Events Calendar

Congressional Committee Calendar

The trade group Business for America will host an online roundtable on “Modernizing Congress: The Business Case to Upgrade Government” Wednesday Feb. 22 from 1:00-2:00 EST. The program includes several friends from the Fix Congress Cohort work with the House Modernization Committee. Sign up here.

Down the line

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries keynotes a program organized by the The House Office of Diversity and Inclusion entitled “Black History on the Hill” Monday Feb. 27 from 4:00-6:00 PM at the CVC. This event is limited to congressional staff. RSVP here.

The National Taxpayers Union and Arnold Ventures will host a discussion on budget reform Monday Feb. 27 from 4 PM-7PM EST. (You had to RSVP by February 17 to attend.)

The next meeting of the Congressional Data Task Force will be March 14 from 2:00 to 4:00 PM EST. Register for the meeting at this link and read a recap of their last meeting here.

Open Data Day (or Days) will be organized March 4-10 by local groups around the world. We don’t see any local events for DC yet, but we’ll keep an eye out.

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