Happy belated Constitution Day to those who celebrate.
This week both chambers are in session Monday through Thursday, with the Senate remaining so Friday. The House has scheduled some sort of continuing resolution vote for Wednesday or later that contains greater than 8% cuts below FY 2023 levels and authorization text on immigration and border-related stuff. It’s a nonstarter in the Senate and with the White House, the only question is whether it even passes the House.
The House Republican Steering Committeewill vote onMondayto fill the vacant seat on the Appropriations Committee.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will visit the Capitol. We see an all senator meeting is scheduled for Thursday.
Deeper in the newsletter we have a recap of the Congressional Hackathon 5.0 and the Library of Congress forum on Congress.gov.
Personal safety of those on the Hill is top of mind this week. In light of the increased visibility of property and violent crime in the District, CHA is hosting a security briefing for members and staff at 10 AM Monday in 1310 Longworth. Email this link to reserve a spot.
CHA’s Oversight Subcommittee also will hold a hearing ostensibly to assess the security failures that allowed the January 6th insurrection to breach the Capitol on Tuesday. The witness will be Steven Sund, who was chief of the US Capitol Police during the insurrection. Sund has attempted to shift the blame for the successful sacking of the Capitol by arguing that Nancy Pelosi’s resistance to prestaging the National Guard in anticipation of the election certification on January 6 shaped the Capitol Police Board’s decision to deny his request for their deployment on January 3. As we all know, Sund didn’t deploy his own resources adequately in light of incoming intelligence.
Hopefully soon, House Admin will return to issues raised in July’s astonishing hearing when the department’s inspector general explained his lack of independence in releasing his department’s reports and the agency’s habit of marking recommendations related to January 6 as complete even when they are not actually complete. Rep. Barry Loudermilk asked IG Ron Russo to follow up on how the office defines “complete” during that hearing, and we look forward to the answer.
After that hearing, our colleague Taylor Swift authored a comprehensive look at US Capitol Police compliance with post-January 6 congressional directives and completion of GAO recommendations. On many of these directives, it’s not possible to determine the status of progress with the information that’s available to the public. Although the department has completed some directives focused on officer wellness and workplace climate, it has failed to begin work on others and most GAO recommendations.
Related Resources: In light of Tuesday’s CHA’s Oversight Subcmte hearing on January 6 security failures, revisit our report on US Capitol Police compliance with post-Jan 6 congressional directives and completion of GAO recommendations.
Ultimately, blaming Pelosi is a distraction. No Republican leader intervened ahead of time to quell what Donald Trump was amassing and few acted to hold him accountable. We, too, were gripped by McCay Coppin’s recount of some of his conversations with Senator Mitt Romney that were published last week in The Atlantic, in which Romney shared he warned Mitch McConnell days in advance of what he’d heard was coming, but received no reply.
It’s not just January 6: Romney describes the two-faced nature of his Republican colleagues toward Trump through his entire presidency, where they laugh at him behind closed doors but maintain the MAGA line in public. Some of them do it out of concerns for their personal safety and some for the good of their political careers. They see Romney as a liberated man because of Utah’s broad disgust with Trump personally, who nevertheless is spending $2 million of his money on personal protection.
This cravenness is perhaps the defining feature of our political time — people who know better going along for collective self-interest, damn the consequences or even the truth. Romney himself fell victim to this thinking when he endorsed Trump in 2016 in an awkward passing of the torch moment that was more a kissing of the ring. A sliver of opportunity emerged at the start of the second Trump impeachment, but it proved fleeting.
It’s a serious question Coppin poses in the piece about how much longer a democracy has to stand if its elected representatives curb their behavior out of fear of personal violence. The book Field of Blood answers that question in the 19th century context, when anti-slavery members finally refused to recede from their principles while faced with actual violence from their colleagues.
Another serious question is how much longer a system can withstand bad-faith representatives playing a role in a fake, professional wrestling-like spectacle of support in public and disdain in private. The Senate is going to miss a person like Mitt Romney in that way.
