First Branch Forecast

Forecast for November 30, 2020.


Agreement? House and Senate appropriators reached a bipartisan agreement last Tuesday on the 302b numbers — the amount of funding available for each appropriations subcommittee — but LOL, we won’t know these numbers until the bill is released. Is there a path to completing the omnibus on time? Kevin McCarthy announced he will oppose the deal ($) because it does not follow the (pre-COVID) 2019 budget cap agreement. So much for a veto-proof vote?

Committee vacancies and waivers — i.e., who can serve on which committee — can be a touchy subject, which is why we’re glad the CPCC has put together this handy compilation of expected House chair vacancies. This week will see movement in the House on who will fill the big chairs on AppropriationsForeign Affairs, and Agriculture. (How do they get chosen? We cover what we know of the House process, but we still don’t know all the members of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, who do the winnowing.) We’re also keeping our eyes on how the appropriations cardinals are chosen, but we don’t know when that will happen.

Senate committees are in limbo, including the ratio of majority to minority staff, awaiting the resolution of two senatorial elections in Georgia. WaPo’s Paul Kane described the consequences of three headless committees that can’t hold confirmation hearings, a senator who may lose his job for two days, and the potential for a lot of confusion. We previously wrote about how Senate committees get their funding and their funding levels, and CRS has more on historic ratios of Senators on committees.


Smaller majorities? There have been a number of news articles and opinion pieces arguing Democrats must unify and trim progressive wings in the new reality of a closely-held House. What’s interesting is those same authors elevated the same voices and reached the same conclusion when Democrats had dozens of seats to spare, arguing that Democrats must unify and trim progressive wings to protect the front-liners. They said the same thing when Republicans held the House and they argued Democrats must unify and trim progressive wings if they ever hoped to retake the House.

The House Intel Committee has been a partisan train-wreck for decades, writes SpyTalk’s Patricia Ravalga (who served on the committee & the 9/11 commission), explaining how “fear and loathing” replaced congeniality. Our concerns arise more from its too-small staff and the concern of capture by those it oversees, which is why we recommended these fixes a few years back. (More here.) Congress never applied the 9/11 Commission’s proposed fixes to itself, either.

DemographicsBGOV’s Nancy Ognanovich and James Rowley reporting ($) on House demographics for the 117th Congress, which drew from the House Press Gallery’s data, inspired us to turn the PDFs into spreadsheets and run the numbers for ourselves. (Our numbers don’t line up perfectly, over-count diversity, and inconsistently include delegates. We slightly undercounted Ds and overcounted Rs.) The House chamber in the 117th Congress will be 28% women; 10% Hispanic; 4% Asian; 13% Black; 1% Indigenous. The vast majority of ethnically diverse members are Democrats, who pull up the averages.

• BreakdownWomen are 51% of the US population and will constitute 28% of the House, but 40% of Ds and 15% of Rs. Hispanics are 17% of the US population and will constitute 10% of the House, but 15% of Ds and 5% of Rs. Blacks constitute 13% of the population and 13% of the House, but 25% of Ds and only 1% of Rs. Asians are 6% of the US population and will constitute 4% of the House, of which 6% are Ds and 1% are Rs. Indigenous are 1.6% of the US population and will constitute 1% of the House, with members equally divided between the parties.

• Changes: Republicans saw a huge percentage increase in the number of women, from 8% to 15% of the conference, or from 15 to 32 members, although it is a small representation compared to 216 likely conference members (including delegates). Considering many of these seats are in swing districts, these gains may be ephemeral.

• Data. It’s important to acknowledge that these demographic categories elide important information, for example, does it make sense to count south Asian and east Asian together? Also people can fit into more than one category. There are many other ways of measuring diversity, such as wealth, religion, age, and employment history. There are also other interesting cleavages; we know, for instance, that House Republicans are pretty-much entirely Christian (only 2 were not in the 116th Congress), that veterans are 2.7x over represented in Congress, and prosecutors are over-represented compared to public defenders. For more, see this Pew report on religious affiliations in the 116th Congress; this CRS report profiling the 116th Congress; and another CRS report on trends in member characteristics since 1945.


