This week. The Senate is in today; the House is in tomorrow. We’ll be watching Tuesday’s much-anticipated Senate Judiciary Cmte FOIA hearing, which we hope covers strengthening the law and asking whether AG Garland’s long overdue FOIA memorandum goes far enough? (No.) The Capitol Police’s budget will be the focus of a first-of-the-season House Leg Branch Approps hearing on Wednesday; you know our views about their management and oversight problems as well as their persistent failures to implement Congress’s transparency directives. Also on Wednesday is a HSGAC business meeting to consider the PLUM Act, which is civil society approved; House floor proxy voting is also set to expire (unless it doesn’t). Expect a Senate vote on the Hon. Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to SCOTUS by next Friday; while we’re talking SCOTUS, maybe the Senate will finally move the Supreme Court Ethics Act?
House staff turnover is at a 20-year high, we learned from a LegiStorm analysis released last week that underscores all the reports of staff burnout over the past year. With the insurrection, pandemic, and Congress’s abysmal response to and ill preparation for both crises, House staff left Congress at a 55% greater rate in 2021 than in 2020. The 21% increase in funding levels for personal and committee offices in the FY 2022 approps bill should help the situation… if Members use it to restore pay levels for the more junior staff who need it most. The MRA increase (and the equivalent for House committees — have those funds been allocated yet?) still is insufficient to reach pay parity with Executive branch salaries, a key recommendation from a recent House IG report. The House’s quarterly expenditure reports will reveal whether Members address pay levels for staff.
The FY 2023 approps season is upon us. House Appropriators announced April 27th-29th as the deadlines for Members to submit their requests to the subcommittees. By the way, Demand Progress just issued its fifth annual giant list of approps ideas — it’s designed as a menu of funding level fixes and policy ideas to strengthen government transparency and accountability. Good progress was made in the FY 2022 bill, but there’s still more to do. (Here’s 2023, 2022, 2021, 2020, and 2019.)
New whistleblower protections don’t go far enough. The FY 2022 Omnibus included expanded protections for Intelligence Committee whistleblowers and a mechanism intended to expedite “urgent” whistleblower reports, but language was omitted that would have protected the ability of IGs to be the sole determiner of whether the complaint was a matter of national security. The Executive branch, which long has undercut whistleblowers, relies on an Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel opinion that holds that only whistleblower reports about budget or operations qualify under the law, and thus can be communicated to Congress without the ability of others in the Executive branch to interfere, but as Kel McClanahan of National Security Counselors told Roll Call, all matters pertaining to national security should qualify as urgent. The Omnibus also failed to include language protecting disclosure of the identities of whistleblowers who wish to remain anonymous as a shield against retaliation and failed to strengthen legal protections for whistleblowers whose security clearances are revoked as retaliation for flowing the whistle.
Congressional data. Have you RSVP’d for the Fourth Congressional Hackathon, which will be held (in person) next Wednesday? You should. We and our civil society colleagues put together a wish list of the tools we would like to see developed for Congress. Come up to speed on the state of congressional data with our recap of the Bulk Data Task Force’s recent quarterly meeting and LegisPro’s recent interview with GovTrack founder Josh Tauberer, who reflects on the recent history of the open government movement and the work that still needs to be done.
Some top Senate staff own stock in industries they help oversee. Senate committee staffers have been required to divest from industries relevant to their work since the 1970s, but do they? The Campaign Legal Center found five instances of staffers with possibly unethical stock holdings, NPR reports. The Campaign Legal Center sent a letter to the Senate Ethics committee on whether the Ethics Committee blessed staffers retaining these stocks. Rules are only as good as the watchdogs that track and enforce them. This issue highlights the importance of broad-based ethics reforms in both chambers, both in scope (to cover high-level staff) and enforcement. We note there is no comparable ban for House Committee staff w/r/t divesting stock in industries related to their committee’s jurisdiction.
Memoir scrutiny. The House Ethics Committee will not continue its investigation into whether Rep. Ilhan Omar omitted required information from her annual financial disclosure; OCE had unanimously recommended the investigation be terminated. Oddly, Forbes reports Rep. Eric Swalwell stated that the House Ethics Committee is advising members that they may omit details about book deals from their financial disclosures.