The apparent initiation of impeachment proceedings of President Biden should be viewed in a similar light. A handful of members are coordinating with Donald Trump on strategy as the former president continues to seek restoration to power by any means. Chaos remains their ladder. Most Republican members know better, which we know because there were insufficient votes to move a resolution on the floor. The process going forward contains the risk that yet another political process will yield a result ardent MAGA supporters will find illegitimate. It’ll be one more thing to blame on the party establishment.
A less cynical take would be to see Rep. Ken Buck’s op-ed in the Washington Post calling out his fellow Republicans for wanting to impeach Biden based on stretched assumptions as a sign that some members understand the faux outrage has played out long enough. We would have preferred that he did not draw a false equivalence to the first Trump impeachment — but we understand that he must make some concessions to his current political party.
Maybe MAGA Republicans finally have exhausted their leverage play as they set yet another series of demands to even consider a continuing resolution to fund the government. Afterward, McCarthy dared the right-wingers to file a motion to vacate in a conference meeting. McCarthy’s allies are realizing that the motion is inevitable one way or another and perhaps it’s better to call the question. In the meantime, the question is how much collateral damage happens to millions of people while we wait.
If a motion to vacate comes, Mark Strand makes the point that Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries could bring an end to the madness by urging Democrats to vote “present” in the event of a motion to vacate the chair if McCarthy goes ahead with a continuing resolution. That’s true. The best time to make such a move — and an accompanying deal — was nine months ago, when McCarthy was twisting in the wind of repeated speakership votes. Now might be the second-best time.
As we suggested at the time, Democrats could have offered an alternative rules package as a way for McCarthy to obtain his precious while boxing out the faction trying to tilt the House in their favor. Jeffries and Democratic leadership chose instead to trumpet their own unity, minimize their own factionalism, and allow McCarthy to endure both embarrassment and entrapment via the rules package that he ultimately accepted.
The consequences of that choice have been near default on the national debt and an accelerating risk of a government shutdown because of intraparty division. We further note that some of the 118th Congress’s shenanigans on the debt could have been avoided at the end of the 117th Congress had Democratic leadership in both chambers rolled the debt ceiling issue into an end of year measure, but that would have required them to be willing to confront their intraparty division as embodied in Senators Manchin and Sinema.
McCarthy’s embrace of impeachment reportedly has come at a cost to his working relationship with Jeffries. News reports suggest that Jeffries, and Democrats, are now unwilling to help McCarthy because he has crossed the rubicon. This is short-sighted. Offering McCarthy a way out is more than enough to generate the kind of leverage Democrats need to push their priorities, including bringing the appropriations process to a close that aligns with the Senate, moving other important legislation, and moving impeachment off stage. They could reach an agreement or adopt a resolution that updates the rules package and redistributes power, for instance. (In other countries, this wouldn’t seem as unlikely as it does here.)
So many actors simultaneously are pursuing independent objectives and exploring working partnerships to get there that this feels like the birth of a new political era in Congress, organized more around factional leadership than party leadership. We hope that Democrats don’t draw the wrong lesson and double-down on top-down control should they get back into power, because that will only make the eventual crack-up worse.
The “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body,” meanwhile, brought itself to a crashing halt because of the unique quantum mechanics at work in its unanimous consent rules. Senator Ron Johnson single-handedly broke the Senate’s appropriations time arrow by objecting to begin voting on a pre-approved bipartisan set of 10 amendments in the MilCon-Va/Ag/THUD minibus. He called for voting on each bill separately, which isn’t possible as the House hasn’t sent over three appropriations bills, although maybe the minibus could be divided? His real goal, of course, was obstruction, and on that point he has apparently succeeded, at least for now.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, continues to warn of the long-term consequences of Senator Tommy Tuberville’s holds on military promotions. Senator Jack Reed asked CRS how long, for instance, it would take the Senate to vote individually on all the military promotions currently held by Senator Tommy Tuberville under chamber rules. The answer: 700 hours, or the entirety of about 89 working days. So if the Senate did nothing else, it’d take the rest of the year and all spring. The scale of what Tuberville is doing makes it so politically effective but institutionally destructive. It’s led some to speculate that Tuberville is planning on maintaining these holds until 2025, when Donald Trump can fill them with sycophants and allies in a Mike Flynn mode.