How do you swear in Congress during COVID? In the face of a parliamentarian ruling that requires swearings-in to take place in person, the House is looking to modify its day one proceedings to keep Members safe.

Who should impose safety and health standards across Capitol hill? Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader McConnell both publicly point to the Office of the Physician when it comes to COVID, which seems disinclined to play that role, but Kevin Mulshine writes that the independent Office of Congressional Workplace Rights has the legal authority to promulgate and enforce standards if they’re willing to use it.

Settling Claims of Insider-Hacking. Remember the claims that Imran Awan and other shared staff had hacked into Congressional networks? NYT reports the House settled the wrongful termination claims for $850,000 that appear to have arisen when the Capitol Police and House officials upheld a ban on their access to the network, thereby preventing their reinstatement, even while determining an earlier “investigation had reached certain conclusions about misbehavior that were not necessarily supported by facts.” (We note the House no longer makes House IG reports publicly available — they used to publish them all — so we can’t see what was said.)

Shoot. Congress is probably the best-protected legislature in the world — or at least the legislature with the most money going towards its police force, at $450 million, with 2,300 Capitol Police employees — but newly-elected Rep. Boebert wants to carry a gun on the Capitol grounds. This is permitted, surprisingly; the Capitol Police don’t track how many lawmakers are strapping and there’s no notification requirement … although weapons are not allowed in the House chamber. So long as guns are permitted, we wonder what training requirements and storage arrangements exist — is there space near the Rayburn Building’s 9-lane Capitol Police firing range?

Remove voting. I chatted with Tom Temin of the Federal News Network about what’s next for remote voting in Congress.

General Counsel. Mike Stern, an attorney who served with the House’s office of general counsel, discussed his experiences, and the tensions of that office, with Kevin Kosar.

No pea soup for you. Sen. McConnell has finally, belatedly suspended in-person GOP lunches. No word if he’ll adopt other common-sense measures, like the electronic introduction of legislation.


Avril Haines was nominated to serve as the Director of National Intelligence. Haines is notorious for working to undermine the release of the Senate Torture Report executive summary by fighting tooth-and-nail to prevent declassification of its text as well as undermining the findings of the CIA IG and protecting CIA personnel who spied on the Senate. Haines’ role as principal at WestExec advisors, where she raked in defense contractor cash, seemingly traded on personal connections, and avoiding disclosure and lobbying restrictions, is problematic (and potentially unpopular).

Michael Morell, a potential nominee to serve as CIA Director, is the subject of a 54-page fact-check by Senator Feinstein because his recent book misstated or was otherwise misleading regarding the CIA detention and interrogation program. Morrell is known for writing the memo clearing Gina Haspell for destroying videotaped evidence of torture, said the US had no choice but to use torture after 9/11, defending the use of torture (even though it is ineffective, unethical, and hurt national security), and attacking Sen. Feinstein for releasing a report that condemned the US’s use of torture. (He also was personally responsible for drone strikes that killed civilians.)

Dan Jones, who was a chief author of SSCI’s torture report, argues that you must hold accountable individuals who engaged in “executive branch malfeasance and undemocratic behavior,” and explains how to apply that principle to Biden administration nominees and appointees.

Assassination. It appears an Iranian nuclear scientist may have been assassinated. CRS issued a report in 2002 on the “Assassination Ban and E.O. 12333,” but like many historic CRS reports, it is not on CRS’s website so you have to look elsewhere for more comprehensive collections (like from EveryCRSReport or the Federation of American Scientists).


Sen. Feinstein is out as Chair/RM of the Judiciary Committee — and every other committee — in the 117th Congress. Her reported decision to not seek these posts — we doubt she volunteered — is sad but overdue. (Nota bene: she has served on SSCI since 2001 and was chair/vice chair from 2009-2017.)

Whither Senate Judiciary? Senator Durbin tossed his hat into the ring as chair. He has served on the Judiciary for 22 years and is the senior-most senator who doesn’t serve as chair of another committee. Looks like Sen. Whitehouse may also run. The New York Times has more context.