Foreign influence on US elections. The SEC should adopt regulations to identify foreign-owned corporations that spend money on US elections, a coalition of Members led by Rep. Jamie Raskin wrote in a letter to the SEC on Thursday. “Current law bars individual foreign nationals from personally contributing to federal campaigns, yet foreign political spending can still take place via U.S.-registered corporations that are foreign subsidiaries or appreciably foreign-owned or foreign-controlled, all thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling.” SEC regulations must go hand-in-hand with public disclosure of who actually owns corporations. Otherwise, foreign agents will continue to use shell companies to sidestep the law.
Rep. Fortenberry found guilty. On Thursday, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was convicted of accepting illegal campaign contributions and deceiving federal investigators. Fortenberry told reporters he plans to appeal — but will he resign? Yes, effective March 31.
ODDS AND ENDS
Show me the money? Did you — if you’re a congressional personal or committee office staffer —get a pay raise after the pay bump? The Congressional Workers Union wants to hear from you about how your office allocated the increase. ICYMI, Time has an excellent story about the inside of the unionizing efforts that tells much of the story.
Show me the request for money! The House Budget committee kicks off approps season on Tuesday with a hearing on President Biden’s FY 2023 budget requests (which should be up as soon as today on govinfo.gov and the OMB webpage); the Senate Budget Committee has a companion hearing set for Wednesday. By the way, the recently enacted Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act mandates that Executive branch agency budget justifications be published online here. They’re supposed to upload the file, so let’s see what happens. CBJs should be online within 2 weeks of submission to Congress.
Why doesn’t the Library of Congress proactively publish its regulations online? An intern at Public Knowledge asked this excellent question more than a decade ago, then chronicled their wild goose chase trying to track down the regs. Nearly 12 years later, the regulations still aren’t disclosed.
Congressional website memory hole. The Congressional Web Archive, where historical House and Senate websites are downloaded and republished so that you can view them as they were, has just been updated to include the 115th and 116th Congresses.
Congressional hearings: what’s the point? If last week’s SCOTUS confirmation hearings seemed like “the dumbest exercise in useless political theater imaginable,” the very structure of congressional hearings is the reason, wrote former CRS analyst and poker aficionado Matt Glassman. If Members want answers to questions, there’s much better ways to get them. Hearings are best thought of as a forum for public shaming, public education, and Members’ public peacocking. “Stupid political theater” is still important. Incidentally, historically Supreme Court nominations didn’t get hearings; they started in 1916 because of a mix of anti-semitism and plutocratic push-back, as is explained in this fascinating NPR interview.
New app for House Republicans. The new app Rep. Elise Stefanik is developing for her conference could be public-facing, according to a recent feature from CNN that also covers Stefanik’s posture in the upcoming leadership race and her ongoing alliance with Trump. We are big fans of House Democrats’ DomeWatch. (Apple, Google)
Revolving door. Rep. Filemon Vela will resign from Congress to work for the Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld lobbying firm, Roll Call reports. This revolving door behavior is fairly gross, especially the joke that is the one-year “lobbying” ban. BTW, we should be able to see Vela’s disclosure of his negotiation for future employment, but we can’t because the Legislative Resource Center is effectively closed to the public (and we think the disclosure should be online.)
Tours. The reopening of the Capitol to tours, which resume today, is already making some tour guides nervous, and us too. (They are concerned about inadequate security.) Members of Congress are still contracting Covid at a rate that makes us wonder whether the party retreats were super-spreader events.
The Freedom of Information Act is the subject of a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled for tomorrow, March 29 at 10 AM.
USCP’s FY 2023 budget request is the topic of a hearing before the House Approps Leg Branch subcommittee scheduled for Wednesday, March 30 at 10 AM.
The Plum Act, and many other bills, will be considered at a HSGAC markup on Wednesday, March 30th at 11 a.m.
“Follow the Money: Tackling Improper Payments” is the title of a hearing before the House Oversight committee’s Subcommittee on Government Ops scheduled for this Thursday, March 31 at 9:30AM.
Congressional modernization efforts — including ModCom, legislative data, and the new House Digital Service — are the subject of a panel discussion hosted by Georgetown University’s Beeck Center scheduled for Wednesday, April 6 at 11AM. Register here.
The Fourth Congressional Hackathon will be held (in person) on Wednesday, April 6 from 1 – 6 PM in the CVC Auditorium of the Capitol Building. Majority Leader Hoyer and Minority Leader McCarthy will co-host. Register here.
Federal government web archiving initiatives is the subject of a panel discussion hosted by the Society of American Archivists this Tuesday, March 29 at 2PM. Register here.
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