We’re a broken record on how old rules based on old halcyon visions of norms simply don’t cut it for the modern Senate, so here’s Norm Ornstein on the topic: “The old Senate is no more. In the new, tribalized Senate with too many obdurate and radical members willing to damage governance and national security without regard for the consequences, better rules are the only way to avoid these abuses.” He suggests mandatory confirmation votes after 30 days of a nominee being reported out of committee and a senatorial version of the discharge petition. In the meantime, Schumer (with tacit McConnell support) should package these nominations in a resolution and force the issue.
While the procedural chaos was reaching meltdown levels, the Congressional Hackathon demonstrated last week that efforts to modernize how Congress works have never been stronger. Speaker McCarthy and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries co-hosted the event along with the House’s Chief Administrative Officer. Speaking of the CAO, we were thrilled to see Catherine Szpindor address the group. It is exciting to see the CAO playing such a prominent role. This will add non-partisan, institutional support to a bi-partisan process focused around modernizing the Legislative branch.
Members floated through breakout discussions and participants from House and Senate offices, legislative support offices, civil society, and govtech shared progress on a variety of projects built on the digital legislative data infrastructure past events have been integral to building as Daniel explained to FedScoop.
The most important part of the Hackathon is its ability to continue to foster the intermingling of these communities to share perspectives and challenges. These conversations not only lead to specific projects but foster a culture of reform across entities that otherwise had been siloed. This year’s event was a testament to how far that cultural change has come, particularly with the participation of the CAO. The only other place we see this kind of collaboration is the Congressional Data Task Force.
We’ll have a detailed summary of the event when time allows.
AI IN CONGRESS
For an institution that regularly used fax machines in the recent past, the level of discussion and exploration of AI in the congressional workplace currently taking place is notable. The topic was a major theme at the Hackathon from the start, with McCarthy raising it in his opening remarks. Several presentations demonstrated how tools like large language models could be used to streamline burdensome processes like summarizing legislation and extracting details like appropriations figures from piles of text.
CHA released a corresponding flash report on how it’s keeping tabs on AI usage in Congress in the interest of institutional transparency. The committee has requested congressional support entities report monthly on a range of activities related not only to applications of the technology but transparency and guidelines in their use. The report shares six early accomplishments within the House tech community, including at the Library of Congress and GPO. These include consultation with NIST and GSA, indicating a desire to institutionalize, not just tinker with, the technology as it develops.
The report notes the House is examining ways to fast-track AI-enabled features developed by current vendors. It also is working to create standardized data governance rules for member offices and committees. Both of these efforts would speed adoption by congressional users. The House also is looking at developing its own LLM for working with appropriations data.
Unfortunately, the annual meeting between civil society and Library of Congress stakeholders about Congress.gov last week was a missed opportunity.
It started off well, with a welcome from the CIO, Judith Conklin, that set a positive tone. We were pleased to see her engage, as well as Jim Karamanis, the Library’s Director of IT Design & Development. Key leaders at the Library made presentations that addressed the top 10 enhancements to Congress.gov, how CRS generates bill summaries, the Constitution Annotated, ongoing work by the Law Library of Congress, and the Congress.gov API. It was also clear that many Library of Congress representatives were in the room. (We may publish a more in-depth recap on our blog.)
