Lawmakers assumed that income tax revenue coming in during April would give them a few more months to posture before the debt default roiled the markets. The time to implement a solution to the debt limit, however, was back in the lame duck session of the last Congress. Unfortunately, Senator Joe Manchin, along with Senate Republicans, chose cheap political calories over a healthy economy. Now the nation’s finances are about to undergo an enormous stress test.
The discharge petition loop-de-loop is technically still alive, the political chances of it working are near zero. Meanwhile, talks that are not “negotiations” will occur on Tuesday even as the underlying issue is, or at least should be, non-negotiable. Our political structures have incentivized this myopic leap into the darkness while the necessary reforms remain largely ignored by the punditocracy and vetocracy alike. Sometimes it takes a crisis, but at what cost?
Meanwhile, the parallel universe of regular committee workin the 118th Congress continues this week and next. HASC will take up work on the NDAA Thursday while Senate Appropriations Committee hearings continue. Appropriators in both chambers are expected to start holding subcommittee markups on May 17th and 18th. SASC, however, is pumping the brakes on its NDAA markup until mid-June because of the change in the Treasury’s X-date for the debt ceiling.
It may be that the NDAA is the only major legislative vehicle that becomes law this Congress. This week both chambers are in session Tuesday through Friday during the first of consecutive overlapping working weeks. On Wednesday, the Senate Rules Committee holds a full oversight hearing of the Library of Congress with Librarian Carla Hayden. Given the strong criticism last week of CRS’s management at a House hearing, maybe members of the Senate Rules Committee will inquire with Librarian of Congress Hayden about the performance of her subordinate, Dr. Mazanec.
As we continue to play around with tools like the ChatGPT extension for Google Sheets, we continue to be impressed with the amount of time and effort they can save information-saturated workplaces like ours and Congress. Although minds instantly race to the highest-use case for these technologies and worry about their impact on something as broad as issue advocacy, their most immediate impact will be on tasks between the rote and the repetitive. That’s a lot of what work is! For example, check out Daniel’s description of how he cleaned up the House earmark database in an evening.
In last week’s newsletter, we asked congressional staff to share their experimentation with AI tools in their workplaces, building off the event on the topic with the POPVOX Foundation, Lincoln Network (nee), us, and House Digital Service. We already heard back from one committee staffer, who reported using ChatGPT for writing short items like press releases, talking points, and one-pagers. The staffer, however, wisely warns of including anything too specific in an open AI because lobbyists interested in the content might be scanning for IP addresses. The staffer also mentioned using ChatGPT to write code that helps manage balky federal data websites, saving hours of having to deal with broken bulk download links.
We’ll continue to share these tips and uses as they come in and how Daniel is finding new shortcuts with current capabilities. To assist the tinkering, he’s compiled a list of sources of information and data about Congress on the Congressional Data Coalition blog. Not all of this info is useful to AI tools, but some certainly is.
Perhaps in-house use will provide a familiarity that assists the conversation about AI policy on Capitol Hill, which is struggling to get its arms around the regulatory needs of technology that is changing very rapidly. The largest tech companies, of course, are trying to steer the discussion toward what benefits them, demonstrating another case of Congress needing a deep bench of tech-savvy experts in member and committee offices and at legislative support agencies in place to assist member understanding. Leadership, of course, has the strongest corporate ties, meaning capacity has to be spread broadly to members to ensure the final policies aren’t dictated from Seattle and Silicon Valley.
By the way, don’t think we missed the Library of Congress’s announcement on Sam.Gov that it intends to sole source a license for LegisPro BillCompare. This is a renewal for “a specialized application used to compare bills and other legislative documents…. The tool as implemented and at the Library provides a web-based text analysis solution that enables users to search for identical and related bills to a bill in the current Congress and compare those legislative texts.” When completed, it will also allow searching of additional legislative texts, and “allow for the rapid searching for similar bill text using the bill number, a string of text or provision, or other bill metadata over the previous ten Congresses….”