Two senior congressional staffers, Reema Dodin (Deputy COS for Sen. Durbin) and Shuwanza Goff (Floor Dir. for Rep. Hoyer) were appointed deputy directors for the WH Office of Legislative Affairs.

Wealth. Not all Members of Congress come from wealthy backgrounds and the transition to service can be expensive. (Some members continue to subsidize their lives by sleeping in their offices.) Incoming Rep. Cori Bush writes about some of the costs attendant to looking presentable.

Women of Color Hill staffers who work for members of the squad spoke with Forbes about their experiences formulating economic policy.


Declassification. Government records are not supposed to be classified indefinitely, and 25-year-old records will be automatically declassified unless they are “reviewed and specifically found to be subject to an authorized exemption.” Yet, it’s likely agencies will try to push back the automatic declassification process instead of reviewing the documents.

No shell game. Legislative language to “require millions of business entities to reveal their [true] owners to the federal government” has been finalized and likely will be included in the NDAA after Members of Congress and an incredibly broad coalition of progressive organizations and conservative business interests reached an agreement. The final hurdle is the conference committee (and that Sen. McConnell doesn’t want a vote on the bill because it would remove the confederate names of military installation, which could affect the senatorial races in Georgia.)

Transparency 2021. A group of organizations released a 91-page report with recommendations for improving government accountability. The executive summary starts on page 9 but you should look to the individual chapters for action items. We are also looking to the Transparency in Government Act as a source of many good ideas already transformed into legislative language, and we have our list of pending good government bills.


Sen. Perdue should work as a professional stock picker. The AP has surfaced yet another set of unusual trades, to the say the least, where he sold more than $1m of Cardlytics stock on Jan. 23 at $86/share and then bought $200k+ worth in March at $30/share; the stock is now worth $121/share. While Perdue is close to the company officials, AP notes “there is no evidence that Perdue” “acted on information gained as a member of Congress or through his long-standing relationship with company officials,” although they quote a securities expert who describes the trades as “suspicious.” DOJ is investigating….


The President of the Senate is not the 4th branch of government, but plays an unusual role in our political system. Tony Madonna explains how the Veep historically played an anti-majoritarian role in the upper chamber, and how control over debate led to the “right” of first recognition.

How can parliaments scrutinize the executive? The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association released a model law to create a corporate body that represents the needs of all MPs and oversees the institution of parliament (including its support entities). FWIW, the US model largely does not have a joint oversight body and many support agency heads are appointed by the president. (It’s not available yet, but we are excited to watch the CPA’s discussion on parliaments during COVID.)

If the law is not public, it is not the law. Carl Malamud of Public Resource has an interesting new video on the rule of law.

The Senate’s expenditure report for April-September has been released. We hope this report will one day be published in spreadsheet format, just like the House’s.

Inaugural tickets… how do they work?

Come on, GPO, it was only just Thanksgiving.


The House and Senate Committee calendar is here; here are the announced proceedings on the House floor and Senate floor. Note: the House floor won’t begin votes until Wednesday night and members are requested to stay in DC through the weekend because of pending government funding, COVID, and NDAA legislation.

FOIA Advisory Committee meeting on Thursday, 12/10 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET. RSVP here by 12/8. On the docket: a briefing on FOIA and classified records.

New Member orientation:

• December: Official House Orientation continues November 30 – December 5; the Tech, Science, and Data Cohort presents “First Branch Technology, Science and Data Virtual Orientation Day,” on December 9, 11-5 ET; the Article One Coalition presents “Embracing Article One: Congressional History, Powers and Oversight” on December 10, 12-2 ET; the Congressional Management Foundation presents “Life in Congress: What to Expect for You, Your Staff, and Your Family,” on December 16, 12-1:30 ET.

• January: the Congressional Management Foundation will also host “Setting Up a Congressional Office,” on January 15, 12-1:30 ET; “Hiring a Diverse Staff,” on January 22, 12-1:30 ET; and “Setting Up a Scheduling Operation,” on January 29, 12-1:30 ET.

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