The good news. We were glad to see an official announcement that the Congress.gov API is no longer in beta. This is a significant milestone. The creation of a public-facing API was a longstanding public request and it was great to see it come to fruition. Similarly, we were pleased to see that millions of people were going to the Constitution Annotated website, which the public had urged the Library to create for more than a decade.
In addition, the meeting covered improved access to member statements in the Congressional Record, the inclusion of the Senate amendment text on Congress.gov, and ongoing significant digitization efforts, including back dates for the Congressional Record and the serial set (i.e., committee reports).
There were productive conversations on some issues as well. This included how to make the Congressional Record, which is published as a gigantic PDF, available in a more digestible format. It also addressed how to improve availability of Senate amendments, where the Library is working to make it possible to download a bunch of amendments at once.
We must give kudos to the Senate, which is now providing links to videos of its committee proceedings to Congress.gov. It appears hopeful that we will soon have video from Senate committee proceedings integrated into Congress.gov. We also may have more transcripts of Senate proceedings available in near-real time, which will be helpful for persons with disabilities.
In addition, an important problem was raised by the public. The Congress.gov feedback form can only be submitted once, which is a problem that many of us have noticed but was not known to the Library. They will work to address it. In addition, one can always provide feedback on their Github account.
We also had a useful discussion on whether the Library could help track information expected to be on Congress.gov but not yet available. There are instances where the text of bills are expected, the summary of bills are expected, but not yet available. Having a dashboard that helps us see the backlog would be helpful.
We note, however, that getting a productive answer depended on which stakeholder answered. The CIO, the Law Library, the Senate, and others were forthcoming and willing to engage. That was not the case with matters that touched upon CRS.
Running into roadblocks. Participants, including us, asked for updates on matters of importance to the public. Many of these issues concerned matters well known in advance to the Library and often discussed at prior meetings. Among the questions were:
• Would the Library consider publishing brief summaries of Senate amendments along with their amendment numbers to prevent users from having to click each one to see what they contain? (Summaries already are published in the Congressional Record.)
• Would the Library consult with stakeholders as requested by Congress in the FY 2023 appropriations package regarding improving tracking related legislation on Congress.gov, such as identical bills from the same Congress or reintroduced from prior Congresses? (Demand Progress Education Fund built a tool, called BillMap, that does exactly this.)
• Whether Rules Committee amendments could be integrated into Congress.gov?
• Whether the Library would incorporate floor proceeding info into its calendar page that already publishes announcements of committee proceeding? Did it submit a report on this topic to appropriators as requested?
• What is the status of a report requested in the FY 2024 Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations report on the various options and challenges for providing appropriations information as a spreadsheet? The report was due Aug. 27.
• Would CRS publish all non-confidential CRS reports online and would it publish current reports online as HTML?
• Whether the Library has had further discussions with GAO about publishing links to GAO reports that GAO has identified as relating to upcoming congressional hearings?
• Would the Library consider using AI to summarize legislation?
Many times, representatives of the Library looked to CRS to provide an answer, which was almost always a sentence at most and contained little to no information. (There were one or two exceptions.) It’s hard to have a conversation when it feels like folks are stonewalling. Perhaps that was not the intent, but that perception was widespread among attendees.
This contrasted with views of other stakeholders at the Library, who seemed willing and eager to engage.
My experience historically is that CRS’s response is often to stonewall the public as well as external and internal stakeholders. We know that staff’s hands have historically been tied by the front office. We had thought that with the departure of the recent CRS Director this would change. Perhaps it will. The interim CRS Director, Bob Newlen, has only been at the helm for a few months.
With the Congressional Research Service serving as the data owner for key pieces of information, we can no longer afford for them to hold up modernization inside the Library and across the Legislative Branch.
We would love to see a new high-level CRS office of innovation and collaboration that is focused and empowered to work with internal and external stakeholders on a wide range of matters, including using innovative technology to modernize how the Library meets and anticipates the needs of all its patrons. Having actual partnerships with the public, including making use of the gift authority that already exists within the Library, could be a game changer. It would need to be backstopped with congressional support because we can imagine that the staff would otherwise be frozen out by other factions inside CRS.