It’s great that the Library is moving forward with this project. This is doubly true because it’s something we have requested for a long time.
It is so important, in fact, that we at Demand Progress Education Fund built and tested technology that shows the relationships between the ideas contained in various legislation, and we published the code online as open source. We gave a presentation on the BillMap project last year to the Congressional Data Task Force — go to 1:15:00 in this video — and some of the code has been incorporated into Govtrack.us. So it’s not true to say “there are no comparable products in the marketplace… or compare to all of the unique capabilities.” The Library has apparently mixed up bill search and similar function with some bill comparison functions that may be unique.
Obviously, even for work on bill comparisons, we would have preferred for the Library to own the technology it pays to have developed and to make the code available to the public for free, as we have.
WEALTH AND DEMOCRACY
Imagine going to a convention for work and having to sleep in the convention center and subsist on free hors d’oeuvres because your employer will not compensate you for a hotel or meals. That’s essentially what the House has asked of members, more than a hundred of whom have chosen to sleep in their offices when Congress is in session.
A new policy change put into effect this Congress allowed them to be reimbursed for meals and lodging when they are working in Washington. This change, adopted with bipartisan approval of CHA based on a recommendation from the Modernization Committee, softens the financial blow for representatives, who have not had a cost of living increase since 2009 but live part-time in one of the most expensive housing markets in the US. It makes the job of representative more like a regular job, which is a good thing for the real people occupying these positions.
Unfortunately, the response to Chad Pergram’s reporting on the reimbursement rules change elicited sniping on the bird site that Congress had given itself a backdoor pay raise. Not only is this not the case, the new policy is good for democracy.
As Daniel and John Rackey of the Sunwater Institute explain at the Bulwark, Americans need members of Congress to be adequately compensated for their work because the built-in costs of maintaining two residences are major barriers for people who are not rich to run for office. Reimbursements also will help encourage members to build expertise and remain in office rather than cash out as lobbyists.
The flip side is that public service should not be used as a means of personal financial benefit. Members continue to trade individual stocks in situations that give the impression of being based on information gathered on the job. The latest instance is Rep. Lois Frankel’s sale of First Republic Bank shares and purchase of JP Morgan shares before it purchased the failing bank. Frankel says that an independent manager made the trades.
We know about Frankel’s positions because she adhered to the STOCK Act and filed the disclosure in a timely manner. Unfortunately, scores of members of Congress have engaged in much more substantial trading without complying with the law’s requirements.
There’s really no way to know in the current disclosure system whether members are skirting ethical lines to trade on information gathered through their duties or not. As we saw at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, lawmakers made hundreds of lucrative trades, often after closed-door briefings. The fast approach of the debt limit “X Date” will provide another flurry of actionable information members could use for their benefit with plausible deniability. Someone should look at that.
Just as professional sports leagues forbid players and coaches from betting on games, members of Congress should not trade individual stocks because privileged information is just too accessible for comfort. Last week, a group of progressive and far-right members introduced another bill to ban members and their families from trading individual stocks. Leadership continues to stonewall these efforts, in part because it hurts their recruitment of the wealthy to run for Congress.
In a Congress with less leadership command and control, left-right coalitions would be likely on issues where interests overlap. Such alliances still happen on policies that are far from the top of mind for partisan voters like, say, tariffs on solar panels. Nine Democrats, including Ron Wyden, voted for a resolution invoking the Congressional Review Act to rescind the Biden Administration’s moratorium on solar equipment tariffs from four Southeast Asian countries thought to be funnels for Chinese products. The measure also found bipartisan support in the House.
President Biden likely will veto the move, so the organic coalition formed will not succeed. Putting the merits of the tariffs aside, it’s a reminder that legislative action away from the spotlight remains possible even in a locked-down legislature.
What’s unusual about this Congress, at least in the House, is how a faction locked itself in with leadership. Business Insider reported last week that Tucker Carlson worked with Freedom Caucus holdouts to extract more concessions from Kevin McCarthy in his quest for the Speakership, including a seat for Rep. Thomas Massey on the “weaponization” committee.
The ability to access right-wing cable audiences directly is part of this faction’s power. Its ability to tap the televangelist fundraising model with small-dollar donors in the GOP base is the other. The MAGA faction, in other words, doesn’t need the oxygen provided by leadership to survive, which makes it a political force. A lesson that other factions must learn if they, too, want to be relevant.
SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE
Add the Congressional Black Caucus to Democrats pressuring Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin to drop the blue slip tradition.
Add the New York Times Editorial Board to the list of people begging Sen. Feinstein to call it a legacy and retire. Their focus is on the Judiciary Committee, but as we’ve pointed out previously, it’s just as relevant to the Appropriations Committee and to considering legislation by the chamber.
Add Leonard Leo to the list of people engaged in unethical behavior with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in this case arranging “for the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to be paid tens of thousands of dollars for consulting work just over a decade ago, specifying that her name be left off billing paperwork.” It’s obvious to everyone that Thomas should not be on the Court. It’s also obvious that those defending him don’t want a Democratic president to name a replacement. Norms give way when it comes to exercising power, especially in our vetocracy.
ODDS AND ENDS
OCWR has adopted regulations implementing the public access provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The regulations are the same as those OCWR issued in 2016, but Congress failed to implement. Unlike the Executive branch, Congress is subject to the law.
The Senate remains an undiscovered country for institutional modernization reforms, even after four highly-productive years by the House’s Modernization Committee (and now CHA subcommittee). Civil society is starting to focus its attention on senatorial modernization, particularly in how the chamber can follow the House and start with day-to-day changes.
It’s historically been an uphill climb to modernize the more august of the two chambers. Senators squabbled during the 1920s over adopting dial telephones, coming to a compromise that let offices choose to opt out of the conversion. The last Senate switchboard operator retired in 1945. The switchboard still exists.
DOJ has proposed changes to how the FBI provides whistleblower protections that formalize some practices. The notice of revision includes an invitation for comments and recommendations for further changes. While we review these proposals, the only way to make whistleblowing protections stick is to mandated them by law.
DOJ also updated FARA guidance on companies hosting foreign government entities on social media accounts and assisting in booking speeches for foreign politicians, which seem contradictory to experts. There are many reforms to FARA that make sense to us, such as getting rid of the ability to alternatively file under the Lobbying Disclosure Act and to require all FARA registrations to submit their information as structured data (and for it to be published that way). For that to happen, Congress must act.
Politico’s founder has established 20 $60,000-a-year fellowships to provide pathways for students without deep pockets or mentorship opportunities to break into the political press.
Lifting the paper ceiling: Rep. Angie Craig will no longer require bachelor’s degrees for positions in her office.
50s flashback: members of both parties have introduced nearly 275 bills about some aspect of the US relationship with the People’s Republic of China.
Stinky scoop: Now we know, from CHA’s response to a letter from the Congressional Dads Caucus, that there are almost 100 diaper changing stations in House office buildings, including one on each floor in both men’s and women’s bathrooms.
Congressional Committee Calendar
~ Wednesday ~
Senate Rules will conduct an oversight hearing of the Library of Congress at 2:45 PM in 301 Russell.
~ Down the road ~
The Levin Center will host an online presentation by its 2022 research award winner, Georgetown Professor Dave Rapallo, entitled “House Rules: Congress and the Attorney-Client Privilege” Tuesday, May 16 at 12:00 PM EDT. Register for the event here. The paper is available for download at SSRN’s website.
The next meeting of the Congressional Data Task Force will be on June 22 from 2 to 4 PM in Longworth, room B-248/B-249. You must register online here, at which point you’ll be prompted to indicate whether you want to attend virtually or in person.
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