Dear White Staffers pulled together a list of 25 House offices paying their chiefs of staff the maximum salary of $212,000 and contrasted it with the lowest-paid employee * record scratch * wait, some of these salaries are under the staffer salary floor of $45,000 set in May 2022 and that went into effect in September. The enabling resolution made all permanent employees eligible for the minimum salary and required member offices to reclassify as permanent or part-time/temporary employees accurately within 10 days. Reps. Thomas Massie and Pat Fallon don’t seem to be in compliance. We haven’t run down the numbers, but this is concerning.
Staff are earning a larger share of House MRA spending in 2023 so far than during the last two years, Legistorm has found. Unfortunately, the average member office is currently on pace to spend a lower proportion of the available MRA money overall than 2022 or 2021, meaning money that could go to staff is being left on the table. Maybe it’ll come out in end-of-year bonuses?
ODDS AND ENDS
The AOC has a lot of stuff like power tools, landscaping equipment, and electronics that are tempting targets for theft. Unfortunately, the AOC IG found that the office still needs to update its guidance and inventory control procedures for property worth less than $1,500, five years after issuing a similar recommendation. The IG also cited insufficient oversight of renovations to the Cannon Caucus Room. The new permanent Architect of the Capitol will have a lot of work to do.
On its blog, the AOC honored Building Services Coordinator Donald Ward, who has been a trailblazer in his 50 years in the Capitol. As a high school student, Ward became the first Black page from Virginia in 1972. Four years later, he went to work as the first Black employee of the Front Office for the House Superintendent.
Here’s a fun new rabbit hole: GPO has published digital versions of all its congressional directories going back to 1869. We don’t recommend calling superannuated members’ contact numbers, but you can call current ones via the newly-published GPO telephone directory.
Mathematicians typically are a rare sight in congressional offices, but AAAS fellow Courtney Gibbons shares her experiences working with HSGAC, which included the math and statistics behind AI systems and federal data policies.
The Office of Congressional Ethics is looking to hire an investigative counsel. See the listing here.
Enforcement of the Senate floor dress code is being informally relaxed by Sen. Schumer, but only for senators. Axios has a good look at the formality “rules” in both chambers. Nicole Tisdale has the best take on all this.
We aren’t touching the Boebert story.
~ Monday ~
The Committee on House Administration is hosting a security briefing for members and staff at 10 AM in 1310 Longworth. Email this link to reserve a spot.
The Bipartisan Policy Center will host a debate between Senators Chris Coons and Marco Rubio beginning at 5:30 PM at George Washington University on September 18. Learn more about attending in person or virtually here.
The Congressional Staff Association Fair will take place in the Capitol Visitor Center from 11 AM -1PM.
~ Tuesday ~
The Oversight Subcommittee of the Committee on House Administration will hold a hearing entitled, “Oversight of United States Capitol Security: Assessing Security Failures on January 6, 2021,” at 3 PM in 1310 Longworth.
The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government will hold a hearing on congressional term limit and balanced budget amendments to the Constitution at 2 PM in 2141 Rayburn.
~ Wednesday ~
The AGORA Parliamentary Development Community of Practice – based in the UK and EU – will host the “Mapping and connecting parliamentary research services around the world” online workshop on September 20 from 7-10 AM EDT. Register for the event here.
~ Thursday ~
The Office of the Whistleblower Ombuds will staff a pop-up table at the Rayburn Cafeteria to provide staff with its resources from 1-3 PM.
~ Down the road ~
The Committee on House Administration’s Modernization Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing on GAO modernization on September 27 at 10:30 AM in 1310 Longworth.
The Ridenhour Prizes gala has been postponed until March 28. Subscribe to this link for ticket information.
The post First Branch Forecast for September 18, 2023: The Ladder of Chaos appeared first on First Branch Forecast.
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